Chronicles of America 

The defeat of the Spanish Armada

With 1588 the final crisis came. Philip--haughty, gloomy, and ambitious Philip, unskilled in arms, but persistent in his plans--sat in his palace at Madrid like a spider forever spinning webs that enemies tore down. Drake and the English had thrown the whole scheme of the Armada's mobilization completely out of gear. Philip's well-intentioned orders and counter-orders had made confusion worse confounded; and though the Spanish empire held half the riches of the world it felt the lack of ready money because English sea power had made it all parts and no whole for several months together. Then, when mobilization was resumed, Philip found himself distracted by expert advice from Santa Cruz, his admiral, and from Parma, Alva's successor in the Netherlands.

The general idea was to send the Invincible Armada up the English Channel as far as the Netherlands, where Parma would be ready with a magnificent Spanish army waiting aboard troopships for safe conduct into England. The Spanish regulars could then hold London up to ransom or burn it to the ground. So far, so good. But Philip, to whom amphibious warfare remained an unsolved mystery, thought that the Armada and the Spanish army could conquer England without actually destroying the English fleet. He could not see where raids must end and conquest must begin. Most Spaniards agreed with him. Parma and Santa Cruz did not. Parma, as a very able general, wanted to know how his oversea communications could be made quite safe. Santa Cruz, as a very able admiral, knew that no such sea road could possibly be safe while the ubiquitous English navy was undefeated and at large. Some time or other a naval battle must be won, or Parma's troops, cut off from their base of supplies and surrounded like an island by an angry sea of enemies, must surely perish. Win first at sea and then on land, said the expert warriors, Santa Cruz and Parma. Get into hated England with the least possible fighting, risk, or loss, said the mere politician, Philip, and then crush Drake if he annoys you.

Early and late persistent Philip slaved away upon this 'Enterprize of England.' With incredible toil he spun his web anew. The ships were collected into squadrons; the squadrons at last began to wear the semblance of a fleet. But semblance only. There were far too many soldiers and not nearly enough sailors. Instead of sending the fighting fleet to try to clear the way for the troopships coming later on, Philip mixed army and navy together. The men-of-war were not bad of their kind; but the kind was bad. They were floating castles, high out of the water, crammed with soldiers, some other landsmen, and stores, and with only light ordnance, badly distributed so as to fire at rigging and superstructures only, not at the hulls as the English did. Yet this was not the worst. The worst was that the fighting fleet was cumbered with troopships which might have been useful in boarding, but which were perfectly useless in fighting of any other kind--and the English men-of-war were much too handy to be laid aboard by the lubberly Spanish troopships. Santa Cruz worked himself to death. In one of his last dispatches he begged for more and better guns. All Philip could do was to authorize the purchase of whatever guns the foreign merchantmen in Lisbon harbor could be induced to sell. Sixty second-rate pieces were obtained in this way.

Then, worn out by work and worry, Santa Cruz died, and Philip forced the command on a most reluctant landlubber, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a very great grandee of Spain, but wholly unfitted to lead a fleet. The death of Santa Cruz, in whom the fleet and army had great confidence, nearly upset the whole 'Enterprize of England.' The captains were as unwilling to serve under bandylegged, sea-sick Sidonia as he was unwilling to command them. Volunteering ceased. Compulsion failed to bring in the skilled ratings urgently required. The sailors were now not only fewer than ever--sickness and desertion had been thinning their ranks--but many of these few were unfit for the higher kinds of seamanship, while only the merest handful of them were qualified as seamen gunners. Philip, however, was determined; and so the doomed Armada struggled on, fitting its imperfect parts together into a still more imperfect whole until, in June, it was as ready as it ever could be made.

Meanwhile the English had their troubles too. These were also political. But the English navy was of such overwhelming strength that it could stand them with impunity. The Queen, after thirty years of wonderful, if tortuous, diplomacy, was still disinclined to drop the art in which she was supreme for that in which she counted for so much less and by which she was obliged to spend so very much more. There was still a little peace party also bent on diplomacy instead of war. Negotiations were opened with Parma at Flushing and diplomatic 'feelers' went out towards Philip, who sent back some of his own. But the time had come for war. The stream was now too strong for either Elizabeth or Philip to stem or even divert into minor channels.

Lord Howard of Effingham, as Lord High Admiral of England, was charged with the defence at sea. It was impossible in those days to have any great force without some great nobleman in charge of it, because the people still looked on such men as their natural viceroys and commanders. But just as Sir John Norreys, the most expert professional soldier in England, was made Chief of the Staff to the Earl of Leicester ashore, so Drake was made Chief of the Staff to Howard afloat, which meant that he was the brain of the fleet.

A directing brain was sadly needed--not that brains were lacking, but that some one man of original and creative genius was required to bring the modern naval system into triumphant being. Like all political heads, Elizabeth was sensitive to public opinion; and public opinion was ignorant enough to clamor for protection by something that a man could see; besides which there were all those weaklings who have been described as the old women of both sexes and all ages, and who have always been the nuisance they are still. Adding together the old views of warfare, which nearly everybody held, and the human weaknesses we have always with us, there was a most dangerously strong public opinion in favor of dividing up the navy so as to let enough different places actually see that they had some visible means of divided defence.

The 30th of March, 1588, is the day of days to be remembered in the history of sea power because it was then that Drake, writing from Plymouth to the Queen-in-Council, first formulated the true doctrine of modern naval warfare, especially the cardinal principle that the best of all defence is to attack your enemy's main fleet as it issues from its ports. This marked the birth of the system perfected by Nelson and thence passed on, with many new developments, to the British Grand Fleet in the Great War of today. The first step was by far the hardest, for Drake had to convert the Queen and Howard to his own revolutionary views. He at last succeeded; and on the 7th of July sailed for Corunna, where the Armada had rendezvoused after being dispersed by a storm.

Every man afloat knew that the hour had come. Yet Elizabeth, partly on the score of expense, partly not to let Drake snap her apron-strings completely, had kept the supply of food and even of ammunition very short; so much so that Drake knew he would have to starve or else replenish from the Spanish fleet itself. As he drew near Corunna on the 8th, the Spaniards were again reorganizing. Hundreds of perfectly useless landlubbers, shipped at Lisbon to complete the absurdly undermanned ships, were being dismissed at Corunna. On the 9th, when Sidonia assembled a council of war to decide whether to put to sea or not, the English van was almost in sight of the coast. But then the north wind flawed, failed, and at last chopped round. A roaring sou'wester came on; and the great strategic move was over.

On the 12th the fleet was back in Plymouth replenishing as hard as it could. Howard behaved to perfection. Drake worked the strategy and tactics. But Howard had to set the tone, afloat and ashore, to all who came within his sphere of influence; and right well he set it. His dispatches at this juncture are models of what such documents should be; and their undaunted confidence is in marked contrast to what the doomed Spanish officers were writing at the selfsame time.

The southwest wind that turned Drake back brought the Armada out and gave it an advantage which would have been fatal to England had the fleets been really equal, or the Spaniards in superior strength, for a week was a very short time in which to replenish the stores that Elizabeth had purposely kept so low. Drake and Howard, so the story goes, were playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe on Friday afternoon the 19th of July when Captain Fleming of the "Golden Hind" rushed up to say the Spanish fleet was off the Lizard, only sixty miles away! All eyes turned to Drake. Divining the right way to calm the people, he whispered an order and then said out loud: 'There's time to end our game and beat the Spaniards too.' The shortness of food and ammunition that had compelled him to come back instead of waiting to blockade now threatened to get him nicely caught in the very trap he had wished to catch the Great Armada in himself; for the Spaniards, coming up with the wind, might catch him struggling out against the wind and crush his long emerging column, bit by bit, precisely as he had intended crushing their own column as it issued from the Tagus or Corunna.

But it was only the van that Fleming had sighted. Many a Spanish straggler was still hull-down astern; and Sidonia had to wait for all to close and form up properly.

Meanwhile Drake and Howard were straining every nerve to get out of Plymouth. It was not their fault, but the Queen's-in-Council, that Sidonia had unwittingly stolen this march on them. It was their glory that they won the lost advantage back again. All afternoon and evening, all through that summer night, the sea-dog crews were warping out of harbor. Torches, flares, and cressets threw their fitful light on toiling lines of men hauling on ropes that moved the ships apparently like snails. But once in Plymouth Sound the whinnying sheaves and long "yo-hoes"! told that all the sail the ships could carry was being made for a life-or-death effort to win the weather gage. Thus beat the heart of naval England that momentous night in Plymouth Sound, while beacons blazed from height to height ashore, horsemen spurred off post-haste with orders and dispatches, and every able-bodied landsman stood to arms.

Next morning Drake was in the Channel, near the Eddystone, with fifty-four sail, when he sighted a dim blur to windward through the thickening mist and drizzling rain. This was the Great Armada. Rain came on and killed the wind. All sail was taken in aboard the English fleet, which lay under bare poles, invisible to the Spaniards, who still announced their presence with some show of canvas.

In actual size and numbers the Spaniards were superior at first. But as the week-long running fight progressed the English evened up with reinforcements. Spanish vessels looked bigger than their tonnage, being high built; and Spanish official reports likewise exaggerated the size because their system of measurement made their three tons equal to an English four. In armament and seamen-gunners the English were perhaps five times as strong as the Armada--and seamen-gunners won the day. The English seamen greatly outnumbered the Spanish seamen, utterly surpassed them in seamanship, and enjoyed the further advantage of having far handier vessels to work. The Spanish grand total, for all ranks and ratings was thirty thousand men; the English, only fifteen. But the Spaniards were six thousand short on arrival; and their actual seamen, many of whom were only half-trained, then numbered a bare seven thousand. The seventeen thousand soldiers only made the ships so many death-traps; for they were of no use afloat except as boarding parties--and no boarding whatever took place. The English fifteen thousand, on the other hand, were three-quarters seamen and one-quarter soldiers who were mostly trained as marines, and this total was actually present. On the whole, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Armada was mostly composed of armed transports while all the English vessels that counted in the fighting were real men-of-war.

In every one of the Armada's hundred and twenty-eight vessels, says an officer of the Spanish flagship, 'our people kneeled down and offered a prayer, beseeching our Lord to give us victory against the enemies of His holy faith.' The crews of the hundred and ninety-seven English vessels which, at one time or another, were present in some capacity on the scene of action also prayed for victory to the Lord of Hosts, but took the proper naval means to win it. 'Trust in the Lord--and keep your powder dry,' said Oliver Cromwell when about to ford a river in the presence of the enemy. And so, in other words, said Drake.

All day long, on that fateful 20th of July, the visible Armada with its swinging canvas was lying-to fifteen miles west of the invisible, bare-masted English fleet. Sidonia held a council of war, which, landsman-like, believed that the English were divided, one-half watching Parma, the other the Armada. The trained soldiers and sailors were for the sound plan of attacking Plymouth first. Some admirals even proposed the only perfect plan of crushing Drake in detail as he issued from the Sound. All were in blissful ignorance of the astounding feat of English seamanship which had already robbed them of the only chance they ever had. But Philip, also landsman-like, had done his best to thwart his own Armada; for Sidonia produced the royal orders forbidding any attack on England till he and Parma had joined hands. Drake, however, might be crushed piecemeal in the offing when still with his aftermost ships in the Sound. So, with this true idea, unworkable because based on false information, the generals and admirals dispersed to their vessels and waited. But then, just as night was closing in, the weather lifted enough to reveal Drake's astonishing position. Immediately pinnaces went scurrying to Sidonia for orders. But he had none to give. At one in the morning he learnt some more dumbfounding news: that the English had nearly caught him at Corunna, that Drake and Howard had joined forces, and that both were now before him.

Nor was even this the worst. For while the distracted Sidonia was getting his fleet into the 'eagle formation,' so suitable for galleys whose only fighting men were soldiers, the English fleet was stealing the weather gage, his one remaining natural advantage. An English squadron of eight sail manoeuvred coast-wise on the Armada's inner flank, while, unperceived by the Spanish lookout, Drake stole away to sea, beat round its outer flank, and then, making the most of a westerly slant in the shifting breeze, edged in to starboard. The Spaniards saw nothing till it was too late, Drake having given them a berth just wide enough to keep them quiet. But when the sun rose, there, only a few miles off to windward, was the whole main body of the English fleet, coming on in faultless line-ahead, heeling nicely over on the port tack before the freshening breeze, and, far from waiting for the Great Armada, boldly bearing down to the attack. With this consummate move the victory was won.

The rest was slaughter, borne by the Spaniards with a resolution that nothing could surpass. With dauntless tenacity they kept their 'eagle formation,' so useful at Lepanto, through seven dire days of most one-sided fighting. Whenever occasion seemed to offer, the Spaniards did their best to close, to grapple, and to board, as had their heroes at Lepanto. But the English merely laughed, ran in, just out of reach, poured in a shattering broadside between wind and water, stood off to reload, fired again, with equal advantage, at longer range, caught the slow galleons end-on, raked them from stem to stern, passed to and fro in one, long, deadly line-ahead, concentrating at will on any given target; and did all this with well-nigh perfect safety to themselves. In quite a different way close-to, but to the same effect at either distance, long or short, the English 'had the range of them,' as sailors say today. Close-to, the little Spanish guns fired much too high to hull the English vessels, lying low and trim upon the water, with whose changing humors their lines fell in so much more happily than those of any lumbering Spaniards could. Far-off, the little Spanish guns did correspondingly small damage, even when they managed to hit; while the heavy metal of the English, handled by real seamen-gunners, inflicted crushing damage in return.

But even more important than the Englishmen's superiority in rig, hull, armament, and expert seamanship was their tactical use of the thoroughly modern line-ahead. Any one who will take the letter T as an illustration can easily understand the advantage of 'crossing his T.' The upright represents an enemy caught when in column-ahead, as he would be, for instance, when issuing from a narrow-necked port. In this formation he can only use bow fire, and that only in succession, on a very narrow front. But the fleet represented by the crosspiece, moving across the point of the upright, is in the deadly line-ahead, with all its near broadsides turned in one long converging line of fire against the helplessly narrow-fronted enemy. If the enemy, sticking to medieval tactics, had room to broaden his front by forming column-abreast, as galleys always did, that is, with several uprights side by side, he would still be at the same sort of disadvantage; for this would only mean a series of T's with each nearest broadside crossing each opposing upright as before.

The herded soldiers and non-combatants aboard the Great Armada stood by their useless duties to the last. Thousands fell killed or wounded. Several times the Spanish scuppers actually ran a horrid red, as if the very ships were bleeding. The priests behaved as bravely as the Jesuits of New France--and who could be braver than those undaunted missionaries were? Soldiers and sailors were alike. 'What shall we do now?' asked Sidonia after the slaughter had gone on for a week. 'Order up more powder,' said Oquendo, as dauntless as before. Even then the eagle formation was still kept up. The van ships were the head. The biggest galleons formed the body. Lighter vessels formed the wings. A reserve formed the tail.

As the unflinching Armada stood slowly up the Channel a sail or two would drop out by the way, dead-beat. One night several strange sail passed suddenly by Drake. What should he do? To go about and follow them with all astern of him doing the same in succession was not to be thought of, as his aftermost vessels were merchantmen, wholly untrained to the exact combined maneuvers required in a fighting fleet, though first-rate individually. There was then no night signal equivalent to the modern 'Disregard the flagship's movements.' So Drake dowsed his stern light, went about, overhauled the strangers, and found they were bewildered German merchantmen. He had just gone about once more to resume his own station when suddenly a Spanish flagship loomed up beside his own flagship the "Revenge". Drake immediately had his pinnace lowered away to demand instant surrender. But the Spanish admiral was Don Pedro de Valdes, a very gallant commander and a very proud grandee, who demanded terms; and, though his flagship (which had been in collision with a run-amuck) seemed likely to sink, he was quite ready to go down fighting. Yet the moment he heard that his summoner was Drake he surrendered at discretion, feeling it a personal honor, according to the ideas of the age, to yield his sword to the greatest seaman in the world. With forty officers he saluted Drake, complimenting him on 'valour and felicity so great that Mars and Neptune seemed to attend him, as also on his generosity towards the fallen foe, a quality often experienced by the Spaniards; whereupon,' adds this eyewitness, 'Sir Francis Drake, requiting his Spanish compliments with honest English courtesies, placed him at his own table and lodged him in his own cabin.' Drake's enemies at home accused him of having deserted his fleet to capture a treasure ship--for there was a good deal of gold with Valdes. But the charge was quite unfounded.

A very different charge against Howard had more foundation. The Armada had anchored at Calais to get its breath before running the gauntlet for the last time and joining Parma in the Netherlands. But in the dead of night, when the flood was making and a strong west wind was blowing in the same direction as the swirling tidal stream, nine English fire-ships suddenly burst into flame and made for the Spanish anchorage. There were no boats ready to grapple the fire-ships and tow them clear. There was no time to weigh; for every vessel had two anchors down. Sidonia, enraged that the boats were not out on patrol, gave the order for the whole fleet to cut their cables and make off for their lives. As the great lumbering hulls, which had of course been riding head to wind, swung round in the dark and confusion, several crashing collisions occurred. Next morning the Armada was strung along the Flemish coast in disorderly flight. Seeing the impossibility of bringing the leewardly vessels back against the wind in time to form up, Sidonia ran down with the windward ones and formed farther off. Howard then led in pursuit. But seeing the "capitana" of the renowned Italian galleasses in distress near Calais, he became a medieval knight again, left his fleet, and took the galleasse. For the moment that one feather in his cap seemed better worth having than a general victory.

Drake forged ahead and led the pursuit in turn. The Spaniards fought with desperate courage, still suffering ghastly losses. But, do what they could to bear up against the English and the wind, they were forced to leeward of Dunkirk, and so out of touch with Parma. This was the result of the Battle of Gravelines, fought on Monday the 29th of July, 1588, just ten days after Captain Fleming had rushed on to the bowling green of Plymouth Hoe where Drake and Howard, their shore work done, were playing a game before embarking. In those ten days the gallant Armada had lost all chance of winning the overlordship of the sea and shaking the sea-dog grip off both Americas. A rising gale now forced it to choose between getting pounded to death on the shoals of Dunkirk or running north, through that North Sea in which the British Grand Fleet of the twentieth century fought against the fourth attempt in modern times to win a world-dominion.

North, and still north, round by the surf-lashed Orkneys, then down the wild west coasts of the Hebrides and Ireland, went the forlorn Armada, losing ships and men at every stage, until at last the remnant straggled into Spanish ports like the mere wreckage of a storm.

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