Words by Alistair Massey

 

FRENCH INVASION PLANS OF IRELAND GO AHEAD

Historical Background

In 1796 the war was turning dramatically in favour of the French government. Royalist rebellions had been crushed, Spain and Holland were set to become allies, the war in Germany had stabilised and General Bonaparte was enjoying success in Italy. Plans to invade England could be taken seriously. However, the Treasury could not support such a vast undertaking and it was decided to launch an invasion of Ireland instead. The republican government offered to send 25,000 men but the Irish in exile in Paris were satisfied with 15,000.  The invasion fleet consisted of the second-rate eighty-gun Indomptable, sixteen 74-gun ships of the line, 13 frigates, six brigs, seven transports and a “powder vessel.”

The French main fleet arrives, but are they too late to save the day?

The French main fleet arrives, but are they too late to save the day?

The Scenario

A “What if……” scenario set in 23rd December 1796 was refought on Sunday. Here the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet with one first-rate, the King George, a second-rate and five ships of the line were pitted against fifteen ships of the line and six frigates. Their object was to sink the French transports anchored in Bantry Bay.

 

The Refight

Fortune did not favour the red ensign. The British charged eagerly but were foiled by the early intervention of two squadrons of the French with a favourable wind on their quarter. They were able to quickly shut off the inlet to most of the Royal Navy fleet. Two frigates that penetrated were quickly mopped up by French frigates that guarded the transports. Having damaged the British ships considerably, the wind turned 180° to the French advantage as it doubled back along the British line.

The action reached a crisis when the British admiral on the King George and two of his ships nearby tried to knock out the French flagship, the Indomptable, and her companion vessel, the Fougeux, by boarding them. But they shrugged off three attempts and turned on their would-be captors, taking them as prizes. This almost emulated Nelson’s exploit with his “patented boarding bridge” at the later battle of St Vincent, using one prize to board another.

It was definitely “one in the eye” for the British!  Leaderless, damaged but not entirely defeated, they limped home to fight another day.

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