THE BATTLE OF THE MEDWAY Part II

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“Burning English ships” by Jan van Leyden. Shown are the events near Gillingham: in the middle the Royal Charles is taken; on the right Pro Patria and Schiedam set Matthias and Charles V alight.

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The positions of Charles V and Matthais, both captured Dutch merchantmen, just above the chain were adjusted to enable them to bring their broadsides to bear. Monmouth was also moored above the chain, positioned so that she could bring her guns to bear on the space between Charles V and Matthias. The frigate Marmaduke and the Norway Merchant were sunk off above the chain; the large Sancta Maria foundered while being moved for the same purpose. Pett also informed Monck that the Royal Charles had to be moved upriver. He had been ordered by the Duke of York to do this on 27 June, but as yet had not complied. Monck at first refused to make available some of his small number of sloops, as they were needed to move supplies; when he at last found the captain of the Matthias willing to assist, Pett answered that it was too late as he was busy sinking the blockships and there was no pilot to be found daring enough to take such a risk anyway. Meanwhile the first Dutch frigates to arrive had already begun to move the Edward and Eve away, clearing a channel by nightfall.

Van Ghent’s squadron now advanced up the Medway on 12 June, attacking the English defences at the chain. First, Unity was taken by Van Brakel by assault. Then the fireship Pro Patria under commander Jan Daniëlsz van Rijn broke through the chain (or sailed over it according to some sources). She then destroyed the Matthias by fire. The fireships Catharina and Schiedam attacked the Charles V. The Catharina under commander Hendrik Hendriksz was sunk by the shore batteries but the Schiedam successfully set the Charles V alight. The crew was captured by Van Brakel.

The flagship Royal Charles, with only thirty cannon aboard and abandoned by her skeleton crew when they saw the Matthias burn, was then captured by the Irish flag captain Thomas Tobiasz. Only the Monmouth escaped. Seeing the disaster, Monck ordered the 16 remaining warships farther up to be sunk off to prevent them from being captured, making for a total of about 30 ships deliberately sunk by the English themselves. As Andrew Marvell observed: ‘Of all our navy none should now survive, But that the ships themselves were taught to dive.’ The Dutch anchored in the Medway when the tide turned.

The following day, 13 June, the whole of the Thames side as far up as London was in a panic as a rumour spread that the Dutch were transporting a French army from Dunkirk for a full-scale invasion. Many wealthy citizens fled the city, taking their most valuable possessions with them. Samuel Pepys, secretary of the Naval Board, wrote on the 13th:

No sooner up but hear the sad newes confirmed of the Royall Charles being taken by them, and now in fitting by them – which Pett should have carried up higher by our several orders, and deserves, therefore, to be hanged for not doing it – and turning several others; and that another fleete is come up into the Hope. Upon which newes the King and Duke of York have been below [London Bridge] since four o’clock in the morning, to command the sinking of ships at Barking-Creeke, and other places, to stop their coming up higher: which put me into such a fear, that I presently resolved of my father’s and wife’s going into the country; and, at two hours’ warning, they did go by the coach this day, with about L1300 in gold in their night-bag. … never were people so dejected as they are in the City all over at this day; and do talk most loudly, even treason; as, that we are bought and sold – that we are betrayed by the Papists, and others, about the King; cry out that the office of the Ordnance hath been so backward as no powder to have been at Chatham nor Upnor Castle till such a time, and the carriages all broken; that Legg is a Papist; that Upnor, the old good castle built by Queen Elizabeth, should be lately slighted; that the ships at Chatham should not be carried up higher. They look upon us as lost, and remove their families and rich goods in the City; and do think verily that the French, being come down with his army to Dunkirke, it is to invade us, and that we shall be invaded.

The Dutch continued their advance into the Chatham docks with the fireships Delft, Rotterdam, Draak, Wapen van Londen, Gouden Appel and Princess, under English fire from Upnor Castle and from three shore batteries. Cannon boomed and musketry rattled from Upnor. Dutch frigates suppressed the English fire, but suffered about 40 casualties in dead and wounded. The exposed structures of three of the finest and heaviest vessels in the navy, already sunk to prevent capture, now perished by fire: first the Loyal, set alight by the Rotterdam, then the Royal James and finally the Royal Oak. The latter withstood attempts by two fireships but succumbed to a third. The English crews abandoned their half-flooded ships, mostly without a fight, a notable exception being army Captain Archibald Douglas of the Scots Foot, who personally refused to abandon the Oak and perished in the flames. The Monmouth again escaped. The raid thus cost the English four of their remaining eight ships with more than 75 cannon. Three of the four largest ‘big ships’ of the navy were lost. The fourth, the Royal Sovereign, was safely but uselessly in Portsmouth. De Ruyter now joined Van Ghent’s squadron in person.

Pepys wrote:

Late at night comes Mr. Hudson, the cooper, my neighbour, and tells me that he come from Chatham this evening at five o’clock, and saw this afternoon ‘The Royal James,’ ‘Oake,’ and ‘London,’ burnt by the enemy with their fire-ships: that two or three men-of-war come up with them, and made no more of Upnor Castle’s shooting, than of a fly.

Cornelis de Witt, fearing that the English would finally get themselves organised and counter-attack, on 14 June decided against further penetration and withdrew, towing the Royal Charles along as a war trophy; the Unity was also removed with a prize crew. Dutch demolition teams rowed to any ship they could reach to burn her down as much as they could, thus ensuring their reward money. One boat even re-entered the docks to make sure nothing was left above the waterline of the Oak, James and London; another burnt the merchantman Slot van Honingen, ruining a precious salvage opportunity. The Dutch failed to completely destroy the Chatham dockyard, another missed opportunity. Such destruction could have put back the rebuilding of the English navy by decades.

The Dutch fleet, after celebrating by collectively thanking God for ‘a great victory in a just war in self-defence’ tried to repeat its success by attacking several other ports on the English east coast but was repelled each time.

On 27 June an attempt to enter the Thames beyond Gravesend was called off when it became known that the river was blocked by sunken ships and five fireships awaited the Dutch attack. On 2 July a Dutch force landed near Woodbridge north of Harwich, aiming to take the port, a position of immense strategic importance. But first they had to take the newly constructed Landguard Fort. What happened next did something to restore battered English military pride. Four officers and around 100 men, with 18 heavy cannon, were determined to fight. So, too, were the town militia.

Initially the Dutch fleet, due to unfavourable winds, was forced to sail north off Lowestoft before turning south to launch the attack. As they sailed northwards, the British militia, assuming another raid, marched along the coast shadowing the enemy fleet. When the Dutch turned south again, with a now favourable wind, so did the militia. De Ruyter’s fleet was joined by five troop transports sent out from Holland especially for the Harwich raid, commanded by the experienced Colonel Count van Hoorn. That took the attack force to about 850 infantrymen and 400 marines. The infantry commander was Colonel Thomas Dolman, the Medway veteran who had earlier served in the British army under Cromwell.

On Sunday 30 June, 70 Dutch ships anchored behind the shelter of a large sandbank known as the Gunfleet. The landing force embarked in a small fleet of around 20 small flat-bottomed sailing barges, known as galiots, At noon de Ruyter gave the signal and the galiots started for the shore.

Marines commander Colonel Francois Palm leaped out onto the gently sloping shingle, the first man to land, followed immediately by his men. To their right the infantry also poured ashore, led by Dolman. On the beach, the troops formed up as though on parade, while van Hoorn sent out a scouting party to ascend the low cliffs by a narrow track. Within two hours the Dutch were ashore safely, in good order, and without a shot being fired at them. The scouts brought back two civilian prisoners who told them that the fort’s garrison had been heavily reinforced and that 60 guns faced the raiders. Van Hoorn refused to believe them and ordered the attack.

While the Dutch soldiers of the assault group moved under cover of a large sand dune at around 1400 hours, the footsore English militia were on the wrong side of the River Deben. The river was swift-flowing with a surging tidal current. The militia cavalry trotted eight miles upstream to cross at Woodbridge while the infantry crossed in a tiny ferry-boat capable of carrying barely a dozen men at a time. It was agonisingly slow work in the face of immense danger. De Ruyter ordered forward a few of his galiots, each carrying a small cannon to bombard the 250yd crossing. The part-time British militia were attempting that most difficult military manoeuvre – a river crossing under artillery fire. The crossings were halted when just a few had reached the Dutch side of the estuary. They buried themselves in marsh ditches and waited for the ebb of the tide. As the water receded, the galiots that had been plaguing them were forced farther and farther from the shore until out of range. The river crossing started again at about 1600 hours.

The Dutch troops of the assault group were also forced to wait. The same tidal rush frustrated the Dutch admirals sent to bombard Harwich and Landguard Fort from the south and east. Their arrival in the selected firing positions with their squadrons coincided with the fall of the tide, and they too were forced out of range – even the largest cannon on the ships could barely reach the walls of the fort. The Dutch assault force was denied the flanking fire designed to keep the defenders’ heads down. The English had also removed all the marker buoys from the Harwich channels, so that the Dutch sailors had to navigate by memory and guesswork. Admiral van Nes’s flagship, the Delft, ran aground and had to be laboriously towed off later. The Dutch ships withdrew and most of their sailors were sent to reinforce the soldiers on land.

Soon after 1600 hours – just as the falling tide allowed the militia to the north to resume their interrupted river crossing – the Dutch soldiers, marines and sailors started their attack. The soldiers were organised in 18 infantry half-companies of about 48 men each, disposed in four sections, each with four grenadiers, the rest being musketeers and pikemen. The marines were all armed with carbines – short flintlock muskets much like the old firelocks.

Surprised by the sheer volume of musket fire poured at them, the vast majority of Dutch soldiers and sailors simply refused to leave the shelter of the dunes. Their musketeers, trying to fire from behind cover, tended to fire high. Some did make several gallant assaults against the walls, using their fascines to fill the ditch and their ladders to scale the walls. None made it to the top. At around 1730 the Dutch began to melt away, but officers rallied sufficient of the braver men for a second major assault. That, too, failed. At 1800 the attack on Landguard Fort was called off and the Dutch retreated towards the beaches.

Part of the volume of fire which had so surprised and dispirited the Dutch troops came from a tiny galiot the British had sailed to the harbour mouth. This vessel used grapeshot to great effect on the retreating Dutch. Having run that gauntlet, Colonel Dolman’s men made it to the beach, only to confront another threat. The English militia had come together and a mixed force of 1,500 infantry and cavalry were on high ground to the north challenging the Dutch flank guard. A separate two-hour battle now ensued as the Dutch used their musketeers to keep the British at bay, with small groups of men from both sides creeping around trying to out-manoeuvre each other. The British attempred to lure the Dutch forward from their lines by feigning a withdrawal, but instead the Dutch maintained the fire of their small portable cannon, using grapeshot against the infantry and round-shot against the cavalry. This harassing artillery fire was so effective that the British cavalry were unable to form up for a charge. Sunset ended the battle. At about 2030 hours the Dutch used the deepening darkness to disengage in a display of professional skill and they were all re-embarked by around 2200.

The casualties were never recorded properly by either side. One Dutch report listed ‘7 dead and 35 wounded in the whole fleet’, which does not accord with a British eye-witness account of ‘boat-loads of Dutch dead’ being rowed out to the ships. More believable is that the Dutch casualties were seven dead and 35 wounded in the ships themselves, while the soldiers and marines ashore suffered perhaps eight dead and 30–40 wounded at the fort. British casualties were very precisely numbered at the fort as one dead and four wounded, including their commander, Captain Nathaniel Darell, who received a musket ball through his shoulder. But, like the Dutch, there was no record of casualties during the withdrawal or in the battle with the enemy flank guard. The best guesses, given the nature of the battle, are 12–15 British killed and 20 wounded, and eight Dutch dead and 20 wounded. For the British it was a small price to pay for repelling the last opposed seaborne invasion of England.

Despite that Dutch failure, panic still ruled in London amongst the ruling class. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on 19 July 1667: ‘The Dutch fleete are in great squadrons everywhere still about Harwich, and were lately at Portsmouth; and the last letters say at Plymouth, and now gone to Dartmouth to destroy our Streights’ fleete lately got in thither; but God knows whether they can do it any hurt, or no, but it was pretty news come the other day so fast, of the Dutch fleets being in so many places, that Sir W. Batten at table cried, By God, says he, I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.’ And on 29 July 1667: ‘Thus in all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side’.

Wharf official John Norman estimated the damage caused by the Medway raid at about £20,000, apart from the replacement costs of the four lost capital ships; the total loss of the Royal Navy must have been close to £200,000. Pett was made a scapegoat, bailed at £5,000 and deprived of his office while those who had ignored his earlier warnings quietly escaped any blame. The Royal James, Oak and Loyal London were in the end salvaged and rebuilt, but at great cost and when the City of London refused to share in it, Charles had the name of the latter ship changed to simply London. For a few years the English fleet was handicapped by its losses during the raid, but by around 1670 a new building programme had restored the English navy to its former power.

Total losses for the Dutch were eight spent fireships and about 50 casualties. In the Republic, the populace was jubilant after the victory; many festivities were held, repeated when the fleet returned in October, the various admirals being hailed as heroes. They were rewarded by a flood of eulogies and given honorary golden chains and pensions by the States-General and the lesser States of the Provinces; de Ruyter, Cornelis de Witt and Van Ghent were honoured by precious enamelled golden chalices depicting the events. Cornelis de Witt had a large ‘Sea Triumph’ painted, with himself as the main subject. This triumphalism by de Witt’s States faction caused resentment with the rival Orangist faction; when the States regime lost power in 1672, Cornelis’s head was to be ceremoniously carved out from the painting, after Charles had for some years insisted the picture would be removed.

The Dutch success in the Medway had a major psychological impact throughout England, with London feeling especially vulnerable just a year after the Great Fire. This, together with the cost of the war, of the Great Plague and the extravagant spending of Charles’s court, produced a rebellious atmosphere in London. Clarendon ordered the English envoys at Breda to sign a peace quickly, as Charles feared an open revolt.

On 31 July 1667, the Treaty of Breda sealed peace between the two nations. The treaty allowed the English to keep 27 possession of New Netherlands, which they renamed New York, while the Dutch kept control of the valuable sugar plantations of Surinam they had conquered in 1667.

The Raid on the Medway was a serious blow to the reputation of the English crown. Charles felt personally offended by the fact the Dutch had attacked while he had laid up his fleet and peace negotiations were in progress, conveniently forgetting he himself had not negotiated in good faith. His resentment was one of the causes of the Third Anglo-Dutch war, as it made him enter into the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV of France. In the nineteenth century, jingoistic British writers expanded on this theme by suggesting it had been the Dutch who had sued for peace after their defeats in 1666 – although in fact these had made them, if anything, more belligerent – and that only by treacherously attacking the English had they been able to gain a victory.

The Republic was jubilant about the Dutch victory and the peace was generally seen as a personal triumph for de Witt. He consolidated his political power at home and reduced the powers of difficult provinces. But de Witt’s success would sow the seeds of his eventual downfall and nearly that of the Republic with him. Charles and Louis, both humiliated in turn, intensified their secret cooperation and would, joined by the bishop of Münster, attack the Dutch in 1672. De Witt was unable to counter this attack, as he could not create a strong Dutch army for lack of money and fear that it would strengthen the position of the young William III. That same year de Witt was assassinated and William became stadtholder.

The Royal Charles, her draught too deep to be of use in the shallow Dutch waters, was permanently drydocked near Hellevoetsluis as a tourist attraction, with day trips being organised for large parties, often of foreign state guests. After vehement protests by Charles that this insulted his honour, the official visits were ended and Royal Charles was eventually scrapped in 1672.

In 1676 de Ruyter took command of a combined Dutch-Spanish fleet to help the Spanish suppress the Messina revolt and twice fought a French fleet. At the Battle of Agosta a cannonball mangled his left leg. He died on 29 April 1676. He was given a full state funeral and buried in Amsterdam.

The Medway debacle, a humiliation for Britain’s military might, led to a major overhaul of coastal defences. Over 15 years, enormous sums were spent in both the Medway and the Thames, and in Portsmouth, Plymouth, Hull and Tynemouth. Many fortifications were designed by the country’s famed chief engineer, Sir Bernard de Gomme. Squat forts bristling with ordnance covered the main estuaries and waterways. In military circles, the lessons were learnt and never forgotten.

During the Second World War, on 14 December 1941, the Dutch minelayer Jan van Brakel hit the anchor buoy of one of the vessels protecting the entrance to the Medway. The commander reported this incident to the port authorities, signalling: ‘Van Brakel damaged boom defence Medway’. The instant reply was: ‘What, again?’

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