FROM USHANT TO GIBRALTAR: THE CHANNEL FLEET 1778-1783

December 20, 2022
Posted by: M. K. BARRITT

The Helion stable seems to specialise in detailed accounts of specific campaigns (cf. NR Spring 2022, 281-2). This book appears in a series entitled From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 to which the author has previously contributed a study of the Royal Navy’s blockade of Brest during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Here he turns to an earlier campaign which involved prominent figures from the successful containment operations of both 1793-1815 and the mid-eighteenth-century Seven Years’ War.

In 1778-1783 the Channel Fleet was firmly on the defensive, facing a French Navy which had received substantial investment by an administration confidently expecting a revolt of Britain’s American colonies to open up prospects of reversing the settlement of 1763. By persuading a cautious Spain, anxious for the security of its American possessions, to enter the war, French ministers brought into play a Combined Fleet of a strength which the Channel Fleet could never match. Arguably the threat of invasion of southern England was far more plausible in 1779 than in 1803-05. Spain retained sufficient forces to sustain a siege of Gibraltar. The pressure on the Channel Fleet was ratcheted up by the end of the period as war with the Dutch required a watch on the other end of its great arc of responsibility. Now the threat to military logistics and vital trade, exemplified by the disastrous loss of a large convoy of victuallers, troop transports and West and East Indiamen in 1780, extended to shipping routed round the north of Scotland and bringing naval stores from the Baltic.

Readers might prefer to take stock of this campaign within the overall context of the world war, perhaps with Martin Robson’s volume in A History of the Royal Navy  or Nicholas Rodger’s brilliant synthesis in The Command of the Ocean. There is merit nonetheless in the approach in this book when considering a strategic issue debated at the time and by historians, namely the priority given by the British government to maintaining the strength of the Channel Fleet at cost to deployed squadrons, especially on the American coast and in the West Indies. Here there are no wild author’s claims or publisher’s puffs – no ‘fresh insights’ or ‘new information’. If a potential reader has the patience to read through the extensive text on cover and end-paper he will find a precis of a steady, somewhat detailed text. Its foundation is securely bedded on the original sources published by the Navy Records Society, with insights drawn from an impressive command of secondary works, including some obscure examples which provide interesting perspectives. Occasionally the narrative depends somewhat exclusively on one source, for example the work on the Admiralty by Professor Rodger, who dismisses it so disarmingly in a later bibliography as “sketchy and unreliable”! Quintin Barry does not hold back from challenging the judgments in his major sources, but in his final brief epilogue he endorses the rehabilitation of Lord Sandwich, the First Lord, and the strategy of maintaining the strength of the Channel Fleet.

The book is furnished with satisfactory maps and diagrams. The extensive illustration largely comprises a fairly complete portrait gallery of the main players, though that of Keppel is not matched by one of Palliser, the counterpart in the notorious clash which arguably inflicted more damage on the Royal Navy than achieved by the enemy. Perhaps to reduce reproduction costs, the majority of the images are drawn from on-line collections in the USA. Many are engravings, some of which are less satisfactory. That of Lord Sandwich, such a key figure, really does not give a feel for the man compared to Gainsborough’s wonderful portrait in the National Maritime Museum.

This book, not least with its extensive quotations from key texts, would be a sound investment for a NR reader on deployment and without access to the shelves of a library.