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Author Topic: HMS Blanche (1800 - 1805)  (Read 4184 times)

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Offline Bilgerat

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Re: HMS Blanche (1800 - 1805)
« Reply #2 on: August 08, 2015, 22:38:13 »
To get around the 30,000 character limit, this is in two parts. This is part one, design, construction and launch. The First Battle of Copenhagen

HMS Blanche was an 18pdr armed, 5th rate, 36 gun frigate of the Apollo Class, built under contract for the Royal Navy by John Dudman at his Deptford shipyard, in the county of Kent on the south bank of the River Thames.

The Apollo Class was a group of 26 large frigates, of which 13 were built in Kent shipyards and of those, 11 were built in shipyards in the Deptford area. They were designed by Sir William Rule, co-Surveyor of the Navy. They were designed for rapid construction, but despite this, some of them proved to be very long-lived, with HMS Belvedira, HMS Havannah and HMS Brilliant lasting until 1905, 1906 and 1908 respectively before being sold for breaking up.

HMS Blanche was ordered from John Dudman by the Navy Board on 18th January 1799, but because his yard was running at full capacity, he wasn't able to lay her first keel section for over a year. Her first keel section laid during February of 1800, the ship was launched, her hull fully complete less than eight months later, on 2nd October 1800. Immediately after her launch, the ship was taken to the Royal Dockyard at Deptford to be fitted with her guns, masts and rigging. Such was the workload at the Deptford Royal Dockyard, that the new ship sat in the River Thames secured to a mooring buoy until 2nd December before the work of fitting the ship for sea could begin. On 17th January 1801, the work was completed and the ship commissioned under Captain Graham Eden Hamond. Captain Hamond was an experienced commander whose previous appointment had been in command of the 64 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Lion. Captain Hamond was the son of Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, 1st Baronet Hamond, who had served as Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, Commander-in-Chief at the Nore, Comptroller of the Navy and was Member of Parliament for Ipswich at the time his son was taking command of the brand-new frigate at Deptford.

On completion, HMS Blanche was a ship of 950 tons. She was 145ft 1in long at her gundeck and 121ft 9in long at her keel. The ship was 38ft 3in wide across her beam. Her hold between the orlop and her bottom was 13ft 3in deep. She drew 10ft 5in of water at her bow and 14ft 1in at her rudder. HMS Blanche was armed with 26 18pdr long guns on her gundeck with 2 9pdr long guns and 10 32pdr carronades on her quarterdeck and 2 9pdr long guns and 4 32pdr carronades on her forecastle. She was also armed with around a dozen half-pounder swivel guns on her upper deck handrails and in her fighting tops. Although officially classed as a 36 gun frigate, she actually carried 44 guns. She was manned by a crew of 264 officers, men, boys and Royal Marines.

Plans of HMS Blanche

Orlop Plan



Lower or Berth Deck plan



Upper or Gun Deck plan



Quarterdeck and Forecastle Plan



Framing Plan



Inboard Profile and Plan



Sheer Plan and Lines



A model of HMS Brilliant. HMS Blanche would have been identical



HMS Brilliant as a training ship in 1889. She lasted until 1908 before she was sold for breaking up.



In time of war, the British had always insisted on the right to stop and search neutral ships at sea for contraband and war materials. The Dutch Navy had ceased to be an effective force after the Battle of Camperdown and the Vlieter Incident. As a result of this, Britain's erstwhile ally Russia had joined together with other, neutral northern nations to try to force the British to give up this right. On 25th July 1800, a small British squadron which included the 20 gun ship-sloop HMS Arrow and the 28 gun frigate HMS Nemesis encountered the large 40 gun Danish frigate Freya, which was escorting a convoy of six vessels through the English Channel, near the Goodwin Sands. In accordance with the age-old British tradition of stopping and searching neutral vessels, Captain Thomas Baker of HMS Nemesis hailed the Freya and informed the Danes of his intention to send a boat around each vessel in turn and conduct a brief search. The Danish captain, Captain Krabbe responded to the effect that the Freya would fire on the British boat if they attempted to board any of the vessels under his protection. The British duly put their boat into the water and the Danes duly carried out their threat. In the action which followed, the Freya was forced to surrender after having suffered 2 men killed and five wounded. The Danish convoy was escorted to the Downs and anchored there. In an attempt to diffuse the situation, the Commander-in-Chief at the Downs, Vice-Admiral Skeffington Lutwidge ordered that the Danish vessels be allowed to continue flying their own colours. This incident and another similar incident in the Mediterranean had threatened to open a major rift between Britain and denmark. It was vitally important for Britain to maintain good relations with neutral denmark, since Denmark controlled the Kattegat, that narrow passage from the North Sea into the Baltic.

In order to pacify the Danes and to intimidate them in case Plan A, diplomacy, failed, the British sent Lord Whitworth, previously Ambassador to the Imperial Court in Russia and Britains leading diplomat to Copenhagen to negotiate a settlement to the growing dispute before it erupted into an armed conflict. In order to reinforce Lord Whitworth's position, the British sent a squadron comprising four ships of the line, HMS Monarch, HMS Polyphemus (64), HMS Veteran and HMS Ardent, three 50 gun ships, HMS Glatton, HMS Isis, HMS Romney plus the ex-Dutch 50 gun ships HMS Waakzamheid and HMS Martin, the bomb vessels HMS Sulphur, HMS Volcano, HMS Hecla and HMS Zebra and the gun-brigs HMS Swinger, HMS Boxer, HMS Furious, HMS Griper and HMS Haughty. The force was commanded by Vice-Admiral Archibald Dickson, who flew his command flag in HMS Monarch. On 29th August and agreement was reached whereby the British would pay for repairs to the Freya and the other Danish ships, that the right of the British to stop and search neutral vessels at sea would be discussed at another time and that Danish vessels would only sail in convoy in the Mediterranean for protection against Algerine corsairs. With the signing of the agreement, Dickson returned to Yarmouth with his force. That would have been the end of the matter had the pro-British Tzarina of Russia, Catherine II, not fallen ill and died. She was succeeded by her son Paul, who was a fan of Napoleon Bonaparte and was itching to find an excuse to start a war against the British. Tzar Paul took offence at the attack on the Freya and at the presence of a British squadron in the Baltic Sea. He ordered his army and navy to be mobilised for war and ordered that all British property in his dominions be seized. About 3 weeks afterward however, he changed his mind and on 22nd Septemeber, ordered that all seized British property be returned to its owners.

In the meantime, news reached Tzar Paul that the British had refused to hand Malta back to the Knights of St John after having driven the French from the islands back in 1797. This enraged the Tzar who had been promised control of the islands by the French. On 5th November, his order to seize all British shipping in Russian ports was reinstated. In the December, the Tzar proposed a confederation of Armed Neutrality which was to comprise Russia, Sweden and Denmark. If allowed to take form, this would mean the British could potentially face an additional opponent possessing a total of over 100 ships of the line as well as the combined fleets of Spain and France.

The British decided to meet this new menace in kind and a fleet began to be assembled at Yarmouth, to be led by Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with no less an officer than Vice-Admiral Sir Horatio, Viscount Nelson of the Nile as his second-in-command. With Parker flying his command flag in the 98 gun 2nd rate ship HMS London and Nelson flying his in the 98 gun 2nd rate ship HMS St. George and accompanied by 18 ships of the line including HMS Ardent, with 4 frigates plus sloops, bomb vessels and gun-brigs, the fleet departed Yarmouth on 12th March 1801. Parker had orders to neutralise the fortifications at Copenhagen and the Danish fleet should last minute negotiations fail. The plan was that Nelson would lead the attack squadron, comprising of the shallower-draughted and smaller ships of the line, while Parker held back with the bigger ships. Nelson shifted his command flag to the 74 gun ship HMS Elephant.

In the hope that Denmark would rather negotiate than fight, top British diplomat the Honourable Nicholas Vansittart left England a week before Hyde-Parker's fleet in HMS Blanche bound for Copenhagen. On 23rd March 1801, HMS Blanche returned to the fleet with Vansittart and Mr Drummond, the British Charge D'Affairs at Copenhagen. The Danes were not interested in diplomacy.

In the morning of 2nd April, Nelson's strike force made it's way slowly up the Skaw, but suffered losses when first, the 64 gun ship HMS Agamemnon, then the 74 gun ships HMS Bellona and HMS Russell ran aground. Battle was joined at 10:05 when the Danish shore batteries opened fire. For the first half an hour, the leading British ships, HMS Ardent (64), HMS Polyphemus (64), HMS Edgar (74), HMS Isis (50) and HMS Monarch (74) bore the brunt of the fire from the Danish batteries both ashore and afloat. HMS Isis was the most severely damaged and had to be rescued by HMS Polyphemus.

Map of the Battle of Copenhagen. HMS Blanche can be seen on the right hand end of the British fleet:



The Battle of Copenhagen:



After about 11:30, the rest of Nelson's force, HMS Glatton (50), HMS Elephant (74), HMS Ganges (74), HMS Defiance (74) and the frigates including HMS Blanche joined in the action relieving the pressure. At 16:00, a ceasefire was negotiated. The Danes had suffered heavy losses. The Danish flagship had blown up, killing 250 men. In all, it is estimated that Danish losses were about 1800 men killed, captured or wounded. The British losses came to about 250 men. The Danish fleet had been beaten into submission and the day after the battle, the Danes surrendered. In the Battle of Copenhagen, HMS Blanche suffered casualties of six seamen and one marine killed with seven seamen and two marines wounded.

After the successful outcome of the battle, Hyde-Parker took the rest of the fleet into the Baltic with a view to either negotiating with or destroying the fleets of Sweden, Russia. As things turned out, once the British had destroyed the Danish defences at Copenhagen, the other nations of Tsar Paul's Northern Alliance were more than willing to negotiate.

On 23rd April, news reached Hyde-Parker that Tsar Paul had died and that his successor , Alexander I was not hostile. His work in the Baltic done, Hyde-Parker handed command of the whole fleet to Nelson and departed for England in HMS Blanche on 5th May.
"I did not say that the French will not come, I said they will not come by sea" - Lord St Vincent

Offline Bilgerat

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HMS Blanche (1800 - 1805)
« Reply #1 on: August 08, 2015, 22:35:42 »
Part two - The Peace of Amiens, service in the West Indies, capture by the French and the aftermath of that

On 29th April 1802, Captain Hamond handed command of HMS Blanche to Captain Barrington Dacres. His next appointment was in command of the 74 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Plantagenet. Captain Dacres previous appointment had been in command of the ex-Dutch 68 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Utrecht. Captain Dacres was only in command until September, when he handed command of the ship to Captain Zachariah Mudge. His next appointment was in command of the 74 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Culloden. Captain Mudge's previous appointment had been command of the 22 gun sixth rate post-ship HMS Constance.

In the meantime, between August 1802 and January 1803, HMS Blanche underwent a refit a the Sheerness Royal Dockyard and once the work was completed, she sailed for the West Indies.

On 18th May 1803, the Peace of Amiens finally fell apart and what is now commonly known as the Napoleonic War began.

On 3rd November 1803, HMS Blanche was laying at anchor off the mouth of Mancenille Bay on the enemy-held island of San Domingo. Her boats had been sent out under sail to patrol the immediate vicinity and they reported that they had spotted the French cutter L'Albion laying under the guns of the shore battery at Monte Christi. The Albion was known to be armed with two four-pounder guns with six swivel guns and carried a crew of 43 men. She was apparently waiting to carry a cargo of 53 live bullocks to the garrison at Cap Francois. Despite the shore battery being mounted with 4 24pdr long guns and some field pieces, Captain Mudge considered that his men could take her and sent Lieutenant William Braithwaite with 63 men in the ships Launch, her Barge and two Cutters to cut her out. Lieutenant Braithwaite returned some time later empty handed. On entering the bay, in broad daylight with the wind behind him, he had been fired on by the battery. He had decided that even if they could overcome the Albion's crew and take the vessel, he would not be able to bring her out without heavy loss of life and aborted the mission.

After hearing Lieutenant Braithwaite's report and reconsidering the plan he decided to re-launch the attack at night. Lieutenant Edward Nicholls of the ship's Royal Marine detachment volunteered to lead a night-time raid in one of the ship's cutters and 13 men. On the evening of 4th November, the party set off. Captain Mudge began to doubt that the attack could succeed with such a small number of men, so sent his First Lieutenant, the Honourable Warwick Lake in the ship's Barge with 22 more men, with orders to catch up with Mr Nicholl's force and take over command of the raid. Eventually, Lake's boat caught up with the first one. Lieutenant Nicholl pointed out their target, but Lieutenant Lake refused to believe him, believing instead that their target lay on the opposite side of the bay. Lake took his boat and the men in it to search for their target on the other side of the bay. Lieutenant Nicholls was convinced that the vessel he was watching was in fact their target. At about 2am, Nicholls decided to attack. Cautiously and in complete silence, his boat pulled towards the Albion. The French were expecting a second attack and had made preparations for it. As soon as Nicholls' boat was within about ten yards of the enemy, the lookout on the Albion challenged the boat. Nicholls' men responded with three cheers and charged at the enemy vessel, receiving two volleys of musket fire in quick succession. The first passed harmlessly over their heads, but the second wounded the boat's coxwain, the bow oarsman and one of the Marines. Before the French could fire a third volley, Lieutenant Nicholls jumped aboard the Albion at the head of his party. As soon as he got aboard, the French commander fired a pistol at him from a range of about three feet. The ball passed through Mr Nicholls' belly and lodged in his right arm.  Another shot rang out, whether from Mr Nicholl's pistol or from the musket of the Marine stood next to him is unclear, but the French commander fell dead to the deck. After their commander was shot and killed, the French resistance collapsed and the French crew were disarmed and driven below. Mr Nicholls then ordered his men to direct their small-arms fire at the shore battery to keep the gunner's heads down while his men made preparations to get their prize under way. At that moment, Lieutenant Lake came aboard and taking command, ordered the men to cease firing. No sooner had they done so, the shore battery opened fire with grape-shot, which killed two of the British men. Towing their boats behind them, the Albion and her new owners were soon out of range and rejoined HMS Blanche.

Things got controversial when Captain Mudge wrote his report of the action. For one thing, Lieutenant Lake's role in the attack was played up, while that of Marine Lieutenant Nicholls was played down. His report stated "Having gained intelligence that there was a large coppered cutter full of bullocks for the Cape, laying close under the guns of Monte-Christi (four 24-pounders and three field-pieces), notwithstanding her situation, I was convinced we could bring her off ; and at two this morning she was masterly and gallantly attacked by Lieutenant Lake, in the cutter, and Lieutenant Nichols of the marines, in the barge, who cut her out. She is ninety-two tons burthen, coppered close-up and fastened, with two 4-pounders, six swivels, and twenty muskets. This affair cost me two men killed, and two wounded". His report failed to state that one of the wounded was one of his commissioned officers, the one who had come up with the idea for the mission in the first place and the one who had actually led the mission single-handedly and whose small party had over come a French crew more than three times their own in number. It may be that Lieutenant Lake came from a wealthy and powerful family. His father was the Second Viscount Lake of Delhi and Laswari and also of Ashton Clinton in Buckinghamshire. It may have been that Captain Mudge was hoping that his subordinate's wealth and power would help his own career.

Lieutenant Lake was later to be appointed as Master and Commander in the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS Recruit, where there was an incident which caused his career in the Royal Navy to end in disgrace and dismissal. See here for the details:

http://www.kenthistoryforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=17097

In the meantime, in the morning of 4th November, between the two attacks on the Albion, another raiding party, this time led by Master's Mate Mr John Smith in the ship's largest boat, her Launch, with a 12pdr carronade and 28 men boarded and took a French Ballahou Schooner. The French vessel was armed with a pivot-mounted 8pdr long gun and was carrying a crew of 30 men. By way of an explanation a 'Ballahou Schooner' is a Bermuda-rigged schooner.

A three-masted Ballahou Schooner:



The vast majority of schooners are gaff-rigged with four-sided sails, but a Ballahou Schooner, being Bermuda-rigged, has three-sided sails where the leading edge runs the height of the mast and is secured directly to it.

Once again, Captain Mudge appears entranced by the offspring of the rich, powerful and titled men he had amongst the junior officers in his command. Despite the fact that Mr Smith's raiding party suffered one man killed and two wounded and the fact that the raid itself had been led by a junior warrant officer, in his post-script to his report, Mudge states "I have omitted mentioning the Honourable Frederick Berkley; but the only apology I can make is saying he behaved nobly, and was much to be envied".

On 6th November, Mr Midshipman Edward Henry A'Court was sent on an errand to fetch sand, presumably to be used to fill fire-buckets or to spread on the deck when the ship cleared for action so the men's bare feet could get a better grip. The young man was sent in one of the cutters with a party of seven seamen and a Marine. Naval orders at this time banned parties on such routine errands commanded by very junior officers from carrying arms, in case they should get ideas beyond their experience. That stated, Mr A'Court's men somehow managed to smuggle half a dozen muskets through the ships gunports and stow them away in the boat out of sight. As things turned out, as the sun was beginning to set, Mr A'Court and his men spotted a becalmed schooner. Without hesitation, they pulled towards her as she looked suspiciously like a French privateer, so they kept behind her to ensure that they couldn't be fired upon by any guns she may have been carrying. Just as the boat caught up with the schooner, a volley of musket fire mortally wounded one man and badly wounded another. Mr A'Court ordered his men to pull up smartly alongside, boarded the enemy vessel and quickly took control of her. They found that the vessel was carrying a detachment of about 40 French soldiers commanded by a Colonel who had been badly wounded at the Battle of Arcole. The French Colonel had suffered a severe head wound which had removed all the flesh from one side of his scalp and badly fractured his skull. The metal plate which covered the fracture had not been completely grown over and was still exposed and had the word 'Arcole' engraved on it. When he was asked why he surrendered to such an insignificant force, the Colonel merely shrugged replied "Le mal du mer". Captain Mudge never wrote a report about this act of outstanding bravery and initiative from so junior an officer and merely wrote a summary of it in the ship's log.

By Mid-December, HMS Blanche was part of a squadron commanded by Captain John Bligh of the 74 gun third rate ship of the line HMS Theseus. Also in the squadron were the large ex-French 74 gun ship HMS Hercule, the ex-French 18pdr armed 36 gun frigate HMS Pique and the ten-gun armed schooner HMS Gipsy. They had received orders from the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, Rear-Admiral John Thomas Duckworth to take the Dutch-held island of Curacoa. Duckworth had received intelligence that the island's garrison had not been reinforced since the outbreak of war and consisted of only 160 troops and that there was a frigate in port with half the officers and men sick. Captain Bligh was to summon the island's Governor to surrender with liberal terms. In case of a refusal, Duckworth stated that he had received no intelligence of the island's garrison having been reinforced and that he was to land seamen and marines from the ships to take the island. Duckworth's orders concluded with the phrase "But it is my duty to caution you by no means hazard more than the object is worth". Without any means to judge what the object of the mission was worth and how to measure it, Captain Bligh had no idea what to do if things began to go severely wrong.

Because of calms and variable winds, the squadron didn't arrive off St Anne's, Curacoa until 30th January 1804. The other problem faced by Captain Bligh was that of all the officers and men in the squadron, only Captain Charles Ross of HMS Pique and Acting-Lieutenant Michael Fitton, the officer commanding HMS Gipsy, had ever been to the island before or knew anything about the place.  Nevertheless, in the morning of 31st January, the squadron hove to about six miles east of St Anne's and HMS Gipsy was sent in with Captain Ross aboard, bearing a flag of truce and an invitation for the Dutch governor to surrender the island. At 09:30, HMS Gipsy was seen sailing out of the harbour flying a pre-arranged signal meaning that the Dutch had refused to surrender.

Captain Bligh knew that a frontal attack on the harbour at St Anne's was impractical owing to the narrowness of the entrance which meant that a ship of the line could only enter with difficulty, even in the right conditions. He also knew that both the harbour and the town were overlooked by the batteries at Fort Republique, which mounted over 100 guns. In the harbour, there were two French privateers and the 12pdr armed 36 gun Dutch frigate Hatslaar. Captain Bligh therefore decided on a landing away from the main town and harbour. Leaving the two frigates behind to blockade the harbour and distract the enemy, he took the two ships of the line and the schooner to a small cove, which according to Mr Fitton, offered the best place to make a landing in force.

In the meantime, Mr Edward Henry A'Court, last seen in this tale as a young midshipman leading an insane raid on an enemy vessel containing many times the number of his own men, had sat and passed his examination for Lieutenant. He now led a party of seamen from HMS Theseus as that ship's contribution to the attack on Curacoa. The whole landing foce had assembled in HMS Hercule and comprised a total of 406 seamen and all 199 of the squadron's marines, with all the squadrons boats. HMS Blanche's men were commanded by Lieutenant William Woolsey and her Marines by Lieutenant Nicholls. Mr Nicholls was in fact, the squadron's most senior Royal marine officer. The whole force came under the overall command of Captain Richard Dalling Dunn of HMS Hercule. The landing place was overlooked by Fort Piscadero, mounting ten 12pdr guns. At 11:30, the fort opened fire on the landing force as they approached the beach, but this was quickly returned by HMS Theseus, which quickly silenced the guns. At 13:00, the first division of seamen and marines stormed the fort without loss and then stormed the heights overlooking St Anne's, driving out the Dutch defenders. This was achieved for a loss of five British killed or wounded. This done, the remainder of the men landed and HMS Gipsy anchored in the cove. Captain Bligh went ashore to lead the attack in person, but the ships of the line were forced by their size to remain offshore.

In the morning of 1st February, two 18pdr carronades and a 3pdr field gun were landed from HMS Theseus and were dragged to the advance post on the heights overlooking the town. The following day, a pair of 18pdr long guns and one of the 12pdr guns from Fort Piscadero were also dragged to the advance post. Four more 18pdr carronades were also landed along with a couple more of the small field-pieces. The British battery and the guns on Fort Republique then began a prolonged exchange of fire. In the evening of the 4th, there was a skirmish between Dutch sharpshooters and the British at the advance post, in which the Dutch were driven off. The following morning, a much more serious attack was mounted by about 500 Dutch and French soldiers, which Mr Nicholls and his Marines again fought off, but this time at a cost of 20 killed and wounded. In the morning of 6th, the exchange of fire between Fort Republique and the British advance post resumed, but Lieutenant Willoughby of HMS Hercule, commanding the guns at the advance post was unable to put any effective fire into the enemy fort, so instead concentrated his gunnery on the town and at the ships in the harbour. Fairly quickly, half the town was in flames, but the Dutch moved two large merchant ships to a position between their frigate and the British guns and they took the majority of the British fire.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the strength of the British force was reduced by a combination of skirmishes, artillery fire from the enemy and disease. Eventually, the only officers left at the advance post were Lieutenant WIlloughby and Mr Midshipman Eaton Travers. 63 men had been re-embarked suffering as a result of an outbreak of dysentery. This in turn was caused by the men living in the field with none of the facilities usually enjoyed by an encamped army and without the strict controls on personal hygiene which for reasons unknown at the time, prevented such outbreaks aboard ship. The Dutch garrison, it turned out, was actually comprised of 250 men plus a locally raised militia and the crews of the ships in the harbour. The Dutch had gained intelligence from British deserters that the opposing force was being weakened and that they would have to lift the blockade and evacuate soon due to a lack of provisions. On 23rd March, Captain Bligh sent HMS Gipsy to inform Rear-Admiral Duckworth of their situation and that unless things improved, he would be evacuating his force on 4th March. On the same day, the Dutch garrison was reinforced and that evening, HMS Pique was forced to return to Jamaica on account of having damaged her rudder.

Of the Marines, 67 had been contributed by HMS Hercule and of those, 30 were of Polish origin, having been allowed to join the Corps instead of being taken prisoner after the capture of San Domingo. These men made it clear on 24th march that they were going to march off and join the enemy, so they were re-embarked in the British ships in a hurry. Captain Bligh could wait no longer, he had to evacuate his men and by 9pm on 25th, this was completed. The total losses to the British were one midshipman, eight seamen, two Marine sergeants and seven marines killed with three Marine Lieutenants, two marine sergeants, 21 marines and 16 seamen wounded. All the guns which had been landed were left behind. For his skill, bravery and initiative, Mr Fitton, a Masters Mate in an Acting-Lieutenant role, in temporary command of HMS Gipsy was commissioned as a Lieutenant and placed in permanent command of the schooner.

On 21st October 1804, HMS Blanche captured the French privateer schooner Le Gracieuse of 14 guns. On 5th April 1805, the ship captured the French privateer Le Hasard of six guns and her final capture on 9th April 1805 was the French privateer schooner L'Amite of 14 guns.

In early July 1805, HMS Blanche had been sent with dispatches to find Vice-Admiral Horatio, the Viscount Nelson who was known to be heading for the West Indies with a fleet in search of the French admiral Villeneuve, also with a fleet. On 17th July, about 120 miles west of Sombrero Island, HMS Blanche fell in with a British merchantman out of Grenada bound for Dublin and was told that the Leeward Islands convoy was about to sail for the UK under the escort of the 20 gun post-ship HMS Proselyte. At about 8am on 19th, HMS Blanche spotted sails which were assumed to be those of the Leeward Islands convoy, on it's way to the UK. The sails were soon identifies as belonging to three ships and a brig. Although she continued to close, her recognition signals were going unanswered, so Captain Mudge began to suspect something was badly wrong. He ordered his men to make more sail and to stand away from the strangers. In fact, the vessels were the French 40 gun frigate Topaze, the ship-corvettes Departement des Landes with 20 8pdr long guns, Torche with 18 12pdr long guns and the brig-corvette Faune with 16 6pdr long guns.

The French ships approached under British colours, but Captain Mudge concluded that they were French from the fact that the Union flag in their ensign was the wrong way round and that the colours were wrong. At 09:45, having caught up with HMS Blanche, the Topaze opened fire, which was returned by HMS Blanche. The action continued until about 11:00, when with her masts tottering, her rigging and sails pretty much destroyed, her hull full of holes and six feet of water in her hold, Captain Mudge ordered the colours to be struck and the ship surrendered. HMS Blanche had suffered casualties of seven seamen and one Marine killed with Lieutenant Thomas Peebles, Mr William Hewitt, Boatswain, 12 seamen and one Marine wounded. The French frigate was bigger and more powerful, without the support of the other vessels. Of course, newspapers in France made a meal of it and the Admiralty was desperate to find out how a crack British frigate could be made to surrender to an opponent she would normally be expected to defeat. After all, British ships had overcome far worse odds in the war so far.

The truth came out on 14th October 1805, when after their release under a prisoner exchange deal, Captain Mudge and his crew faced a Court Martial for the loss of their ship at Plymouth. It turned out that what on the surface was a fine, oak-built British frigate, manned by one of the best crews in the fleet, was actually a floating wreck with most of the copper on her bottom missing, having fallen off and with a hull which was absolutely riddled with dry rot. When striking the hull, instead of bursting through in a shower of deadly splinters, the enemy's shot was passing right through and out the other side in a cloud of dust. The ships hull was like a swiss cheese and was sinking when Captain Mudge called an end to proceedings and ordered the colours to be struck. The French, having seen the situation, quietly burned the ship but kept that part quiet for propaganda reasons. The Court Martial board acquitted Captain Mudge and his crew and also decided to keep the part about the ship being totally rotten despite only being five years old quiet. In their summing-up, the Court Martial Board instead portrayed Captain Mudge and his crew as having displayed the highest levels of courage against overwhelming odds, not that they surrendered because the ship was falling apart around them.
"I did not say that the French will not come, I said they will not come by sea" - Lord St Vincent

 

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