Battle of Toulon (1744)
The naval Battle of Toulon or Battle of Cape Sicié took place on 22–23 February 1744 (NS) in the Mediterranean off the French coast near Toulon. A combined Franco-Spanish fleet engaged Britain's Mediterranean Fleet. The French fleet, not officially at war with Great Britain, only joined the fighting late, when it was clear that the greatly outnumbered Spanish fleet had gained tactical control of the battlefield. With the French intervention, the British fleet was forced to withdraw.
In Britain the battle was regarded as the most mortifying defeat; the Franco-Spanish fleet successfully ended the British blockade and inflicted considerably more damage to the British than they received, causing the British to withdraw to Menorca in need of heavy repairs. The retreat of Admiral Mathews' fleet left the Mediterranean Sea temporarily under Spanish control, allowing the Spanish navy to deliver troops and supplies to the Spanish army in Italy, decisively swinging the war there in their favour.
Thomas Mathews was tried by court-martial in 1746 on charges of having brought the fleet into action in a disorganised manner, of having fled the enemy, and of having failed to bring the enemy to action when the conditions were advantageous. He was one of seven ship captains dismissed from service.
In English-language literature the battle is viewed as indecisive at best and a fiasco at worst.
The War of the Austrian Succession broke out in 1740, over whether Maria Theresa could inherit the throne of the Habsburg Monarchy. Britain supported Austria and the claim of Maria Theresa, whilst Spain and France supported the rival claim of Charles, Elector of Bavaria. Britain and Spain had been at war in the Americas since 1739, in the War of Jenkins' Ear. Britain and France were not officially at war at the start of 1744, although they were on opposite sides of the wider conflict and France was secretly planning an invasion of Britain.
Thomas Mathews had had a solid but unspectacular career as a naval captain, rising to command a small squadron before retiring from the navy in 1724. He returned to naval service in 1736, but only in a shore-based administrative role. The outbreak of war with Spain and the imminent threat of war with France led to Mathews' return to active service after years of effective retirement, with a promotion directly to Vice-Admiral of the Red on 13 March 1741. He was given command of a fleet in the Mediterranean, and with it an appointment as plenipotentiary to Charles Emmanuel III, King of Sardinia (who supported Maria Theresa's claim), and the other courts of Italy. The choice of Mathews for the role was somewhat unexpected, as he was not especially distinguished, and had not served in the navy for a number of years.
The second in command in the Mediterranean was Rear-Admiral Richard Lestock. Mathews knew Lestock from their time at Chatham Dockyard, when Mathews had been the Commissioner and Lestock had commanded the guard ships stationed in the Medway. The two had not been on good terms, and Lestock had hoped to receive the command of the Mediterranean fleet himself – he had been acting commander for several weeks after Nicholas Haddock was recalled. On receiving the Mediterranean posting, Mathews requested that Lestock be recalled to Britain. Lestock also asked to be reassigned, requesting the command of the West Indies fleet instead. The Admiralty declined to act upon either request.
In 1742 Mathews sent a small squadron to Naples to compel King Charles, later the King of Spain, to remain neutral in the war. It was commanded by Commodore William Martin, who refused to enter into negotiations, and gave the king half an hour in which to return an answer. The Neapolitans were forced to agree to the British demands.
In June 1742 a squadron of Spanish galleys, which had taken refuge in the Bay of Saint-Tropez, was burnt by the fire ships of Mathews' fleet. In the meantime a Spanish squadron had taken refuge in Toulon, and was watched by the British fleet from Hyères. The British began a naval blockade outside Toulon, allowing French vessels to pass but preventing the Spanish from leaving.
On 21 February 1744 the Spaniards left Toulon and put to sea, in company with a French force. Mathews ordered the British fleet to follow their course. The Franco-Spanish fleet numbered 27 ships of the line and three frigates, whilst the British had 30 ships of the line and three frigates of their own. The British ships were generally larger and more heavily armed than their opponents, carrying over 25% more cannons overall. Both fleets were organised in the traditional three squadrons of van, centre and rear, with the Spanish forming the rear squadron of the allied fleet.
The winds were light, making manoeuvring difficult and causing the fleets to become spread out. In the evening of 22 February the fleets began to approach each other and prepare for battle, with Mathews signalling his ships to form line of battle. The line had still not been properly formed as night fell, leading Mathews to hoist the signal to come to (halt by turning into the wind), intending for his ships to first finish forming the line. The van and centre squadrons did so, but Lestock, commanding the rear, obeyed the order to come to immediately, without having formed the line.
By daybreak on 23 February, the rear of the British fleet was separated by a considerable distance from the van and centre. Mathews signalled for Lestock to make more sail, reluctant to start the attack with his ships still disorganised, but the slowness of Lestock to respond caused the Franco-Spanish force to start to slip away to the south. Mathews feared that they would escape him and pass through the Strait of Gibraltar to join the French force gathered at Brest for the planned invasion of Britain.
Knowing that his duty was to attack, Mathews hoisted the signal to engage the enemy aboard his flagship HMS Namur, and at one o'clock left the line to attack the Spanish rear, followed by Captain James Cornewall aboard HMS Marlborough. In doing so, the signal to form the line of battle was left flying. The two signals flying simultaneously created confusion. A number of British commanders, including Captain Edward Hawke, followed Mathews' example, but many did not. His other commanders were either too uncertain, or in the case of Lestock, allegedly pleased to see Mathews in difficulty and unwilling to help him.
Heavily outnumbered and unsupported, Namur and Marlborough managed to successfully engage their opposite numbers in the enemy line, but suffered considerable damage. At the rear of the ships being attacked, five more Spanish ships followed, at some distance due to the slow speed of the one ahead: Brillante, San Fernando, Halcon, Soberbio and Santa Isabel. There was some exchange of fire between these and the lead ships of the English rear. Most of Lestock's ships in the rear remained inactive during the battle.
The main action was being fought around Real Felipe, Navarro's flagship. Marlborough purposefully crossed the Spanish line, but suffered such severe damage that she was deemed to be on the verge of sinking. The Hercules, astern of the Real Felipe, vigorously fought off three British ships. The Constante, immediately ahead of the flagship, repelled the attack of a British ship-of-the-line, which was promptly replaced by two more, with which she continued to fight for nearly three hours.
The French ships came about at 5 o'clock to aid the Spanish, a manoeuvre interpreted by some of the British commanders to be an attempt to double the British line and surround them. With no orders from Mathews and a lack of clear instructions or command structure, the British line broke, and began to flee to the northwest. The Spanish, still on the defensive, neglected to capture the defenceless Marlborough, though they did retake the Poder, which had previously surrendered to the British.
The Franco-Spanish fleet then resumed their flight to the southwest, and it was not until 23 February that the British were able to regroup and resume the pursuit. They caught up with the enemy fleet again, which was hampered by towing damaged ships, and the unmanoeuvrable Poder was abandoned and scuttled by the French. By now the British had closed to within a few miles of the enemy fleet, but Mathews again signalled for the fleet to come to. The following day, 24 February, the Franco-Spanish fleet was almost out of sight, and Mathews returned to Hyères, and sailed from there to Port Mahon, where he arrived in early March.
Tactically, the battle was indecisive, but France and Spain both made significant strategic gains as a result. The escaping Franco-Spanish fleet was able to deliver troops and supplies to the Spanish army in Italy, decisively swinging the war there in their favour. The Spanish admiral Juan José Navarro was created Marquess of Victory after his conduct of the battle. The battle was followed by a French declaration of war on Britain and Hanover in March. In May the French also declared war on Maria Theresa and invaded the Austrian Netherlands, having abandoned their earlier plan to invade Britain.
These were significant consequences, resulting from the failure of the British fleet to bring a decisive action against a foe of inferior number. This was widely remarked on in Britain, leading to the House of Commons petitioning King George II for a public enquiry. This was held, and a dozen captains were tried by court-martial, seven were cashiered for failing to do their "utmost" to engage the enemy and support the already-engaged ships, as required by the Articles of War (two were acquitted, one died before trial). Lestock was also tried, but was able to place the blame on Mathews, and with the help of powerful supporters in government, was acquitted and offered further employment. Mathews was also tried by court-martial in 1746, on charges of having brought the fleet into action in a disorganised manner, of having fled the enemy, and of having failed to bring the enemy to action when the conditions were advantageous. In his defence it was shown that he had fought bravely, but in June 1747 the court judged the charges were proven, and Mathews was cashiered (dismissed from the service).
The judgements were unpopular with the public, with a 1758 history declaring:
The court-martial process was hampered by interference from politicians and civilian courts, so in 1749 Parliament amended the 1661 Articles of War to enhance the autonomy of naval courts. It also amended the section that read:
Article XII in the 1749 Articles of War would instead read:
This change would lead to the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757.
Order of battle
4 fire ships
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