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British Fire Bombing of Quebec City in 1759
FIRE IS A POWERFUL WEAPON. During the siege of Quebec City in the French and Indian War, both sides attacked with it. The arrival of the General James Wolfe’s Army with a Royal Navy fleet on June 28 surprised the defenders of Quebec. Many thought the British would have difficulty navigating the dangerous waters of the mouth of the St Lawrence River and the move was unexpected.
With 49 warships and 140 support vessels, the British armada must have been an impressive sight. However, the fleet was confined to a narrow channel of the river, between the island of Orleans and the south shore. Though the fleet was safely tucked away from the artillery of Quebec, the French saw an opportunity to defeat the British before the siege could even begin.
That night, under the cover of darkness seven French ships silently slipped out of harbour. The vessels were stuffed with flammables ready to be lit once close enough to the enemy’s ships. It was a good plan. However, one captain lost his nerve and set fire to his ship prematurely. The others dutifully followed suit except for one ship commanded by Captain Dubois de La Milletière. He held off, attempting to close his distance with the British. Unfortunately, with the other fireships alit, his vessel soon also caught fire, killing him and his crew.
(Samuel Scott, 1767 in National Maritime Museum)
Roused from slumber, seamen of the Royal Navy scrambled to respond to the unexpected threat. The closest British ship to the fiery hell floating towards them, was the 60-gun HMS Centurian. Her captain, William Mantell, ordered the cables mooring them in place cut so his ship could float safely further down river. In the meantime, British sailors lowered their longboats and rowed hard to intercept the fire ships. With pitch, oil and wood ablaze, the heat must have been unbearable. However, the "jolly tar" sailors were able to land their grappling hooks and tow the burning vessels out of harm’s way towards the northern channel.
Now came the British turn. Their "play with fire" came from the muzzles of their cannon. After landing artillery mortars and long guns on the south shore, building fortified batteries were begun. While being bombarded by the guns of Quebec, the British troops toiled away. By June 12, with six long guns and five mortars in place, the British were ready to return fire. That night at 9pm, the signal was given and the Royal Artillery began what would be a two-month bombardment of Quebec. Explosive round mortar shells fell into houses, and solid iron round shot smashed through walls.
are attempting to move it with hand spikes which are used to run the gun up and back in the loading process. A Highlander in breeches
looks on and a linstock for firing the cannons idly smolders. (by Dominic Serres - Wiki).
Unfortunately for the British, the distance was too great to launch fire bombs, called carcasses, from the south shore. Carcasses were oblong shells made of bands of iron stuffed and sewn up with a flammable composition of "meal-powder, saltpetre, sulphur, broken glass, shavings of horn, pitch, turpentine, tallow and linseed oil and coated over with pitch [soaked] cloth." To discourage defenders from attempting to smother the burning debris of a carcass, loaded pistol barrels were added to the bomb. In short, carcasses were nasty weapons of destruction.
On the night of June 12, the only option for the British to bring these incendiary rounds to bear on Quebec was to deploy the fleet’s two bomb ketches in front of the city. The effect of the fire bombs was significant on the lower part of the city. A parish priest Jean-Félix Recher recorded the impact of the bombardment: "the gunfire and the bombardment... terrorized the whole town… the women, with their children… were continually in tears, wailing and praying; they huddled together and said the rosary…" Recher continued that some women "formed platoons to tell their beads" hoping for divine intervention from the horrors falling from the sky. Fire bombs did not only burn buildings, they also laid waste to the morale of the French defenders.
On the right is the covered in a tarred linen cloth. It was usually sewn shut. (publish 1762)
Once a house caught on fire, Recher noted the British tactics of using suppression fire on those fighting the flames so it could spread. The British gunners saw a "fire break out fired many bombs and cannon bills into the flames, to prevent our men from working to put it out." A few days into the bombardment, one carcass bomb fire spread to eighteen houses and burned Father Recher’s church.
The destruction was effective but the British could not easily use firebombs. The bomb vessels were open targets for the French artillery and the mortars on the ships could not handle the number of rounded to be fired. To keep them out of range of the enemy, the 13-inch mortars were fired constantly at high angles, forcing the recoil pressure down on the mortar’s wooden support beds. An officer of the 43d Regiment recounted:
" 13th July 1759 - Our batteries and the town still warmly engaged: our Bomb Ships ceased firing late last night but renewed it this morning and performed exceedingly well. Two of our mortar beds are already damaged by our own firing: the two Bomb Ketches have also suffered and fell down this evening to Orleans for repair their mortars to be landed with all expedition and sent up to our batteries."
De-commissioned bomb vessels hampered the siege, but fire bombs could not be shot from the other side of the river. The Carcass bombs proved too fragile to fire from the British batteries on the south shore: "Being ordered to destroy the lower Town by fire… the distance being so great, that a 10-inch Sea Service Mortar loaded with 5 lbs of powder, could not throw a 10 inch oblong Carcass over the river St. Lawrence; and when 6 lbs were tried, the Carcasses were blown to pieces."
This is not surprising since a 10-inch Carcass shell weighed over 72 lbs (almost 33 kg). However, General Wolfe called upon his artillery officers to find a way to increase the range of the fire bombs. One of his Artillery officers found a solution:
" After a number of fruitless trials, I feel upon the following [namely] over 6 lbs of powder, I rammed a wad of grass or half made Hay, which filed the Chamber of the said mortar so that the Carcass rested upon the Wad; and then ten out of twelve, were thrown into the middle of the lower town; and set it on fire so effectually, that before morning the greatest part of it was destroyed."
A French nun described the destruction of that night: "upwards to fifty of the best houses in the Lower Town were destroyed. The vaults containing merchandise and many precious articles did not escape the effects of the artillery. During this dreadful conflagration we could offer nothing but our tears and prayers at the foot of the altar…"
The displaced French inhabitants and military personnel pulled back out of range from the British fire bombs into the upper town or further north of the plains of Abraham. Again, Wolfe called upon his artillery to extend the range of their fire.
"I was ordered to try if the upper Town could be destroyed by Oblong Carcasses from the same Mortar; In which I likewise succeeded with 7 lbs of powder (with a wad over it as beforementioned0 which threw seven carcasses (out of ten) into the upper Town, and set it on fire also and caused a great conflagration – In both towns, there were 503 Houses, and one Church destroyed.
When Quebec finally surrendered in September 1759 after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham more than 10,000 bombs and 40,000 cannon balls had been fired upon the city. That total was more than three times the number used during the siege of Louisburg the previous year. The irony of the destruction caused by the fire bombing was that the British Army was left to occupy the burned out ruins over a merciless Canadian winter and defend them the following spring. Sickness and frostbite decimated the British ranks. The French Canadian nuns, who had suffered during the bombing, showed charity to the British soldiers and knitted them woolen stockings to help them survive.
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