Tuesday 14 March 2017

More Privateer Action: HMS Wolverine, 1799

 My blog of February 10th of this year – accessible through the bar to the right – dealt with privateering action in the English Channel in 1793, at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. It demonstrated that even at this very early stage the naval warfare in the “Narrow Seas” between Britain and the European coastline was to be of a quite savage nature, not unlike the battles that were to be fought by British and German coastal forces in the same waters in World War 2. The pace of action was not to let up in the years that followed as French privateers, often of very small size, darted out to prey on British coastal traffic and retired quickly to well-defended bases such as Calais. The war against them was to be waged not by the mighty battle-fleets or their supporting frigates but by small handy craft such as brigs and cutters, heavily armed for their size. The following account, drawing largely on information in the same W. Clark Russell book of 1889 as my previous blog, relates to another small-scale but epic battle that was typical of this aspect of the larger conflict.

HMS Wolverine 1798 - her rounded civilian bows
betray her civilian origin
HMS Wolverine was a civilian-owned collier before being purchased by the Royal Navy in 1798 for conversion to an armed brig. Her armament was powerful – only two of her guns were long 18-pounders and her others were all carronades, six of them 24-pounders and six 12-pounders. The carronades were murderously efficient weapons at short range and gave a craft such as the Wolverine a “punch” out of all proportion to their size. She was to see service immediately after commissioning by Commander Lewis Mortlock when she supported a “Dieppe 1942” type raid on the port of Ostend. On January 3rd 1799 she was cruising off the French port of Boulogne, some twenty miles from the English coast. Weather conditions were poor but two large French armed luggers were spotted. These were later identified as the fourteen-gun Le Furet and the eight-gun Rusé, all weapons being four-pounders. Their combined crews were roughly four times the 70 men carried by Wolverine – a potentially decisive factor should it come to boarding. These were typical privateers of the English Channel and such craft usually fled from confrontation with naval units – their objective was capture of rich commercial prizes rather than combat – and Mortlock realised that to bring them to action it would be necessary to play the role of a merchantman, a ruse that Wolverine’s civilian lines would assist. He accordingly hoisted Danish colours and, as expected, the luggers bore down on him and hailed. Asked for his identity, Mortlock answered that he was en-route from Plymouth to Copenhagen.  All his guns were manned, their crews out of sight and to all appearances Wolverine looked like an unarmed and attractive commercial prize.

An armed French lugger of the period
Le Furet and Rusé possibly looked similar
Mortlock’s deception paid off. As the unsuspecting Le Furet drew close, British colours were run up in place of the Danish and a full broadside unleashed. Given the disparity in firepower the only French hope now lay in boarding. Le Furet accordingly ploughed on towards Wolverine’s starboard quarter and crashed her bowsprit between the mizzen-shrouds and the mast while small-arms fire were poured on to her decks from the British tops. Close on Le Furet’s heels the Rusé came in on Wolverine’s port bow. From both luggers French boarders now poured across and Wolverine’s gunners had to abandon their weapons to join in the close combat on deck. The four-to one disparity in crew numbers was firmly in favour of the French and the fighting was now of a close, hand to hand, nature. According to Russell’s account, one Frenchman in particular “was observed to be cheering his men and beating them forward with the flat of his sword. The plucky rascal sprung to the top of the round house, where he stood hysterically yelling to his people and flourishing his weapon. Mortlock, supposing him to be the captain of the privateer, rushed at him. The Frenchman snapped a pistol in his face; it missed fire; he drew out another pistol but before he could level it Mortlock had plunged his half-pike into his body and he went overboard.” The resistance seems to have been so resolute that the French did not press their advantage with any great enthusiasm. A diversion was created by men from Le Furet throwing bags full of incendiary material through Wolverine’s stern windows and starting a fire. This drew the British crew away to fight the conflagration and in the confusion the French boarders withdrew, cut the lashings that bound their luggers to the Wolverine, and made off. Wolverine, scarred but triumphant, retired to Portsmouth.

Lewis Mortlock - young, handsome and doomed
Reading of such close actions one is often struck by how light the casualties could be. Wolverine lost two men, one of them Commander Mortlock, who had been badly wounded. He died in his mother’s arms a week later and his funeral was attended by every captain then in Portsmouth. A touching footnote is that his Newfoundland dog, who had been on board Wolverine throughout the action, survived unscathed.  French losses were heavier – a total of nineteen killed or dying of wounds shortly afterwards, plus many wounded who survived. Among the dead were Le Furet’s captain – possibly the “plucky rascal” whom Mortlock had slain – and three officers from the Rusé. The disproportion in losses may be partly explained by the surprise Wolverine unleashed on her unsuspecting attackers and another factor is almost certainly that the British crew’s stricter discipline and better training made them more effective than the privateersmen.

Commander Lewis Mortlock’s name is a forgotten one today, yet he was one of the thousands of brave, promising, splendid men whose professionalism was to save Britain and Europe from French domination. We owe him, and those like him, a debt.

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