While doing research into Napoleon’s siege of Acre, for the latest Hazzard novel Emperor of Dust, I stumbled upon a little-known record: the diary of Petty Officer John Tillery, who had served aboard the famed HMS Tigre – commanded by the dashing and even more famous Sir William Sidney Smith. What I had found was no less than a blow-by-blow account of a night-raid at Haifa gone horribly wrong – and Tillery had been in the thick of it.
In February 1799, young General Bonaparte marched from Egypt into Palestine, on a pre-emptive strike against Al-Djezzar Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of Syria. Djezzar was based in the ancient port of Acre, an impregnable castle fortress surrounded on three sides by the sea at the northern end of its own bay. The key to Bonaparte’s campaign was his heavy siege artillery, coming by ship – without it, he had little chance of breaching Acre’s massive crusader walls.
But just as he arrived atop Mt Carmel and looked out over the Bay of Acre, he found that Sir William Sidney Smith and HMS Tigre had got there first. Smith spotted his artillery convoy and pounced, bagging almost all of it. The siege of Acre now seemed hopeless. However, three of the tartane gunships had escaped.
A week later Smith discovered there were four French ships moored at the southern end of the bay, in Haifa – three of them the missing fugitives from the convoy. No one knew how or when they had slipped in, but they posed a threat, and Smith wanted them.
Despite the moon in the early hours of 22 March, HMS Tigre sent out her launch and cutter to meet with other smaller English gunboats in the bay: at 3 AM jolly-boats filled with marines were lowered away to join the attack. Among the crew of the Tigre’s launch leading the assault was Petty Officer John Tillery.
Following the launch, the other boats rowed towards Haifa, their targets revealed in the lamplight of the port, moored in line against the shore just before the town walls. All was quiet.
‘…[We] drew within fifty yards of the Vessels to be cut out,’ wrote Tillery, ‘when a most tremendous fire of musquetry and grape commenced from the Enemy from the walls of Haifa…’
Caught in this sudden storm of fire, their only chance was to seek cover – the launch charged through the flying shot towards the moored French gunships, hoping to shelter under the bows of their target – but they ran aground: ‘when the Enemys fire became more tremendous.’
The surface of the water was boiling with shot, the launch being chopped to pieces. Wounded, Master’s Mate Lambert ordered the cutter behind to take them in tow and pull the stranded launch out. The cutter then came under heavy fire as it drew near, ‘by which she got part of her Crew killed and wounded.’
The launch secured the lines from the cutter – but the cutter ‘then cast off her painter, [a line from the bows of the boat] and left us – and neglected cutting the stern hawsers which we had made fast on shore’.
Still attached to the cutter by the stern, the battered launch was swung round broadside-on to the shore. Fifty or sixty French troops raced down the shoreline and opened fire, some with a howitzer: ‘…by which means we received a heavy fire of musquetry and grape from the Enemys walls, we being within ½ a pistol shot of them.’
Their only course now was to pull away: ‘Finding it was impossible to get out owing to the heavy swell, the constant fire of the Enemy & most of our Crew being wounded…the Launch, then Driving on shore, was taken by the Enemy…’
The cutter and remaining jolly-boats had pulled out with many wounded. According to the French commandant, the launch had taken fire from two thousand men in Haifa. By some miracle, though most were wounded, the launch had lost only two killed. The raid had been an utter disaster.
Tillery emerged unscathed, and acted as senior officer when they were taken prisoner. Consequently he was later interrogated by several staff officers – including Bonaparte himself.
Tillery joined the French on the harrowing retreat to Egypt, and stayed on the Nile longer than did his captor: within months, Napoleon Bonaparte headed home in the dead of night, his Oriental dreams forgotten. His imperial ambitions, however, were soon to take a new turn.