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Battle of Quiberon Bay(1759): The Breaking of French Power

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.



Naval battles the world over fire the imagination of a student of History. Hence many famous battles like the Battle of Trafalgar, Battle of Midway, Battle of Santacruz, Battle of Jutland among others have a place of their own in the imagination of the public. There are some naval battles, though significant is still not given their due. One such battle was the Battle of Quiberon bay fought between the French fleet and the English navy of the coast of France. This was during the 7-year war between England and France. The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) was a global conflict that spanned five continents. It ended with a treaty between France and England largely in favor of the English. The war had commenced in 1756.

Importance of Quiberon Bay

In 1759 the United States was a colony of the English and the French were keen to establish their hegemony over the new world. The French decided that the best way to settle the matter of supremacy over the New World was by invading England. The French army was confident that given the opportunity they could annihilate the English army in a ground battle; hence plans were made for an invasion of England.

The French however needed to establish supremacy over the seas and the Royal Navy to enable their army to cross the English Channel to invade England. It was imperative that the French fleet creates conditions for the invasion by engaging and defeating the English fleet. It is to be noted the channel at its narrowest is only 22 miles from Calais the French port.

The French chose Quiberon Bay for their confrontation with the Royal Navy. Further plans for the conquest of England depended on the annihilation of the English fleet.


The Clash

The Build-up

The commander of the English fleet was Admiral Hawke while the French fleet was commanded by Admiral Conflans. Admiral Hawke had a one-point plan to destroy the French fleet while the French fleet had a plan of defeating the English fleet and then link up with the French army, which was readied for the assault on England at the mouth of the Loire River. The troopships which were to transport the French army were ready. The stage was set for an epic battle.

In such matters sometimes nature plays a hand. The weather during that period turned bad and visibility was greatly reduced. In such conditions, the French were confident that they could beat the English. In hindsight this confidence appeared to be misplaced. The French Commander Admiral Conflans and his staff officers were confident because they felt that their knowledge of the area and the local conditions at the mouth of the Loire, which has a vast number of islands and treacherous banks and shoals would be to their advantage. Conflans and his officers had been sailing in the area for years and they felt they had the upper hand. But Conflans had not counted on the fortitude and daredevilry of the English fleet. In that respect, they underestimated the English resolve.

The Battle

The bad weather added to the complacency of the French fleet. They had a feeling that the English may not open hostilities. Much to the surprise of the French on the morning of 20th November 1759, the English opened their order of battle.The commander of the English fleet ordered the English fleets guns and cannons to open fire.

While continuing to fire their guns and cannons the English fleet closed in on the French armada. This was a dare-devil act and English gunners were able to carry out many direct hits on the French warships.

For a few minutes, the French were nonplussed, and when the French gunners did open fire there aim was bad. The French gunners were not accurate and the bad weather compounded matters.

Unmindful of the weather the English navy with guns ablaze neared the French fleet which broke ranks and attempted to scatter away. However, Admiral Hawke despite the treacherous shoals and banks began a chase of the French fleet and soon completely destroyed it. The British lost only 2 ships which ran aground in the shallow water. It was a great victory for the English navy and many feel it was perhaps greater than Trafalgar (1805).

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Last Word

The battle had ominous repercussions for the French who lost further land in the Americas and England reigned supreme in the American continent till the American war of independence in 1776.

The war had a deeper connotation and the French influence in the continent was greatly curtailed. In addition, the French were decisively defeated in India where the British under Robert Clive were successful and the entire subcontinent became a part of the British Empire. Sir Winston Churchill in his "History of the English speaking people" has opined that the seven-year war which was fought globally was in reality the First World War. In this war, the battle of Quiberon is of great importance. It sounded the death-knell of the French dream of invading England and winning a decisive victory.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 10, 2020:

Thank you Flourish for commenting and giving your opinion.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 10, 2020:

Weather has had a stake in a number of pivotal battles throughout history. Whether luck, ignorance or something else, nature seems to be a party to battle as well.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 10, 2020:

Alan, both went to their maker and both are famous but Ñapoleon has the bigger place in History. His greatest victory in1805 at Austerlitz needs a film as well

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 10, 2020:

"Every dog has his day", as we say. One day interest is lost even in the winners as perspectives change. 'Boney' met his maker on St Helena, way out in the South Atlantic, from the effects of the damp weather on the wallpaper in his 'residence' (arsenic poisoning), although he was interred in style in Paris, just as 'Our Welly' was in St Paul's Cathedral, London.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 09, 2020:

Thanks Alan, Waterloo was a classic. I was only wondering as the Russian campaign was so interesting it would have attracted Hollywood. But perhaps nobody is interested in Napoleon now.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 09, 2020:

Maybe they were wary of treading on toes. However, the 'Waterloo' production was made with Hollywood cash, used Russian soldiers as extras, and the main actors were all British. The only input Hollywood had was Rod Steiger as 'Boney'. Maybe it was a double whammy, as the Hollywood big man finished up quitting the field in a French carriage under 'British' guard... aka Russian squaddies.

Work that one out.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 09, 2020:

Thanks, wonder why Hollywood ignored this campaign

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 09, 2020:

There was one that was televised here - not sure if it was made for TV, it was serialised over several days - made in French and dubbed (you could see their mouths didn't move in time). Another film made for TV here in England and on location (I think) was based on Tolstoy's 'War And Peace' with some very colourful scenes, including (probably studio shots) Moscow being burnt by Russians to stop the French getting hold of supplies. The French shot them as saboteurs under orders from 'Boney'.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 09, 2020:

Alan, nice comment, yes I saw the movie Waterloo and I still remember it. I wonder if somebody made a movie about Napoleon's Russian campaign.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 09, 2020:

Sir Arthur Wellesley (aka Duke of Wellington) admitted after Waterloo, "It was a close-run thing". He was hard-pressed on all fronts in the area and it was only the shout, "Bluecher's coming!" amongst the French that decided the outcome. The British Army, as ever, was under-manned and relied on its allies to plug a few gaps in the line and it almost looked as if 'Boney' was on top . We'd been hemmed in at La Haie Saint and a few other places, the Scots' Greys had charged the French cannon and were mired, overtaken by French lancers and annihilated, the Guard's Division was beset and the Netherlands' Prince of Orange had committed several strategic gaffes in his haste to prove his heroism. The Austrians who'd joined the Allies by this time were also of little help (they'd come croppers half a century later when fighting the Prussians at a place they called Koenig-graetz - having fallen out after allying with Prussia to try and seize control in Denmark during their domestic tiff, although the reason for this alliance was anything but clear as the Austrians' aim was essentially south-east into the Balkans to create a power bloc against the Serbs).

When the French Army learned of Bluecher's return to the field they panicked, leaving the Old Guard to themselves and Ney's famous denial when pressed to surrender, "Merde!" (Never!)

Ever see the film 'Waterloo' with Napoleon played by Rod Steiger and Wellington portrayed by Christopher Plummer? Well worth watching. The 'Iron' Duke never took place in fighting again after that and took to politics (much safer!)

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 08, 2020:

Alan, this is the beauty of history, it repeats itself. If Hitler had not invaded Russia the war was already cut and sealed. Frankly Napoleon never stood a chance as the Duke of Wellington was too good a general who had earlier beaten Tippu Sultan and Mahrathas in India.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 08, 2020:

Any time Emge... The outcome of the battle (and many French defeats in the Seven Years' War including the loss of Canada to the Brits) is just one factor of several that led to the French Revolution and the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte, the 'sawn-off' artillery officer, and ultimately another grand French defeat in 1815 (aided by his invasion of Russia... ever think history's in the habit of repeating itself?)

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 08, 2020:

Alan, that's wonderful and added to my knowledge.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on June 08, 2020:

Emge, interesting episode in the Seven Years War made more interesting by another factor your account hasn't touched on.

You've heard of the expression, "Copper-bottomed". The history behind that is what destroyed the French fleet as much as the British guns (as i've mentioned before, the Royal Navy was and still is a Britain-wide institution, with officers and men from all corners of the UK which at the time included southern Ireland). "Copper bottoming" involved the application of copper sheathing to ships, both merchant and combat navy, which in turn cut the effect of a build-up of barnacles on ships' hulls slowing them down and reducing manoeuvrability. A Liverpool merchant recommended the process to the Admiralty, which was taken up across the fleet from 'ships of the line' (battleships) to frigates and sloops alike. Vessels were taken out of the water in turn when returned to HM docks for the sheathing to be attached with copper nails (rustproof and therefore unlikely to fall off, thus negating the benefits to the Navy). The process was applied under the auspices of James Kerr and Matthew Boulton in partnership. The French fleet, seemingly unaware of the benefits of copper-bottoming were hindered in their naval endeavours, the effect of the barnacles also admitting water into the vessels through their boreholes and therefore not only slowing them down but shipping sea water - extra weight not needed when conducting sea warfare!

The Navy still applies copper bottoming to vessels (even steel hulled ships are prey to barnacles, the iron content effectively 'feeds' water-borne parasites), by modern process rather than nails.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 07, 2020:

Denise, yes assuredly God does decide. This was the beginning of the British Empire.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 07, 2020:

Liz, thank you. Once in a way good to read history.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on June 07, 2020:

It is interesting how weather or things beyond the control of humans can change the outcome drastically. Do you think maybe God decided to take a hand in the outcome?



Liz Westwood from UK on June 07, 2020:

I remember learning about this at school when we studied history from this period. I was especially interested many years later when we visited the nearby coastal region of France. Your article brings back memories of my history lessons.

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