After the defeat of the French fleet off the coast of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon's army was cut off in a far away and hostile country.

One year later, after eluding the British fleet, he made it safely to France.

Some argue that he bought some British commanders, while others discount this hypothesis and acknowledge a mix of luck and courage on Napoleon's behalf.

In order to judge the likelihood of different scenarios, it seems to me that we must know what level of surveillance he had to elude in his sail.

So, what countermeasures did the British - and their allies - employ to prevent Napoleon from leaving the Middle East?

  • 4
    The wikipedia link you gave has a <citation needed> tag hovering over the hypothesis that Napoleon bought off the British commanders. To me, it sounds highly unlikely - they were hell bent on fighting him every inch of the way, particularly Sydney Smith. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 13:49

2 Answers 2


In addition to Drux's fine answer, Napoleon's ability to evade the British was down to a number of factors but miscommunication by the British played a very large part.

When Sir Sidney Smith was assigned to the Levant Squadron, he was also given a diplomatic mission by the British Cabinet. However, this additional role was not communicated to his superiors in the Mediterranean, Lord St Vincent and Lord Nelson. As a consequence, when he started direct communication with the Ottoman government (which was outside of his role as a naval Captain and inferior officer), they both took offence. Unfortunately, all three (Smith, Nelson & St Vincent), while very talented naval commanders, had family-sized egos to match. The same self-belief that made them great also made them unwilling to admit they might possibly be wrong.

The result was that neither St Vincent or Nelson were inclined to aid Sir Sidney and, at the same time, they did all they could to try to control and confine his actions even though they were many hundreds of miles out of touch with what was happening in Egypt. [Ironically, Nelson himself was guilty of the same 'disobedience' to his orders when it came to his handling of affairs in southern Italy, which he justified by stating he was better placed to make the decisions]. Even when St Vincent returned to England and was replaced by Lord Keith, the quality of communication didn't improve all that much.

When Sir Sidney finally arrived off Alexandria to take over the blockade from Sir Thomas Troubridge, he had just three ships, the 74-gun Tigre and Theseus and the 64-gun Lion. There were no frigates available as the few that were in the Mediterranean were assigned elsewhere. The Lion was taken to supplement the blockade of Malta, leaving Sir Sidney with just two British ships (and possibly a brig). Nelson had ordered Sir Sidney not to interact with the Turkish admirals and, therefore, the opportunity for a joint blockade was lost.

As noted in Drux's answer, it would appear that Sir Sydney's eventual plan was to tempt Napoleon into sailing for home so he could be intercepted. To this end, the Theseus was sent to sail to the west while, on August 12th, Sir Sidney on the Tigre made for Cyprus to restock with water and provisions. The hope being that Napoleon would see that the blockade was apparently lifted and make sail - straight into the Theseus. Unfortunately for the British several things went wrong with the plan.

Napoleon was much further advanced in his plans for returning than Smith believed, and his small squadron was ready to sail before the Tigre could return (in fact, Napoleon reached France before the Tigre left Cyprus). When the Tigre arrived in Cyprus, they discovered that there were no provisions to be had and so they were significantly delayed in returning to Alexandria. In addition, the Theseus (which was out of contact with the Tigre) was also short of supplies and had made for Rhodes to replenish, where she too was delayed due to the island's Governor being unwilling to assist. While at Cyprus, Sir Sidney sent a message to Lord Nelson to warn him that Napoleon might be attempting a return to France but this was sent on one of the returning storeships and it's unlikely that the letter would have reached Nelson in time to be useful.

So, when Napoleon set sail, neither of the blockading British warships was present. Some accounts mention a British corvette or brig being sighted covering Alexandria but it wouldn't have been a match for the French frigates carrying Napoleon. There is a belief that Lord Keith's squadron sighted the French vessels but apparently the frigates weren't recognised as French and were not, therefore, intercepted. It's entirely possible that Lord Keith's ships were unaware at the time that Napoleon was even at sea.

Beware of Heroes, Admiral Sir Sidney Smith's War against Napoleon, P. Shankland (Kimber, 1975)
Overlooked Hero, A Portrait of Sir Sidney Smith, J.H.Parsons (Fireship Press, 2009)
Nelson, The Sword of Albion, J.Sugden (Bodley Head, 2012)

  • Although Drux' answer is fabulous, this seems to actually answer the question fully. Well done.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Jan 1, 2015 at 1:28
  • If I'm reading this right, the British only sent 3 warships to blockade Napoleon in the Mediterranean? How many warships did Napoleon have there?
    – DrZ214
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 4:02
  • 1
    @DrZ214 The bulk of the British Mediterranean fleet were engaged at the western end blockading Toulon and supporting their allies in southern Italy. Napoleon had a couple of frigates (on which he escaped) and a handful of smaller vessels. His large warships had all been destroyed or driven off at the Battle of the Nile.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 7:19

Bonaparte's biographer Vincent Cronin's mentions the British naval blockade but no further preventive countermeasures (that I could find upon brief reconsultation). Perhaps this is because this is a one-volume biography of a (in some ways :) big subject.

As to Sidney Smith's role (he is also mentioned in the Wikipedia article), his biographer Tom Pocock cites several letters from Smith to Bonaparte in A Thirst For Glory: The Life of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, which seem to follow normal military practice of the time. One of them, written closely before ending the Siege of Acre, may have caused the (possible) misunderstanding about Sidney furthering French royalist interests by letting Bonaparte escape from Egypt. Pocock introduces it thus:

Turkish ships from Rhodes had brought with them several staff officers, including his [Smith]'s French royalist friend Major de Frotté; they had told [Smith] of the French consul named Beauchamp, whom Napolean had sent on a mission to Constantinople to negotiate with the Sultan, even offering the possibility of an eventual French withdrawal from Egypt. Beauchamp had been detained and details of his mission forwarded to Smith, who now wrote to Bonaparte in French, enclosing the Turkish leaflet offering safe passage home to French soldiers who surrendered.

Here is an excerpt from Smith's letter to Bonaparte:

I believe I may send you the enclosed proclamation of the Ottoman Porte without your finding it out of place ... I do ask you this, 'Are you willing to evacuate your troops from the territory of the Ottoman Empire before the intervention of the great allied armies changes the nature of the question?' You may believe me, Monsieur Le Général, that my only motive in asking you this is my desire to avoid further bloodshed.

At this point Pocock references p. 300 in Christopher J Herold's Bonaparte in Egypt, which I do not have available for consultation right now. He also says that the letter stung Bonaparte. There is no indication that e.g. de Frotté may have influenced Smith towards sending the letter (and the leaflet).

Pocock specifically mentions that Smith made use of the Naval blockade to prevent Bonaparte from returning to France (this is after the end of the siege):

Out at sea, Smith could make an accurate assumption of Bonaparte's reaction [to the news that in Europe, the Directoary had ordered Bonaparte back to France and that French armies were being expelled from Germany and Italy] and he wrote the Admiralty to warn them he expected Bonaparte would try to return to France; therefore every effort should be made to intercept him at sea.

Again, there is no further indication of a conspiracy or active support by Sidney for facilitating the escape of Bonaparte's (notice that the Wikipedia article says "citation needed" when suggesting so.) Just this:

The voyage [which started on August 23, 1799] was tense and slow, a British sail always expected, and occasionally seen, on the horizons.

  • 2
    +1; that should settle the question. I think somebody also should edit this theory out of wikipedia. Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 15:02
  • +1 But I was looking also for data concerning the British (and Ottoman, if they contributed) blockade. E.g. number of vessels, places of surveillance etc.
    – astabada
    Commented Jan 23, 2013 at 15:29

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