Battle of Cape Finisterre (1805)

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Battle of Cape Finisterre
Part of the Napoleonic Wars
Battle of Cape Finisterre.jpg
Admiral Sir Robert Calder's action off Cape Finisterre, 23 July 1805, by William Anderson. The captured Spanish prizes Firme and San Raphael, are under tow on the right and the damaged HMS Windsor Castle, on the left.
Date22 July 1805
Result Indecisive [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]
British strategic victory [6] [7] [8] [9]
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg British Empire Flag of France.svg French Empire
Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg Spanish Empire
Commanders and leaders
Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Robert Calder

Flag of France.svg Pierre de Villeneuve,

Flag of Spain.svg Federico Gravina
15 ships of the line 20 ships of the line
Casualties and losses
198 dead or wounded [10] 647 dead or wounded, [10]
2 ships captured,
1,200 prisoners [11]

In the Battle of Cape Finisterre (22 July 1805) off Galicia, Spain, the British fleet under Admiral Robert Calder fought an indecisive naval battle against the combined Franco-Spanish fleet which was returning from the West Indies. Failing to prevent the joining of French Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve's fleet to the squadron of Ferrol and to strike the shattering blow that would have freed Great Britain from the danger [5] of an invasion, Calder was later court-martialled and severely reprimanded for his failure and for avoiding the renewal of the engagement on 23 and 24 July. At the same time, in the aftermath Villeneuve elected not to continue on to Brest, where his fleet could have joined with other French ships to clear the English Channel for an invasion of Great Britain.


Strategic background

The fragile Peace of Amiens of 1802 had come to an end when Napoleon formally annexed the Italian state of Piedmont and on 18 May 1803 Britain was once again at war with France.

Napoleon planned to end the British blockade by invading and conquering Britain. By 1805 his Armée d'Angleterre was 150,000 strong and encamped at Boulogne. If this army could cross the English Channel, victory over the poorly trained and equipped militias was very likely. The plan was that the French navy would escape from the British blockades of Toulon and Brest and threaten to attack the West Indies, thus drawing off the British defence of the Western Approaches. The combined fleets would rendezvous at Martinique and then double back to Europe, land troops in Ireland to raise a rebellion, defeat the weakened British patrols in the Channel, and help transport the Armée d'Angleterre across the Straits of Dover.

Villeneuve sailed from Toulon on 29 March 1805 with eleven ships of the line, six frigates and two brigs. He evaded Admiral Nelson's blockading fleet and passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 8 April. At Cádiz he drove off the British blockading squadron and was joined by six Spanish ships of the line. The combined fleet sailed for the West Indies, reaching Martinique on 12 May.

Nelson was kept in the Mediterranean by westerly winds and did not pass the Strait until 7 May 1805. The British fleet of ten ships reached Antigua on 4 June.

Villeneuve waited at Martinique for Admiral Ganteaume's Brest fleet to join him, but it remained blockaded in port and did not appear. Pleas from French army officers for Villeneuve to attack British colonies went unheeded except for the recapture of the island fort of Diamond Rock until 4 June when he set out from Martinique. On 7 June he learned from a captured British merchantman that Nelson had arrived at Antigua, and on 11 June Villeneuve left for Europe, having failed to achieve any of his objectives in the Caribbean.

While in the Antilles, the Franco-Spanish fleet ran into a British convoy worth 5 million francs escorted by the frigate Barbadoes, 28 guns, and sloop Netley. Villeneuve hoisted general chase and two French frigates with the Spanish ship Argonauta, 80 guns, captured all the ships but one escort.

On 30 June the combined squadron captured and burned an English 14-gun privateer. On 3 July the fleet recaptured Spanish galleon Matilda, which carried an estimated 15 million franc treasure, from English privateer Mars, from Liverpool, which was towing Matilda to an English harbour. The privateer was burned and the merchant was taken in tow by the French frigate Sirène.

The fleet sailed back to Europe, and on 9 July the French ship Indomptable lost its main spar in a gale that damaged some other vessels slightly. The Atlantic crossings had been very difficult according to Spanish Admiral Gravina who had crossed the Atlantic eleven times. So with some ships in bad condition, tired crews and scarce victuals, the combined fleet sighted land near Cape Finisterre on 22 July.


The fleets line up for battle, painting by William Anderson Battle of Cape Finisterre.jpg
The fleets line up for battle, painting by William Anderson
Defiance, Windsor Castle, Prince of Wales, Repulse, Raisonable, and Glory, an engraving after Thomas Whitcombe Calder's Action.jpg
Defiance, Windsor Castle, Prince of Wales, Repulse, Raisonable, and Glory, an engraving after Thomas Whitcombe
Calder's ship the ''Prince of Wales'' in the foreground, his fleet subdued in the patchy fog, by William Anderson Admiral Sir Robert Calder's Action off Cape Finisterre, 23 July 1805 RMG BHC0540.tiff
Calder’s ship the ‘'Prince of Wales’' in the foreground, his fleet subdued in the patchy fog, by William Anderson

News of the returning French fleet reached Vice Admiral Robert Calder on 19 July. He was ordered to lift his blockade of the ports of Rochefort and Ferrol and sail for Cape Finisterre to intercept Villeneuve. [12] The fleets sighted each other at about 11:00 on 22 July.

After several hours of manoeuvring to the south-west, the action began at about 17:15 as the British fleet, with Hero (Captain Alan Gardner) in the vanguard, bore down on the Franco-Spanish line of battle. In poor visibility, the battle became a confused melee. Malta formed the rear-most ship in the British line in the approach to the battle, but as the fleets became confused in the failing light and thick patchy fog, the commander of Malta Sir Edward Buller found that he was surrounded by five Spanish ships. [13] [14] After a fierce engagement in which Malta suffered five killed and forty wounded the British ship battled it out, sending out devastating broadsides from both port and starboard. At about 20:00 Buller forced the Spanish 80-gun San Rafael to strike, and afterwards sent the Malta's boats to take possession of the Spanish 74-gun Firme. [14] [15] [16] Calder signalled to break-off the action at 20:25, aiming to continue the battle the next day. In the failing light and general confusion some ships continued to fire for another hour.

Daybreak on 23 July found the fleets 27 kilometres (17 mi) apart. Calder was unwilling to attack a second time against superior odds, he had to protect the damaged Windsor Castle and Malta with her large captured Spanish prizes and he had to consider the possibility that the previously blockaded fleets at Rochefort and Ferrol might put to sea and effect a junction with Villeneuve's combined fleet. Accordingly, he declined to attack and headed northeast with his prizes.

Villeneuve's report claims that at first he intended to attack, but in the very light breezes it took all day to come up to the British and he decided not to risk combat late in the day. On 24 July a change in the wind put the Franco-Spanish fleet to the windward of the British the ideal position for an attack but instead of attacking, Villeneuve turned away to the south. When he arrived at A Coruña on 1 August he received orders from Napoleon to proceed immediately to Brest and Boulogne, but perhaps believing a false report of a superior British fleet in the Bay of Biscay, he returned to Cádiz, reaching that port on 21 August.


The battle was inconclusive and both admirals, Villeneuve and Calder, claimed victory. [17] The British human losses were 39 officers and men killed and 159 wounded; the Franco-Spanish losses 476 officers and men killed and wounded, with a further 800 ill. [18] Calder was relieved of his command, court-martialled, and sentenced to be severely reprimanded for his failure to renew the battle on 23 and 24 July. He never served at sea again. Villeneuve failed to push on Brest, retired to refit at Vigo, then slipped into Coruña, and on 15 August decided to make for Cadiz. The direction of Villeneuve on Cadiz ruined all hopes of Napoleon to make an invasion and landing on England, thus Napoleon, frustrated by Villeneuve's lack of élan, was forced to abandon his plan of invading Britain. Instead, the Armée d'Angleterre, renamed the Grande Armée, left Boulogne on 27 August to counter the threat from Austria and Russia. A few weeks after the battle he wrote: "Gravina is all genius and decision in combat. If Villeneuve had had those qualities, the battle of Finisterre would have been a complete victory."

Villeneuve and the combined fleets remained at Cádiz until they came out to their destruction at the battle of Trafalgar on 21 October.

Order of battle

British fleet

DeadWoundedRiggingMasts and sparsHull and others
Hero (74), Capt. Alan Gardner 14Much tornForemast and fore spars seriously damagedSeveral shots in flotation line
Ajax (74), Capt. William Brown 216Much tornTopsail sparA cannon blasted causing battery damages
Triumph (74), Capt. Henry Inman 56Much tornTopsail sparTwo dismounted cannons
Barfleur (98), Capt. George Martin 37Foremast and fore spar
Agamemnon (64), Capt. John Harvey 03Fore spar, mizzen mast and main spar
Windsor Castle (98), Capt. C. Boyles1035Much tornFore spar and most of foremast, main mast, main spar, foremast and bowsprit
Defiance (74), Capt. Philip Durham 17Much tornSpar of top mizzen sail, main mast, spar of foremast
Prince of Wales (98), Flagship of Adm. Calder, Capt. W. Cuming320Much tornSpar of foremast, spar of top mizzen mast and spar of main mastRudder completely ripped off
Repulse (64), Capt. the Honourable Arthur Kaye Legge 04Much tornBowsprit
Raisonnable (64), Capt. Josias Rowley 11Several sparsSome encrusted bullets
Dragon (74), Capt. Edward Griffith 04
Glory (98), Flagship of Rear-Adm. Sir Charles Stirling, Capt. Samuel Warren 11Much tornSpar of foremast
Warrior (74), Capt. Samuel Hood Linzee 00Much tornSome sparsShored starboard
Thunderer (74), Capt. William Lechmere 711Much tornMizzen mast, and spars of fore and main mastsSeveral encrusted shots
Malta (80), Capt. Edward Buller [20] 540Much tornLarger spars, and all masts
Egyptienne (40), Capt. Hon. Charles Fleeming
Sirius (36), Capt. William Prowse
Nile (lugger), Lieut. John Fennell
Frisk (cutter), Lieut. James Nicholson

Franco-Spanish fleet

(according to Juan Ramón Viana Villavicencio)

DeadWoundedRiggingMasts and sparsHull and others
Argonauta (80), Flagship of Lieutenant-General Federico Gravina, Flag-Captain Rafael de Hore Flag of Spain.svg 65Mizzen and fore masts knocked downCutwater torn down
Terrible (74), Commander Francisco Vázquez de Mondragón Flag of Spain.svg 17Much tornTwo cannons dismounted, slide ripped off, one shot flotation high
América (64), Comm. Juan Darrac Flag of Spain.svg 513All masts bullet-riddled60 shots
España (64), Comm. Bernardo Muñoz Flag of Spain.svg 523Much tornMizzen mast down, several sparsRudder partly obliterated, some damage in hull
San Rafael (80), Comm. Francisco de Montes (captured) Flag of Spain.svg 4197All tornUtterly dismantledBullet riddled
Firme (74), Comm. Rafael de Villavicencio (captured) Flag of Spain.svg 3560All tornFully dismantledShot riddled
Pluton (74), Comm. Cosmao-Kerjulien Flag of France.svg 1424
Mont-Blanc (74), Comm. Guillaume-Jean-Noël de Lavillegris   (DOW) Flag of France.svg 516
Atlas (74), Comm. Pierre-Nicolas Rolland Flag of France.svg 1552Captain Rolland wounded
Berwick (74), Comm. Jean-Gilles Filhol de Camas Flag of France.svg 311
Neptune (80), Comm. Esprit-Tranquille Maistral Flag of France.svg 39
Bucentaure (80), Flagship of Adm. Villeneuve, Comm. Jean-Jacques Magendie Flag of France.svg 55
Formidable (80), Flagship of Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, Comm. Letellier Flag of France.svg 68
Intrépide (74), Comm. Louis-Antoine-Cyprien Infernet Flag of France.svg 79
Scipion (74), Comm. Charles Berrenger Flag of France.svg 00
Swiftsure (74), Comm. Charles-Eusèbe Lhospitalier de la Villemadrin Flag of France.svg 00
Indomptable (80), Comm. Jean Joseph Hubert Flag of France.svg 11
Aigle (74), Comm. Pierre-Paulin Gourrège Flag of France.svg 60
Achille (74), Comm. Louis-Gabriel Deniéport Flag of France.svg 00
Algésiras (74), Flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles René Magon de Médine, Comm. Gabriel-Auguste Brouard Flag of France.svg 00
Cornélie (44), Flag of France.svg
Rhin (44), Comm. Michel-Jean-André Chesneau Flag of France.svg
Didon (40), Comm. Pierre-Bernard Milius Flag of France.svg
Hortense (40), Comm. Delamarre de Lamellerie Flag of France.svg
Hermione (40), Comm. Jean-Michel Mahé Flag of France.svg
Sirène (40), Flag of France.svg
Thémis (40), Flag of France.svg

See also


  1. Barnes, p.36 "Admiral Sir Robert Calder's squadron, stationed off Ferrol, intercepted him (Villeneuve) and fought a confused and inconclusive engagement. Although Calder managed to capture two Spanish ships, he was reprimanded, for the action had interfered with Barham's plans by failing to divide the enemy fleet and thus had left the situation unaltered.
  2. Moors, p. 1263 "The French had twenty-seven vessels, Calder but fifteen, and after an indecisive battle, in which two Spanish ships were taken, he was afraid to renew the engagement, and Villeneuve was thus enabled to reach Ferrol in safety.
  3. Alfred Thayer Mahan, p 303. "Two Spanish ships-of-the-line were captured, but the battle was otherwise indecisive. Calder hesitated to attack again, and on the 26th lost sight of the enemy, who, on the 28th, put into Vigo Bay"
  4. Alexander Myrick Broadley,p.224
  5. 1 2 Brytant p. 154
  6. Palmer, p. 198 The British although outnumbered by a third, had won the day
  7. Tucker p. 1039, Calder had a won victory with an inferior force
  8. Stewart p. 54 Cape Finisterre was a serious defeat for Napoleon
  9. Marriott p. 280 Sir Robert Calder's victory over Villeneuve at Cape Finisterre on 22 July 1805 p.280
  10. 1 2 Tucker, pg 1039
  11. Palmer, p.198
  12. Adkin. The Trafalgar Companion. p. 56.
  13. 1 2 Tracy. Who's who in Nelson's Navy. p. 66.
  14. The Annual Biography and Obituary. 1825. p. 72.
  15. The Gentleman's Magazine . 1805. p. 760.
  16. Brytant p. 153
  17. Weighly 1991, p. 343: Villeneuve reported to Paris on the day of the battle that he had 800 of his fleet "sick", and that everything capable of going wrong was doing so.
  18. The London literary gazette and journal of belles lettres, arts, sciences... p. 706
  19. Bennett "The Battle of Trafalgar", p. 115

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Coordinates: 42°53′39″N9°16′16″W / 42.8941°N 9.2711°W / 42.8941; -9.2711