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The Battle of Lissa, March 13th 1811

If the name Lissa is recalled at all by students of naval history, it will most likely be with reference to the ironclad battle of 1866 in which the Austrian fleet defeated the Italian. But fifty-five years previously the same waters, off the coast of what is now Croatia, played host to an earlier, and equally decisive, naval clash. What makes the story of this first Battle of Lissa all the more fascinating is that both commanders – French and British – entered the action with the conscious intention of emulating the methods of the late Lord Nelson. The resulting battle would clearly demonstrate that, whilst the Nelsonic school of tactics was by no means infallible, the influence of his “Immortal Memory” on the fighting spirit of the Royal Navy continued to make its ships and men a force to be reckoned with even in the face of overwhelming odds.


In the years following Trafalgar, French naval operations in the Mediterranean largely took the form of support for the land campaigns of the Grande Armée. With the main battlefleet
largely kept under close blockade in Toulon, offensive action was largely the preserve of individual ships and small squadrons. By the 1810s, one of the most significant of the latter was that operating in the Adriatic under the command of Capitaine de Vaisseau Bernard Dubordieu. Based at Ancona, midway down the east coast of the Italian peninsula, Dubordieu’s squadron comprised powerful frigates drawn both from France’s own navy and that of Napoleon’s client Kingdom of Italy. Their task was to support Napoleon’s forces occupying the Illyrian Provinces that had been ceded to France by Austria as a result of the defeats of 1805 and 1809: these provinces comprised much of present day Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia, as well as the coast of Dalmatia.
British fears of French expansion in the Adriatic and Balkans led to the detachment of naval forces to the area. Although the local population was generally anti-French, initial British operations were limited by the lack of a permanent base in the region where ships could be resupplied. The solution was to seize the island of Lissa (now known as Vis), situated off the Croatian coast south of Split. Occupied in 1807, Lissa became the base for a growing British naval presence, and its elimination became a key French goal. During 1810, Dubordieu was able to decoy the British squadron – commanded by Captain William Hoste of the frigate HMS Amphion – away from Lissa long enough to get a landing force ashore: however, the island’s garrison simply retreated into the hills and Dubordieu was unable to successfully occupy the place before the British squadron returned. As a result, the British were temporarily reinforced by the 74-gun HMS Montagu, and the presence of this powerful warship presented any further French action. By early 1811, however, Montagu had been withdrawn for other duties and the remaining British ships were scattered: this gave the French their opportunity and a powerful expeditionary force was assembled to capture the island.
The Franco-Italian squadron comprised six frigates – three French and three Italian – along with three smaller ships and two gunboats. Dubordieu, with the rank of Chef de Division – equivalent to Commodore – commanded the entire operation but the five hundred troops embarked to capture the island were under the orders of Colonel Alexandre Gifflenga. During the early hours of March 13th, 1811 the squadron was sighted to the north of Lissa by the British frigate HMS Active, which was returning to rejoin Hoste’s depleted squadron after a raid against the Italian coast. Thus forewarned, Hoste was able to leave a small garrison ashore on Lissa and form his ships for battle. Leading the British line was Hoste’s ownAmphion, followed astern by Active, the post-ship HMS Volage, and a third frigate HMS Cerberus. Of the three British frigates, only the 38-gun Active was an equivalent to the four large frigates in Dubordieu’s squadron. Amphion and Cerberus were both rated at 32 guns, although Amphion was somewhat larger than normal vessels of this rate and in both cases the standard main battery of 12-pounder cannon had been replaced by 18-pounders. Also benefiting from an increase to her armament was the Volage, nominally of 22 guns. In her case, the main battery of 9-pounder cannon had been replaced by thirty powerful but short-ranged 32-pounder carronades, along with two long 6-pounders as chase guns.

Although his squadron was badly outnumbered, thirty-year-old William Hoste remained confident that the greater experience and competency of his command would prevail. Like his hero Nelson, Hoste was a Norfolk man and had gone to sea at a young age: his first ship had been Nelson’s HMS Agamemnon. Rapidly becoming Nelson’s protégé, Hoste rose rapidly in his wake and served through St Vincent and the Nile, being given his first command in recognition of good service in the latter battle. Amphion was his third frigate command, and he had been her captain for six years when she led his squadron out to meet Dubordieu’s attack. Keeping the coast of Lissa close under his lee, and with his line tightly formed to allow mutual support and concentration of fire, Hoste now decided to emulate his hero by making a morale-boosting signal: as the French squadron bore down on them, the British crews responded with cheers as the flag hoist signifying “Remember Nelson” fluttered from Amphion’s halyards.
Rather uniquely for a French naval officer, Dubordieu also considered himself something of a disciple of Nelson. In particular, he had taken note of Nelson’s Trafalgar tactic of an attack by multiple columns against an enemy in line. By attacking Hoste’s squadron in this manner, he hoped to break up its cohesion and prevent the British ships from offering mutual support: thus divided, they would then fall victim to Dubordieu’s superior numbers. Like Nelson, Dubordieu would lead the main attack in person: with his broad pennant in the 40-gun Favorite, he led her sister-ship Flore and the Italian Bellona and Principessa Augusta against the head of the British line. To leeward, the third French frigate Danaé led the Italian Corona and Carolina against the British rear. Making the most of the north-north-westerly wind, the two French columns steadily closed until their lead ships came within firing range at around 09.00. In the light conditions neither squadron was moving at any great speed, and although the wind was in his favour Dubordieu found that it was too light for him to carry out his original plan of breaking the British line astern of Hoste’s Amphion. Instead, he now ordered Favorite to alter course and steer directly for the British ship, intending to bring Amphion to close action and capture her by boarding. A strong party was assembled on Favorite’s forecastle and Dubordieu himself went forward to lead the attack.
As the French closed with the British line, Hoste’s ships continued to maintain a steady and accurate fire: now, however, the British commander had two tricks up his sleeve that would thoroughly upset the French plans. The first of these was an answer to the immediate problem of preventing Favorite attempting to board. From an unknown source – although presumably at the expense of the British Army – Hoste had acquired a 5.5” howitzer and had it mounted on Amphion’s quarterdeck: as Dubordieu’s ship loomed closer, the howitzer was loaded with a charge containing 750 musket balls and discharged directly into the mass of men on Favorite’s forward decks. The result was absolute carnage: Dubordieu was killed outright along with Favorite’s captain and most of her officers, and the boarding party was wiped out. Before the startled French survivors could take stock of what had happened, Hoste signalled for the British line to turn 180 degrees away from the French and reverse their course.
It may well be that this second trick of Hoste’s was purely an attempt to keep the French at arm’s length and prevent further attempts at boarding, but it had an unforeseen consequence since, amidst the confusion caused by Amphion’s deadly fire, Favorite continued on her old heading which now placed her on a collision course with the rocky coast of Lissa. Before her surviving officers could bring her back under control the French frigate had run hard aground and was out of the battle. Rather than allow the ship to be captured, Colonel Gifflenga, who had taken command in the absence of any senior naval officer, ordered Favorite to be burnt. The Colonel then attempted to march the survivors to the harbour at Port St George in the hope of capturing one of the merchant vessels there: instead, he and his men were captured by the small shore party that Hoste had left behind, who were able to rally the local inhabitants against the invaders.
Meanwhile, Hoste’s manoeuvre caused some discomfiture for the British as well, since Cerberus’ rudder jammed as she made the turn, causing her to briefly fall out of the line until she was back under control. This meant that Volage now led the British line, with Cerberus falling in astern of her followed by Activeand Amphion. Hoste’s sudden turn also had the effect of exposing Amphion to the fire of the ships that had been following astern of the ill-fated Favorite: as Amphion steadied on her new course, the Flore passed under her stern to fire a raking broadside and then took station on her starboard quarter, whilst the Bellonaturned inside the British line and attacked Amphion from the other side. Hoste had wisely ordered his crew to lie down as Flore raked his ship, and this prevented her suffering heavy casualties: nevertheless, the British ship was in a perilous position, and events ahead of her meant that it was unlikely that Hoste would obtain much in the way of assistance from the other ships in his squadron.
At the head of the British line, Captain Hornby’s Volage was making a good showing against the much larger Danaé, which wisely refused to close to short range where the British ship’s heavy carronades would give her an advantage. As Danaé continued to hit Volage with fire from her long 18-pounder cannon, Hornby’s gunners were forced to load their carronades with ever larger powder charges in order to keep hitting back – inevitably, one after another, the overcharged carronades became dismounted due to the vastly increased recoil, and soon only the two 6-pounder chase guns remained in action. Meanwhile,Cerberus and Corona were hotly engaged astern of Volage, with the Italian frigate having the better of things thanks to her heavy main battery of 24-pounders. Before long, both British ships were in a bad way, with heavy damage aloft, and with the Carolina still in the offing it seemed as if disaster was looming. However, the Italian ship seemed reluctant to close, whilst the Active was now coming up under full sail in order to aid the two smaller British ships.
Captain Gordon of the Active was able to come to the rescue because, remarkably, Hoste had managed to defeat the two ships threatening Amphion. Realising that if he did nothing he would see his ship pounded into submission, Hoste swung her to starboard directly across the bows of the Flore, firing a raking broadside at close range as he did so. This manoeuvre risked everything by concentrating fire on the Flore, since it exposed Amphion’s vulnerable stern to the guns of the Bellona, but Hoste’s gamble rapidly paid off. Within five minutes of the first devastating broadside, Flore had ceased firing and hauled down her colours. This success enabled Amphion to concentrate her fire on the now-isolated Bellona, and before long she too had been forced to strike. Rather than support her consorts, the Principessa Augusta had kept her distance from the fight, and now made off to the north.
Although his ship was heavily damaged, and he had himself been wounded, Hoste had triumphed against the odds and eliminated all three frigates from what had been the weather column of Dubordieu’s attacking force. It now only remained to complete the destruction of the leeward half of the enemy squadron, to which end Hoste ordered the signal for a general chase, freeing Active to go to the rescue of Cerberus and Volage. Upon the arrival of the British ship, and being aware of their consorts having ceased firing, the remaining Franco-Italian vessels broke off the action and made off to the northeast and the safety of the French-garrisoned island of Lesina. Only the Active was in any fit state to obey Hoste’s chase signal, and she set off in pursuit of the Corona, the largest enemy ship. After a half-hour’s pursuit, the Active caught up with her quarry as she negotiated the channel between Lissa and the small island of Spalmadon. The resulting action was fiercely contested, but at length a fire broke out aboard the Corona and this forced her to surrender. Attackers then became rescuers as sailors from the British squadron fought alongside their former enemies to extinguish the blaze: at length this was achieved, but only at the loss of several lives on both sides when the blazing mainmast collapsed across the decks.
As a result of Corona’s stalwart defence, the remainder of the defeated squadron had escaped to the safety of Lesina, where they were safe under the cover of the French batteries. Also in safety was the Flore, which had taken advantage of Amphion having joined the pursuit to re-hoist her colours and make a getaway. The British considered this a deeply dishonourable action, to the extent that Hoste later sent a message under flag of truce demanding that his “prize” be returned to him. Unfortunately for Hoste, he had not been able to put a prize crew aboard the Flore before her escape, Amphion’s one surviving boat having been engaged in securing the capture of the Bellona, and this enabled the French to claim that they had never in fact surrendered and that Flore’s colours had not been hauled down but had been shot away in the action. It was a feeble excuse, but Hoste was chancing his luck in expecting the French to tamely hand back a 40-gun frigate as a matter of honour, and Flore remained in French hands – although not for long, as she was lost in a storm later in the year.
Even without the Flore, Hoste’s squadron had won an amazing victory against the odds, with one enemy frigate destroyed and two others captured. The action also demonstrated that Nelson’s Trafalgar tactics were by no means a one-size-fits-all solution to naval warfare, with Dubordieu’s attempt to recreate them ultimately collapsing in the face of gunners whose fire was far more deadly than faced by Nelson in 1805. Although the Carolina had fought with rather more discretion than valour, the remaining ships of the Franco-Italian squadron had put up a stalwart resistance, with casualties aboard the Flore and Coronaamounting in each case to more than half the total crew. Yet in the end, even with numbers on their side too, this remained insufficient in the face of British morale, training, and coordination. Dubordieu had tried to capture the tactical genius of Nelson, and had failed. Hoste, by contrast, triumphed because he had harnessed the late Admiral’s methods: training, dedication, and an unshakeable resolve to win.
Copyright Dr. Andrew Bamford 2011 / Skirmish Magazine
Reproduced with the kind permission of Dragoon Publishing Ltd.
Ultima modifica il Venerdì, 23 March 2012 20:57
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