The Defeat of the Spanish Armada

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      Spanish archives, particularly the correspondence between Phillip II of Spain and the armada commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, provide the bulk of what we know about the ill-fated effort by Phillip, in 1588, to conquer England in the cause of Catholicism.

History buffs are aware that the Spanish were victims of the weather, but they were also at the mercy of a singular strategy developed by the King who used no military advice, and of a fleet commander with no military experience who reluctantly accepted Phillip's appointment to command. Nevertheless, the Spanish Armada was considered invincible.

The Spanish tactical plan was simply to get ships close to the enemy and let soldiers pour over the side - overwhelm with numbers. (There were 130 ships in the armada, carrying 30,000 men.) But the English were refining their methods, the chief of which was to allow naval captains (rather then army generals - the European custom) to determine tactics at sea. The English carried no army at all - just sailors - and long range cannon on low swift ships, so as to obtain maneuverability and distance. The Spanish were up against such cagey sailors as Drake and Hawkins, and Lord Howard, who may have pioneered the technique of "crossing the T" - maneuvering the fleet so as to have each ship in line deliver a broadside to the enemy's bow or stern.

Only in Hollywood do 16th century cannon balls explode. In reality, the solid iron cannon ball simply tore something up or knocked something down, and heavy wood hit by iron balls created lots of lethal wood shrapnel. The English were determined to maximize shot to tear rigging and sails, break masts, spars, and rudders.

One major battle took place before the weather took its turn. At Gravelines, the English, using the above tactics, severely damaged or sunk two dozen major Spanish ships, with heavy Spanish but minimal English losses. And yet - most of the armada was lost because of anchors.   Anchors?

The armada being large and sluggish, the English decided to use an old trick - get upwind, set some of their own old ships on fire, and push them into the enemy. This occurred at night with the Spanish at anchor off Calais. Seeing the fire ships coming, the Spanish cut their anchor lines (it would have taken too long to pull them in) to escape the flames, which worked, since not one ship caught fire. But from then on, the Spanish were at the mercy of the winds, and half the armada sank for being unable to keep off the rocks.

The crippled fleet escaped by heading north into the North Sea and circling the British Isles counterclockwise, continuing to lose ships in the process to the elements. Only 67 returned to Spain.

The embarrassment to Spain was extreme, and although the Spanish remained a major power for some time to come, the English began their assent to the title of "Ruler of the Seas" on the basis of this key battle.

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