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Until the end of the 18th century, naval battles between equal fleets tended to end in bloody stalemate, as ships fought in line-ahead and neither side could bring superior force to bear against individual opposing ships. The battle of the Saintes represented a dramatic moment in the development of tactical naval warfare when the British, under Rodney, succeeded in breaking the French line and concentrating force against isolated ships of the enemy.
Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792) was a great tactician, though a difficult man to work with, and with the signal-book yet to be settled, he had difficulty in communicating his idea. He had tried at the battle of Martinique in 1780 to bring a superior force to bear by concentrating his ships on the rear of the French line, but his orders were misunderstood or not properly executed. Two years later, the battle of the Saintes, in the Caribbean, between the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique took place on 12 April, after several days' manoeuvring in light airs which had given Rodney's captains much-needed training in what he wanted them to do.
Admiral Comte de Grasse, who was mounting a raid to capture Jamaica, and the French fleet weighed from Fort Royal, Martinique on 8 April. Rodney intercepted it and a partial engagement took place the following day. Outwardly De Grasse had the advantage but soon lost it and the battle developed into a running fight which lasted three days. On the fourth day, as the two fleets looked to pass each other ineffectually on opposite tacks, there was a shift in the wind, an opportunity which Rodney seized and bought the fleet to action off Les Saintes, a group of small islands in the channel between Guadeloupe and Dominica. Initially adopting the traditional strategy, Rodney then bewildered the French by piercing their line of battle in two places and throwing them into utter confusion. Controversy followed about whose idea this was, and the extent to which the manoeuvre had been planned, but his officers understood his intentions, followed him, and the effect was decisive. The guns of the British ships were concentrated on a handful of French ships which were repeatedly raked through the weaker part of their hulls, the bows and sterns, as the British broke the French line in three places, and the tactical cohesion of the French was destroyed. Before long their flagship, the 104-gun Ville de Paris, was surrounded and forced to strike her colours, and even though a number of ships managed to escape, the battle marked the end for Britain of the American War of Independence and saved Jamaica from invasion. Rodney, who had enjoyed a string of victories, was later able to write: "Within two little years I have taken two Spanish, one French and one Dutch Admirals". De Grasse was taken prisoner to London.