Battle of St Vincent
The 14th of February 1797 AD
Those who enjoy the historian’s indulgence of ‘what if’ can dwell on the Battle of Cape St Vincent at great length. Not only did this naval battle, won by the British, allow continued pressure to be brought on Spain, nullifying her naval contribution to the French and Spanish campaign against Britain and Portugal; but it also saw Nelson come to the fore, his daring actions ensuring a major victory rather than merely forcing the Spanish to withdraw to safety. Had Spain won the battle, the war would have taken a different course; likewise had Nelson’s move gone wrong or he been killed.
The Spanish fleet was moving from Cartagena in South East Spain to Cadiz, on the Southern Coast, when a strong easterly blew it into the Atlantic. Admiral Jervis , his 10 ships of the Mediterranean fleet reinforced by five of the Channel fleet under Rear-Admiral Parker, decided to engage. Jervis had been alerted to the Spanish position by Nelson, who had passed through their ships in a fog so was unaware that they numbered 27 vessels, including seven first-raters; Jervis had just two such ships, Victory and Britannia.
Off Cape St Vincent, the south west tip of Portugal, the British caught the Spanish unprepared, the latter’s 27 ships in two ill-formed groups. Jervis formed a line that cut between these groups, all his ships able to fire port and starboard while only a few Spanish craft at the internal edges of both groups could reply.
Had the Spanish craft regrouped after this manoeuvre it is probable they could all have fled to safety. But Nelson prevented this by engaging the smaller group with his own ship The Captain. When his ship was damaged to the point of being impossible to sail he boarded the San Nicolas and took her rapidly, then moved on to the San Jose which was entangled with the San Nicolas. The crossing of one enemy ship to board another became known in naval folklore as Nelson’s Patent Bridge.
Two other Spanish vessels were taken, and some 3000 prisoners. It was discovered after the battle that many Spanish canon had not even been prepared to fire such was the panic and poor training of those on board – it is thought fewer than 10 per cent of them were experienced sailors, most, in a strange echo of the Armada , being soldiers. The Spanish had more than 200 men dead, the British fewer than 80.
Jervis was made Earl St Vincent; Nelson was knighted and promoted from Commodore to Rear-Admiral. Cordoba, the Spanish admiral, was blamed for the defeat, and unceremoniously sacked from the navy. Nelson’s rise to fame and leadership was given a huge boost by his actions. Had he failed, having disobeyed his commander’s orders (or at best bent them beyond breaking point) he would have faced a court martial as a likely scapegoat. Such are the turning points of history.
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