Tag Archives: European history

Remembering History: England Defeats Spanish Armada (29 July 1688)

 

Defeat of the Spanish Armada (Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1796)
Public Domain

On July 29, 1688 naval forces of England and Spain engaged in an 8-hour furious battle off the coast of France that determined the fate of both countries control of the seas. Spain had created the armada to not only gain control of the English Channel but also to land an invasion force in England. England since the early 1580s had been conducting raids against Spanish commerce and had supported Dutch rebels in Spanish Netherlands. The other reason was to restore Catholicism that had been outlawed since the reign of King Henry VIII

The invasion fleet was authorized by King Philip II and was completed in 1587 but delayed by a raid by Sir Francis Drake on the Armada’s supplies. It did not depart until May 19, 1588. The fleet consisted of 130 ships under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. It had 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and 20,000 soldiers. The Spanish ships though were slower than their English counterparts and lighter armed as well despite their guns. Their tactic was to force boarding when their ships were close enough. They believed with the superior numbers of Spanish infantry they could overwhelm the English ships.

The English were commanded by Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham. Like his counterpart, he was an admiral with not much sea experience but proved to be the better leader. His second in command was Sir Francis Drake. The English fleet was at its height 200 ships but in the actual combat was at most 100. Only 40 were warships and the rest smaller, but they were armed with heavy artillery that were able to fire at longer ranges without having to get close to the enemy to be effective. The English strategy was to bombard their enemy from a distance and not give them the opportunity to get close and possibly board their ships (which had smaller number of soldiers aboard than the Spanish had).

As the Spanish Armada made its way, it would be harassed by English ships that bombarded them at a distance negating Spanish attempts to board. The Armada anchored near Calais, France on 27 July. The Spanish forces on land were in Flanders and would take time to get Calais. However, since there was no safe port and enemy Dutch and English ships patrolled the coastal shallows, it meant those troops had no safe way to get to the Armada.

Around midnight on 29 July, the English sent 8 fire ships into the anchored Spanish fleet. The Spanish were forced to quickly scatter to avoid the fire ships. This meant the Armada formation was now broken making them easier targets for the English to attack. They closed to effective range and attacked. Surprising to the English, the return fire was mostly small arms. It turns out most of the heavy cannons had not been mounted. And those that were did not have properly trained crews on how to reload. Three Spanish ships were sunk or driven ashore. Other ships were battered and moved away. The English also were low on ammunition, so they had to drop back and follow the Spanish fleet.

The Spanish fleet had to flee north and around Scotland and from there head back to Spain. The English fleet turned back for resupply. It was a long road back to Spain for the Armada. Autumn had arrived and gales in the North Atlantic made passage tough. Ships were lost to bad weather, navigational errors, foundered near Ireland, and possibly battle damage as well. Only 60 of the 130 survived with an estimated loss of 15,000 men. The English losses were much smaller with fewer men wounded or killed in battle. It appears most of the deaths that came later were due to disease (possibly scurvy). Damages to the English ships were negligible.

Significance

With the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England was made safe from invasion. The Dutch rebels the English backed in Spanish Netherlands were saved as well. Spain up to that point had been considered to be the greatest European power, so it was a major blow to their prestige that would have ramifications down the road for them. Also, it heralded a major change for naval battles. This was the first major naval gun battle where the combatants fought at a distance rather than closing and boarding. Warships that could move quickly and had artillery that fire at long range would become the norm on the seas from that point on. England would now become a major world power. Spain still was in the game for several decades (the English were not successful either in trying their own invasion) and was still a major colonial power. England and Spain formally ended their conflict in 1604. Spain, however, would eventually go into decline as England and other European powers would successfully expand into Asia and establish their own colonies and trade routes.

Sources:

This Day In History: Spanish Armada Defeated
Encyclopedia Britannica: Spanish Armada

Remembering History: Storming the Bastille (14 Jul 1789)

The Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735–1813)
National Library of France
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On 14 July 1789, the storming of the Bastille, a formidable stone prison originally built to protect the eastern entrance to Paris, is considered the launch of the French Revolution and celebrated as a holiday in France. The prison often held political prisoners and was seen as a sign of tyranny. By this time in 1789, the prison only held seven prisoners none of whom were of a political nature. Four were charged with forgery and two were considered mad or lunatics. The Bastille was actually being scheduled for demolition to make way for public square.

France was facing economic and social problems. Louis XVI had inherited considerable debt from his predecessor but continued to spend (along with his wife Marie Antoinette) considerable sums of money further deepening government debt. Crop failures in 1788 led to a national famine and the cost bread prices to soar. Unemployment was a factor as well and many thought they had lost jobs due to lessening of customs duties with England (resulting in more jobs there than in France). With violent food riots breaking out, King Louis XVI tried to resolve it through the Estates-General (a national assembly of clergy, nobility and the common person).

While in theory all three were equal, two of the other parts could outvote the third. This left many deputies upset demanding a greater voice and proclaiming their own National Assembly. This would lead to the famous Tennis Court Oath of 20 June 1789 not to separate until they had a constitution. Many nobles and clergy crossed over to this National Assembly which Louis XVI gave consent to. His ordering of army regiments into Paris though made many fear he was going to break up the assembly by force. The dismissal of Jacques Necker, a non-noble minister for the government on 11 July, triggered massive protests and destruction of custom posts. Custom posts were hated as they imposed taxes on goods.

On 14 July a mob seized muskets and cannons from a military hospital and then decided to get more at the Bastille. The governor of the Bastille saw the mob and invited them in to discuss terms of surrender. Outside the crowd grew restless awaiting word and it is possible some thought the delegates had been arrested. A group climbed over the outer wall and climbed in to open the drawbridge to the courtyard. The governor broke his pledge not to fire and bullets rang out killing 100 outright leaving others wounded. The royals only lost one soldier. The arrival of the French Guards, sympathetic to the mob, would force the governor to surrender after having cannons blasting away at the Bastille. Without adequate provisions, he surrendered the Bastille. Some of the royalist troops would be butchered after the surrender. The governor was taken prisoner and beheaded by the mob.

Aftermath

The Bastille was dismantled, and its only prisoner later would be Louis XVI. He would be executed on 21 January 1793 along with his wife. The French Revolution, once thought a means to reform France into a constitutional monarchy, slid into a revolutionary government that completely overturned the ancien regime. During its tenure, it became increasingly bloody killing off enemies of the new order. Anyone who was thought to disagree with them could be denounced and executed. Instead of creating a better stable system, it became one long food riot as one professor said to me once. And the revolutionaries fought amongst themselves as to who was the better one to lead. That led to more bloody executions and the guillotine became the image of the French Revolution. Ultimately the people tired of this turmoil and wanted order. And it would come from Napoleon Bonaparte, but that is another story.

 

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The Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand Leads To World War I (28 June 1914

How did the assassination of an Austrian archduke end up starting World War I? Let’s find out.

Map of Europe 1914 (in French)
Varmin, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1914 Europe was divided into several major players: Great Britain, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Russia, the largest country of all because of its sheer territory, was not considered a major player. It was a country that all a small industrial base but was mostly agrarian based society. Its defeat in a recent war with Japan showed how it was quite behind the Europeans in terms of building up a powerful military to protect its interests. Britain and Germany (with France often supporting, but not always the British) often clashed over colonies and related interests.

The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was the second largest country in Europe after Russia and a multinational state with many different peoples under it. It was also a major industrial power and with its access to the Adriatic, a naval power as well. It was a dual monarchy-Austria Empire and Kingdom of Hungary-and coequal in power. Both states conducted joint foreign relations, defense, and financial policies but left the administration under their individual states. Because it was a polyglot empire, it had a lot of different languages. The major ones were German, Hungarian and Croatian. Because of its industrial capacity, Austria-Hungary was a major exporter of electric home and industrial appliances making it third after the United States and Germany.

The first page of the edition of the Domenica del Corriere, an Italian paper, with a drawing by Achille Beltrame depicting Gavrilo Princip killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. (Cropped)
12 July 1914, Achille Beltrame
Public Domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

Unrest though within Austria-Hungary had become an issue with various groups wanting independence or territory for their peoples. And on this particular day, the Archduke Ferdinand was visiting the Imperial armed forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This area had been annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908, which angered Serbian nationalists who believed it should be part of Serbia. His visit hatched a plot to assassinate the archduke. 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip shot the royal couple at point-blank range while they were in their official procession. Princip was part of a group that was well armed, trained, and assisted by the Serbian government. Serbia though had a major supporter in Russia. This meant any reaction to Serbian support of the assassination team would draw in Russia, so Austria asked Germany to back them should conflict break out. Germany warned to do it quickly while sympathy for Ferdinand was still high. Austria debated its action, and this took time and was not until mid-July they delivered an ultimatum to Serbia.

Russia though had already decided to intervene while Serbia was preparing its reply. However, the Russian military knew it was not yet ready for a general war. Yet they saw the hand of Germany in the ultimatum and were determined to show support for Serbia. Once the Serbians knew that Russia was mobilizing, made it easier for Serbia to defy Austria-Hungary. Germany became nervous about the possibility of Russian troops amassing on its border. Russia was allied with France, and Germans had figured on fighting France first rather than Russia. They thought Russia would take longer to get its forces ready. France, for its part, now realizing war with Germany and Austria-Hungary was a real possibility, began mobilizing as well.

Britain, which an informal alliance with France and Russia, was not committed to war with Germany. At that point, they were still on friendly terms and wanted to remain neutral. Germany made some promises to further that neutrality. However, the German plans to invade France would involve it invading Belgium, a neutral state. This upset many in British leadership and it was decided on moral terms they had to enter the conflict.

By the end of July, the assassination of an archduke had become barely remembered as the belligerents all lined up. Germany and Austria Hungary (central powers) vs Britain, France, and Russia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Belgium, France, and Russia. On 4 August, Britain declared war on Germany and on 6 August, Austria-Hungary declares war on Russia. The “Guns of August” had arrived, and war would be on until 1918.

The peace that had existed, fragile at best of times, was shattered.

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Remembering History: Germany and Italy Sign Pact of Steel (22 May 1939)

The signing of the Pact of Steel on 22 May 1939 in Berlin
Photographer unknown
Public Domain/WIkimedia Commons

On 22 May 1939, Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Friendship and Alliance that became known later as the Pact of Steel. This began the formal military and political alliance between the two countries. Initially Japan was to be part of the agreement but there was disagreement on the focus of the pact. Germany and Italy wanted it aimed at the British Empire and France, while Japan wanted the Soviet Union to be the focus. The agreement was signed without Japan but would later join in September 1940.

The agreement brought together two countries that opposed each other in World War I. It also required each country to come to the aid of the other if it were in armed conflict with another nation. Neither party could make peace without the agreement of the other. One of the assumptions of the agreement was that war would start in three years at the latest. Italy needed the time to get its war production into high gear. The agreement was for ten years but there was some concern within the Italian government the agreement would suppress Italian autonomy. The agreement was still signed despite these objections, which also came from Mussolini’s son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Hitler, however, would soon declare his intentions of invading Poland. Mussolini was not happy he was not consulted on this, nor about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement. Italian forces did not commit fully to war until June 1940 when German forces had defeated British and French forces with lightning speed. Italy seized Nice as its prize. Other countries it tried to invade proved more difficult. Greek partisans brought the Italian force to a halt. Germany would intervene to help there and in Yugoslavia where Italian troops also pushed back by partisans. A disastrous attack on British Egypt from Italian Libya required German assistance as well. The economic consequences of the war were bad for most Italians generating widespread resentment that would lead one day to Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943.

Sources:

History.com
School History
World War II Database


Remembering History: Britain & France Sign Entente Cordiale (8 April 1904)

In the early years of the 20th century, the colonial powers of Britain and France became increasingly concerned with Germany’s military growth. France had suffered defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and was concerned about its growing military power. Britain was concerned as well about Germany’s growing navy bringing both countries together in an agreement. Africa was the main point of contention with British, French, Belgium and Germany all having colonial territories. Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain also had territory in Africa.

Colonial Africa, 1914
Image Credit: Whiplashoo21/Creative Commons

 

On 8 April 1904, both countries declared that they recognized certain territorial claims of the other in Africa. The British agreed that France had control over Morocco and France agreed to recognize Egypt as under British control. The declaration became known as the Entente Cordial and the beginnings of an alliance between the two powers. Although there was an agreement to diplomatically support the other, there was no requirement they provide military assistance if they were attacked.

Why This is Important

While not a formal alliance, it put the world on notice and in particular Germany that Britain and France recognized each other’s colonial territories. Germany saw the agreement exactly for what it was and would take steps to challenge it. Germany supported the Sultan of Morocco in 1905 against France. Britain however sided with France and resulted in an international conference that confirmed France’s control over Morocco. Germany decided to send troops to Morocco in 1911 precipitating another crisis. This forced both Britain and France into an informal military alliance to counter Germany. Rather than break up the two parties, Germany’s actions only brought them closer together. And it would result in more formal military agreement that would include Russia as well. By 1912, Europe was divided into two main blocks: Britain, France and Russia and Germany, Austria-Hungary.

Sources:

Britannica.com
History. Com
Wikipedia


Remembering Munich Conference of 1938

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it! “(George Santayana-1905)

Nevile Chamberlain, Édouard Daladier, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Count Ciano
29 Sep 1938 (German Federal Archives)

What is going on today regarding the Ukraine recalls one of the greater mistakes made prior to the outbreak of general war in 1939. Hitler had been in power since 1933 and re-fashioned the new German state on the ideas of National Socialism based on the Italian version of fascism. This new Germany began to rebuild itself fast repudiating the limitations of the Versailles Treaty imposed on them. Everything was changed to conform to the new order from education to what music they could listen to. Religious schools were shuttered forcing all children to attend public schools where the ideals of the new order would be taught. The Nazi’s (a shortening of a much longer name of the political party) had a special desire to exclude those who did not fit into their idea of what a person was. Jewish people were the top targets along with a long list of others (Polish, Gypsies, anyone of African descent, homosexuals, pacifists etc.) With full control of the print, radio, and film media, everyone got the party line no matter where they went. Opposition media was silenced and only by listening to forbidden foreign radio could you learn what was going on.

Despite how Germany broke its agreements, not one of the major powers (France, Great Britain, or the United States) officially said much nor really try to stop them (such as when they marched into the Rhineland on 7 Mar 1936)) Sure there were some politicians or opinion writers who expressed alarm and concern, but no one really cared at that point what Winston Churchill had to say since his own party ignored him. Nazi leaders were ecstatic when in August 1936 the world came to see the summer Olympics. They were pleased to show the world how much Germany had come back from its defeat after World War I. Sure people criticized holding the Olympics in a country that was violently antisemitic, but it went on anyway giving the Nazi’s a platform to show off the new Germany to the world. And many bought into it and even admired Hitler, with all his faults, for his accomplishments.

As Germany re-armed, it looked to expand its frontiers and bring into being a Greater Germany. Hitler was Austrian and both countries had close ties sharing a common language and culture. Many in Austria already supported such an idea long before the Nazi’s came into power. The Nazi’s had tried in 1934 in supporting a coup attempt, but it failed. By 1938 Germany was in a better position. Politicians and groups sympathetic to Hitler and unification in Austria were loudly calling for it. Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg hoped that a referendum on the issue set for 13 March 1938 would resolve. Hitler instead threatened to invade and through his agents asked him to resign. The referendum was canceled and on 12 Mar 1938, German troops entered Austria and were unopposed. The long-wanted Anschluss had finally occurred. Neither Great Britain nor France was willing to offer any assistance to stop it from happening. In fact, many uttered support for it.

That brings us to the events of the Munich Conference of September 1938. Around the same time that Austria was being swallowed up, Hitler began also saying that the German speaking people in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia wanted closer times with Germany. He began speaking publicly that this region should also be part of the Greater Germany as well. And he ominously spoke of forcibly acquiring if Czechoslovakia did not hand this area over to him. Austria had been taken without a fight and in London and Paris there was concern of a real war that might break out.  The position of both governments was to avoid total war; they did not want another World War I that devastated Europe. This policy of appeasement had many supporters in politics, academia, and the media. Those who argued against it were called warmongers, or worse. The problem was that both countries had signed treaties with Czechoslovakia that if they were attacked, their enemy became theirs.

They simply decided to abandon it by negotiating with Germany without any consultation with the Czechoslovakian government. They made a deal in which any area where fifty percent or more of German Sudetens that it would go to Germany. Hitler though sensed correctly that both the British (led by prime minister Neville Chamberlain) and the French (premier Édouard Daladier) were willing to give up more if it meant avoiding war. He knew the French had the best trained troops on the continent and the British an excellent navy. Yet neither were willing to put any of that up as a possible stop to his ambitions. They never offered that they would defend Czechoslovakia if he did not make a deal to avoid war. That was not ever on the table and Hitler knew he could get want he wanted just by making threats.

By threatening to move German troops into Czechoslovakia, he forced the British and French to call for a conference to settle the issue. And that begot the Munich Conference of 29 Sept 1938 in which the British, French, Italians, and Germans attended to find a peaceful solution to this crisis. Absent from this was anyone the Czechoslovakian government. The British and French agreed to hand over the area demanded by Hitler to Germany. The Czechoslovakians were told they had to accept or be invaded. It was a great victory for Hitler. Two great powers had groveled before him giving him land that had rich industrial resources that would feed the German war machine.

Neville Chamberlain was welcomed back to resounding applause in Britain. The agreement got applause from many in Parliament, academia, and the press. The public seemed to like it as well. After Chamberlain got off his plane and read the statement signed by Hitler, he famously said it was “peace in our time.” Other leaders in Europe breathed a sigh of relief thinking it would curtail German ambitions. It was one of the greatest misjudgments in history and that clip would famously show how Chamberlain was duped by a tyrant. That image would become so ingrained that appeasement completely fell out of the vocabulary only being used in history books or to accuse someone of going down that dangerous path again.

Czechoslovakia was abandoned by its allies. In October 1938, it was forced to hand over under the Vienna Award territory in its south to Hungary and a small concession to Poland. In March 1939, after Slovakia seceded to become a pro-German state, Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia accede to German occupation, which it did. Czechoslovakia then became a protectorate of the Third Reich. Churchill had warned the Munich Agreement was a bad omen and it proved accurate. Both the British and French handed Hitler his prize on a plate without him ever firing a shot. With his taking over Czechoslovakia, it showed how appeasement was a failed policy.

In both countries, and in other European capitals, it became obvious Germany was on the move to expand with its growing military power. Suddenly the prospect of real war became a reality. Chamberlain had to change policy and start agreements with other countries to deter Hitler. But the die was cast, and war would come officially in September 1939. This time the British and French offered their support to Poland if Germany invaded. Hitler was not worried as neither power moved any military in defense of Poland. His only worry was the French. If they moved against him while the bulk of his troops were in the east, it would be a big problem. He gambled-and he was right-that the French would not launch an attack as they did not  want war yet. Both countries did declare war on Germany as the result of invading Poland, but they did nothing to stop it.

The lesson from what happened in Munich still applies today.  You negotiate from strength and not from weakness. Once Hitler knew neither of the great powers would do anything to stop him, he pretty much could get everything he wanted since he knew they wanted to avoid war and willing to sacrifice Czechoslovakia. Had Chamberlain showed up saying they would blockade German ports, cut them off from the world-wide banking system if he did this, Hitler would have had to pause to consider his options. Perhaps he would have backed away. We will never know. If you are foolish enough to take off the table anything that will deter the aggressor, and only threaten to punish after the fact, it is not likely to work. Everyone knew Germany would invade Poland, but no one knew when and were dumbfounded by the pact between German and the Soviet Union that divided up that country. Stalin too was fooled by Hitler and shows even other tyrants can be foolish as well.

As we march into another European war, our leaders better remember the lessons of Munich. It led to a long brutal war that tore Europe apart leaving wounds to this day that have not completely healed. And six million Jews dead because those same leaders also foolishly thought it just careless words he wanted to rid the world of Jews.

Remembering History: Hitler Invades Poland (1939); Japan Surrenders Ending World War II (1945)

Hitler attends a Wehrmacht victory parade in Warsaw on 5 October 1939
Public Domain

On 1 September 1939, German forces using the pretext they were acting in self-defense against Poland, invaded. The German infantry was not fully mechanized but had Panzers and fast-moving artillery that included truck mounted artillery. The German strategy was to quickly concentrate forces and encircle an enemy quickly. Thanks to the relatively flat terrain of Poland, it made it easy to move mobile infantry about. The invasion came one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August. This non-aggression pact meant neither side could assist the enemy of the other. A secret protocol to the agreement defined German and Soviet spheres in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. This protocol would not be proved until the Nuremberg Trials. So, when Germany invaded, Poland was already split with defined borders between the two countries. With this pact, Poland signed defense agreements with Britain and France. Talks between those powers and Germany did take place and the invasion was held up until they were concluded. Hitler did not believe they would declare war, and if they did would be willing to compromise after the invasion of Poland. Germany wanted the restoration of Danzig (in Polish Gdansk) as a free city (it had a large German population), the Polish Corridor, and the safeguarding of Germans in Poland. Germany demanded that a Polish representative with the power to sign such an agreement be present. The British, remembering what happened before when Czechoslovakia was forced to capitulate to the Germans, did not like that demand. When the Polish representative met with Ribbentrop on 31 Aug, he was dismissed when he had no power to sign. The Germans then claimed that Poland had rejected their demands and Hitler ordered the invasion for 1 September. The Germans were better prepared for war than the Polish. They had higher numbers of troops and had air superiority. Poland had older fighters while the bombers were more modern. They waited too late to upgrade so newer fighters and bombers would not be there when the Germany invaded. Poland had two armor brigades and its 7TP light tank was better armed than the German Panzer. But they only had 140 of those and 88 tanks they imported from Britain and France. The Polish Navy was a small fleet with destroyers, submarines and support vessels. Most of the surface vessels escaped and joined the British Royal Navy. Submarines did engage German shipping in the Baltic Sea but it was not successful. Polish merchant ships that did escape or elsewhere would join the allies and take part in wartime convoys. By 3 October both German and Soviet forces had secured their spheres ending the Second Polish Republic. Both German and Soviet governments quickly took control of their territories, organizing and annexing, and setting up regional controls. Government and military leaders who did escape would form a military force in support of the Polish government-in-exile. In response to the invasion of Poland, Britain and France formally declared war on Germany on 3 September but little else (France did invade the Saar but quickly withdrew). ==

Japan Surrenders

Surrender of Japan, Tokyo Bay, 2 September 1945: Representatives of the Empire of Japan on board USS Missouri (BB-63) during the surrender ceremonies.
Army Signal Corps, Public Domain

On the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the Japanese formally surrendered ending World War II. By this time Japan was no longer the military power it once was. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 had been the turning point when four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk. Since then Japanese control over its captured territories were pushed back under massive effort of U.S. and Allied forces. By the summer of 1945, and with the capture of Okinawa, Japan was being blockaded and being bombed often. Plans for the invasion of Japan had been drawn up. After the bloody experience of capturing territory such as on Iwa Jima, it was expected to be a difficult invasion that would cost a lot of allied lives. However, the dropping of two atomic weapons on Japan in August on Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed things dramatically. Members of the Japanese War Council and Emperor Hirohito favored accepting the peace terms; some objected and acted to stop a surrender. On 15 Aug a coup was attempted against Prime Minister Suzuki, but it was crushed. At noon that day, and for the first time in Japanese history, Emperor Hirohito addressed the nation by radio. “We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.” The US and the allies accepted the surrender.  

 

 

Remembering History: England Defeats Spanish Armada (29 July 1688)

 

Defeat of the Spanish Armada (Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1796)
Public Domain

On July 29, 1688 naval forces of England and Spain engaged in an 8-hour furious battle off the coast of France that determined the fate of both countries control of the seas. Spain had created the armada to not only gain control of the English Channel but also to land an invasion force in England. England since the early 1580s had been conducting raids against Spanish commerce and had supported Dutch rebels in Spanish Netherlands. The other reason was to restore Catholicism that had been outlawed since the reign of King Henry VIII

The invasion fleet was authorized by King Philip II and was completed in 1587 but delayed by a raid by Sir Francis Drake on the Armada’s supplies. It did not depart until May 19, 1588. The fleet consisted of 130 ships under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. It had 2,500 guns, 8,000 seamen, and 20,000 soldiers. The Spanish ships though were slower than their English counterparts and lighter armed as well despite their guns. Their tactic was to force boarding when their ships were close enough. They believed with the superior numbers of Spanish infantry they could overwhelm the English ships.

The English were commanded by Charles Howard, 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham. Like his counterpart, he was an admiral with not much sea experience but proved to be the better leader. His second in command was Sir Francis Drake. The English fleet was at its height 200 ships but in the actual combat was at most 100. Only 40 were warships and the rest smaller, but they were armed with heavy artillery that were able to fire at longer ranges without having to get close to the enemy to be effective. The English strategy was to bombard their enemy from a distance and not give them the opportunity to get close and possibly board their ships (which had smaller number of soldiers aboard than the Spanish had).

As the Spanish Armada made its way, it would be harassed by English ships that bombarded them at a distance negating Spanish attempts to board. The Armada anchored near Calais, France on 27 July. The Spanish forces on land were in Flanders and would take time to get Calais. However, since there was no safe port and enemy Dutch and English ships patrolled the coastal shallows, it meant those troops had no safe way to get to the Armada.

Around midnight on 29 July, the English sent 8 fire ships into the anchored Spanish fleet. The Spanish were forced to quickly scatter to avoid the fire ships. This meant the Armada formation was now broken making them easier targets for the English to attack. They closed to effective range and attacked. Surprising to the English, the return fire was mostly small arms. It turns out most of the heavy cannons had not been mounted. And those that were did not have properly trained crews on how to reload. Three Spanish ships were sunk or driven ashore. Other ships were battered and moved away. The English also were low on ammunition, so they had to drop back and follow the Spanish fleet.

The Spanish fleet had to flee north and around Scotland and from there head back to Spain. The English fleet turned back for resupply. It was a long road back to Spain for the Armada. Autumn had arrived and gales in the North Atlantic made passage tough. Ships were lost to bad weather, navigational errors, foundered near Ireland, and possibly battle damage as well. Only 60 of the 130 survived with an estimated loss of 15,000 men. The English losses were much smaller with fewer men wounded or killed in battle. It appears most of the deaths that came later were due to disease (possibly scurvy). Damages to the English ships were negligible.

Significance

With the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England was made safe from invasion. The Dutch rebels the English backed in Spanish Netherlands were saved as well. Spain up to that point had been considered to be the greatest European power, so it was a major blow to their prestige that would have ramifications down the road for them. Also, it heralded a major change for naval battles. This was the first major naval gun battle where the combatants fought at a distance rather than closing and boarding. Warships that could move quickly and had artillery that fire at long range would become the norm on the seas from that point on. England would now become a major world power. Spain still was in the game for several decades (the English were not successful either in trying their own invasion) and was still a major colonial power. England and Spain formally ended their conflict in 1604. Spain, however, would eventually go into decline as England and other European powers would successfully expand into Asia and establish their own colonies and trade routes.

Sources:

This Day In History: Spanish Armada Defeated
Encyclopedia Britannica: Spanish Armada