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Deadly at Close-Range: His Majesty's Ship "Glatton" (1795-1814)

By Stephen Millar

The high-water mark of [William] Bligh's naval service was as Captain of HMS Glatton in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Having spotted a Dutch frigate maneuvering to attack HMS Elephant, the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Bligh sailed directly into the line of fire and caught most of the enemy's broadside. The Glatton was severely damaged but remained afloat; the Elephant was saved.


"The first gun of the 'Victory' to fire at [the Battle of] Trafalgar was the larboard (port) carronade. It was loaded with a 6.5 lb. (3 kg) powder charge, a 68 1b. (30.6 kg) round shot and a keg of 500 musket-balls and went into the stern of the French flagship 'Bucentaure'."


Fighting ships of the Napoleonic Wars were equipped with two kinds of main armament: 'long guns' (standard-length cannon) and carronades (stubby, short-range guns). Long guns, ranging in calibre from three-pounders to 48-pounders, had the advantage of a longer range but used more gunpowder; carronades, designed for ranges closer than 400 metres, had similar -- and even higher -- calibres but used less gunpowder.

Originally designed in 1759 by a British officer named Robert Melville (12.10.1723-20.09.1809), carronades were adopted by the Royal Navy in 1779, under the sponsorship of Admiral Sir Charles Middleton (14.10.1726-17.06.1813).[1] Called 'the smasher' by Melville and 'the devil's gun' by British seaman, the carronade had two main functions: to smash through one side of an opposing ship's hull (creating a torrent of wood-splinters) and to clear the crew off an enemy's main-deck.

First manufactured by the Carron Iron Works in Stirlingshire, Scotland, carronades came in calibres ranging from two-pounders -- usually carried on the quarter-deck -- to 68-pounders (HMS 'Victory' carried two of these on her forecastle). The typical fourth-rate warship of 50 to 54 guns in the Napoleonic Wars carried six 12-pounder and six 24-pounder carronades. [2]

Despite some initial opposition from ships' captains, the Royal Navy moved ahead with the installation of carronades; the first British ship to receive the new weapon was the 44-gun HMS 'Rainbow'. All doubts about the effectiveness of carronades were dispelled in 1782, when HMS 'Rainbow' engaged the large French frigate 'Hebe', forcing her to strike her colours after a single broadside.[3]

By 1790, carronade barrels were usually installed on specially-designed wooden 'slides' -- not regular wheeled gun-carriages. This enabled the carronade to be traversed in a limited arc, increasing its potential target area. Although highly-effective at smashing through hulls and at repelling boarders, the main drawback of the carronade was still the short range of the weapon (captains were unable to use it properly until their ships had acquired a target less than half a kilometre away).

In 1795, as part of its expansion after France and Holland became allies of France, the Royal Navy purchased nine 1,200-ton East India Company merchantmen then building on the Thames River. These ships were then converted to 54 or 56-gun warships by joining the forecastle and the quarter-deck (forming a continuous upper-deck). Armament for eight of the new vessels consisted of twenty-eight 18-pounder long guns on the gun-deck and twenty-six to twenty-eight 32-pounder carronades on the upper-deck.[4] They were classed as 'fourth-rates'.

The ninth vessel, the 56-gun HMS 'Glatton', became the Royal Navy's first (and only) warship armed exclusively with carronades. With twenty-eight 42-pounder carronades on her upper-deck and twenty-eight 64-pounder carronades on her lower-deck,[5] HMS 'Glatton' was a boarder's nightmare.

The first commanding officer of HMS 'Glatton' was Captain Henry Trollope (20.04.1756-02.11.1839) a veteran of the American War of Independence and a strong supporter of the use of carronades. Trollope would later command the 74-gun HMS 'Russell' at the Battle of Camperdown (11.10.1797).[6]

Probably the most famous commander of HMS 'Glatton' was Captain (later Vice-Admiral) William 'Breadfruit' Bligh (09.09.1754-07.12.1817). Bligh, who had served under Captain James Cook from 1776 to 1779, had been in command of HMAV 'Bounty' when the crew, led by master's mate Fletcher Christian, mutinied (28.04.1789). Bligh and 18 loyal crew members were set adrift in one of the ship's boats; 47 days and 3,618 nautical miles later they reached safety at the Dutch port of Coupang in Timor.[7]

Ironically, although Bligh held command of HMS 'Glatton' for less than a month (18.03.1801-12.04.1801) it was during this month that Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson engaged the Danish Fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen (02.04).[8] The British victory cost the ship's crew 51 casualties (17 killed and 31 wounded). Bligh later received the personal thanks of Nelson for his conduct during the engagement.

HMS 'Glatton' was not in the line of battle at Trafalgar in 1805. She continued active service until 1814, when she was converted to a water depot. In 1830, HMS 'Glatton' was sunk as a breakwater.



[1] Middleton was Comptroller of the Navy from 1778 to 1790. He was created Baron Barham on 01.05.1805 and held the post of First Lord of the Admiralty from 1805 to 1806.

[2] It is interesting to note that the inclusion of carronades to a Royal Navy ship's existing armament did not alter her official classification. If a 38-gun frigade was equipped with 10 carronades, she was still listed as a '38'.

[3] The captured 'Hebe' later became the basis for a new class of Royal Navy frigates.

[4] Five additional East India merchantmen were acquired in 1796.

[5] There is disagreement between sources over the armament of HMS 'Glatton'; some sources state she carried 32-punder carronades on her upper deck.

[6] Trollope was subsequently knighted and would reach the rank of Admiral in 1812.

[7] Bligh's nickname comes from the fact that HMAV 'Bounty' was sent to Tahiti to transport breadfuit plants to the West Indies.

[8] Like Trollope, Bligh had been present at the Battle of Camperdown (in command of the 74-gun HMS 'Director'). He was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Blue on 04.06.1814.


Placed on the Napoleon Series:  January 2006


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