Spanish Naval Power Under Philip V – The Role of the Fleet

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Philip V

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The Battle of Cape Passaro (or Passero) was the defeat of a Spanish fleet under Admirals Antonio de Gaztañeta and Fernando Chacón by a British fleet under Admiral George Byng, near Cape Passero, Sicily, on 11 August 1718, four months before the War of the Quadruple Alliance was formally declared.

As under the Habsburgs, Spanish naval power under Philip V had three main functions within this larger strategy: combat, escort, and transport, and the maintenance of the royal reputation, or gloire. Thus the size of Philip V’s contribution to the Anglo–Spanish force sent to Italy in 1731 in part reflected Patiño’s determination that no unfavourable comparison should be made between the British and Spanish contingents, mirroring in turn both ministerial amour propre and the role of the fleet in projecting Philip’s reputation. The following year Philip’s galleys forced those of the king of Sardinia to salute their master’s standard off La Spezia, triggering a diplomatic row.

Spats over salutes rarely led to combat. In fact, combat meant many things. Major engagements such as artillery duels and close encounter between battle fleets were rare; there were only two of note in this period. The first was that at Cape Passaro in 1718, when the British fleet captured eleven and destroyed three of the original twenty-one Spanish ships present. The second was the engagement off Toulon in 1744, after which the British fleet retreated briefly to Port Mahon for repairs. The Spanish court seized the opportunity to order the transport by sea of between six and eight thousand men to Monaco for the conquest of Nice, for which Navarro, the Spanish squadron commander, was rewarded by Philip with the title marqués de la Victoria. To facilitate engagement, ships carried both guns (below) and troops, including the marines created in 1717. This corps doubled in size from five battalions in 1728 to ten in 1741 but was reduced to eight in the general reform, that is, the reduction, which followed the peace of 1748.

At sea, however, as on land, far more typical than the major encounter between rival battle fleets were the minor engagements involving a few, generally small vessels. Dog fights of this sort were the essence of the struggle against the Moors. In 1728 the galleys captured a Moorish frigate in such an encounter. Demonstrating the web of interests connected with these operations, the dean and chapter of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela later complained that their privilege, a medieval grant confirmed by Philip V of a share of the prize equivalent to a cavalryman’s ration had not been respected. Philip ordered that they receive their due. But such clashes were not confined to the struggle against Spain’s Islamic foe, as was shown in 1735, when, during the War of the Polish Succession, the galleys San Felipe and Soledad captured two enemy corsairs.

Philip V’s fleet, reflecting his revanchist policy and the need this implied to take the fight to the enemy, played, as noted earlier, a much more offensive role than that of his Habsburg predecessor Charles II. But there was far more to offensive operations at sea than combat. In the Mediterranean the fleet contributed to the success of operations in a variety of ways. On occasion the arrival of naval forces in strength rendered further military operations unnecessary: thus the appearance in 1734 of the conde de Clavijo’s squadron off the Neapolitan coast triggered declarations in favour of Philip V and Don Carlos by the neighbouring islands of Ischia and Procida, contributing in this way to the rapid conquest of Naples and Sicily. Where operations were necessary, the fleet could both defend Spanish supply lines and disrupt those of the enemy. In 1717, for example, the galleys prevented the landing of Austrian reinforcements in Sardinia, in 1719 they captured a Neapolitan troop transport, and in 1734, during the War of the Polish Succession, D. Gabriel Pérez Alderete’s squadron intercepted in the gulf of Taranto reinforcements intended to shore up the collapsing imperial position in Naples, Pérez Alderete being rewarded for his operations in the Adriatic with a Castilian title. The fleet also aided the war on land in other ways: in Sardinia in 1717 the Spanish naval forces isolated Alghero by sea while the army laid siege to it, and in 1718 blockaded the Sicilian towns of Siracusa and Trapani; almost two decades later, in 1734, D. José Alfonso de Pizarro’s squadron cut off Messina, as Sicily was again conquered.

Of far greater import, however, in terms of the fleet’s contribution to successful intervention in Italy and Africa, was its role as convoy or escort. Uztáriz understood this function. Of his suggested force of seventy ships (above), twenty (twelve ships of the line and eight frigates) were to be employed in the Indies trade, that is, as Atlantic escort. Such activity included the regular supply by sea of the presidios of north Africa and Porto Longone, for whom the maritime link with Spain was crucial. But the fleet really came into its own in this respect in Philip’s major amphibian operations, when troops and supplies had to be ferried to their overseas destination and put ashore; and, should operations continue, to carry on transporting reinforcements, provisions, and so on until the end of the conflict, when they would ferry men and matériel back to Spain. The first cycle of intervention in Italy and Africa between 1717 and 1720 saw the royal fleet scurrying around the western Mediterranean on escort duties. In 1717, for example, the landing in Sardinia was made under cover of the guns of the naval escort, as was that in Sicily the next year. In the succeeding years the occupying Spanish forces on those two islands depended enormously on supply from Spain and elsewhere by sea and were left stranded by the destruction of the fleet at Cape Passaro. The Oran expedition of 1732 was another major naval enterprise, the Spanish success there owing a great deal to the speed with which the naval forces put men and matériel ashore. As for the War of the Polish Succession, after the initial seaborne intervention in Italy in 1733 the troops were continually supplied from Spain with reinforcements, provisions, and money. Transportation was among the chief concerns of the intendant general of the expeditionary force, José Campillo, throughout the conflict. In the War of the Austrian Succession, too, following the initial convoy of expeditionary forces there in 1741–42, each succeeding spring saw the carriage by sea to Italy of recruits and of war matériel. There was a massive supply operation like this one before the successful campaign of 1745.

Most of this transferral was the achievement of numerous small craft, many from France and Naples. The main Spanish Mediterranean force, bottled up in Toulon from 1742 and from the spring of 1744 in Cartagena, played virtually no part, not seeking again after Toulon to confront the British fleet or to convoy a major force from Spain to Italy, not even when the British fleet was temporarily weakened or when, as in 1746, the allied invasion of Provence and the Genoese revolt offered incentives and pressures to send out the fleet. Instead, men continued to go overland or on small craft, while both the Spaniards and the British—the latter in part influenced by the inactivity of the former—reduced their presence in the Mediterranean, in this sense reverting to an earlier pattern of priorities: three vessels were despatched from Cartagena to Cádiz in late 1746 to escort the returning Caracas fleet. Changes in Spain’s political direction, among them the accession of Ferdinand VI earlier that year, may also have played some part in the failure of the Cartagena squadron to exploit its opportunities. Other, structural factors affected Spain’s strategy at sea as well.

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