Piave River 1809: British Navy and Royal Marines Assault the Fort at Cortellazzo
By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy
In Italy and other theatres, military duty and honour were carried out and fought through quite a number of war actions against the widening expansion of the French empire. Many of these actions are still not known to those interested in the Napoleonic Era. These strategic events were not considered influential nor having primary importance; therefore, they have almost been lost by the relentless passing of time. After almost two centuries, little research has been conducted to confirm those episodes and to learn more about those remarkable military operations.
Attacking the powerful empire and political domination of Napoleon I (1804-1815), which remained virtually impossible by the general conceptions of land strategy, often was accomplished by offensive sea operations. Here, the invulnerability of the Napoleonic Empire was highly-tested, and the might of the colossus proved shocking under telling effects and tremendous blows.
Nowadays, the war actions carried out by the Royal Navy against the Franco-Italian military deployment on the costs of the Adriatic Sea have fallen in the waters of oblivion -- stagnating in the marshes of the Napoleonic age; consequently, they are still waiting to be fully discovered and accurately examined by sound-judging and discerning researchers.
Almost unexpectedly, we discoverd a branch of thematic researches not known at all. This objective consideration, and the matter of researching, are really captivating. If the military successes attained in the course of the Napoleonic battles and campaigns were truly outstanding throughout the years 1805-1815, French land victories have literally obscured the minor operations in other European countries. This represents the emerging case of a major political establishment known as the Regno Italico (i.e. the Italian Kingdom), a mighty asset instituted by Napoleon who, on 26 May 1805, had been crowned King of Italy in the Duomo of Milan. Twelve days later, on 7 June 1805, his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais was given the nominal appointment as Viceroy of Italy. However, much of the Kingdom was still under French influence and the ever-increasing demands for military forces.
The Regno Italico can be regarded as one of those European vassal sovereignties in which the weight of minor operations, even not representing a transcendental martial expression when compared to the campaigns led by the smashing talents of the Emperor Napoleon I, deserves the highest attention, re-discovery and re-examination with historical accuracy.
French Napoleonic historiography has always dedicated itself to the major military operations on land (i.e. long lasting wars of conquest depriving people of self-determination and legitimate political governments) and to celebrating the myth and the cult of la grandeur napoléonienne; therefore, any other typology of combat has been most unwittingly, or unwisely, removed due to its minor importance and negligible political consequences affecting the destiny of continental Europe.
However, there were savage combats and bewildering engagements that have been almost disregarded, and that, in the XXI Century, do still remain in the “closed box” of Napoleonic cultural knowledge.
The English naval squadrons operating in Southern Europe, and most especially in the Mediterranean Sea, tried, in every possible way over the years to attack and destroy the Franco-Italian forces in the Adriatic Sea, even trying to penetrate the lines of maritime defence on land.
These offensive actions were rapidly followed by land incursions against the coastal defences of the Regno Italico.
The town of Venice was the center of a shrewdlly selected line of maritime defence. Among her strong positions were the mighty fortified strongholds of San Fedele, Caroman, Alberoni, San Pietro, Cavanella, Lido, Burano, Torcello, Mazzorbo, Chioggia, Brondolo and Malghera.
The location of Malghera was located nearer to the terraferma, and it had to be duly fortified with a detached fortification of primary importance. The works were pushed to the utmost speed and alacrity. The maritime defensive line on the Adriatic coasts began at Sdobba, near Grado, till reaching to Grottamare. Venice and Ancona represented the two pivoting points and fortresses of first importance. A chain totalling some 31 batteries had been positioned along the line of the Adriatic Sea, thus providing extensive coverage with 111 artillery pieces.
The servizio was provided by seven companies of cannonieri guardiacoste, whose total strength numbered 1033 men. These regular soldiers were under the orders of Pompeo Antonio Litta.
Another company of 118 cannonieri veterani (i.e. veteran cannoneers) served exclusively in Venice. All the battery emplacements communicated between them by a servizio semaforico (semifores). These batteries were composed as follows: 12 batteries with 44 pieces were placed from Sdobba to Treponti; 7 batteries with 23 pieces were located from Brondolo to Magnavacca; 12 batteries with 44 pieces were positioned from Porto di Primaro to Grottamare.
The defensive planning of Venice was divided in 4 circondari (i.e. sectors):
The fort of Grado was occupied by a few soldiers.
The River Piave, whose source was at the foot of Mount Peralba (2694 meters high), passed through the country-town of San Donà and reached Porto Castellazzo. In the year 1683 the second project of the ingegnere Sabbadino was completed: the fast flowing waters of the Piave, that flowed in the past at Jesolo, causing major troubles and invading the palude maggiore and the laguna, were canalized and conveyed towards the open sea, at Cortellazzo, a location 15 kilometres more distant to the east. In the summer of 1809, on 24 August, Captain William Hoste, the talented and distinguished commander of HMS Amphion, was carrying out a naval reconnaissance and slowly approached the mouth of the River Piave.
As already mentioned, the waters of the Piave flowed into the Adriatic sea, at a place called Cortellazzo. Cortellazzo lay further to the north of Venice, past the marshy environments of litorale del cavallino and Jesolo. Hoste duly reconnoitred the area and realized the importance of Cortellazzo and its strategic setting to the north of the laguna veneta. His meticulous observation of the place was intended to determine any important fortified emplacement, notably coastal batteries and entrenched positions of defence. The area was garrisoned by Italian units of the Kingdom of Italy. With the exception of undetermined land forces, reports had confirmed the presence of gunboats, a little fleet of some six units, and a convoy of merchant trabaccolos. These vessels were moored under the protection of a powerful and cunningly positioned battery of four 24-pounders located at the mouth of the River Piave, and its line of fire and resistance had consequently to be feared.
Meanwhile, the level of the local sea waters had been carefully sounded by British seamen, thus avoiding any low depth and sandbanks, and the potential of running aground; measurements were found somewhat inadequate for any direct approach to the Italian coastal line. Despite the too shallow waters, Captain Hoste boldly determined to plan an attack to the abovementioned defensive positions on land.
Realistically speaking, the dangers he had to face were fairly great:
Hoste resolved to strike a military action; after considering and carefully pondering the risks of this undertaking, he planned an attack against the Franco-Italian positions. Having no valuable support from a ship he could not even manoeuver, he decided to indirectly invest the position of Cortellazzo; his plan was indeed audacious in the extreme. After severe reflection, his decision was finally made: he thought that the enemy gunboats and trabaccolos could be “cut out”, and captured, if the heavy artillery pieces of the battery could be silenced.
Orders were given to his subordinates in command. The Amphion was to stay off the coast until the evening hours of August 26th; on 27 August 1809, at one o’clock in the morning, the British battle ship anchored off the River Piave. Attacking storm-parties formed in order and embarked in longboats to reach the Italian shore. It was at 3 a.m. when Lieutenants Charles George Rodney Phillot, first lieutenant of the Amphion, and George Mattew Jones, led their forces to a landing approximately a mile to the southward of the enemy battery location.The British assault squads were composed of around 70 men, equally divided between the seamen and marines. The assault parties were armed with pistols, axes, cutlasses, and short pikes. The marines retained instead their service-equipment.
In the darkness, the infantry moved forward with circumspection and boundless confidence of success. Courage was a mark of distinction to them, but the difficulties of the enterprise were not hidden to anyone. If the alarm was given by the enemy vedettes, the artillery detonations could have annihilated the whole advancing force with fearful results in dead and wounded. Growing disquiet, and a psychological climate of apprehension, reached their apex. In the early morning hours of 27 August 1809, the roads to death in combat and dire survival were facing the undaunted British assailants.
Disguised in the shadows of the night, the assaulting groups moved silently forward to reach their assigned objective. The general plan of attack on the Italian positions gave a great responsibility to Lieutenant William Slaughter: he had to push for the river as soon as the fort was carried by storm.
Slaughter was assigned the task to take all the mobile boats and merchantile ships moored at the mouth of the Piave. The main Italian stronghold was covered by a variety of fortified defences and obstacles. Before approaching directly, the fort was found to be surrounded by a ditch as well as additional chevaux de frise. Therefore, the whole fortressed position could only be entered with scaling ladders.
The would-be offensive action appeared much more difficult and it had to be done with utmost determination and valor.
At 3:15 a.m., the Italians reacted to the sudden enemy threat by sounding out the alarm. As the British assault began, it was marked by confusion and savagery in fighting. As time was the key element and the essential factor in taking the Italian position, and for the general plan of assaulting the mobile gunboats, speed, execution and fierceness reached their peak in action. The assault action was so violent and effective that the local garrison had scarcely time to re-act to the British storming party.
All the defensive structure was taken by storm, and it seemed as if the whole operation lasted only some ten minutes. The Italian defence was rapidly neutralized and put out of action; two men lay dead, and the assailants captured another fifteen soldiers. Because of the little resistance from the Italians, the British seamen rapidly moved the heavy guns from their positions and turn them on the Franco-Italian gunboats. As the heavy battery artillery began firing, a storm of bullets came furtherly from the supporting line of muskets of Lieutenant Thomas Moore’s marines.
All was convulsive action, violence and degenerating confusion. The sudden and cohesive British attack had fearful results and achieved a tactical surprise over the Franco-Italian defensive sector and military deployment. To avoid full annihilation, the surrender of the Franco-Italian forces was a difficult but stern necessity, that resulted from the heavy barrage of fire pressuring men and gunboats.
To the British captors fell a couple of Venetian gunboats, the Surveillante, and the Vedette, each one mounting one long 26-pounder in the bow, one long 12-pounder in the stern, and four swivels on the gunwale. A crew of 36 men taken prisoners added to the score of the victors. Four additional gunboats were taken: Nos. 64, 77 and 78, commanded by midshipmen, and No. 76, under the authority of Comandante Giovanni Villeneuve. All were armed with a single long 12-pounders. This little fleet had been placed at the orders of Villeneuve, and was actually stationed at Cortellazzo with the responsibility of protecting the trade routes along the maritime line between the towns of Venice and Trieste. The British did not hesitate also to prey upon a convoy of trabaccolos. Two trabaccolos were found laden with rice and cheese (and were brought out), five were discovered to be charged with wood and charcoal. The latter were all set on fire and destroyed.
At the end of combat, the British seamen were immediately given orders to put out of action all the enemy artillery pieces; the 12-pounder battery guns were then spiked. Once the guns were destroyed, and an adjacent barrack burst into flames, the assaulting squads of the British detachment and Lieutenant Phillott withdrew to the longboats and hastly re-embarked. It was 1 p.m. 27 August 1809.
English losses were slight: only the loss of a marine accidentally wounded by an explosion.
The compilation of this analytical essay, its thematic and critical dissertation, is largely based on the primary motivations of historical research, (i.e. studying of the age of Napoleon I, and the spread Napoleonic era culture). Captain Hoste’s firm attitude of commanding must be duly pointed out.
He his exploring and controlling action in the natural environment and in the geographical area located to the North of the laguna of Venice.
The British frigate Amphion never could have forced its way into the inner laguna veneta which was protected by a defensive system of permanent fortifications; in fact, the salient sectors were carefully guarded and covered by heavy coastal batteries. Hoste’s action appears quite remarkable for the resolute spirit , for the military promptitude, and fullest efficacy. It would be worth recalling that from a reconnoitring task, a straight exploring mission along the Northern shore-line of the Adriatic Sea, the Amphion’s commander decided to pass to an offensive role. Which were the true reasons that caused him to change his idea and reconsider his formal naval mission?
As a Royal Navy captain, the causal motivations affecting his choice were not taken point blank, but they took source, it seemed, from the capture of a fisherman. The wretched man did not succeed in escaping the British frigate, and was “captured”. To avoid being sunk, or fearing a threatening behaviour, he was in a hopeless position, and, in short, forced to speak. Hoste, having kept the area under strict observation at the very latest, was so much pleased to receive some truly important information; specifications related both to the coastal battery emplacement and the situation of the forces at Cortellazzo. This source of information proved to be of great importance.
Furthermore, to avoid being noticed by the enemy vedettes, Hoste wisely maintained the Amphion at a distance from the coast. To partially limit any possible human loss and intensive fire reaction from enemy forces, he resolved to attack the Italian positions in the heart of the night. This timely choice denoted absolute respect for safeguarding human lives and a well-balanced military plan.
Equally, the features of the operative plan were well studied and prepared. Attacking Italian positions on land substantially evidenced two distinctive phases of action and military resolution: first, it foresaw the taking of the fort and of the heavy guns battery at Cortellazzo; second, assaulting all the vessels at the anchorage. This tactic proved successful. All told, it was really a more difficult possibility that the heavily sleeping and unaware Italian defenders, both soldiers and mariners, could escape the oncoming threat, and escape from such a shrewdly planned night-incursion.
Defeat was but a marginal possibility. The timing of the whole operation was in getting started and it must be duly considered: it was the nocturnal timing that was most suitable, because late at night, the garrison would be sound asleep. Furthermore, it must be underlined that the longboats of the Amphion did receive orders to disembark near the fortified battery, but at a distance of one mile southward from the abovementioned fortified site. In the phase of debarkation on enemy ground, any sort of noise had to be avoided such as the lapping waters, the noise of the oars, the creaking of the gunboats, the clanking of the weapons, thus keeping concealed the landing of the foot detachment ashore.
In conclusion, Captain Hoste did not want to run any unnecessary risks that might have endangered his men lives. He hoped to attain the maximum result with the slightest loss. In the full application of this decision, there was great precaution and farsightedness. Captain Hoste wisely intended to debark at a safe distance from the Italian positions, where any kind of noise could not be heard thus attracting the attention and rousing the suspicions of the Italian sentries on guard-duty. The operation of debarking such a strong detachment at night-time certainly was not an easy task. It appeared fairly evident that it had not been easy in the least to find an adequate place securing the landing of the assault party. At the same time, the distance of a mile to be covered was not a negligible distance. In the silent summer night, the Italian sentries were keeping a good watch; on 27 August 1809, at 3:15 a.m. they suddenly gave the alarm. The Italians tried to promptly react.
So what really happened?
To be continued.
Master’s mates: John Windham Dalling, Thomas Boardman; midshipmen: Charles Bruce, George
Castle, Joseph Gape, Charles Henry Kempthorn, William Lee Rees, Charles Henry Ross; first-class volunteers (boys): Francis George Farewell, Thomas Edward Hoste, Robert Spearman. Jonathan Angus, surgeon’s assistant.
Lieutenant Phillott was promoted to the rank of commander since the day of the action; George Mattew Jones reached the rank of first lieutenant.
1. English Works:
Hoste, Sir William. Memoirs and letters of Captain Sir William Hoste, Bart., R. N., K. C. B., K. M. T. London: Richard Bentley (Publisher), 1833.
James, William. Naval history of Great Britain 1793-1827. 1837.
For the boats of the Amphion at Cortelazzo, cfr. Vol. V.
Pocock, Tom. Remember Nelson: the life of Captain Sir William Hoste. Readers Union, Newton Abbot, 1978.
2. Italian Works:
Zanoli, Alessandro, Barone. Sulla Milizia Cisalpino-Italia Cenni storico-statistici dal 1796 al 1814. Volume I, Milano, Borroni e Scotti, 1845.
 Napoleon Bonaparte, appointed leading-head of the Imperial authority (18 May 1804), was solemny proclaimed and crowned Emperor in Paris, in Notre Dame sacred-temple, on 2 December.
 The Viceroy had prepared a list of the foremost Italians whom he entrusted and wanted to recognize: Melzi, Grand Chancellor; Codronchi, Archbishop of Ravenna, Grand Almoner; Litta, High Chamberlain; Caprara, Grand Equerry; Feneroli, Chief Major-Domo; Luosi, Minister for Justice; Bovara, Ecclesiastic concerns; Venori, Treasury; Prina, Finance; Pino, Defence; Aldini, Secretary of State, and he had to reside in Paris to act as a liason officer with His Majesty the Emperor; Testi, foreign relations. Names for the officers in charge of Customs, Finance, Gendarmerie, Police, Roads and Bridges, Taxation, were to come.
 Vide: Barone Alessandro Zanoli, Sulla Milizia Cisalpino-Italia Cenni storico-statistici dal 1796 al 1814, Volume I, Milano, Borroni e Scotti, 1845; pp. 129-130-131.
 HMS Amphion was a 32 gun frigate. The calibre of the naval guns was 18-pounders.
 The attack leaded by the British forces against the coastal defences at Cortellazzo was not at all an spur of the moment attack. It seemed Captain Hoste had received from a fisherman an accurate account of the force, the situation of the fortified battery, and of the vessels at the anchorage.
 The trabaccolo, an Italian word probably extracted and derived from the etymology trabacca, was a little fishing or merchant boat, provided with two trees with sail
 Cut out”. This term, indeed of particular definition, has its own peculiar meaning.
In the combats at sea, there were the so called boat-actions. A frigate’s longboats were almost filled with seasoned sailors and marines, rowing towards small enemy vessels or merchantmen at anchorage. The cutting out party would have to board them and quel any armed resistance of the crew. Almost euphemistically, the captured maritime preys were so said to have been “cut-out”.
 Cheval de frise: barricade made of wooden stakes or blade-studded beams.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2006