Guns in the Narrow Sea
The Armada’s Fire Power and the English Navy’s
|Battle During the Armada Campaign|
One of the most perplexing problems in Military history is the question of just how did the Armada campaign fail? The after all it was called “The Invincible Armada”. The Spanish were upon the sailing of the Armada almost comically confident but it ended in disaster and defeat.
In two previous postings I looked at Elisabeth I’s handling of her war effort and at Alonzo Perez de Guzman el Bueno Duke of Medina Sidonia the commander of the Armada. In the case of Elisabeth I to show that her handling of the war effort was quite reasonable and in the case of the Duke of Medina Sidonia to show that the myth of his incompetence was/ is just that a myth.1
Here I will examine the contentious issue of fire power.
It is now generally recognized that the odds were against the Spanish and that the chances of the operation actually succeeding were not high. Certainly a commander of genius might have done so but the Duke of Medina Sidonia although a supremely competent bureaucrat and administrator was no military genius. Further the Duke was hamstrung by orders that he dare not deviate from that quite effectively constrained his freedom of action.2
3. Despite all this the Duke carried out his assigned task with success up to a point. The Duke was supposed to sail up the English Channel and rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s army in the Low Countries off the Belgian coast and convoy the combined force to Kent where they would land and impose peace on England. Well amazingly the Duke of Medina Sidonia did get to the Belgian coast and was lying in wait for Parma’s army. He did this despite the superiority of English ships in terms of maneuver and the lack of a port to dock in after leaving Spain. It was in its own way rather remarkable.
The initial engagements in the channel showed the quite significant superiority of the English fleet which forced the Spanish to fight defensively all the way down the channel. However the English were quite unable, to their consternation, able to break up the Spanish fleet or cause it significant harm. Despite the fact that Spanish gunnery was pathetic and the Spanish inflicted little harm on the English. It appears that if the Spanish had been able to keep their fleet intact they would have been able to escort Parma’s army to Kent. And since the Duke of Parma was without a doubt one of the thee finest soldiers of his day it is likely that he would have swiftly imposed a peace on England that would have satisfied all Spanish demands and driven England out of the war with Spain.3
There are two big ifs in all of this. The Dutch and the sandbanks of the Low Countries. All of the coast line of area of the low countries were the Duke of Parma was supposed to embark his army had numerous shoals and sand banks which the Armada could not cross because could not navigate such shallow water, This created a gap between the Armada and the Duke of Parma’s army any were from 10 to 40 miles in width. Parma’s army would have to cross that gap in barges to join the Armada to be escorted to England. And in those shoals and among the sandbanks was the shallow draft boats of the Dutch led by Justin of Nassau. The Dutch had repeatedly defeated the coastal naval forces of the Spanish in the Low Countries and now enjoyed uncontested supremacy in coastal waters. Also Justin’s boats were paroling these coastal waters precisely to prevent such rendezvous. It would appear to be the case that any attempt by the Duke of Parma to send his men to meet the Armada in barges from ports like Gravelines would end in his men being massacred by the Dutch and the Armada because of the shoals and sand banks would be powerless to intervene.
It is likely also that the Duke of Parma did not take the invasion plan with complete seriousness and that his preparations were last minute and dilatory because he had little fate in the whole idea. This may have led him to devote a less than full effort to making it succeed.4
So despite the fact that the Duke of Medina Sidonia got the Armada precisely where it was supposed to be the whole scheme may have been impossible to complete right from the start. And that for reasons entirely beyond the Duke of Medina Sidonia’s control.
Of course the English could not know this for certain. And it doesn’t explain just how the Armada was in fact defeated. After all mere failure to be able to fulfill its mission for reasons beyond the control of its commanders does not explain the defeat of the Armada and its partial destruction.
After all the decisive battle of the whole Armada expedition was the sea engagement off Gravelines usually called the battle of Gravelines, which occurred on July 29 1588. It was this defeat that sealed the defeat of the Armada and marked the beginning of disaster for it.
The engagement presents puzzles. In it the English for the first time closed in on the enemy and got into close range of the Armada ships. The English stopped the long range cannon fights of the previous engagements, which had done little damage and stopped, mostly, chasing after single ships and instead closed in for a close engagement with the main Spanish ships.
To briefly describe the engagement. When the Armada was anchored off Calais and the Duke of Medina Sidonia waiting for the Duke of Parma to reply to his messages about when will the army be ready to embark the English who were convinced that if they didn’t do something Parma would have embarked his army and the Armada, whose formations the English had singularly failed to shake would then escort it to England. The English had for no good reason little faith in the Dutch being able to block the embarkation of Parma’s troops.
The English sent fire ships against the anchored Armada. Despite the Duke of Medina Sidonia’s rather sensible and successful precautions against fire ships the Armada largely dispersed by the morning of the 29th of July. With the Armada dispersed the English decided to close. The Spanish wanted to board, and with their masses of soldiers on their ships they could not fail to win that sort of engagement. The English closed but their more nimble ships easily avoided being boarded. The Duke of Medina Sidonia had bravely stood back to fight the English and allow the Armada to reform. The resulting battle of Gravelines lasted all day.
The end result was defeat for the Armada. 1 ship was sunk, 2 were grounded and lost. 800 men were killed and over 1,000 were wounded among the Spanish. Many Spanish ships were severely damaged by cannon fire and were in very poor shape. If the Spanish fleet was defeated it was not destroyed. But it was also driven well past the point that it could rendezvous with Parma’s army.5
In subsequent days the Armada barely avoided being driven onto the sand banks and shoals of the Dutch province of Zealand and in the end it was forced to retreat back to Spain by going round the British Isles.6
The decisive encounter was the battle of Gravelines and here in contrast to the Spanish losses, English losses were negligible, apparently less than 50 men killed or wounded and damage to the English ships was equally negligible. For in contrast to the English ships many of the Spanish ships had experienced not just significant casualties they had pretty significant damage and that played a role in the heavy losses experienced by the Armada in the voyage around the British Isles to get home.7
The contrast in damages and losses in the battle of Gravelines needs an explanation. Certainly it decisively refutes any idea of a huge invincible Armada and a tiny, but heroic English defending force. Such disparity of losses indicates that there was something fundamentally wrong with the losing side.
Let us start with ships. The Armada was largely composed of transports and supply ships. The actual number of warships was minimal c. 20-30 out of c. 127. Of those warships many of them were simply not built for voyaging and fighting in the Atlantic. This of course applies to the 4-5 galleys which were built for the Mediterranean not the Atlantic. Thus the Spanish ships were less maneuverable than English ones.
The English fleet was built around a core consisting of the Royal fleet which had c. 24 ships. These ships had during the previous decade been built or rebuilt to the so-called new “race built” design. This design made ships easier to maneuver and also important enabled them to hold more cannon. There was also a small number of privately owned ships in the English fleet that were also loaded with artillery and “race built”. The Spanish ships in contrast were less heavily built and correspondingly less able to withstand damage.8
In terms of cannon there are various estimates. Sadly this type of bean counting isn’t has useful as it appears because people at the time used different words for different types of cannon all of which makes attempting to compare the cannon in the English and Spanish fleets difficult. But for what it’s worth here are the estimates.
Cannon Periers Culverins
English 55 43 1,874
Spanish 163 326 635
Another list is as follows:
Whole Whole Galleons and Queen’s
Spanish Fleet English Fleet Galleasses Ships
Cannon 163 55 163 55
And Demi Cannon
Cannon Perier 326 43 196 38
Culverin 165 153 165 130
Demi-Culverin 137 344 47 200
Saker 144 662 27 220
Minion 189 715 132 40
Although the above would seem to indicate that the Spanish had an advantage in the heavier guns, i.e., cannon and periers it appears that overall the English had an advantage in cannon. As I said the figures are disputable in the extreme. The saker and minion were basically anti personal weapons not ship smashers. Also some of the Spanish cannon etc., were not ship cannon but siege weapons their utility at sea was minimal. One estimate is that the English fleet had twice the gun armament than the Spanish fleet. In another it is calculated that the Spanish had 150 cannon firing 16 lbs. or more has against the English having 250 cannon in their fleet that could do so. 11
Of course one should also take into account that the English ships were far more maneuverable than the Spanish ships. To add to the problems it appears that the English ships had more men to serve as gunners. The Spanish warships rarely had more than 10 gunners per ship. At least in the Royal navy part of the English fleet the number of gunners per ship varied between 20 – 40. Also it appears that the Spanish cannon, (I mean cannon her in the generic sense.), were not set up like the English cannon to be re-loadable easily. The result was that the Spanish rate of fire was extremely low, perhaps has little has 1 or two shots per day!12
Two other factors made things even worst. One was that the Armada ran out of small shot and given that they seem to be only able to fire small shot while in combat. It appears to be the case that during the Armada Elizabeth I’s ships experienced light damage that was easily repaired.13
In fact digs at wreaks of ships of the Armada reveal large amounts of heavy shot that were never fired. It does appear to be the case that the Spanish warships were simply unable to fire very much in combat, certainly compared to the English warships.
It does appear to be the case that the ships in the Armada contained a smorgasbord of cannon types not fewer than 12 calibers among 150 canon firing balls of 16 lbs. or more. The English royal fleet only 3 calibers among there 250 cannon that could fire 16 lbs. or more balls. It also does appear to be the case that the Spanish cannon in their ships rested on carriages that were poorly designed for reloading at sea during combat.14
One final problem from the wrecks of the Armada ships it has been discovered that much of the shot used was defective, too much carbon and ferric oxide. This would have made the shot very brittle and liable to break up upon being fired by the cannon or upon impart with a hull. Thus doing very little damage. English shot on the other hand was better made and much less likely to break up upon being fired or hitting a target.15
In fact it appears that the crucial deficiency in the Armada was that the English not only had faster ships and over all better armament but were able to reload and fire while in combat while the Armada’s ability to do so was significantly less. The fact that the Armada had bad shot was icing on the cake. The result was when the English finally closed was the one sided battle of Gravelines which was the decisive battle of the Armada campaign. It appears that the Spanish were able to reload and fire their quite ineffective small armaments but not the heavier ship smashing cannon giving the English who were able to fire their cannon repeatedly in combat a crushing advantage.
Thus right from the beginning the Armada sailed under a severe disadvantage. It is likely that if the English had closed earlier and assuming they managed to avoid a ship to ship boarding melee, where the huge Spanish advantage in soldiers would come into play, that the results would have been the same. One sided defeat.
2. Mattingly, Garrett, The Armada, Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, 1959, pp. 76-78, 757-267.Howarth, David, The Voyage of The Armada, Cassell & Co., 1981, pp. 46-59, Rodger, N. A. M., The Safeguard of the Sea, HaperCollins, New York, 1997, p. 263.
3. IBID, Parker, Geoffrey, The Grand Strategy Philip II, Yale University Press, New Haven Conn, 1998, pp. 179-203.
4. Howarth, pp. 41-42, Parker, pp. 229-250.
5. Howarth, pp. 195-191, Parker, pp. 266-267, Mattingly, pp. 326-334, Fuller, J. F. C., A Military History of the Western World, v. II, Da Capo, New York, 1055, pp. 30-32.
6. Mattingly, pp. 335-341.
7. Footnote 5.
8. Rodger, pp. 215-220, Parker, pp. 252-253.
9. Fuller, p. 14.
10. Howarth, p. 98.
11. Rodger, p. 264.
12. Parker, pp. 255-262, Rodger, p. 270.
13. Parker, pp. 259-260.
14. Parker, pp. 260-262..
15. Howarth, pp. 190-191.