Following the famous 17 June 1778 battle with the scrappy French frigate La Belle Poule, [see link at bottom of this page] the British fleet under Admiral Keppel returned to the Spithead roadstead on the southern English coast, Keppel again took his fleet out on 9 July, one day after a French fleet commanded by Lieutenant General* le Comte d'Orvilliers departed from Brest. D'Orvillers fleet originally had 32 ships of the line. On 23 July, in the afternoon, the two opposing fleets sighted one another. Their positions were to the west of the Brittany coast. By this time, Keppel's fleet had had 30 ships of the line. [*Lieutenant-Général des Armées Navales, equivalent to Rear Admiral.]
During the night of 23 July, d'Orvillers maneuvered most of his force from leeward to windward, northwest, of the British, even though it meant that Keppel was between him and Brest. Unfortunately, poor weather conditions during the night caused both Alexandre (64) and Duc de Bourgogne (80) to miss Orvilliers' signal to change board. Becoming isolated from the main French fleet, these two ships returned to Brest, leaving d'Orvillers also with 30 ships. For three days Keppel tried to close for a gun battle, but d'Orvillers continued to maneuver for more advantage. D'Orvilliers choose to put his three weakest 'two-decker' ships (Fier, Saint-Michel and Triton) with the frigates 'in reserve' under the command of Ligondès. The intent was to keep this 'reserve' out of the line engagement so as to be in fresh order to conduct an aggressive attack upon British ships that would have incurred some battle damage. This option left d'Orvillers with only 27 ships to put 'on line' when the two fleets closed on the morning of 27 July. At this point they were "about a hundred miles off the Breton Island of Ushant (Isle d'Ouessant), six to ten miles apart, both on the port tack and heading northwest." [Quotted text here, and following, is taken from The American Revolution A Global War. R. Ernest Dupuy, Gay Hammerman, Grace P. Hayes (David McKay, New York, 1977, pp.208-218).]
"The two fleets maneuvered until they were on roughly parallel courses on opposite tacks, neither line well ordered. The leading British ships came in range of the fourth ship of the French line, the first three having passed out of range, and the Frenchman, to windward, opened fire. The two lines passed each other slowly, firing broadsides. The British line was in confusion by the time the French line had passed and the smoke had cleared. D'Orvilliers, seeing the condition of the enemy, wore his fleet and headed back to pass them again, this time to leeward, so that he could fire at the rigging of the British ships with the guns on his lowest windward decks. Keppel, recognizing his intent, called his ships to form a line of battle. But before the two fleets came within range darkness fell. Sunrise found them about fifteen to twenty miles apart. Keppel's ships had taken considerable punishment from the French guns, and he did not attempt to pursue, but returned to Plymouth. D'Orvilliers's ships were in better shape, but he made no attempt to renew the battle or try to pursue the departing British ships. It was almost a year before the French and British met again in their home waters."
Unfortunately d'Orvillers' reserve division never engaged as the duc de Chatres (the future revolutionary cousin of Louis XVI), who was in charge of the blue squadron, did not understand his chief's intention and Keppel's force escaped the threat. D'Orvilliers had 163 killed and 517 wounded; Keppel had 407 killed and 789 wounded. No ship was was sunk or captured during the engagement of 27 July 1778,
In England, this battle created "a major political row and a massive self-inflicted wound in the officer corps of the British Royal Navy, centered round the feud between Keppel (encouraged by the political opposition) and Palliser, a strong government supporter. Keppel demanded a court martial on himself and was triumphantly acquitted." (from Navies and the American Revolution, Chatham 1996). Keppel reproached the commander of his rear-guard division, rear-admiral Palliser, for the latter's failure to join promptly in the engagement at the end of the battle.
R.E. Dupuy, et al. The American Revolution A Global War (1977), pp.208-218) also reports on
'A Second Battle of Ushant (12 December 1782)'
"The so-called Second Battle of Ushant, fought three years after the first, was not really a battle, but it had a good deal of impact on the naval operations of 1782 in the West Indies. The French convoy carrying supplies for the Caribbean campaign of 1782, the one that was intended to capture Jamaica, left Brest in December of 1781. It was of crucial importance, and it was assumed that the British would send out a force to intercept it-as indeed they did. Admiral de Guichen was therefore assigned to escort the convoy clear of the Bay of Biscay, and was given twenty-one ships of the line to do the job.* Five of them were to continue to the West Indies with the convoy, and two were to sail out to the East Indies. [*G. J. Marcus, A Naval History of England, Vol. 1, p. 432. Mahan has nineteen of the line.]"
"Watching for de Guichen was British Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, to windward of the convoy with eleven or twelve ships of the line, one 50-gun vessel, and a few frigates. De Guichen should have been able to sail safely past this relatively small force, but when the two fleets came in sight of one another, on December 12, about a hundred and fifty miles southwest of Ushant, the French admiral had let his warships get out ahead of the convoy and, worse than that, to leeward of it, leaving the unarmed merchantmen vulnerable. Kempenfelt quickly saw the situation. Ignoring the warships, he headed for the transports, easily capturing fifteen before sunset, and sent them, with their valuable cargoes, off to England. De Guichen, with the wind against his naval ships, could do nothing to rescue them. Kempenfelt's fleet was still in sight when the sun rose the next morning, but it soon disappeared. Kempenfelt had no desire to risk his small fleet against de Guichen."
"The convoy continued on its way toward the West Indies, but more trouble soon struck. Only a few days after the encounter with Kempenfelt, a severe storm arose, scattering the ships far and wide and severely damaging many. When the storm cleared, only two ships of the line and two transports were in shape to continue their journey to the West Indies. The rest eventually straggled back to Brest."
"Although the French convoy operation had been disrupted, there was criticism of the [British] Admiralty in Parliament for not having given Kempenfelt a force adequate to his assignment. An opportunity for decisive victory had again been missed. Since Kempenfelt was popular with the Admiralty, there was no question of his having been slighted for political reasons. The administration in the Admiralty had simply failed to concentrate its forces for an important objective."