- A.N. Other and NHSA Webmaster
- 19th century wars, Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Broke’s victory demonstrated the triumph of gunnery and discipline. Against an equivalent ship, Broke’s gun crews dominated in rate of fire and accuracy. They were coolly disciplined and trained not to miss. Broke had made a habit of throwing a cask into the sea without warning, and directing any one of his gun crews to man their gun and sink it. Although the Americans fought desperately and bravely, they were unable to prevail under such intense fire. During the battle, both Captains had opportunities to take advantage of the enemy, but chose not to do so, instead laying their ships alongside one another at ‘half-pistol shot’ (approximately 100 yards) before opening fire.
One reason this battle is so noteworthy is that the vanquished did not perform poorly, but demonstrated excellent marksmanship, causing significant damage to the Shannon, as well as heavy casualties, all the time taking extremely heavy fire herself. Several eyewitnesses reported numerous shot holes below Shannon’s waterline, and stated that pumps were manned continuously in returning to Halifax to prevent the ship from sinking. As Theodore Roosevelt later pointed out, the Shannon had suffered more casualties in victory, than other similar ships that had struck their colours by that point. This is what makes Broke’s decisive victory so compelling. His steadfast application to training and discipline, and his focus on technical aspects of battle, particularly gunnery, meant that the real result of the battle was never in doubt.
‘The Shannon’s men were better trained, and understood gunnery better, than any men I ever saw.’
Captain Pechell, Santa Domingo
Broke ultimately survived his fearful wound, although he suffered from severe headaches the rest of his life and was unable to ever go to sea again. He retired from active service to his home in Suffolk, although his health was further compromised by a fall from a horse in 1820. Promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1830, he continued to actively correspond with the Admiralty, especially on gunnery issues, before dying in 1841 at the age of 64.
In blockading Boston Harbour, the Shannon had originally been accompanied by HMS Tenedos (38 guns). Broke detached her, sending her over the horizon after receiving provisions and water from her. It appears he was keen to reduce the odds of two to one, in order to tempt the Chesapeake out to fight. Whether he did this because of single-mindedness in getting the Chesapeake to battle, or because of fair-mindedness, not wanting to have an unfair advantage, is less certain. Conceivably, there was a measure of both strategies.
During the battle, Broke demonstrated unquestionable personal bravery. He led from the front, as good leaders always have. Although he sought battle fervently, he was not impulsive or foolhardy. He also cared for the wellbeing of his men, at one stage telling those not otherwise engaged to lie down when it looked as though the Shannon might be raked by the enemy.
Broke was a man of substance over style. Shortly before battle was joined, one of his sailors who, looking across at the brightly painted Chesapeake sailing up with ‘Old Glory’ flying from every yardarm and mast, and seeing the single rusty Blue Ensign on the mizzen peak, asked ‘Mayn’t we have three ensigns, sir, like she has?’ ‘No,’ said Broke, ‘we’ve always been an unassuming ship’. Unassuming she certainly was, with fading paint and yellowed sails. Broke understood that the true purpose of a warship was to fight, and fight hard.
‘The Shannon’s crew had suffered severely, but not the least panic or disorder existed among them.’
Theodore Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812.
The morale and esprit de corps of the Shannon was strong; they had served together for years, and Broke had drilled them to perfection. Broke was also held in high regard by his superiors and was viewed as a very competent and efficient captain. Unlike some of his peers, discipline on the Shannon relied less on brutal punishment and more on shared understanding of common objectives, resulting in a culture of what would now be termed ‘collective discipline.’ Broke made sure those around him understood his vision. He set high standards and led by personal example.