Captain Trollope and the Carronades – 1782 and 1794

 Carronade on slide mounting

Carronades – large-calibre, short-range cannon throwing very heavy shot – were a game-changing weapon when introduced in the 1780s (Click here for the article “HMS Flora 1780: the Carronade’s arrival”). Their light weight allowed them to be mounted on smaller craft that would be incapable of carrying larger “long guns”, thereby giving such vessels an offensive capability wholly disproportionate to their size. They were to prove no less valuable on larger vessels, especially for raking the decks of enemy vessels at close quarters with grapeshot.


 Henry Trollope

One notable British officer of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars period was to gain a reputation as “carronade crazy” and, though his career was to be a long and successful one, he is best remembered for two spectacular actions in which his use these weapons proved decisive.  Henty Trollope (1756-1839) had entered the Royal Navy at 14. In 1781, having seen extensive action in the American War of Independence, he achieved the coveted rank of “post captain” at the young age of 25. His first command was the frigate HMS Rainbow. Though the war was by then in its final stages, active hostilities between Britain and France were still in full swing and 1782 found Trollope on patrol off the northern coast of Brittany.

As Trollope commanded her, HMS Rainbow was an experiment – a 35-year old 44-gun frigate that had been re-armed entirely with carronades. She now carried a total of 48 of them – 20 68-pounders on her main-deck, 22 42-pounders on her upper deck, 4 32-pounders on her quarter-deck, and 2 32-pounders on her forecastle. This gave her a “weight of metal” – the total discharged in a single broadside of 1238 pounds. This compared with a broadside weight of metal of only 318 pounds if she were to be armed as a conventional frigate mounting only long guns. It should also be noted that the largest guns carried by line-of-battle ships was the 32-pounder long gun.  The disadvantage was however that Rainbow would have to come to very close range with an enemy before she could loosen her enormous firepower and during the approach she would be vulnerable to fire from conventional weapons. In a worst case, a skilful enemy commander might be able to manoeuvre nimbly so as to stay outside Rainbow’s range and batter her into submission with long-range fire. In 1782 however, with the carronade still a novelty, and the possibility of any frigate being entirely armed with them was a remote one, thereby giving Rainbow the potential for surprise.


Hébé’s sister Prosperine (seen here as HMS Amelia, following capture in 1785)
Painting by John Christian Schetky (1778 – 1874)

On 4th September 1782, off the Isle du Bas, Rainbow sighted a French frigate which was escorting a small convoy from Saint-Malo to Brest. Trollope immediately ordered a chase. The enemy proved to be the Hébé and her armament was typical for a French or British frigate of the period – 28 18-pounders and 12 8-pounders. The French commander, the Chevalier de Vigney, could reasonably expect an evenly matched contest and – unwisely – allowed Trollope’s vessel to close. It was only when Rainbow opened fire with her bow-chasers, and when several large shots struck the Hébé, that it was apparent that something unusual was involved. The French vessel returned fire without great effect and both ships then manoeuvred for advantage for the next hour and a half – Trollope obviously concerned about keeping the range short. He finally got into position to launch a single devastating broadside that was some four times heavier than the French could respond with. This was enough to decide the duel. The Hébé’s foremast was brought down by a single 68-pound shot, her steering was disabled, and her second captain and four men killed. No one was hurt on board the Rainbow. The Chevalier de Vigney struck his colours without offering further resistance, convinced that another two or three of Rainbow’s broadsides would have sunk his frigate.

As Trollope’s prize, Hébé was purchased into the Royal Navy. Her hull-form was regarded as outstanding and she subsequently served as an inspiration for future British frigate designs. She retained her own name initially – as was the custom with captured warships – but she was renamed HMS Blonde in 1805, serving a further five years thereafter. Rainbow’s useful life was nearing an end and she was demoted to harbour service from 1784 until her disposal in 1802.

Trollope’s career was however only taking off and in 1795 he was to fight an even more remarkable action in which carronades were again to prove a critical factor.

The gap between the American War – in which France, as usual, sided against Britain – and the next conflict Britain would fight with France, the Revolutionary War, was a short one, just ten years. In this decade however the British government did what governments have done through history – once victory was gained it was assumed that no further conflict was likely in the near future and that economic advantage could be achieved by standing down armed forces, disposing of warships and running down stores. This was to offer what is now called a “peace dividend”. It was to prove an illusion once revolution erupted in France and launched more than two decades of warfare on a global scale. Britain’s new was began in early 1793 and by then large numbers of warships that had proved so essential in the earlier conflict had by now been disposed of. More ships were needed –and as soon as possible. New construction was immediately committed to but, until these vessels were completed and commissioned, stopgaps were essential.

  East Indiaman Woodford by Samuel Atkins (1787-1808). Glatton would have looked generally similar
(with acknowledgement to the WikiGallery.ord)

One such stopgap measure was to purchase ten “East Indiamen” – stoutly built trading vessels in the service of the East India Company and well suited to long ocean voyages. Typical of these was the Glatton, a 1253-ton ship, pierced with gun ports like all of her kind and carrying defensive armament to protect her against Algerine corsairs off North Africa and other pirates in Eastern Seas. By the time she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1795 she had already participated in the capture of a French brig, Le Franc, while part of a trading convoy. On being taken into the Navy, command of her was assigned to Captain Henry Trollope, who had the responsibility for arming and commissioning her, and getting her into service as soon as possible. Trollope, building on his previous experience, made maximum use of the latitude allowed him and armed Glatton entirely with carronades rather than with the usual mix of long guns. A total of twenty-eight 68-pounder carronades were mounted on the lower deck and twenty-eight 32-pounder carronades on the upper. All were on slides rather than trucks but the vessel’s gun ports were too small to allow training other than on the beam. Added to this was the fact that the deck layout did not allow mounting of bow-chasers or stern-chasers. Careful manoeuvering of the entire ship would therefore be needed to bring her firepower to bear.


  East Indiaman – contemporary engraving

Classed as a fourth-rate, Glatton was assigned to the North Sea Fleet, under Admiral Adam Duncan. On the 14th July 1794 she was directed to sail to join a squadron of two ships of the line and several frigates cruising off the Dutch coast, the Netherlands being by this stage a French satellite.  In the early afternoon of the 16th, close to the Dutch naval base Helevoetsluis, Trollope and the Glatton sighted a powerful enemy squadron. This consisted of consisted of six large frigates, a brig, and a cutter. One of these, as far as could be made out, mounted 50 guns, two 36, and the other three 28.

Given these odds, Trollope might be forgiven for judging discretion to be the better part of valour but he banked instead on the same advantage that had proved so decisive in his earlier action with HMS Rainbow – the surprise element and the massive firepower of the carronades if the range could be closed. He therefore ordered Glatton to be cleared for action and steered towards the enemy. On sighting Glatton the other vessels shortened sail to keep their station in line. It was late evening, though still light, when Trollope drew level with the third ship in the enemy’s line. That he was allowed to come so close is a mystery, as is the fact that the enemy was so rigidly attached to line tactics in the circumstances. Trollope hailed this third ship, and finding that she was French, ordered her commander to strike his colours. Instead of doing so, the Frenchman not surprisingly responded with a broadside. Glatton, at a separation of only thirty yards, unleashed her own broadside, one comparable to that of a ship of the line. The other enemy ships now – at last – manoeuvred to surround Glatton, the two headmost vessels tacking about so that one placed herself alongside to windward, and the other on the Glatton’s bow, while the remaining ships engaged her on her lee-quarter and stern.


 French frigate Incorruptible – one of Glatton’s opponents

Glatton’s awesome firepower was mitigated by the fact that her crew was insufficient to man her guns on both sides simultaneously. The solution was to divide each gun-crew into two gangs. One loaded and ran out the gun, leaving the most experienced hands to aim and fire it while they ran across and loaded and ran out the gun on the opposite side. Fire was now continuous, the range on each side so close that Glatton’s yard-arms were nearly touching those of the enemy. Her massive firepower was by now inflicting serious damage and the French commodore tried to decide the issue by having his lead ship attempt to drive the Glatton on to a nearby shoal. By skilful manoeuvring Trollope tacked to avoid this and while the French vessel was herself doing the same he managed to rake her. His own masts yards and sails were by now badly damaged and though further damage was inflicted on the enemy it proved impossible to manoeuvre effectively to bring his cannonades into play. The enemy vessels stood off as darkness fell and through the night Trollope’s crew was occupied in strengthening masts and yards, and in bending fresh sails. By daylight Glatton was in a fit state to renew the action – and the light also revealed that the enemy squadron was now running for the protection of the port of Flushing. Trollope followed for two hours but as he had no hope of reinforcement, and as the wind was blowing on shore, he was compelled to haul off and steer for Yarmouth Roads, where he arrived on the 21st.

Trollope with the mortally wounded Marine Captain Henry Ludlow Strangeways on HMS Glatton

It was subsequently found that all the enemy ships had been badly damaged, one sinking in Flushing harbour after arrival. The largest, with which the Glatton was chiefly engaged, was the Brutus, a “74” 300 tons larger and cut down to some 50 guns, of which 46 were 24-pounders. Also present were the frigates IncorruptibleMagicienne and Républicaine. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the action was that although the French losses must have been heavy (though undetermined), Glatton’s casualties were two wounded only, one of whom, the captain of Marines, died subsequently.

Trollope’s achievement was immediately recognised as unprecedented. He had deliberately engaged six other powerful ships simultaneously, and had put them to flight. He was rewarded with a well-deserved knighthood.  He was to retain command of Glatton for three more years, still in the North Sea fleet and one of his notable achievements was persuading her crew not to join the Nore mutiny in 1797. He went further – by threatening to unleash Glatton’s firepower on two other ships that were in open mutiny, he induced their crews to return to duty. Promoted to command of the “74” Russell, he was to participate in Duncan’s victory at Camperdown later the same year.

And Glatton? She was converted in due course the more conventional armament – her “carronades-only” surprise value could only be of limited duration – and she was to see extensive action in the North Sea, Baltic and the Mediterranean until being hulked for harbour service in 1814.

Click here to return to Steam, Steel and Strife