APPEARING out of the gloom soon after 4.30am, the armada of French fishing boats was ready “to restage Trafalgar”.
Shadowing them was the might of Britain’s Royal Navy — HMS Tamar and HMS Severn — primed with cannon and machine guns.
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Then, at around 6am, the French made their move.
Amid swirling smoke from red flares and proudly flying the French tricolour, the ragtag 60-strong flotilla made for Jersey’s St Helier harbour and pluckily blockaded the port.
Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing, 28, breathlessly described the scene as “like an invasion”, adding: “The French being the French, they don’t mess around.”
However, Admiral Lord Nelson would hardly have been quaking in his breeches.
The motley collection of French trawlers and dredgers scored only one direct hit — a 35ft French trawler was said to have deliberately rammed a British pleasure boat. No one was hurt.
Then, following a six-hour stand-off, the French retreated after a pow-wow with Jersey officials in the row over post-Brexit fishing rules.
‘THREATS INTO ACTION’
French fisherman Cyril Piraud, who was part of the delegation, revealed: “I’m not sure why we even went to see them. This can only be sorted out on dry land now.”
But he echoed a call by French minister Annick Girardin to cut off electricity to Jersey, which is supplied by cables from France.
“We’re calling on Annick Girardin, the Minister of the Sea, to put her threats into action,” M. Piraud said.
The sabre-rattling call for another Trafalgar had turned into a damp squib.
Earlier, French fisherman Jean-Claude La Vaullée, skipper of Le Cach, had warned: “I’ve refuelled the boat — we’re ready to restage the Battle of Trafalgar.”
M. La Vaullée either doesn’t know his history or he was prepared for Le Cach to take one for France.
For 1805’s Battle of Trafalgar saw Admiral Nelson lead the Royal Navy to an epic victory over the French and Spanish fleets.
After the modern-day French flotilla returned to open waters, a member of the Jersey Militia re-enactment group appeared on the ramparts of St Helier’s 16th Century Elizabeth Castle.
In tricorn hat, he was seen firing a musket into the air towards the French “invaders”.
At The Lamplighter pub just yards from the harbour, landlord Sean Murphy said of the day’s events: “Most people are smiling about it and can’t believe it has gone this far.
“We’ve got the Royal Navy here, the French navy on its way.
“Everybody is waiting for the nuclear submarines to come next. I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but we’re 100 per cent behind our fishermen.
“The way the French are behaving is despicable. They’ve been well looked after over the years and because they can’t get their way they have thrown their dummies out of the pram again.”
Protesting is, of course, a French national pastime, but Gallic threats to cut off Crown Dependency Jersey’s electricity and blockade its harbour over fishing licences certainly weren’t cricket.
In a provocative outburst, David Sellam, head of the Normandy-Brittany sea authority, said: “We’re ready for war. We can bring Jersey to its knees if necessary.”
Boris Johnson wasted little time in sending in the Royal Navy.
His supporters value the Prime Minister as the man who got Brexit done, after all.
French threats to hard-won and totemic fishing rights had to be faced down and his gunboat diplomacy is likely to have played well in Hartlepool on the day it went to the polls for a Westminster by-election.
‘IT WILL BE WAR’
Almost 70 per cent in the constituency voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Next year French leader Emmanuel Macron has elections of his own, when he will again contest the presidency.
This is a man who likes to flex his credentials on the world stage — he and Donald Trump once famously gripped each other’s hands so firmly that their knuckles turned white.
So M. Macron, of course, picked up the Royal Naval gauntlet thrown at his feet by the Prime Minister.
The pair — who seem to have a rapport when they meet in person — squared up like two strutting fighting cocks over Jersey.
While the British Navy ships Tamar and Severn are named after two of our steady but relentless rivers, characteristically the French chose something more flamboyant.
They sent the Athos into play — named after one of the swashbucklers in The Three Musketeers — and Themis, named after a Greek goddess.
As naval encounters go, yesterday’s stand-off was hardly the Battle of Jutland.
And last night Britain moved to de-escalate the situation by confirming the Tamar and Severn were being brought back to port.
But a Downing Street spokesman insisted the Navy remained “on standby” to provide “any further assistance Jersey requests”.
Both sides have warned that the dispute is far from over, and one French trawlerman ominously threatened after the protest: “We will go back, and next time it will be war.”
This fractious spat is over just 70 French vessels catching mainly shellfish including scallops, whelks and lobster in Jersey’s waters.
And a large dollop of ego and national pride from two squabbling neighbours.