Protagonists: Admiral Sir Edward Hawke (23 ships), Britain and Marshal de Conflans (21 ships), France.
Result: Decisive British victory.
The British had been blockading the French fleet in Brest (Brittany in Western France) when a severe gale in early November forced them to seek shelter in Torbay (Southwest England) leaving behind a small squadron under Robert Duff to maintain the blockade of the French invasion transports in Quiberon. On the 14th November Conflans was able to slip out of Brest and head for Quiberon. Duff had received warning of this and despite the adverse weather conditions Duff split his squadron and headed for the high seas pursued by Conflans. It was at this moment the Hawke arrived on the scene and gave orders to attack the scattered French fleet.
Conflans decided to order his fleet to make for the shelter of Quiberon Bay thinking that the British would not follow due to the many hidden reefs and shoals and also their lack of knowledge of the area. Hawke, however, had other ideas and ordered his ships to form line ahead and give pursuit. The first shots were fired at about 2.30pm and by 4.00pm the first French ship struck its colours. By 5.00pm darkness had fallen and Hawke gave orders to anchor. Under cover of darkness several French ships managed to navigate their way through the shoals and escape to Rochefort while others made their way to Vilaine.
The French lost seven ships including Conflans’ flagship Soleil Royal. While the British lost two both of which ran aground. Ironically the French lost more ships to the shoals and reefs than they did to direct enemy fire.
The battle turned the course of the Seven Years war. The French were unable to regain their naval strength before the end of the war which prevented them from reinforcing their forces in the Americas (New France) and which led to the loss of most of their territories in the Americas. It also forced France to abandon her planned invasion of Britain. French trade was crippled forcing France to default on loans and by 1763 was forced to negotiate a peace settlement.
The land war in the Americas at this stage was relatively evenly balanced. Britain had captured France’s main stronghold in Quebec but at the time of the Battle of Quiberon Bay the French were threatening to retake Quebec and were awaiting reinforcements and supplies from France.
As a result of France’s defeat in the Seven Years war the British colonies no longer felt the need for Britain’s protection and resented, among other things, the increased levels of taxation being levied by Britain to pay for the war, which led eventually to the American War of Independence or American Revolution.
Alternatively, had the French won this battle they would have been able to resupply their forces in New France (Canada) and quite possibly drive the British out of North America completely. Would the United States of America now exist?
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