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Raiding trade, odds one to seven.

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Some of the most terrifying battles of the age of sail weren't between the big fleets or the big sisters the frigates. By statistical comparison the amount of casualties was always higher at the 6th rate encounters, and lower unrate, where tallies of 40 plus wound and dead are not uncommon.

If we remember that many Brig-sloops-of-war or brig sloops had a crew of 120 roughly, including officers and marines, so forty hands is a third.

They had a nominal crew of 120-130, and was not a rated ship in the Royal Navy, being just below the 20 guns of the sixth-rated smallest frigates. This meant that typically only a mid level commissioned officer (Commander) would be in charge, – sometimes a senior Lieutenant, but never a post-Captain, – for this the ship was too small. In addition to the Captain, the complement would typically be: two Lieutenants, a few midshipmen, the Master, the Surgeon, the Purser, and the ships’s standing warrant officers, the Carpenter, the Gunner, and the Boatswain. Plus about 15-20 Royal Marines (RM), commanded by a Sergeant RM.  Adding the ratings brings the crew up in 120-130 count range.

But isn't only the casualties that make these unrated vessels notorious in every aspect of the age of sail. Their flexibility to suit multiple roles was unparalleled and they would fit all roles really, apart from standing in a line of battle.

Our vessel of today's (his)story had been assigned the task of attacking signal fortresses all along the coast. This requires excellent seamanship, civil connections, leadership and above all, daring and gallantry facing danger. But the story doesn't involve land parties nor the destruction of land facilities.


Year is 1808 and near Cape Trafalgar, May 7th at daybreak. HMS Redwing, Thomas Ussher captain. 98 men and boys aboard.

With the Cape bearing at WNW and six miles out, a Royal Navy vessel sights, along the shore, a group of 19 sail, seven armed and 12 trade vessels. The British vessel, the brig-sloop Redwing, equipped with 16 carronades, of 32 pounders, and two long sixes for chase, sailing with very light winds and turning often did approach the enemy formation which she didn’t do before 7AM at which point both parties were within point blank.

The Spanish handed the sails, formed close and arrayed in a well formed line and closed distance to the Redwing, no doubt with intentions of boarding her. The guns arrayed against the British were fearsome; two schooners of 60 men each and each equipped with two long 24 pounder and two long 8 pounders, assisted by gunboats. Number 3, of 35 hands, packing two long 24s and one long 36. Number 6, of 40 hands and one long 24 and finally number 107, being the weakest, handed with 35 souls and fitted with two long 6 pounder. Add a mistico of four 6 pounders and a felucca of four long 3 pounders. Total count of the Spanish line, 22 guns, of which 7 were 24s on top of the 36 pounder, and roughly 271 men.

We must see this as it is, the sheer difference of shot weight may not seem much but while the British captain had to always engage close, the Spanish could effectively blast her out of the water from afar given their fearsome long cannon. But, as noted in the Naval Chronicle…

“(...) Nowise daunted, notwithstanding, the Redwing endeavoured also to close, in order to decide the business quickly, and, if possible, to secure the merchantmen.”

Captain Thomas Ussher ordered ball and bags of musket ball to be loaded in all the carronades. Each bag contained perchance some 500 musket balls in addition to the regular solid heavy shot. At pistol range this decision proved terrifyingly effective. Plus commanded the vessel to sweep behind the enemy and cut any option to proceed leeward. So, with the Redwing closing in and the Spanish escort lined closing the distance, the stage was set for a very violent battle. A chance encounter in, otherwise, empty sea.

The Diligente , the Spanish commander ship, followed by the Boreas and the rest of the line, Ussher did order, to further encourage the Spanish to come close and try to board, the boarding netting to be hauled down and “the crew ordered to give three hearty cheers”. No firing orders were to be given until pistol shot. Discipline facing such odds was paramount and there was no leeway allowed for error with the forces arrayed against them. Then she opened with everything she got, with the gun crews training the guns as close to the waterline as possible.

The Diligente was struck with such ferocity that the proved open fore and aft and went down with all hands after giving in with two heavy rolls. The Boreas had exactly the same fate, hit with such violent charges from the Redwing. At pistol shot range the carronades simply proved their worth as long as discipline could be held.

At 9AM gunboats tried to make it for the coastline, panicking and in total disarray. But this decision proved fatal as they wrecked in the surf and all hands perished along with the helpless wounded.

It is of note that the Redwing wasn’t untouch at all. Two 24 pound shot had cut through her fore mast, one through the main mast and another through the gammoning of the bowsprit, this on top of several other shot that had hit her and wounded on seaman.

Most casualties recorded on the Redwing actually happened outboard, when Captain Ussher sent own boat to attempt to rescue the spanish crews from drowning, mainly the gunboat crews but sadly none could be rescued, but during the entire battle the boat crew suffered the one death recorded, seaman, with slightly wounded Master John Davis, purser Robert Horniman, and the previously slightly wounded seaman on the Redwing that now was on the boat, got his state worsened, listed as seriously wounded.

The merchantmen, watching the whole chaos unfold, tried to disperse, with four lost in a combination of further shooting from the Redwing and crashing into shoreline surf. Seven vessels were captured, with the mistico included in the tally. Gunboat 107 and the felucca made well their escape.

It is of note, on a more strategic point of view, that this action happened in the 7th of May 1808 and Spanish is allied with Napoleon’s France.  Four days before a event happened that History would forever record as the El Tres de Mayo, immortalized by Goya.


Of note:

At the same time we see the enemies trying to defeat each other, but also see the efforts made by them to save as many lives as possible once victory was achieved, with Thomas Ussher sending boat to the rescue of the shipwrecked spanish crews.


( The Naval History of Great Britain from the Declaration of War by France in 1793 to the Accession of George IV, & A naval biographical dictionary: comprising the life and services of every living officer in Her Majesty's navy, from the rank of admiral of the fleet to that of lieutenant, inclusive & other assorted sources, including Dawlish chronicles, where i first found the story, Outrage at Sea book, Fitzwilliam Museum and Orders and Medals Society of America )


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11 hours ago, Hethwill said:

At the same time we see the enemies trying to defeat each other, but also see the efforts made by them to save as many lives as possible once victory was achieved, with Thomas Ussher sending boat to the rescue of the shipwrecked spanish crews.

In peace, or war, all sailors have a common enemy, the sea itself. It was wherever possible considered a duty save as many souls as possible and in just about every battle efforts would be made to save friend and foe alike, sometimes even while still under fire. 

So strong is the conviction that life is paramount among sailors that no captain would knowingly leave survivors in the water unless his ship was in imminent danger, even as late as 1982 and the Falklands conflict where news footage shows the lengths to which sailors go to save men and ships if they can. 

Even so despite all efforts men are sometimes left in the water, Submariners who don't have room for survivors, in early in WWII would sometimes ensure ships boats had at least a compass,  knew where they were and and base course to safety, until it became too dangerous for U-boats to spend too much time surfaced, one commander even signaling the British Admiralty giving them one of his victims position for rescue, the German Admiralty were not impressed by this particular Captain's actions and ordered that such an event would not happen again due to the ability of the Royal Navy to track signals to source.

Sadly tragedies happened too, while engaged in picking up survivors from KMS Bismarck a submarine was reported in the area, and HMS Dorsetshire was forced, with great regret, to leave a large number of survivors in the water. The worse case I have heard about, was, the USS Indianapolis, torpedoed after delivering the A-bomb to Tinian losing 300 in the sinking itself,  890 of her crew got away safely into the water, of those, 316 survived after 4 days of persistent shark attacks including her Captain Charles B McVay III who was the only Commander to lose his command and stand Courts Martial for failing to order the abandonment of his ship (acquitted) and hazarding his command for which he was convicted, he was, eventually cleared of all blame in 2001 by Act of Congress and signed off by President Clinton. 

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