Ships were lost, as much through incompetence as through the violence of the weather

Posted by


HMS Bellona was one of the most famous ships of the British Navy. launch on 19 February 1760, Bellona sailed to join the battle fleet to blockade Brest. Painting by Geoff Hunt.

For the time being, the immediate danger for Collingwood was the boredom of the Cadiz blockade: day after day, week after week of St Vincent’s manoeuvres, tight discipline, and almost no social contact. There was some solace in correspondence, and in Bounce’s company, but Collingwood had been away from his family since the beginning of the war, more than four years, and he longed for home. (Pg.134)
On Christmas Eve 1799 Collingwood was back in Plymouth, recovering from the storms and hardship of the Brest blockade. It was the worst station to be posted to: ships constantly battled with westerly gales that forever drove them on to France’s dangerous coast; otherwise, easterly winds drove them off station and allowed the French fleet to escape. Fog was an additional menace to be dealt with, but one which was hardly appreciated by a public and a City thirsting for good news. The blockade might win the war, but it made for poor headlines. Collingwood’s hopes rested on the First Lord, Lord Bridport, allowing him to come up to Portsmouth so Sarah might join him in the New Year; he thought rumours of peace proposals might soon come to fruition. 1(Pg.146)

Port of Brest

In fact secret negotiations dragged on through the year, while both England and France sought to make strategic gains to be used as bargaining tools. Both countries were in the grip of a severe winter. In London the first soup kitchens were opened to relieve the hungry poor. Now came intelligence that the French had assembled a large force at Brest and were in contemplation of a major expedition: to Ireland, in Collingwood’s view. So Collingwood and the Channel fleet returned to the blockade. British strategy had now changed entirely from Howe’s day six years before, when the fleet stayed in port to preserve its ships and stores. An active, total blockade was now recognised as the only bar to French attacks on British convoys from the West Indies and America, and for preventing the arrival of France’s own convoys. It was a new type of warfare, as Collingwood had foreseen: a total war in which economic strangulation was the chief weapon on both sides.
There was a high price to pay for this strategy. Ships were lost, as much through incompetence as through the violence of the weather. 1(Pg.147)


Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe, 1859-1935, 1st Earl Jellicoe

The watching policy in the great wars of the Napoleonic era was carried out by keeping our squadrons, through fair or foul weather, in the vicinity of those ports of the enemy in which his fleet lay. Occasionally our ships were driven off by stress of weather, but they regained their stations as soon as conditions permitted. During this war, however, the advent of the submarine and destroyer, and, to a lesser extent, the use of the mine rendered such dispositions impossible.
No large ship could cruise constantly in the vicinity of enemy bases without the certainty that she would fall an early victim to the attacks of submarines.
Destroyers could, it is true, afford some measure of protection, but destroyers have a very limited range of action, and could not keep the sea off the enemy’s distant coast even in good weather for a sufficient length of time. Periodical relief of the destroyers was an impossibility, owing to the great numbers that would be required for this purpose.
Moreover, even if the submarine danger could be overcome, the heavy ships would be so open to attack by enemy destroyers at night, if cruising anywhere near enemy bases, that they would certainly be injured, if not sunk, before many days had passed.
These facts had been recognised before the War and a watching policy from a distance decided upon, the watch being instituted for the purpose of preventing enemy vessels from gaining the open sea, where they would constitute a danger to our sea communications. Now a watch maintained at a distance from the port under observation is necessarily only partial, except in circumstances where the enemy has to pass through narrow straits before gaining open water.

Royal Navy1914

The chances of intercepting enemy ships depend entirely on the number of watching vessels and the distance that those on board them can see. At night this distance is very short — on a dark night not more than a quarter of a mile, and even in daylight, under the average conditions of visibility obtaining in the North Sea, it is not more than six to eight miles.The North Sea, though small in contrast with the Atlantic, is a big water area of about 120,000 square miles in extent. The width across it, between the Shetland Islands and Norway (the narrowest portion), is 160 miles, and an additional 40 miles (the Fair Island Channel) would need to be watched also if a patrol were established along this line.

Scapa Flow

A consideration of all the circumstances had led to the adoption by the Admiralty of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys as the main Fleet Base, and the Admiralty had determined upon a naval strategy in Home Waters, in the event of war with Germany, based upon the idea that the Grand Fleet would control the North Sea, and that the Channel Fleet would watch the English Channel, thus, in combination, holding the enemy’s main force.
To effect this purpose, it was intended that the main Battle Fleet should occupy, as circumstances permitted, a strategic position in the North Sea where it would act in support of Cruiser Squadrons carrying out sweeps to the southward in search of enemy vessels, and should be favourably placed for bringing the High Sea Fleet to action should it put to sea. 2 (Pg.414)



WE&P by EZorrilla

Cover: Trimming the Sails by Montague Dawson. M.S. Rau (New Orleans)

Leave a Reply