The Keith Papers

Part I: Channel and North Sea, 1803-1807; 1. Operations; 38. Keith to Duke of York

The Document

38. Keith to Duke of York

Monarch, off Broadstairs
October 21, 1803.

Sir, I was yesterday honoured with your Royal Highness’s letter of the 18th inst. requiring a communication of my sentiments respecting the ports on the enemy’s coast which it is most probable that he may make in his attempts to invade this country in small vessels or craft; the possibility of such vessels passing over the sands upon the coast of Kent and of Essex within the mouth of the Thames ; the winds that would be most favourable for enabling the enemy to combine his operations against the five divisions of our coast therein particularised from the west of the Channel to the Firth of Forth from the corresponding parts of his coast opposed to them the probable allotment of his force as supposed to be placed in the ports of France, Flanders and Holland for the purpose of invasion, assuming that his policy will prompt him to seek the shortest route and what winds will be required by him in those different probable cases to make his passage good. And as your Royal Highness has at the same time required any further information that may occur to me to be likely to throw greater light on this interesting subject, I shall avail myself of the indulgence which your Royal Highness has been pleased to grant and for your information lay before you the best opinions I can afford thereon, taking the liberty of introducing a few short remarks on Ireland, Scilly and the French and other ports without the Channel, so far as they are connected with the general question of invasion.

It is possible to invade the south or south-west of Ireland by a fleet from Rochefort or Bordeaux, passing it along the Spanish coast of Biscay for a certain distance so as to keep without view of our Channel Fleet and its detached cruisers, or to take advantage of a time when the fleet may be driven by the severity of the weather into our own ports. This measure is only to be counteracted by a squadron. Beerhaven is a port well situated for the rendezvous and off the Durseys for a cruising station, which would protect the west coast. Baltimore will admit transports. Under Withy Island there is good anchorage. Crookhaven is a small harbour and with some winds difficult to enter, but it should not be neglected. It is even possible, though not probable, as a small force would make an impression in that country, that a squadron with troops might be pushed out against it from the Mediterranean or from the Spanish ports and attempt a landing at Lough Swilly or Sligo.

I do not know in what state of defence the Scilly Islands are, but although I never thought them a fit situation for large ships to rendezvous at, yet they certainly ought to be guarded by troops and have some naval protection; and as they have two passages the naval force stationed there might cover the west coast of Cornwall as far as Falmouth.

Brest has been watched by great officers and in general extremely meritoriously, but it is impossible to prevent an enemy from slipping out a force from a place which is defended by rocks and has three passages. Through the Passage du Four they could go with a S.E. wind to Cornwall and Devon, and likewise from Morlaix and St. Malo. With certain winds there are many places to land on the west coast. At St. Ives with east winds, and at Mousehole with a west wind; but there is no anchorage which could protect enemy ships from our fleet.

I think that Plymouthwill be defended by the constant resort of the fleet, the troops which compose the garrison etc., and the great number of artificers and labourers employed by the public, all of whom should be trained in arms.

Torbay, an excellent roadstead, the whole coast of which is fit to be landed on with west or north-west winds, is so well known that it cannot escape the notice of Government. In Portland and Weymouth Roads a naval force seems most important, because the anchorages are safe and such a force would serve to cover those places and the coast up to the Needles during the prevalence of a westerly wind, and to Torbay with easterly winds. From St. Albans Head to Christchurch there is fair landing with west winds, particularly at Sandwich or Swanage as it is commonly called.

I hardly think an enemy will land on an island like Wight, unless they had the superiority by sea, because it would not be easy to get off it to the main if we take the common precautions. Besides there are at all times a great number of ships and frigates at Spithead and a stationary force at St. Helens.

All the coast from Weymouth to Dover can be invaded by vessels from Cherbourg, Havre de Grace and Boulogne with winds from E. to S.W.; but it is to be observed that southerly winds must make a surf upon all that shore; that in bad weather it is impossible to land; and that in good weather our squadrons will be off their ports. We have also an increasing naval force upon our own coast, and the armed boats and vessels, their crews being strengthened by the Sea Fencibles, will form a third line of defence for opposing attempts to land. Off Selsey Island in the Park there are two sloops of war. There is a considerable squadron off Havre, another off Dungeness and a third before Boulogne which will anchor off that place when the weather will admit of an enemy putting to sea in boats.

The Landing Places along this coast are—All the beach near Brighton in certain winds. Seaford Bay very good in east winds. The east side of Beachy in Pevensey Bay and Rye Bay with westerly winds. The west side of Dungeness with easterly winds. The opposite side and all Hythe Bay with westerly Winds. A small part of Wear Bay near Folkestone. I think that the Downs are secure, unless the enemy be superior at sea; and that Pegwell Bay is too difficult and that it is protected by being in the immediate vicinity of the Downs. Ramsgate Pier at high water might be forced. It is large and might yield shelter to a large number of boats. Four large carronades, 68-pounders or howitzers on the pier and a boom would render it secure. The coast of the Isle of Thanetis generally high cliffs and rocky off them. But if the gates are attended to and defended it will be difficult to land there.

From Margate to Bishopstown Cliff is all good landing and attracts naval attention. The vessels that have lately been armed at Margate will add much to its security. The coast from Bishopstown to Whitstable is good for landing upon but the water is shallow. Boats of small draught may in good weather land at half flood, although at that time of tide it is shallow to a great distance from the shore.

On the isles of Sheppey and Grain I think that the enemy would not land for the same reason that I have assigned to the Isle of Wight. There is a great flotilla ordered at Sheerness, and I think it is proper here to observe that the signal post erected at Prittlewell church in Essex furnishes good means of communication with Kent from whence it could be conveyed to London by the telegraph established at Sheerness. The necessity of crossing troops from Sheerness to Gravesend I have no doubt will be held in view. It may always be accomplished at the latter place and frequently at the former. I have put a strong ship to defend the Black and Barrow deeps so that I consider the mouth of the Thames secure against vessels of size ; of boats I shall speak hereafter.

The Maplin and Buxey Sands secure the Burnham, Maldon and Colne waters against vessels but not against boats, for at times the latter can cross the sands, although it is attended with danger. The entrances of these rivers are intricate and easily defended. There is a vessel of war in each, but I am of opinion that the craft of the country should be armed to a certain extent for their better protection as has been done on the coast of Kent, and that they should be manned from the Sea Fencibles.

The whole of the Wallet is a harbour and most of its coast is fit to land upon, but the water is so deep as to admit of ships sailing near the shore all over it. The accesses to it are pretty well defended. Harwich is a great feature, defended by Landguard Fort and a battery on the Tower side. I have proposed a gun vessel off the Alde Sound and I think that country vessels should be armed. They are very numerous and fit for the purpose and the men are skilful pilots for that part of the coast.

From Harwich to Baudsey the beach is good and within Baudsey Sand may be landed upon, but in Hollesley Bay and towards Orfordness I doubt it, because I was there in fine weather with the wind from the land and yet there was wash upon the beach; beside it is a long peninsula of shingle running up to Orford Castle. There are ships in Hollesley Bay and if they can remain there all the winter it is a good situation for covering the coast up to the Wallet and also as far as Lowestoft.

From Orfordness to Yarmouth it is an open coast and I think that landing there would be exposed and uncertain. North of Yarmouth about Clay and Blakeney the beach is good, but it is also exposed and landings there must be made in vessels of a large class; consequently they would not be able to approach the shore in open boats. Within Lynn Deeps I am informed that the navigation is very difficult. The Humberis an object of much consequence and will have a shipof the line and at least one frigate stationed in it. I should recommend the country vessels to be armed there. Part of the coast in the vicinity of Bridlinglon, Filey Bridge and Robin Hood’s Bay is fit to land upon with the winds off the shore. At Scarboroughthere is a pier but it is extremely easy to defend it and I doubt not provision has been made for that purpose. Newcastle Bar is so dangerous and so well defended that I think the river safe unless the enemy should land on the south side in fine weather, in which case he would command the river, but the length of the voyage gives reasonable hope that our ships be on the coast before him.

The Firth of Forth is not easily defended. The first shelter for ships of war is Leith Roads, which is a very indifferent anchorage. In the summer months they can anchor in Aberladie Bay and off Musselburgh Sands. The enemy may land anywhere within the Bass with a south or west wind and on the coast of Fife with a north wind, but as the voyage is long it is hoped that our fleet would be in the mouth of the Forth as soon as he could reach it. Besides it is intended that there is to be an admiral with an adequate force in Leith Roads and certainly the vessels of the country may be armed with excellent effect. Further north than the Forth any attempt must be considered as operations for fleets. I shall therefore stop here for the present and take a short view of the ports of equipment on the enemy’s coast.

Havre de Grace is the quarter from which I should most expect an embarkation for England to come, because any number of vessels can be assembled there without being subject to our view, and because they can quit the river in a fair wind at any time of tide and the troops can be embarked unperceived. At Boulognethere is not above five hours of tide out of twelve to depart with and the troops must be seen embarking. The harbour at Dunkirk has advantage in point of size and in being covered by sands and banks, yet before a great force can sail from thence it must be seen collecting and can only quit port at certain times of tide. Ostendhas fewer hours of tide than Dunkirk. It is hardly possible for a great armament to put to sea in any one tide from that place. Flushingis by far the most considerable port on that side. From thence small vessels may come with a fair wind. The rivers are capable of containing any number of vessels and it is difficult to watch this port on account of surrounding sands. It is not easy for large ships to get out of Helvoet and it can be watched by ships of war. It does not appear that at present there is any considerable equipment there. Any material attack upon Scotland or the north of England will probably proceed from the Texel, but at present I understand that little preparation is making there and the season of the year is fast approaching when all the Dutch ports will be shut up by ice.

With respect to the probable allotment of the enemy’s force it is impossible to give your Royal Highness any satisfactory information as the accounts of their present numbers differ so much, but all of them lead to a persuasion that there is a great army on the coast; that part of it that is in Holland is said to be sickly. I was lately very close off Calais and Boulogne. At the former place I observed very large barracks, but saw no considerable number of troops. At the latter there are two very extensive camps of huts which I think might contain 16,000 men. They seemed full of troops and also small camps at all the batteries along the shore and soldiers in the town. There were about 55row boats and 2 brigs and 2schooners and one galliot, all armed. At OstendI hear that there is in readiness 40 fishing boats drawing 5 feet; 12,000 men are said to be about the place; 29 decked boats with two guns in each are said to have left Rotterdam for Dunkirk.

With east and south-east winds the enemy may sail from Brest, L’Orient, Basque Roads and generally all the ports in the Bay of Biscay, as well as from Morlaix, to the coast of Ireland. From St. Malo with winds from S.S.W. to S.S.E. the enemy may proceed to any part of the west of England unless intercepted by the Jersey squadron. Southerly winds will carry the enemy from Cherbourg, Havre and Boulogne to the coast of Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, but nothing can come out of Boulogne with a west wind which blows in. From the Dutch ports south and east winds will carry ships to most parts of our coasts to the North Foreland.

(Condudes with summary of Admiralty’s letter of October 11 on distribution of forces.)

In considering a subject of this importance it is fair to look at it from every point of view. I therefore hazard a possible conjecture that a fleet may get out of Brest unperceived and watch an opportunity of running up to the Downs or Margate Road, in which case it might be superior to our squadron long enough to cover the landing of any extent of force from the opposite coast and might then escape through the North Sea and run off the Dutch ports and from thence protect an embarkation of troops to Scotland. I have &c.


See Also

Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars | Napoleonic Homepage

How to cite this article

LLoyd, C . (eds.) (1955) The Keith Papers, vol III, 1803-1815. Navy Records Society, pp. 47-53

Web Page: Rickard, J (24 July 2006), Keith to Secretary of Admiralty,

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