BALCHEN’S VICTORY: THE LOSS AND REDISCOVERY OF AN ADMIRAL AND HIS SHIP & ANSON’S NAVY: BUILDING A FLEET FOR EMPIRE, 1744 TO 1763

Reviewed by: DAVID CHILDS

One way of assessing the importance to the Royal Navy of any past officer is to see whether there has been a ship named after him. This honour has not been accorded to Admiral Sir John Balchen and, ironically, even the ship he accompanied to the sea-bed in 1744, in a major naval disaster, Victory, has been eclipsed by her far more famous predecessor. In that horrendous Channel gale Balchen’s Victory disappeared without trace taking the admiral and 1,100 men with her. Soon both ship and admiral would go the same way until the discovery of the wreck in 2008 restored to them both some degree of recognition. This book is an endeavour to remind us of both the ship and her admiral.

Balchen had a lengthy naval career of 58 years during which time he was: captured by the French twice, and twice exonerated by courts martial and commended for the defence of his ships against overwhelming odds: survived a number of appointments in the disease decimating stations of the West Indies and West Africa; and served as flag captain in HMS Shrewsbury at the Battle of Cape Passaro.

Can an officer be too competent for his own good? Balchen seems to have been.  Such a safe pair of hands that he could be entrusted with dull but necessary tasks such as convoy escorting or dockyard management so much so that his widow recorded on his significant memorial in Westminster Abbey that, “the brave, the worthy, and the good man, meets not always his reward in this world”.

Then, in 1744, at the age of 75, having been rewarded in his retirement with a knighthood and the appointment as Governor of Greenwich Naval Hospital, Balchen was recalled to take a task force to relieve Sir Charles Hardy’s fleet which was being blockaded in the Tagus. Not only did Balchen succeed in releasing Hardy but, on the return voyage, he captured six heavily laden French merchantmen, guaranteeing him prize-money that had up to now mostly eluded him, and so it still did for on the night 3/4 October a dreadful storm scattered his fleet and overwhelmed Victory, the only ship lost that night.

That singular loss made the Admiralty hear at last the alarm bells that Balchen had been ringing for much of his career and now sounded loudest as his death nell. For he was very aware of the crankiness of many of the ships that he commanded, including Victory which he considered, as an 80-gun three-decker, to be too heavy, too high, over armed, and, possibly, constructed from unseasoned timber.  As Andrew Lambert summarises, towards the end of this book, the disaster occurred because of, “sending out the ship in winter, when she was only fit for summer service”, or as Vernon prophesied just months before Victory was lost, an enquiry into the construction of warships needed to be made before there was a “fatal sacrifice”. That same year Anson, spurred on by the tragedy began his reform of ship design, aided by his capture, in 1747 of the French 74-gun L’Invincible, which would become the template for new Royal Navy ships for years to come – from Victory unto Victory. As for the book, it resembles its human subject; detailed; worthy; well researched and written but, despite all these attributes, probably, best borrowed rather than added to any personal library.

Where one story ends another begins. Anson returned from his pecuniary successful circumnavigation in June 1744, in time to hear of the loss of Victory, before joining the Board of Admiralty in December 1744.  In 1747 he was back at sea, defeating the French at the First Battle of Finisterre, before being appointed First Lord in June 1751. But this book is not so much about his career as about the reforms he introduced to both the ships and the administration that would enable the Navy able to command the sea routes to the growing empire.  Anson’s character would, at first, appear not to make him the ideal candidate for such a task:  he was taciturn, non-confrontational with the government and he worked through a coterie of favourites. It was said of him by Horace Walpole that he had “been round the world but never in it”. Yet he rid the navy of its amateurish, corrupt complacency and was able to bequeath a fleet the full potential of which would be exploited by Nelson and his band of brothers.

In the few years that this book focuses on the navy acquired uniforms, a modernised rank structure, solved the problem of scurvy and began experimenting with the coppering of hulls to protect against shipworm. Most importantly, and here Anson was very much to the fore, it rid itself of the unstable, three-decker designs of a past age of warships, such asVictory, the loss of which drastically illustrated that these ships were “crank and heel so much in blowing weather that they cannot open their lee ports, at the same time that the ships of other nations go upright”. The future fleet would focus on “ships carrying 74 guns with two and a half decks in their room”.

Brian Lavery, the acknowledged authority on the age of sail, guides the reader though the various types of ships, how they were designed and built, and how they behaved at sea along with the navigation and seamanship necessary to keep them operational. He also is very informative on how they were manned both with officers and men and how the unpleasant but seemingly necessary practice of impressment was given legal authorisation condemning many to death from disease rather than enemy action.

Yet, Lavery, knows there is nothing more than his readers would like than an account of a good sea-fight, so he builds up to a final act full of conflict and derring-do, including single-ship actions and amphibious operations.  The final illustrations in this well-illustrated book is of a gilded medal commemorating the land and sea victories of 1759, including: Quiberon Bay; Quebec; Guadeloupe; Lagos and the Army’s great victory at Minden. There is no better more decisive summary of the importance of all that had gone before to create Anson’s Navy. An excellent reference book which is thoroughly recommended.