Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Royal Navy's Finest Sailor?

By M.M. Bennetts

Ask anyone familiar with the Napoleonic Wars that question and they will probably answer, "Horatio, Lord Nelson, of course!  Hero of the Nile, of Copenhagen and Trafalgar!"  And they'd be right.  To a certain extent.  

But the problem with that answer is that Lord Nelson died at Trafalgar in October 1805.  And the war(s) with Napoleon lasted for another decade, during which time, Britain was called upon not just to rule the waves and blockade the Continental ports belonging to Napoleon's vast European Empire, but, for a brief period, to wage war upon a Napoleonic ally--the fledgling United States.  

(We sometimes believe we invented economic warfare and sanctions and all that.  We didn't.  Nor did the UN.  The European powers of the early 19th century were pros in the art...)

In June 1812, when war was declared by the US Congress upon Great Britain, Britain was already engaged in an existential struggle for survival with Napoleonic France, as the US well knew.  Hence, there was little in the way of a military presence that could be sent across the world to Canada--our troops were tied up and winning in Spain.  So the Admiralty, with the War Office's full support, decided on a war of economic attrition--and this was something Britain was good at.  Very good at.  (Wars are very costly...)  And, realistically, it was all Britain could afford.

Philip Bowes Vere Broke was born on 9 September 1776, the eldest son of a prosperous Suffolk country gentleman and heir to a fine estate.  He was not meant to be a sailor; he was intended to be a gentleman or at the very least an army officer.  

But after years of determined nagging, his father consented to send him to the Portsmouth Naval Academy to learn the trade of seamanship.  By 1792, he was at sea as a midshipman.  And he first took command in 1805.  Then, in September 1806, he was given command of HMS Shannon--a standard British fifth rate frigate--a new 38-gun 18-pounder frigate--and this is where the magic begins.  

Because Broke was fired with enthusiasm, devotion to country, to honour and duty, and he was determined that his ship should be the very best.  And to that end, he invested heavily in it, with his time, with his intellect, with his seamanship, and out of his own pocket.  Gun carriages and guns alike were adjusted carefully to achieve straight horizontal fire when required.  He had the decks marked to that every gun on the broadside could be directed to a single target which would produce devastating destruction. 

Furthermore, he insisted that the crews drilled to fight in silence that all commands could be heard about the cacophony of battle.  And over the next five years, he would keep up a relentless pursuit of battle perfection, with daily drills, daily firing practice, daily training in small arms combat.  

In the summer of 1811, in response to a fracas between the large USS President and the tiny British schooner, Little Belt, the Admiralty ordered Broke to join the North Atlantic Squadron, headquartered in Halifax, Nova Scotia and from thence to patrol the Atlantic coast for privateers and slave ships, but not to provoke the Americans.  He reached Halifax on 22 September and from thence sailed to Bermuda.  Early in 1812, he sailed back north...

Even after the declaration of war by the belligerent Congress, however, Broke's orders were to avoid conflict and maintain a blockade.  The British government and its diplomats were convinced that things might be peacefully and diplomatically resolved, firmly believing that the American people did not want war. 

(For example, in early 1812, a million bushels of American wheat were shipped from Baltimore to feed Wellington's soldiers in the Peninsula--what the British believed the Americans wanted was trade, not war!)

The tiny American navy had other ideas though.  And led by the increasingly myopic (that's not a joke, he was terribly short-sighted) Commodore Rodgers, the few captains aboard the few American warships were keen for their slice of glory against the overbearing British.  The iconic USS Constitution defeated the much smaller HMS Guerriere on the 19th August. 

By early September, the entire sail-power of the American navy were blockaded in Boston:  President, Constitution, United States, Congress and Chesapeake, together with a pair of sloops...all waiting for an opportunity to slip back to sea.  

Maintaining a blockade may be an effective form of economic warfare, but it's hardly exciting as Broke's letters back home to his wife, Louisa, tell us. He hated it. The tedium of endless months at sea, doing little but drill, and appear threatening.  And above all, there's little opportunity for glory!

Nor did the war fizzle into nothing as the British diplomats had hoped...and orders were now received by the North Atlantic Squadron "to make them [the Americans] feel all war..."

At last, fed up with the months of cruising, few battles and only minor prizes, and anticipating needing to return his worn-out ship to port for rebuilding and re-victualling, Broke sent a written challenge to the Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake.

"As the Chesapeake now appears ready for sea, I request that you will do me the favor to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags...You must, Sir, be aware that my proposals are highly advantageous to you...I entreat you, Sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to wish of meeting the Chesapeake...You will feel it a compliment if I say, that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful Service I can render my country...Favor me with a speedy reply.  We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here...Choose your terms, but let us meet."

Though Captain Lawrence never received Broke's letter, he was ready for the challenge anyway, and on 1 June 1813, he would put to sea.  The pair would meet off Cape Ann, just north of Boston, and the events of that day would be seen by many who'd come out to watch in small fishing boats, certain of an American success to match Lawrence's naive braggadocio.

Broke, a professional in all situations and all conditions, kept his ship to its regular routine.  Breakfast, cleaning the ship and drying it, and at 10.00 mustering the crew for their daily gunnery practice.

By noon, Chesapeake had fired a single gun reply to Shannon, and a flag emblazoned with the challenge, "FREE TRADE AND SAILORS RIGHTS" (the slogan of America's challenge) was hoisted.  Broke ordered his ship for Cape Ann (far from where any American gunboats might join the fray) and had lunch served on the quarterdeck for himself and his officers, using the ship's finest silver and glassware.  Once the meal was cleared away, the Surgeon went below decks to prepare his instruments and the men were given their grog ration.

At 5.10 p.m., Broke mustered the crew onto the main and quarter decks--the men had cotton ready to stuff into their ears, they were stripped to fight, and the officers were dressed in their oldest or second-best uniforms, armed with swords and pistols.

Addressing them all, Broke urged them to remember "that there are Englishmen in the frigate who still know how to fight...Don't dismast her.  Fire into her quarters:  main deck to main deck:  quarter deck into quarter deck.  Kill the men and the ship is yours.  Don't hit them on the head, for they have steel caps on, but give it to them through the body.  Don't cheer.  Go quietly to your quarters.  I feel sure you will all do your duty; and remember you have the blood of hundreds of your countrymen to avenge."

Broke had commanded Shannon for seven years and now, at last, he was going to have his fight.  He was wearing full uniform so that all his men would recognise him amidst the heat and smoke of battle.  He presented to them the same commander they had always known:  confident and calm, waiting patiently for the enemy to close, for he wished for them to be nearly upon them before he opened fire.  It was a test of nerves in the eerie silence of that spring afternoon.

Captain Lawrence also addressed his men:  "Peacock her my lads!  Peacock her!" he yelled, referring to an earlier engagement where they'd de-masted and crippled the British ship.  He had ordered his gun crews to load canister and bar shot onto the round shot and grape shot...

(Bar shot is an anti-rigging projectile which cripples the rigging or destroys it, leaving the ship unsailable, after which, broadsides can finish it.  Bar shot is often made up of 12" long iron bars which are connected by chain links, then folded up to be fired from 18 and 32 pounder cannon.  The bars open out into four sections which are joined by a central ring and are used to rip away the shrouds and bring down masts.)

In the straining tense silence, amidst the slap of the waves on the hull, Broke held his nerve while Lawrence manoeuvred, until the two ships were a mere 40 or 50 yards apart, broadside to broadside, near enough to give Shannon's well-trained gunners a perfect platform for accurate horizontal fire.  As Chesapeake ranged closer, Broke himself chose a grenade, trimmed its fuse short and lit it.  It was 5.50 p.m.

Two balls smashed through the American ship, a tin case of musket balls ripped through the port and destroyed the gun crew.  As each of Chesapeake's gun ports came into view, Shannon's starboard battery fired in succession.  In just over two minutes many of the American ships forward gun crews were dead or seriously wounded and many guns disabled.  At the same time, the Royal Marines poured volley after volley of musket fire at the quarter deck, mowing down those in command...

The American ship, contrariwise, had come up too fast, overshooting the mark, and exposing the ship's wheel to the eager and accurately directed British fire.

Equally, though the American gunners returned fire gamely, their ship wasn't steady and many of their broadsides smacked against Shannon at the waterline, causing little or no damage, while the anti-rigging barshot, which they were so keen on, was simply wasted.

The captain, Lawrence, had been hit, William White had been decapitated, the midshipmen were also dead and the First Lieutenant had been taken below, wounded, but not fatally.  The American command was finished, and only Lawrence, wounded in the groin, remained on deck, described by one observer as a "slaughter pen".  It was 5.58 p.m.

Then, a cartridge box on Chesapeake's quarterdeck exploded, adding to the destruction.  As he stumbled down the gangway, Captain Lawrence called out for more boarders and saying, "Tell the men to fire faster! Don't give up the ship!"  Though it has gone down in American naval lore as the ultimate in heroism, it was the order of a desperate man, one unacquainted with the full damage his ship and crew had suffered.

And there remained only one young officer to take the order--an acting lieutenant named Cox.  And as he lay on the surgeon's table, Lawrence would have felt his ship crash into the Shannon's starboard bow.  Only ten minutes had passed since the first shot had been fired.

Broke took the opportunity to order the two ships lashed together and called for a pre-chosen boarding party. Ten minutes previously, the deck had held forty-four American all but one officer and one NCO were dead or wounded, leaving about a dozen men to buckle before the adrenaline-charged rush of British sailors.  Within moments, the Americans were overwhelmed.

Though two Americans tried to rally and regain control of the ship, their efforts were vain.  Several Americans surrendered, a few sailors in the mizzenmast continued to fire upon the British boarding party, but even so, in two minutes, the British boarders had taken the ship.

From below, Lawrence bellowed "Blow the ship up!"  It was too late.

Broke moved to regain control over his enthusiastic tars, but at this point, three of those who had surrendered snatched up their weapons again and attacked Broke, splitting open his skull, only to be hacked down by others in the British party.

There was, at the time, no doubt that those who had attacked Broke after surrendering were known deserters from the Royal Navy--had they been taken alive, for having fought for an enemy power in time of war, they would have been returned to Britain in chains to face trial for treason.

The British boarding party demanded that the Americans surrender, stating that he had 300 men still on board and that he would shoot them all if they did not lay down their arms. Broke had collapsed from shock and loss of blood.  The battle was over--in not even twelve minutes.

The Marines secured the prize.  Broke was taken to the surgeon who cleaned the wound and wrapped his head in gauze.  The boatloads of American spectators scrambled for shore, stunned by the speed and efficiency of the British win, by the shocking loss of life--they had not believed that war could be this savage, this devastating and deadly.  The pre-arranged celebratory public dinner in Boston was cancelled, unsurprisingly.

The two ships were sailed slowly back to Halifax.  Captain Lawrence died on the journey of an infection to his wound.  Broke, shockingly, survived though his health would always remain frail.

A comparison made of the two ships' hits found that the British had scored twice as many as the Americans, with the Shannon taking 13 32-pounder hits to the Chesapeake's 25; 12 18-pounder hits to the Chesapeake's 29; and 119 hits of grape shot to the Chesapeake's 306.  The Americans had been outmanoeuvred, outfought and outgunned by possibly the greatest fighting crew that ever set sail.

And although the Admiralty wished their hero to remain in command, by August, they realised that they were asking too much of Broke and ordered Shannon home.  Britain rejoiced at the news.  Broke was the first officer to be honoured with a naval gold medal for a frigate action.  When he reached Britain on 2 November, he discovered that he had been made a Baronet...

Within a year, Broke's tactics had been adapted throughout the Royal Navy.  A fall from a horse in 1820 further immobilised him, though he remained an artillery expert for the Royal Navy. In 1830, he was made Rear-Admiral.  He died in 1841...

No other naval commander has ever delivered such a decisive victory in so short a time...


M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars, and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2013.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at



  1. In these politically correct days it's interesting to ponder that if Nelson lived today, he'd probably be drummed out of his job for having an affair with someone else's wife (Emma Hamilton)
    Grace x

  2. Great post - I'd never heard of Broke.
    Reminds me of horses a bit - there's always too much to learn :)

  3. Shades of Patrick O'Brian!...

    If I recall my American version of the story correctly, "Madison's War" came about out of a frustration with dealing with British impressment of American seamen, and ultimately an attack on a naval vessel, not a merchant/private commercial vessel. Madison's War was NOT looked upon kindly by a majority of the American people, yet, Madison and the president before him, had tried numerous economic sanctions to try and exact some sort of reprisal for attacks on American merchant ships. I dont think there was any one particular side or person to blame in that whole affair, but looking back, considering how each country was trying to assert itself and work out its own issues, Im not entirely sure that war wouldn't have happened.

    You mean Nelson might have been a Republican (I can hear M.M. Emmett gasp from here!)?! Because I know of no Democrat that has been pushed out of office for having an affair. They seem to acquire a great deal of clout among their constituents...

  4. I confess I'm not up on British naval history so it was great to learn about Broke and his tactics.

    Thanks for the post!

  5. What a great subject, "The Royal Navy's Finest Sailor" and Broke is right up there at the top and I thank you for your brilliant post.
    It brought to mind another great sailor, "Evans of the Broke"; at the outbreak of WWI the RN commissioned a destroyer HMS Broke (and we know for whom it was named) which in company with one other ship took on 6 German destroyers in what became known as the Battle of Dover Strait.( There were two battles with this name and the "Broke was involved in the second)
    During this battle Commander Evans of the "Broke" rammed one of the German ships and sank it and the German ships remaining put to rout. The "Broke'' made it back to port and Evans was hailed and for ever after became known as 'Evans of the Broke"
    He too had an illustrious career; more so than Broke. He was second in command of Scott's ill-fated expedition. The Royal Society struck a special Gold Medal (only ever done the once) for his extraordinary bravery during a rescue operation in the "Far East" .
    He received a Barony one step up from Broke and took the title "Lord Mountevans of Broke" ; the title derives from Mt Evans in Antarctica (the mountain in the Antarctic named after him by Scott) and of course his ship the "HMS Broke".
    Evans of the Broke received many awards from many countries including the US of A and you may like to do another post on Admiral Evans in a series on "The Royal Navy's Finest Sailor".
    Thank you for your post, it was great reading.

  6. This blog really have great information about the royal navy sword.


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