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Battle of Havana (1870)

The Battle of Havana on 9 November 1870 was an indecisive single ship action between the German gunboat Meteor and the French aviso Bouvet off the coast of Havana, Cuba during the Franco-Prussian War The battle was the only naval engagement of the war, and showed the inability of either navy to gain a decisive advantage over the other The Franco-Prussian War was a conflict between the Second French Empire and later, the Third French Republic and the various states of the North German Confederation led by the Kingdom of Prussia Lasting from 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871, the conflict was caused by Prussian ambitions to expand German unification and French fears of the shift in the European balance of power that would result if the Prussians succeeded A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France, culminating in the Siege of Metz and the Battle of Sedan, saw French Emperor Napoleon III captured and the army of the Second Empire decisively defeated A Government of National Defence declared the Third French Republic in Paris on 4 September and continued the war

During the war, both sides maintained a navy and engaged in naval operations around the globe Most of the French fleet blockaded the German fleet in their harbours, although a few German ships managed to slip out and evade the French, proceeding to engage in commerce raiding against the French merchant marine or harass the French in other ways The Meteor was one such ship who managed to elude the French blockade, sailing from Nassau to Havana A French aviso, the Bouvet, noticed her and sailed outside the harbour of Havana Havana was at the time ruled by Spain, a neutral country in the conflict, and the captain of the Bouvet issued a challenge, which the German captain accepted The Meteor sailed out of the harbour on the ninth of November, and proceeded to engage the Bouvet Despite both sides pouring fierce fire, neither side could inflict significant damage on the other ship, and after a German cannon shot temporarily disabled the engine of the Bouvet, the French were compelled to retire, safely withdrawing to neutral waters Both captains were subsequently promoted for their bravery in the battle


  • 1 Background
  • 2 Battle
  • 3 Aftermath
  • 4 References
  • 5 Bibliography


SMS Augusta off Gironde, by Alexander Kircher

The war started with France having an overwhelming naval superiority over the naval forces of the various German States The nascent German Navy was not in position to challenge its French opponent, and mostly remained safely inside its harbours Despite this, a few German warships managed to harass the French in certain situations, such as in the Baltic, where the German aviso Grille exchanged fire with a French corvette when her flotilla challenged a French squadron off Zealand On the 27th of August in 1870, SMS Nymphe, assigned to the defences of Neufahrwasser that protected Danzig, challenged a French squadron under Admiral Édouard Bouët-Willaumez, consisting of three ironclads and one aviso Nymphe fired two broadsides at the French ironclad Thétis before escaping behind the coastal fortifications at Neufahrwasser[1][2] The corvette SMS Augusta engaged in commerce raiding off Brest, capturing three French merchant ships The French ironclad Héroïne chased her and Augusta had to escape to Vigo, where she found herself blockaded for the rest of the war

At 8 am on 7 November 1870, Meteor, under Lieutenant Eduard von Knorr, arrived in the harbour of Havana after leaving Nassau some days before Cuba was then a Spanish colony, with Spain being a neutral power during the Franco-Prussian war An hour later the French aviso Bouvet, under Commander Alexandre Franquet arrived from Martinique, steaming in from the opposite direction The next day the French mail steamer SS Nouveau Monde left the harbour for Veracruz but was forced to return a few hours later due to fears that she would be captured by the Prussian gunboat Franquet issued a formal challenge to von Knorr, who accepted it[3][4][5] Bouvet steamed out of the harbour to wait for Meteor to meet her Meteor had to wait twenty-four hours before she could meet the French vessel due to neutrality laws governing warfare at the time She was under escort from the Spanish warships Hernán Cortés and Centinela, tasked with making certain the battle would take place 10 miles 16 km off Cuba, outside territorial water, and thus ensure that the battle would violate Spanish neutrality


A plan of the battle, by E Farret

Although the Bouvet could in theory outgun and outrun her opponent, her main gun was mounted on an obsolete mount that made it difficult to aim in regards to accuracy[6] Furthermore, the boiler of the Bouvet had exposed and unprotected parts above deck, making her engine vulnerable to enemy fire Franquet was keenly aware of this weak point in his ship, and had makeshift protection installed out of sandbags, coal bags and chains, position to protect the exposed parts of the engine from enemy fire[7] Meteor, on the other hand, was a slower but more maneuverable ship The two ships were evenly matched during the engagement[5] At 14:30, the action started with the Bouvet firing the first shots from four thousand metres, starting an artillery duel that failed to score any significant hit on either side for two hours Around 16:30, Bouvet increased her speed to ten or eleven knots[8] and turned towards the Meteor, in an attempt to ram her

The ships collided under a steep angle; although the hull of the Meteor managed to resist the ramming attempt, the shock of the impact collapsed her rigging, sending sails and debris on her deck and, most significantly, wrapping lines around her propeller German sailors attempted to use the opportunity to try and board the Bouvet, but the French sailors repelled them with rifle fire and the Bouvet quickly retreated to a safer distance[9] As the Bouvet was preparing to ram the immobilised Meteor again, a German shell struck her exposed boiler, allowing her steam to leak on deck and rendering her dead in the water as well[9] The Bouvet then unleashed her sails and disengaged from the action, as German sailors attempted to free their propeller and give chase As Bouvet reached Cuban territorial waters, the Spanish intervened to stop the battle, with the Spanish corvette Hernan Cortez firing a warning shot at the Meteor to signal to her that the engagement was over Both the Bouvet and Meteor then sailed back to Havana


The Battle of Havana, by Christopher Rave

Neither ship was permanently disabled from the action, with both warships mostly suffering damage to their masts and rigging Bouvet's boilers and machinery remaining intact and functioning and very few killed and injured on either side The engagement was not considered militarily significant in the war by commentators of the day[10] The Meteor remained blockaded in Havana until the end of the war, unable to fulfill her purpose there of preying on French merchant shipping in the Caribbean Figures for the losses on both sides are conflicting slightly, with The New York Times giving 2 killed and 1 wounded on the German side,[5] while French sources mention 3 Germans killed and 9 wounded[11] For the French, figures range from 3 wounded,[5] 5 wounded [11] or 10 killed or wounded[4][9] Both sides were satisfied with the outcome, Franquet being promoted to Captain capitaine de vaisseau on 17 December 1870,[12] and Von Knorr, receiving the Iron Cross 2nd Class and a promotion to Korvettenkapitän in 1871 Under diplomatic pressure from France, the Spanish shipyard in Havana delayed completing the repairs to Meteor until the war ended on 10 May 1871 Three days later, the ship departed for Germany; she sailed up the eastern coast of the United States and Canada before crossing the Atlantic

The Meteor reached Plymouth on 13 June and arrived in Kiel on the 25th There, she was decommissioned on 20 July From 18 September to 14 October, she was used as a stationary training ship for engine room personnel On 6 May 1872, Meteor was recommissioned for survey work and was assigned to the Hydrographics Office of the Imperial Admiralty Meteor and her sister ship Drache surveyed the German coast, ending in Mecklenburg on 20 October The Bouvet was wrecked on 17 September 1871 off Île-à-Vache, when a gust of wind sent her onto a reef The crew managed to safely abandon ship Despite the insistence of the French Third Republic that the war would continue, a series of further defeats, including Paris being captured, forced the French government to finally surrender The German states united into the German Empire under the Prussian king Wilhelm I, finally uniting most of Germany excluding Austria as a nation state The Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 gave Germany most of Alsace and some parts of Lorraine, which became the Imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine French determination to regain Alsace-Lorraine and fear of another Franco-German war, along with British apprehension about the balance of power, became factors in the causes of World War I


  1. ^ Hildebrand, Röhr & Steinmetz, p 178 sfn error: no target: CITEREFHildebrand,_Röhr_&_Steinmetz help
  2. ^ von Mantey 1930, p 106
  3. ^ Rousset 1911, p 450
  4. ^ a b Barrow 1994, p 
  5. ^ a b c d The New York Times, 19 November 1870
  6. ^ Farret 1881, p 519
  7. ^ Farret 1881, pp 519–520
  8. ^ Chartrand 2008, p 59
  9. ^ a b c Chartrand 2008, p 60
  10. ^ "The Atlantic Duel" The New York Times 12 November 1870mw-parser-output citecitationmw-parser-output citation qmw-parser-output id-lock-free a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-free amw-parser-output id-lock-limited a,mw-parser-output id-lock-registration a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-limited a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-registration amw-parser-output id-lock-subscription a,mw-parser-output citation cs1-lock-subscription amw-parser-output cs1-subscription,mw-parser-output cs1-registrationmw-parser-output cs1-subscription span,mw-parser-output cs1-registration spanmw-parser-output cs1-ws-icon amw-parser-output codecs1-codemw-parser-output cs1-hidden-errormw-parser-output cs1-visible-errormw-parser-output cs1-maintmw-parser-output cs1-subscription,mw-parser-output cs1-registration,mw-parser-output cs1-formatmw-parser-output cs1-kern-left,mw-parser-output cs1-kern-wl-leftmw-parser-output cs1-kern-right,mw-parser-output cs1-kern-wl-rightmw-parser-output citation mw-selflink
  11. ^ a b Taillemite & Dupont 1996, p 252
  12. ^ Taillemite 2002, p 


  • Rousset, Colonel 1911 Histoire générale de la Guerre franco-allemande in French 2 Paris: Éditions Jules Tallandier
  • Barrow, Andrew May 1994 Franco-Prussian naval list 80 Wargame illustrated
  • Farret 1881 "Étude sur les combats livrés sur mer de 1860 à 1880" Revue Maritime et Coloniale in French 70 Farret1881
  • Iltis, Pierre April–May 2008 "De l'apparition de la vapeur à la première guerre mondiale : le choc comme méthode de combat" Champs de Bataille in French 21
  • Chartrand, René March–April 2008 "La Havane, le 9 novembre 1870 : le Bouvet français contre le Météor prussien" Tradition magazine in French 236 RC2008
  • von Mantey, Eberhard 1930 Histoire de la marine allemande 1675-1926 in French Paris: Payot
  • Taillemite, Étienne; Dupont, Maurice 1996 Les Guerres navales françaises du Moyen Âge à la guerre du Golfe Kronos in French ISBN 2-901952-21-6
  • Taillemite, Étienne May 2002 Dictionnaire des marins français in French Paris: éditions Tallandier ISBN 2-84734-008-4

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