How the Battle of Quiberon Bay powered Britain's empire

The Battle of Quiberon Bay, Nicholas Pocock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
On 20 November in 1759, British Navy ships led by Admiral Edward Hawke audaciously defeated a French fleet at the Battle of Quiberon Bay. This dramatic victory halted French plans for an invasion of England and gave Britain the naval power to create a worldwide empire that lasted for 200 years.

The French were amassing an invasion army in the Loire, so in June 1759 Hawke had been tasked with blockading their Atlantic fleet in Brest. 

By November the weather turned and Hawke was forced to take most of his ships to safety in Torbay, leaving a small number to watch the French. 

The French Admiral, Conflans, saw his opportunity and slipped out of Brest, heading south to join up with the invading force. 

The English ships spotted his escape and raced to tell Hawke, who was already on his way back from Torbay. 

The Admiral gave the order to chase down the French. 

The weather was on their side and they caught Conflans at open sea. With darkness coming, the French headed to the shallow, rocky Quiberon peninsula where they thought the British ships would not dare to follow without navigational charts or experience of the waters. 

But Hawke ignored the risk and ordered his ships to engage the French at close quarters. 

British fleet overtook ships at the French rear and panic took over. Some of the Conflans' fleet tried to swing round to face their foe, but took on water and capsized. Others ran aground. Some tried to escape the bay but were cut off. 

Darkness fell and the British ships dropped anchor. During the night a few of the French ships did manage to scatter and escape to the open sea. Others dropped their guns to escape across a sandbar, although they were blockaded until 1761 by another British squadron. 

Admiral Conflans' ship, Soleil Royal, was beached and then set on fire by the French, with the British doing the same to several others. 

The Battle of Quiberon Bay was one of the Royal Navy's greatest victories.

Not only did it remove the possibility of a French invasion, it tipped the balance of naval superiority to Britain, which would help create a worldwide empire that would flourish for two hundred years. 

Want to find out more? Join our Hearts of Oak tour with Andew Lambert, a historian, author and Professor of Naval History at King's College, London. 

Picture credit: The Battle of Quiberon Bay by Nicholas Pocock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons