Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Chaos Under Control: Lessons From Quiberon Bay

Andrew J. Graff


Reprinted from Proceedings with permission; Copyright © (2017) U.S. Naval Institute /


This 1759 action between the British and French fleets has relevance for the U.S. Navy today.

Quebec, New France 31 August 1758

“War continuing, Canada would always finish by being taken sooner or later. We know beyond a doubt that the court of England, impelled by the frenzy of the nation, is resolved to invade it at whatever cost. That court has the means and will use them to the last farthing.”1

Such was the lament of a French official after the fall of Louisbourg, Canada’s greatest fortress at that time. The Seven Years’ War had been raging for three, and in its struggle with Great Britain for control of North America, France had suffered a major reverse. If the nation’s fortunes were to be retrieved and a successful end to the conflict ensured, it would have to be accomplished elsewhere.

King Louis XV and his principal minister, Étienne-François, Duke of Choiseul, believed the solution lay in a large-scale invasion of England. Though it would entail fearsome expense, it was s more likely than any other avenue to bring about negotiations. The plan was ambitious, calling for 20,000 men to descend on Scotland, while a force of equal size would cross the Channel and take London. To control those waters and secure a landing, at least 35 ships of the line were to assemble at 1 Brest on the Brittany coast.2

A bid for Swedish support failed, and good intelligence left Britain apprised of the scheme. Giving French ports a detailed reconnoiter, British ships confirmed the threat and subjected Le Havre to heavy bombardment, incinerating magazines and supplies laid in there.3 Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, commanding the Channel fleet and charged with surveilling the Brittany coast, established a close blockade of its principal towns.

This was expensive and exhausting in equal measure. Contending daily with the tempestuous Bay of Biscay took a toll on British ships and seamen, tacking and wearing off a rocky, hostile shore of great extent. The maintenance needs of this wooden fleet were extreme. Timbers and caulking shifted in rough seas, giving rise to serious leaks; bottoms soon fouled with marine growth; masts often sprang, and spars carried away in stiff gales. The large crews tending these complex ships of war exerted themselves to the utmost, requiring so great a supply of provisions, fresh water, and beer that agents ashore strained to procure it. Health was no less a concern, from the omnipresent threat of scurvy to diseases that spread quickly in close quarters—with high mortality when they did.

A strong proponent of the close-range, “go straight at ’em” tactics that later would bring Lord Nelson such fame, Hawke ensured his crews had ample practice with their great guns. He also had a talent for naval administration. With efficiency always in view, he rotated ships for maintenance and ensured their crews had liberty; hounded contractors for adequate provisions, arranging delivery to blockaders on station; and gave serious thought to crew nutrition and decent medical care. The Admiralty seconded his measures with zeal.4 Because of such careful management, Hawke’s fleet patrolled the Brittany coast in all but the worst conditions, monitoring French activity and preventing any sortie. Anxious to meet the enemy after months of laborious routine, by November 1759 it had reached a high pitch of readiness.

When the Brest fleet was ordered to sail that month, 21 ships of the line were available to the Marquis de Con- flans, an experienced commander and learned tactician elevated to Marshal of France by the King. Though Con- flans was aided by a handful of frigates and corvettes, British vigilance forestalled larger ships from joining him; the squadron of 35 envisioned by Versailles did not materialize.5 An epidemic of typhus brought home from Canada had ravaged French seamen, leaving experienced crews in short supply as well.

Though still the largest fleet yet fielded by France, its departure would be no simple affair under the constant observation of Hawke’s veteran force, so keen to destroy it. Attentive to every movement at Brest, Hawke could state with assurance that “hardly a vessel of any kind has been able to enter or come out of that port these four months.”6 The Frenchmen on shore did not deny it. “All things are disposing for the embarkation, the troops arriving and joining. But how are they to get out? We see every day . . . two large English ships with nine frigates of different sizes waiting for us.”7

Nature intervened to break the stalemate. As the blockaders had feared, a storm arose on 9 November that forced them into shelter across the Channel.8 Conflans seized the opportunity and got his fleet under way on the 14th, steering three divisions southeast toward Quiberon Bay, where the army transports destined for Scotland awaited. Though a small British squadron hovered off the bay, observing the buildup within, Conflans meant to overpower it before convoying his land force.

Soon enough the Channel fleet was sailing back toward Brest, learning on the 16th that Conflans had escaped. His likely destination was apparent, and giving chase with a strong press of sail and the aid of northerly winds, Hawke made rapid progress. This time weather hindered the marquis, delaying his arrival off Quiberon Bay by three days.

At dawn on the 20th, Conflans sighted the small English squadron. Forewarned that the French had put to sea, it had sailed at once for the freedom of open water to the southwest. Seven strong, it was no match for the French fleet and struggled to keep out of range, dispersing for good measure. The squadron lost ground nonetheless and was about to come under fire when Conflans’ rear division advised of Hawke’s sudden approach.9

Riding a strong westerly gale, the British were to windward and had a tactical advantage: numbering 23 ships of the line, plus 10 frigates and cruisers once the beleaguered squadron joined up. Conflans broke off his pursuit of the squadron forthwith and ordered all ships to close ranks, running eastward before the wind to gain the relative safety of Quiberon Bay. There he could draw up the fleet in a static line of defense beyond a maze of rocks, shoals, and sand bars that imperiled navigation and with which the British were far less familiar. Should bad weather compel Hawke to retire once more—as there seemed little doubt it would, with conditions worsening fast—Conflans might depart unmolested with the army in tow. Either way his ships would be safe, or so he believed. “I had no ground for thinking that if I got in first with twenty-one of the line the enemy would dare to follow me.”10

But the enemy did, charging after Conflans with furious abandon despite a mounting sea, a strengthening gale, and a distinct risk of fatal collision with the jagged reefs and rocks of a lee shore. Winds reaching 40 knots whipped the sea into frenzy; dense squalls degraded visibility as they swept across the bay, which the fleet lacked charts to navigate. None of this gave the British a moment’s pause. “Monsieur Conflans kept going off under such sail as all his squadron could carry and at the same time keep together, while we crowded after him with every sail our ships could bear,” Hawke noted.11 He threw out a signal for “general chase” and for the leading ships to form a line of battle, engaging the French on contact while the rest of his force closed in. After that it was up to his captains, who needed no further prompting.

Regrettably for the marquis, his bid to gain a strong defensive position was thwarted by the wind, which veered unfavorably to the west-northwest and strengthened, forcing his ships to steer northeast toward the narrow confines of the Vilaine estuary. Here they crowded together, sowing confusion throughout the line. Commanding it to wear in succession—back toward the southwest and the pursuing British, to gain sea room and support his rear—only gave rise to more disarray. The French captains saw little room for such a maneuver; nor did their crews have the experience to manage it. Most dropped anchor instead, leaving the engaged ships behind to fight a vicious battle for survival.

The desperate attempt by Conflans to keep his fleet in order contrasted starkly with Hawke’s division of his own. While the French gave way to chaos, the English embraced it with relish. At 1430, when Hawke let them loose, his captains in the vanguard vied with each other for the honor of striking first, bearing down on their foe with all the ferocity of hungry wolves in pursuit of fattened sheep. The speed and violence of their onslaught was frightful to behold, a paragon of seamanship at the very limits of control. Stunned at such recklessness, the French in their whirling confusion could do little to counter it. “You would have thought it a miracle,” Hawke later opined, “that half our ships were not [lost] on shore, they were all so keen in the pursuit of the enemy, in a winter’s day in hard squalls, upon [a] coast, which we were all unacquainted with.”12

Coming up with the French rear just short of the bay’s narrow entrance, 70-gun Dorsetshire and 60-gun Defiance withstood a heavy fire, passing up the enemy line in pursuit of its leading ships. Commanding the English van in Magnanime of 74 guns, Lord Richard Howe had the same intention, but while passing the Formidable, 80-gun flagship of the French rear division, he saw his foreyard carried away and turned on his assailant, doing terrible execution. Torbay, also a 74-gun, came up to assist with two broadsides, hulling the Formidable at so many points it was a wonder she kept afloat. But the life was literally shot out of her, and she struck her flag in submission.

Though possessed of as many guns, the French Héros suffered 400 casualties at the hands of Magnanime and likewise surrendered. British gunnery proved too rapid, precise, and deadly to return in anything like equal measure. When the battle concluded, the Héros took advantage of weather and darkness to steal away from her cap- tors, but she ran hard aground in her flight—and out of action forever.

Conditions grew so dire in the bay that squalls proved more lethal than cannon. Powerful gusts accompanied the blinding rain, driving into the sails of both fleets with such force as to heel men-of war to critical points of stability. Blown on her beam by one such tempest, swift-sailing Dorsetshire began flooding fast through her lee gunports but luffed up quickly enough to stem the flow. Torbay reckoned with the same peril, taking on so much water that only a desperate move to fling the ship about kept her alive.

Tested by nature and foe alike, unpracticed French crews were hard-pressed and in grave danger. While engaging Torbay, the 74-gun Thésée heeled over in the same manner as her antagonist. Slower to maneuver their ship or haul in her guns to close the lee ports, her 650 men were quickly overcome as a frothing green sea poured in. Rolling over, she took them to the bottom, and only 11 would see the sky again.

When Hawke’s 100-gun flagship, Royal George, set upon Conflans in the Soleil Royal of 80, a ship from the French vanguard moved to protect her, but not for long. Enveloped by a squall, the 70-gun Super be heeled, filled, and foundered, drowning her crew of 630 in an instant. Though a muted, perfunctory cheer went up from Royal George, her sailors stood agape with horror at the hundreds who perished before them. Expertise had saved two English ships, while the lack of it had doomed two French vessels along with their crews.

Screened by the Superbe until she foundered, then by the Intrépide, a 74, the Soleil Royal survived her brief engagement with Royal George. As the early darkness of winter approached, the gale still threatening to dash his fleet on the rocks, Hawke at 1730 ordered ships to anchor in their current positions. This put an end to the rout after three hours of pell-mell fighting atop a raging sea. Conflans dropped anchor as well, but at dawn he found the British had done so just to windward of his flagship. Cutting her cable, he ran southeast for the nearest port, grounding hard near its entrance and adding the Soleil Royal to the list of French wrecks.

Nine ships took advantage of nightfall to slip past the British fleet, eight gaining the safety of Rochefort to the southeast. Badly damaged, the 70-gun Juste sought that of the Loire but wrecked on her approach, losing 480 of her 630 men. Conflans’ seven remaining ships of the line heaved their guns overboard and, thus lightened, cleared the Vilaine bar at high tide to flee upriver. One later drove ashore and was lost; the others, blockaded, disarmed, and decommissioned, would lie there immobile for two years.13

Two British ships of the line—74-gun Resolution and Essex, a 64-gun—struck on a shoal they knew nothing about and could not be refloated. But none surrendered or sank in the engagement. Casualty figures were quite as unequal. The English suffered fewer than 400 killed and wounded, the French a chilling 2,500. “I can boldly affirm that all that could possibly be done has been done,” Hawke informed the Admiralty with truth. “Had we had but two hours more daylight, the whole had been totally destroyed or taken.”14 Commenting on the fiasco, a dismayed and disgusted French witness had no kind words to offer. “Imbecility, ineptitude, blundering, ignorance of maneuvering and of all sea tactics are the exclusive causes of our loss.”15

Shattered, the naval power of France would not recover for years. Invading England no longer was feasible—if indeed it ever had been—and on 25 November the great project was canceled. The disaster went deeper than this, for Canada no longer could be supplied with effect and likewise was beyond retrieval. Hence North America was lost to France forever, the balance of power in Europe far less favorable than before the war began. France’s financial credit plunged to new depths, and it could only hope to fight another day. The American Revolution would provide an opportunity.

Lessons of Quiberon Bay

Operating far ahead of its bases in what are now disputed waters, maintaining a constant presence off inhospitable shores, the U.S. Navy has a difficult task to perform as tensions mount in the Asia-Pacific theater. Two-and-a-half centuries have passed, but the lessons of Quiberon Bay have continuing relevance for the present challenge. To prevail in this new contest for maritime supremacy, the Navy should learn them well and realize them in practice.

•    Staying Power. Deployed for long months preceding the battle, no British ship was driven from its station by the enemy. Severe weather alone forced the English to lift their blockade, and only until such tempests had blown themselves out. Steady, unshakable presence was a key to success, challenging as the duty often became. Convinced they could not dislodge their foe, the French never dared attempt it.

Typhoons still drive all before them, with electronic systems no less subject to weather than the topgallant sails and bowsprits of the 18th century. But new hazards exist in the western Pacific, where seconds may decide the fate of an engagement. The geography of East Asia lends air- and land-based weapons equal lethality with naval platforms. A sudden salvo of missiles, bombs, or torpedoes can tax the best defense nets, a single failed intercept proving catastrophic. The ability to survive such conditions, and do so with a limited force, is essential to maintain a credible deterrent and support our allies in the region. The U.S. Navy is there to stay—and all parties must believe it. Whether they do at present is doubtful.

•    Sound Logistics. Reliable access to provisions, ordnance, and naval stores afforded Hawke’s fleet a cease less watch over the French as their invasion force assembled. Complete control of strategic sea lanes—right up to the enemy coast—proved indispensable to Britain’s victory at Quiberon Bay, just as it did to its eventual triumph in North America.

Similar dominance by the United States in the East and South China seas is what potential adversaries seek to erode. A growing number of destroyers, frigates, paramilitary vessels, and submarines constrain the Navy’s freedom of maneuver. Land reclamation continues apace, with fortification close behind, narrowing strategic choke points and increasing their dangers. Our seaborne Combat Logistics Force, unarmed and seldom escorted, remains vulnerable to hostile action yet essential to a continued presence in contested waters. Expensive and difficult though it may prove, the Navy must ensure lines of supply robust enough to withstand assault.

•     Fighting Proficiency. The French ships at Quiberon had recently sailed, were freshly equipped, and possessed intimate knowledge of the hazardous bay: all of which availed them not, for their crews were largely unskilled and untried. Incessantly battered by wind and sea for several months off a dangerous coast, the English handled their ships and guns in superior fashion to obtain decisive victory. Constant practice in tough conditions enabled them to do more with less.

And so must the Navy, in a region where military trends are largely against it. To counter them and maintain the advantage—despite a numerical disparity in platforms, weapons, or bases—training of unparalleled intensity and realism is called for. Hawke’s veteran crews reckoned time in minutes; today’s crews must do so in seconds. The fleeting span of a detect-to-engage sequence may prove their only scope for maneuver. Always an issue in peacetime, modem weapons render thorough preparedness more crucial—and difficult—than ever before. Navy personnel must have the skills to react without warning, yet with instant and deadly effect.

•     Tactical Initiative. The sheer impetuosity of Hawke’s fleet at Quiberon Bay overwhelmed and scattered the French on contact, markedly shifting the odds in its favor. Outmaneuvered, outgunned, and confused, several Gallic ships took themselves out of action and saved their foes the trouble, running aground or foundering with tragic loss of life. British success came at great risk, but the stakes demanded no less; to play it safe might have permitted England’s invasion or Canada’s reinforcement.

The value of speed and surprise to successful engagements is no less apparent on today’s naval battlefield. Aggressive tactics can impart tremendous advantage in an age of supersonic weapons. Fighting a distant enemy over the horizon beyond the range of gunfire, today’s ships may not “go straight at ’em” as in Hawke’s time, but the weight of any strike should be quite as overwhelming. The Navy likewise must be prepared to confound a foe accustomed to shadowing its units and familiar with their daily routines. De-escalation remains U.S. policy, and wisely so; a war in Asia stands to gain the United States precious little. But should matters come to a head, bold and decisive steps will be called for without a moment’s delay.

• Independent Action. Observing the signal to attack, British captains chose their targets and engaged at discretion in Quiberon Bay, supporting each other at need. Employing proven tactics in the best fashion to reduce their chosen foe, nearly all of them met with success— and attained it without further guidance from their chain of command. Superior skill and experience consistently won the day.

In the current age of centralized command, control, and communication, with tactical data links so firmly entrenched in Navy doctrine, the rapid exploitation of local conditions so evident at Quiberon Bay may become a lost art. Technology affords a tremendous edge, to be sure, but should missiles take flight and a degree of chaos ensue, units must be prepared to meet them on their own before further direction can arrive. A day may come when their survival depends on it.

About the author:

Andrew J. Graff holds a B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University, where he studied politics, philosophy, and economics. Commissioned a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, he served on board a guided-missile cruiser and a special operations patrol craft before assignment to Fifth Fleet Headquarters, planning joint exercises with allied Gulf nations. Mr. Graff left active duty to write a detailed narrative of the American Revolution, three volumes of which are complete and await publication. He is now a deck officer with Military Sealift Command.


[1] Doreil to Belle Isle, 31 August 1758, in Edward B. O’Callaghan and Berthold Fernow, eds., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (hereafter DRCHNY), vol. 10 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons, 1856-93), 819-20.

[2] Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Great War for the Empire, vol. 8 of The British Empire before the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), 4-5, 40-41; and Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and the Seven Years’ War (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 129-32, 134-35.

[3] Gipson, The Great War, 6-15.

[4] Hawke to Cross, 6 June 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 199; Hawke to Rogers, 6 June 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 200; Hawke to Clevland, 8 June 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 201; Hawke to Clevland, 3 July 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 212; Admiralty to Victualling Board, 19 July 1759, Mackay,

Hawke Papers, no. 224; Hawke to Clevland, 23 July 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 230; Hawke to Ommanney, 23 July 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 233; Hawke to Ommanney, 24 July 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 234; Hawke to Clevland, 24 July 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 235; Ommanney to Hawke, 27 July 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 237; Hawke to Ommanney, 2 August 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 240; Admiralty to Victualling Board, 2 August 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 242; Victualling Board to Hawke, 6 August 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 245; Hawke to Clevland, 12 August 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 249; Admiralty to Victualling Board, 13 August 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 251.

[5] Gipson, The Great War, 4-5, 40-41.

[6] Hawke to Clevland, 10 October 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 295.

[7] “Intelligence,” n.d., Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 294a.

[8]  Hawke to Clevland, 10 November 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 319.

[9]  Hawke to Clevland, 17 November 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 323; Nicholas Tracy, The Battle of Quiberon Bay, 1759: Admiral Hawke and the Defeat of the French Invasion, digital ed. (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2010), loc. 2564-76.

[10] Julian S. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War: A Study in Combined Strategy. vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green, 1907), 61.

[11] Hawke to Clevland, 24 November 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 327.

[12] Hawke to Anson, draft, November 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 328.

[13] Hawke to Clevland, 24 November 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 327; “List of the French Squadron which came out of Brest, November 14th, 1759,” Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 327a; “Line of Battle,” Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 327b; Thompson to G.T., 20 November 1759, in Edward Thompson, Sailor’s letters: Written to his select friends in England, during his voyages and travels in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, vol. 2 (London, 1767), 123; Dull, The French Navy and the Seven Years’ War, 161-62; Gipson, The Great War, 17-24; Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War, 56-69; Tracy, The Battle of Quiberon Bay, Iocs. 2725-83, 2793, 2823-37, 2917; Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 381-83.

[14] Hawke to Clevland, 24 November 1759, Mackay, Hawke Papers, no. 327; Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War, 69.

[15] Gipson, The Great War, 24.


Published: Wed Apr 04 15:29:46 EDT 2018