HMS Alexander – The Ship

launch of hms alexanderHMS ALEXANDER was an Alfred-class, 74-gun warship of the British Navy named after Alexander the Great. She was ordered on the 21st July 1773 and launched, during the American War of Independence (fighting against English Colonists in America and their French supporters) on the 8th October 1778 from Deptford Dockyard in England. She was 180 feet (54.86m) in length, with a beam of 48 feet (14.63m), and a displacement of 1630 tons. She had a compliment of 650 men and was armed with 28 x 32 pounder cannons (pdr), 28 x 18 pdr, 18 x 9 pdr (for a total of 74 guns), as well as 2 x 32 pounder carronades and 6 x 18pdr carronades.

HMS ALEXANDER was originally captained by Capt. T. FITZHERBERT in 1782 (without any notable action due to the peace secured by the Peace of Paris in September 1783), and then by Capt. J WEST in 1793 (when hostilities between Great Brittian and France began, and would remain till the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 ). She was refitted at Chatham in 1794 and then set sail under Capt. Richard Rodney BLIGH.

On the 6th of November of 1794, ALEXANDER, along with the CANADA, was returning back to England after successfully escorting until the Cape St Vincent, a convoy headed for Gibraltar, when, close to the Scilly isles, she was intercepted by a French Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Joseph-Marie NIELLY, there to monitor the area surrounding Brest Harbour. The two British Ships were heavily outnumbered by the French force, which consisted of five French Ships-of-the-Line (TIGRE, DROITS De L’HOMME, MARAT, PELLETIER, and JEAN BART), three Frigates (CHARENTE, FRATERNITE, and GENTILLE) and a Brig-Corvette (PAPILLON). The ALEXANDER and the CANADA where located by the French early in the morning, and by 0645hrs, full chase was given. The CANADA, by superior sailing, managed to escape from the action. NIELLY, by 1030hrs, decided not to chase, to be able to focus all his squadron’s effort on the ALEXANDER. By 1130hrs, at an engaging distance of only 50 metres, the ALEXANDER succeeded in temporarily forcing the chasing DROITS DE L’HOMME, out of action by damaging her rigging. However, the MARAT was able to come behind ALEXANDER’s stern and rake her, allowing the JEAN BART, which had caught up, to fire broadsides at the ALEXANDER from close range. Severely damaged and risking total destruction, the ALEXANDER surrendered to the outnumbering force. In the whole action, 40 lives were lost on each side, but damage to multiple ships was severe, and NIELLY, headed to Brest with the ALEXANDER in tow. In Brest, she was renamed ALEXANDRE.

The ALEXANDRE’s career was a short lived event of only 7 months, for on the 23rd June 1795 she was off Belle Isle (off the coast of Brittany in France) with a French fleet of 12 ships-of-the line, captained by François-Charles Guillemet, under Vice-Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret de Joyeuse, when they were discovered by the Channel Fleet of Alexander Hood, 1st Viscount Bridport, in command of 14 ships-of-the-line, the resulting Second Battle of Groix, being a tactical, albeit indecisive, British Victory, as several of Villaret’s ships disobeyed his orders and sailed away, abandoning three ships, including the ALEXANDRE to the British. .

January 1797 saw the start of the prime of HMS ALEXANDER’s naval career, under the command of Capt. Alexander John BALL. She was dispatched to the blockade of Brest, under Vice-Admiral John Colpoys. In January 1798 she was then dispatched to the Fleet of Admiral Lord St Vincent at Gibraltar, to be aided a month later by his deputy, Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson. In the mean time, the French ammassed an army and fleet at Toulon. It was obvious that, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, they where preparing to invade somewhere in the Mediterranean, but the exact location remained unknown.

On the 9th May the ALEXANDER set sail with the Ships-of-the-Line VANGUARD (carrying Nelson) and ORION, and the Frigates EMERALD, TERPSICHORE and BONNE CITOYENNE for the purpose of reconnaissance on the French Fleet at Toulon, and then to return back to Lord St Vincent. The squadron fell in with little wind, but the wind increased steadily, and by the 22nd May, deteriorated into a violent storm. The VANGUARD subsequently lost two of her masts. The ALEXANDER and the ORION also suffered mild damage, having their sails blown out, and they lost contact with the Frigates. The following morning, although the storm was over, damage to the VANGUARD caused steering problems, and could only sail well in one direction, towards the island of Sardinia, where it was hoped to arrive at Oristano Bay, half way on the west side of the Island. If this was not possible, to make repairs at San Pietro Island on the South East off Sardinia, this was common knowledge as a sheltered area. Due to the bad state of the VANGUARD, the ALEXANDER, at difficulty due to the adverse weather, took the VANGUARD in tow. Once this was established, they run the risk of collision due to a reduction in manoeuvrability. NELSON repeatedly requested to BALL to cut loose the VANGUARD, but BALL refused to allow the VANGUARD to risk being perished. With ALEXANDER still towing the VANGUARD, they anchored at San Pietro on the 24th May, where the damage was efficiently repaired, with the ORION on lookout. Their stay at Sardinia was concise, as the Kingdom of Sardinia was officially under hostile orders, and although the local Commandant was courteous, he explained that he could not be of much help due to an agreement between his government and the French, but in good will, provided the British Ships with some limited supplies, emphasising his government’s position and the necessity for Nelson to depart from Sardinia. On the 27th, in less than 4 days from arrival, they sailed again to Toulon, anxious to remake contact with the missing Frigates. This search was unsuccessful, as unbeknown to the trio of the Ships-of-the-Line, the frigates had headed back to Gibraltar.

On the 5 June they met with the brig MUTINE brought news that the French Fleet had left from Toulon on the 22nd May (the same day as the storm which had damaged the VANGUARD), that Capt. TROUBRIDGE had been detached with ten sail of the line and a 50-gun ship to reinforce their squadron, and that they were to seek and destroy the Toulon Fleet. The following day they spread out to search for the other ships. While on this search, the ALEXANDER anticipated a Spanish frigate which was rescuing a large number of priests escaping from Napoleonic persecution in Rome. Capt. BALL generously allowed them to continue their voyage to safety, receiving on board a number of (mostly GENOESE) volunteers who wished to serve with the British fleet.

They finally met Capt. TROUBRIDGE at noon, two days later on the 8th June. The fleet then headed to Corsica, arriving on the 12th, followed by Rome and then arriving to Naples on the 16th June, where they learnt that the French had left towards Malta. Four days later, on the 20th, the British fleet passed through the Straits of Messina, were they learnt that although Napoleon had already taken Malta on the 10th, with their fleet anchored just off the Gozitan shore. The British fleet headed to Gozo, determined to engage the French ships stationed there. On the 22nd, a Genoese brig informed the MUTINE that the French had in fact, after looting and pillaging what they could from Malta, sailed again, leaving General Vaubois as the governor of Malta, supported by around 4000 troops (3,053 infantry and five companies of artillery.

NELSON had the choice of heading for Malta, Sicily, or Alexandria. After consultation with his best Captains, Nelson headed for Alexandria, aiming to protect the passage to India. They arrived in Alexandria on the 29th, but disappointingly finding the port empty save for a few Turkish warships and merchant vessels. Disappointed, NELSON headed North in search of supplies and further information, passing by the coast of Caramanea on the 4th of July. From contact with sympathetic vessels, Nelson put his mind at rest that the French fleet was not heading for Constantinople. Sailing against a contrary wind past the coast of Candia, he arrived in Sicily on the 18th, and moored in Syracuse harbour on the 20th July.

By the 24th, they left again without any definite notification on the location of the elusive French fleet. Nelson was hopeful that this would become clearer in Morea (what is now the Peloponnese peninsula in southern Greece), and arrived in the Gulph of Coron on the 28th. The CULLODEN was again dispatched for reconnaissance, and returned almost immediately with information from the Turkish Governor that the French fleet had headed South East from Candia around four weeks previously. After anchoring in the Gulf of Coron for only three hours the British fleet headed again to Alexandria.

On the evening of the 31st July, the ALEXANDER and SWIFTSURE where sent forward to scout the ports of Alexandria, however it was ZEALOUS on the 1st August which discovered 16 of Brueys’ ships anchored in a loose crescent formation in Aboukir Bay, with the French flagship l’ORIENT in the middle of the line. The ALEXANDER and SWIFTSURE were recalled back, and Nelson’s fleet made ready for battle. At 1830hrs, sunset, Nelson attacked, the first ships, GOLIATH, ZEALOUS, ORION, AUDACIOUS and THESEUS passing inland to fire broadsides into the French fleet from the shore side; the rest of the British fleet firing broadsides from the other side. In the opening 12 minutes of battle, the first French ship, LE GUERRIER, was dismasted, 10 minutes later, the LE CONQUERANT, and almost immediately, LE SPARTIATE. L’AQUILON and LE SOUVERAIN PEUPLE were captured, all within the first half hour, by which time, this being 1900hrs, darkness enveloped the scene, lit up only by cannon shots. The BELLEROPHON targeted the French flagship l’ORIENT, but was dismasted by the more powerful 120-gun adversary. By 2000hrs, The ALEXANDER and the SWIFTSURE took over, and when at 2100hrs a fire was noted, Captain Hallowell of the SWIFTSURE gave the order to concentrate his ship’s cannons on the area around the fire to distract any efforts at controlling the fire, which raged even harder and by 2115hrs, the risk of l’ORIENT blowing up once the fire hit her magazines increased; by 2120hrs, guns on both sides became quiet as every ship distanced itself from l’ORIENT and the imminent danger of the expected explosion, which arrived in an extraordinary display at 2137hrs.

Legend states that the l’ORIENT exploded so fervently because the ALEXANDER made use of a volatile mixture including phosphorous, known in the ancient world as Greek Fire {1}. For the next few minutes after the ORIENT explosion, a port fire from l’ORIENT fell into the main royal of the ALEXANDER. (Reports differ on how long it took to bring the fire under control – by some accounts just two minutes {2}, by others, two hours {3}.)After 10 minutes of the ceasefire caused by the awe of wrath and fury of l’ORIENT’s explosion, broadsides resumed again, victory more and more obviously favouring Nelson and his Hearts of Oak. The next morning, at 0505hrs, only two French Ships-of-the-line, the 74-gun GENEREUX and the 80-gun GUILLAUME TELL kept their Colours flying. L’ARTEMISE was set alight by her own officers and men, who escaped to shore. At 1100 hrs on the morning of the 2nd August, the GENEREUX and GUILLAUME TELL and two French Frigates, DIANE, and JUSTICE, escaped from the decisive British victory at Aboukir Bay, and headed to the presumed safety of the port of Valletta in Malta.

The ALEXANDER played a primary role in the battle of Abukir bay; she was very badly damaged but lost only 14 men killed (one Officer – Mr. John Collins, Lieutenant, and 13 seamen) and 8 wounded (Alexander J. Ball, Esq. Captain; Capt. J. Creswell, Marines; Mr. W. Lawson, Master; Mr. G. Bully, Mr. Luke Anderson, Midshipmen, 48 Seamen and 5 Marines).

The GUILLAUME TELL, DIANE, and JUSTICE arrived in Malta on the 29th August, bringing news of the French defeat at the Battle of Abukir Bay. (The GENERAUX was at Corfu, having captured HMS Leander). The defeat of the French navy such a short while after their arrival on Malta had encouraged the Maltese to revolt against the French, and after a full scale rebellion from the 2nd September, dispatched a messenger on the 5th, dutied to request aid from King Ferdinand of Naples, for aid and support, and if the opportunity arrises, also to his British allies to request to blockade the Maltese ports, inducing the French to fully surrender in Malta.

On the 19th August, the Alexander, along with the Vanguard, carrying Rear-Admiral Nelson, and the CULLODEN, sailed for Naples, arriving on the 16th September, where repairs and supplies kept her capable for another two months or service.

In Naples the Maltese messenger managed to contact Rear-Admiral Nelson and explained their story – that although Malta was under the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Naples, King Ferdinand had not taken any measures to aid the islands of Malta. On the 4th October, Nelson instructed the ALEXANDER, along with the 32-gun frigate TERPSICHORE, the 20-gun sloop BONNYE CITOYENNE, and the INCENDIARY to join the blockade of Malta.

The French officially surrendered Gozo on the 28th October 1798, and Capt. CRESSWELL of ALEXANDER’s Marines was sent by Capt. BALL to take possession of Gozo. Some of the arms and ammunition captured were taken across to Malta to assist the fight against the French in Valletta.

The ALEXANDER then continued it’s blockade of Malta, based in the South East of Malta, at Marsa Scirocco harbour, on the 19th January returning an artillery detachment off the bomb vessel HMS PERSEUS back to their ship after having engaged the enemy. {4} On the 9 February 1799 Capt BALL was elected President of the Assembly

While Capt BALL was absent from the ALEXANDER, and on Maltese shore due to his new duties on the island of Malta, Lieutenant William Harrington, took over comand of the ship.

The ALEXANDER headed to Naples briefly in June 1799 during revolutionary troubles there, before once again returning to Malta on blockade duty. On 17 Feb 1800 in company with HMS SUCCESS, HMS FOUDROYANT and HMS NORTHUMBERLAND she finally captured the French GENERAUX, which was carrying 1500 French soldiers for the relief of Malta, and escorted it to Siracuse, arriving on the 21st February. The ALEXANDER then headed back to Malta to rejoin the blockading squadron

On the 1st March 1800, the ALEXANDER, and strategically positioned off St Julian’s Bay, two miles north of the Grand Harbour, as part of the Blockade. Gales and fierce storms raged for the next two weeks, but the GUILLIAME TELL eventually tried sneaking out at midnight on the 30th March, only to be sighted by PENELOPE which immediately sent MINORCA to inform Lord KEITH, who in turn sent her to warn the ALEXANDER and FOUDROYANT. The next day, the GUILLAUME TELL was captured by FOUDROYANT, LION and PENELOPE.

The French garrison in Malta finally capitulated on the 5th September 1800. In 1801, Capt. Manley DIXON took over from Capt. Alexander BALL, who was assigned back to Malta to organise the evacuation of the Maltese islands, as specified in the Treaty of Amiens.

HMS ALEXANDER returned to Portsmouth on 13 August, 1802.

In 1803, the ALEXANDER was sent out of commission in Plymouth, and was broken up in 1819.

Citations and Notes

{1} Alexander’s Tomb, by Nicholas J. Saunders, page 129., The Pursuit of Victory, by Roger Knight , page 294
{3} The Pursuit of Victory, by Roger Knight , page 129.
{4} Unknown, Unknown, Chapter THE ROYAL ARTILLERY IN THE BLOCKADE OF VALETTA page 98


Ships of the Old Navy – Michael Phillips
HMS Alexander Reference – University of Illinois Urbana
The Pursuit of Victory, by Roger Knight
A Great Coxcomb… – by Patrick Marione
Naval Database
Malta Family History – Royal Marines