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Admiral Sir Sidney Smith born.

Thursday, 21 June 1764

Sir Sidney Smith 1764-1840 

The names of Nelson, Trafalgar and HMS Victory are all very familiar and have to a certain extent eclipsed other great men, battles and ships of the great Naval War with Napoleonic Europe. In the next ten articles I want to write about these lesser known aspects.  

Amongst many names, that of Sidney Smith stands out.  Born in 1764, he joined the Navy as midshipman in 1777 aged just thirteen. He was lucky, being in the right place at the right time, for Admiral Rodney noticed him at the battles of Cape Saint Vincent and The Saintes and promoted him to post-captain at the age of 18, this being well below the minimum age for that post. His first command was the Sloop Fury but was soon put ashore on half pay. 

Rather than facing life on half-pay he travelled to Sweden as Naval advisor during their war with Russia. Here he helped secure victory at the battle of Svendskund, for this he was given the Swedish Order of the Sword and a knighthood. This decoration was recognised by King George III but earned Smith the name ‘The Swedish Knight’ by his detractors. 

Once war broke out in 1793 Smith volunteered to lead a raid at Toulon where a French Fleet was at anchor. The attack managed to sink or capture about a quarter of the sixty vessels in the port and managed to keep Smith’s name recognised as being a bold and fearless leader. In 1793 as Captain of the fifth rate frigate Diamond he sailed under French colours into the harbour approaches at Brest and seized and garrisoned two small offshore islands. During an attempt to cut out a French privateer he was captured. Instead of being exchanged Smith was sent to the Temple Prison in Paris. Due to the fact that Smith had been on half pay at the time of the Toulon raid, the French did not regard him as a true combatant and he was charged with arson. A trial never took place and eventually after two years in custody he escaped with help of Royalist sympathisers and arrived back in London in 1798. 

The following year he was promoted to Commodore and given a squadron to harass the French shipping that was supplying Napoleon in Egypt. He also carried diplomatic orders to Istanbul where his brother was Minister Plenipotentiary to the Sublime Porte as the Sultan’s court was known. This mission was to strengthen Turkish opposition to Napoleon and help them to destroy the French Army there. 

Smith sailed onto Acre and there reinforced the garrison with cannon and marines, also denying the French the use of the coastal road to support their troops. The siege carried on however and repeated French assaults were driven back, even when the walls of the town were breached the French were beaten back by the defending forces helped by HMS Theseus and Smith on HMS Tigre. 

Napoleon had by then made up his mind to leave Egypt and pulled back. Smith went ashore and made a treaty with general Kebler who commanded the remaining French forces; this however was abrogated by the British Government after Nelson, who wanted the French completely annihilated, made his views known. 

Smith returned to Britain and honours in 1801 but was again overshadowed by Nelson’s victory at Copenhagen. He was elected as MP for Rochester in Kent in 1802. There is evidence that he then had an affair with the notorious Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the estrange wife of the Prince of Wales. She became pregnant at this time and a scandal arose but as she had been carrying on affairs with others such as George Canning there was no proof of paternity. 

When war resumed again in 1803 Smith had developed theories concerning the use of mines, torpedoes and Congreve rockets and wanted to use such methods against the combined enemy fleets in their harbours. These ideas never took shape as the Battle of Trafalgar destroyed any such enemy fleet being a threat to Britain.

Admiral Collingwood, who took Nelson’s place, promoted Smith to rear admiral and again Smith was sent to the Mediterranean, this time to help King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilys regain his throne from Joseph, Napoleon’s brother. Using a combined force Smith marched against a large French force and defeated them at the battle of Maida on July 4th 1806. His inability to get on with superiors and other officers brought about his replacement however, and he was sent under Sir John Duckworth to  Constantinople  to negotiate with the Turks against French influence. Duckworth was unheeding of Smith’s advice, which lead to the breakdown of talks and an ignominious retreat down through the Dardenelles. 

Although being honoured in England and getting promoted again to Vice Admiral the Government remained suspicious of him.  However he was given the task of escorting the Portuguese royal family to Brazil and given the Order of the Tower and Sword for diplomatic services.