- Dundonald, , Lord, Admiral
- Ship histories and stories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald made his name in command of the small brig Speedy in 1800 when he captured the Spanish frigate El Gamo. His commands of the Pallas and Imperieuse were equally brilliant. His exploits were immortalized by one of his midshipmen, later to become Captain Marryat. Cochrane was also a model for the fictitious Captain Homblower. This account is extracted from the Admiral’s autobiography published in 1860.
THE SPEEDY WAS LITTLE MORE than a burlesque on a vessel of war, even sixty years ago. She was about the size of an average coasting brig, her burden being 158 tons. She was crowded, rather than manned, with a crew of eighty-four men and six officers, myself included. Her armament consisted of fourteen four-pounders, a species of gun little larger than a blunderbuss, and formerly known in the service under the name of ‘minion‘ an appellation which it certainly merited.
Being dissatisfied with her armament, I applied for and obtained a couple of twelve pounders, intending them as bow and stern chasers, but was compelled to return them to the ordnance wharf, there not being room on deck to work them; besides which, the timbers of the little craft were found on trial to be too weak to withstand the concussion of anything heavier than the guns with which she was previously armed.
With her rig I was more fortunate. Having carried away her main yard, it became necessary to apply for another to the senior officer, who, examining the list of spare parts, ordered the foretop-gallant-yard of the Genereux to be hauled out as a main yard for the Speedy.
The spar was accordingly sent on board and rigged, but even this appearing too large for the vessel, an order was issued to cut off the yard-arms and thus reduce it to its proper dimensions. This order was neutralised by getting down and planing the yard-arms as though they had been cut, an evasion which, with some alteration in the rigging, passed undetected on its being swayed up; and thus a greater spread of canvas was secured. The fact of the foretop-gallant-yard of a secondrate ship being considered too large for the main yard of my ‘man-of-war‘ will give a tolerable idea of her insignificance.
Despite her unformidable character, and the personal discomfort to which all on board were subjected, I was very proud of my little vessel, caring nothing for her want of accommodation, though in this respect her cabin merits passing notice. It had not so much as room for a chair, the floor being entirely occupied by a small table, surrounded with lockers answering the double purpose of store-chests and seats. The difficulty was to get seated, the ceiling being only five feet high, so that the object could only be accomplished by rolling on the locker, a movement sometimes attended with unpleasant failure. The most singular discomfort, however, was that my only practical mode of shaving consisted in removing the skylight and putting my head through to make a toilet table of the quarterdeck.
We again ran along the Spanish coast, and on the fourth day of May were off Barcelona, where the Speedy captured a vessel which reported herself as Ragusan, though in reality a Spanish four-gun tartan. Soon after detaining her we heard firing in the WNW, and steering for that quarter fell in with a Spanish privateer, which we also captured, the San Carlos of seven guns. On this a swarm of gun-boats came out of Barcelona; seven of them giving chase to us and the prizes, with which we made off shore, the gun-boats returning to Barcelona.
On the following morning, the prizes were sent to Port Mahon, and keeping out of sight for the rest of the day, the Speedy returned at midnight off Barcelona, where we found the gun-boats on the watch; but on our approach they ran inshore, firing at us occasionally. Suspecting that the object was to decoy us within reach of some larger vessel, we singled out one of them and made at her, the others, however, supporting her so well that some of our rigging being shot away, we made off shore to repair, the gunboats following. Having thus got them to some distance and repaired damages, we set all sail, and again ran in shore, in the hope of getting between them and the land, so as to cut off some of their number. Perceiving our intention, they all made for the port as before, keeping up a smart fight, in which our foretop-gallant-yard was so much injured, that we had to shift it, and were thus left astern. The remainder of the day was employed in repairing damages, and the gunboats not venturing out again, at 9 p.m. we again made off shore.
Convinced that something more than ordinary had actuated the gun-boats to decoy us – just before daylight on the sixth we again ran in for Barcelona, when the trap manifested itself in the form of a large ship, running under the land and bearing ESE. On hauling towards her, she changed her course in chase of us, and was shortly made out to be a Spanish frigate.
As some of my officers had expressed dissatisfaction at not having been permitted to attack the frigate fallen in with on the 21st December after her suspicions had been lulled by our device of hoisting Danish colours, etc., I told them they should now have a fair fight, notwithstanding that, by manning the two prizes sent to Mahon, our numbers had been reduced to fifty-four, officers and boys included. Orders were then given to pipe all hands, and prepare for action.
Accordingly we made towards the frigate, which was now coming down under steering sails. At 9.30 a.m. she fired a gun and hoisted Spanish colours, which the Speedy acknowledged by hoisting American colours, our object being, as we were now exposed to her full broadside, to puzzle her, till we got on the other tack, when we ran up the English ensign, and immediately afterwards encountered her broadside without damage.
Shortly afterwards she gave us another broadside, also without effect. My orders were not to fire a gun till we were close to her; when running under her lee, we locked our yards amongst her rigging, and in this position returned our broadside, such as it was.
To have fired our popgun four-pounders at a distance would have been to throw away the ammunition; but the guns being doubly, and, as I afterwards learned, trebly shotted, and being elevated, they told admirably upon her main deck; the first discharge, as was subsequently ascertained, killing the Spanish captain and the boatswain.
My reason for locking our small craft in the Enemy’s rigging was the one upon which I mainly relied for victory, viz., that from the height of the frigate out of the water, the whole of her shot must necessarily go over our heads, whilst our guns being elevated would blow up her main deck.
The Spaniards speedily found out the disadvantage under which they were fighting, and gave the order to board the Speedy; but as this order was distinctly heard by us as by them, we avoided it at the moment of execution by sheering off sufficiently to prevent the movement, giving them a volley of musketry and a broadside before they could recover themselves.
Twice was this manoeuvre repeated, and twice thus averted. The Spaniards finding that they were only punishing themselves, gave up further attempts to board, and stood by their guns, which were cutting up our rigging from stem to stern, but doing little further damage; for after the lapse of an hour the loss to the Speedy was only two men killed and four wounded.
This kind of combat, however, could not last. Our rigging being cut up and the Speedy sails riddled with shot, I told the men that they must either take the Spaniard’s frigate or be themselves taken, in which case the Spaniards would give no quarter – whilst a few minutes energetically employed on their part would decide the matter in their own favour.
The doctor, Mr. Guthrie, who, I am happy to say, is still living to peruse this record of his gallantry, volunteered to take the helm; leaving him therefore for the time both commander and crew of the Speedy, the order was given to board, and in a few seconds every man was on the enemy’s deck – a feat rendered the more easy as the doctor placed the Speedy close alongside with admirable skill.
For a moment the Spaniards seemed taken by surprise, as though unwilling to believe that so small a crew would have the audacity to board them; but soon recovering themselves made a rush to the waist of the frigate, where the fight was for some minutes gallantly carried on. Observing the enemy’s colours still flying, I directed one of our men immediately to haul them down, when the Spanish crew, without pausing to consider by whose orders the colours had been struck, and naturally believing it the act of their own officers, gave in, and we were in possession of the Gamo frigate of thirty-two guns and 319 men, who an hour and a half before had looked upon us as a certain if not easy prey.
Our loss in boarding was Lieutenant Parker, severely wounded in several places, one seaman killed and three wounded, which with those previously killed and wounded gave a total of three seamen killed, one officer and seventeen men wounded.