Napoleonic Wars: Battle of the Basque Roads

Fighting at Basque Roads
Battle of Basque Roads. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of the Basque Roads - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of the Basque Roads was fought April 11-13, 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Fleets & Commanders



  • Vice Admiral Zacharie Allemand
  • 11 ships of the line, 4 frigates

Battle of the Basque Roads - Background:

In the wake of the Franco-Spanish defeat at Trafalgar in 1805, the remaining units of the French fleet were distributed among Brest, Lorient, and Basque Roads (La Rochelle/Rochefort).

In these ports they were blockaded by the Royal Navy as the British sought to prevent them from getting to sea. On February 21, 1809, the ships of the Brest blockade were driven off station by a storm allowing Rear Admiral Jean-Baptiste Philibert Willaumez to escape with eight ships of the line. Though the Admiralty was initially concerned that Willaumez intended to cross the Atlantic, the French admiral instead turned south.

Gathering up five ships that had slipped out of Lorient, Willaumez put into Basque Roads. Alerted to this development, the Admiralty dispatched Admiral Lord James Gambier, along with the bulk of the Channel Fleet, to the area. Establishing a strong blockade of Basque Roads, Gambier soon received orders ordering him to destroy the combined French fleet and directed him to consider using fire ships. A religious zealot who had spent much of the previous decade ashore, Gambier frowned on the use of fire ships stating them to be "a horrible mode of warfare" and "un-Christian."

Battle of the Basque Roads - Cochrane Arrives:

Frustrated by Gambier's unwillingness to move forward with an attack on Basque Roads, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Mulgrave, summoned Captain Lord Thomas Cochrane to London. Having recently returned to Britain, Cochrane had established a record of successful and daring operations as a frigate commander in the Mediterranean.

Meeting with Cochrane, Mulgrave asked the young captain to lead a fire ship attack into Basque Roads. Though concerned that more senior commanders would resent his appointment to the post, Cochrane agreed and sailed south aboard HMS Imperieuse (38 guns).

Arriving at Basque Roads, Cochrane was warmly greeted by Gambier but found that the other more senior captains in the squadron were angered by his selection. Across the water, the French situation had recently changed with Vice Admiral Zacharie Allemand taking command. Assessing the dispositions of his ships, he moved them into a stronger defensive position by ordering them to form two lines just south of the Isle d'Aix. Here they were protected to west by the Boyart Shoal, forcing any attack to come from the northwest. As added defense, he ordered a boom constructed to guard this approach.

Scouting the French position in Imperieuse, Cochrane advocated for immediately converting several transports into explosion and fire ships. A personal invention of Cochrane's, the former were essentially fire ships packed with around 1,500 barrels of gunpowder, shot, and grenades. Though work moved forward on three explosion ships, Cochrane was forced to wait until twenty fire ships arrived on April 10.

Meeting with Gambier, he called for an immediate attack that night. This request was denied much to Cochrane's ire (Map)

Battle of the Basque Roads - Cochrane Strikes:

Spotting the fire ships offshore, Allemand ordered his ships of the line to strike topmasts and sails to reduced the amount of exposed flammable material. He also ordered a line of frigates to take position between the fleet and the boom as well as deployed a large number of small boats to tow away approaching fire ships. Despite having lost the element of surprise, Cochrane received permission to attack that night. To support the attack, he approached the French anchorage with Imperieuse and the frigates HMS Unicorn (32), HMS Pallas (32), and HMS Aigle (36).

After nightfall, Cochrane led the attack forward in the largest explosion ship.

His plan called for the use of two explosion ships to create fear and disorganization which was to be followed by an attack using the twenty fire ships. Sailing forward with three volunteers, Cochrane's explosion ship and its companion breached the boom. Setting the fuse, they departed. Though his explosion ship detonated early, it and its companion caused great consternation and confusion among the French. Opening fire on the spots where the explosions occurred, the French fleet sent broadside after broadside into their own frigates.

Returning to Imperieuse, Cochrane found the fire ship attack in disarray. Of the twenty, only four reached the French anchorage and they inflicted little material damage. Unknown to Cochrane, the French believed all of the approaching fire ships to be explosion ships and frantically slipped their cables in an effort to escape. Working against a strong wind and tide with limited sails, all but two of the French fleet ended up running aground before dawn. Though initially incensed by the failure of the fire ship attack, Cochrane was elated when he saw the results at dawn.

Battle of the Basque Roads - Failure to Complete the Victory:

At 5:48 AM, Cochrane signaled Gambier that the bulk of the French fleet was disabled and that the Channel Fleet should approach to complete the victory. Though this signal was acknowledged, the fleet remained offshore. Repeated signals from Cochrane failed to bring Gambier to action. Aware that high tide was at 3:09 PM and that the French could refloat and escape, Cochrane sought to force Gambier to enter the fray.

Slipping into Basque Roads with Imperieuse, Cochrane quickly became engaged with three grounded French ships of the line. Signaling Gambier at 1:45 PM that he was in need of assistance, Cochrane was relieved to see two ships of the line and seven frigates approaching from the Channel Fleet.

On seeing the approaching British ships, Calcutta (54) immediately surrendered to Cochrane. As the other British ships came into action, Aquilon (74) and Ville de Varsovie (80) surrendered around 5:30 PM. With the battle raging, Tonnerre (74) was set afire by its crew and exploded. Several smaller French vessels were also burned. As night fell, those French ships that had been refloated retreated to the mouth of the River Charente. When dawn broke, Cochrane sought to renew the fight, but was incensed to see that Gambier was recalling the ships. Despite efforts to convince them to remain, they departed. Alone again, he was preparing Imperieuse for an attack on Allemand's flagship Ocean (118) when a succession of letters from Gambier forced him to return to the fleet.

Battle of the Basque Roads - Aftermath:

The last major naval action of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of the Basque Roads saw the Royal Navy destroy four French ships of the line and a frigate. Returning to the fleet, Cochrane pressed Gambier to renew the battle but instead was ordered to depart for Britain with dispatches detailing the action. Arriving, Cochrane was hailed as a hero and knighted, but remained furious over the lost opportunity to annihilate the French.

A Member of Parliament, Cochrane informed Lord Mulgrave that he would not vote for a motion of thanks for Gambier. This proved career suicide as he was prevented from returning to sea. As word moved through the press that Gambier had failed to do his utmost he sought a court-martial to clear his name. In a rigged result, where key evidence was withheld and charts altered, he was acquitted.