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Admiral Lord James de Saumarez  

Saumarez and the Crescent

Over the years Guernsey has been always been proud of its sailors and few Guernseymen have been as fine a seaman as Sir James Saumarez.

In 1794 the war with France was at its height and, with Guernsey right in the front line, the recently knighted Sir James was captain of the 36 gun frigate Crescent. He was charged with keeping the seas around Guernsey free of the French.

On June 7th Sir James set sail from Plymouth for Guernsey in a full gale at the head of a small squadron of King's ships.

Jean Breton's Medal. Image (c) States of Guernsey Reverse of the Medal. Image (c) States of Guernsey
Jean Breton's Medal. Image (c) States of Guernsey Reverse of the Medal. Image (c) States of Guernsey

The following morning as they approached Guernsey's west coast a group of ships was sighted to the east.

Guernsey's West Coast On investigation they were identified as two French men-o-war mounting 50 guns each supported by two 36-gun frigates. Saumarez's little squadron was out-gunned and its only hope lay in flight. But there was not time for them all to get away.

Having ordered his smaller ships round the Hanois reef, he engaged the French. By the time the other ships had cleared the Hanois it was too late for the Crescent to follow.


Guernsey's West Coast  

Saumarez put his helm down and headed directly inshore towards the gale battered coast of Vazon and the protection of the island's shore batteries.

By this time the sound of gunfire so close to shore had drawn a huge crowd of islanders to the west coast to watch the action. The French ships followed close in Saumarez's wake but hauled off when they were certain he intended to drive the Crescent ashore to avoid capture. 

But they had not counted on his local knowledge nor the presence aboard of a childhood friend who knew the west coast even better than he did.

In his youth Saumarez had been taught to sail by a Perelle fisherman - Jean Breton - who knew the rocks and reefs like the back of his hand. Breton had been in Plymouth when the Crescent sailed and begged a passage home from his old pupil. It was Breton and Saumarez who now conned the Crescent free through a maze of deadly rocks away to the north and clear of the French.

The escape was followed with bated breath by the watchers ashore and even Saumarez was worried for he asked Breton if he was sure of his marks. Legend has it that he replied "Aye Sir for there is my house and yours in line." But in fact his house was on the Rue de la Biloterie below Fort Richmond and difficult to line up with any of Saumarez's homes. Be that as it may, the Crescent made a successful escape through waters that even today are not for the fainthearted.

Saumarez went on to greater things being raised to the peerage in 1831 and becoming an Admiral of the Red in 1834.

His old friend Jean Breton was presented with a silver gilt medal which can today be seen in the Maritime Museum in Castle Cornet.

And he no doubt earned many a pint of ale recounting the tale in the years to come.

Courtesy of BBC Radio Guernsey



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