Saturday, September 15, 2018

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Tragedy on the Tow Way

Within the picture files of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum are photographs from World War II that remained classified until 2009.  At first glance, they might look like pictures taken after the attack upon Pearl Harbor.  Surrounding a huge crater on one side, fires rage out of control within the blackened skeletons of hangars with the gnarled and twisted remains of aircraft nearby, while on the other side, other fires smoulder from within the piles of timbers that were once barracks and chow halls. 
A group of officers (center) including Rear Admiral (upper half) Herbert F. Leary, who had replaced Adm. Manley H. Simons as commandant of the Fifth Naval District in May 1943, along with his chief of staff, Captain E.C. Raguet, observe rescue and recovery efforts at Chambers Field with his staff after an accidental explosion of aerial depth bombs at Naval Air Station Norfolk on September 17, 1943. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Looking south-southwest, Sailors attempt to move a station wagon that had driven into the crater left by a massive explosion of 24 aerial depth bombs that were in transit from Pier 2 of Naval Operating Base Norfolk to a magazine area on the far side of the east runway complex.  Several World War I-era barracks and a Chief Petty Officers' club in the background were reduced to splinters, while a newer brick fire station (R-43, also known as Fire Station 2) had most of its windows blown out. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

As emergency personnel arrive, three casualties of the explosion at the southeast corner of Chambers Field at NAS Norfolk lie where they were felled by shrapnel from the explosion. Note the holes torn into the cowling of the TBF Avenger they were working on. The body of a dog caught by the explosion is obscured by the detached bomb bay door in the photograph.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
On a nearby aircraft ramp in front of the hangars, the bodies of Sailors lie where they had been standing moments before, felled in an instant by a wall of shrapnel that pierced the aircraft they were standing under as though they were made of paper.

Another view of the heavily-damaged Avenger near the southeast corner of Chambers Field. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The shock wave of the explosion has clearly stove in the side of the Avenger and blasted way most of the canopy.  A dog that was standing under the aircraft still lies where it fell.  An unknown number of animals died in the blast. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)  

Two survivors look at the body of a dog, possibly a squadron mascot, killed in the explosion. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Although these photographs might look like they were taken in the aftermath of a devastating enemy attack, these pictures were not taken to document the carnage wrought by an enemy.  They were taken in the aftermath of a horrible accident that occurred near the main flight line of Naval Air Station Norfolk, right in the middle of Hampton Roads.
On the far side of the Avenger from the explosion site, a piece of shrapnel has torn clean through the center pontoon of a Curtiss SOC3 Seamew.  Thirty-three planes were affected by the blast, among those six were beyond repair, 15 required major overhaul and 12 were slightly damaged.(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Friday, September 17, 1943, started out  as a normal day at busy NAS Norfolk. Besides preparing American and Allied air wings for the complicated business of carrier-based combat, antisubmarine patrols constantly transited NAS Norfolk to scour thousands of miles of the open Atlantic for U-Boats that continued to threaten the east coast.  The threat had significantly abated from the year before, when the German submarines taking part in Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat) had attacked merchant shipping just off coastal Virginia and North Carolina virtually unopposed.  Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters equipped with secret radio direction-finding equipment and bristling with guns and and torpedoes now plied the coasts day and night.  The enemy submariners also faced a violent storm from the sky if they dared surface for long.  Navy dirigibles and seaplanes scanned thousands of miles of open ocean, and Army Air Corps Liberators, Navy Privateers, and other patrol aircraft would swoop in to strafe the subs if they were caught on the surface.  Diving did not automatically mean deliverance, however, as many of the aircraft were equipped with depth bombs equipped with hydrostatic fuses that were just as deadly as depth charges that the destroyers and cutters carried.

Within the hangar deck of the escort carrier Santee (CVE 29), en route from Hampton Roads to North Africa to take part in Operation Torch in November 1942, squadron ordnancemen check Mark 17 depth bombs that will be used against enemy submarines.  The Mark 17s, which weighed 325 pounds each, contained TNT explosive, but less than a year later, the Mark 47 depth bombs, which were the same size yet 30 pounds heavier and contained the much more powerful Torpex explosive, were being hauled around on the same support equipment. (Lt. Horace Bristol/ Naval History and Heritage Command image
Naval Weapons Station Yorktown, across Hampton Roads and up the York River, kept the patrol aircraft well-supplied with these depth bombs.  Their lethality increased when the explosive within the mines was changed from TNT to the more powerful Torpex (derived from "torpedo explosive") after a new loading facility capable of handling the new explosive was established at Yorktown in December 1942.  Each 355-pound depth bomb carried approximately 252 pounds of Torpex.    

A depth bomb similar to the ones that exploded at NAS Norfolk, enclosed by its retaining brackets and held up by its hoisting lug. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
At about 11:00 am, a truck towing four dollies carrying six of these depth bombs each, enclosed in metal brackets, was on its way from from Pier 2 on the naval operating base and was passing the southeast corner of Chambers Field on the naval air station en route east towards weapons magazines on the far side of the larger East Field (today known as Chambers Field).  Though the exact chain of events is unclear, one of the 24 depth bombs partially slipped from a dolly and began dragging down Tow Way Drive.  A Marine sentry saw the wayward trash can-sized metal canister smoking, ordered the driver to stop, and either the driver or the sentry alerted the nearby fire station.  What is clear is that Assistant Fire Chief Gurney Edwards made a heroic but unsuccessful attempt to head off what would become the worst disaster in NAS Norfolk's long history.   

An investigative photo showing the depth bombs and the brackets that held them in place during transport(Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Many of the photographs taken in the hours and days after the accident by photographers from the air station's public relations office were marked "Confidential" and remained under wraps for decades, yet the Hampton Roads Naval Museum now holds over 100 of them, from pictures taken during the firefighting and first response to the investigative phase.  
An investigative photograph showing fatigue or damage to one of the depth bomb brackets. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Along with the tragedy of those lives which were lost and possible clues to what might have caused the accident, the photographers also documented the heroic efforts to limit the damage caused by the tremendous explosion, look for and rescue the survivors, and treat the wounded. 
NAS Norfolk personnel pick through the remains of a barracks that was demolished in the explosion. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
In addition to Seaman 2nd Class Elizabeth Korensky, the only female killed in the disaster, there were other WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) probably injured, as well as female civilian employees of the nearby Assembly and Repair Department of the air station, which was also damaged.  Here an unidentified female is assisted into an official vehicle for transport away from the area of the explosion. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Local delivery trucks were pressed into service to help deliver the wounded away from the accident scene. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

At the damaged NAS Norfolk dispensary roughly 100 yards from the site of the explosion, stretcher bearers await admittance with some of the hundreds wounded in the accident.  many would be rerouted to the new Norfolk Naval Hospital compound established just south of the naval operating base (and today home to Fleet Forces Command), as well as Portsmouth Naval Hospital. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Navy doctors, nurses, and other personnel helping to assist the wounded (with the Sailor at the far left possibly wounded himself) at the NAS Norfolk dispensary discuss how to proceed while standing on the broken glass that covers the floor.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Sailors injured by the blast at nearby Chambers Field convalesce within the NAS Norfolk dispensary, which has itself been damaged.  Note the blown-out windowpane to the right. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Friday, September 7, 2018

One Century Ago: Greetings from NAS Hampton Roads

During your summer vacation, did you happen to pick up and mail any postcards?  Although not a widespread practice today, sending messages such as "Wish you were here" to friends and loved ones on the back of an inexpensive photograph or illustration of a favorite vacation scene became popular early in the last century, particularly after 1907, when areas for writing short messages became a common feature in the designs of postcards.   

There are a number of high-quality photographs of Naval Air Station Hampton Roads (known as NAS Norfolk after 1921) in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection, many of them taken 100 years ago to document construction work completed by contractors.  No official photo collections of NAS Hampton Roads' daily activities during World War I were mass-produced for public dissemination, however.  That is because official Navy photographers and other public affairs personnel were not yet stationed there.  Nevertheless there is an assortment of rare postcards in our collection made by enterprising civilian photographers who sold their wares, many in booklet form, to visitors or those stationed on the base.

The following is a selection of detachable post cards from a booklet that could once be found in souvenir shops and hotels in the area a century ago. In his book Greetings from Hampton Roads, Virginia (2008), postcard and paper collectables expert James Tigner Jr. pointed out that the height of postcard popularity in America spanned the years between 1906 and 1915.  More postcards were being produced around the times these postcards were made than ever before, yet they were being mailed more often than ever before as well, making these unused postcards something of a rarity today.
The Great Arch, one of the few structures left over from the 1907 Jamestown Exposition to be used by the Navy after the property was purchased in 1917, is toppped by a lookout station, framing a seaplane returning to the air station boat basin. The arch bridged the former exposition "Government Piers" which now hosted new seaplane hangars at each end.  The arch was finally removed during the Second World War. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The administration building was centrally located near the foot of the Government Piers, where only year before some of the first tent hangars stood.  The new dirigible hangar can be seen in the background to the southeast. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
Two Curtiss H-12 flying boats await their daily antisubmarine patrols at the ramp leading into the boat basin.  Although no H-12s were lost to enemy action during the war, the flying boat on the right (770) was lost on its way back from a naval regatta in Baltimore when it crashed into a building on nearby Willoughby Spit on December 13, 1918, killing two crewmen. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
 Curtiss HS-2L patrol seaplanes, each carrying a crew of three, were used both for regular antisubmarine patrols and for training new pilots.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
For the duration of World War I, at least three patrol missions would be launched daily from NAS Hampton Roads.  Before dawn, two single-engine HS-2 seaplanes each would depart north to Chincoteague and south to Morehead City, replenish, and return.  At about 1000, two larger two-engine H-12s would depart on long-range patrols, arriving back to the air station by mid-afternoon.  Daylight permitting, two additional HS-2s would depart for further patrols off the coast.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
A Curtiss HS-2 heads out in patrol.  Note the tricolor roundels on the wings.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
Kite balloons were a constant sight above the air station during World War I.  Note the Administration Building to the center right and the Pennsylvania House (which at the time served as an officer candidate school) in the far background to the left.  It is the only landmark that still exists today. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The first barracks complex specifically for the use of aviation personnel was constructed in the fall of 1917 and was once situated directly behind (south of) the North Carolina, Connecticut, and Rhode Island state houses left over from the Jamestown Exposition, which by then served as residences for senior officers.  The complex would be heavily damaged on September 17, 1943, when a trailer load of aerial depth bombs detonated nearby. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The North Carolina, Connecticut, and Rhode Island state houses left over from the Jamestown Exposition served as senior officers quarters at the time NAS Hampton Roads was established.  While the houses once looked north out over Willoughby Bay, the water was filled in to create an airfield and the houses were moved east near the other historic state houses to make way for more ramps and taxiways.  Unfortunately, both the North Carolina and Rhode Island houses were heavily damaged by fire some years later, but their remains were connected and rebuilt together as a bachelor officers' quarters that remains in operation on Dillingham Boulevard to this day. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
The back of the postcard booklet shows the last patrol of the day, probably photographed from the Grand Arch.  Since the camera is looking south-southeast, the sunset (or moonrise?) has probably been added for asthetic effect. In any case, no aerial patrols were conducted at night. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)  

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Repulse off the Capes: How Command Decisions at Sea Sealed an Army's Fate

This famous oil painting depicts the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes, capturing the initial line engagement of the British and French vanguards during the battle. (V. Zveg/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum Collection)
By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

On September 5, 1781, at about 4:10 pm, the French ship Réfléchi received a broadside at close range from the British ship Princessa, killing the ship’s commander, Captain Brune De Boades. Moments later, other lead ships of both the British and French lines of battle opened fire on one other, beginning a two-hour engagement now known as the Battle of the Chesapeake Capes. Hundreds of cannons blazed away in the waning afternoon sun as the eight ships of the French vanguard exchanged volleys of thunderous fire with the six ships of the British vanguard. Solid cannon shots crashed into wooden planking, rigging, sails, and crew, leaving in their wake gore soaked decks and passageways. Deadly splinters of various sizes were created by cannon shots crashing through planking; they sliced across the deck killing or maiming unlucky crew.  
A model of Ville de Paris in the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

From the decks of the massive 104-gun French flagship Ville De Paris, the man who had organized, planned, and led the French watched as one of his ships fired a well-aimed broadside into the British line. Upon seeing this display of martial prowess, the man declared, “Now that’s what I call fighting.” Standing at the towering height of 6’2 and wearing the bright red flaming sword ribbon of the Order of St. Louis, Vice Admiral François Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse must have been a striking figure as he watched his ships continue their effective fire into the British line.

Francois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse (or the Count of Grasse) stands as a noble, heroic, yet forgotten commander of the Revolutionary War. Serving in the French Navy for his entire career, De Grasse’s actions proved to be critical in the Yorktown campaign. De Grasse’s regalia is captured in this 1837 lithograph, including the signature bright red ribbon of his military order, the Order of St. Louis. (Antoine Maurin Lemercier/ National Maritime Museum)
De Grasse was leading the French fleet against the Royal Navy in one of the most important and consequential naval battles in the history of the world, The Battle of the Chesapeake Capes. French victory at this battle directly led to the isolation of British forces in Virginia, the concentration of Franco-American forces at the Siege of Yorktown, and the surrender of British General Charles Cornwallis’ army. The Allied victory at Yorktown resulted in nothing less than theater wide defeat for British forces in the thirteen colonies, a shift of British strategic goals to India and the Caribbean, and ultimately the independence of the United States of America. And this victory would have been impossible if not for French victory at the Battle of the Capes. Two-hundred-thirty-seven years have passed since that momentous victory and there is no better time than now to reexamine how Battle of the Capes was won and lost.

Generals George Washington and the Comte De Rochambeau are depicted in this 1836 painting at the Siege of Yorktown. Through correspondence, Washington, De Grasse, and Rochambeau planned the Yorktown offensive. Though they differed in age and experience, all three men worked well together and had immense respect for each other’s abilities. (Auguste Couder/ The Palace of Versailles)
De Grasse was in the Caribbean with a powerful French fleet when he began corresponding with General George Washington and the Comte De Rochambeau in June 1781 and the three planned, over the following weeks, the Yorktown campaign. All three wanted to take advantage of French naval parity in theater to strike a blow at isolated British forces either in New York or Virginia. Washington favored striking British forces in New York under General Sir Henry Clinton but both Rochambeau and De Grasse believed that General Charles Cornwallis’ weaker forces in Virginia were the better target. Critically, it would be up to De Grasse to decide where the Allied forces should be concentrated, with Washington writing Rochambeau, “Instead of advising him [De Grasse] to run immediately into Chesapeak [sic], will it not be best to leave him to judge…which will be the most advantageous quarter for him to make his appearance in.” De Grasse carefully read the various dispatches and made one of the most momentous decisions in all of history, deciding that the Allied blow would be struck against Cornwallis in Virginia. On August 5, De Grasse sailed for the Chesapeake Bay with a powerful fleet of 28 ships and a crack strike force of 3,000 infantry equipped with mortars and siege guns.

On September 5, an overjoyed Washington learned of the news of De Grasse’s safe arrival in the Chesapeake Bay on August 30. Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette rapidly concentrated their forces in Virginia but not before launching a feint attack on Clinton in New York to fool the British into thinking the blow would land there. De Grasse had made the correct decision to concentrate allied forces in the Chesapeake Bay and, as Washington later wrote, De Grasse was “…the pivot upon which everything turned.” It would now be up to De Grasse to repel any British rescue force and ensure the destruction of Cornwallis’ army at the hands of the converging Allied armies. 

Unfortunately for the Allies, the British relief force arrived on the same day Washington learned of De Grasse’s arrival. The British, aware of the danger to Cornwallis’ army in Yorktown, rallied their available naval assets to sortie into the bay in force to defeat any French force which might threaten Cornwallis. Admiral Thomas Graves and De Grasse’s old opponent, Admiral Samuel Hood, combined their fleets to form a powerful force of 19 ships of the line. Graves, who had the overall command, was a steady if uninspiring naval commander while Hood was brash, energetic, and arrogant. The two did not like each other nor did they get along well. Furthermore, the combined British fleet was full of ships and captains who had never worked together and the British had little time to conference on the minutiae of naval warfare. Nevertheless, the British squadron was a force to be reckoned with.  

Admiral Samuel Hood (left), who seems to glower in this 1783 painting by James Northcote, was an aggressive and well-connected fleet commander of the Royal Navy. With a prickly personality, Hood was not well liked by his fellow admirals yet he was respected as a talented naval commander. Hood had engaged De Grasse in the Caribbean several times in the months prior to the Yorktown Campaign and he would fight his old enemy again as a flag commander at the Battle of the Capes. Although his conduct during the battle was highly controversial, he went on to have a celebrated naval career. To his right is Admiral Thomas Graves, looking a bit more sanguine in this 1785 painting by Thomas Gainsborough, who served as a career naval commander and colonial official during his service to the British Crown. Although capable, Graves was often seen as not aggressive enough to command a fleet having once been court martialed and reprimanded for not engaging a French warship in a prior war. With Admiral George Rodney unable to command due to sickness, it fell to Graves to lead the British forces at the Battle of the Capes. (Wikimedia Commons)
Around 10:00 am on the morning of September 5, 1781 De Grasse’s fleet spotted a large fleet approaching the Chesapeake Capes. At first they thought it was an expected reinforcing squadron under the command of the Comte De Barras. However, they quickly realized that the ships were not French. Caught by surprise, De Grasse was forced to rapidly deploy his available fleet of 23 ships of the line from the Chesapeake Bay out into the Atlantic Ocean, lest De Barras’ expected squadron become isolated and destroyed by Graves’ fleet. Forced to exit the bay through a narrow passage ringed by shoals, portions of the French fleet were isolated as they exited the bay due to the general confusion caused by the surprise of the British attack. 

This period map and chart of the Chesapeake Bay region illustrates the geographic features critical to the Battle of the Capes. Note both the location of Yorktown, where Cornwallis’ Army was, and the narrow passage in which De Grasse was forced to deploy his fleet. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Admiral Hood led the British vanguard and felt that the British had a golden opportunity to attack and destroy the isolated lead ships of the French vanguard as they exited the Bay. However, Graves signaled for the British fleet to wear together, essentially reversing their order, rather than “cross the T” by blocking De Grasse’s passage from the Bay. Thus, Hood found himself commanding the rear of the British line rather than the vanguard. Graves’ plan was to let De Grasse deploy from the bay and then, with the advantage of the wind gauge (wind direction), attack the French vanguard and center with the entirety of his fleet. The French rear, Graves thought, would be unable to rapidly respond to this maneuver due to the unfavorable wind direction. Graves’ plan was good in theory, as long as the British fleet was coordinated enough to bring the entirety of their firepower to bear on a portion of the French fleet.

In contrast, De Grasse’s plan was simple yet appropriate; he wanted to engage the smaller British fleet in a traditional line battle to allow his superior firepower to wear down and destroy the British ships. However, De Grasse’s fleet struggled to deploy due to the fickle wind. As a result, his vanguard was vulnerable to enemy attack. Graves gave the order to attack, which was communicated via flag order, to the British fleet. However, Graves briefly left the flag to stay in line formation flying simultaneously.

This period illustration shows a tactical overview of the Battle of the Capes. Shown sequentially, the map illustrates the different phases of the battle with De Grasse deploying his fleet, Graves reversing his line, and Hood’s failure to attack. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
The British vanguard, commanded by Admiral Samuel Francis Drake, attacked the French vanguard around 4:10 PM, and the opposing sides traded brutal fire. Close behind the lead ships of both fleets, the center lines of both fleets closed to attack each other at a range of a few hundred yards. However, the British center did not attack like Graves wanted them to as the British ship Montagu opened fire at too long of range, which forced the rest of the British center to fire at the same range to maintain formation. To make matters worse, the British rear commanded by Hood did not even attack. Thus, the British were fighting an already superior force with two thirds of their ships. Graves, again, sent the flag signal for close in attack yet Hood still held the British rear out of range.

This Harper’s Weekly drawing by J.O. Davidson was published in 1881 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes. Due to the close range of the fighting, this drawing likely depicts the engagement of the British and French vanguards. The various flags flying from each ship illustrates how ships communicated with each other in the age of sail.  (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

The French vanguard and center, with De Grasse leading them from his flagship Ville De Paris, ferociously fought back the British attack. With advantages in numbers, firepower, maneuvering, and coordination, the engaged portions of the French fleet raked the ships of the Royal Navy with accurate fire, aiming for their rigging and masts. The British fought on bravely, effectively returning fire. The two sides continued to battle for around two hours and eventually the two fleets disengaged around 6:30.
In this bird's-eye view probably published in Britain not long after the battle shows the disjointed arrangement of the British line as it ultimately faced the French.  The two lines, with the larger French line extending towards Cape Henry and the shorter British line at bottom, violently came together at the van, with Hood's and Graves' divisions sustaining the most damage, while Sir Samuel Hood's division bringing up the rear remained too far from the French to effectively fight. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)     

The Battle of the Capes was over and the British clearly suffered more damage. The British scuttled the heavily damaged Terrible, suffered significant damage to five other ships, and sustained 336 casualties. The French suffered notable damage to two ships along with 220 casualties. Graves’ plan to concentrate all his firepower on the French vanguard and center completely backfired. The two fleets maneuvered for position over the next few days but ultimately the British ships were too heavily damaged and Graves’ retreated to New York on September 13. The retreat of the Royal Navy and the converging Franco-American armies sealed the fate of Cornwallis’ Army and on October 19, 1781, the British garrison at Yorktown surrendered after their besiegement. The British defeat at Yorktown was the single most consequential battle of the entire war and it eventually resulted in American Independence. 

This famous painting by John Trumbull depicts the surrender of British forces to Franco-American forces at Yorktown. Cornwallis, claiming illness, was not present for the surrender and sent his subordinate General Charles O’Hara in his stead who at first attempted to surrender to Rochambeau. However, Rochambeau’s subordinate directed him to Washington, stating “The Commander-in-Chief of our army is to your right.” Washington appropriately had his own subordinate General Benjamin Lincoln accept the surrender. De Grasse himself was too sick to attend the ceremony and his own subordinate, the Comte de Barras, went on his behalf. Thus, the second in command of the various forces officiated the most important surrender in American history. (Wikimedia Commons)
Contemporaries and historians have attempted to untangle the reasons for British defeat at the Battle of the Capes. Graves blamed Hood for his failure to attack the enemy fleet at all with his rear squadron, having raised the flag for close attack multiple times. Graves argued that if Admiral Drake and the rest of the fleet understood his orders, why didn’t Hood? Hood, conversely, blamed Graves for flying the flag to stay in formation simultaneously with the flag for close attack. Hood argued that these contradictory orders required him to obey the flag for line formation. Hood added to this excuse in a letter to his superior Lord Sandwich in which he argued that Graves had missed the opportunity to engage the French when they were disorganized, declaring, “Yesterday the British fleet had a rich and most delightful harvest of glory presented to it, but omitted to gather it…the enemy’s van was not closely attacked as it came out of Lynnhaven Bay.” Ironically, Hood blamed Graves for the very thing he had failed to do, attack the enemy. Some of Hood’s arguments have merit yet the fact remains that if Hood had attacked like the rest of fleet understood to do, Graves’ plan would have been executed as he intended and perhaps the engagement would have gone differently.

Hood vigorously defended his conduct at the Battle of the Capes to both the public and the Admiralty. Hood was largely successful in mitigating blame for his failure to attack due to his considerable political connections via his marriage, Graves’ less vigorous campaign to vindicate himself, and Hood’s far better conduct in future battles. In the years after his death in 1816, Hood was venerated as an aggressive naval hero in the same vein as his protégé, Admiral Horatio Nelson. The famous HMS Hood, sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in WWII, was named after Hood. (Pinterest)

Lost in the debates over reasons for British defeat are the reasons for French victory. First of all, the Comte De Grasse’s steady leadership and strategic vision put the French fleet in the right place at the right time to inflict a defeat on inferior British forces at the most critical juncture of the entire Revolutionary War. Secondly, French gunnery was simply better then British gunnery at the Battle of the Capes. Though they lost the tactical initiative due to the wind direction, the French fought bravely, honorably, and inflicted more damage on the British then the British did to them. The consequences of these French martial achievements on September 5, 1781 changed the world forever and directly led to the establishment of the United States of America.

The Comte De Grasse is not widely recognized as a major hero of the Revolutionary War. However, his conduct directly resulted in victory at Yorktown and American independence. De Grasse’s naval career, personality, accomplishments, and service in the Revolutionary War will be explored in this author’s next article.  


Lewis, Charles Lee. 1945. Admiral De Grasse and American Independence. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press.

Morgan, William James. 1981. "The Pivot Upon Which Everything Turned: French Naval Superiority That Ensured Victory At Yorktown."

Pengelly, Colin. 2009. Sir Samuel Hood and the Battle of the Chesapeake. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.