Capture of Belle Isle, 1761

The capture of the French island of Belle Isle, 20 miles off the Brittany coast, was a joint naval/army expedition during the Seven Years War. The war had begun in 1756 following clashes in North America before the focus switched to Europe, with France seizing the island of Minorca while Britain, encouraged by the Southern Secretary William Pitt, launched a series of naval attacks on the French coast, including the Raid on Rochefort (1757) and the Raid on Cherbourg (1758). Britain also attacked French colonies around the world and in 1759-60 conquered much of Canada, a loss which Pitt anticipated would lead to France seeking peace. Pitt had planned to send an expedition to capture Mauritius, home to a major French naval base in the Indian Ocean, but with a possible peace congress looming he set his eyes on something closer to home which could be exchanged for captured British territory.

Pitt chose instead to send an expedition to capture Belle Isle, which offered command of the Bay of Biscay and which was close to the important French naval port of Lorient. Admiral Augustus Keppel commanded the naval forces while British troops were led by General Studholme. A first landing in early April 1761, under General John Crauford, proved unsuccessful, with well- entrenched French troops inflicting heavy casualties on British troops. A storm then wrecked many of the landing craft needed for the operation and the attack was called off.

Despite opposition at home, Pitt pressed ahead with a second expedition. This he reinforced by diverting troop transports sent to take part in an attack on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. On April 22, British forces made two feint assaults to the north and west while the main attack, again under Crauford, targeted Port Andro. Crauford’s attack soon stalled, but in the north, Brigadier Hamilton Lambart quickly gained a foothold around St Foy. Crauford abandoned his attack and took his men by boat to reinforce Lambart, leading French forces to retreat to the fortress of Le Palais. The French commander on the island, Chevalier Sainte Croix, hoped to hold out long enough for relief from the mainland, but a British naval blockade of Brittany ports made this impossible. Sainte Croix was forced to surrender but he and his force were allowed to return to France. Britain occupied Belle Isle for two years until it was exchanged for Minorca under the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

The 67th took part in both the first and second landings. At the first, grenadiers under Captain Osborne made up part of Crauford’s main force and succeeded in scaling the steep cliffs around St Andro. However, before it could be reinforced, the 67th came under attack from a much larger French force. Despite fighting gallantly the company was cut pieces and several officers, including Osborne, killed.

At the second landing, the 67th was again attached to Cauford’s main force which was brought up to support Lambart’s landing. The battalion was in action again at the siege of Le Palais and remained on the island after its capture, suffering badly from sickness and a lack of hospital accommodation. In November 1761, no fewer than 111 of the 67th’s 826 officers and men were sick. The 67th and 37th escaped the cuts in the Army which followed the Treaty of Paris, and both battalions were allotted to garrisoning Minorca.

Capture of Belle Isle, 1761