The Armada – Failure Guaranteed?

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Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.

Strategically, the determination of Spain’s Philip II to destroy his chief Protestant and maritime rival-Elizabeth I of England-made sense. The problems the Spanish faced in the Netherlands, where the Dutch were in revolt; in the Caribbean, where the English chipped away at Spanish strength; and in the contest for the souls of Europe’s rival Catholic and Protestant communities, could all seemingly be solved if England could be brought low.

Such a strategic goal necessitated an ambitious operational plan. “The Enterprise of England,” as the proposed invasion was known, had long been a subject of speculative discussion. The attractions of the concept were matched only by the difficulties inherent in the undertaking. But in 1587 a variety of events conspired to transform the “Enterprise” from a scheme into a plan. Suddenly an invasion of England seemed part of “God’s obvious design.”

At Philip’s behest, his two ablest commanders-Don Alvaro de Bazan, marquis of Santa Cruz, the foremost Spanish naval commander of the day; and Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, the commander of Spanish land forces in the Netherlands-produced estimates of the necessary forces and sketched out preliminary plans for an invasion. Santa Cruz’s proposal that he command a huge fleet of more than 500 ships, manned by 30,000 sailors, transporting 65,000 soldiers, ignored the financial and practical realities facing Philip. Parma’s suggestion that a force of 30,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, under his command, traverse the Channel in 700 or 800 small boats, without a covering fleet, depended upon complete surprise, a factor Philip himself labeled “Hardly possible!” With two such proposals in hand, Philip might well have dismissed “The Enterprise of England” as a worthy but impracticable idea. Instead, as Garrett Mattingly writes, “Out of the plans of his two ablest commanders Philip made a plan of his own.”

In the security of the monastery of San Lorenzo Escorial, Philip concocted a new scheme. He decided that a powerful naval armada, though one far smaller than that recommended by Santa Cruz, would sail from Spain with a small land force and enter the English Channel. There the armada would rendezvous with Parma’s army, less than half the size Parma had proposed, transported in small craft built or requisitioned in the Netherlands. The army would cross the Channel, disembark, and begin the conquest of England.

Several practical problems marred what Mattingly describes as “a complicated and rather rigid plan, without much allowance for mistakes or accidents.” The amalgamation of two impractical plans did not ensure a positive result. Philip’s design addressed neither Santa Cruz’s concern about the need for an overwhelming naval force nor Parma’s demand for troops and emphasis on the need for surprise. Philip skirted the problem at sea by urging his naval commander to avoid combat. But, without at least temporary Spanish control of the Channel, how could Parma transport his army in small craft to England? The navy could escort the army across, but that would be an exceedingly difficult task in the face of a strong English fleet. And how could Parma prepare such a large force for the crossing without alerting the enemy? The English and Dutch would certainly notice the assembly of hundreds of small craft and any movement of the army toward the coast. There also were critical questions concerning the rendezvous of the fleet with Parma’s flotilla. The Spanish possessed no deep-water ports where the Armada could safely join up with Parma’s transports. Thus Parma would have to make his own way into the Channel to effect the rendezvous. But he controlled no naval force of his own, and swarms of small, shallow-draft Dutch warships infested Flemish coastal waters.

Given these ambiguities and uncertainties, without an effective system of command and control of Spain’s naval and land forces, an invasion of England was unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the command structure outlined, by default, in Philip’s plan exacerbated the problems of command. Santa Cruz’s and Parma’s proposals, whatever their weaknesses, had at least embraced the principle of unity of command. Both men had envisioned a unitary invasion force, based in either Spain or the Netherlands, descending upon England under the direction of a single individual. Philip’s plan involved the movement of two forces-one mostly naval and the other mostly land; one coming from Spain and the other from the Netherlands-commanded by two men, neither of whom could command the other. Philip, in his spartan quarters in the Escorial, was both the head planner for the operation and the commander in chief, despite the fact that he was half a continent distant from Parma and would be just as far from his Armada as it entered the Channel. Since the king did not intend to accompany either Parma’s army or the Armada, there was no prospect of his actually directing the operation once it began. In his absence, the commanders would be left to their own devices. As David Howarth noted: “This was the intrinsic reason why the armada failed: the king’s belief that he could organize a huge operation of war without leaving his study, without consulting anyone, without any human advice, without allowing his commanders to discuss it . . . Especially, he did not understand seafaring or navigation-he had never embarked in a ship except as a passenger.”

Philip’s plan manifested a lack of clarity, not a lack of flexibility. The king had good reason to draft a design that was elastic enough to account for myriad unforeseen circumstances. His on-scene commanders could best judge the situation as it developed. But those same commanders, if they were to operate effectively together, needed a directive written clearly enough to be understood and to be interpreted by both in the same fashion. They also needed some secure and reliable means of communicating from ship to shore.

Unfortunately for Philip, the campaign unfolded with his subordinates confused and virtually incommunicado. The Armada’s commander- Alonso Pérez de Guzman (“El Bueno”), duke of Medina Sidonia, who reluctantly accepted the position when typhus carried off Santa Cruz in February 1588-sailed from Spain in May expecting to rendezvous with Parma’s force somewhere in the English Channel. Parma believed that Medina Sidonia’s Armada would meet the transports at the coast and shepherd the army along the entire route to England. At no time during the planning or execution of the operation were Medina Sidonia (or before him Santa Cruz) and Parma able to communicate with each other in a timely and effective manner. In the planning stage, both Parma and the Armada’s commanders communicated almost exclusively with the king, who alone understood, to the extent that anyone did, the entire situation. Medina Sidonia received only a single message from Parma, and that shortly before the Armada sailed. As Colin Martin and Geoffrey Parker commented: “Here was an extraordinary situation: the joint commanders of the greatest amphibious operation in European history were not in effective contact with each other.”

From the start, problems of command and control plagued the Spanish effort. The Armada, in a series of inconclusive but demoralizing running battles with the English, fought its way into the Channel. Medina Sidonia did manage to alert Parma to the approach of the fleet. But the Armada’s captain-general received little news from Parma, whose army was not yet prepared to strike out for England. As a result, when the Armada neared Calais and Parma’s coastal encampments, Medina Sidonia faced not only the threat posed by the English navy but also a communications debacle that guaranteed the failure of an overambitious and ambiguous plan. As Howarth wrote: “If the two dukes had met for ten minutes, they could surely have sorted it out and agreed how to make an attempt, if it was to be made at all . . . But twenty miles of sea still separated them, and an even wider gulf of misunderstanding. The misunderstanding was mutual, and the fault for it lay far away in the secret rooms of the Escorial; for the king had given each of them false information, or no information at all, about the other.” By the time Parma began what may have been a pro forma embarkation, the moment had passed. The Armada, weakened by battle, subjected to attacks by English fireships in an unprotected coastal anchorage, slipped its cables and headed eastward for the North Sea and hoped-for safety. Instead, the fleet’s epic return voyage around the northern extremes of the British Isles turned a defeat into a naval disaster.

The demise of the Spanish Armada cannot be attributed solely to problems of command and control. The tactical and operational efficiency and aggressiveness of the English fleet, its commanders, and its seamen played the major role in the campaign. But poor planning, questionable selection of senior commanders (namely Medina Sidonia, who considered himself ill-suited to the job), failure to appoint a commander in chief, nearly total lack of coordination, and poor communications contributed to the debacle. As Mattingly concluded: “It is hard to believe that even Horatio Nelson could have led the Spanish Armada to victory in 1588.” Even if the Spanish had fended off the attack of the English fireships at Gravelines, for practical and logistical reasons Medina Sidonia could not have kept his fleet in place long enough to await Parma, assuming the ground commander could even get his ill-fitted flotilla to sea past the Dutch. A failure of coordination would have brought “The Enterprise of England” to an ignominious conclusion.

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Legacy –Total English Failure!

In England, the boost to national pride lasted for years, and Elizabeth’s legend persisted and grew long after her death. The repulsing of the Spanish naval force may have given heart to the Protestant cause across Europe and the belief that God was behind the Protestant cause. This was shown by the striking of commemorative medals that bore variations on the inscription, “1588. Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt” – with “Jehovah” in Hebrew letters (“God blew, and they were scattered”), or He blew with His winds, and they were scattered. There were also more lighthearted medals struck, such as the one with the play on the words of Julius Caesar: Venit, Vidit, Fugit (he came, he saw, he fled). The victory was acclaimed by the English as their greatest since Agincourt.

However, an attempt to press home the English advantage failed the following year, when the Drake–Norris Expedition of 1589, with a comparable fleet of English privateers, sailed to establish a base in the Azores, attack Spain, and raise a revolt in Portugal. The English Armada, led by Sir Timothy Walter, raided Corunna, but withdrew from Lisbon after failing to co-ordinate its strategy effectively with the Portuguese.

In 1596 and 1597, two more armadas were sent by Spain but were scattered by storms.

The Spanish Navy underwent a major organisational reform that helped it to maintain control over its trans-Atlantic routes. High-seas buccaneering and the supply of troops to Philip II’s enemies in the Netherlands and France continued, but brought few tangible rewards for England.

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