Hawke’s Blockade of Brest
Thirty-six years before Captain Pellew made his courageous interference with a French squadron escaping out of the harbor of Brest, another English captain was in a similar position. The year was 1759, the pivotal year in the Seven Years War between France and Great Britain. Britain’s Royal Navy had grown in size and professionalism. With a clear understanding that its objective was to rule the seas, the Royal Navy had taken a terrible toll on French shipping and commerce. The English had been so successful that France was increasingly cut off from its colonies in Canada and the West Indies. It was feared, correctly as it turned out, that without a turn in fortunes, Canada would be lost to the English. Just as they had previously, and would again decades later, the French concluded that their best hope was an invasion of England. Three years earlier, the mere assembling of a force to invade England had kept most of the Royal Navy close to home in the English Channel for protection, freeing French ships to sail where they pleased. Perhaps the same result would occur again, allowing French fleets to supply the beleaguered soldiers in Canada. Preparations for the invasion moved forward, with major activity taking place in the harbors of Brest and Quiberon Bay, France.
Admiral Sir Edward Hawke was in command of Britain’s Western Squadron, which had responsibility for the protection of the English coast. Hawke had orders to cruise to Brest within fourteen days, check on French invasion preparations there, and return to a home port for reprovisioning. When Hawke got to Brest, however, he was confronted with eleven full-size battle ships appearing capable of sailing out of the harbor at any time. Hawke immediately decided to countermand his orders and began a close-blockade of the harbor.
Blockading an enemy harbor was not new. Amassing a fleet of ships off the coast of an enemy port was an effective strategy, because the ships at sea had a distinct advantage over those that would try to come out of the port and engage in battle. With the slow speeds of sailing ships, their reliance upon wind and its direction, and the large amount of space required to bring a fleet of ships into proper formation for battle, any fleet emerging from port into the waiting ships of an enemy blockade would be in for utter destruction.
Hawke, however, took the concept of close-blockade a step further than usual. Already low on provisions, he knew he and his fleet could not last long outside the enemy port. Water was in short supply, and it wouldn’t be long before all the other victuals would run out. So Hawke initiated a system of re-supply at sea. What sounds so obvious and simple to modern ears was actually quite revolutionary at the time. Hawke sent ships back to English ports to obtain supplies, and had them rendezvous with various ships under his command out to sea. The ships on blockade duty would then either go out in small groups to meet those ships for re-supply, or would have supplies brought to them. This idea had been considered before, and even tried in limited ways, but never had met with much success or favor with commanders. With Hawke, however, an aggressive and strategic commander, the concept worked remarkable well.
Hawke’s close blockade effectively took the French fleet at Brest entirely out of the plans for invasion. That was not all. With the English ships on constant duty at sea, keeping watch over the trapped French ships, the morale of English sailors soared while that of the French plummeted. There was just something intimidating about being trapped at harbor, watching an enemy off shore show its flag every day, baiting you to come out and fight. Additionally, the English used their time to hone their skills, getting actual sailing time twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and practicing their gunnery. The French were growing rusty while the English were growing strong. Additionally, the French port was effectively blocked off from receiving any waterborne commerce or supplies. The large French fleet there instead had to be sustained with expensive and slow overland operations.
According to author Peter Padfield, “This relentless grip on the enemy fleet base formed the cornerstone of a series of victories that year which established Great Britain as the final winner at sea and across the seas; as such it ranks among the most decisive naval campaigns in world history.” And it all began with Hawke’s decision to cast aside his orders and pioneer the idea of a sustainable close-blockade.
Finally, frustrated by the effectiveness of Hawke’s blockade, the French fleet made an ill-advised escape when winds were favorable to them and had blown the British out into the Atlantic. It was the kind of move for which Hawke had been hoping. With incredible decisiveness and almost reckless abandon, Hawke pursued the French south as they fled into QuiberonBay. With terrible weather and dangerous rocks all around, and the day’s light fading quickly, Hawke charged ahead for the attack. Padfield wrote, “The scene was the grandest in the long history of Anglo-French wars: under low skies darkened with lines of squalls, the two fleets drove down the spume-lathered swell from the Atlantic, ships heeling wildly as the wind gusted up and shifted a degree or so, tiers of canvas whipped taut, topmasts, t’gallants and slender stunsail booms quivering with the strain, weather rigging stretched bar-tight, timber groaning, water torn through the head gratings as the bows plunged, pressing out wide patterns of foam, the sea surging swiftly down the sides . . . Quiberon Bay . . . put an end to [king] Louis XV’s invasion plans and to his battle fleet, which ceased to exist as an effective fighting force. The victory was a natural outcome of the close blockade which had preceded it . . . .” Hawke’s victory at Quiberon Bay was total. J. Creswell wrote, “It has been observed, with justice, that ‘no more courageous decision in the handling of a navy’s main battle fleet has ever been taken.’”
Understanding and Application
Being a sea captain in the nineteenth century was a picture of loneliness. Far out to sea, separated from superiors and all lines of communication, with orders that were usually months old, these men were forced to rely upon their own judgment. There was no one else on scene to guide their actions or concur with their decisions. It is a beautiful picture of leadership.
Leaders know that their very calling requires action, decision, and courage. Often, leaders are confronted with facts that they don’t like, circumstances that put them at peril, and adversaries that mean them harm. Further, there will not always be time to gather adequate intelligence before taking action, and the odds will not always be in a leader’s favor. A leader takes stock of a situation, confronts brutal reality without denial or panic, and calculates the best plan of action. Since time is almost always of the essence, leaders are normally faced with making decisions on their own. Usually there just isn’t time for consultations and committee approval. Then, once the leader makes a decision and takes action accordingly, he or she takes great pains to make the decision into a correct one. As one lawyer stated, “I have never seen a case I couldn’t win, if properly handled, and I’ve never seen a case I couldn’t lose, either.” A true leader makes a decision, and then works to make the decision right.
In the course of “making it right,” leaders are often forced to improvise. The incredible story of Cochrane and his tiny Speedy capturing the much larger El Gamo is a study in creative leadership and innovation. Each time the battle turned against him, Cochrane was ready with a quick ruse or creative stroke. He strung enough of these together fast enough to pull off an upset against incredible odds. He made decisions quickly and confidently, then backed them with immediate action. His innovative ruses then ensured that each previous decision didn’t turn out to be the wrong one. Cochrane took initiative, created solutions, and progressed through the incredible drama with such alarming success that it enthused his crew to follow him boldly. That’s the power of a leader’s initiative.
Hawke’s courageous decision to countermand his orders and blockade Brest, which he was unprepared to do, was bold enough. But then creating a way to sustain his decision proved to be the master stroke. It not only gave him an enormous strategic advantage over his enemy, but ultimately caused one of the most devastating battles in naval history. It should also be noted, that Hawke’s innovation became a new standard of operation for the Royal Navy and a major weapon against the French in its own right. The impact of Hawke’s methods of re-supply at sea and resulting long-term close blockade were used extensively in the later Napoleonic Wars to enormous effect.
Action and the habit of initiative, in addition to developing a leader’s effectiveness, also tend to foster creativity. Innovation in the face of adversity is a key component in the initiative required of a leader. Where many people, when confronted with difficult circumstances, hesitate, gather more information, and seek to ask superiors for advice and assistance, leaders enact creative solutions and take action. If there isn’t a ready-made solution, they invent one. What others may perceive as a gamble, leaders understand to be a mere calculated risk. In the face of superior odds, a leader must have the courage to innovate.