Frigate. That single word conjures up scenes of adventure, daring sailors in heroic battles, fame, fortune, and glory in the imagination of anyone who loves the sea and those who sailed her vast expanses. The thought of becoming a frigate captain has driven young boys to ask they be found a position in one of the most brutal, starkly severe, and unforgiving professions ever devised by human kind. Many dreamed of one day walking the decks in searing heat, freezing cold, periods of unending boredom, and in fierce, bloody battles that would freeze the heart of lesser beings while in command of a frigate. More works of literature, fiction and factual, have been penned about this one class of ships than any other since the dawn of recorded history. What makes this class of ships so special? Why have writers from Samuel Pepys to C. S. Forrester, Alexander Kent, and Patrick O'Brian extolled the virtues of these ships and the officers and crews that sailed them?
The word 'frigate' originated in the 15th century in the Mediterranean from the French word 'fregate' and the Italian word 'fregatta,' which were applied to a galleass type of warship of about 250 tons and with both sails and oars. In the wars of the early part of the 17th century, a group of French privateers developed a ship that was uncomfortably effective against British merchants and warships alike. The British first developed, in the 1620s, a class of ships called the Lyon Whelps Class to combat these Dunkirk Privateers and named them First Whelp, Second Whelp and so on up to Tenth Whelp. These ships were less than a hundred feet long and carried 10 to twelve guns. They were unhandy to sail and even less so to fight. Then the British studied the hull forms of the French vessels and designed and built the Constant Warwick in 1646. She was the first English vessel called a frigate. She carried thirty-two guns, had a keel length of ninety feet, which would have given her a deck length of slightly over one hundred feet, and had a burthen of about 379 tons. Three more frigates, built that same year, Adventure, Assurance, and Nonsuch were slightly larger and carried thirty-eight to forty guns apiece. The name 'frigate' was loosely applied at the time to almost any ship with a higher than usual length to width ratio (the Constant Warwick was about 4:1) or a ship that was handy and carried an unusual turn of speed. It was probably in this context that Samuel Pepys called the ninety-gun Naseby, later renamed Royal Charles, a frigate in his diaries.
While the Constant Warwick and her siblings were moderately successful, the British Navy was, at the time, disdainful of any warship other than a ship of the line. The Dutch and the Danes developed ships with similar lines at the same time as the British and French. The British Fifth Rate frigates were considered useful only as patrol craft and scouts and, between 1650 and 1688, only a handful were built. In 1688, William of Orange ascended the British throne. His investment with the throne of England initiated a series of wars with France that would last over a century and a quarter. Foes in Scotland and Ireland as well as on the continent beset William III and he needed a ship that would allow the Royal Navy to intercept and destroy possible reinforcements by the French to those in opposition to his rule. He also needed escorts for his country's commerce vessels, ships to provide intelligence by closely watching the French harbors and coastlines, and ships to keep his own military lines of supply clear of raiders. The result was the birth of the specialist cruiser. Even so, the one thing continuously distinguishing the cruiser class from all others in the British Navy was their scarcity - the British Navy never seemed to have enough. This fact caused Admiral, Lord Nelson over one hundred years later, while trying to find the French Fleet sent to Egypt, to cry, "Frigates! Were I to die this moment, want of frigates would be found engraved on my heart!" Had Nelson had the four frigates that were originally designated to be in his squadron, he probably would have caught Bonaparte on the high seas and history would be quite different.
The first of the frigates designed and built after the 'Glorious Revolution' swept William of Orange into power was appropriately named Experiment. Built in 1689 at Chatham, she was 105 feet long, 27 feet wide, had a draught of 10 feet and a burthen of 370 tons. She carried 32 sakers or nine-pounders. By the end of the century, the British navy had about thirty frigates in service, no two of which were identical. The War of Spanish Succession in 1702 brought no innovations in frigate design either; standardization was still far in the future. The British built the Gosport in 1702. She was 118 feet long, 32 feet wide, had a draught of 14 feet and a burthen of 531 tons. She carried 40 twelve-pounders and was one of the most powerful frigates the British built prior to the end of the 18th century. The Swedish naval architects countered with Illerim. She was 130 feet in length, 34 feet in width, had a draught of 17 feet and a burthen of 1140 tons. She carried 26 eighteen-pound guns and 10 eight-pounders. She was the largest single-decked warship of her day.
When the Establishment of 1719 laid down standard dimensions and scantlings (general design layouts) for all British warships down to Sixth Rate, the frigate class really started to take shape. Strangely, however, between 1719 and 1740 British shipbuilding, in particular frigates, hit low ebb. When war again broke out between England and France in 1744, the Dunkirk Privateers again became a very real problem. In 1747, a particularly fine specimen of French naval innovation, Tygre, was captured. Tygre carried 26 nine-pounders on a single covered deck. She served well both as a warship in the Royal Navy and as an example of excellent French naval architecture. After studying her construction, the British built the first two ships of a (for the British) new type, Unicorn and Lyme. Lyme was the first known warship with a rounded bow. This feature was copied almost one hundred fifty years later in the USS Constitution. Unicorn was 118 feet long, 34 feet wide, had a draught of 10 feet and a burthen of 581 tons. She carried 28 nine-pounders and was the first British 28-gun frigate. The Unicorn became a prototype for the British 28-gun frigate of which fifty would be built by the end of the American Revolutionary War.
The French had built their first 12-pound frigate, Hermione, in 1748. She was 130 feet long, 28 feet wide, had a draught of 13 feet, a burthen of 812 tons, and carried 26 twelve-pounders. The first British 12-pound frigate was Southampton built in 1756. She was 124 feet in length, 35 feet in width, had a draught of 12 feet, a burthen of 652 tons and carried 32 twelve pounders. This ship and her successors, along with the very popular Niger class of frigates remained the standard for the next quarter century.
The Spanish took an altogether different tack when they finally decided their beloved galleons could not do everything and started building frigates. A good example is the Santa Margarita, built in 1770. She was 146 feet long, 39 feet wide, had a draught of 12 feet, and a burthen of 1000 tons. As large as she was, she only carried 40 eight-pounders. Spanish frigates that followed were all heavily built but lightly armed.
Tactics in BattleEdit
Frigates used their speed and maneuverability in individual actions with any ship equal to or lesser than themselves. In the early days, when frigates were only equipped with nine-pounders, most frigate actions were, at most, separate only by one or two or three ship lengths. The rule of achieving the wind gauge was important but being able to maintain a position where you were quartering, or being out of direct line of the other ship's broadside, was also desirable. Of course, being able to establish a position that would let you cross the enemy's T, as in any other type of action, was the most desirable.
Individual captains had to adapt to ever-changing situations, as they did not have the same limitations as a line of battle ship. For instance, a frigate captain engaged with two or more ships would try to keep to the weather side of one ship and use that ship as a bulwark against the fire of the others just as Captain Cochrane did in Pallas against Minerve and the three brig corvettes. A captain engaging a more powerful ship might approach quartering the larger ship, turn to bring the frigate's broadside to bear from longer range than usual, and then reverse course swinging inward toward the larger ship to give his offside cannon a look at the opponent at even closer range. This effectively gave the frigate captain two broadsides to probably one response from the enemy.
The frigate captain was always looking to be able to direct raking fire on the enemy. Simply sailing broadside-to-broadside and hammering away at an opponent might be fine for the line of battle, but could well prove disastrous for a frigate. Rarely would a frigate captain try to attack while traveling on the same course and at the same speed as the enemy. It was much better to angle in across the enemy's bows, fire a semi-raking broadside down her gullet, use the ship's momentum to angle away and reverse course away from the enemy to allow the off side guns to deliver another semi-raking broadside. Crossing the T from ahead or astern at close range of an undamaged opponent would give the enemy a chance at delivering raking fire up your stern as you moved away and no frigate captain would give any enemy that opportunity. Usually it was done only when the enemy had reduced maneuvering or had one broadside or the other severely reduced in strength.
The smart frigate captain always kept speed and maneuverability at the forefront of their tactical decisions. A ship of the line could take a great deal more damage than a frigate could sustain while remaining a viable fighting platform.
Frigate tactics were very situational. A good frigate captain could adapt to the development of the engagement as needed. Frigate captains who tried to apply standard tactics strictly as dictated in the Sailing and Fighting Instructions usually ended up dead frigate captains.
The Minerva class sailing frigates were a series of four ships built to a 1778 design by Sir Edward Hunt, which served in the Royal Navy during the later decades of the eighteenth century.
During the early stages of the American Revolutionary War, the Royal Navy - while well supplied with ships from earlier programs, but faced with coastal operations and trade protection tasks along the American littoral - ordered numerous forty-four gun, two-decked ships and thirty-two gun 12-pounder armed frigates. Anticipating the entry of European powers into the war, and with renewed resistance provided by the large, nine hundred ton, thirty-two gun 12-pounder armed frigates of the French Navy, the RN looked to a newer larger design of frigate to meet this challenge. From November 1778 larger frigates with a heavier 18-pounder primary armament were ordered.
They were the first Royal Navy frigates designed to be armed with the eighteen-pounder cannon on their upper deck, the main gun deck of a frigate. Before coming into service, their designed secondary armament was augmented, with 9-pounder guns being substituted for the 6-pounder guns originally planned, and with ten 18-pounder carronades being added (six on the quarter deck and four on the forecastle). The type eventually proved successful, and went on to be virtually the standard frigate type during the latter periods of the age of sail.