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Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 1797

The Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife was an amphibious assault by the Royal Navy on the Spanish port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Launched by Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson on 22 July 1797, the assault was defeated, and on 25 July the remains of the landing party withdrew under a truce, having lost several hundred men. Nelson himself had been wounded in the arm, which was subsequently partially amputated: a stigma that he carried to his grave as a constant reminder of his failure.

Leading up to the battle

In February the British defeated a Spanish fleet near Cape St. Vincent but failed to strike a solid blow against the Spanish Navy in the uneven struggle. Admiral John Jervis sailed for Lisbon after the engagement, frustrated at the escape of several valuable prizes including the Santísima Trinidad. New orders from the Admiralty demanded that he subdue and blockade the Spanish port of Cádiz, where much of the battered Spanish squadron had sought shelter. The First Sea Lord thought that the ease of Jervis' victory over José de Córdoba y Ramos guaranteed a successful attack on that southern harbour. Events proved otherwise.

Jervis' ships besieged Cádiz but were repelled by unexpected Spanish resistance. The Spaniards, under Vice-Admiral Mazarredo, organized a flotilla of small gunboats converted from yachts. With a clear advantage in the harbour's shallow waters, these vessels manoeuvred in the darkness and savaged Jervis' heavy ships of the line, striking at their vulnerable areas with impunity. Coastal batteries opened fire, joined by Spanish warships anchored at harbour, and drove the attackers back, causing the British to lose grip over the blockade and allowing several merchant convoys to slip in and out of the port.

An air of mutiny spread over the British crews as their long stay at sea stretched on without results. In April Jervis shifted his gaze to Tenerife upon hearing that Spanish treasure convoys from America arrived regularly at that island. The admiral sent two reconnoitring frigates which surprised and caught two French and Spanish vessels in a night-time raid. Encouraged by this success, Jervis dispatched a small squadron under recently promoted Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson with the aim of seizing Santa Cruz by means of an amphibious attack.


On 14 July Nelson sailed for the Canaries aboard his flagship HMS Theseus (Captain Miller), leading a squadron composed of HMS Culloden (Captain Troubridge), and HMS Zealous (Captain Hood), all 74-gun ships; and the frigates HMS Seahorse (38 guns), commanded by Captain Fremantle, HMS Emerald (36 guns) led by Captain Waller, and HMS Terpsichore (32 guns) under Captain Bowen; as well as the hired armed cutter Fox under Lieutenant John Gibson, and a mortar boat, the Ray, under Lieutenant Crompton. HMS Leander (50 guns), under Captain Thompson, joined the flotilla once the attack had started. The expedition counted 400 guns and nearly 4,000 men. They arrived in the vicinity of Santa Cruz on 17 July.

At Santa Cruz, Lieutenant General Antonio Gutiérrez de Otero y Santayana, who had already twice defeated the British, hastened to prepare a defence following the British raid in April. Forts were rebuilt, field works expanded, and the batteries enlarged by doubling their emplacements to 91, with earth sacks piled around. From the city's soldiers, partisans, local hunters, militia, artillery, and sailors from the French gun-brig Mutine, which the British had captured in May while most of her crew was ashore, General Gutiérrez scraped together a force of 1,700 men.

British plans - Nelson's plan called for a night-time landing under Troubridge: The frigates would approach the shore in stealth and disembark troops with a view to falling on the Spanish batteries north-east of the harbour. Ray was then to open mortar fire on the city. Nelson's ships of the line would enter the harbour at break of dawn and seize the Spanish merchant ships and their cargo. Nelson sent a note to the Spanish authorities demanding the surrender of all Spanish cargo, and threatening the destruction of the city.

On 20 July, Troubridge went aboard Theseus to finalize the plans. The attack would take place in two phases. The first phase involved 1000 seamen and marines landing at Valleseco beach, some two miles north of Santa Cruz harbour, from where the troops would surround and capture Fort Paso Alto. If the city had not surrendered at this point, then the landing party would march on the port and launch the final attack. Each ship of the line provided 200 men and each frigate 100, supported by 80 artillerymen.

Bombardment of Calvi

The first fire was opened two days earlier than planned, against Fort Mollinochesco. So heavy was the British bombardment that by 6 July the fort had been badly damaged. During that evening French work parties sought to repair some of the damage, but were dissuaded by feint attacks on the fort by detachments of Corsican irregulars and troops from the Royal Irish Regiment. These operations forced French forward picquets to withdraw, allowing a new British battery to be erected close to the damaged fort. This battery rendered the fort indefensible and the French garrison withdrew into Calvi. With Fort Mollinochesco in British hands the bay was no longer a safe anchorage for the French, and the frigates retired into Calvi harbour.

British efforts then focused on Fort Mozello, subjecting the fort to a heavy fire for a further twelve days, at which point a breach had been blown in the western wall of the badly-damaged fort. During this period French counter-battery fire proved effective and dangerous; Serocold was killed by cannon fire while manning a battery, and Nelson severely injured by flying stone splinters on 12 July, eventually losing the sight in his right eye. With Mozello weakened, Stuart gave orders for an assault on the outer works of the fort on 18 July; batteries were thrown up overnight by the 50th Regiment of Foot to provide cover for a general attack at daylight by elements of the Royal Fusiliers under Lieutenant Colonel John Moore and the Royal Irish Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel David Wemyss. Despite heavy musket fire and hand to hand fighting with French pikemen the British regiments captured the outer batteries, stormed the breach and took possession of the fort.

With the main French defences in British hands, the town came under heavy close bombardment, shattering houses and causing heavy casualties among the garrison and townspeople; only 12 cannon were still in operation by the time Stuart sent terms of surrender to Casabianca on 19 July. The French commander responded however with the town's Latin motto "Civtas Calvis semper fidelis" ("Calvi is always loyal"). Stuart responded by siting new batteries 650 yards (590 m) from the city walls, but did not initially resume the bombardment. On July Casabiana sent a message to Stuart notifying the British general that if supplies and reinforcements had not arrived within 25 days he would surrender the city. Stuart conferred with Hood on Victory, the admiral having returned from his blockade, leaving his fleet under the command of Admiral William Hotham.

Hood and Stuart agreed that they would not permit Calvi to hold beyond 10 August, but on the evening of 28 July four small vessels carrying supplies slipped through the meagre British blockade, to cheers from the defenders. The offer of surrender was withdrawn, and firing resumed once more on both sides at 17:00, but these ships brought no ammunition, for which Calvi was desperately short, and on 31 July a new offer of a truce was made and accepted by Stuart, to last six days. On 10 August, after 51 days of siege, Casabianca capitulated as arranged, his men marching from the town and laying their arms down before the commander signed terms with Stuart that guaranteed his repatriation to France with his surviving garrison.

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