Thomas Cochrane and the Battle of the Basque Roads, April 1809

Every Man Will Do His Duty,

Thomas Cochrane and the Battle of the Basque Roads


Lord Cochrane, The Tenth Earl of Dundonald.[1]

“His courage, ingenuity and resource have never been surpassed: neither, unfortunately, has his lack of tact. His ship’s companies appear to have loved him, but he had a genius for fighting his superiors as well as the French…”[2]

“… the idea that the service as a whole was enthused by ‘the Nelson touch’ is far from correct, as the lethargic attack upon the French fleet in the Basque roads in 1809 demonstrated. Lord Cochrane, the hero of the debacle, was disgusted that more enemy ships were not destroyed by a fleet that played it safe. At stake, he believed, was that vital potency that Nelson had bequeathed. ‘If,’ he wrote after a court martial had acquitted his commander-in-chief, ‘the anticipation of possible danger is to awe a British fleet, when the enemy is within its reach, and by an effort of no uncommon enterprise might be destroyed, we must take our farewell of those gallant exploits … that have thrown a luster over the annals of our country.’”[3]

Thomas Cochrane was a firebrand frigate commander and master of littoral warfare. Known for his antagonistic responses to authority, Cochrane’s naval career became intensely political. In addition to speaking against government corruption as an MP, Cochrane led the naval efforts of the revolutionary Chilean, Brazilian and Greek causes.

Cochrane’s uncompromising approach to warfare, and the controversial fruits it tended to bear, is best illustrated by the case of the Basque Roads, 11-15 April 1809.


Cochrane’s recruitment poster for HMS Pallas.[4] Note Cochrane’s inflated gun count which likely included carronades.

In 1804, Cochrane was appointed commander of HMS Pallas of 32 guns, and sent to cruise the Azores for Spanish shipping. His fortune quickly secured by a number of successful prize captures, Cochrane turned to politics and stood for parliament in the summer of 1806. After the application of liberal bribes, Cochrane was elected in October as MP for the rotten borough of Honiton.[5] In May 1807 he was elected as an independent representative for Westminster.

In the House of Commons, Cochrane’s advocacy for reform resulted in a hasty return to sea. With the Mediterranean fleet under Lord Collingwood, Cochrane was made captain of HMS Imperieuse. In January 1808 he was given a roving commission to intercept and harass the enemy as opportunity afforded.

Cochrane’s success during this phase of his career, described by Arthur Herman as “the single most valuable commission in Royal Navy history”,[6] led to Cochrane’s selection by First Lord of the Admiralty Mulgrave to advise on the raid planned for the Basque Roads where a large French squadron was being massed.


Admiral of the Fleet, James Baron Gambier.[7]

Admiral Lord Gambier, Channel Fleet commander, was responsible for the blockade of the Basque Roads forces. Gambier was a distinguished battleship commander, notable for being the first to break the enemy line at the Glorious First of June as Captain of HMS Defence.[8] Made Baron following the bombardment and capture of the Danish Fleet at the Second Battle of Copenhagen, Gambier, with knowledge of blockade and siege tactics, was a natural choice for Channel Fleet command.


Location of the battle.[9]

Nevertheless, First Lord Mulgrave was disappointed with Gambier’s sluggish persecution of the reduction of the Basque Roads force. The difficulty of attacking the inner anchorage, combined with Gambier’s lethargy, prompted Mulgrave to seek outside solutions.[10] Cochrane was brought in to move things along.

Cochrane arrived at the Admiralty in March 1809 and prepared a plan of attack involving the use of fireships. Gambier considered the dispatch of Cochrane to assist him as unnecessary and at the worst, insubordinate. Furthermore, Gambier was distrustful of Cochrane’s plan of attack with fireships.[11] When Cochrane arrived with the Channel Fleet, although greeted “warmly” by Gambier, Cochrane sensed resentment from the other Channel Fleet captains, wary of the outsider brought in over their heads by the Admiralty.[12]

Gambier’s force was powerful. The fleet comprised the, “120-gun Caledonia, two 80-gun ships, eight 74-gun ships, one 44-gun heavy frigate, four other frigates, three sloops, seven gun brigs, three smaller craft,” in addition to the Congreve rocket-ships, twenty fireships, four explosion ships, and two bomb vessels.[13] The explosion ships were packed with 1500 lbs of gunpowder and fitted with rockets.[14]


Plan of attack, showing location of French ships.[15]

British Order of Battle:

Caledonia (120), Caesar (80), Gibraltar (80), Donegal (74), Bellona (74), Hero (74), Illustrious (74), Resolution (74), Revenge (74), Theseus (74), Valiant (74), Imperieuse (38), Aigle (36), Unicorn (32), Pallas (32), Indefatigable (44), Emerald (36), Mediator (32), Beagle (18), Doterel (18), Foxhound (18), Insolent (14), Encounter (12), Conflict (12), Contest (12), Fervent (12), Growler (12), Lyra (10), Redpole (10), Whiting (4 – fitted as rocket ship), Nimrod (10 – fitted as rocket ship), King George (10 – fitted as rocket ship), Thunder (8) (bomb), Ætna (8) (bomb), 20 fireships, 3 Congreve rocket barges.

The French force was under the command of Admiral Zacharie Jacques Allemand and moored in two lines with a frigate screen: “Elbe (40 guns), Tourville (74), Aquilon (74), Jemmappes (74), Patriote (74), and Tonnere (74); a center line, of the ships Calcutta (troopship), Cassard (74) Regulus (74), Ocean (120), Ville de Varsovie (80), and Foudroyant (80); and an outer line, of the ships Pallas (40), Hortense (40), and Indienne (40).” Backing this force were 2000 troops manning shore batteries (it was these batteries that particularly concerned Gambier).[16] Furthermore, Allemand had positioned his ships in staggered moorage such that the lines could fire through each other without risk.[17]

Gambier had dispatched the Unicorn to investigate the harbour on March 27, however Gambier’s information was sorely deficient, “at best a perfunctory examination.” Cochrane thus spent April 3rd and 5th gathering intelligence on the state of the defences personally, reporting back to Gambier.[18] Cochrane’s reconnaissance suggested no more than a dozen cannon and mortar in the Ile d’Aix battery, possibly as many as twenty. Gambier was convinced the battery’s strength was closer to 50 guns.[19] More significantly, Cochrane’s close reconnaissance indicated that the guns were in poor condition. In fact, the batteries were manned by conscripts.[20]


Fireships attack the Regulus, night of 11 April 1809. Drawing by Louis-Philippe Crepin.[21]

The fireships arrived on 10 April, along with HMS Beagle, and William Congreve himself, aboard the Cleveland.[22] Orders were issued for the night of the 11th.[23]

Allemand was by now aware of the fireships and the likely British plan of attack and prepared defenses: ships boats were placed in the water to tow away the fireships, and sails were reduced to minimize flammable material.[24]

Cochrane personally led the fireship attack at the Basque Roads on the night of 11 April, beginning at 8:30 pm.[25] Two of the explosion vessels were moved into position. At 9:30 Cochrane ordered the fuses lit. Cochrane and his skeleton crew then took to boats and returned to Imperieuse.[26]

The first ships possibly damaged the 2 mile wide harbor boom (a chain of anchor cable) that covered the harbour entrance, however it was actually cleared by HMS Mediator as it led the fireship assault.[27]

Next the fireships attacked, launching rockets as they closed with the anchored fleet.

Many of the fireships failed to get into position or were grounded. The bomb vessel Aetna threw its shells against the enemy batteries, and was supported by rockets and the distant broadsides of Imperieuse, Unicorn, Pallas, and Aigle. The general scene was one of chaos with ships ramming one another and fireships burning in the anchorage.

As dawn broke on the morning of 12 April, 1809, Cochrane saw that the French fleet had in part been immobilized, with some warships run-a-ground completely. Only the Foudroyant and Cassard remained afloat and mobile.

The French forces thus immobilized, Cochrane, at 6 am, signaled for support. He was refused it by Gambier who delayed until the tide had risen, and around 10 am closed to three miles from the harbor. There he anchored, ordering only the Aetna and some other bomb ships to continue the engagement.[28] Meanwhile, the French fleet was slowly regaining its mobility, a combination of rising tide, lighter ships (by throwing their guns overboard) and the tireless efforts of the crews to warp the ships back into deep water.


Destruction of the French Fleet in Basque Roads – April 12th 1809

Imperieuse (38) engages the enemy singlehanded.

Infuriated, after 12 pm, Cochrane brought the Imperieuse in alone and engaged the enemy’s warships about 1 pm. He was engaged singlehanded against the Calcutta, Aquilon, and Ville de Varsovie. Between 1:30 and 1:45 Cochrane repeatedly signaled for assistance.

Cochrane described his predicament in his autobiography, “I did not venture to make sail, lest the movement might be seen from the flagship, and a signal of recall should defeat my purpose of making an attack; the object of this being to compel the commander-in-chief to send vessels to our assistance, in which case I knew their captains would at once attack the [French] ships which had not been allowed to heave off and escape.”[29]

Finally recognizing Cochrane’s intentions, Gambier dispatched additional ships to assist (two ships of the line and seven frigates). Seeing the approach of the Channel Fleet, the three ships engaged by the Imperieuse surrendered one by one, the last at 5:30. The Calcutta was set afire and exploded, and the Aquilon was likewise set afire by the British, an operation during which Cochrane was nearly killed: “He was assisting the captain of the Aquilon to retrieve some personal effects from his ship before it was fired, and was seated in a gig when it was struck by a stray shot. Ironically, the only casualty was the French captain,” who was mortally wounded.[30]

The Tonnerre was set afire by its own crew to prevent captured and exploded shortly thereafter. At 10 pm, Cochrane dispatched a ship’s boat with the objective of conducting a rocket attack against the Ocean, although the attack was not made and the French flagship had in fact been abandoned.[31] Cochrane remained with the Aetna into the morning 13 April, still trying to conduct attacks against the Ocean. Later on the 13th, Cochrane conducted another assault against Ocean with all the light ships he could muster, Beagle, Aetna, Conflict, Contest, Encounter, Fervent, Growler, Whiting, Nimrod, and King George. [32]


Louis-Philippe Crepin’s depiction of Allemand’s force is disarray on 12 April 1809, showing Regulus run aground.[33]

Gambier instructed Cochrane to abandon his efforts and return to the flagship. Cochrane refused, carrying on with his efforts to destroy as many of the enemy warships as possible. Using his adhoc group of bomb and rocket ships, Cochrane was preparing to continue the battle on the morning of the 14th when Gambier again ordered him to the flagship. Cochrane was ordered to carry dispatches back to England, for which he departed on the morning of the 15th.[34]

In sum the French lost four warships and a frigate out of the 11 ships of the line originally in the anchorage.[35] Most of the surviving ships had lost their guns and over 200 crewmen were killed with 650 taken prisoner.[36] The Royal Navy suffered 10 men killed, 1 captured and 37 wounded.[37]

“The French government treated this disaster harshly. The French commanders were tried by court-martial; two were imprisoned, and Captain Jean Baptiste Lafon of the Calcutta was condemned and shot”.

Years later from St. Helena, Napoleon complained, “The French admiral was an imbecile… but yours was just as bad. I assure you that if Cochrane had been supported, he would have taken every one of the ships.”[38]


Cartoon satirizing Gambier for his hesitancy, with Cochrane eager to attack at right.[39]

Nevertheless, Gambier’s hesitancy had apparently lost what Cochrane considered a great opportunity to destroy the entire French squadron. Cochrane was “disgusted at the failure to exploit the success at the Aix Roads and to annihilate the enemy, as would have been expected of him by Horatio Nelson.”[40]

In the resulting Court Martial, Gambier was acquitted and Cochrane found guilty of libel. Cochrane returned to parliament and spoke out against the Admiralty on charges of corruption. Cochrane’s return to sea, this time with the North American Squadron, was waylaid by an unfortunate turn of events. In 1814, as a result of a stock manipulation scandal (involving futures purchased on fraudulent claims of Napoleon’s death), Cochrane was struck from the Navy list and then expelled from the Commons on 5 July and then actually imprisoned until July 1815. In this affair it seems possible that Cochrane had been setup by his rivals at court.[41] On the other hand, Cochrane’s guilt in this affair remains a possibility.[42]

After returning to Parliament to continue his political career, Cochrane in May 1817 accepted the offer of the Chilean government to assist in the development of the revolutionary navy against Spain. He arrived in Valparaiso on 28 November 1818. Recognizing the serious threat Cochrane presented to Spanish interests, the government of Spain had attempted to buy-off Cochrane before his departure.

In 1820 Cochrane became involved in a Chilean project to liberate Peru, during which he antagonized the Chilean and Spanish governments: the latter by capturing the last Spanish warship in the South Pacific, and the former by capturing the newly appointed Chilean “protector” of Peru’s treasury when payment to his sailors was refused.[43] Cochrane also became involved in the Brazilian and Greek revolutions. Cochrane became Earl of Dundonald on 1 July 1831 after the death of his father, and was restored to the Royal Navy with rank of Rear Admiral and with a general pardon by William IV in May 1832. Cochrane was made Admiral on 21 March 1851.


Albumen print of Cochrane, 1850s.[44]

Cochrane died on 31 October 1860. Cochrane was immortalized as the developer of the Chilean Navy, a debt Chile repaid through the legacy of his name.


Chilean dreadnought Almirante Cochrane as requisitioned aircraft carrier HMS Eagle.[45]

Likely the definitive modern source on Cochrane’s early career is John Sugden’s 1981 PhD Thesis for the University of Sheffield, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860)”, described by Nicholas Rodger as a “sober and critical life of Cochrane: a marvel indeed, but unfortunately unpublished.”[46] Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, it is freely available here.[47]


[2] Naval Review, review of Review of “Life of a Seaman. Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald.,” by E. G. Twitchett, The Naval Review 20, no. 2 (1932): 405.

[3] John Sugden, Nelson: The Sword of Albion (London: The Bodley Head, 2012)., p. 852

[4] J. R. Hill and Bryan Ranft, eds., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Frome, Somerset: Oxford University Press, 1995)., p. 147

[5] Andrew Lambert, “Cochrane, Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, January 2012).

[6] Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004)., p. 401


[8] Herman, To Rule the Waves., p. 401


[10] John Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818” (PhD, University of Sheffield, 1981)., p. 112


[12]; N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006)., p. 555


[14] Lambert, “Cochrane, Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860).”

[15] Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818.”, between pages 113-4

[16] ; Ibid., p. 116

[17] Ibid., p. 113

[18] Ibid., p. 117

[19] Ibid., p. 117

[20] Ibid., p. 120


[22] Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818.”, p. 123

[23] Ibid., p. 124




[27] Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818.”, p. 126


[29] Sam Willis, Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008)., p. 160

[30] Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818.”, p. 134

[31] Ibid., p. 136

[32] Ibid., p. 137


[34] Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818.”, p. 138

[35] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006)., p. 556

[36] Sugden, “Lord Cochrane, Naval Commander, Radical, Inventor (1775-1860): A Study of His Earlier Career, 1775-1818.”, p. 138

[37] Ibid., p. 119

[38] Ibid., p. 139


[40] Lambert, “Cochrane, Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860).”

[41] Ibid.

[42] Naval Review, review of Review of “Life of a Seaman. Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald.,” by E. G. Twitchett, The Naval Review 20, no. 2 (1932): 405.

[43] Lambert, “Cochrane, Thomas, Tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775-1860).”



[46] Rodger, The Command of the Ocean., p. 852