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

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.

One of the most important decisive naval battles in history was the British defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The strategic objective of the Spanish King Phillip II (1527–1598) was to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) and the Tudor dynasty and rule England by force. The main reason for Phillip II’s decision to invade was to stop England’s interference and subsidies to rebels in the Spanish possessions in the Low Countries, principally the Dutch provinces and thereby stop English interference in the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish King Phillip II directed the commander of the expedition, Duke Medina Sidonia (1550–1615), to sail up to the Thames Estuary and then to cover a landing on English soil of about 17,000 men [led by General Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma (1635–1689)], deployed in Flanders. Medina Sidonia would be involved in combat only if Farnese’s troops could not be landed without enemy opposition.

The Spaniards assembled a large fleet to cover the projected invasion of England. When it sailed out from La Coruña on 23 July 1588, Medina Sidonia had under his command 137 warships and 27,500 men (including 7,000 seamen and 17,000 soldiers), plus some 60 cargo vessels with 6,000 men. The Armada included 20 galleons, four galleasses and galleys each, 44 armed merchantmen, 23 transports, and 35 smaller vessels. The British fleet consisted of 197 ships (including 23 ships that voluntarily joined during the fight) with about 16,000 men.

After many delays, the powerful armada approached the western entrance to the English Channel. The British main fleet was then deployed at Plymouth while one squadron was at the Thames Estuary. The first clashes between the British ships and the Armada took place off Plymouth and Portland on 21 and 22–23 July, respectively. Yet Medina Sidonia continued to sail up the Channel and anchored off Calais. On 29 July, the largest battle took place near the small port of Gravelines in the Flanders. The Spanish losses were very heavy. By the nightfall of 29 July, they lost 11 ships and 3 ships sunk from English gunfire that evening plus 8 ships lost from other causes. A large number of the Spanish ships were heavily damaged. The Spaniards had much larger personnel losses than the British: 600 dead and 800 wounded. The British losses were only 50–100 dead. The Armada never recovered from the losses it suffered from the English guns in the Battle of Gravelines.

In the aftermath, Medina Sidonia was unable to make a junction with the army in Flanders and effectively gave control of the Channel to the British fleet. The British ships went home to replenish stores, fearing another Spanish attempt to land. Because the return route to Spain via the Channel was blocked, Medina Sidonia decided to take advantage of the southerly wind and return home by sailing through the Channel, across the North Sea, and then around Scotland and Ireland. However, he lost some 50 ships in a heavy weather while rounding Scotland and Ireland. The remaining 65 ships, with some 10,000 starved and fever-stricken men, reached home waters by the end of September. The total Spanish losses in personnel were very heavy – some 20,000 dead. The British victory led eventually to the collapse of the Spanish power. It restored the strategic initiative to England. It led England to create a large maritime empire and ultimately acquire the status of world power. Also, the defeat of the Spanish Armada led to the rise of Dutch sea power.

In the Battle of Solebay (also called the Battle of Southwold Bay) on 7 June 1672 (during the Third Anglo-Dutch War), the Dutch Admiral Michiel Adriaenszoon de Ruyter (1607–1676) defeated a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet and thereby prevented the landing of an invasion army and broke up England’s attempt to blockade the Dutch coast. The Anglo-French fleet under the Duke of York, consisting of 71 ships (45 English and 26 French), faced the Dutch fleet of 61 ships led by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. The allies also had 16 small ships, 35 transports, and two dozen fireships, while the Dutch fleet had 14 small ships, 22 transports, and three dozen fireships. The Anglo-French ships carried 5,100 guns and 33,000 men while the Dutch ships had 4,500 guns and 21,000 men. In addition, the allies had some 2,000 soldiers ready for embarkation at Dunkirk. In the ensuing battle, the British lost four and the Dutch only two ships. Yet both sides suffered heavy losses in personnel: 2,500 killed and wounded on board the English ships, while Dutch losses were about 2,000 killed and wounded. Both sides claimed victory. However, de Ruyter was a clear victor. He remained another night in the vicinity of the enemy fleet and left the area on the second night without being pursued.

In two battles off Schooneveldt (near the Scheldt River Estuary) on 7 June and 14 June 1673, the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter engaged a much stronger combined Anglo-French fleet commanded by Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619–1682). The Dutch fleet had some 64 ships and about 14,700 men. The Anglo-French fleet consisted of 86 ships and some 24,300 men. The first battle ended inconclusively; the Dutch lost a single ship while the allies lost two. Both sides suffered almost equal damage. The second battle was also inconclusive; neither side lost ships. However, a dozen of the British ships suffered heavy damage, while the Dutch had only a few ships damaged. The British lost nearly 2,000 men while Dutch losses were half that many. As a result, the allies had to abandon their plan for landing in the United Provinces. Also, the route for the arrival of a large Dutch convoy became open. This dual naval battle is considered a Dutch victory. De Ruyter obtained control of the sea for the next six to seven weeks. He was able to keep scouting ships close to the British coast, while his main fleet was at anchor at Schooneveldt. He also sent a squadron of 28 ships to reconnoiter the Thames Estuary. On 3 July 1673, he left his anchorage with the entire fleet to demonstrate to the British that the Dutch held command of the sea and was not destroyed, as the rumors were then circulated in England and Europe.

During the War of the Grand Alliance, the French fleet was preparing to transport a Franco-Irish army to Ireland to restore James II to the English throne. The plan was that Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Costentin, Count de Tourville (1642–1701) would command some 50–60 ships of the line (13 of these would come from Toulon). However, the Toulon squadron under Admiral Victor-Marie D’Estrees (1660–1737) never arrived. Tourville had available only 44 ships of the line. Yet he received a direct order from Louis XIV that he had to engage the enemy regardless of the size the enemy force. To prevent invasion, the Anglo-Dutch fleet of 82 ships engaged Tourville’s squadron near Cape Barfleur on 29 May 1692. The battle was tactically inconclusive. The French did not lose any ships, although they suffered heavy damages. In the battle off La Hague on 2 June, some 99 Anglo-Dutch ships of the line engaged 44 French ships. In the initial clash, neither side lost a single ship. It was only during the four-day-long retreat that Tourville lost some 15 ships of the line. The British pursued the withdrawing French fleet all the way to Cherbourg. In the aftermath, the Anglo-Dutch fleet controlled the Channel. However, except for some minor actions, the Anglo-Dutch fleet was generally passive.

The main reasons for the French defeat were the rigid orders issued by King Louis XIV and the execution of those orders by Tourville.96 Although the French replaced the lost ships of the line, far more important was the psychological effect of the defeat on the French king, the Navy, and population at large. The public was accustomed to the glories and successes of Louis XIV. In the aftermath of the Cape Barfleur/La Hague battles, the French radically changed their strategy. They gave up on the employment of their navy against the enemy fleet and focused on the war against the enemy maritime commerce. For the next five years, the French Navy mostly conducted commerce raiding (guerre de course, “war of the chase”) against the allies. As result, it decayed as a combat force. Mahan wrote that the main reason was not defeat at Cape Barfleur/La Hague but the exhaustion of France and the great cost of the continental wars. Admiral Richmond wrote that the French losses were not greater than what the allies suffered in the battle of Beachy Head. However, the allies with their greater resources could recover from their defeat, while the French, lacking such resources, could not. The French fleet continued to operate at sea, but attempts to regain control of the Channel were abandoned.

Painter Nicholas Pocock’s conception of the situation at 1300 hours.

One of the most decisive naval battles in the era of sail was the Battle of Trafalgar on 20 October 1805, fought to indirectly prevent an enemy landing. The British Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 27 ships of the line met and decisively defeated 33 Franco-Spanish ships of the line (15 were Spanish), led by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (1763–1806). The British objective was to prevent the Franco-Spanish fleet from reaching Brest and then cover the then widely believed Napoleon I’s intent to invade England. Although the British lost no ships, many of their ships were badly damaged. Their casualties were about 1,700. The British captured 14 enemy ships while 11 ships withdrew to Cádiz, where they were promptly blockaded by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood (1748–1810). Four surviving French ships of the line were captured on 4 November. The Franco-Spanish casualties were 2,600 dead and 7,000 prisoners (including Admiral Villeneuve).

Victory at Trafalgar freed England from further threats of invasion, secured its naval predominance, and offered the prospect of more energetic efforts in the war on land. However, that was not immediately known because of Napoleon I’s decisive victories at Ulm in October and at Austerlitz in December 1805. It was only later that the British forces took a conspicuous part in the Peninsular Campaign and elsewhere.

Many influential historians believed that the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar ruined Napoleon I’s plan to invade England. However, Napoleon I had decided even before Villeneuve arrived in Cádiz in August 1805 to move his army against the Austrians (which eventually led to the siege of Ulm and the surrender of some 27,000 Austrian troops on 19 October 1805). Mahan wrote, “Trafalgar was not only the greatest and most momentous victory won either by land or by seas during the whole Revolutionary War…No victory and no series of victories of Napoleon produced the same effect on Europe…. A generation passed after Trafalgar before France again seriously threatened England at sea.” For Napoleon I, the prospect of defeating the British Navy vanished. In Mahan’s view, the defeat at Trafalgar forced Napoleon I either to impose his rule on all Europe or to abandon the hope of conquering Great Britain. Hence, he tried to compel every state on the continent to exclude British commerce and thereby exhaust the British resources if it continued the war. Napoleon I issued the Berlin Decrees on 21 November 1806, which imposed a Continental Blockade against all trade with Britain. They were followed by the Milan Decrees in December 1807. The blockade stretched from Spain to Russia. The ultimate objective was to weaken Great Britain and force it to accept peace.

A well-known and highly influential British general and theoretician, J.F.C. Fuller (1878–1966), asserted that Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar on 20 October 1805 had a profound effect. Among other things, it shattered forever Napoleon I’s dream of an invasion of England. It allowed England to become an undisputed master of the oceans that eventually led to Pax Britannica. Without Trafalgar, there would be no victory in the Peninsular War (1807–1814), and it is “hard to believe that there would ever have been a Waterloo.

In the Battle of Lissa on 20 July 1866, a weaker but much better led and trained Austrian fleet defeated the Italian fleet and thereby obtained command of the Adriatic. The original intent of the Austrians was to prevent the Italians from landing and capturing the critically important island of Lissa (Vis today) in the central Adriatic. Italian Admiral Carlo Pellion di Persano (1806–1883) commanded a force consisting of 12 modern ironclads (totaling 46,000 tons), and 23 wooden ships (frigates, gunboats, dispatch vessels, and transports totaling 28,000 tons). However, instead of focusing on the destruction of the incoming enemy fleet and thereby obtaining sea control, he unwisely engaged shore batteries as a preliminary to the landing ashore. Persano was surprised by the sudden appearance of the Austrian squadron under Admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (1827–1871). The Austrian squadron was greatly inferior to the Italians in the number of modern ships and guns. Its total tonnage was some 47,000 tons. It consisted of seven screw frigates (totaling 27,000 tons), seven screw wooden frigates, one steam-powered two-decker, and nine gunboats (totaling 20,000 tons). Tegetthoff realized before departing the Fasana roadstead in Pola (Pula today) on 19 July that the only way to achieve victory was to use some unorthodox method of engaging the enemy fleet. In the ensuing clash that quickly became a mêlée, the Austrians rammed and sunk two Italian ironclads while two other ships were heavily damaged. The Italians also had 38 officers and 574 men killed and 40 wounded, plus 19 captured. The Austrian losses were only one steam-powered two-decker damaged, 38 dead, and 138 wounded. However, Tegetthoff was unable to pursue the enemy fleet because his ships were slower. The Italians had forgotten that the true strength of a fleet resided not in excellence of weapons alone but also in the training and quality of personnel. The Italian fleet lacked organization, discipline, and sea training. Its crews were raw and unskilled in gunnery, and its officers were inexperienced.

The Austrian victory not only determined the question of command in the Adriatic but also had a highly positive effect for Austria on the peace settlement. On the same day that the Battle of Lissa was fought, the armistice ended the hostilities between Austria and Prussia on the land front. The Austrians withdraw to the Isonzo River and thereby left Venice in Italian hands. France and Prussia pressured Italy to conclude an armistice on its own with Austria. Yet the Italian Prime Minister Bettino Ricasoli refused the call and insisted on obtaining “natural” frontiers for Italy. These included the direct cession of Venice and the South Tyrol and a guarantee that Italian interests in Istria would be respected. However, the Italian government ignored the fact that Tegetthoff had won command of the sea and that the Austro-Prussian armistice had strengthened Vienna’s hand. On 12 August 1866, Austria and Italy signed an armistice at Cormons. The peace treaty was signed on 3 October 1866. Although Austria was forced to cede Venice to Italy, it was able to retain control of the rest of the Adriatic coast.

The Battle of the Yalu River on 17 September 1894 was the largest naval engagement of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. It ended in a decisive Japanese victory. The battle was the result of the Chinese landing of some 5,000 troops at the estuary of the Yalu River on 16 September. The transports were escorted by Chinese warships. The Chinese squadron consisted of 14 ships (two armorclads, four cruisers, six protected cruisers, two corvettes and torpedo boats each), while the Japanese squadron was composed of 12 ships (three armorclads, seven protected cruisers and one corvette, plus one gunboat and transport each). The Chinese losses were heavy: five ships sunk and three damaged. The Japanese had only four ships damaged. The Chinese crews fought bravely but lacked skills. Perhaps the most important effect of the battle was that the Chinese fighting spirit had been broken. In the aftermath of the battle, the Chinese fleet withdrew to Lueshunkou for repairs and then to Weihaiwei. The Japanese did not attempt to pursue the Chinese ships. The Chinese fleet was later destroyed in the Battle of Weihaiwei on 20 January–12 February 1895.

Some decisive naval battles were fought to recapture an important position and/or to prevent further enemy conquest, as was the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 in the Gulf of Corinth, the Ionian Sea. The Christian fleet of the Holy League, composed of Venice, Spain, Sardinia, Genoa, and the Papal States, plus several other Italian states under the command of the Hapsburg Prince Don John of Austria (1547–1578), inflicted a heavy defeat on the Ottoman fleet. Venice’s objective was to destroy the Turkish fleet and thereby regain Cyprus (lost in 1570). Spain was not particularly interested in the Mediterranean commerce because its interests were primarily in Peru and Mexico. However, the Spaniards wanted the Turks to be crushed so that they would not threaten its possessions in Italy (Kingdom of Sardinia) and the Spanish commerce in the Mediterranean. On 7 October, the Christian fleet consisted of 108 Venetian and 81 Spanish galleys, along with 32 galleys provided by the pope and other smaller states, plus six Venetian galleasses. The Christian ships carried 84,000 men, including 20,000 soldiers. The Turkish fleet under Sufi Ali Pasha (d. 1571) consisted of 210 galleys with about 75,000 men (50,000 sailors and 25,000 soldiers). The Turks had the numerical superiority, but their perhaps greatest advantage was psychological. The Ottoman armies and fleets were the terror of Europe. Nevertheless, the Christian ships were better armed and their soldiers better armed and protected.

In the ensuing Battle at Lepanto (Naupaktos or Nafpaktos today) on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth, the Christian fleet inflicted huge losses on the Ottoman fleet. The Turkish losses were heavy: 107 galleys were captured, and 80 burned and sunk. They had 25,000 men killed and 3,500 captured. About 15,000 slaves (12,000 were Christians) were liberated. Only about 60 Turkish ships, with 10,000–12,000 men, escaped. The Christians lost only 13 ships, but about 7,700 men (4,800 Venetians, 2,000 Spaniards, and 800 Papalini) were killed in combat, and about 8,000 were wounded. Defeat in the Battle of Lepanto was a major blow to the Turkish sultan Selim II’s prestige. The Christian victory saved the Venetian-controlled islands of Corfu and Zante in the Ionian Sea and most of Dalmatia from Turkish conquest.

A relatively large number of major naval battles were fought to provide support to the army operating in the coastal area. For example, one of the most decisive naval battles in history, the Battle of Salamis in August (or September) 480 bc, was aimed to cut off the Persian army’s retreat from mainland Greece. In the Second Persian Invasion of Greece (480–479 bc), King Xerxes I (519–465 bc) led an army of only about 20,000. The Persians had about 1,000 ships and the Greeks 367 ships. Athens and its allies (Sparta and Corinth) The battle was conducted over three days and coincided with the land battle at Thermopylae. The Persians lost about 200 and the Greeks about 40 ships.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, the morale of the Persians was broken. The Phoenician contingent, terrified of harsh treatment and the reproaches of Xerxes I, slipped their cables secretly at night and sailed for home. In 479 bc, the Greeks won a great victory at Mycale (east of the island of Samos) on or about 27 August 479 bc by destroying the remnants of the Persian fleet. The Battle of Salamis ended all Persian attempts to conquer Greece. It essentially saved the Greek and Western Civilization and thereby changed the history of the world.

In the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc), Sparta’s commander Lysander (d. 395 bc), with an inferior force, captured all but nine (some sources say 20) out of 180 ships of the Athenian fleet off the mouth of the Aegospotami River (across from the Hellespont) in 405 bc. The battle lasted about one hour. This victory allowed the Spartans to advance to Athens and force the Athenians to surrender in April 404 bc.

During the First Punic War (264–241 bc), in the battle of the Aegetes Islands (near Lilybaeum) in 242 bc, the Romans inflicted a heavy defeat on the hitherto much more successful Carthaginians. The Romans did not decide until 243 bc to build a fleet. Afterward, they constructed some 200 quinqueremes. The Carthaginians assembled a fleet of some 250 ships and sent it to Sicily. The Romans proved to be much superior in seamanship than were the Carthaginians. They sunk some 50 enemy ships and captured another 70. They also taking some 10,000 prisoners. Their own losses were 30 ships sunk and 50 crippled. Many Carthaginian ships escaped, and the Romans were unable to pursue them. This naval battle decided the outcome of the struggle on Sicily. The Carthaginian army under Hamilcar Barca and the few strongholds left in Sicily were utterly isolated. The Romans starved the Punic garrisons on Sicily. Both Rome and Carthage were exhausted. However, it was Carthage that sued for peace. Carthage was forced to evacuate Sicily. Afterward, the Romans were masters of both the sea and land. Carthage lacked either the will or resources to restore its previous naval dominance.

The Battle of Naoluchus (at the northwestern tip of Sicily, some ten miles from Messina), on 29 or 30 August 36 bc, had a decisive effect in the civil war between Octavian [later emperor Augustus (63 bc–AD 14)] and Sextus Pompey (67 –35 bc), which was also called the “Sicilian Revolt” (44–36 bc). Octavian’s fleet, led by Agrippa (64/63–12 bc), defeated the fleet led by Sextus Pompey. Octavian landed three legions on Sicily, and these forces were supplied by the sea. Pompey’s position became desperate, and he assembled some 280 ships at Messana. Agrippa’s fleet consisted of some 130 vs. Pompey’s 150–160 ships. Pompey’s fleet was predominantly composed of smaller and faster ships that were better suited for fighting pirates. Agrippa won a decisive victory. He lost only three ships, while Pompey lost 28 ships, 17 ships escaped, and the remainder were captured. Pompey escaped to Messana and then fled to the east, ending Pompey’s resistance to the Second Triumvirate.

The outcome of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) was essentially decided by the British defeat and subsequent surrender of some 8,000 British troops under General Charles Cornwallis (1738–1805) in the Siege of Yorktown on 19 September 1781. This defeat was not militarily catastrophic but had an enormous political and psychological impact. Among other things, it fatally undermined Parliament’s confidence in the British government. The French fleet under Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse (1722–1788) made a major contribution to that victory in the Battle of the Chesapeake (or Virginia Capes) on 5 September 1781. This battle was a result of an agreement between General George Washington and the French General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur de Rochambeau (1725–1807) on 21 May 1781. Both then agreed that the effort of the French West Indies Fleet should be directed against either New York or the Chesapeake. De Rochambeau notified de Grasse that he personally would prefer Chesapeake because the French government refused to provide force for the siege of New York. By 15 August, the allied generals knew that de Grasse’s fleet would reach Chesapeake. The French governor of Cap Francoise (Cap-Haïtien today) spared a force of 3,500 men upon the condition that the Spanish squadron would anchor at the place that de Grasse had procured. The governor also raised money for the Americans from the governor of Havana. De Grasse arrived at Lynnhaven within the Chesapeake (near Cape Henry) on 30 August. He had 28 ships of the line. On 25 August, the French squadron of eight ships of the line led by Commodore Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Count de Barras (1719–1793) sailed out of Newport, Rhode Island, to join de Grasse.

Some 2,500 American troops under Washington and 4,000 French troops under de Rochambeau crossed the Hudson River on 24 August and then continued their advance toward the head of the Chesapeake Bay. Their objective was to defeat the British troops under Cornwallis. After he heard about de Grasse’s departure, British Admiral George Brydges Rodney (1718–1792), then in the West Indies, sent 14 ships of the line under Admiral Samuel Hood (1724–1816) to the North American waters. Because of his illness, Rodney left the West Indies for England. Hood reached Chesapeake Bay three days before de Grasse did. After reconnoitering the Chesapeake Bay and finding it empty, he sailed to New York, where he met five ships of the line under Admiral Thomas Graves (1725–1802), who as a senior officer took command of the entire force. Graves left for Chesapeake Bay on 31 August. He hoped to intercept de Barras before he joined de Grasse. De Grasse, expecting de Barras to arrive, remained outside Chesapeake Bay for five days without taking any action against the British fleet.

On 5 September, Graves appeared with 19 ships of the line in the vicinity of Cape Henry. Graves was surprised not to find the enemy fleet in Chesapeake Bay. He believed that de Grasse had 14 ships of the line. However, de Grasse had under his command 24 ships of the line. That same day, de Grasse received a request from George Washington to support his troops on the move from Philadelphia to Virginia. De Grasse assigned seven ships of the line to that task but wanted to wait on the return of his boats before deploying them. In the meantime, de Grasse received information about appearance of the British fleet.

In the ensuing clash, only Graves’ van and center became heavily engaged; yet de Grasse extricated his ships and returned to the Chesapeake Bay. Graves left the scene of action for New York with 18 ships of the line in order to repair damaged ships. The British lost some 90 men killed and 246 men wounded. The French losses were about 200 men. Graves failed to bring badly needed reinforcements to Cornwallis. The lack of naval support made Cornwallis’s end inevitable. On 14 September, de Grasse transported American and French troops to the proximity of Yorktown, where they joined with troops of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834). By 28 September, Yorktown was completely encircled by the American and French troops. De Grasse remained in the area until 5 November, when he left for West Indies.

De Grasse suffered eventual defeat in the Battle of Saints (between Dominica and Guadalupe) on 12 April 1782. His fleet of 29 ships of the line met 34 British ships of the line under Rodney and Hood. Seven French ships were captured, including the flagship. Within a week two, more ships were captured. However, this great British victory came too late to affect the outcome of the American Revolutionary War.

Some major battles have taken place when a weaker side tried to either prevent the establishment of, or lift the existing naval blockade by a stronger side. For example, in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Battle of Lowestoft on 13 June 1665 was fought because the Dutch tried to prevent a second blockade of their coast by the British. The British fleet of some 110 ships under the Duke of York inflicted a heavy defeat on the Dutch fleet under Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam. The Dutch lost some 17 ships and 4,000 men while the British lost only two ships and 800 men. Yet the Duke of York, for some reason, failed to pursue the withdrawing Dutch ships.

The British victory in the Battle of Cape of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797 allowed the subsequent blockade of the Spanish fleet. The British fleet of 15 ships of the line plus five frigates and two smaller ships under Admiral John Jervis encountered the Spanish fleet of 24 ships of the line, seven frigates plus one brig and four armed merchantmen led by Admiral José de Córdoba y Ramos (1732–1815) on the way to Cádiz. The Spanish fleet had passed the Strait of Gibraltar on 5 February 1797. Its task was first to cover a convoy carrying quicksilver and then to join the French squadron at Brest for the planned invasion of England. However, because of unfavorable winds, Córdoba’s squadron was pushed much farther into the Atlantic than intended. As result, it was unable to reach Cádiz before it was intercepted by the British fleet. In the ensuing clash, the British captured four ships of the line, including two three-deckers. Some ten Spanish and five British ships of the line were heavily damaged. The Spanish had 260 dead and 350 wounded. The British losses were only 73 dead and about 400 wounded. Jervis did not pursue the beaten enemy. He was not a commander who would take a substantial risk for a doubtful further gain. In the aftermath of the battle, Jervis imposed a blockade on Cádiz. The Spanish fleet at Cádiz remained blockaded until the Treaty of Amiens in March 1802.

Only relatively few decisive naval battles were planned from the outset to obtain control of the sea. For example, at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), the British obtained command of the “narrow sea” (the English Channel) after decisively defeating the French fleet in the Battle of Sluys (on the inlet between west Flanders and Zeeland) (also called the Battle of l’Ecluse). In 1338, the French King Phillip VI started hostilities at sea. Two years later, the British King Edward III declared himself king of France. He wanted to start new conquests, although he did not have a navy. Hence, he demanded from various parts of England that all ships 100 tons and larger to be in his service. Edward III also planned to have a strong army to be transported to the port Sluys, near Damme in Flanders. He put some 200 ships to sea on 22 June 1340. The next day, this force was joined by some 50 ships. The French fleet of some 400 ships (only 190 were large ships) appeared at Blankenberge, about 10 nm west of Sluys. In the battle on 24 June, the French fleet suffered a major defeat, and the British suffered no losses. This battle was decisive because the British for the first time obtained one of four narrow seas washing their shores.


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