Friday, March 02, 2018

Fullbore Friday

Young leaders, properly motivated a few decades in to a war, can accomplish remarkable things;
In March 1804 two of the ships tasked with watching the Vlie to prevent Netherlands privateers slipping out into the North Sea, were the sloops-of-war HMS Scorpion and HMS Beaver. The Scorpion was under the command of Commander George Nicholas Hardinge (1781 – 1808) who, though only twenty-three, had already accumulated a notable service record and promised to merit high command. The recently constructed Scorpion was one of the first of the Cruizer class of brig-rigged sloops, 106 of which would enter service by the war’s end. Of only 100-ft length and 382-tons, these proved enormously successful. With a crew of only a hundred men, these vessels were so heavily armed – typically with two 6-pounder long-gun bowchasers and no less than sixteen 32-pounder carronades – that they could deliver a broadside-weight comparable to that of a frigate, but with a third of the manpower. Command of such a vessel – which Hardinge had succeeded to two years before (at the age of twenty-one!) – was a prize that all young officers would aspire to.

On 28th March, patrolling north of the Vlie, Hardinge spotted two Dutch corvettes – heavily armed brigs – at anchor deep inside the waterway. Lacking detailed knowledge of the shoals flanking the approach, he realised that direct attack by the Scorpion must be ruled out. With sufficient men available, a cutting-out operation might be feasible, but Scorpion’s crew alone would be insufficient to provide the necessary numbers. Three days later however, on March 31st, the Scorpion was joined by the Beaver, the commander of which, Charles Pelly, was as enthusiastic as Hardinge about a cutting-out operation, for which there were now sufficient men.
Five pulling boats, carrying some sixty men between them, left the British ships in darkness at nine-thirty in the evening, rowing with the flooding tide. These men would have been mainly armed with cutlasses, pikes and boarding axes while officers and petty officers would have carried pistols in addition to their own swords or cutlasses. Describing himself to his father as “your humble servant”, Hardinge was in the leading boat. Undetected, the boats reached the nearer of the enemy vessels, which proved to be the Atalanta, a vessel generally similar to the Scorpion herself. Hardinge was to write that “I had the good fortune, or, as by some it would be considered an honour, to be the first man who boarded her. She was prepared for us, with boarding nettings up, and with all the customary implements of defence; but the noise, and the alarm etc., so intimidated the crew, that many of them rushed below, leaving to us the painful duty of combatting those whom we most respected.”

The scene must have been a nightmarish one, all the more so in view of the darkness and the narrow confines of the deck on which hand-to-hand combat took place. Hardinge wrote that “the decks were slippery, in consequence of rain, so that, grappling with my first opponent, a mate of the watch, I almost fell, but recovered my position, fought him on equal terms, and killed him.” He was now confronted by the Atalante’s captain, regrettable unidentified in the letter, whom he described as being “as brave a man as any service ever boasted; he had almost killed one of my seaman; to my shame be it spoken, he disarmed me, and was on the point of killing me. When a seaman of mine came up, rescued me at the peril of his own life, and enabled me to recover my sword.”

By this stage the boarders were largely in control of the deck and two of them now attacked the Dutch captain. Hardinge however “ran up, held them back, and then adjured him to accept quarter.” Heroically, though unwisely, the captain refused. “With inflexible heroism he disdained the gift, kept us at bay, and compelled us to kill him: he fell with honourable wounds.”
Hardinge now has possession of the Atalanta. “The vessel was ours, and we secured the hatches, which, headed by a lieutenant wo had received a desperate wound, they (i.e. the captured crew below) attempted repeatedly to force. Thus far we had been fortunate; but we now had anther enemy to fight, it was the element. A sudden gale, in which the wind shifted against us, and impeded all the efforts we could make.” Hardinge was undeterred however. “As we had made the capture, we determined at all events to sustain it, or to perish. We made the Dutch below to surrender, put forty of them in irons, stationed our own men to their guns, brought the powder up, and made all necessary arrangements to attack the other brig. But as the day broke, and without abatement of the wind, she was at such a distance, and in such a position that we had no chance to reach her.”

Forty-eight hours passed. “Two of the boats had broken adrift from us, two had swapped alongside. The wind shifted again, and we made a push to extricate ourselves, but found the navigation so difficult that it required the intense labour of three days to accomplish it. We carried the point at last, and were commended by the Admiral for our perseverance. You will see in the Gazette my letter to him.” The Atalante had suffered five killed, including the captain, and eleven wounded.
Hardinge’s success was rewarded with immediate (ten days after the attack) promotion to coveted post-captain rank, one of the few who attained this at such a young age. For all his courage, chivalry and promise, his subsequent career was to be tragically short. While in command of the old frigate HMS St Fiorenzo in the Indian Ocean in 1808, he was killed in the course of an epic three-day battle with the French frigate PiĆ©montaise.

No comments: