Calder's battle off Finisterre,22 July 1805

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A missed opportunity in the naval campaign that ended at Trafalgar. Admiral Villeneuve, commanding the combined Franco-Spanish fleet, had managed to escape from Toulon and sail to the West Indies, but once there he had failed to achieve anything of significance. Of the two fleets he was expecting to meet, one was already on its way back to Europe, while the other never escaped from Brest, and when on 8 June he learnt that Nelson was in the area he decided to return to Europe himself. Accordingly, on 10 June the allied fleet left the West Indies, aiming at Ferrol.

On learning that Villeneuve had left, Nelson also sailed for Europe, leaving on 13 June. For the moment, his responsibility was to return to the Mediterranean. If Villeneuve was sailing towards the channel, other British fleets would take the strain. Accordingly, Nelson headed toward Gibraltar, while sending the frigate Curieux, commanded by Captain Bettesworth, back to England with the news. Betteworth had a stroke of luck. 900 miles into the journey home he overhauled Villeneuve’s fleet, and was able to shadow it for long enough to be sure it was heading for the Bay of Biscay.

On his arrival in London, Betteworth carried his news to the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, who received him on the morning of 9 July. Barham realised the significance of the news, and issued ordered designed to defeat the allied fleet, or at least maul it badly enough to prevent it threatening the channel. Accordingly, Cornwallis with the main home fleet was ordered to sail across Villeneuve’s possible northern route, while the squadron blockading Rochefort was ordered to join Sir Robert Calder’s squadron of ten ships of the line off Ferrol. This combined force of fifteen ships of the line was ordered to wait 100 miles off Cape Finisterre. Napoleon was delighted by these moves. He ordered Ganteaume out of the temporarily unguarded Brest, but by the time his orders arrived Cornwallis was back. The French squadron at Rochefort was indeed able to escape, although it left too quickly for any orders from Napoleon to reach them.

Napoleon was sure that Calder would be trapped between Villeneuve and the Ferrol squadron. After the battle, Calder made a similar case, but there was probably never any danger of this. A wind that would allow the Ferrol squadron to reach Calder would slow down Villeneuve, and visa-versa. In the event, Calder’s battle was uninterrupted by the Ferrol squadron.

On 22 July the two fleets finally met. Calder had 15 ships of the line and 2 frigates to oppose 20 French and Spanish ships of the line and 7 frigates, but on the 22nd this did not put him off. Conditions were dreadful, with a heavy fog and light winds. The two fleets came into sight of each other before noon, but the poor wind and low visibility meant that the fighting did not start until a quarter past five. Despite having inferior numbers, it was Calder who ordered his fleet to attack. The scattered action went on until about nine, ending in the dark. The fog prevented either Admiral having any significant impact on the battle, and for long periods the two sides were firing at each others gun flashes. Villeneuve was not impressed by his captains’ abilities in the fog, later writing that they did not know what to do.

The British were clear victors of the day, capturing two Spanish ships and knocking one French and three Spanish ships out of the campaign. The French and Spanish suffered 155 killed and 341 wounded as well as the prisoners captured with their ships. The British lost no ships, although two were forced out of the battle, and only suffered 41 killed and 158 wounded. So far so good - 15 to 20 had become 12 to 14, much better odds, but Calder was not able or willing to take advantage.

On the following day he had little chance to do so. The wind was with the allied fleet, but despite Villeneuve’s claims of a victory on the 22nd they failed to take advantage. Calder concentrated on getting the two Spanish prizes and his damaged ships away to safely. He was still concerned about the threat from the Ferrol squadron, but while the wind favoured Villeneuve it pinned in the ships at Ferrol. It was his actions on the 24th that were to cause Calder much discomfort. This time the wind favoured his fleet, but he chose not to renew battle. This failure was to cost him dear, eventually ending with an official reprimand. Even Nelson, who was generally sympathetic to Calder’s cause, thought he was far too concerned about the ships at Ferrol, while others have suggested that he placed too much importance on his two prizes.

While the British were not impressed and Villeneuve initially boastful, it is clear that he felt himself to have been defeated. After the battle he had tried to reach Ferrol, but the wind and the damage to his ships forced him to try for Cadiz instead. Even that was beyond him, and he was forced into the unsuitable harbour at Vigo on 26 July. Calder had one last chance to redeem himself. The Ferrol squadron had escaped while Calder was away, but he remained in place off the port. Villeneuve, hearing otherwise, decided to try to reach Ferrol, and set sail on 30 July with fifteen ships of the line. Calder still had twelve, and if he had been able to remain in place off Ferrol, would almost certainly have won his much needed victory. Unluckily for him, a gale forced him away from the port at the crucial moment, and Villeneuve was finally able to limp into Ferrol.

Calder had been reinforced in order to give him a chance to inflict a serious defeat on the combined fleet, and his actions were judged against this standard. The British public was already used to dramatic naval victories, from Cape St. Vincent to the Nile, and was already critical of Calder’s action before Trafalgar raised the bar even higher. Calder’s battle has not even been graced with an accepted name! To the viewing British public, it had been a missed opportunity. The combined fleet had only been delayed by a week, at least one other French squadron was at loose, and the Royal Navy had concentrated off Ushant, a sign of impending invasion. It is hardly surprising that Calder’s actions were heavily criticised. However, the real significance of Calder’s battle was that it removed what little faith Villeneuve had in the ability of his fleet to fight the Royal Navy, a crucial factor in Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar.

Calder’s image then and since was not helped by his own actions before Trafalgar. Annoyed by the criticism, he had insisted on a court martial to clear his name. Accordingly, soon after Nelson reached the fleet off Cadiz, Calder was ordered home. Nelson could have sent him home in a frigate, but Calder protested, and Nelson allowed him to return home in his ship of the line, the Prince of Wales. This was a generous move on Nelson’s part, but it is somewhat surprising that Calder accepted, weakening Nelson’s fleet when he knew that a battle was imminent. Worse, once he arrived back in England, Calder immediately made a claim for a share in any prizes won in any battle that happened after he left – an attempt to benefit from a victory in battle that he had himself made harder. This display of ingratitude and greed did not help him against claims that on 23rd and 24th July he had been more concerned to preserve the two Spanish prizes than to defeat the combined fleet. Not surprisingly, at the end of his court martial he was strongly censored for his actions.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 November 2005) Finisterre, Calder’s battle off, 22 July 1805, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_finisterre_1805.html

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