THE NAVAL WAR IN EUROPEAN WATERS, 1779. ALLIED FLEETS INVADE THE ENGLISH CHANNEL. RODNEY DESTROYS TWO SPANISH SQUADRONS AND RELIEVES GIBRALTAR
In June, 1779, the maritime situation of Great Britain had become much more serious by Spain’s declaring war. At the same moment that d’Estaing with twenty-five ships of the line had confronted Byron’s twenty-one, the Channel fleet of forty sail had seen gathering against it a host of sixty-six. Of this great number thirty-six were Spanish.
The open declaration of Spain had been preceded by a secret alliance with France, signed on the 12th of April. Fearing that the British government would take betimes the reasonable and proper step of blockading the Brest fleet of thirty with the Channel forty, thus assuming a central position with reference to its enemies and anticipating the policy of Lord St. Vincent, the French Ministry hurried its ships to sea on the 4th of June; Admiral d’Orvilliers, Keppel’s opponent, still in command. His orders were to cruise near the island of Cizarga, off the north-west coast of Spain, where the Spaniards were to join him. On the 11th of June he was at the rendezvous, but not till the 23d of July did the bulk of the Spanish force appear. During this time, the French, insufficiently equipped from the first, owing to the haste of their departure, were consuming provisions and water, not to speak of wasting pleasant summer weather. Their ships also were ravaged by an epidemic fever. Upon the junction, d’Orvilliers found that the Spaniards had not been furnished with the French system of signals, although by the treaty the French admiral was to be in chief command. The rectification of this oversight caused further delay, but on the 11th of August the combined fleet sighted Ushant, and on the 14th was off the Lizard. On the 16th it appeared before Plymouth, and there on the 17th captured the British 64-gun ship Ardent.
Thirty-five ships of the Channel fleet had gone to sea on the 16th of June, and now were cruising outside, under the command of Admiral Sir Charles Hardy. His station was from ten to twenty leagues south-west of Scilly; consequently he had not been seen by the enemy, who from Ushant had stood up the Channel. The allies, now nearly double the numbers of the British, were between them and their ports,—a serious situation doubtless, but by no means desperate; not so dangerous for sailing ships as it probably will be for steamers to have an enemy between them and their coal.
The alarm in England was very great, especially in the south. On the 9th of July a royal proclamation had commanded all horses and cattle to be driven from the coasts, in case of invasion. Booms had been placed across the entrance to Plymouth Harbor, and orders were sent from the Admiralty to sink vessels across the harbour’s mouth. Many who had the means withdrew into the interior, which increased