Destroying the Enemy’s Forces by a Decisive Action at Sea I

The Battle of Iquique (Spanish: Batalla de Iquique or Combate Naval de Iquique) was a confrontation that occurred on 21 May 1879, during the naval stage of the War of the Pacific, a conflict that pitted Chile against Peru and Bolivia. The battle took place off the then-Peruvian port of Iquique. The Peruvian ironclad Huáscar, commanded by Miguel Grau Seminario, sank Esmeralda, a Chilean wooden corvette captained by Arturo Prat Chacón, after four hours of combat.

The destruction of the enemy’s naval forces could be accomplished by a decisive action or their weakening over time. Normally, these two methods are used in combination. The most effective but also most difficult method is by engaging a major part of the enemy forces at sea and/or their bases and destroying them in a short and decisive action. A decisive action should be optimally executed at the beginning of the hostilities at sea. Until the advent of submarines and aircraft, control of the sea was obtained by destroying enemy surface ships. Today, this objective is more difficult to accomplish because control of the surface could be disputed also by enemy submarines, aircraft, and mines.

In the past, a decisive naval battle was considered the principal method of employment of naval forces to obtain control of the sea. A decisive naval battle was understood as a clash between major parts of the opposing fleets that results in such damage to one side that it drastically changes naval situation. Still, what mattered the most were not initial intent and the losses inflicted on the opposing fleet or one’s losses but whether the ultimate objective was actually accomplished. Sometimes one side inflicted larger losses in materiel and personnel, but that did not necessarily mean that the ultimate objective was accomplished; the opposite was also true. In several notable cases, the results of a decisive naval battle were inconclusive, but one side was able to accomplish its ultimate objective. In a war between two numerically weak fleets, the loss of even a single or a few ships might have a decisive effect on the course of a war at sea, as the example of the War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru/Bolivia (1879–1883) shows.

Naval classical thinkers emphasized the critical importance of a decisive naval battle for obtaining control of the sea. Mahan was perhaps the most consistent and strongest believer in the absolute importance of a decisive battle. He claimed that control of the sea’s communications could be obtained only through “decisive battle.” Mahan stressed that the “fleet’s destruction is an essential prerequisite for the conquest of the enemy’s territory and attack on his commerce. The same result would be achieved, though less conclusively and less permanently if the enemy fleet is reduced to inactivity by the immediate presence of a superior force.” Similarly, Admiral Philip Howard Colomb (1831–1899) believed that “…it serves no purpose to try to obtain the mastery of the sea by any means than by battle and this is so serious that no other objective can be put in comparison with it.”

Castex agreed with Mahan that the enemy “fleet must be defeated in order to obtain command of the sea.” He observed that one’s actions should be directed against the enemy fleet because its destruction “will very probably irreparably compromise the rest of the enemy’s organization.” The best method of disposing of the enemy fleet is to wage a decisive naval battle. In case the enemy chooses to “shut himself up in a port,” then he should be tightly blockaded in order to prevent his escape or “…to force him to do battle as soon as possible if he does.” After having dealt with the enemy fleet, the stronger fleet can exercise command of the sea. Yet Castex also cautioned that the stronger fleet should not exercise command of the sea prematurely because that might undermine the freedom of action essential to the destruction of the enemy fleet.

French Navy captain and well-known theoretician René Daveluy (1863–1939) emphasized that to “reduce an enemy to impotence it is necessary to disarm it, that is to say, destroy the established force which is a guarantee of its power. The necessity of attacking the established force of an enemy leads directly to battle.” Another French Navy captain, Gabriel Darrieus (1859–1931), wrote that to consider the fleet of the enemy as the principal force that must be destroyed or reduced to impotence is to fulfill most surely the object of the war.

A well-known and influential British theorist, Admiral Herbert Richmond (1871–1946), wrote that the “the first and fundamental step toward gaining the command of the sea is always the destruction of the massed forces of the enemy. If these forces are unwilling to fight, the possibility exists of putting the enemy in the dilemma of either fighting at what may appear to him as a disadvantage or of sacrificing some essential element in his national economy, trade, a vital position, or the assistance of an ally.”

In contrast to Mahan and other classical naval thinkers, Corbett contended that to obtain command, it is not always necessary to fight a decisive naval battle. He wrote that “under certain conditions, it may not be the primary function of the fleet to seek out the enemy’s fleet and destroy it, because general command may be in dispute, while local command may be with us, and political or military considerations may demand for us an operation for which such local command is sufficient, and which cannot be delayed until we have obtained a complete decision.” However, Corbett erred because one cannot obtain local control of the sea without destroying at least a part of the enemy fleet. A stronger side should also avoid the state of disputed, or contested, control. Experience shows that, as in a war on land or in the air, the best way to proceed is in most cases to focus one’s efforts on destroying the strongest part of the enemy forces – or the enemy’s operational center of gravity. Once this is successfully accomplished, a stronger side would not have great difficulties in accomplishing other operational tasks. Corbett also noted that as long as the weaker fleet remains in existence, it will try to avoid a major clash with its superior opponent. This is probably true. But, again, a stronger side should not just accept that situation without trying to entice or lure a weaker side into a major clash.

Corbett also emphasized difficulties in seeking a decisive battle. He wrote that in land warfare, it is possible to specify with some precision the limits and direction of the enemy movements because they are determined by roads and physical obstacles. This is not the case at sea. In Corbett’s view, “seeking to strike out at the enemy at sea the chance is greater that we would miss him. However, experience shows that only a few decisive naval battles have taken place far from the shore. Hence, it was very rare that the opposing fleets did not locate the whereabouts of each other.

In the seventeenth century, opposing fleets fought major battles with a large number of ships of the line. For example, in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), each side in a battle had on average some 70 to 120 ships. However, with the increased size, seaworthiness, and greater effectiveness of guns, fleets became numerically smaller. For example, in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, the British had only 27 ships of the line against the Franco-Spanish fleet of 33 ships of the line. The ships of the line were the mainstay of the battle fleets in 1652, as they were in 1805. Yet their lethality was, of course, far less than that of first-rate ships of the line in Nelson’s times.

In the era of the oar/sail, a large number of major naval battles were fought. By the eighteenth century, the number of major battles in a war was progressively reduced because the ships of the line became larger, and hence it took much longer time to build them than it did in the seventeenth century. Normally, a decisive naval battle was fought in a single day and lasted for only a few hours. However, in several notable examples, decisive results were achieved by fighting a series of successive minor tactical actions spread over two or more days and sometimes over a relatively large part of a given maritime theater. For example, the British victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588 was achieved through a series of small-scale clashes conducted over seven days in the English Channel. Afterward, a large number of the Spanish ships wrecked in stormy weather while rounding Scotland and Ireland.

In the era of oar/sail, relatively few ships were sunk in major naval battles; most of them were captured. For example, the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–1654; 1665–1667; 1672–1674; the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War was in 1780–1784) were perhaps the bloodiest of all naval wars; not many ships of the line were sunk, but great damage was inflicted, on both sides, to the masts and riggings and personnel. Only a few commanders, notably Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaanszoon de Ruyter (1607–1676) and the Danish Admiral Niels Juel (1629–1697), inflicted disproportionate losses on their enemies. In most cases, major parts of the opposing fleets escaped to fight again.

Prior to the era of steam, only relatively few major naval battles were “decisive,” that is, either resulting in the destruction of a major part of the enemy fleet or having decisive results on the course and outcome of war at sea or on land. Yet in several cases, a decisive naval battle had a major impact on the course or even outcome of the war on land. In a few notable cases, as, for example, the battles of Salamis in 480 bc and Actium in 31 bc, it has changed world history. However, the decisiveness of a major naval battle apparently declined in the medieval era. As the Anglo-Dutch Wars show, a strong opponent was able to relatively quickly reconstitute its navy and then resume struggle for disputing command of the sea. In the War of Grand Alliance, 1688–1697, naval battles became less decisive than they were in the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Although the French Navy had a combined strength of the British and the Dutch navies, it missed every opportunity to achieve a decisive victory.

A major reason for the lack of decisiveness of naval battles was the relatively low effectiveness of the shipboard guns and the rigid application of the line ahead formation. For more than one hundred years, a war at sea had shown the futility of fighting in an unbroken line ahead with van, center, and rear trying to engage the respective parts of the enemy line. One of the reasons for such a profound lack of thinking was the general lack of interest in the theory of naval tactics by many naval officers. Corbett observed that the reason for the sterility of naval tactics in that era was that “unintelligent admirals, pedantically absorbed in preserving their formation, contented themselves with fighting ship to ship and trying to manoeuvre for a concentration on part of their adversaries’ line.” He claimed that the system of engaging two battle lines was fully adopted in the Battle of Texel in 1665 (fought on 13 June). It replaced the older system of fighting in groups of ships.

The situation gradually changed for the better in the late eighteenth century when some aggressive and very innovative commanders, specifically British admirals Edward Hawke (1705–1781), Samuel Hood (1724–1816), John Jervis (1735–1823), Adam Duncan (1731–1804), and above all Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), introduced tactical innovations that allowed for far more decisive results. They used maneuver to achieve local concentration and attack exposed parts of the enemy fleet.

In fact, it was a Scottish landlubber and amateur scientist, John Clerk of Eldin, who, in his book Essay on Naval Tactics, Systematical and Historical (written in 1779 and published in 1782), gave an answer on how to improve tactics of the battle line. Clerk analyzed fighting instructions and concluded that the Royal Navy’s naval tactics were all wrong.  He pointed out that during the Anglo-Dutch Wars, naval instructions were much improved but that they were “…admirably fitted for fighting in narrow seas, where these battles were fought but not for bringing on an action with a fleet of French ships, unwilling to stand a shock, having sea room to range in at pleasure, and desirous to plays off maneuvers of defence, long studied with the greatest attention.” Clerk argued that decisive action can be fought only by concentrating superior forces on weaker forces. In other words, decisive victories could be won only by close, concentrated fighting. Yet his book met with derision by admirals, who believed that they cannot be taught by an amateur. According to some sources, Nelson read Clerk’s book. In fact, the commanding officer (CO) of Admiral Nelson’s flagship Victory, Captain (later Vice Admiral) Thomas M. Hardy (1769–1839), stated that

Lord Nelson, read Mr. Clerk’s works with great attention and frequently expressed his approbation of them in the fullest manner. He also recommended all the captains to read them with attention and said that many good things might be taken from them. He most approved of the attack from to-windward, and considered that breaking through the enemy’s line as absolutely necessary to obtain a great victory.

Major changes in the way of how to fight war at sea had its origins in the English Navy (renamed the Royal Navy in 1660). During the Anglo-Dutch Wars a belief took hold in the English Navy that, in a war at sea, one’s efforts should be focused on the enemy fleet, not on maritime trade, and thereby on destroying the enemy’s power of resistance. Such warfare required the effective use of state-owned ships specialized for war with as little as possible assistance from privately owned ships. It required discipline, fleet tactics, and a navy of warships to make war in the modern sense of the term. The experience in combat led the Royal Navy to adopt the first Articles of War that provided statutory regulations regarding the Royal Navy’s crews. The first fighting instructions were issued in 1678. They were revised several times (in 1688, 1690, 1695, and 1702) to allow more initiative on the part of subordinate commanders. The first Permanent Sailing and Fighting Instructions was issued in 1703 during the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714). They were for the first time used in the naval battle of Málaga on 24 August 1704 and with slight modifications until 1783.

The first three Anglo-Dutch Wars had a major influence on the evolution of the concept of the control of the sea. In the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654), the British attacked the Dutch convoys and blockaded the Dutch coast. Naval battles came as result of one side or the other trying to protect a convoy or making a way free for the convoy. Reportedly, the Dutch Admiral Maarten Tromp (1598–1653) was the first who realized in 1653 the best way to protect a large convoy is to obtain command of the sea.

In the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667), the Dutch partially stopped their maritime traffic. Both sides tried to obtain command of the sea. Only afterward they would attack maritime trade and blockade the enemy coast. In the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672–1674), the British and the French attempted to threaten Holland with seaborne invasion in addition to land invasion. A defender was much more under threat than in the previous wars. The struggle for control of the sea in the intervening waters was much more important than in the previous wars. The Anglo-French fleet had to transport and land an invasion army. The Dutch were forced on the defensive because they had a smaller fleet. Hence, they had to make greater efforts to obtain sea control.

Corbett wrote that the English focus of fighting a decisive action in the First Anglo-Dutch War was carried to the extreme. Not much thought was given to exercising control of the sea. Also, the British emphasis on offensive action was the main cause for neglecting the need to sustain combat by bringing in fresh reinforcements. Hence, the British Navy suffered from exhaustion. After the battle, its fleet had to return to its home bases. In some major naval battles, the British inflicted larger losses on the enemy fleet but either failed or were unable to pursue the Dutch fleet. This, in turn, gave the Dutch sufficient freedom of action not only to secure their maritime trade but also to deliver severe blows on British trade. The question was how to induce the Dutch to fight a decisive action. To seek the enemy off his coast and thereby force him to leave his protected bases would not lead to a decisive action. One way was to attack the enemy maritime traffic instead of carrying out sporadic attacks. An effort to stop completely the enemy trade but far away from his coast led to a major naval battle, as the example of the Four Days’ Battle in June 1666 illustrates. In the Seven Years’ War, Admiral George Anson (1697–1762) tried for two years to secure a decision by seeking out the enemy fleet. Yet he failed, and the British fleet was exhausted.

In a war between two strong opponents, a single or even several major naval battles did not necessarily secure absolute and permanent control of the sea. As the example of the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars illustrate, a strong opponent was able to relatively quickly reconstitute its fleet and then resume the struggle for disputing command of the sea. Sometimes, a weaker fleet was still able to challenge the presence of the stronger fleet even after suffering a major defeat. But even when a weaker fleet was kept under observation, it did not follow that a stronger fleet had secured undisputed control of the sea. An active and energetic enemy, operating from a long coastline endowed with numerous harbors, invariably would take the opportunity to launch attacks and cause a diversion of one’s efforts. For example, the Royal Navy, after its great victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, still faced the threat posed by the remaining French/Spanish naval forces. Between November 1805 and June 1815, some 87 warships were sunk or captured by the enemy. Also, the victory at Trafalgar did not negate the need to escort merchant ships. In another example, Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō (1848–1934) had to keep close watch on the movements of the remaining Russian ships based at Port Arthur and Vladivostok after his decisive victory at Tsushima in May 1905. The experience also shows that decisive victories at sea were largely wasted if the remnants of the enemy fleet were left at large or if not followed by an invasion of enemy-held territories.

In the era of oar/sail and the early era of steam, most major battles that turned out to have a “decisive” result occurred when one or both sides were carrying out missions that are today considered part of exercising sea control. Most major battles that had decisive results took place while one of the fleets provided cover for or attempted to prevent a large landing, supported army troops operating in the coastal area, protected/attacked a large convoy, or imposed/lifted a naval blockade. In contrast, attacks aimed to destroy an enemy fleet in its anchorage/port did not happen by an accident. Also planned were major battles aimed to prevent an enemy large-scale seaborne invasion, as the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 illustrates.

In the era of sail, a large number of major battles between the opposing surface ships took place because of the need to defend/attack convoys of merchant shipping. This was especially the case during the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars. For example, in the inconclusive battle off Plymouth on 26 August 1652, both the British and the Dutch claimed victory. Admiral Michiel de Ruyter commanded 30 warships while the British General-at-Sea George Ayscue (ca. 1616–1671) had 40 large warships, eight smaller and four fireships. The Dutch lost more people, but the British fleet suffered more damage. In the aftermath of the battle, Ayscue sailed for Plymouth while de Ruyter assembled the convoy and sailed home.

In the Battle of Kentish Knock on 8 October 1652, the Dutch fleet of 64 warships led by Admirals de Ruyter and Johan de Witt (1625–1672) engaged some  British warships under General-at-sea Robert Blake (1598–1657). This battle took place in the areas between Dunkirk and Nieuwpoort. The British claimed to have captured two Dutch warships, and one was burned at no losses for themselves. The Dutch sources claimed 600 dead and wounded and heavy damages to the British ships. De Witt wanted to resume the fight the next day, but a war council decided against doing so because of damages on other Dutch ships. The next day (9 October), the British attempted to pursue the Dutch fleet but abandoned the chase because of the shallows close to the Dutch coast. De Witt’s attempt to secure the Dutch maritime trade by attack on the enemy naval force failed. In the aftermath of the battle, the British had greater control of the English Channel.

One of the most decisive naval battles of the First Anglo-Dutch War was fought off Dungeness on 10 December 1652. Because of their victory in the Battle at Kentish Knock, the British expected (wrongly) that the Dutch would not be able to repair their damages and would not reappear at sea. In the meantime, a small English squadron in the Mediterranean was worsted by the Dutch squadron, and the English Mediterranean trade became wholly unprotected. Hence, the British detached some 20 ships to the Mediterranean. This proved to be a big mistake. On 9 December, Blake, with only 37 warships and some small craft, was at Dover when Admiral Tromp, with a fleet of 73 warships plus small craft and fireships, left a 300-ship convoy off the Flemish coast and appeared near Goodwin-Sands. Both fleets clashed the next day at Dungeness. Blake lost five warships (two were captured and three sunk), while Dutch lost only a single ship. For some reason, Tromp did not try to pursue and complete the destruction of the enemy fleet. Such energetic warfare was unknown to him. He was mainly concerned with the safety of the convoy and was satisfied with partial success in the battle.

After the battle off Dungeness, control of the English Channel was for a few weeks in Dutch hands. The English ships were driven into the Thames Estuary. The port of London was closed. The British trade in the Channel was brought to a standstill. The lessons of dividing a fleet were not lost on the British. Afterward, they focused their efforts on defeating the enemy main body, and their Dutch opponents did the same. The Dutch concluded that their fleet should not escort large convoys in the Channel and narrow seas in the presence of a strong British fleet. As for the British, they put all their energies into strengthening their navy and on maintaining superiority in the decisive area.

The situation changed for the better for the British in the aftermath of their victory in the three-day Battle of Portland on 28 February–2 March 1653. This was one of the most decisive battles aimed to protect a large convoy. It encompassed the sea area from Portland to Cap Gris-Nez. The British had ready some 70 warships, many of them newly built. This fleet was under the command of three generals-at-sea: Robert Blake (2598–1657), Richard Deane (1610–1653), and George Monck (1608–1670). Admiral Maarten Tromp (1598–1653) had some 80 ships. Tromp also had the problem of protecting a 250-ship convoy. The Dutch acknowledged the loss of three ships sunk, one captured, and several others burned. The British losses were a single ship sunk and several others, including three or four large warships, damaged. The Dutch had 1,500–2,000 men killed, while the British had some 2,000 dead and wounded. Both sides had large personnel losses. On the last day of the battle, on 1 March near the Isle of Wight, the British captured two Dutch warships and 10 to 12 merchant ships. Many ships that subsequently left the convoy were captured by the British. On 2 March, more Dutch ships were destroyed or captured. By the end of the day, both fleets were near Cap Gris-Nez. The Dutch losses in these three days of fighting were about a dozen warships while the British lost only a single ship. Other sources claimed that the Dutch lost only four warships and 30 merchant vessels; the rest of the convoy managed to escape. The result of this battle was unfavorable for the Dutch because the British fleet obtained control of the Channel.

In the aftermath of the victory at Outer Gabbard in 2-3 June 1653, Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland) demanded the loss of Holland’s sovereignty as the price for peace. The Dutch were unwilling to accept that demand and raised a new fleet to lift the British blockade of their coast. On 8 August 1653, Admiral Tromp with 90 ships came to fight Monck with 100 ships at Katwijk. Tromp was joined the next day by a squadron under de Witt from Texel in the vicinity of Scheveningen. The Dutch penetrated the British blockading line, and in the subsequent mêlée both fleets suffered great losses. The Dutch lost 12 to 13 ships, 500 killed, 700 wounded, plus 700 captured. The British had half of the Dutch losses in ships. Monck won a big victory, but he was unable to conduct a pursuit. He had to leave for England to reconstitute his forces and thereby was forced to lift the blockade of the Dutch coast. This was then used by the Dutch to bring in a large convoy from the Sund and Norway.

Several decisive battles resulted in obtaining local control of the sea, although initially the main purpose was to support a landing on a hostile shore. For example, the Battle of Mylae (Milazzo today) in 260 bc during the First Punic War (264–241 bc) took place when the Roman fleet of some 130 ships led by Second Consul Gaius Duilius was on its way to land troops in Sicily. The Roman fleet was opposed by the Carthaginian fleet of some 120–130 ships under Hannibal Gisco (c. 300-290–258 BC). The Carthaginians were overly confident in their better seamanship and had contempt for the Romans as sailors. The Romans were using for the first time the corvus, a boarding device that allowed them to transform the fight at sea into land combat. They were successful in grappling some 50 Carthaginian ships, while the remainder of the Carthaginian fleet escaped. Duilius did not pursue the Carthaginians but instead sailed to the western tip of Sicily, where he landed troops just in time to relieve Segesta (Calatafimi-Segesta, southeast of today’s Trapani), which was under siege by the Carthaginian commander Hamilcar Barca (ca. 275–228 BC). Afterward, First Consul Lucius Cornelius Scipio (b. ca. 300 BC) landed on Corsica and captured the city of Aléria and expelled the Carthaginians. In 258 bc, Second Consul Gaius Sulpicius Paterculus made several successful attacks on the African coast.

In the Battle of Cape Ecnomus (Poggio di Sant’Angelo, Licata, Sicily, today) in 256 bc, the Roman fleet achieved a decisive victory. Despite vastly exaggerated claims, both the Roman and the Carthaginian fleets probably did not include more than 100 ships. The Carthaginians lost some 30 ships, and 64 other ships were captured, while the Romans lost only 24 ships. The Carthaginian fleet left the area while the Roman fleet returned to Sicily to rest its crews, repair the ships, and repair as many as possible captured enemy ships. After few days of refit on Sicily, the Romans resumed sailing and landed their army on the coast of Africa. However, they were not particularly successful on land. After few years, the Carthaginians restored their strength.

The Battle at Actium

The Battle at Actium on 2 September 31 bc during the Roman Civil War (32–30 bc) between the two leaders of the Second Triumvirate, Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) (the third triumvir was Aemilius Lepidus) had a decisive effect on the subsequent history of Rome and Western Civilization. Antony (83–30 bc) was assigned to rule Rome’s eastern provinces including Ptolomaic Egypt, ruled by Queen Cleopatra. His military and naval resources were drawn from Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. However, he had to leave a strong occupation force in these territories (four legions in Cyrenaica, four in Egypt, and three in Syria). Antony depended on the sea for supplying his army in Epirus. He was unable to carry the war to Italy without possessing control of the sea. His army of about 100,000 men marched from Macedonia to the shore of the Gulf of Ambracia (also known as the Gulf of Arta). Antony’s fleet consisted of about 800 ships, including 500 warships (200 were provided by Cleopatra). He embarked some 20,000 legionaries onboard his ships and burned all the ships for which he lacked personnel.

Octavian’s naval commander, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa commanded some 230 beaked ships and 30 unbeaked. The majority of his ships were triremes and quadriremes. Many were light, swift galleys – liburnae (built by the Dalmatian pirates).

In the ensuing battle, Antony lost some 200 ships while about 5,000 men were killed. Cleopatra and Antony fled the scene of battle with about 60 ships. Afterward, the opposing armies faced each other for one week before terms of surrender were agreed. After Antony’s legions in Cyrenaica and Syria heard about the defeat in the battle of Actium, they went over to Octavian. It took Octavian another year before he invaded Egypt and finally defeated Antony.

Octavian’s victory in the battle at Actium transformed the Mediterranean into a Roman lake and established Pax Romana on both land and sea. It secured the unity of the Roman Empire for some three hundred years and saved the Roman Empire from probable dissolution. For the first time in history, a single people held absolute sway over the entire Mediterranean.


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