HMS Victory - Early Service

Portrait of HMS Victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent February 14, 1797 by Derek G. M. Gardner

First Battle of Ushant

Victory was commissioned (put on active duty) in March 1778 under Captain John Lindsay. He held that position until May 1778, when Admiral Augustus Keppel made her his flagship, and appointed Rear Admiral John Campbell (1st Captain) and Captain Jonathan Faulknor (2nd Captain). Keppel put to sea from Spithead on 9 July 1778 with a force of around twenty-nine ships of the line and, on 23 July, sighted a French fleet of roughly equal force 100 miles (160 km) west of Ushant. The French admiral, Louis Guillouet, comte d'Orvilliers, who had orders to avoid battle, was cut off from Brest, but retained the weather gage. Manoeuvring was made difficult by changing winds and driving rain, but eventually a battle became inevitable, with the British more or less in column and the French in some confusion. However, the French managed to pass along the British line with their most advanced ships. At about a quarter to twelve, Victory opened fire on Bretagne of 110 guns, which was being followed by Ville de Paris of 90 guns. The British van escaped with little loss, but Sir Hugh Palliser's rear division suffered considerably. Keppel made the signal to follow the French, but Palliser did not conform and the action was not resumed. Keppel was court martialled and cleared and Palliser criticised by an inquiry before the affair turned into a political argument.

Second Battle of Ushant

In March 1780, Victory's hull was sheathed with 3,923 sheets of copper below the waterline to protect it against shipworm. On 2 December 1781, the ship, now commanded by Captain Henry Cromwell and bearing the flag of Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, sailed with eleven other ships of the line, a 50-gun fourth-rate, and five frigates, to intercept a French convoy that had sailed from Brest on 10 December. Not knowing that the convoy was protected by twenty-one ships of the line under the command of Luc Urbain de Bouexic, comte de Guichen, Kempenfelt ordered a chase when they were sighted on 12 December and began the battle. When he noted the French superiority, he contented himself with capturing fifteen sail of the convoy. The French were dispersed in a gale and forced to return home.

Siege of Gibraltar

In October 1782, Victory under Admiral Richard Howe was the fleet flagship of a powerful escort flotilla for a convoy of transports which resupplied Gibraltar in the event of a blockade by the French and Spanish navies. No resistance was encountered on entering the straits and the supplies were successfully unloaded. There was a minor engagement at the time of departure, in which Victory did not fire a shot. The British ships were under orders to return home and did so without major incident.

Battle of Cape St. Vincent

In 1796, Captain Robert Calder (First Captain) and Captain George Grey (Second Captain), commanded Victory under Admiral Sir John Jervis's flag. By the end of 1796, the British position in the Mediterranean had become untenable. Jervis had stationed his fleet off Cape St Vincent to prevent the Spanish sailing north, whilst Horatio Nelson was to oversee the evacuation of Elba. Once the evacuation had been accomplished, Nelson, in HMS Minerve, sailed for Gibraltar. On learning that the Spanish fleet had passed by some days previous, Nelson left to rendezvous with Jervis on 11 February. The Spanish fleet, which had been blown off course by easterly gales, was that night working its way to Cadiz. The darkness and a dense fog meant Nelson was able to pass through the enemy fleet without being spotted and join Jervis on 13 February. Jervis, whose fleet had been reinforced on 5 February by five ships from Britain under Rear-Admiral William Parker, now had 15 ships of the line.

The following morning, having drawn up his fleet into two columns, Jervis impressed upon the officers on Victory's quarterdeck how, "A victory to England is very essential at the moment". Jervis was not aware of the size of the fleet he was facing, but at around 0630 hrs, received word that five Spanish battleships were to the south-east. By 0900 hrs the first enemy ships were visible from Victory's masthead, and at 1100 hrs, Jervis gave the order to form line of battle. As the Spanish ships became visible to him, Calder reported the numbers to Jervis, but when he reached 27, Jervis replied, "Enough, Sir. No more of that. The die is cast and if there are 50 sail, I will go through them". The Spanish were caught by surprise, sailing in two divisions with a gap that Jervis aimed to exploit. The ship's log records how Victory halted the Spanish division, raking ships both ahead and astern, while Jervis' private memoirs recall how Victory's broadside so terrified Principe de Asturias that she "squared her yards, ran clear out of the battle and did not return".

Jervis, realising that the main bulk of the enemy fleet could now cross astern and reunite, ordered his ships to change course, but Sir Charles Thompson, leading the rear division, failed to comply. The following ships were now in a quandary over whether to obey the Admiral's signal or follow their divisional commander. Nelson, who had transferred to HMS Captain, was the first to break off and attack the main fleet as Jervis had wanted and other ships soon followed his example. The British fleet not only achieved its main objective (that of preventing the Spanish from joining their French and Dutch allies in the channel) but also captured four ships. The dead and wounded from these four ships alone amounted to 261 and 342 respectively; more than the total number of British casualties of 73 dead and 327 wounded. There was one fatality aboard Victory; a cannonball narrowly missed Jervis and decapitated a nearby sailor.

Reconstruction

On her return to England, Victory was examined for seaworthiness and found to have significant weaknesses in her stern timbers. She was declared unfit for active service and left anchored off Chatham Dockyard. In December 1796 she was ordered to be converted to a hospital ship to hold wounded French and Spanish prisoners of war.

However, on 8 October 1799, HMS Impregnable was lost off Chichester, having run aground on her way back to Portsmouth after escorting a convoy to Lisbon. She could not be refloated and so was stripped and dismantled. Now short of a first rate, the Admiralty decided to recondition Victory. Work started in 1800, but as it proceeded, an increasing number of defects were found and the repairs developed into a very extensive reconstruction. The original estimate was £23,500, but the final cost was £70,933. Extra gun ports were added, taking her from 100 guns to 104, and her magazine lined with copper. The open galleries along her stern were removed; her figurehead was replaced along with her masts and the paint scheme changed from red to the black and yellow seen today. Her gun ports were originally yellow to match the hull, but later repainted black, giving a pattern later called the "Nelson chequer", which was adopted by most Royal Navy ships in the decade following the Battle of Trafalgar. The work was completed in April 1803, and the ship left for Portsmouth the following month under her new captain, Samuel Sutton.