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Hearts of Oak: The Battle of Quiberon Bay

Christopher Lloyd describes how Hawke’s victory over the Brest Fleet, on November 20th 1759, destroyed the last possibility of the French gaining the supremacy at sea necessary for their projected invasion of Britain.

On the same stormy afternoon of November 20th, 1759, that General Wolfe’s body was carried down from his home on Blackheath to be buried in Greenwich parish church, Admiral Sir Edward Hawke won the crowning victory of that Year of Victories.

The battle of Quiberon Bay set the seal on Pitt’s maritime strategy, the soundness of which had been so brilliantly demonstrated during that summer. Without the blockade of Brest and Toulon, the successes in Canada and India could not have been obtained, because it was the fleets under Hawke and Boscawen that prevented the French from sending reinforcements to their threatened possessions overseas.

What we call the Seven Years War was known to contemporaries as the Maritime War. Except for a small army in Hanover, Pitt refused to commit Great Britain to large-scale expeditions on the continent of Europe. The prize at stake was a maritime empire in the West and in the East, Pitt himself subordinating everything else at this stage of the war to the conquest of Canada.

By modern standards, the forces at his disposal were not large: an army that was a quarter the size of the French army, a navy of 70,000 men and a modest militia—in which Gibbon proudly served—that was called out with the greatest reluctance only when enemy landings seemed imminent. The hinge of this “system,” as Pitt called it, was a close blockade of the enemy ports which would give freedom of movement to amphibious expeditions overseas, while at the same time denying such mobility to the enemy.

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