Napoleon's Secret Navy

Napoleon in Venice 1807
Contrary to popular belief, Admiral Horatio Nelson's triumph over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar did not end Napoleon's hopes of mounting a challenge to Britain at sea. Nevertheless, the loss of a number of ships of the line forced him to turn to his satellites and conquered territories for shipbuilding facilities to supplement those of France; and this, in turn, gave rise to a new French naval strategy. From the end of 1805 onward, Napoleon sought to build and operate warships in as many places as possible in order to exceed and, eventually, exhaust the resources of the British navy. While historians traditionally have attributed the French acquisition of European coastal regions to a desire to enforce the Continental System -the economic embargo against Britain- Napoleon's need to control and exploit shipbuilding centres on the continent could very well be another, perhaps equally important, motivation for his interest in these territories.

In the Adriatic, France pursued an active program of warship construction while never seriously attempting to enforce the Continental System. This quiet arm of the Mediterranean, a strategic backwater ever since the decline of the Venetian Republic decades earlier, suddenly became a theatre of competition between the British and Napoleonic navies. The British were faced with the choice of extending their operations into the Adriatic or acquiescing in France's exploitation of its resources. In Napoleon's view, either choice would serve his overall strategy. In October 1805, within days of the disaster at Trafalgar, the French minister of Marine and Colonies, Vice Admiral Denis Decres, started to lay the groundwork for the reconstruction of the French fleet. Fortunately for Napoleon, Britain's continental allies in 1805 had not matched her triumph at sea. Austria pulled out of the war in December and concluded the Treaty of Pressburg, by which the French satellite kingdom of Italy received the lion's share of the spoils. The Habsburgs had to cede the Adriatic coastal provinces of Venetia, Istria, and Dalmatia.
In late January 1806, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, the viceroy of Italy, made his first visit to Venice. Upon receiving his report on the condition of the port and its famous Arsenal, Napoleon instructed Decres to explore the possibility of creating a naval squadron there. The emperor spoke optimistically of building six ships of the line and six frigates in Venice, entirely from Venetian resources, and of manning them with local seamen. The viceroy issued a decree establishing naval conscription, to provide the fleet with seagoing manpower and shipyard personnel. At the same time, he had twenty gunboats laid down in the Arsenal, all of which were to be completed and armed by the end of 1806.
Ships of the Line

A construction program began in earnest and gained momentum over the fall of 1806. The brig Jena, named in honour of Napoleon's recent victory over the Prussians, entered service in December. By the end of the year, keels had been laid for two more brigs, two seventy-four-gunships of the line and two forty-four- gun frigates; then, in January, work started on three more ships of the line. Early in 1807, at his field headquarters near Warsaw, Napoleon spoke of having a dozen ships of the line built in Venice within the next two or three years. In appraising the possibilities of the Venice Arsenal, he noted that "profit from this great resource" to France was "most urgent." In the months that followed, a number of smaller vessels were laid down on its slips: in February, two more brigs; in April, a pair of thirty-two-gun corvettes; and in June, a smaller corvette to round out the first phase of the program.
While awaiting the completion of the new warships, the French and their Italian compatriots could do little to challenge their enemies in the Adriatic. A British squadron under Captain Patrick Campbell managed to blockade Venice for an entire year (September 1806 to September 1807), preventing both the supply by sea of French troops in Dalmatia and the transport to Venice of Dalmatian naval conscripts and ship timber.

The neutralization of Russia, together with the launching of new warships at Venice, strengthened the Franco-Italian hand in the Adriatic and brought on a new, more active phase of naval warfare that would oblige the British to commit more ships to the theatre to avoid losing it entirely. The French plan of action for 1808 called for the main fleet to break the British blockade at Toulon, then resupply the new French garrison on Corfu, land troops on Sicily and, if the opportunity arose, engage the British Mediterranean fleet. To overcome their numerical inferiority, the French hoped to rendezvous with Spanish ships of the line and eventually join forces with the Franco-Italian fleet in the Adriatic. Napoleon, somewhat unrealistically, even counted on a Russian squadron which had taken refuge at the Austrian port of Trieste after the Treaty of Tilsit. He assumed that the British would have to send ships of the line into the Adriatic to watch them, and thus weaken their blockade of Toulon and other ports.
The Adriatic

In January the French fleet, under Vice Admiral Honore Joseph Antoine Ganteaume, succeeded in breaking out of Toulon. After failing to find the Spanish, Ganteaume proceeded alone to the Ionian islands and delivered reinforcements and supplies to Corfu. The British admirals lost track of him but took up defensive positions off Malta and Sicily and quite by accident foiled his plans to take the latter. Lacking Spanish support, and with the Russians unwilling to leave their haven at Trieste to join him, Ganteaume considered it pointless to seek an engagement with a superior British fleet. After accomplishing his mission at Corfu he returned home, thus bringing to an end the last major French naval sortie of the Napoleonic wars. The French expedition shook the British hold on the Adriatic, but they did not have to deploy ships of the line there; and after the threat passed, Campbell's frigates sufficed to restore order. The fate of a convoy sent out from Venice one month after Ganteaume's departure con- firmed the speed of the British recovery. Campbell intercepted its escort of three brigs and captured the Franco-Italian commander, Captain Paulucci, along with his flagship Friedland. The British subsequently imprisoned Paulucci at Malta; in the years that followed, a succession of French officers filled his post as head of the active squadron.

The subsequent timidity of the Italian navy lasted throughout the War of 1809, when it declined to venture out against Commodore William Hargood and three British ships of the line. Although new frigates, corvettes and brigs had been launched and put into service at Venice, the five ships of the line laid down in 1806 and 1807 were all still on the stocks and the fleet had nothing to match Hargood's larger vessels.

In July 1810 Napoleon decided to start a second round of naval construction in the Venice Arsenal, optimistically informing Decres of his intention "to have five [new] ships of the line on the stocks at Venice" by the end of the year. Of the five already under construction, he hoped to have two in service by the end of 1811 and a third by the fall of 1812.

By the end of 1810 the completion of most of the frigates, corvettes, and brigs of the initial building program at Venice gave the Franco-Italian forces a rough parity with the British in medium-sized ships, and the progress of work on the five ships of the line threatened to turn the overall balance in their favour. A month before Dubourdieu's raid, Eugene had travelled to Venice to witness the launching of the first of the ships of the line, the seventy-four-gun Rivoli. During the fall of 1810 the second phase of naval building began in the Arsenal, on slips vacated by the launching of vessels laid down in 1806 and 1807. Of the five additional ships of the line authorized by Napoleon in July, three were under construction by the end of the year, along with another frigate. At the same time Napoleon ordered an additional ship of the line and frigate to be built for the Illyrian navy in Trieste, where heretofore only gunboats had been constructed. In July he doubled the navy's budget for 1811 from three million to six million francs and assigned Commodore Jean-Baptiste Barre to Venice to replace the late Dubourdieu. The emperor wanted Barre to take command of a squadron consisting of the Rivoli and two other new ships of the line, then to show the flag and reassert French naval hegemony in the Adriatic during the late summer and early fall of 1811. But the shipbuilders could not match his ambitious schedule, and when the time came for the cruise to begin none of the three vessels was ready for sea; the Rivoli still had to be armed, and the other two had yet to be launched. Instead of conducting a new show of force, the Franco-Italian navy reverted to its pre-1810 impotence. For the remainder of 1811, the British managed to control the Adriatic with only two frigates and their corsair fleet.
Barre's Adriatic cruise finally took place in February 1812 with a squadron consisting only of the Rivoli and three brigs. The seventy-four-gun ship of the line and its small escorts left Venice on the twentieth of the month with the modest assignment of sailing first to Trieste, then to Ancona. The sortie did not catch the British off guard, since they had just sent a ship of the line of their own, the Victorious, to the upper Adriatic. At dawn on 22 February this seventy-four-gun vessel and a British sloop intercepted the Rivoli and her squadron off Grado, west of Trieste, and after a preliminary exchange of salvoes destroyed a French brig, the two ships of the line squared off for a classic duel. As soon as the Rivoli came under fire, some 150 Dalmatian crewmen abandoned their stations and sought refuge in the hold of the vessel. In four hours of combat, the British guns inflicted 400 casualties among the 650 men who remained at their posts. The Rivoli had to strike her colours, and the Victorious sailed off with the greatest prize of the war in the Adriatic, one of the few ships of the line captured by the British after Trafalgar. After the battle, Barre was fortunate to be in enemy hands; an outraged Napoleon called the loss "unforgivable."
In hindsight, the battle appears to have been the fatal blow to his Adriatic strategy. Although the building program at Venice continued, with the emperor even ordering a replacement for the captured warship, there was no longer the optimistic belief that the completion of the ships of the line somehow would automatically break Britain's domination of the sea. In 1812 the British expanded their Adriatic squadron to three ships of the line and a half-dozen frigates, under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Fremantle. The enlarged force was more than powerful enough to keep the Franco-Italian fleet in port.

After returning from his Russian campaign, Napoleon for the first time expressed doubts about the future of his program at Venice. In January 1813 he ordered the completed ships of the line (three, at the time) to leave the port and "if possible" make a run for Toulon. Given Britain's mastery of the Adriatic and western Mediterranean, such a mission would have been suicidal; Duperre realized as much and did not attempt it.

To the end, Napoleon refused to give up the dream of making Venice a major maritime centre of his European empire. Warship construction continued for months after the Italian navy had ceased to venture out, and money was spent on new ships even after the bankrupt kingdom of Italy no longer could meet the payroll for personnel aboard the vessels already completed. As late as 1813, two new frigates were laid down in the Arsenal, one of which, ironically, was named the Moscava, in commemoration of the emperor's triumphant march to the Russian capital and in defiant non-recognition of the disaster that had followed.

While Eugene fought desperately to save northern Italy for Napoleon in the campaign of 1813-14, the Franco-Italian navy remained in port at Venice. In October 1813 the emperor advised Decres that all ships of the line might have to be disarmed in order to put the guns and manpower to better use on land. Napoleon subsequently pressed thousands of sailors into service with the army, but Eugene did not follow his example in Italy. In late October, with help from the guns of Fremantle's ships of the line, Austrian troops subdued the citadel of Trieste; the British then enforced a strict blockade of Venice for the next six months until Eugene's defeat and surrender in April 1814. The Austrians besieged the city by land and occupied it at the end of April, inheriting a wealth of ships and naval stores in the harbour and Arsenal. Habsburg officials found a total of four ships of the line, three frigates, and one corvette completed, and another six ships of the line and five frigates under construction. Roughly a dozen brigs and countless schooners and gunboats rounded out the fleet. The number of ships found built and building in Venice surprised even the British, who were aware all along of the activity in the Arsenal but had no precise knowledge of its scope. In addition to the vessels inherited by the Austrians, the program had produced the ship of the line Rivoli, two frigates, one corvette, and several brigs and smaller vessels, all either sunk or captured by the British. By the end of the war, Napoleon's efforts had produced (or had under construction) eleven ships of the line, ten frigates, and two corvettes at Venice, another frigate at Trieste, and as many as sixteen or seventeen brigs at Venice and Trieste combined.
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