Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"I didn't know that!" Wargaming and perusing through History

One of the alluring things about wargaming for me is the discoveries it can bring.

Today happens to be the anniversary of the Battle of Audierne Bay, which was fought on Jan. 13, 1797. In the grand scale of things it wasn't a very big battle -- just a pair of British frigates against a French ship-of-the-line -- or a very important one. It's notable as probably the most famous fight of the renowned British frigate captain Edward Pellew, who is one of the probable inspirations for famous British frigate captains of fiction such as Horatio Hornblower.

I pulled out my copy of Flying Colors, which happens to have a scenario about the battle, and looked it over. It's one of the more interesting small ship actions of the Napoleonic era. The French ship was the Droits de l'Homme (with the suitably revolutionary name The Rights of Man), a 74-gun ship of the line that would normally have been able to fend off two British frigates despite the superior British seamanship. But the French ship was unlucky in several respects.

First, the weather was bad, with a stiff wind making it impossible to open the lower bank of gunports without sinking the ship! This deprived the French battleship of its heaviest guns.

Second, while one of the British ships was the 36-gun Amazon, a standard frigate for its time, the other was the 44-gun Indefatigable, a "razee" frigate, which meant that it had been built as a ship-of-the-line and had been turned into a frigate by removing the upper deck. This meant it was much more stoutly built than a standard frigate and had a heavier battery of guns. It also meant that, being lighter, its gunports were higher and it could therefore use its guns despite the waves.

Finally, the Indefatigable was commanded by Sir Edward Pellew. (Shown at left)

The battle ended with both the Amazon and the French battleship (after heavy damage) being blown ashore and wrecked and Pellew skillfully sailing his ship out of danger.

All good stuff, already. But I was curious about Pellew and soon found out that he had indeed had a long and surprising naval career.

As a midshipman he fought against Benedict Arnold's fleet at the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain on Oct. 11, 1776. Almost exactly a year later, as a lieutenant he was present at the Battle of Saratoga (facing Arnold again!) and became a prisoner when Burgoyne surrendered his army. Paroled, Pellew couldn't see any more active service against the Americans, but he distinguished himself in other waters until being put on half-pay after the wars ended.

When Britain and France resumed fighting after the French Revolution broke out Pellew was given command of the 36-gun frigate Nymphe and resourcefully manned it and got it to sea as one of the first British frigates to sail. He defeated the French frigate Cleopatre in one of the most famous single-ship duels of the war. He was then promoted to command the larger Indefatigable.

Eventually he rose to the rank of admiral, was named a viscount and died at the age of 76.

So a small scenario in Flying Colors led to a line of inquiry that brought out a lot of intriguing facts. While I'm not surprised that Pellew was also the commander of the Nymphe vs. Cleopatre fight, I was very surprised to find out about his role in the American Revolutionary War. His participation at Valcour Island was a definite "I didn't know that!" and doubly so for his participation at Saratoga. Indeed, I had never heard that Burgoyne's army included a naval contingent, and I've read quite a few accounts of Saratoga over the years. "I didn't know that!"
This si the sort of thing that reminds me why I love wargames.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. Your post inspired me to read up a bit about Pellew myself. Thanks!