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The most ferocious frigate action ever?

HMS Quebec  vs  Surveillante, 1779


Single ship actions, usually between frigates, are remembered as some of the most dramatic actions of the age of fighting sail. They captured the imagination of the public in their own time, making heroes of captains like Pellew and Cochrane, who gained the sort of adulation reserved for pop-stars today and they figure as central elements in the naval fiction of Forrester, Pope, O’Brian and others. Perhaps the most dramatic of all single-frigate action was fought not during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars, but when French was locked in conflict with Britain during the American War of Independence. I was sufficiently impressed by the ferocity of the action fought by the British Frigate Quebec against her French counterpart Surveillante that I have made a précis of information on this now largely forgotten epic.

    The drama of the Quebec vs. Surveillante action inspired many contemporary artists
                        - this is by the French artist Rossel de Cercy
   Surveillante's' white ensign is that of the Royal French Navy - not a sign of surrender!

In the early summer of 1779 the Quebec, a small 32-gun frigate of 685 tons, armed with 12-pounders, was sent to Guernsey, as a guard for the Channel Islands, with orders to glean all the intelligence possible of French movements in and around Brest. Her captain, George Farmer, was well thought of in the service. Nelson had served under him as a midshipman in the frigate Seahorse, and Farmer thought well enough of Nelson to entrust him the duty of a watch-keeping lieutenant.

From Guernsey, Farmer sent a report on the 18th June that the French fleet had sailed from Brest, and in early July he intercepted and broke up a convoy of forty-nine French coasters, taking some and driving many of the rest ashore. In the process however the Quebec ran on to a rock and Farmer only got her off by throwing all his guns overboard. This necessitated a return to port, and the Quebec was lucky to reach Portsmouth in safety. On arrival however no I2-pounders were to be had and Farmer had no option but to accept 9-pounders – a critical factor in the action to come – to repair damage and to get to sea again as quickly as possible. By October 6th he was off Ushant, in company with an armed cutter, the Rambler, Lieutenant James George, keeping a watch on Brest.

At daybreak Quebec and Rambler sighted a large French frigate and an armed cutter, and in another half-hour Quebec hastened to investigate.  The French frigate proved to be the Surveillante, commanded by the able Lieutenant Du Couëdic. She was a considerably larger and  more powerful vessel than the under-gunned Quebec,  carrying  34 guns, apparently a mix of 12 and 18-pounders. Due to the substitution of Quebec’s of 9-pounders for her previous 12-pounders the French ship was by at least thirty percent the more powerful fighting machine of the two, She had a crew of 255 men as against the Quebec's 195.

The action opened in mid-morning and was fought in a heavy swell, though little wind. Du Couëdic kept his ship close-hauled on the port tack, while Farmer, sailing free on the same tack, edged down towards him. Shortly after ten o'clock Quebec hoisted her colours, hauled her wind, and began to return the enemy's fire at short range . In the cannonading that followed, lasting a full hour, neither side had the best of it. Then the Surveillante drew ahead and Farmer, quickly backing his topsails, put his helm up and tried to go under her stern and rake her. Du Couëdic bore up simultaneously to frustrate the manoeuvre and both ships were then before the wind, masts tottering and sails in tatters.

Both vessels were taking heavy losses. Some of the Quebec's guns-crews were reduced from seven men to three. Farmer had sustained a broken collarbone and a smashed finger but he remained on deck to encourage his dwindling crew. The first lieutenant had his arm shot away but when the surgeon had done with him he returned to the quarter-deck. Twice the fire of the Surveillante ceased, and the Quebec's crew cheered, thinking they had her beaten – but each time, after a brief interval, the French reopened fire with increased vigour.

The gunnery duel continued until about one o'cIock when the Surveillante's masts went overboard together. They fell, luckily for her, on the disengaged port side, and her fire remained unimpeded. Five minutes later, before Farmer could take full advantage of his enemy’s plight, the Quebec’s masts followed suit, the fore and mainmast falling inboard, blocking the gangways, and putting the guns on the forecastle and quarter-deck out of action. Worst of all the mizzen-mast fell outward on the engaged side, and the mizzen-topsail completely covered over the port-holes of several of the broadside weapons forward the stern.

Neither vessel was now under control and they locked together, Surveillante's bowsprit becoming entangled in the wreckage of masts and sails which encumbered the Quebec’s decks amidships. Du Couëdic called for boarders, but when preparing to launch an assault was struck down by a musket ball – the third wound he had received during the action. His officers, though momentarily shaken by his injury, were rallying the boarding-party, when the issue was taken out of their hands.

The Quebec’s mizzen-topsail, which had been masking the stern guns on the port-side, since the mast had fallen, now caught fire. The guns crews continued to blaze away through the tattered canvas hanging a few feet from the muzzles. The flames ran up the sail, took fierce hold on the wreckage on the quarter-deck, and in an instant were roaring over the after part of the ship. The French, abandoning all thoughts of boarding, used every effort to get clear, fending the Quebec off with spars and booms. They were only just in time, for the stump of their own bowsprit was a mass of flame, quenched with difficulty ere the two ships were disentangled.

The engagement was over, and the Quebec was doomed. du Couëdic, wounded, gave orders that when the flames in his own ship had been extinguished firing should cease and the Quebec’s crew rescued - many had already jumped overboard to escape the flames.  All  Surveillante’s boats were too damaged to float however and nothing could be done but to throw ropes to any survivors who could swim alongside.

In the Quebec Captain Farmer gave orders to flood the magazine, and took what measures he could to fight the fire. This proved hopeless but Farmer refused to leave his ship. In mid-afternoon the magazine exploded. The hull burnt fiercely for a considerable time before it sank. Though accounts of the exact manner of Farmer's death differ there is no doubt that he went down with the ship, her flag still flying.

      Painting by British painter Richard Dodd shows the mastless Surveillante keeping as
                      far away as possible from the doomed Quebec - explosion imminent

While the two frigates were locked in combat a separate action was underway between the Rambler and the French cutter Expedition, which had been in company with Surveillante. These smaller vessels were fairly matched for each other and until the Quebec caught fire neither had much advantage. The sight of the Quebec in flames, and of the Surveillante  locked to her of her, induced the Expedition to make off to the help of her frigate. The Rambler’s commander, Lieutenant George, not unnaturally claimed that the Expedition made off because she was getting the worst of it. In his late report he stated that owing to the damaged state of his rigging he was unable to pursue; then, "seeing both the frigates dismasted and the Quebec on fire I endeavoured to get as near the Quebec as possible in hopes of saving some of her men, but there being but little wind and a large swell, found I could assist her in no other way but by hoisting out our boat, which I effected, and sent the master and five men armed in her, who picked up one master’s mate, two young midshipmen, and fourteen more of the Quebec's people, the enemy’s frigate at the same time firing at the boat.”

                          A French view of the action - almost photographic in detail

The Surveillante saved some of the Quebec's crew, the Rambler a few more and 13 were picked off afterwards a mass of floating wreckage by a Russian ship that was in the vicinity, and landed at Salcombe, in Devon. Another 14 were spotted on other flotsam but as the Russian altered course to pick them up a heavy squall came on, and when it lifted they were gone. Out of Quebec’s company of 195 only 68 were saved.

The Surveillante lost 115 killed and wounded out of 211 – an almost 50% casualty rate and she was towed to Brest harbour by the Expedition in a sinking condition. du Couëdic, was immediately promoted but died a few months late as a result of his wounds.

                      HMS Quebec (left) about to blow up - Victorian representation

The French behaved with the notable chivalry to the Quebec's survivors picked up the Surveillante. They were sent back free to England on the grounds that the  Minister of Marine "did not think it right to consider as prisoners of war unfortunate men who had escaped the fight, the fire which blew up their ship, and the watery gulf into which they had been hurled." It was particularly touching that Du Couëdic, of the Surveillant, despite  his own ultimately wounds, took pains to see that they were made as comfortable as possible.

The surviving officers of the Quebec were tried by court-martial at Sheerness, and the court found that everything possible was done to save the ship, and that "Captain Farmer, her officers and men, behaved in the most spirited and gallant manner, and are of opinion that if the accident of fire had not happened they would have taken the French man-of-war."

Those who ought to have been court-martialled for the loss of the Quebec, but were not, were the officials responsible for the lack of spare l2-pounders in Portsmouth dockyard. It is quite evident if Farmer could fight what was virtually a drawn battle without his proper armament,  victory might well have been his if he had had the guns for which his ship was designed. The extra weight of metal could well have won him the battle.

Farmer's eldest son was made a baronet, a pension of £200 per annum was granted to his widow and pensions of £25 each to nine his children, including one yet unborn. A Board-of-Admiralty Minute records that these honours were paid in order "to excite an emulation in other officers to distinguish themselves in the same manner, and render Captain Farmer's fate rather to be envied than pitied, as it would give them reason to hope that if they should lose their lives with the same degree of stubborn gallantry, it would appear to posterity that their services had met with the approbation of their Sovereign."

The accounts I have seen of this action make no reference to the compensation or pensions paid to other members of Quebec’s crew. Nothing could have been too much for the men who endured the hours of hell this ferocious battle lasted and one only hope that the widows, orphans and dependents received some recompense, however small.

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