Attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife
21st. and 24th. July 1797
“…. a left-handed admiral will never again be considered as useful”.
Nelson, 16th. August 1797.
For two hundred years, the Royal Navy had considered, pondered and imagined the prospect of capturing a Spanish treasure-ship homeward bound and laden with the riches of the silver mines of Spanish America. But how ? In the absence of radio, radar and the technology that the late twentieth century takes for granted, in those days if you couldn’t actually see the enemy then it was anyone’s guess as to where he was. How do you find a single ship in the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean by eyesight alone ?
Tenerife, a Spanish island, was a known land-fall and watering base for Spanish ships on their way home to Cadiz. Santa Cruz, a fortified town and harbour on the island, often acted as a safe haven for the galleons and their escorts on their long journeys from the Caribbean to empty their holds into the treasure chests of Spain. It was to Santa Cruz that Nelson now turned his attention. Reports suggested that a Spanish galleon was due there and on 14th. July, Lord St. Vincent, the Commander-in-Chief, sent an order to Nelson:
“You are hereby required and directed to take the ships named in the margin under your command and to proceed with the utmost expedition off the The Island of Tenerife and there to make your dispositions for taking possession of the Town of Santa Cruz by a sudden and vigorous assault.” Thus, Admiral Nelson took a squadron of four battleships and three frigates and the cutter Fox southwards to Tenerife.
As always, Nelson planned his attack carefully and he briefed the captains on exactly how they would make a dawn attack by their ship’s oared boats upon the unsuspecting sentries patrolling the walls and perimeter of the town and harbour. Arriving in the vicinity of Tenerife, they would stay over the horizon until night-fall. Then, under cover of darkness, they would launch their boats with about seven hundred sailors and marines to row silently towards the objective and then, landed in their positions, would make a sudden early morning rush at ill-prepared and half-asleep defenders. It was a good plan that looked right on paper and had the support of all the officers concerned.
It didn’t work. By daybreak, strong tides and adverse winds had scattered the boats and only a few had managed to get ashore. When Nelson heard what had happened he ordered HMS Theseus, his flagship, and other ships to carry out a bombardment of the defences but there were too few men ashore to make an assault and at dusk they were ordered to make their way back to the squadron far out at sea. It had been a complete failure. The defenders were now neither ill-prepared nor half asleep – a British squadron had come close to catching them unawares and the defenders were not going to let that happen again. Reinforcements were drawn from other parts of the island and distant white sails were a clear sign that the attackers hadn’t gone away.
The element of surprise had gone, an essential factor in any such attack, but a head-strong admiral decided to have another go at what still looked to him like an easy objective. After all, a German merchant trader caught up in the excitement had told Nelson that the town was poorly defended and this encouraged the admiral in his resolve. Whether the merchant intended to deceive we don’t know, but his advice was desperately wrong and it nearly cost the admiral his life.
Now Nelson made a new plan. This time he would personally lead a boat attack, mounted at night, head- on at the harbour and town walls. One thousand officers, sailors and marines, almost the entire manpower under his command, would embark in their ships boats and, in the dark, pull straight for the objective.
It went disastrously wrong. This time the defenders were ready. Lieutenant William Webley of HMS Zealous described what happened:
“We proceeded in four lines, Captains Troubridge, Hood, Miller and Waller leading the boats; Captains Bowen, Thompson and Fremantle attendant on the Admiral in their boats. We proceeded on until one o’clock … when we were ordered by Captain Bowen to lay on our oars as we had just passed the mole, the intended place of landing. At this instant the cutter was discovered and fired upon – and, before the boats could pull round in order, the Admiral pulled in for the mole with orders to follow. The alarm now became general and they opened a cross-fire from all sides of cannon and musketry so truly warm !”
Canon fire and musket flashes lit up the night as Nelson led his men into the teeth of a fire that wrecked some of the boats and felled men as soon as they set foot upon the land. Nelson, sword in hand leapt from his boat only to fall suddenly backwards in a hail of grape-shot that shattered his right arm just above the elbow. His sword clattered to the ground and blood poured from the sleeve of his tunic. His step-son, Lt. Josiah Nisbet grabbed him and applied a tourniquet while sailors lifted him back into the boat.
Lt. Nisbet ordered the boat to pull away into the dark in search of a ship and its surgeon to treat the wounded admiral. They found HMS Seahorse but, when Nelson realised where they were he refused to go on board. Betsy Fremantle, the Captain’s wife, was aboard and he didn’t want her to see him wounded because her husband was ashore with his own ship’s company; it would worry her for her husbands safety. Instead, he ordered the boat to pull away into the darkness to try and find his flagship HMS Theseus.
In the early hours of the morning Thomas Eshelby, Surgeon of HMS Theseus, wrote in his log: “1797. July 25. Admiral Nelson. Compound fracture of the right arm by a musket ball passing through a little above the elbow, an artery divided: the arm was immediately amputated and opium afterwards given.” There was no anaesthetic. First the shockingly cold knife through flesh, and then the grating, rasping of the agonising saw through shattered bone. Nelson tolerated the pain as thousands before him had done but the terrifying shock of cold instruments compelled him to issue an order that, in future, surgeons would put their instruments in warm water before using them.
Meanwhile, the situation ashore was becoming desperate. Captain Bowen had been killed and Captains Thompson and Fremantle wounded though still in action. Through sheer courage they and their men had charged straight into the gun batteries and managed to subdue them, spiking the guns and then moving deeper into the town but suffering serious casualties in the process. Captains Hood, Miller and Waller were faring no better. The town was well-prepared and snipers and concealed guns took a heavy toll upon the attacking sailors. Captain Troubridge and his men had missed the mole completely and landed through heavy surf and, finding their powder wet and unusable, had fought with cutlasses, swords and pikes in their fruitless search for Nelson’s group. He found Captain Waller. It was now, just as day broke, that Troubridge resorted to bluff, the only thing left to the attacking force. He raised a flag of truce and sent a Marine sergeant to offer the Spanish a way out of the situation: If the Spaniards didn’t surrender then he and his men would burn the town. No deal, and fighting resumed.
Now Troubridge had found Hood and Miller’s groups so Troubridge tried another “ultimatum” that was again rejected. The British force found refuge in the convent of San Domingo which offered a reasonably defendable position and, once again, Captain Troubridge, who was doggedly persistent in his pursuit of the original objective of the attack, devised another stategy. This time he sent two of the friars to deliver another message: In return for the surrender of the contents of the Royal Treasury and that of the Royal Company of the Phillippines, he and his men would go back to their ships. This too was rejected.
As the sun rose it soon became apparent that the British were in a hopeless position. Captain Hood, accompanied by Lt. Webley went to the Spanish commander to request terms of surrender suggesting that the British should be allowed to return to their ships without loss of honour in return for a promise that they would not make further attacks upon the islands. Don Antonio Gutierrez, the Commandant General of The Canary Islands acted as a gentlemen and, with great generosity, accepted these terms. It went further than this; the Spanish helped to ferry British wounded back to their ships and invited the officers to dine with them that evening. Nelson understood and accepted with humility the generosity shown to him in his defeat. In return for this he sent a barrel of English ale and a cheese to Gutierrez and the offer to carry the Commandant General’s dispatch reporting his victory to the Spanish authorities in Cadiz.
One hundred and fifty-three officers and men had been killed or wounded and Nelson, himself wounded and dejected accepted full responsibilty for what had happened. Pride and over-confidence had lulled him into believing that he and his men were invincible. Now he knew that he wasn’t and nor were they who served under his command.