- Payne, Alan
- History - general
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THE GLORIOUS FIRST OF JUNE 1794 proved to be the first major naval battle in the war with Revolutionary France. The battle will always be remembered with honour, although strategically it was not successful. Lord Howe defeated Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse and sank one ship of the line and captured six others without losing a ship, but a very valuable grain convoy reached France in safety when France was menaced by starvation.
The battle was exceptional in many ways and has been, like Jutland, the cause of much controversy. It was the first naval battle to be fought a long way from land – over 400 miles out in the Atlantic. In the battle, which was the climax of a series of encounters, Howe fought at a certain disadvantage compared with Nelson in later years, in that he did not have full confidence in all his captains, some of whom were of doubtful quality.
Lord Howe was not against having young captains, particularly in flagships, but he was strongly against officers commanding ships of the line who had never done so before and had also spent ten or more years ashore on half pay beforehand. ‘In conclusion,‘ wrote Lord Howe, ‘I might add my opinion that our enemy do not select their commanders by seniority in rank but by their reputed talents.‘ In the early stages of the war the British fleet contained far too high a proportion of captains who owed their positions to influence rather than merit. Some were far too young and inexperienced to command ships of the line.
Captain John Payne was neither inexperienced, as he had commanded a frigate in the previous war and had fought an action with a French ship of the line. Nor did he owe his position to privilege. When first introduced to the Prince of Wales, the Prince had kindly remarked, ‘If I mistake not, you have been bred to the sea.‘ ‘Oh, no Sir,‘ replied Payne, ‘the sea is bread to me and damned hard bread too.‘ Payne was clearly a bit of a wit and according to his portrait, quite handsome. He seems to have been one of Howe’s favourite captains and was certainly a favourite of Lady Mary Howe, who mentioned him several times in her letters to her sister. Unfortunately little is known of Captain Payne in the battle except that he fought with valour, apart from what is contained in the letters of Lady Mary.
On the 2nd May 1794 Lord Howe sailed from Spithead with twenty-six ships of the line and attendant frigates under his immediate command. Howe had detached six of his thirty-two ships of the line under Rear-Admiral Montagu, to cover several outgoing convoys and East India Company’s ships. Howe’s fleet, which had a great galaxy of admirals, was divided into three squadrons, each of which was made up of two divisions, each commanded by an admiral. Lord Howe’s flagship was the 100 gun three-decker Queen Charlotte. The centre squadron was the weakest in numbers, but included the fleet flagship and the Gibraltar 80, in the First Division and four ships in the Second Division with a three decker as flagship. The captain of the Gibraltar was a very young captain known as ‘Boy’ Mackenzie.
The First Division of the Van Squadron comprised five of the fastest ships in the fleet under the gallant Rear-Admiral Pasley and consisted of the flagship Bellerophon 74, and the 74s Russell, Leviathan and Marlborough and also the Caesar 80, commanded by Captain Molloy. Lord Howe did not consider Molloy to be a good captain and informed his Chief of Staff to that effect, but Sir Roger Curtis was a friend of Molloy’s and vouched for him.
Howe was off Ushant on the 5th May and then learnt that the enemy had not yet sailed. Frigates were sent to Brest to reconnoitre and found twenty-three large ships and some frigates there. Howe had no wish to prevent the French fleet from putting to sea, as he was just as eager to defeat them as he was to capture the convoy he knew was on the way from North America. He therefore made no attempt to watch the port and set a south-westerly course into the Atlantic, so that he would be able to intercept the convoy and its escort and then deal with the French admiral later.
But out in the Atlantic, Howe found no signs of the French convoy, so after a week, he returned to Ushant, off which he arrived on the 19th May. Howe’s frigates reported that Brest was empty and that twenty-five ships of the line had sailed three days earlier. The French fleet had actually passed close to the British fleet in the prevailing misty weather and had been joined by one more ship of the line.
Lord Howe decided to make course for Admiral Montagu, who had been detached with six ships to protect the convoys. But two days later the flagship nearly ran down a brig which turned out to have been a British one captured by the French. Information from some of the British crew still on board the prize decided Lord Howe to make for the French fleet instead of Montagu’s squadron. On the 25th two French corvettes were sighted steering for the British fleet, thinking it was their own. Both were captured and burnt, as Howe could not spare prize crews to man them.
Early on the 28th May the frigates reported the enemy in sight. At first the French, who had the weather-gage, held on but hauled their wind when they saw the size of the British fleet was comparable with their own. Howe ordered his flying squadron under Admiral Pasley in Bellerophon to ‘reconnoitre or make discovery of the enemy or strange ships in view, and to signify the same to the Admiral.‘ The French fleet was far distant and it was many hours later in the early afternoon that Howe made his next signal, ‘Take suitable stations for mutual support and engage the enemy as arriving up in succession.‘ At the time of the first encounter, Bellerophon and Russell were in the lead and Caesar was well astern. Russell was the first ship to engage the enemy.
Five ships managed to get into action with the French rear, whose numbers included the three-decker Revolutionaire. After a bitter fight with Russell, Bellerophon, Leviathan, Thunderer and Audacious the French ship was so badly mauled that she was unfit for further service, but like the badly damaged Audacious, she managed to reach port. The first round went to Howe, but largely due to poor night signals his initial advantage was not pushed home.
Next day Howe was still to leeward of the enemy and his objective was to gain the weather-gage. He determined to break through the French line, but the van squadron failed in this objective, largely due to the very bad handling of the leading ship, the Caesar, which had been a long way off station on the first encounter. Howe himself in Queen Charlotte, together with Bellerophon and Leviathan, succeeded in getting through the French line and cut off three ships.
Villaret-Joyeuse now bore down with most of his ships to come to the rescue of the French ships which had been cut off. He saved the ships, which however were in no position to fight again that day due to heavy damage. Villaret-Joyeuse had now lost the weather-gage and a number of his ships had been badly damaged. The second round also went to Howe, who could now attack with all his force at a suitable moment.
The 30th May was foggy and Howe was satisfied to keep in contact, while Villaret skilfully managed to get his crippled ships away and for the valuable convoy to gain distance. The convoy was never seen by the British. ‘In the fog of the 30th May,‘ wrote Lady Mary Howe, ‘Captain Payne told me he observed a little additional thickness on one side of the Russell which he hailed, and it proved to be the Queen Charlotte; the ships not having had any communications since the action of the day before, it was asked if all was well, and afterwards how was the admiral? The moment it was answered Lord Howe was well, all the men of the Russell burst into three cheers.‘
The fog lifted at noon on the 31st, but Howe decided to postpone his final attack until the next day to make certain of the result. Howe wanted more hours of daylight and he also wanted to be sure of his captains. After making his decision Howe was seen to smile, which was rare for him. The news soon spread throughout the flagship that ‘Black Dick’ as Howe was called from his swarthy complexion, was happy, he never smiled without reason. Next morning the hands were piped to breakfast and Howe ordered signal 34 to be hoisted ‘. . . having the wind of the enemy, the Admiral means to pass between the ships in the line engaging them to leeward.‘ Unfortunately the signal was not clearly understood in the fleet. What Howe had intended was to bring on a general melee by breaking through at all points.