“Make a signal, Mr. Le Page! Order that Plymouth brig to keep to better station!”
Captain Sir James Saumarez paced the quarter deck of his frigate ‘Crescent’ in pensive mood. The convoy of merchant ships he was escorting to St Peter Port had been no trouble but he knew there was always a danger that French ships could attack at any time. He himself had already had some success. In the previous year, 1793, he had taken the French frigate ‘Reunion’ off Cherbourg in – and not a man lost!
Now he had a squadron of 3 frigates, the ‘Crescent’ – his flagship, ‘Druid’ and ‘Eurydice’ as well as the lugger ’Valiant’ under his command.
Saumarez scanned the seas – the wind was bringing them down quickly towards the northern most tip of Guernsey.
Suddenly a cry broke into his thoughts
He looked up to the crow’s nest where the lookout was pointing excitedly to the east.
“Sail Ho Sir!”
Saumarez spun round and shouted:
“Make a signal Mr. Le Page!. Order the ‘Valiant’ to investigate!”
The crew, busy about their tasks around the ship, were suddenly alert with anticipation and excitement.
“Sir!” Mr. le Page’s voice rang out above the wind.
“‘Valiant’ reports Swedish Colours!”
Saumarez sensed the disappointment of his crew as they resumed their duties.
Suddenly there was a sharp crash and a boom! Gunfire!
“‘Valiant’ reports the ships are flying French colours, Sir.”
“Flying false colours!” snapped Saumarez and then he quickly rapped out his orders.
“Beat to quarters First Lieutenant. Signal ‘Valiant’ to turn the convoy to Plymouth. ‘Druid’ and ‘Eurydice’ form a line on the flag!”
As the frigates drew into line behind the ‘Crescent’, ‘Valiant’ scuttled northwards to shepherd the convoy away from danger.
Saumarez now weighed up his options. He could see that there were 5 French ships, all larger than the ‘Crescent’.
“I must draw these ships away from the convoy and away from Guernsey.” he thought.
He turned back to le Page.
“Signal the squadron to come about.”
With watch-like precision the three frigates turned and headed down the west coast of Guernsey drawing the French ships after them- but ‘Druid’ was a slow sailor and the enemy were gaining rapidly.
“Time for a diversion.” thought Saumarez.
“Signal ‘Druid’ to make for Lihou Island Mr. le Page!”
Crash! Boom! The cannon flashed and roared and the French ships hesitated. ‘Crescent’ and ‘Eurydice’ turned away, their task completed as ‘Druid’ sailed away to safety.
But still the French came on.
‘Crescent’ turned alone, her guns spitting defiantly at the enemy while ‘Eurydice’ now made good her escape to the south west.
Now the odds were just 5 to 1 – the ‘Crescent’ was alone.
A figure was making its way along to the deck.
“Begging your pardon Sir James. Can I be of assistance?”
“Good Heavens Breton, what are you doing up on deck, Have you taken leave of your senses. You are a passenger man. Go below! I won’t have you risking your life.”
Jean Breton, a fisherman and pilot from Cobo, stood his ground.
“I know these waters like the back of my hand. In a few more minutes the French will have you surrounded but I know a way out! They will not follow you through those rocks and I know a safe passage. Put the ‘Crescent’ through there Sir James – between Suzanne and Les Grunettes.”
“Are you mad Breton! These rocks can tear a ship to shreds- are you sure you know your marks?”
“Aah Sir James but I do. Yon’s my little cottage and there is your bloney great house. Lay the ‘Crescent’s’ head on that line and the rocks cannot harm you!”
And they did – and they didn’t.
Islanders, including the Militia and the Governor had been watching fearfully from the shore. As the French ships slunk away, ‘Crescent’ made her way round the North of the Island to the sound of loud cheering.
James Saumarez and his crew had not captured any ships or received any ‘prizes’, but none of their frigates had been taken, there was no captured convoy and – most importantly – Saumarez had foiled a proposed invasion of Guernsey – which had been the objective of the French all along.