The Battle of Outer Gabbard (also known the Battle of North Foreland) on 2-3 June 1653 was fought primarily for control of the English Channel and the North Sea. It was the bloodiest and greatest battle of the entire First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–1654). On 11 June, the English fleet, led by General-at-Sea George Monck (1608–1670), was anchored at Yarmouth, and the Dutch fleet under de Ruyter was some 12 nm northeast at North Foreland. Monck left the anchorage and moved to a position some 15 nm southwest of Oxfordness and just outside of Gabbard Sand. On 12 June, the Dutch fleet under overall command of Admiral Tromp consisted of 98 ships and eight fireships. The British fleet had 105 warships, including five fireships and some 30 armed merchantmen with 16,550 men and 3,840 guns. For the first time, almost the entire fleet of both sides faced each other. The encounters took place along the entire length of the English Channel and ended at Nieuwpoort, Flanders. In the battle at North Foreland-Nieuwpoort, on 12 and 18 June, the Dutch offered strong resistance. By the end of the day, Monck received reinforcements of 18 ships. A much larger clash took place on 13 June. Tromp was forced to move closer to the Dutch coast because of the shortage of ammunition on board many of his ships. There was panic on board the Dutch ships.
In the three days of clashes, the British inflicted heavy losses on the Dutch fleet: 11 warships (including six sunk and two burned) and 1,350 prisoners. They did not lose a single ship but had some 120 killed and 236 wounded. The British were not able to destroy larger part of the enemy fleet because they had to break off the fight due to the coming darkness and waters that were becoming too shallow for their large ships. This allowed the Dutch fleet to reach its ports the next morning, having withdrawn in great disarray. The British exploited their victory by establishing a close blockade of the Dutch coast from Nieuwpoort to Texel.
The British defeat in the Four Days’ Battle on 1–4 June 1666 (during the Second Anglo-Dutch War) allowed the Dutch to obtain control of the English Channel and close the mouth of the Thames to trade.175 It was the longest and most difficult and bitter naval battle of the first three Anglo-Dutch Wars. The British objective was to destroy the Dutch naval power before it became much stronger. Another objective was to end Dutch commerce raiding against English trade. The British fleet of about 80 ships was commanded by Monck. Prior to the battle, the British king Charles II was mistakenly informed that the French squadron was on its way to join the Dutch fleet. In what proved to be a costly mistake, he divided the fleet by detaching some 20 ships under Prince Rupert of the Rhine westward to meet the French while the remainder under Monck went eastward to meet the Dutch. The Dutch fleet of about 100 ships was led by one of the best commanders in the Anglo-Dutch Wars, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. He had to start battle without waiting on the arrival of the Duke of Beaufort. The battle commenced off the Northforeland coast with an English attack. In the ensuing engagement, some 20 British ships were lost. The British also had 5,000 killed and wounded and 3,000 prisoners. The Dutch losses were only four ships and 2,000–2,500 men. The arrival of Dutch reinforcements led Monck to withdraw to the Thames Estuary. So did Prince Rupert with his squadron (delayed by bad weather), on 3 June. The next day, de Ruyter blockaded the Thames Estuary. Although the Dutch achieved a great victory, they were unable to exploit it by destroying the remnants of the enemy fleet. The Dutch fought valiantly, but in contrast to the British they lacked discipline. Mahan wrote that the British defeat was largely due to dividing their fleet.
In the War of Grand Alliance, the French achieved their greatest naval victory in the Battle of Beachy Head (the Battle of Bévéziers for the French) on 10 July 1690. The French fleet of 70 ships was lead by Admiral Tourville. The combined Anglo-Dutch fleet of 56 ships was under the command of Admiral Arthur Herbert (Lord Torrington) (1648–1716). The battle took place some 12 nm south of Beachy Head (near Eastburne, East Sussex). The French objective was to destroy British and Dutch power at sea. The battle was a mêlée, in which the French did not lose a single ship. The English gave allied losses as only eight ships. Yet out of 22 ships, only three remained operational; all were heavily damaged. Tourville was able to capture a number of the damaged allied vessels. However, he made a big mistake in ordering a pursuit but not general chase. The reason was that he wanted to keep his line ahead formation, so his pursuit was very sluggish. This allowed the Anglo-Dutch fleet to escape to the Thames Estuary. The Battle of Beachy Head was a great victory but it was not decisive because Tourville failed to consolidate his combat success. In the aftemath, the French had for some ten weeks unopposed control of the English Channel. Tourville’s victory did not have any influence on the land war in Ireland (where King James II wanted to ultimately regain the British throne). Both Tourville and Herbert were dismissed because their respective governments found their performance wanting.
In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the Japanese fleet under Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō inflicted a crushing defeat on the Russian Baltic Squadron under Admiral Zinovy P. Rozhdestvensky (1848–1909) in the Battle of Tsushima on 27–28 May 1905. As a result, the Japanese obtained full control of the Yellow Sea. The Japanese had two main divisions with a total of four battleships and eight armored cruisers backed by 16 light cruisers organized in four divisions. The Russian squadron consisted of twelve 13,600-ton battleships organized in three divisions, one small battleship, three armored cruisers, one squadron of four smaller cruisers, four scouting cruisers, and nine destroyers.The Japanese also had a great speed advantage: 15 vs. 9 knots.195 The Russian losses were heavy; 21 ships sunk, including six battleships, 4,500 men killed, plus, 5,920 captured. Only one cruiser and two destroyers escaped and reached Vladivostok. The Japanese lost only three torpedo boats. Not a single Japanese ship was heavily damaged. The Japanese had about 120 men killed and 583 wounded. The main reason for the Russian defeat was the poor training and morale of their officers and crews. The Russians had not learned that the most important thing in winning victory in naval combat is spirit and decisiveness.
The largest naval action of World War I was the Battle of Jutland (Battle of the Skagerrak for the Germans) on 31 May–01 June 1916. The original German operation plan developed by Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863–1928), the commander of the German High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) and his staff, envisaged bombarding Sunderland and thereby triggering a strong British reaction. Scheer planned to deploy two battle squadrons, a scouting force, and the rest of the torpedo boat flotillas southwest of Dogger Bank and Flamborough. On 13 May, a decision was made to delay execution of the plan from the 17 to 23 May. Both sides intended to engage only one part of the enemy fleet. Despite an unfavorable tactical position, the Germans hoped to inflict greater losses than the enemy could inflict on their fleet.
The final German operation plan envisaged the major part of the High Seas Fleet sailing out from Wilhelmshaven at about midnight on 30 May and then proceeding northward, staying well off the Danish coast, and arriving the next afternoon off the western entrance to the Skagerrak. Afterward, Vice Admiral Franz von Hipper (1863–1932) with his battle cruisers would head north and advertise his presence by steaming very close to the Norwegian coast in broad daylight. Scheer would sail about 50 miles to the rear but out of sight of shore. Scheer was confident that as soon as the British learned the whereabouts of Hipper’s battle cruisers, they would send their battle cruisers on a high-speed dash across the North Sea to cut off Hipper’s retreat to his home base. Scheer’s plan was to attack the enemy battle cruisers jointly with Hipper’s force the next morning.
By coincidence, Admiral John Jellicoe (1859–1935) also planned a sortie with his Grand Fleet to the Skagerrak area on 1 June 1916. His main objective was to lure the High Seas Fleet to the north and fight a general fleet action. Specifically, he intended to send one battle squadron with two light squadrons off Skagen, with two squadrons of light cruisers to advance through Kattegat to the northern exits of the Great Belt and Sund, thereby enticing the Germans to use strong forces to counterattack. The other battle squadrons and battle cruisers, deployed in the vicinity of Horns Reef and Fischer Bank, would join the battle. As it turned out, Scheer sortied one day earlier than Jellicoe planned.
Scheer’s fleet consisted of 16 dreadnoughts, six pre-dreadnoughts, five battle cruisers, 11 light cruisers, and 61 destroyers. Admiral Jellicoe commanded a fleet consisting of 28 dreadnoughts, nine battle cruisers, 26 light and eight armored cruisers, 78 destroyers, and one seaplane carrier and minelayer each.
The Battle of Jutland was the first and last clash of battle fleets in World War I. This battle came closest to what can be considered as a general fleet action. It also had many elements of a modern major fleet-vs.-fleet operation. It consisted of several major and smaller encounters between the opposing fleets. Neither fleet was able to deliver a crippling blow to the other. Several encounters ended inconclusively. The Germans won a tactical victory by destroying 14 British ships (three battle cruisers, three armored cruisers, eight destroyers/torpedo boats) and killing 6,100 men (out of 60,000). The German losses were 11 ships (one pre-dreadnought battleship, one battle cruiser, four light cruisers, and five destroyers/torpedo boats) and about 2,550 men killed (out of 36,000). However, despite larger losses, the British achieved an operational victory. The situation in the North Sea remained the same as it was prior to the battle.
Since World War I, a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation aimed at destroying an enemy fleet at sea or its base replaced a decisive naval battle as the quickest and most effective – but most difficult – method to establish sea control. Major naval operations are invariably planned and conducted when decisive results must be accomplished in the shortest time possible and with the least loss for one’s forces. They are especially critical for one’s success in the initial phase of a war. Yet major fleet-vs.-fleet operations are to some extent less “decisive” than were some decisive naval battles.
In World War II, most fleet-vs.-fleet encounters took place when one fleet provided a distant cover and support to a major convoy or amphibious force or when the stronger fleet used the threat of an amphibious landing to lure a weaker fleet into a decisive battle. For example, the Japanese Port Moresby–Solomons operation was a major offensive naval/joint operation aimed to capture Port Moresby, New Guinea. For the Allies, in contrast, the Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942) was a major defensive naval/joint operation aimed at preventing the Japanese from landing at Port Moresby. Both the U.S. and Australian naval forces and land-based aircraft took part. The Japanese inflicted larger losses on the Allies than they suffered and hence won a clear tactical victory; however, the Japanese failed to achieve the ultimate objective of their operation, and hence the Allies won an operational victory. All losses on both sides were caused by air strikes. The Japanese sank one fleet oiler and destroyer each and so heavily damaged a U.S. fast carrier that it had to be sunk. The Japanese lost only one small carrier and a few small ships at Tulagi, Guadalcanal. They also lost 69 aircraft (12 fighters, 27 dive bombers, and 30 torpedo bombers) and 1,074 men; the Allies lost 66 aircraft and 543 men. One Japanese fleet carrier was heavily damaged and was unable to rejoin the fleet for two months. The losses of planes on another carrier were not replaced until 12 June 1942. So neither of these two fleet carriers took part in the main carrier action off Midway.
Although the way to Port Moresby was open, the Japanese carrier force withdrew from the Coral Sea. The landing on Port Moresby was delayed until July 1942. However, because of the defeat in the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the capture of Port Moresby from the sea was abandoned. The Japanese eventually decided to seize Port Moresby by a much more difficult land route over the 11,000- to 13,000-foot Owen Stanley Range. They made two unsuccessful attempts to advance on Port Moresby, the last one starting in January 1943. After suffering high losses of a large convoy bound for Lae in the Bismarck Sea on 1–3 March 1943, they abandoned all offensive operations in eastern New Guinea.
The Japanese Midway-Aleutians operation (popularly known as the Battle for Midway) represented a turning point in the Pacific War 1941–1945. The primary objective of the CINC of the Japanese Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (1884–1943), was to “lure” the U.S. Pacific Fleet into fighting a decisive battle and thereby to secure Japan’s defensive perimeter in Pacific. Yamamoto hoped that a landing on the island of Midway would lead the U.S. Pacific Fleet to react by deploying its fast carrier forces. In the ensuing encounter, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) suffered the greatest defeat in its proud history. After June 1942, Japan was forced onto the strategic defensive and was never able to regain the initiative until its unconditional surrender in August 1944. The Japanese losses in the Midway operation were extremely high. They lost four front line carriers, 253 aircraft, and one heavy cruiser. In addition, one heavy cruiser was heavily damaged, and one destroyer suffered moderate damages, while one battleship, destroyer, and oiler each suffered slight damages. Other sources claim that the Japanese lost 332 aircraft, including 280 that went down with the carriers. Yet some 150 Japanese pilots were saved. The Japanese lost about 3,500 men. In contrast, the U.S. had only 92 officers and 215 men killed. However, three U.S. carrier air groups were decimated. The U.S. losses in aircraft were heavy, 147 of them being shot down.
Japanese Carrier Division Three under attack by United States Navy aircraft from Task Force 58, late afternoon, June 20, 1944. The heavy cruiser circling at right, nearest to the camera, is either Maya or Chōkai. Beyond that is the small aircraft carrier Chiyoda.
One of the most decisive defeats suffered by the IJN in the Pacific War came during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19–20 June 1944. This clash of the opposing carrier forces came as a result of the Japanese execution of the plan in defense of the central Pacific (codenamed the A-Go Operation). This operation started on 13 June as a reaction to the U.S. invasion of the southern Marianas (Operation FORAGER). The entire operation lasted about ten days. The U.S. Pacific Fleet possessed superiority in the numbers and quality of ships and aircraft. It had a larger number of fast carriers (seven vs. five) and light carriers (eight vs. four). The Japanese were numerically grossly inferior in carrier-based aircraft (473 vs. 956). They had 43 vs. 65 U.S. floatplanes. The U.S. Task Force 58 also had a greater number of battleships (seven vs. five), light cruisers (13 vs. two), and destroyers (63 vs. 28) than the Japanese First Mobile Force had. The Japanese had a larger number only of heavy cruisers (11 vs. 8). In mid-June 1944, about 880 U.S. Marine, Navy, and Army aircraft were based in the Marshalls and Gilberts. The Japanese had available some 630 land-based naval aircraft.
The Japanese were strategically on the defensive, but the A-Go Operation was a major offensive fleet-vs.-fleet operation. In contrast, the U.S. was strategically on the offensive with a major amphibious landing. The engagement between the opposing carriers forces on 19–20 June resulted in a decisive victory for the Fifth Fleet. The U.S. claimed that the Japanese lost 476 planes and 445 aviators. However, their fighting strength was emasculated because so many pilots were lost. The Fifth Fleet failed to complete the destruction of the much weakened enemy force, which escaped to fight another day. Out of nine carriers, six Japanese carriers survived.
In the Leyte operation, the main objective of the Allied naval forces was to provide both close and distant cover to the Allied forces that landed on Leyte on 20 October. The invasion of Leyte was the first Allied major amphibious operation in the new Philippines campaign that would end with the liberation of the entire archipelago less than a year later. By October 1944 the Allied forces had cut off Japan from its vital sources of raw materials in the so-called Southern Resources Area. From their bases on Luzon, Allied airpower was able to neutralize the enemy airpower on Formosa (Taiwan). The Philippines were also used as a base for preparing the final Allied assault on the Home Islands. Although the Japanese were strategically on the defensive, the IJN planned a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation aimed to prevent the Allies from obtaining a foothold on Leyte and in the central Philippines. Between 24 and 27 October, four major naval battles were fought: the Battle in the Sibuyan Sea on 24 October, the Battle of Surigao Strait on 24–25 October, the Battle off Samar on 25 October, and the Battle of Cape Engano on 25 October. In addition, numerous tactical actions on the surface, in the subsurface, and in the air took place in Philippine waters. The IJN lost all four battles. In all, the Japanese lost three battleships, four carriers, ten cruisers, and nine destroyers, totaling 306,000 tons. The Allies lost one light and two escort carriers, two destroyers, and one destroyer escort, for 37,000 tons. In the aftermath, the IJN ceased to pose any serious threat to Allied control of the sea. The IJN’s defeat sealed the fate of the defenders on Leyte and thereby created the preconditions for the eventual Allied invasion of Luzon. It also significantly affected Japan’s ability to prosecute the war because all the links with the Southern Resources Area and the Home Islands were cut.
In a major fleet-vs.-fleet operation off Matapan on 27–29 March 1941, the Italians suffered a major defeat at the hands of the British Mediterranean Fleet. The Italian force, composed of one battleship, six heavy and two light cruisers, and 13 destroyers, sailed out on 26 March 1941 to attack British convoys bound for Greece in the area south of Crete. The entire operation would be supported by the German X Air Corps. The British obtained accurate and timely information on the impending action by decoding German orders to the Luftwaffe’s X Air Corps. A strong British force sailed out to intercept the Italian fleet, and in the ensuing battle on 28–29 March, three Italian heavy cruisers and two destroyers were sunk, while one battleship, heavy cruiser, and destroyer each were damaged. The German X Air Corps’ attacks on the British ships were unsuccessful. This victory led to a temporary Allied control of the surface in the central part of the Mediterranean.
In some cases, a stronger side has conducted a major naval operation aimed to obtain sea control and also to exercise that control at the same time. For example, in the aftermath of their successful attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began planning to deploy their fast carrier force into the Indian Ocean. Instead of capturing Ceylon, Admiral Yamamoto made a decision on 14 February 1942 to carry out a raid in the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese planners expected the British fleet to interfere with their invasion of the Andamans and Burma. The Japanese carrier force would operate east of Ceylon and wait on a favorable opportunity to launch a surprise attack on Ceylon and the British Eastern Fleet. As part of the preparations, the Combined Fleet conducted war games on 20–22 February. The Japanese planners intended to accomplish two main objectives: (1) destroy the British Eastern Fleet (believed to consist of two carriers two battleships, three heavy cruisers, four to seven light cruisers, and a number of destroyers); and (2) destroy the British air strength near the Bay of Bengal, (believed to consist of some 300 aircraft). The Japanese secondary objectives were to attack shipping and port installations on Ceylon and enemy shipping in the Bay of Bengal.
The Japanese striking force assigned to destroy the British Eastern Fleet was led by Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo (1887–1944). He commanded a force of six fast carriers accompanied by four battleships, two heavy cruisers, and one light cruiser, plus nine destroyers. This was the same carrier force that attacked Pearl Harbor. The Japanese carriers had some 300 aircraft onboard, and their pilots were well trained and combat experienced. The Japanese assigned another force consisting of one light carrier, six cruisers and eight destroyers to sweep British shipping in the Bay of Bengal.
The British naval forces in the Indian Ocean looked formidable on paper. However, they were grossly inferior to their Japanese opponents. Vice Admiral James Somerville (1882–1949), who took command of the British Eastern Fleet on 27 March, upon receiving reports on the impending Japanese attack on Ceylon, divided his fleet two days later into two groups: Force A (two carriers, four cruisers, and six destroyers) and Force B (four battleships, one carrier, three cruisers, and seven destroyers (including one Dutch cruiser and destroyer each). In addition, seven British submarines were deployed in the Indian Ocean. On 31 March, Somerville concentrated his fleet south of Ceylon. The single biggest weakness of the Eastern Fleet was its air component. Only 57 strike aircraft and three dozen fighters were available. Also, there was an inadequate number of the land-based long-range reconnaissance aircraft.
The British received a steady stream of reports about the strength and the movements of the Japanese forces in the area. Intelligence reports indicated that the attack on Colombo and Trincomalee was to be expected on or about 1 April. On 31 March, a new intelligence report indicated (as Somerville also suspected) that the enemy attack would be made next day.
The Japanese carrier striking force entered the Indian Ocean on 31 March. As planned, it carried out a series of carrier strikes on the ships and installations in Colombo. From 6 to 8 April, Nagumo directed a search for the British Eastern Fleet’s main body southeast of Ceylon. However, Somerville’s main body was far west of Ceylon. Hence, the Japanese searches were (fortunately for the British) unsuccessful. On 8 April, the Japanese carriers struck Trincomalee. After detecting Nagumo’s force, the British ordered all ships to leave Trincomalee. Nevertheless, many of the ships were attacked at sea.
In the meantime, the British Admiralty concluded that that there was little security against air or surface attacks at their naval base at Ceylon or at Addu Atoll (the southernmost atoll in the Maldives) used by the Eastern Fleet. The British battle fleet was slow, outgunned, and had short endurance. It was a liability if it remained in the area of Ceylon. Hence, a decision was made on 8 April to move Force B to Kilindini (part of port of Mombasa), Kenya; Force A at Addu Atoll was directed on 9 April to Bombay (Mumbai today) to operate in the Arabian Sea. For all practical purposes, the Allies temporarily abandoned the Indian Ocean.
After the raid on Trincomalee, the Japanese carrier striking force left the Indian Ocean for Japan to prepare for the planned attack on Midway. The results of the raid to the Bay of Bengal were very favorable to the attackers. At the loss of only 17 aircraft, the Japanese sank one British carrier, two heavy cruisers, two destroyers, one corvette, and one armed cruiser. They also damaged 31 merchant ships of 153,600 tons, plus seven transports. However, the Japanese failed to accomplish their main objective because the British Eastern Fleet escaped. Their single biggest mistake was trying to accomplish several objectives almost simultaneously and thereby fragmenting their formidable strength. A more promising course of action for the Japanese would have been to focus most of their efforts in destroying or substantially weakening the enemy’s greatest critical strength, the British carrier force—or the enemy’s “operational center of gravity.” Afterward, they would have obtained almost undisputed control of the Indian Ocean.
In a war between coastal navies or between a blue-water navy and a small coastal navy, it might be possible to obtain sea control by planning and executing a series of quick and decisive tactical actions. For example, in the 20-day Yom Kippur/Ramadan War of 1973, from the first day of hostilities, the Israelis seized the initiative and inflicted heavy losses on their enemies. In the Battle of Latakia on the night of 6/7 October, a group of five Israeli missile craft sunk three Syrian missile craft and one torpedo craft and minesweeper each. A naval battle between six Israeli missile craft and Egyptian missile craft took place off Damietta-Baltim (off the Egyptian coast) on the night of 8/9 October. In the ensuing exchange, the Israelis sunk three Egyptian missile craft, while one was heavily damaged and subsequently destroyed by artillery fire. These victories drastically changed the operational situation at sea to the Israeli advantage. The Israelis essentially obtained control of those parts of the eastern Mediterranean declared by Syria and Egypt as war zones.
A blue-water navy can obtain a large degree of control of the surface relatively quickly through a series of tactical actions in case of a war with very weak opponent at sea. For example, in the Gulf War I (1990–1991), the U.S. Navy/Coalition aircraft conducted a number of strikes against the Iraqi navy on 22–24 January, destroying two minelayers, one oiler (serving as a scouting ship), two patrol craft, and one hovercraft. On 29 January, in the engagement off Bubiyan Island, U.S. and British missile-armed helicopters and ground attack aircraft destroyed four and ran aground 14 patrol craft carrying commandos probably to take part in the Iraqi attack on Kafji; in a separate incident, a British helicopter destroyed a large patrol craft. A day later, U.S. and British helicopters and ground attack aircraft attacked a force consisting of one former Kuwaiti patrol craft and three Iraqi amphibious craft and one minesweeper; all ships suffered various degrees of damage. In another encounter, a force of eight combat craft, including some missile craft, were attacked by U.S. ground attack aircraft in the northern part of the gulf; four craft were sunk and three damaged. The end result of these small-scale tactical actions was that the U.S./Coalition forces obtained control of the northern part of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf.
Traditionally, the decisive naval battle, aimed at destroying a major part of the enemy fleet, was the principal method used in the era of oar/sail and until the turn of the twentieth century. However, experience shows that relatively few major naval battles resulted in the annihilation of destruction of a major part of the enemy fleet. Very often, the far more important results were not losses in materiel and personnel but the military, political, economic, and even psychological effects of such battles. After World War I, major fleet-vs.-fleet operations emerged as the main method of combat employment to a destroy major part of the enemy fleet and thereby obtain control of the sea. In contrast to a decisive naval battle, major fleet-vs.-fleet operations are fought in all three physical dimensions: on the surface, in the subsurface, and in the air. In relatively few cases, decisive naval battles and major fleet-vs.-fleet operations were planned from the outset to obtain sea control. That came as a result of one’s fleet providing cover or preventing a major enemy landing or in providing cover for a large convoy. Although major fleet-vs.-fleet operations have not been conducted since World War II, they still remain the optimal method of combat employment of maritime forces to destroy a major part of the enemy’s naval forces at sea. In the absence of two blue-water opponents and in a war between a blue-water and small coastal navy or between two numerically smaller coastal navies, a series of successive tactical actions might be decisive and achieve sea control relatively quickly. Such tactical actions should be optimally planned and carried out at the beginning of the hostilities at sea.