Lord Admiral Thomas Cochrane: Historys Real Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey
Heave to, Horatio Hornblower. Cast off, Jack Aubrey. Make way for the man who inspired all your exploits: Lord Admiral Thomas Cochran.
Born in 1775, Lord Cochran would become one of Great Britains greatest naval heroes, eventually rising to the rank of full admiral. His exploits became nautical legend and the basis of several books, including those of his former shipmate Frederick Marryat, as well as the stories that would be told generations later in C.S. Foresters Hornblower books and Patrick OBrians Aubrey books.
Cochran entered naval service at the age of 17, serving on the HMS Hind, commanded by his uncle, Sir Alexander Cochrane. Two years later, he was named an acting lieutenant and confirmed in that rank a year later.
An unusually tall, opinionated man, Cochran was not afraid to speak his mind, a characteristic that often landed him in rough seas with his superiors. While serving aboard HMS Foudroyant, Cochran was court-martialed for being disrespectful to a senior officer. He was let off with a dressing-down, but his unrelenting impertinence would be the cause of several set backs in his career.
Start of a Legend
In 1800, Cochran was named commander of the 14-gun war sloop HMS Speedy. It would be in this small, lightly armed warship that Cochran would become a legend when, that same year, he singlehandedly engaged the much larger and better armed Spanish frigate, the 32-gun El Gamo, and took her by force.
Sailing under false colors as a neutral American ship, Cochran fooled the Spanish captain into letting the Speedy come close aboard. At such close range, the taller ship could not depress its cannon low enough to fire at the Speedy. When he realized his mistake, the Spanish captain quickly prepared to board the British sloop. As the boarders readied themselves on the Spaniards deck, Cochran quickly pulled away and fired a broadside into the massed sailors. Cochrans crew of 54 then boarded the Spanish ship and in hand-to-hand fighting forced El Gamos 319-man crew to surrender.
Cochrans victory over El Gamo eventually earned him promotion to post captain, and would later become the focal point of Foresters novel Beat to Quarters and OBrians Master and Commander.
During her 13-month cruise, Speedy captured, sunk or drove aground 53 enemy ships. On July 3, 1801, Cochran spotted three ships in the distance. Believing them to be Spanish galleons carrying gold, he began pursuing them. As he closed, however, Cochran realized the vessels were French ships of the line that had evaded a British blockade.
Out numbered and out gunned, and trapped between the shore and the enemy warships, Cochrane tried to escape by making all sail, but the wind was too light. Then he launched his small boats and tried to row the Speedy to safety. When that failed, he began lightening the ship by tossing overboard his cannon and stores. The three-hour chase ended with a broadside from one of the French ships. Unable to put up a fight, Cochrane was forced to lower his colors. Cochran was held a prison of war until exchanged for a Spanish naval officer a few weeks later.
Both Forester and OBrian used this battle in their books, with Hornblower captured after a similar fight in Ship of the Line, and Aubrey captured at the end of Master and Commander.
Raiding the Enemy
In 1804, after a boring cruise commanding the HMS Arab, Cochran took command of the HMS Pallas, a 32-gun frigate. Sailing off the Azores in 1805, Cochran captured three Spanish merchantmen and a 14-gun Spanish privateer (a civilian ship with a letter of marque from the Spanish government to operate as a merchant raider). Given orders to cruise off the Normandy coast in 1805, Cochran sailed the Pallas into the Gironde estuary in southwest France, capturing the 14-gun French corvette Tapageuse and driving three others aground.
Taking command of the 38-gun frigate HMS Imperieuse in 1806, Cochran conducted a series of coastal raids along the French Mediterranean coast, capturing the fortress of Mongat on one raid, and a coastal signal station on another. In the latter raid, Cochran was able to copy French signal codebooks, leaving behind the originals so the French would not know the codes had been comprised. These raids, too, became part of the Hornblower saga.
On the night of April 11, 1809, Cochran led a fire ship attack on a French squadron anchored in the Basque Roads on the Biscay Shore of France. The attacked called for 21 fire ships packed with flammable material to be sailed into the anchorage then abandoned and left to drift into the anchored French ships. With the wind and current against them, the French ships would unable to get away.
Cochrane added his own touch to the fire ships, packing some with explosives, which he called explosion ships. Cochrane led the attack in command of the foremost explosion ship. Lighting the fuse, he and his 4-man crew of volunteers climbed into an awaiting gig and rowed away. However, the 15-minute fuse burned faster than expected, and the ship exploded before Cochrane and his men could get safely away. The blast showered them with burning debris, but no one was seriously injured.
The attack drove all but three of the French ships ashore. Due to procrastination on the part of the overall commander, Adm. Lord James Gambier, the French learned of the attack in advance and were prepared to fend off the fire ships. Gambier also failed to properly follow up the fire attacks by bombarding the stranded French ships.
Accusations Against Lord Gambier
This fire ship attack would become part of the Hornblower saga. But despite Cochrans heroics during the attack he would be awarded the Order of Bath it would eventually leave his naval career in tatters. After the battle, Cochrane accused Gambier failing to follow up the fire attack. Gambier was acquitted by a court martial. The Admiralty, unhappy with what it considered Cochrans libeling of a senior officer, put Cochrane ashore on half pay. He would not be allowed to command another ship until 1813 when he was assigned to the HMS Tonnant.
While commanding the Tonnant, Cochrane inadvertently became ensnared in the Great Stock Exchange Fraud Scandal of 1814. His subsequent conviction and one year prison term cost him command of the Tonnant, his seat in Parliament, and the Order of Bath. While still in prison, his constituents believing him innocent returned Cochrane to Parliament. Under constant harassment for his opposition to the ruling government, Cochrane left England in 1817.
This event in Cochranes life also became part of the lives of both Hornblower and Aubrey.
Cochrane went on to command the navies of Chile, Brazil and Greece. In 1828, he returned to England intent on clearing his name. Finally, in 1832, he received a pardon and was reinstated to the navy as a rear admiral.
Succeeding his father as the 10th Earl of Dundonald, Cochrane became a great proponent of naval steam propulsion, and spent much of the rest of his life inventing improvements to the steam engine. He was made vice admiral in 1841, and had his Order of Bath reinstated seven years later. In 1851, he was promoted to full admiral.
Lord Cochrane died on October 13, 1860 in Kensington, having become one of Britains greatest naval heroes. His exploits would live on long after him in the form of his fictional offspring, Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey.