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- March 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Loss of HMS Ambuscade – 14 December 1798 (Napoleonic War)
Author unknown: found in our archives This account of a small single-ship action dispels the general idea of an unbroken sequence of successes, that British ships were so superior to their Continental opponents, that they only had to find and bring them to battle in order to gain a victory. This state of mind does poor justice to the sterling qualities of our naval ancestors, for, it was only by virtue of these qualities – seamanship, the fighting spirit and thoroughness, being three of the most important – that they were able to master foes whose ships were extremely well found and manned by men with skill and courage. ON 14TH DECEMBER 1798 there occurred one of the few actions of this period which was disgraceful to the British arms. On that morning the frigate Ambuscade, (32 guns – a 5th Rate) commanded by one Captain Jenkins RN, while cruising off the Gironde (a French river which flows into the Bay of Biscay) sighted a sail on a closing course. No signals were exchanged and it is possible that the stranger, who was almost head on, was taken to be HMS Stag, a vessel similar in size to the Ambuscade, by whom Captain Jenkins was expecting to be reinforced. The fact that he had been cruising at night off a hostile coast would seem to be sufficient justification for expecting the Captain to have had his ship in a state of readiness for action, without taking into account the approach of a vessel whose profile and colours could not be seen. Also, even at this period, ‘Q’ ships (i.e. decoy vessels) were not unknown and the policy of shooting first and asking afterwards was the general order of the day. So the action of those responsible for sending the hands to breakfast without making any preparations for battle shows that a discreditable degree of carelessness prevailed on board.
By 9 o’clock the stranger had approached almost within gun-shot and went about under a very heavy press of canvas, becoming apparent that she was not a friend but a foe, a French corvette by the name of Bayonnaise, carrying 24 guns and commanded by a Lieutenant Richer. It would appear that this young captain was carrying out a plan of action which would place him in a good position to run for home should his large opponent prove too much for him. He made no move to attack but continued on his new course. The Ambuscade hurried in pursuit and towards noon had gained sufficiently to be able to open fire. Despite this period of grace of three hours, subsequent events show that her ship’s company did not take advantage of it to make many of the important preparations for battle, as was required in those days. The Bayonnaise shortened sail and courted battle. The subsequent engagement had lasted about an hour when one of Ambuscade’s guns burst, doing much damage to the ship and wounding a number of the crew. The Frenchman, who had suffered severely from the earlier fire of his larger adversary, seized the opportunity of this disruption to repair his damaged rigging, and then returned to the attack, with the intention of boarding his foe. By means of a clever manoeuvre, his ship rammed the Ambuscade in the stern, causing Ambuscade to lose her mizzen mast and having her tiller ropes carried away. Serving in the Bayonnaise at this time were thirty veteran soldiers of the Alsace Regiment, and from her bowsprit they swept a deadly fire over the Ambuscade’s decks, which was not barricaded (as was usual practice) with hammocks and hawsers.
Within a few minutes five British officers were killed or wounded in quick succession and the command devolved on the Purser. An explosion of gun cartridges, left on the rudderhead, blew out a portion of Ambuscade’s stern and caused panic amongst her men. The French boarders chose this moment to attack and easily carried the ship. There may have been some bad luck in the bursting of the gun and the explosion of the cartridges, but it looks suspiciously like inattention to detail, poor maintenance of material causing the gun explosion and slack drill allowing the cartridges to be stowed in an improper place. Even allowing for the two explosions and the weakness of the British crew (from whom a prize crew of thirty officers and men were out of the ship), the action shows clearly that superiority of force is useless with a bad or weak captain and an ill-disciplined crew. Captain Jenkins (perhaps being given some sympathy for his wounds) was acquitted for the loss of his ship, but an opinion was expressed that neither Captain, his officers, nor men, behaved with the accustomed courage and determination of British seamen.