HMS Victory at Gibraltar
We all know of Nelson’s famous flagship, which was immortalised at Trafalgar and continues to be the oldest commissioned warship in the Royal Navy (indeed the world). However, by the time the Battle of Trafalgar took place, the ‘Victory’ was already a battle-scared veteran of numerous engagements. First launched in 1765, she remained in reserve and was not commissioned until 1778, a year before the outbreak of hostilities here in Gibraltar which became known as the Great Siege. Many scholars believe that the long time that elapsed between her launch and commissioning allowed her timbers to season improving her seaworthiness.
On 23rd July of that year she took part in an indecisive battle off Ushant (or Ile d’Ouessant, off the western tip of Brittany), as flagship of Admiral Sir Augustus Keppel’s Channel Fleet. She remained in the Channel Fleet for the next two years, being briefly assigned to Vice Admiral Hyde Parker’s North Sea convoy squadron protecting English shipping from the Dutch, then allied with the French. On 12th December, flying the flag of Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, she captured a French convoy off Ushant bound for America.
By 1782, ‘Victory’ was already garnering an extensive list of naval battle honours when she became Lord Howe’s flagship and took part in the Relief of Gibraltar on the 11th of October of that same year. The importance of this relief to the garrison cannot be overstated. The supplies that the ships brought allowed the Gibraltar garrison to continue to hold out against the besieging forces, but perhaps most importantly, the action secured a continuing British foothold at the entrance to the Mediterranean, a base that would allow them, by acting as a staging post for maritime traffic, to go on to create an empire.
Victory’s association with Gibraltar continued beyond this time. Between 1792 and 1794, the ‘Victory’ was the flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s Mediterranean Fleet, which occupied Toulon and captured Bastia and Calvi (Corsica), which Hood sought to use as British bases.
In 1795, Admiral Sir John Jervis broke his flag in Victory. With only half as many ships of the line as the French and Spanish combined fleets, Jervis consolidated his force at Gibraltar. On 14th February, 1797, he sailed with fifteen British ships to intercept a large Spanish convoy guarded by twenty seven ships of the line. In the ensuing engagement off Cape St. Vincent, the British broke the Spanish line and inflicted terrible damage on the Spanish flagship, ‘Principe de Asturias’ (112 guns), before forcing ‘Salvador del Mundo’ (112) to strike. ‘Victory’ lost only nine killed and wounded in the battle. The British also captured the first-rate ‘San Josef’ and the two-deckers ‘San Nicolás’ and ‘San Ysidro’. Their success was due in no small part to Admiral Lord Nelson, then in HMS Captain. Again, without the port facilities in Gibraltar, Jervis (or Lord St. Vincent as he became known) would have been unable to consolidate his fleet and once more the outcome of history would have been different.
Even though for many of us the most enduring image of the ‘Victory’ is the famous painting of her being towed into Gibraltar after Trafalgar by Clarkson Stanfield (1793-1867): we must remember that she was a regular visitor to the rock and as such played a vital part in its defence.
Image: The Relief of Gibraltar. 11th October 1782. The fleet under Lord Howe. Thomas Whitcombe (1760-1824). Oil.