Vaudreuil considered that the British abandonment of the Montmorency camp and the removal of their forces upriver, combined with the lateness of the season, meant that Wolfe had in effect accepted defeat, and on 1 September he wrote to Bourlamaque thus: ‘Everything proves that the grand design of the English has failed.’ Montcalm was nothing like so sanguine, for many reasons. In the first place, Quebec continued to be shelled until 4 September. The English batteries set the Lower Town on fire again, burning down 167 buildings in a single night. At the General Hospital, thankfully not in the direct line of fire from the big guns at Point Levis, every inch of space was packed with sick, wounded and refugee women and children from the town, to say nothing of a gaggle of Ursuline nuns. Secondly, both the inhabitants of Quebec and the troops in the Beauport lines were on starvation rations, and only the lucky chance of an early harvest in Montreal had enabled them to survive so far. The French were already eating bread from new wheat and the desertion rate increased daily and alarmingly, with many troops not caring who won or what happened next as long as they could fill their bellies. Montcalm was depressed that his favourite officers, Bourlamaque and Levis, were not with him and, like Wolfe, he was no longer in the best of health. Where Vaudreuil was always a heady optimist, Montcalm remained pessimistic and suspicious of British intentions. Where the euphoric Vaudreuil took seriously the expedient exaggerations of British renegades (for the tide of desertion was not all one-way) to the effect that the Royal Navy would give Wolfe only one more week in the St Lawrence, Montcalm was convinced he would have to hold out at least another month. His letters to Bourlamaque provide an accurate barometer of his falling spirits:

The night is dark; it rains; our troops are in their tents, with clothes on, ready for an alarm; I in my boots; my horse saddled. In fact, this is my usual way. I wish you were here; for I cannot be everywhere, though I multiply myself, and have not taken off my clothes since the twenty-third of June . . . I am overwhelmed with work, and should often lose temper, like you, if I did not remember that I am paid by Europe for not losing it.

The second week of September saw a determined effort by the British to cut Montcalm’s communications with Bourlamaque and the west. By 7 September the entire British flotilla had cleared from south of Point Lévis and the Etchemin river, having begun on the 4th by launching the flat-boats and the baggage and floating them unscathed past the French guns at Quebec. The 5th and 6th saw Murray, Monkton and Townshend embarking their regiments aboard dangerously crowded ships. On the 7th the squadron was off Cap Rouge, where Bougainville and his intercepting force watched it warily. On the 8th the British feinted towards Cap Rouge while heading for their real destination at Pointe-aux-Trembles, a further score of miles up the St Lawrence, where they hoped to establish a beachhead; five battalions stood ready for the landings. But the landfall never materialised, as heavy, torrential rains caused the postponement of the operation. A despondent Wolfe, observing no break in the skies, began cruising down the river, hoping for inspiration. Yet the rain continued its pelting and, on 9 September, the Pointe-aux-Trembles landings were definitely abandoned. Exhausted men, standing to in overcrowded transports, were starting to drop with sickness, so the commanders landed 1,500 men from the most crowded vessels at St Nicholas on the south shore, telling them to wait there until they could be re-embarked. Some have criticised Wolfe for not pressing on with the landings, rain notwithstanding since, it is argued, Bougainville’s defenders would have been bogged down in the quagmires of mud and unable to offer effective resistance. But meanwhile, on this same day, something happened that made Wolfe regard the entire Pointe-aux-Trembles theatre as an irrelevance.

Almost out of the blue, Wolfe decided to disembark a force near Quebec, just below St Michel, where he had previously considered landing. The spot chosen was known as I’Anse au Foulon, ever afterwards named Wolfe’s Cove. Where did this idea come from? The usual answer is that Captain Robert Stobo, a colonial officer who knew Quebec intimately after being imprisoned there, suggested it. A prisoner of war from 1755 to the spring of 1759, Stobo had served with Washington, was handed over as a hostage at Fort Duquesne and thence removed to Quebec. In Quebec he was not even under house arrest, but was allowed to mingle with high society and form business partnerships. After Braddock’s disaster at Monongahela in 1755, the French inspected his baggage and discovered a detailed plan of Fort Duquesne, drawn by Stobo contrary to the terms of his prisoner status. The enraged French tried Stobo as a spy, found him guilty and sentenced him to death; he escaped the gallows only because the sentence was sent to Versailles for confirmation, where the minister ordered it suspended. After two unsuccessful attempts to escape confinement, Stobo finally led an eight-prisoner breakout on 1 May 1759. He sailed down the St Lawrence to Louisbourg, narrowly missed Wolfe there and then retraced his steps in the wake of the British expedition until he found the commander. There, according to his own account, he fed the idea of l’Anse au Foulon to Wolfe, stressing that it was the one weak spot in French defences, the one location habitually left lightly guarded.

There are considerable difficulties with this story. If Stobo told Wolfe about l’Anse au Foulon he must have done so in July, for there would have been no point in guarding such a vital secret, or indeed of following Wolfe back up the river. If Stobo did tell Wolfe in July, the General either discounted or disregarded his advice. All his correspondence until 12 September breathes uncertainty, doubt and despondency. Those who claim that Wolfe had a secret master plan up his sleeve all the time are committed to the absurd notion that he would have involved his army in the disaster of Montmorency, and the entire detailed planning for seizing Pointe-aux-Trembles for no reason and at the very moment when time was running out with the approach of winter. Hagiographers of Wolfe have argued that black is white by seizing on any and all cryptic or delphic utterances in Wolfe’s letters and claiming that they hinted at a secret plan. All of this is utterly implausible, if only because we have Wolfe’s own refutation of such far-fetched theories. In the very last report sent to London on 9 September, Wolfe mentioned his grudging acceptance of his brigadiers’ proposal to seek a solution upriver above St Lawrence. He went on:

I agreed to the proposal, and we are now here, with about 3,600 men, waiting an opportunity to attack them when and wherever they can best be got at. The weather has been extremely unfavourable for a day or two, so that we have been inactive. I am so far recovered as to do business, but my constitution is entirely ruined, without the consolation of having done any considerable service to the State, or without any prospect of it.

In other words, on 9 September Wolfe had no inkling of a probe at l’Anse au Foulon. Nor can Stobo have whispered in the General’s ear at that point, even apart from the inherent implausibility of such an eleventh-hour pitch, since he had left the besieging army on 7 September, sent by Wolfe with letters to Amherst. It is of course possible that Wolfe during his reconnoitring suddenly saw l’Anse au Foulon and remembered Stobo’s earlier words. But even if he had observed through his spyglass that the location seemed skimpily defended, Wolfe was too old a warrior not to know that Montcalm might simply be baiting a trap; after all, this was a stratagem he himself had employed again and again around Montmorency, albeit without ever being able to tempt Montcalm. The suspicion arises that the hard intelligence about l’Anse au Foulon was provided by a French deserter at the very point when Wolfe was in almost terminal despair.

So strong is the presumption of an ‘inside job’ that entire conspiracy theories have arisen. The most full-blown such theory posits that Bigot and Cadet, knowing their peculations were finally about to be unmasked, contrived to bring about the fall of Quebec to mask their own villainy. In short, they sent an agent to Wolfe to tell him l’Anse au Foulon would be unguarded. Cadet certainly had the clout to withdraw guards from the Foulon but the question is: did he really add treason to his other crimes? The idea of Bougainville being decoyed by the charms of Madame de Vienne, the wife of his cousin, so that he failed to concentrate on his military tasks seems to belong to the realm of romantic fiction rather than history. The only cogent point the conspiracy theorists have is that Cadet warned all French posts along the river that friendly provision boats would be on the water on the night of 12 September, and that the provision boats were then cancelled without the sentries being warned. There is certainly something of a mystery here, but simple incompetence seems a more plausible explanation than elaborate conspiracy. The most likely explanation is that Wolfe was tipped off about l’Anse au Foulon by a French deserter in one of those freak moments of contingency on which history so often turns. Whatever the explanation, once the idea was planted in his mind, Wolfe acted with energy and despatch. He now possessed two cardinal advantages: knowledge of an unguarded area in the French soft underbelly; and the ability to concentrate all his forces. Whereas when operating far upriver at Pointe-aux-Trembles he had to keep more than 1,000 men to guard his base camp at the Ile d’Orléans and his battery on Point Lévis, now that he was attacking so close to Quebec he could afford to throw those forces too into the coming venture, raising his strength to 4,600 troops. Detailed instructions were sent out to assemble the Point Lévis and Ile d’Orléans soldiers ready for a major offensive at 4 a.m. on 13 September and for the rendezvous of flat-bottomed landing craft and the escorting men-of-war. But Wolfe did not tell his brigadiers what the objective of the new operation was. A few hours before the assault was due to begin, they were still in the dark. In some alarm, Monkton, Townshend and Murray composed a respectful letter asking what the General’s aims and intentions were. Wolfe wrote a grudging reply, dated 8.30 p.m. on the evening of 12 September, confirming that l’Anse au Foulon was the objective and insinuating that they should have been able to work this out for themselves after the reconnaissances he had conducted with them on the nth. It was an extraordinary performance from a commander expecting the last ounce in commitment and morale from his brigadiers. What is the explanation? Wolfe’s defenders stress ‘security’ and claim, even more bizarrely, that withholding his plans from his subordinates was ‘proof of his genius’. But the truth seems to be that it was a petty, mean-minded exercise in power, evincing contempt and disdain for the officers who had so often implicitly queried his competence.

Montcalm and the French, meanwhile, had totally failed to divine Wolfe’s intentions. An over-confident Montcalm wrote to Bourlamaque when the British pulled out of Montmorency: ‘As for things here, I think Wolfe will act like a player of tope et tingue [a now obsolete French gambling game] who, after having played to the left of the tope, plays to the right and [then] to the middle. We shall do our best to see him off He expected a central assault on the Beauport lines or on Quebec. He was not entirely unmindful of the threat above Quebec, but seems to have assumed this would be limited to trying to cut French supply lines to tempt him out. Covering his options, Montcalm switched the Guyenne regiment from east of Quebec, near the St Charles river, to the west, actually quite close to l’Anse au Foulon, and incorporated it in Bougainville’s roving defence force. But then, astonishingly, he ordered it back to its former station twenty-four hours later From this imbroglio arose the later legend that it was Vaudreuil who had ordered the regiment to return to the St Charles behind Montcalm’s back, and the counter-legend that when Montcalm ordered it back, Vaudreuil had protested vociferously. These later exercises in blame-shifting are only natural when one considers that for twenty-four hours the Guyenne regiment had been stationed in the exact location that would have ruined Wolfe’s new plan. Some scholars try to make sense of the confused and contradictory accounts by stating that there was no countermanding of orders on the 6th and that the Guyenne regiment, in its role as mobile reserve either above or below Quebec, was not situated athwart the path from l’Anse au Foulon to the city of Quebec but only somewhere in the general area.

Whatever one’s reservations about Wolfe’s overall performance in 1759, it has to be acknowledged that the embarkation on the night of 12–13 September was a military masterpiece. Whether Wolfe was secretly one of the first disciples of scientific warfare, or whether the Royal Navy did the leg-work for him, he managed to select the one night in September 1759 that perfectly answered his purposes – floating down the river unobserved on an ebb tide. It cannot have been pure luck, unless we immediately jettison all our notions of probability and with them any pretence to a rational view of cosmology. As Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes, the expert in running ships past Quebec, lucidly expressed it, there were three main problems about departing from an anchorage at St Nicholas and coming safely to landfall at l’Anse au Foulon: the distance to the landing place; the strength of the tide; and the darkness of the night. The distance from embarkation to disembarkation has been exactly calculated as 7.6 nautical (8.7 statute) miles, and the length of time taken to cover this distance depended both on the exact time the tide turned in the St Lawrence and on the speed of the tidal currents. It seems quite clear that Wolfe deliberately chose the night of 12–13 September to give him the ebb tide he needed, since he wanted to spend no more than two hours on the water, necessitating an average speed of 3.8 knots. As it happened, his boats achieved a maximum speed of 5.7 knots. The ebb current began to run shortly after midnight and was beginning to flow strongly past St Nicholas at 2 a.m. Needing to be ashore well before sunrise (at 5.34 local time), Wolfe’s forces cast off at 2 a.m. and were clambering ashore at l’Anse au Foulon at about 3.45 a.m.

Two lanterns hoisted on the maintop of HMS Sutherland were the signal for the start of the operation. To divert attention from this sector, Admiral Saunders ordered his sailors to row noisily back and forth between Beauport and the St Charles river, having previously placed buoys in the channel off Beauport as if to mark the route for landing craft to follow. Although it has often been asserted that Wolfe made his move on a moonless night, this is a misunderstanding. His army did not navigate in pitch blackness but benefited from the light of the moon. What happened was that a large quarter-moon rose at 9.48 p.m. (local time) on 12 September and remained in the sky for the rest of the night, illuminating Wolfe’s flotilla. The crucial factor was not the darkness, but the direction of the moonlight. French sentries looking upriver towards Wolfe’s anchorage could see little of the stretch where Wolfe was crossing, though the Ile d’Orléans and Point Lévis were clearly visible. Only a last quarter-moon in the eastern sky provided the British with near-perfect conditions of tide and moon for the approach to l’Anse au Foulon. Wolfe’s cleverness should not be underrated. There was only one other date in the September calendar that would have given him the right ebbing tide (the night of 28–29 September), but on that date the moon would have set at midnight and the journey would have had to proceed in almost total darkness. If he had made his bid twenty-four hours later, or twenty-four hours earlier, conditions would likewise have been against him. Embarking on 11–12 or 13–14 September, he could not have got all his men ashore by daybreak. It may well be that such technical considerations, based on minute scientific and mathematical calculations, explain why he did not fall in with his commanders’ advice to land much farther up the St Lawrence.

The irony is that by his very secretiveness Wolfe damaged his reputation, for the events of 12–13 September give new meaning to the hackneyed phrase ‘the science of war’. Wolfe never lived to explain exactly how he had made his calculations but, although he was not in general an inspired commander, he rose to the necessary heights on this crucial night. As the flotilla moved from south to north shore, Wolfe was in the vanguard, dressed in a new uniform, his mind apparently pulsating with thoughts of death; a few hours earlier he had handed over for safe keeping to Lieutenant John Jervis of the Royal Navy a will, personal papers and a miniature of his fiancée. Even though the light was against them, the French sentinels could clearly make out the passing of a large flotilla. They bawled out a challenge, to which French-speaking officers replied that they were convoying supplies down from Batiscan and Cap Rouge. Since the sentries had been warned of this precise eventuality, they did not press the matter further. French incompetence at this point seems over-determined. No one has ever been quite clear who cancelled the provision convoy or why, but at the very least Bougainville, in command of the western sector, knew of the cancellation and should have alerted all sentries in that theatre. To compound their folly, the French were not using a password. The best evidence suggests that when challenged the British did no more than utter the words ‘la France’: and ‘Vive le roi’, at which point the sentries, satisfied, yelled out: ‘Let them pass, they are our people with the supplies.’

Well before dawn the first wave hit the gravelly beaches at the cove. Here the cliffs rose 175 feet above the St Lawrence, and on the east bank of a small stream that ran down into the cove a path ran transversely upwards across the face of the cliff. Far from being the winding and fractuous path of legend, it was a good, usable track up which heavy guns could be hauled. A detachment of Light Infantry under Colonel William Howe began scrambling up the track. From the top of the cliff a French sentry challenged them. A resourceful French-speaking Highlander – the sources dispute whether his name was Fraser or MacDonald – replied with outraged protests at such ingratitude and explained that they were a new French detachment sent by Bougainville as reinforcements; he pushed his luck even farther by ordering the man to return to his camp and call off all other over-zealous sentries. The ascent recommenced. This was no easy task, for the shale surface caused the troops to slip and slide and they could often make progress only by hauling themselves up on the branches of trees and bushes. Their first objective was the 100 men under M. de Vergor, ostensibly guarding the Foulon. Once at the top of the cliff they brushed aside with ease the small camp of bleary-eyed Frenchmen and sentries sleeping on the job, the task made easier because the absurd Vergor had allowed some of his men to go home to work on their farms. Before being taken prisoner Vergor just had time to send a runner to Montcalm, warning that the British were already established on the Heights of Abraham.

Once Wolfe’s troops scrambled to the top of the cliffs, the military advantage shifted decisively in his favour. There had been a handful of casualties during the landing when the French battery at Samos, west of the Foulon, opened up on the second wave, but overall the operation had been a staggering success. Negotiating tides and a gravelly beach without being detected would have tested the greatest exponents of amphibious warfare, for landing troops on a hostile shore in the dark with pinpoint accuracy calls for naval skills of the very highest order. Both the army and the navy acquitted themselves well: the navy with their precise, professional boatwork; the army with the smoothness whereby three successive waves of invaders were conveyed to the clifftops with minimal resistance. Wolfe’s best-case scenario had allowed for a massive French counterattack once his men reached the summit – assuming that could be obtained; his worst-case envisaged a contested landing followed by retreat. Some students of Wolfe have seen him in full death-wish mode this night, expecting to fall during a repulse by superior French numbers dug in along the foot of the cliffs – the repulse to be followed by a retreat ordered by Monkton, who would then assume command. But events had turned out even better than Wolfe could have imagined in his wildest fantasies. When his men formed up with their backs to the river below, with Sillery to their left and Quebec to their right, there was still no sign of the counterattack. Scarcely believing his luck, Wolfe edged forward cautiously towards the open land on the Plains of Abraham, searching for the best ground on which to give battle. By 8 a.m. the entire force of some 4,600 was drawn up in readiness.

The Wolfe mythographers, however, have to contend with one awkward fact. When Wolfe reached the clifftop with the first wave (the three brigadiers were still below, struggling onto the beach), he lost his nerve and ordered Major Isaac Barre at the cove to halt the operation. Barre took one look at the host of incoming boats and concluded that Wolfe did not know the true state of affairs below; he therefore ‘interpreted’ Wolfe’s orders as meaning a temporary halt only, so as not to cause a traffic jam on the upward-slanting path. But if Wolfe had momentarily buckled, the French were by now in full panic mode. The feint towards Beauport by Admiral Saunders had totally nonplussed Montcalm, and the fiasco over the cancelled food convoy further added to the confusion. Montcalm had been up all night at Beauport, fully expecting a British landing there. So intent were the French officers on this sector that they ‘missed’ the first signal from Quebec, warning that something was going on to the west of the city. Not even the arrival of a breathless courier from Vergor’s camp shook their aplomb, for when he blurted out the story of the real British landing, one of Montcalm’s aides concluded that he had taken leave of his senses.

But soon came more heralds and couriers, confirming the original ‘incredible’ story. At last the commander himself was informed and was at first disbelieving. When shooting was heard in the area of l’Anse au Foulon, Montcalm’s worst fear was that his supply flotilla had been captured. He rounded on his aides and asked why he had not been alerted sooner. The answer, they replied, was simple. The arrival of Vergor’s messenger, with word that the British were already on the heights, was at first disbelieved, since they themselves were so sure that no landing could be made in that sector that they concluded the lacklustre Vergor had simply panicked, possibly disorientated by the ‘captured’ food convoy. When yet another message came in to say that the enemy had landed in force at l’Anse au Foulon, the ‘will to believe’ in the invulnerability of the cliffs west of Quebec was such that further psychological ‘denial’ was manifested. The commandant of Lower Quebec opined that, since there had been a volley of musketry that had now ceased, the British must have landed briefly and then disembarked. Only in the clear light of morning did the full horror of the situation dawn on Montcalm as he rode across the St Charles river to the Plains of Abraham. Stunned and incredulous, he learned to his stupefaction that the famed Guyenne regiment had been nowhere near the danger area and that Vaudreuil had waited until Wolfe’s forces were clearly visible, drawn up in battle order, before sending to Bougainville to bring his power with all speed.

What Montcalm saw on the Plains of Abraham further depressed him. Seven British battalions now stretched across the Grande Allée (the main road into Quebec), less than a mile from Quebec’s western wall. Behind them could be seen a further five battalions of reserves and a large body of colonial skirmishers. From l’Anse au Foulon sailors from the twenty ships at anchor in the cove were manhauling artillery up the track. Wolfe had made good dispositions across the 1,000-yard breadth of the plains, waiting for Montcalm’s next move. An eyewitness reported that Montcalm sat on his horse a long time as if hypnotised by the sight of the redcoats: ‘it seemed as though he felt his fate upon him’. What most of all disconcerted Montcalm was that the double rank of redcoats seemed untroubled by the angry, bee-like whizzing and pinging of bullets as Canadian militiamen and Indian sharpshooters calmly picked their targets from nests behind the city walls. This level of discipline outstripped anything he could expect from his own troops.

Quickly Montcalm made mental calculations and reviewed his options. His best course was to wait for Bougainville’s mobile force, but, given that the messenger had not been sent to the camp at Cap Rouge until 6.45 a.m., it would surely take him another three hours to arrive on the battlefield. Could he wait that long? Military prudence said yes but considerations of morale said no. Quebec was starving; the British were now blocking any possible avenue of resupply; and the city walls in this sector, around the Bastion of St Louis, were particularly weak and could not compare with the trench network around Beauport and Montmorency – it had been assumed that the sheer cliff walls provided a much more secure protection than any man-made structures around the city. Additionally Montcalm mistakenly thought the British were entrenching around the Buttes à Neveu (the high ground in front of Quebec), preparatory to opening a siege. Immediate action therefore seemed imperative. Yet could he win with just 4,500 effectives, about the same number as the enemy, but man-for-man far inferior in quality?

Wolfe’s battle-line used the Louisbourg Grenadiers and the Fraser Highlanders as its spine. To cover the long front across the plateau to the St Charles, they were drawn up two deep only. Monkton, the senior Brigadier, commanded the right wing, Murray the left, while Townshend deployed two battalions of Royal Americans at right angles to the main line to deal with the threat to the left from Canadian militiamen and Indians. Later another battalion of Royal Americans was detached to guard the landing places at the Foulon, in case Bougainville put in an appearance. With Howe’s Light Infantry forming the rearguard and Royal Navy mariners manfully hauling six-pounders up the path to the heights, Wolfe had every reason to feel pleased with his dispositions. In the confusion the French had had less time to think of refined tactics but Montcalm had drawn up his white-uniformed regulars in the centre, with Quebec militiamen and Indians on the flanks, both wings protected by waves of Canadian and Native American sharpshooters. Both sides were about 4,500 strong but unequal in discipline, élan, morale and even calorie intake; it was not quite a case of British professionals against French amateurs but at level numbers Montcalm must have known that his chances were very slender.