The Naval Battle of Genoa was fought on 14 March 1795 off the coast of Genoa, a port city in north-western Italy, between French warships under Rear-Admiral Pierre Martin and British and Neapolitan warships under Vice Admiral William Hotham. The battle ended in a British-Neapolitan victory over the French and the capture of the French ships Ça Ira and Censeur by the British.
Capture of HMS BerwickEdit
In early 1795 Vice-Admiral Hotham, the commander in chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, shifted his fleet from San Fiorenzo Bay, Corsica, to Leghorn, news which soon reached the French naval base at Toulon. A fleet of fifteen ships of the line, six frigates and two brig-corvettes was prepared, put to sea on 2 March 1795 under the command of Rear-Admiral Pierre Martin. Its objective was unclear: a fleet of transports had embarked 5,000 troops to invade Corsica and recapture it from the British, but these transports never departed Toulon. The report of the Committee of Public Safety to the National Convention states that the fleet was at sea to secure shipping lines in the Mediterranean.
Their progress was hampered by a series of north-easterly gales, but they came in sight of the island by early morning on 7 March, when the fleet's advanced figures discovered a British warship sailing under a jury rig. This was the 74-gun HMS Berwick, which had been refitting in San Fiorenzo Bay with the rest of the fleet in early 1795, when her lower masts, stripped of rigging, rolled over the side and were lost. A court-martial found that the proper precautions to secure the masts had not been taken and dismissed Berwick's captain, William Smith, her first lieutenant, and her master from the ship. Hotham had then sailed with his fleet, ordering Berwick's new captain, Adam Littlejohn, to fit a jury rig and then sail to join him at Leghorn. Littlejohn soon realised that the approaching fleet was a French one, despite their flying Spanish flags, and attempted to escape. With Berwick's speed greatly reduced to the jury-rig, the French frigates were able to close on the British ship, and at 11 am the Alceste passed to leeward and opened fire within musket-shot on the Berwick's lee bow. The Minerve and Vestale then hauled within range and took up position on Berwick's quarter. By noon, her rigging was cut to pieces and every sail was in ribbons. During the battle four sailors were wounded and a bar-shot decapitated Littlejohn; he was the only man killed. Command then devolved upon Lieutenant Nesbit Palmer, who consulted with the other officers. Palmer decided that as Berwick was unable to escape in her disabled state and that all further resistance was useless; he then ordered that Berwick strike her colours. The Alceste had suffered casualties of eight men wounded, including her captain and another officer. Upon surrendering the British officers and crew were dispersed into the French ships.
On 8 March, news reached Hotham that a French fleet had been sighted off Île Sainte-Marguerite two days earlier. Further intelligence arrived later that day when the sloop HMS Moselle approached Hotham's anchorage, flying the signal for a fleet in the north-west. On reporting to Hotham the fleet was announced to be sailing southward. Hotham immediately unmoored his fleet, putting to sea early on the morning of 9 March heading for Corsica. As yet unaware of the fate of Berwick, he sent the brig HMS Tarleton ahead to San Fiorenzo to order Berwick to join him off Cap Corse. Tarleton reported back to the fleet that night, giving Hotham news of Berwick's capture, and presumably an updated location of the French fleet, as Hotham changed his course, heading north-west. The following morning on 10 March the British came in sight of the French fleet, now beating northwards back to Toulon against a south-west wind.
The fleets circleEdit
The two fleets gradually closed over the next two days, hampered by light winds. Favourable winds on the evening of 12 March caused the British to form a line of battle, but the French bore away. Heavy squalls blew up during the night of 12 March, causing the 74-gun Mercure to carry away her maintopmast. She received permission to leave the fleet in company with a frigate, and made for Gourjean roads where she met the captured Berwick, also with a frigate in company, and together they made their way to Toulon, taking no further part in the battle. By dawn on the 13 March, and with the French still declining an action, Hotham gave the signal for a general chase. As the British closed on the French, taking advantage of the fresh breeze, the third-most ship in the French rear, the 80-gun Ça Ira, collided with the ship in front of her, the 80-gun Victoire. The Victoire was slightly damaged, but the Ça Ira lost her fore and main topmasts as a result, causing her to lag behind.
Captain Thomas Fremantle, aboard the 36-gun HMS Inconstant seized the opportunity and ranging up on Ça Ira's larboard quarter, opened fire. The 36-gun Vestale then ranged up on Inconstant, firing several broadsides as she approached, and then took Ça Ira in tow. Inconstant then tacked about, passing under Ça Ira's lee, and fired a broadside into her. The crew of the Ça Ira had by now cleared the wreckage of their topmasts and opened fire on the smaller frigate, killing three men and wounding fourteen, while a shot hit her hull between wind and water, forcing her to bear away.
As Fremantle fell away, the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon, captained by Horatio Nelson, surged up and by 10.45 am was in range on Ça Ira's quarter. HMS Agamemnon carried fewer and lighter guns, and had some 344 men, compared to nearly 1,060 sailors and soldiers aboard the Ça Ira. She maintained a heavy fire on the crippled French ship, still being towed by Vestale, with HMS Captain, commanded by Captain Samuel Reeve, moving up to support him for a time. Nelson continued the duel until 2.15 pm when more French ships arrived in range, coming to support Ça Ira. Nelson then dropped back into position in the British line, which was reformed as the French rear came in range, with the 74-gun ships HMS Bedford and HMS Egmont exchanging intermittent fire with the rear-most French ships, which included the 120-gun Sans-Culotte and the 74-gun Timoléon. By now Nelson had inflicted heavy casualties and considerable damage on the beleaguered Ça Ira.
Ça Ira and Censeur vs Captain and BedfordEdit
The action ended for the day, with Martin transferring from his flagship, the 120-gun Sans-Culotte, to the frigate Friponne, in application of the standing order of 12 June 1794 according to which general officers were to transfer their flag on frigates during battle. During the night, by accident or by mismanagement, the Sans-Culotte lost contact with the fleet and took no further part in the action, depriving the French of their only three-decked warship. During the night, Vestale was relieved by the 74-gun Censeur in towing the now dismasted Ça Ira. Daylight revealed the French fleet still on the larboard tack, with the Ça Ira and Censeur now isolated well behind the main body of the fleet. The British fleet were advantageously placed to windward, and observing the lagging pair, Hotham signalled the 74-gun ships Captain and Bedford to close and attack them. Running down from windward they bore up and battered them for 1 hour and 15 minutes, during which time Captain endured raking fire before she could turn her broadsides to bear, and consequently suffered severe damage to her sails, rigging, and stays. She signalled to be towed out of the action, shortly afterwards followed by Bedford, which had also had her sails and rigging badly cut up. Three men were killed on Captain and nine wounded, two mortally. Bedford had seven killed and eighteen wounded.
Defence of the rearEdit
By this time Ça Ira and Censeur had been heavily damaged and were almost defenceless. Martin now came about to go to the aid of his rear, aiming to pass along the isolated ships and defend them against HMS Illustrious and HMS Courageux, which were approaching to replace Bedford and Captain. He intended that the 74-gun Duquesne would lead the action, but the lack of wind meant that most of the ships were becalmed for long periods, and Duquesne struggled to come about. As she did so she came within range of the 32-gun HMS Lowestoffe, similarly becalmed and helpless, and opened fire on her. Captain Benjamin Hallowell ordered his crew below decks, and after a period of time the Neapolitan frigate Minerva drifted near the Duquesne, attracting the attention of the French guns away from Lowestoffe, which did not suffer any casualties, though her sails and rigging were cut up. The Duquesne finally completed her turn, but then instead of obeying Martin's order to lead the line to leeward, she instead passed to windward.
The French line, led by Duquesne and followed by the 80-gun ships Victoire and Tonnant, came within range of Illustrious and Courageux at 8 am and the two sides commenced a heavy cannonade. After over an hour of fighting Illustrious had been hit a number of times in her hull, and had lost her foretopmast, mainmast and mizzenmast, and with her bowsprit and foremast wounded. Courageux had also lost her main and mizzenmasts. The three French ships eventually passed by, and were not followed by the rest of the fleet. The Duquesne, Victoire and Tonnant fired a few shots at the British ships astern of Illustrious and Courageux, and then sailed away, abandoning the Ça Ira and Censeur. Martin made no further attempt to come to their aid, taking advantage of a strengthening and favourable wind to resume heading northwards, while Hotham decided his van was too badly damaged to pursue, and contented himself with securing the two French ships, which surrendered promptly once it became clear the fleet had abandoned them. Hotham then made for Spezia Bay.
Sequel: The loss of IllustriousEdit
Illustrious was being towed back to port by the frigate HMS Meleager, when a strong gale blew up on the night of 17 March, causing the tow rope to part. Leaking and shipping water through broken gunports, Illustrious lost her jury-rigged mizzenmast and had her sails ripped to shreds. Sighting land ahead at daylight on 18 March, the two ships headed east. Meleager parted company at noon, and 1.30 pm Illustrious's situation worsened when a cannon accidentally went off, destroying the gunport lid and causing water to flood in. Illustrious wore round until the port could be secured, and attempted to head north, but made land to the east of the bay. Running into shoal water at 7.30pm that evening Illustrious's captain, Thomas Frederick, attempted to anchor, but the cables parted and she ran onshore. The wind increasing and changing direction, her rudder carried away. Attempts were made the following day to run a cable to shore, but without success, and in the evening Tarleton arrived, but no boats could be launched because of the heavy sea. Lowestoffe and Romulus arrived the following day, as did the launches from the main fleet, and the crew and most of the stores were taken off, after which the hull was burnt.
Order of battleEdit