One trait common to all leaders is initiative. Leaders don't have to be told to do something, they don't need managers above them, and they don't wait for the all lights to turn green before departing on a trip. Leaders take action, they take responsibility, and they don't take their time waiting and wondering if they should act. There is an old line that there are three types of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. Leaders are the ones in the first group making things happen. A component in initiative is the courage to act. Another is decisiveness. Leaders display a willingness toward action, seeing what needs to be done and doing it without further delay. Initiative is not to be confused with recklessness. Instead, it is a mixture of a spirit of enterprise, courage, and competent decisiveness.
Englishman Thomas Cochrane’s first command was the tiny brig misnamed the Speedy. It was actually quite slow and difficult to handle. But this fact hadn’t stopped Cochrane and his crew from amassing an impressive string of victories, capturing scores of enemy vessels along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. In fact, their successes had been so numerous that the crew of the Speedy was at about half strength, the remainder of the men having been sent off as “prize crews” responsible for sailing the captured crafts back to home ports. There were barely enough men left on board to sail the ship. The Speedy and its plucky commander had become more than a nuisance to the Spanish, whose trade had been significantly interrupted by the capture of nearly fifty ships in less than a year.
On the one year anniversary of his command, Cochrane was in pursuit of two Spanish gunboats that fled into the harborof Barcelona. Apparently acting as decoys, the gun boats led the Speedy into the path of a thirty-two gun Spanish frigate named El Gamo, which had been sent out in search of Cochrane. The Gamo was four times the size of the Speedy, and had over three hundred sailors and marines on board compared to Cochrane’s mere fifty-four. Whereas the Speedy had only fourteen guns, the El Gamo had thirty-two. The capability of the guns was all out of proportion as well, with the broadside of the Gamo being 190 pounds to the Speedy’s 28 (a broadside was the total weight of shot capable of being fired from one side of a ship’s guns and was a common measure of firepower).
Being too close to the larger ship to run for safety, Cochrane surprised his crew by deciding to turn and fight rather than surrender. According to biographer Donald Thomas, “The one factor in Cochrane’s favour was the improbability of what he was about to do. The officers of the Gamo would never believe that anyone but a lunatic would try to attack them with a brig whose mastheads hardly reached much above their own quarterdeck.” Cochrane sailed in close to windward (the side offering the advantage of the wind), and to cause confusion, he flew the American flag. Flying the colors of other countries, particularly a neutral like the United States, was a common ruse during the age of fighting sail. Nonetheless, it caused hesitation on the part of the Gamo. For the moment the menacing gun ports of the Spanish ship remained silent. Then Cochrane turned the Speedy and came around on the leeward side of the Spanish (giving the Gamo the wind advantage); another move designed to confuse. At this point, Cochrane quickly had his crew raise the British flag.
As the Speedy sailed closer at high speed, it somehow survived the first broadside of the larger ship. This was by design. Cochrane had surrendered the coveted “weather gauge” by giving the Spanish ship the windward position, and he purposely took the leeward side. Although battle maneuvers were more difficult from that side, it was also harder for a ship in the Gamo’s position to fire at an enemy so close to leeward. The wind heeled the ship over and shots were likely to go into the sea.
Cochrane told his men to hold their fire, and he instructed them to double-shot their guns. This meant they would have less of a firing range, but would spew forth twice the amount of projectiles and have the potential for causing much more destruction. “Grape” or “grapeshot” was a mixture of metal pieces and balls designed to scatter like a shotgun blast and inflict maximum damage to personnel and rigging. A double-shot dose of it, properly aimed, would be deadly to all in its path. It was risky to sail in close enough to use a double-shotted broadside, but it just might give the Speedy a chance.
A second broadside for the Gamo had no affect on the charging Speedy, which was approaching as though it meant to ram the bigger vessel. Then there was a crash as the masts and rigging of the two ships entangled upon impact. The Gamo’s guns fired again, but the shot went over the heads of all aboard the tiny Speedy and only damaged sails and rigging. Finally, the Speedy aimed its comparatively little four-pounders as high as possible and fired. Because of the angle of the shots, upward and through the Gamo’s gun ports, the effect was devastating. The flooring under some of the Spanish guns was blown upwards as the grapeshot scattered in its deadly patterns. The captain of the Gamo was killed instantly. The firing continued furiously from both sides, but because of the mismatch in size and gun position, the Speedy inflicted more damage.
Because of the ineffectiveness of their firing, soldiers aboard the Gamo made three attempts to “board” the Speedy and force a hand-to-hand fight. Each time, however, Cochrane would let the Spanish assemble for the jump across, then maneuver his ship to widen the gap of ocean between. Once perched in such a position, musket and small arms fire from the Speedy would wipe out the would-be attackers.
The fight continued in this manner for over an hour. Then, according to Cochrane, “The great disparity of force rendering it necessary to adopt some measure that might prove decisive, I resolved to board.” His men, in disbelief over what they had so far achieved, enthusiastically responded to this practically suicidal order.
Cochrane split his men into two groups, leaving only the ship’s surgeon aboard and at the wheel. One group, with faces painted black for effect, went to the front and climbed aboard the Gamo from the bow. The other, led by Cochrane himself, climbed straight up the side of the Spanish ship. In the smoke, noise, and confusion, the Spanish were unnerved by the screaming black faces rushing at them from the front of their ship while they were engaged with attackers from the side as well.
In the tight quarters aboard the deck of the Gamo, the superior numbers of the Spanish could not be brought to full advantage. Even so, Cochrane was not out of surprises. In the middle of the melee, he called over to the only man left aboard the Speedy and instructed him, very loudly, to send the second wave of attackers. Somehow the recipient of the bogus order managed to contain his surprise, and pretended to comply with loud shouts and orders to sailors who didn’t exist. Many of the Spanish apparently concluded that the Speedy had been packed with Marines and the whole battle had been a trap.
Next, someone noticed that the Spanish ensign was being lowered from the mast: the sign of surrender. But it wasn’t the Spanish lowering it. Rather, it was one of Cochrane’s men who had previously been instructed to do so at a proper point in the struggle. Before they could figure out that it was a trick, the disheartened Spanish, with their captain dead, laid down their weapons. Afraid the Spanish would discover how few had defeated them, Cochrane and his men were quick to shuttle the Spanish below decks, where they were held in position with the Gamo’s two largest guns.
The tiny little Speedy proceeded to the British port in Minorca towing a prize ship four times its size. Donald Thomas wrote, “The Gamo should have been able to blow the Speedy out of the water before the British ship came near enough to fire a shot. The Spanish troops should have been able to overwhelm the depleted crew of the brig as soon as she came alongside. A man who was so foolish as to lead forty-eight seamen on board an enemy ship with a crew of more than three hundred ought to have found himself and his men prisoners within a few minutes.” But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, Cochrane had pulled off what Nathan Miller called “the finest single-ship action of the Napoleonic Wars.”
(To be continued)