The Rif War

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Francisco Franco with fellow soldiers in Ras Medua, 1921.

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“Moroccan Bomber: American Fighters in the Rif War, 1925” (by Colonel Paul Ayres Rockwell, ed. Dale L. Walker; Aviation Quarterly, Volume 5, Number 2, 2nd Quarter 1979)

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Territory under the control of the Republic of the Rif (bordered in red) within Spanish Morocco.

Colonial administrators in Morocco were confronted with a major armed uprising that targeted both Spanish and French rule. Between 1921 and 1926, the Rif War posed the greatest challenge yet to European colonialism in the Arab world.

France was given the green light by the European powers to add Morocco to its North African possessions in 1912. The Moroccan sultan, Moulay Abd al-Hafiz (r. 1907–1912), signed the Treaty of Fez in March 1912, preserving his family’s rule in Morocco but conceding most of his country’s sovereignty to France under a colonial arrangement known as a protectorate. In principle this meant that France would protect the government of Morocco from outside threats, though in practice France ruled absolutely, if indirectly, through the sultan and his ministers.

The first thing the French failed to protect was Morocco’s territorial integrity. Spain had imperial interests in Morocco dating back to the sixteenth century, its coastal fortresses having long since evolved into colonial enclaves (Ceuta and Melilla remain under Spanish rule to the present day, fossils of an extinct empire). France had to negotiate a treaty with Spain setting out their respective “rights” in Morocco, a process concluded in November 1912 with the signing of the Treaty of Madrid. Under the terms of the treaty, Spain claimed a protectorate over the northern and southern extremities of Morocco. The northern zone comprised some 20,000 square kilometers (8,000 square miles) of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline and hinterlands, and the southern zone covered 23,000 square kilometers (9,200 square miles) of desert that came to be known as Spanish Sahara or Western Sahara. In addition, the port city of Tangier in the Strait of Gibraltar was placed under international control. After 1912 the Moroccan sultan ruled a very truncated state.

Though Morocco had enjoyed centuries of independent statehood before becoming a protectorate, its rulers had never succeeded in extending their authority over the whole of their national territory. The sultan’s control had always been strongest in the cities and weakest in the countryside. This situation was only exacerbated when Morocco came under imperial rule. Soldiers mutinied, many returning to their tribes to foment rural rebellion. The Moroccan countryside was in turmoil when the first French governor arrived to take up his post in May 1912.

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Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey (November 17, 1854 – July 27, 1934) was a French general, Marshall of France, the first Resident-General in Morocco.

During his thirteen-year tenure in Morocco, Marshal Hubert Lyautey (1854–1934) would prove to be one of the great innovators of imperial administration. He arrived in Fez the day before a massive attack on the city by mutinous soldiers and their tribal supporters. He saw firsthand the limits of what French diplomats had achieved in securing European consent for French rule in Morocco.

Though trained as a military man, Lyautey did not wish to repeat the mistakes made in Algeria, where hundreds of thousands of Algerians and Frenchmen had perished in the decades it took to “pacify” the country by force. Instead of imposing European forms of administration, Lyautey hoped to win the Moroccans over by preserving local institutions and working through native leaders, starting with the sultan.

The French sought to control the cities of Morocco through the institutions surrounding the sultan’s government, known as the Makhzan (literally, the land of the treasury). Lyautey made a great show of respect for the symbols of the sultan’s sovereignty, playing the Moroccan anthem at state occasions and flying the Moroccan flag over public buildings. But such respect for the office of the sultan did not always extend to the office-holder. One of Lyautey’s first acts was to force the abdication of the reigning sultan, Moulay Abd al-Hafiz, whom he found unreliable, and his replacement with a more compliant ruler, Moulay Youssef (r. 1912–1927).

Lyautey built his control over the countryside on three indigenous pillars: the “big qa’ids,” or tribal leaders; the tariqas, or mystical Islamic brotherhoods whose network of lodges spanned the country; and the indigenous Berber people. The big qa’ids commanded the loyalty of their fellow tribesmen and were capable of raising hundreds of armed men. Having witnessed a tribal attack on Fez immediately after his arrival, Lyautey recognized the importance of securing their support for French rule. The tariqas represented a network of faith that transcended tribal ties whose lodges had served to shelter dissidents and mobilize religious opposition to repel non-Muslim invaders. Lyautey knew that the Algerian tariqas had played an important role in Abdel Kader’s resistance to the French in the 1830s and 1840s and was determined to co-opt their support for his government. The Berbers are a non-Arab minority community with a distinct language and culture. The French sought to play the Berbers of North Africa against their Arab neighbors in a classic divide-and-rule strategy. A law of September 1914 decreed that Morocco’s Berber tribes henceforth would be governed in accordance with their own laws and customs under French supervision as a sort of protectorate within a protectorate.

This Lyautey system was no less imperial for preserving indigenous institutions. French administrators ruled in all departments of “modern” government: finance, public works, health, education, and justice, among others. Religious affairs, pious endowments, Islamic courts, and the like came under Moroccan authority. Yet Lyautey’s system provided local leaders incentives to collaborate with, rather than subvert, the French colonial administration. The more Moroccan notables implicated in French rule, the fewer Lyautey had to “pacify” on the battlefield. Lyautey was feted as a great innovator, whose concern for preserving indigenous customs and traditions was seen by his contemporaries as a compassionate colonialism.

Even under the Lyautey system, however, a great deal of Morocco remained to be conquered. To reduce the drain on the French army, Lyautey recruited and trained Moroccan soldiers willing to deliver their own country to French rule. Though he aspired to total conquest, Lyautey focused on the economic heartland of Morocco, which he dubbed le Maroc utile, or “Useful Morocco,” comprising those regions with greatest agricultural, mining, and water resources.

The conquest of Useful Morocco proceeded slowly against sustained resistance from the countryside. Between the establishment of the protectorate in 1912 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, French control stretched from Fez to Marrakesh, including the coastal cities of Rabat, Casablanca, and the new port of Kéni-tra, which was renamed Port Lyautey. There matters were left to stand for the duration of the war years, when 34,000 Moroccan soldiers were called to fight France’s war with Germany, suffering high casualties for their imperial overlord. Lyautey himself was recalled between 1916 and 1917 to serve as the French minister of war. Even so, the system held, with the big qa’ids proving France’s greatest supporters in Morocco. The rural notables met in Marrakesh in August 1914 and acknowledged their dependence on France. “We are the friends of France,” one of the leading notables declared, “and to the very end we shall share her fortunes be it good or bad.”

In the aftermath of the war and the Paris Peace Conference, Lyautey resumed the conquest of Morocco—and faced stronger opposition than ever. In 1923, over 21,000 French troops were fighting an estimated 7,000 Moroccan insurgents. Yet his biggest challenge would come from outside the territory of the French protectorate, from the Berber people of the Rif Mountains of the northern Spanish zone. His nemesis would be a small-town judge named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, better known as Abd el-Krim. From his native Rif Mountains, overlooking the Mediterranean coastline, Abd el-Krim mounted a five-year rebellion between 1921–1926 that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Spanish soldiers in what has been called the worst defeat of a colonial army in Africa in the twentieth century.

Conflict between the people of the Rif (known as Rifis) and the Spanish broke out in the summer of 1921. Inspired by debates about Islamic social and religious reform, Abd el-Krim rejected French and Spanish rule alike and aspired to an independent state in the Rif quite separate from the Kingdom of Morocco. “I wanted to make the Rif an independent country like France and Spain, and to found a free state with full sovereignty,” he explained. “Independence which assured us complete freedom of self-determination and the running of our affairs, and to conclude such treaties and alliances as we saw fit.”

A charismatic leader, Abd el-Krim recruited thousands of Rifis into a disciplined and motivated army. The Rifis had the double advantage of fighting to protect their homes and families from foreign invaders and doing so on their own treacherous mountain terrain. Between July and August 1921, Abd el-Krim’s forces decimated the Spanish army in Morocco, killing some 10,000 soldiers and taking hundreds prisoner. Spain sent reinforcements and, in the course of 1922, managed to reoccupy territory that had fallen to Abd el-Krim’s forces. However, the Rifis continued to score victories against Spanish troops and managed to capture more than 20,000 rifles, 400 mountain guns, and 125 cannon, which were quickly distributed among their fighting men.

The Rifi leader ransomed his prisoners to get the Spanish to subsidize his war effort. In January 1923, Abd el-Krim secured over four million pesetas from the Spanish government for the release of soldiers taken prisoner by the Rifis since the start of the war. This enormous sum funded Abd el-Krim’s ambitious plans to build on his revolt to establish an independent state.

In February 1923, Abd el-Krim laid the foundations of an independent state in the Rif. He accepted the Rifi tribes’ pledges of allegiance and assumed political leadership as amir (commander or ruler) of the mountain region. The Spanish responded by mobilizing another campaign force to reconquer the Rif. Between 1923 and 1924 the Rifis dealt the Spaniards a number of defeats, crowned by the conquest of the mountain town of Chaouen in the autumn of 1924. The Spanish lost another 10,000 soldiers in the battle. Such victories gave Abd el-Krim and his Rifi legions more confidence than prudence. If the Spanish could be defeated so easily, why not the French?

The Rif War provoked grave concern in France. On a tour of his northern front in June 1924, Lyautey was alarmed to see how the defeat of Spanish forces left French positions vulnerable to attack by the Rifis. The Rif was a poor, mountainous land that was heavily reliant on food imports from the fertile valleys of the French zone. Lyautey needed to reinforce the region between Fez and the Spanish Zone to prevent the Rifis from invading to secure their food needs.

Lyautey returned to Paris in August to brief the premier, Edouard Herriot, and his government on the threat posed by Abd el-Krim’s insurrectionary state. Yet the French were overstretched, in occupation of the Rhineland and setting up their administration in Syria and Lebanon, and could not spare the men and material Lyautey believed the absolute minimum to preserve his position in Morocco. Whereas he requested the immediate dispatch of four infantry battalions, the government could muster only two. A life-long conservative, Lyautey sensed that he did not have the support of Herriot’s Radical government. Seventy years old, and in poor health, he returned to Morocco with neither the physical nor the political strength to contain the Rifis.

In April 1925, Abd el-Krim’s forces turned south and invaded the French zone. They sought the support of the local tribes that claimed the agricultural lands to the south of the Rif. Abd el-Krim’s commanders met with the tribal leaders to explain the situation as they saw it. “Holy war had been proclaimed by Abd el-Krim, the true Sultan of Morocco, to throw out the infidels, and particularly the French, in the name of the greater glory of regenerated Islam.” The occupation of all of Morocco by Abd el-Krim’s forces, they explained, “was no more than a question of days.” Abd el-Krim increasingly saw his movement as a religious war against non-Muslims who were occupying Muslim land, and he staked a claim to the sultanate of Morocco as a whole, and not just the smaller Rif Republic.

As Lyautey had feared, the Rifis swept rapidly through his poorly defended northern agricultural lands. The French were forced to evacuate all European citizens and to withdraw their troops from the countryside to the city of Fez, with heavy casualties. In just two months, the French had lost forty-three army posts and suffered 1,500 dead and 4,700 wounded or missing in action against the Rifis.

In June, with his forces encamped just 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from Fez, Abd el-Krim wrote to the Islamic scholars of the city’s famous Qarawiyyin mosque-university to win them over to his cause. “We tell you and your colleagues . . . who are men of good faith and have no relations with hypocrites or infidels, of the state of servitude into which the disunited nation of Morocco is sunk,” he wrote. He accused the reigning sultan, Moulay Youssef, of having betrayed his nation to the French and of surrounding himself with corrupt officials. Abd el-Krim asked the religious leaders of Fez for their support as a matter of religious duty.

It was a persuasive argument, put forward in sound, theological terms supported by many quotes from the Qur’an on the necessity of jihad. But the Arab religious scholars of Fez did not throw their support behind the Berber Rifis. When it reached the outskirts of Fez, Abd el-Krim’s army came up against the solidly French-controlled “Useful Morocco” created by the Lyautey system. Faced with a choice between the aspiring national liberation movement from the Rif and the solidly established instruments of French imperial rule, the Muslim scholars of Fez clearly believed the Lyautey system was the stronger of the two.

Abd el-Krim’s movement came to a halt at the walls of Fez in June 1925. If the three pillars of French rule in the countryside were the mystical Muslim brotherhoods, the leading tribal notables, and the Berbers, then Lyautey had secured two out of the three. “The greatest reason for my failure,” Abd el-Krim later reflected, “was religious fanaticism.” The claim is incongruous in light of Abd el-Krim’s own use of Islam to rally support for a holy war against the imperial powers. But the Rifi leader was actually referring to the mystical Muslim brotherhoods. “The shaykhs of the tariqas were my bitterest enemies and the enemies of my country as it progressed,” he believed. He had no more success with the big qa’ids. “At first I tried to win over the masses to my point of view by argument and demonstration,” Abd el-Krim wrote, “but I met with great opposition from the main families with powerful influence.” With one exception, he claimed, “the rest were all my enemies.”18 In their opposition to Abd el-Krim, the big qa’ids and the shaykhs of the brotherhoods had all upheld French rule in Morocco as Lyautey intended. As for the Berbers—Abd al-Krim and his Rifi fighters were themselves Berbers. They took Lyautey’s policy of Berber separatism further than Lyautey himself ever intended. It is of no doubt that the Rifis’ Berber identity played a role in discouraging Moroccan Arabs from joining their campaign against the French.

Though his system of colonial government held, Lyautey himself fell to the Rifi challenge. To his critics in Paris, the overflow of the Rif War into the French protectorate proved the failure of Lyautey’s efforts to achieve the total submission of Morocco. As major reinforcements from France flooded Morocco in July 1925, Lyautey—exhausted by months of campaigning against the Rifis compounded by ill health—asked for another commander to assist him. The French government dispatched Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of the World War I battle of Verdun, to assist. In August, Pétain took control of French military operations in Morocco. The following month, Lyautey tendered his resignation. He left Morocco for good in October 1925.

Abd el-Krim did not long survive Lyautey. The French and Spanish combined forces to crush the Rifi insurgency. The Rifi army had already withdrawn back to its mountain homeland in northern Morocco, where it came under a two-front siege by massive French and Spanish armies in September 1925. By October, the European armies had completely surrounded the Rif Mountains and imposed a complete blockade to starve the Rifis into submission. Abd el-Krim’s efforts to negotiate a resolution were rebuffed, and in May 1926, the Rif Mountains were overrun by a joint European force of some 123,000 soldiers. Rifi resistance crumbled, and Abd el-Krim surrendered to the French on May 26. He was later exiled to the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, where he remained until 1947.

With the collapse of the Rif War, France and Spain resumed their colonial administration of Morocco unencumbered by further domestic opposition. Though the Rif War did not engender sustained resistance to the French or Spanish in Morocco, Abd el-Krim and his movement sparked the imagination of nationalists across the Arab world. They saw the Rifis as an Arab people (not as Berbers) who had led a heroic resistance to European rule and had inflicted numerous defeats on modern armies in defense of their land and faith. Their five-year insurgency (1921–1926) against Spain and France inspired some Syrian nationalists to mount their own revolt against the French in 1925.

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‘To kill or capture Elizabeth’

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Queen Elizabeth imprisoned Norfolk in 1569 for scheming to marry Mary, Queen of Scots.Following his release, he participated in the Ridolfi plot with King Philip II of Spain to put Mary on the English throne and restore Catholicism in England. He was executed for treason in 1572. He is buried at the Church of St Peter ad Vincula within the walls of the Tower of London. Norfolk’s lands and titles were forfeit, although much of the estate was later restored to his sons.

The Lepanto campaign was not Philip’s only crusading venture in 1571. No sooner had he agreed to sign the Holy League than he authorized the duke of Alba to invade England and overthrow Elizabeth Tudor. This dramatic policy change towards ‘a sister whom I love so much’ began two years before when the queen seized some ships carrying money from Spain to the Netherlands. Although the money was not strictly royal property, it belonged to a consortium of Genoese bankers who had agreed to lend the duke of Alba money to pay off his army. Philip’s ambassador in England, Don Guerau de Spes, saw this as the prelude to a trade war and he urged both Alba in the Netherlands and Philip in Spain to confiscate English ships and goods. Both obliged, and Elizabeth promptly placed Spes under arrest. Earlier that year, Philip had expelled the English ambassador at his court, Dr John Man, a married Protestant cleric, on the grounds that his continued presence at court might offend ‘God Our Lord, whose service, and the observation of whose holy faith, I place far ahead of my own affairs and actions and above everything in this life, even my own’.24 The rhetoric disguised the fact that, without Man and Spes, Philip possessed no direct diplomatic channel through which to resolve disputes with England.

This anomaly increased Alba’s influence over the king’s policy. The duke had resided in England during the 1550s; he maintained his own intelligence network there; and, above all, he possessed his own strategic agenda. On the one hand, he never saw the point of replacing Elizabeth Tudor with Mary, Queen of Scots, whom many Catholics saw as the rightful ruler of England, because she had grown up at the French court and retained close relations with the French royal family. On the other hand, since the prosperity of the Netherlands depended on trade with England, Alba opposed any action that might jeopardize it. Curiously, although Philip recognized that his Dutch subjects ‘always want to remain friends’ with England, he never seems to have realized that Alba himself shared this view – even though it would torpedo his plans to overthrow Elizabeth.

In February 1569, outraged by the imprisonment of Spes and the confiscation of the Genoese treasure, Philip asked Alba to suggest how best to launch an outright attack on England. The duke refused: he replied forcefully that defeating the prince of Orange had left his treasury empty, and so all funds for intervention in England would have to come from Spain – knowing very well that the revolt of the Moriscos would prevent this, at least for a while. Alba’s intransigence made Philip more receptive to a proposal from Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker who handled secret funds sent by the pope to the English Catholics. In 1569, Ridolfi visited Spes (despite his confinement) bearing a message from the duke of Norfolk and two of Elizabeth’s Catholic councillors saying that they intended to force her to restore close links with both Rome and Spain.

The ease with which Ridolfi glided between the government’s various opponents does not seem to have aroused Spes’s suspicions, and early in 1571 he entrusted to Ridolfi an ambitious plan, for which he coined the term ‘the Enterprise of England’. It called on Philip to persuade the other states of Europe to boycott all trade with England; to send financial support to Norfolk and his allies; and to fan the discontent of Irish Catholics. More radically, Spes suggested that the king should either support Mary Stuart’s claim to the English crown or else claim it for himself. Ridolfi first went to Brussels, where he explained the Enterprise to Alba, whose suspicions were immediately aroused by the effortlessness with which Ridolfi had managed to leave England with incriminating documents. Nevertheless, he allowed the conspirator to proceed to Rome.

Ridolfi arrived at an auspicious moment. Pius V had recently issued a bull deposing Elizabeth and now sought a means to carry it out. For a while the Holy League distracted him but on 20 May, the same day that representatives of Spain, Venice and the Papacy signed the Holy League, Pius entrusted Ridolfi with letters urging Philip to support the Enterprise of England. Six weeks later, the king granted Ridolfi an audience. The Italian made a remarkable impression on the king: a few days later, when the nuncio urged the king to support the Enterprise, much to his surprise ‘His Majesty, contrary to his normal custom [at audiences], spoke at length and entered into great detail about the means, the place and the men’ that he would devote to it.

He ended by saying that he had wanted and waited for a long time for an occasion and opportunity to reduce, with God’s help, that kingdom to the [Catholic] faith and the obedience of the Apostolic See a second time, and that he believed the time had now come, and that this was the occasion and the opportunity for which he had waited.

Philip proved as good as his word. In July he sent a secret letter to Alba affirming that Mary Stuart was ‘the true and legitimate claimant’ to the English throne, ‘which Elizabeth holds through tyranny’, and asserting that the duke of Norfolk

has the resolve, and so many and such prominent friends, that if I provide some help it would be easy for him to kill or capture Elizabeth [le sería facil matar o prender a la Isabel] and place the Scottish queen at liberty and in possession of the throne. Then, if she marries the duke of Norfolk, as they have arranged, they will without difficulty reduce [England] to the obedience of the Holy See.

In the course of the next six weeks, Philip continued, Alba must therefore prepare a powerful fleet and army to carry this out. He promised to send immediately 200,000 ducats – but ‘I warn and charge you expressly that you must not spend a single penny of this sum on anything else, however urgent it may be’. No doubt sensing how unrealistic all this would seem, Philip concluded that ‘since the cause is so much His, God will enlighten, aid and assist us with His mighty hand and arm, so that we will get things right’. The king’s enthusiasm increased as the festival of St Lawrence approached, when one of his ministers noted that ‘His Majesty proceeds in this matter with so much ardour that he must be inspired by God’; and it persisted even after news reached him that Elizabeth had ordered Norfolk’s arrest. Even with experienced rulers, one must never underestimate the power of self-deception.

MOU52694 Portrait of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) by Moro, Antonio (c.1519-c.1576) (studio of) (attr. to) Private Collection © Philip Mould, Historical Portraits Ltd, London, UK Spanish, out of copyright

MOU52694 Portrait of Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) by Moro, Antonio (c.1519-c.1576) (studio of) (attr. to)
Private Collection
© Philip Mould, Historical Portraits Ltd, London, UK
Spanish, out of copyright

Philip II alone

In his History of Philip II, Cabrera de Córdoba later identified 1571 as ‘a fortunate year for the Monarchy’, but by the time it ended Philip had managed to alienate virtually all his former allies. Unravelling the Ridolfi plot revealed to Elizabeth that her ‘good brother’ had planned to murder her. Not surprisingly, she never trusted him again and instead increased surveillance of all Catholics in England and executed those who proved obdurate (including the duke of Norfolk). She also supported privateering activity against Philip (a dozen major expeditions left England in the 1570s to plunder Spanish property) and provided material assistance to his Dutch rebels because, as Alba later pointed out, ‘the queen knew full well that the king our lord had tried to deprive her of the kingdom and even to kill her’. He therefore ‘regarded the queen as quite justified in what she had done and is still doing’ to disrupt the Netherlands. Philip’s faith-based strategy had left a toxic legacy.

Philip also managed to alienate Emperor Maximilian in 1571. When intelligence reports suggested that France stood poised to intervene in support of a rebellion against the ruler of the small but strategically important Imperial fief of Finale Ligure, adjacent to Genoa, Philip mounted a surprise invasion. This unilateral action infuriated Maximilian, who mobilized the independent states of Italy to condemn Philip’s unprovoked attack. Empress María tried to mediate between her brother and her husband, assuring Philip:

God knows how much I want to settle this accursed dispute over Finale, so that Your Highness need not exhaust yourself over it. I really believe that if it were not for the prestige that blinds us so much, the emperor would not act as he does, which is to importune Your Highness; but I am very confident that it will turn out as we wish, because Your Highness can see that the emperor does not lack good cause.

Since Philip refused to ‘see’ this, Maximilian sent a special commissioner to reside in his duchy of Milan – also an Imperial fief – with orders to watch ostentatiously over the interests of the Austrian Habsburgs in Italy. This was a major humiliation, and it led Philip to withdraw his forces from Finale – but this recognition that ‘the emperor does not lack good cause’ came too late: Maximilian provided no assistance to Philip in 1572, when a new rebellion broke out in the Netherlands.

The war of Granada had greatly impressed the exiled prince of Orange. ‘It is an example to us,’ he confided to his brother early in 1570: ‘if the Moors are able to resist for so long, even though they are people of no more substance than a flock of sheep, what might the people of the Low Countries be able to do?’ Since the prince knew that the ‘people of the Low Countries’ would not be able to tackle Alba and his Spanish troops alone, he worked hard to find allies. His agents forged links with the numerous communities of Dutch exiles – perhaps 60,000 men, women and children who had fled to England, Scotland, France and Germany to escape condemnation by the council of Troubles – and these exiles provided recruits for a fleet of privateers known as the ‘Sea Beggars’, sailing under letters of marque issued by Orange. The exiles distributed plunder taken by the Sea Beggars from merchant ships belonging to Philip’s subjects and allies, thereby raising money for Orange’s cause as well as sustaining his fleet. Meanwhile Orange and his brother Louis of Nassau fought with the French Calvinist leader Gaspard de Coligny, unsuccessful defender of St Quentin in 1557 and equally unsuccessful patron of the attempt to colonize Florida in 1565. Now Coligny persuaded Charles IX of France to recognize Louis and Orange as his ‘good relatives and friends’ and to pay them a subsidy.

King Charles also agreed that his sister Margot would marry the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre, and that as soon as the wedding had taken place Coligny and his Protestant followers could invade the Netherlands in support of Orange and the exiles. On the strength of this commitment, Orange laid plans for other invasions to coincide with the main attack by Coligny: the Sea Beggars, together with a squadron to be assembled at La Rochelle by Filippo Strozzi, a Florentine exile with extensive military and naval experience, would capture ports in Holland or Zeeland; Orange’s brother-in-law, Count van den Berg, would invade Gelderland with a small force from Germany; and Orange himself would raise an army in Germany and invade Brabant. The only problem lay in timing: everything depended on the date fixed for the marriage of Margot and Henry, but after frequent postponements in April 1572 Charles IX announced that the wedding would take place the following August.

The Napoleonic French and Spanish Navies

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Battle of Grand Port. On 22-24 August 1810, a British squadron of 4 frigates entered the bay of Grand Port to eliminate a French fleet of 2 frigates, 1 corvette and a captured East Indiaman. Historically, this is the only clear naval victory the French could claim during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the only naval victory to be engraved on the Arc the Triomphe. From left to right: Bellone, Minerve, Victor (background) and Ceylon, detail from Combat de Grand Port, by Pierre Julien Gilbert

Like the Royal Navy, the French and Spanish suffered from structural problems, but found them harder to overcome. The former were starved of manpower and naval supplies. France lacked the materials needed to replace serious losses at sea and, with the British blockade, supplies of timber, rigging, and sails from the Black Sea and the Baltic dried up. The monarchy had stockpiled vast stores of timber, rope, and other supplies, but the entire store for the Mediterranean fleet at Toulon was incinerated when the British took the port in 1793, burned down the naval arsenal, and towed off thirteen ships of the line. By 1795, French shipbuilders no longer had enough timber to construct larger vessels. In 1805, even with their own problems, the British outnumbered the combined French and Spanish navies by two to one. Meanwhile, despite the size of the French population, the numbers of those ‘following the sea’ were small, not least because in what was still primarily an agricultural economy, the usual nurseries of naval seamen—deep-sea fishing and commercial shipping—were relatively small. In all, it has been estimated that France had a reserve of no more than 60,000 trained sailors by 1789. Both the old regime and the Revolution therefore suffered from chronic manpower shortages. Recruitment was systematic, but overstretched: the French had tens of ships, but not enough men to sail them properly. All men in maritime towns and villages had to register on rolls which were divided into ‘classes’. Every three to five years, each ‘class’ was obliged to serve a year at sea. In theory, this would provide the navy with a trained reserve, but in practice this deeply resented form of recruitment had little effect because men found ways to avoid it. The Revolution retained this system, so did little to address the underlying problem. During the Terror of 1793–4, all sailors and maritime workers were made liable to conscription, but such measures could only go so far in providing the navy with skilled sailors. The effectiveness of the British blockade was such that, while the British could train their recruits ‘on the job’ on the high seas, a French squadron which sortied from Brest in July 1795 consisted of crews two-thirds of whom had never been to sea before. In such circumstances, the losses of the experienced men in battle (at a rate of 10 per cent at the ‘Glorious First of June’ in 1794 and the Battle of Aboukir in 1798) were disastrous.

Apart from a paucity of skill and practice, French and Spanish crews also had little experience of gunnery at sea, which was combined with a technical difference from their British opponents. While British guns were fired with flintlocks, both French and Spanish navies used slow-burning matches. The precise moment of firing was therefore unpredictable and so aiming a cannon from a ship rolling in the ocean swell was impossible. Above all, French gunners had what some French commanders were beginning to regard as the bad habit of firing not at the hulls of the enemy ships, but at the rigging in order to disable them. The instinct to do so may have come from the fact that the more experienced men in the French navy were frequently recruited from privateers. When chased by enemy ships, French privateers would usually blast at the enemy’s masts and rigging in the hope of slowing down their pursuers. Some French captains tried to break this habit, which wasted hundreds of shots, but with little success. A story circulated that when a French shell actually smashed into the hull of an enemy vessel, the stunned British crew recovered from the shock when a sailor stood exposed in the ragged gash in the ship’s side, joking, ‘My God, I’ll be safest here, because they’ll never be able to fire two shots through the same hole!’ The British always fired at the hull, because it could kill off and demoralize enemy gunners. It also left the masts and rigging intact so that, when the ship was captured, it could be sailed off as a prize. Moreover, by aiming low, a British gun was more likely to hit something, rather than see the shot whistle harmlessly past the enemy’s masts and rigging.

In addition to these problems, the French Revolution has often been blamed for breaking down discipline, while also destroying the experienced officer corps inherited from the Bourbon monarchy. It is certainly true that the early years of the French Revolution were accompanied by a wave of mutinies and insubordination which, by 1791, drove away much of the demoralized officer corps of the royal navy. In October that year, 47 per cent of officers based in Brest, home of the French Atlantic fleet, were absent without leave. By the outbreak of the war in 1792, there remained only 42 of 170 captains. This dissolution of the French officer corps seriously undermined the navy just as the French Republic was about to go head to head against the maritime might of Great Britain. The Revolution had responded to the crisis in April 1791 by opening naval commissions to any seaman with five years of experience at sea, which was aimed primarily at drawing in officers from the merchant marine. Naval historians have subsequently claimed that the admission of civilian sailors was a blow to the professionalism of the French navy. Yet it is important not to overstate the damage caused in the long run. The upper ranks of the professional officer corps may have been severely thinned by flight and absenteeism, but of 530 lieutenants in the old navy, 356 remained at their posts and rose rapidly during the decade or so before Trafalgar. The leading French protagonists during the campaign of 1805—Villeneuve, Rosily, Decrès, Missiessy—had all been lieutenants in 1789. While it is true that the commercial seamen drawn into the officer corps had no experience of sailing the heavier naval vessels, if given the chance to train they might have learned to do so. Yet they never did get that opportunity, because from 1793, the French coast was blockaded by the Royal Navy.

In August 1790, the National Assembly introduced a penal code for the navy, trying to relax some of the harsher punishments of minor infractions, while maintaining the discipline necessary for a military vessel. Punishments were formally calibrated according to the offence, removing some of the arbitrary power which captains had exercised over their crews. For some breaches of discipline, sailors were to be tried by a jury of their peers. Other cases were to be heard by courts martial. Nonetheless, some of the harshest penalties were retained, including flogging (which was abolished in the army in 1789), running the gauntlet, and the cale, by which the victim would be tied to a line lashed to the end of the yardarm, from which he would be repeatedly plunged into the water below. Punishments even for small transgressions could still include being tied to a mast or shackled in leg irons. Some French sailors had clearly expected a more radical overhaul of naval justice and their frustration was expressed in a mutiny in the roadstead off Brest that September. The target of the sailors’ ire was the harsher punishments, particularly those which they considered humiliating: the leg irons weighed down by trailing chains, for example, were likened to the chains worn by convicts who served in the penal galleys at Brest. The Assembly reacted to the mutiny by amending the Code, expunging some of the harsher punishments. Nonetheless, interference from the local authorities and from political clubs on shore continued to undermine the obedience of the sailors.

During the Terror, there was a concerted effort to restore discipline. Counter-revolution amongst the officers and the more intransigent breaches of discipline among the men were punished with death. In January 1794, for example, four mutineers had their heads sliced off by a guillotine erected on a pontoon in the roadstead of Brest, in front of the assembled fleet. The government’s naval expert, Jeanbon Saint-André, imposed a new penal code, which reserved the harshest of sanctions for defiance or disobedience, including being clapped in irons, flogged, imprisoned, or guillotined. The revolutionary government also sought to galvanize the sailors with patriotic fervour.

Discipline and motivation were all very well, but that had to be supported with material supplies. The provision of the scarce resources necessary for the navy could only continue if the Terror itself continued, with the economic controls associated with it. This was because the French economy of the mid-1790s was already struggling to meet the demands of the war on the continent. In 1793–4, the needs of both French maritime and territorial power could only be met from the threadbare French economy through coercion, that is, by terrorizing the population. Yet the Thermidorians (the republicans who toppled the Jacobins and ended the Terror in July 1794) were in no mood to continue with the draconian measures associated with the revolutionary dictatorship. They may inadvertently have prevented the Republic from building the revolutionary navy which was in the making.

The conflicting pressures of the war point to another major headache for the French—and it was perhaps the main reason why, for all the resources at its disposal, France was never able to obtain parity with the British. Geography ensured that, unlike Britain, France was ‘amphibious’, meaning a continental as well as a maritime state. The political desire to sustain both commitments was always there, but the wherewithal to do so was not. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the ravenous demands of the French war effort for men, money, and material could be met through exploiting the conquests in western and southern Europe, but this was of little use to the navy, since the territories conquered were not good sources of naval supplies, which came from the Baltic and the Black Sea. In any case, the expansionism which this involved, especially under Napoleon, committed France deeper and deeper to the continental war, as the great European powers, with British support, sought to cut France down to size. Despite the resources and political ingenuity at its disposal, France could be either a maritime or a territorial power. It could not be both.

The Spanish fleet suffered from similar structural problems. For one, despite its long coastlines, it faced a perennial shortage of manpower. In a system established in 1737, anyone who worked as a sailor or shipwright, even in such civilian activities as deep-sea fishing and ocean-going commerce, had to register on a list (matricula del mar) so that they could be called up in time of war, in return for which they were exempt from army conscription. By the French Wars, the numbers registered seemed to have hit a ceiling, at 65,000, which was not enough to man the Spanish navy, since the government’s own estimates required 110,000 men—and not all of those registered could be recruited as Spain still needed its fishermen, merchant sailors, and shipbuilders. Worse, the number of registrants dropped with the outbreak of war, while those who were already on the lists deserted in a flood: by 1808, the numbers on the register had shrivelled to 41,000 men.

The shortfall was made up of people who were semi-trained (if there had been time to train them) and some of whom had no experience of sailing at all: impoverished shepherds and landless peasants from such places as Castille and Extremadura. While British gunners needed 90 seconds to load, fire, sponge out, and reload a 32-pounder, their Spanish counterparts took five minutes. The captain of the Conde de Regla complained that of a crew of 500, no more than 60 had experience of the high seas, the rest being coastal fishermen or sailors ‘without training or any understanding whatsoever of a ship’s rigging or routine on board’—and there was no time to teach them. The situation was made desperate on the very eve of Trafalgar because yellow fever ravaged Spain’s ports, which decimated an already thinly spread pool of recruits.

There was also a shortage of naval stores: while the forests of the Asturias could supply most of the oak for Spanish hulls, Spain had serious difficulty in securing resin, tar, pitch, rope, and iron, which had to be imported from Russia and Sweden, supplies which were choked off by the British blockade while Spain was allied to France between 1796 and 1808, with only a brief period of peace in 1802–3. The situation was not this grim all the time: when they did have access to their empire, the Spanish built fine vessels. The colonial port of Havana produced some of the mightiest ships of line in the world, made from durable tropical wood like mahogany and teak, rather than European oak and beech: the Santisima Trinidad, captured by the British at Trafalgar and sunk in the storm which followed, was the largest vessel of the age. Yet, for all its virtues, the Spanish fleet was neither big enough, nor adequately manned to meet its long list of commitments, which included defending Spain’s overseas empire in the Americas and the Pacific, protecting its trade routes, and fighting the war in European waters.

Napoleonic War at Sea

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After Nelson’s utter destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir in 1798, Bonaparte wrote that ‘the fates seem to have decided to prove to us that, if they have granted us hegemony on land, they have made our rivals the rulers of the waves’. This was partly because the Royal Navy was by far the largest of any in the eighteenth century: in 1795, the British fleet had 123 ships of the line as against the next largest, the French, which could muster 56 (already down from 73 at the outbreak of war). Nonetheless, size alone could not account for the success of the British navy at securing maritime dominance: when the French had other maritime powers like the Spanish (76 ships of the line) and the Dutch (28) as allies (as they did at various stages during the wars), they could potentially stretch the Royal Navy’s capacity to breaking point, since its responsibilities included the defence of home waters, keeping watch on enemy fleets in European seas, the protection of sea lanes and of the empire, and their use in amphibious (‘combined’) operations.

So quality also counted, particularly in Britain’s sailors, for the very scale of the navy’s commitments ensured that even the rawest of recruits soon tasted life at sea. From 1793, the navy blockaded the French coast, giving the British crews a wide experience of sailing a vessel in all kinds of weather and seas. British ships may have been more sluggish than their sleeker French or Spanish counterparts, but what they lacked in speed was more than compensated for by the skill of their crews in handling a vessel in the most difficult of conditions. In combat, the ability of a British crew to steer their ship close to the enemy allowed them to make use of their superior gunnery, since they also had more experience of firing at sea. The role of the Royal Navy in cooperating with the army in combined operations is often neglected. During the Seven Years War, the Admiralty had approved a design for a flat-bottomed landing craft which remained the basic vessel for such operations. The most dramatic during the Napoleonic Wars was undoubtedly the withdrawal of General Sir John Moore’s army from the Spanish port of La Coruña in January 1809. Naval support was also one of the essential ingredients for ultimate allied success in the Peninsular War. The very survival of Wellington’s army when lodged behind the lines of Torres Vedras around Lisbon was dependent upon the Royal Navy’s ability to feed and supply the 420,000 soldiers and civilians by transporting grain from North America, cattle from North Africa, and saltpetre from Bengal. Between 1808 and 1813, the navy kept up a steady flow of muskets, pistols, cartridges, and artillery pieces to arm not just the regular forces, but also the Spanish guerrillas. Wellington acknowledged the role of the navy when he commented that ‘our maritime superiority gives me the power of maintaining my army while the enemy are unable to do so’.

The main problems confronting the British were twofold: the Royal Navy faced persistent difficulties of manning its vessels and there was the wear and tear of relentless campaigning at sea. The latter arose mainly because of one of the navy’s greatest, if unglamorous, achievements: the dogged blockade of the French coast, which took its toll in wrecks and damages. By Trafalgar only 83 out of 136 ships of the line were fit for service: ‘I wish we had peace’, lamented William Marsden, Secretary to the Admiralty in January 1805, ‘and could lay our ships up in dock. They are worn out like post-horses during a general election.’ The government responded with an intensive programme of shipbuilding, but numbers were also made up by prizes—which always accounted for at least a quarter of the navy’s strength. Within four years, the navy had 113 seaworthy ships of the line, to which were added the 596 cruisers, which had trebled in number since 1793, as the navy used every sinew to prosecute the war: it was the only time in history before the Second World War that one navy deployed half of the world’s warships (the US Navy outstripped that achievement in 1945).

The navy’s shortages of manpower arose because men were understandably reluctant to serve out of self-preservation, a natural aversion to iron discipline, and the higher rates of pay offered by merchantmen and privateers. Wartime absences from home and even from any land at all could last for a very long time, since a ship might be at sea for months—even years—without putting into port. Still, perhaps two-thirds of sailors were volunteers, including deserters from European navies and blacks, some of whom had escaped from slavery. Volunteers were drawn by the promise of prize money for the capture of an enemy ship, although the lion’s share went to the officers. While criminals were never accepted as recruits, joining the navy was one way for debtors to get out of prison, since the Admiralty paid off the money which they owed, provided it came to no more than £20. Yet there were never enough volunteers, so the Impress Service was created in 1793 to use varying degrees of ‘persuasion’ in Britain’s ports: it was certainly unjust, but it ensured that the ships of the Royal Navy were well (if not always fully) manned. Parties from ships of the line would seize sailors from in-bound merchant vessels, while on shore an officer would establish his headquarters (usually in a tavern), where volunteers would be accommodated and the less fortunate souls who had been press-ganged would be locked up. Small, auxiliary vessels called tenders would sit in the harbour to transport the recruits to the naval bases at Portsmouth, Plymouth, and the Nore. Meanwhile gangs of sailors, who were paid incentives for every man recruited, were sent out to persuade, cajole, and force men into the King’s service. Those who were pressed were usually people with seafaring skills—often they were sailors already, for the bounty was higher for a seaman than for a landlubber. Violence was actually rare, but the arrival of a press gang in a port was certainly a time to draw breath: the magistrates, with an anxious eye on public order, did their best to frustrate the recruiting parties—even to the point of throwing the officers in the clink. The gangs tended to fall on the least influential people in society, but they provoked local hostility nonetheless. William Henry Dillon, a lieutenant in the Impress Service, commented on his soul-destroying work in Hull in 1803:

In this performing my unpleasant duties, I soon experienced the ill will of the mob. On one occasion I was assaulted by a shower of brickbats: on another, a volley of either musket or pistol balls was fired into my room one evening as I was reading at my table.

Such opposition, paradoxically, existed alongside support for the war itself—it was just that, understandably, people did not want to have to leave their homes and jobs, nor lose valued members of their communities, to fight it. Magistrates did sometimes see the arrival of the Impress Service as an opportunity to get rid of paupers and petty criminals, but the difficulty then was in persuading the gangs to accept them.

One has good cause to suppose that in such an isolated world as a warship at sea, such a rag-bag collection of often reluctant men could only be forced into performing the arduous, muscular work of sailing a wooden ship and of standing firm in battle by the lash. Yet the image of an eighteenth-century naval vessel as ‘a sort of floating concentration camp’ has been overdrawn. Instead, the British navy was a reflection of British society: it was governed by a hierarchy that ruled through a mixture of repression, concessions, moral control, and acquiescence ‘from below’. Some historians—and there are dissenting voices—have argued that British society had a ‘disordered cohesion’ and this, the naval historian Nicholas Rodger suggests, is a term which aptly describes the navy itself. Naval life was, by the orderly standards of a modern fleet, chaotic, but what kept the men in line was less the brutality of discipline than a strong sense of common purpose with their officers and an awareness of the dangers which awaited them. In such circumstances, a brutal officer was a weak and inefficient officer, since he could only command obedience through violence.

In any case, imposing the harsher punishments was difficult: according to the regulations (the Articles of War), a captain could only impose a maximum sentence of a flogging with twelve lashes. Anything more required the time-consuming and unpredictable process of a court martial—and such tribunals proved remarkably reluctant to convict. A court martial could impose the death penalty for twenty offences (including desertion and striking an officer), but this was actually milder than the sanguinary justice meted out to British civilians on shore, who could find themselves dangling from the gallows for no less than 200 types of crime. Naval courts martial tended to impose death sentences on two offences only—murder and (probably reflecting religious scruples) buggery—although the alternative sentences (of several hundred lashes, for example) could scarcely be described as a light alternative. In general, however, a ship’s captain depended more on the men’s conviction that obedience was the best way to ensure survival, rather than on a persistent use of force. A ship could not function if the men were reduced to unthinking beasts of burden ruled by the lash: fighting at sea demanded a great deal of personal initiative. Perhaps a model commander in terms of his approach to discipline was a Captain Twisden of the British frigate Révolutionnaire in 1801:

His ship was a pattern of order and discipline, and splendidly manned; and of both ship and crew he was justly proud. … Captain Twisden did not punish as often, or as severely, as I have known some far less efficient officers to do; but his discipline was regular and systematic, never acted upon by whim or caprice.

If French army officers were noted for their aggression, courage, and initiative, they had their maritime counterparts in the British navy. Confidence in their ships and their men bred a fiery and determined brand of command in the Royal Navy, which relied heavily on the personal initiative of individual commanders. On the eve of Trafalgar, Nelson’s orders to his officers made it crystal clear that, in the smoke and confusion of battle, in which signals from his flagship would be obscured, he relied upon his captains to seize the opportunities as they arose: ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.’

Combat

Naval combat strained every human nerve to the limits of its endurance. The physical danger was desperately close: a single broadside from an eighteenth-century three-deck warship would send a half ton of metal into the hull of an enemy ship. At point-blank range in the close quarters of naval combat, this was devastating. Cannon balls, jagged wooden splinters, and fragments of iron from canister shot spun on unpredictable trajectories through the cramped spaces in the gun decks. The metal shot might ricochet between the decks before finally being spent: it did not have to strike a man to kill him, since the shock alone of a near miss would do the same. The concussion of cannon was deafening: in some close engagements, men lost their hearing for life, though they tried to protect their ears by binding rags around their head. And all this was experienced in near-darkness on the gun decks, where, according to one British writer, it was ‘as if all the tenants of the lower regions, black from smoke, had broken loose and gone mad’. The feeble light let in by the gun ports was obscured by the barrels of the cannon—and, at close range, the hull of the enemy ship. The interior was filled with the sulphurous smoke from the gunfire and sometimes from burning wood and sail. The momentary light from muzzle flashes compounded the vision of hell. Outside, the atmosphere was equally outlandish. ‘Bursting forth from the many black iron mouths, and whirling rapidly in thick rings, till it swells into hills and mountains, through which the sharp red tongue of death darts flash after flash, and mingling fire, the smoke rolls upward like a curtain, in awful beauty.’ Before the killing and the maiming relented, the dead and wounded lay amongst the wreckage of gun carriages, trapped beneath fallen debris and, on the exposed quarter decks, pinned down by fallen masts, or tangled in shredded rigging and sails. The surgeon’s post was a scene of agony and butchery as limbs were amputated and blood seeped across the decks. ‘And ever and anon, amid the breaks of the cannon’s peal, the shrieks and cries of the wounded mingled with the deep roar of the outpoured and constantly-reiterated “hurra! hurra! hurra!” A chorus of cataracts sweep over the rippled smiles of the patient, passionless, and unconscious sea. Sulphur and fire, agony, death and horror, are riding and revelling on its bosom.’

 

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.

Hitler Supports Franco

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Junkers Ju 87A with Condor Legion markings

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“Condor Legion” infantry training school in Ávila, Spain.

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Condor legionnaires celebrated on cover of the Nazi air ministry’s magazine, June 1939

The remilitarization of the Rhineland profoundly altered the balance of international relations in Europe. Up to this point, as had been made abundantly clear in 1923, the French were potentially able to enforce Germany’s obligations by marching across the Rhine and occupying the country’s biggest industrial region, the Ruhr. From now on, they were no longer able to do so. The French position from 1936 onwards was a purely defensive one. It left the Third Reich a free hand in moving against the small countries of Eastern Europe. Shocked by a development that left them dangerously vulnerable, many of them, previously allied to France, moved to try and improve relations with the Third Reich. Austria now felt particularly at risk, given the new-found friendship between Germany and Italy. Before long, too, Hitler and Mussolini’s relationship drew even closer. For, following a left-wing victory in the Spanish elections held in February 1936, right-wing army officers in various parts of the country launched a concerted uprising on 17 July 1936 to overthrow the Republic and create a military dictatorship. The uprising failed to achieve its objectives in most parts of the country, and soon Spain was plunged into a desperate and bloody civil war. German officials and businessmen in Spain urged on Hitler the support of the rebels, and one of the leading figures in the uprising, General Francisco Franco, appealed directly to Hitler for help. It was not long in coming.

Even before the end of July 1936, German planes were in Spain ferrying rebel forces to the key fronts and thus helping to ensure that the uprising did not fizzle out. From this modest beginning, German intervention was soon to reach startling proportions. The main reasons were both military and political. As the political situation in Spain polarized with unprecedented intensity, Hitler began to be concerned about the possibility that a Republican victory would deliver the country into the hands of the Communists at a time when a Popular Front government, backed by the Communist Party, had just come to power in France. A union between the two countries might create a serious obstacle in Western Europe to his plans for expansion and war in the East, particularly when this encompassed the Soviet Union, as it eventually would. Beyond this, he soon realized that the war would provide an ideal proving-ground for Germany’s new armed forces and equipment. Soon, Werner von Blomberg, the German Minister of War, freshly promoted to Field-Marshal, was in Spain telling Franco that he would get German troops and matériel provided he agreed to prosecute the war with more vigour than he had displayed to date. In November 1936, 11,000 German troops and support staff, supplied with aircraft, artillery and armour, landed at Cadiz. By the end of the month, the Nationalist regime had been officially recognized as the government of Spain by the Third Reich, and the German forces had been organized into an effective unit under the name of the Condor Legion.

Hitler and his generals were clear that German assistance to Franco could not expand indefinitely without attracting the hostility of the other European powers. Britain and France had agreed on a policy of non-intervention. This did not stop supplies from the United Kingdom in particular from reaching the Nationalist side, but it did mean that if the fiction of general neutrality was to be preserved, other powers would have to be careful about the extent to which they intervened. Mussolini’s assistance to the rebels was far greater than Hitler’s, but both were countered by the aid that the Soviet Union gave to the Republican side. Volunteers from many countries flocked to the Republican banner to form an International Brigade; a rather smaller number went to fight for the Francoists. In this situation, preventing the conflict from escalating into a wider war seemed to be in everybody’s interest. The stakes scarcely seemed overwhelming. So Hitler kept the Condor Legion as a relatively small, though highly trained and professional, fighting force.

Under the command of General Hugo Sperrle, however, it played a significant part in the Nationalist war effort. Soon the Legion was testing its new 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns against Republican planes. But its most effective contribution was made through its own bombers, which took part in a concerted advance, undertaken at Sperrle’s behest, on the Basque country. On 31 March 1937 the Legion’s Junkers aircraft bombed the undefended town of Durango, killing 248 inhabitants, including several priests and nuns, the first European town to be subjected to intensive bombing. Far more devastating, however, was the raid they carried out, in conjunction with four new fast Heinkel III bombers and some untried Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, on the town of Guernica on 26 April 1937. Forty-three aircraft, including a small number of Italian planes, dropped 100,000 pounds of incendiary, high-explosive and shrapnel bombs on the town, while the fighters strafed the inhabitants and refugees in the streets with machine-gun fire. The town’s population, normally not more than 7,000, was swollen with refugees, retreating Republican soldiers and peasants attending market-day. Over 1,600 people were killed and more than 800 injured. The centre of the town was flattened. The raid confirmed the widespread fear in Europe of the devastating effects of aerial bombing. Already a symbol of the assault on Basque identity, it gained a worldwide significance through the exiled, pro-Republican Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who dedicated the mural he had been commissioned to produce for the Paris World Exposition a large painting, Guernica, depicting with unique and enduring power the sufferings of the town and its people.

The international furore that greeted the raid led the Germans and the Spanish Nationalists to deny any responsibility. For years afterwards it was claimed that the Basques had blown their own town up. Privately, Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, who had organized the raid, concluded with satisfaction that the new planes and bombs had proved their effectiveness, though he was less than satisfied with the failure of the Spanish Nationalist generals to follow up the raid with an immediate knock-out blow to their Basque opponents. But the Condor Legion did not repeat this murderous experiment. Later on, its bid to use fast-moving tanks in the concluding phase of the war was vetoed by the traditionalist Franco. Nevertheless, thanks to German and Italian help, superior resources and generalship, internal unity and international neutrality, the Francoists completed their victory by the end of March 1939. On 18 May 1939, led by Richthofen, the Legion marched proudly past in Franco’s final victory parade in Madrid. Once more, international inaction had allowed Hitler free rein. The Spanish Civil War was one more example for him of the supine pusillanimity of Britain and France, and thus an encouragement to move faster in the fulfilment of his own intentions. In this sense, at least, the Spanish conflict accelerated the descent into war.

More immediately, however, it cemented the alliance between Hitler and Mussolini. Already in September 1936 Hans Frank visited Rome to begin negotiations, and the next month, the Italian Foreign Minister Ciano went to Germany to sign a secret agreement with Hitler. By November 1936 Mussolini was referring openly to a ‘Rome-Berlin Axis’. Both powers had agreed to respect each other’s ambitions and ally themselves against the Spanish Republic. At the same time, behind the backs of the Foreign Ministry, Hitler arranged for Ribbentrop’s office to conclude an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan, pledging both to a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union. For the moment, it was of little value, but together with the Rome-Berlin Axis, it completed the line-up of revisionist, expansionist powers that was to take such devastating shape during the Second World War. The attempt to bring Britain into the Anti-Comintern Pact, spearheaded by Ribbentrop’s appointment as Ambassador in London in August 1936, was never likely to succeed; it foundered almost immediately on the new envoy’s tactlessness and his use of the threat of undermining Britain’s overseas empire as an instrument of blackmail – a threat taken all too seriously by the British. As far as Hitler was concerned, moreover, nothing less than a global arrangement with the United Kingdom would by this stage have been worth the price of alienating the Italians, given the substantial British presence in the Mediterranean. He did not abandon the idea of some kind of arrangement with the British and continued to believe that the United Kingdom would stand aside from events in Europe, however they unfolded. For the moment, however, such calculations took second place to the pursuit of his immediate aims on the European Continent.

Battle of Cape Ortegal

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Bringing Home the Prizes – aftermath of the battle by Francis Sartorius

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Although the storm that followed the battle of Trafalgar, coupled with Collingwood’s aversion to anchoring on the evening of 21 October, left his ships with only four prizes to be escorted to Gibraltar, it was not long before another British force doubled this number of gains by the Royal Navy. Rear-Admiral Dumanoir le Pelley had headed his four sail-of-the-line, the Formidable (80), Duguay Trouin (74), Mont Blanc (74) and Scipion(74) away to the south, instead of returning to Cadiz, with the intention of complying with Villeneuve’s original plans for the Combined Fleets: he hoped to work round the British fleet and pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, then steer for Toulon. However, on the morning of 22 October, when he was satisfied that he had eluded pursuit by Collingwood’s ships, Dumanoir had second thoughts. The wind was against him; and any attempt to pass Gibraltar would risk an engagement with Rear-Admiral Louis’s stronger force of six ships-of-the-line which he knew to be in or near the Rock. He altered course to the west, to round Cape St. Vincent and steer north for Rochefort.

All went well until soon after Dumanoir’s four ships entered the Bay of Biscay, when they were some 40 miles to the north-west of Spain’s Cape Ortegal. There, on 2 November, they were sighted by the frigatePhoenix, one of many British vessels searching for Rear-Admiral Allemand’s squadron which was still at large after leaving Rochefort in July. Dumanoir gave chase: Captain Thomas Baker ran south, leading the enemy towards a British squadron of five ships-of-the-line which was cruising off Ferrol, under Captain Sir Richard Strachan in the 80-gun Caesar. Helped by the frigates Boadicea and Dryad, Baker managed to contact the Caesar at 11 pm and warn Strachan of his pursuers. Although he could not count on any immediate support, because the other four British vessels were somewhat scattered, Strachan headed his ship for the enemy. But as soon as Dumanoir saw the approaching Caesar, he ordered his force to bear away, so that when the moon set around 1.30 am, and the weather thickened, Strachan lost sight of his adversaries.

He seized this opportunity to shorten sail and allow the Bellona (74), Courageux (74), Hero (74) and Namur (74) to come up with him. And by 9.00 in the morning he again had the French ships in sight to the north-north-west. Ordering his squadron to set all possible sail, Strachan gave chase, but by noon his ships were still as much as 14 miles from their quarry. Realizing the extent to which they were handicapped by the slow sailing Bellona, he decided to press on without her — four ships against four. He was nonetheless unable to come up with Dumanoir’s force before darkness again fell. Fortunately, Strachan had the benefit of four frigates; these fast sailers were able to keep in touch with the enemy throughout the night.

Dawn next day, 4 November, revealed the rearmost French ship, the Scipion, only six miles ahead of the Caesar. It also disclosed that Captain L. W. Halstead’s Namur had been unable to keep up and was now well astern of her consorts. This was Dumanoir’s opportunity: with a fair wind from the south-east he could have tacked his four ships-of-the-line and fallen upon only three opponents. But, in the light of his pusillanimous conduct during the battle of Trafalgar, it is scarcely necessary to say that he did not do so. He held his course until, helped by the wind backing to SSE, Strachan in the Caesar, followed by Captain the Hon. A. H. Gardner’s Hero and Captain R. Lee’s Courageux, were seen to be approaching so rapidly that a fight was inevitable.

At 11.45 Dumanoir ordered his ships to form line ahead on the starboard tack in the order Duguay Trouin, Captain Touffet, Formidable, Captain Letellier (flag), Mont Blanc, Captain Villegris, and Scipion, Captain Bellanger, on a course NE by E to meet a British attack. At noon Strachan ordered the Caesar to head for the Formidable, the Hero for the Mont Blanc and the Courageux for the Scipion. And at 12.15 the action between these six ships began.

Just before 1.00 pm Captain Touffet, leading the French line in the Duguay Trouin, determined to support the Formidable by swinging round to starboard across the Caesar’s bows, to rake her from ahead. By luffing up, Strachan avoided this danger. The other three French ships then followed the Duguay Trouin round in succession on to the port tack, and at 1.20 the British ships tacked in pursuit.

Both sides were now heading for the Namur which was in action with the Formidable by 2.45. And she proved too much for Dumanoir’s already damaged flagship; at 3.50 Captain Letellier struck his colours. Five minutes later the likewise damaged Scipion also struck, Captain Bellanger’s ship being taken in prize by Strachan’s frigates. The Duguay Trouin and Mont Blanc then tried to escape, but were soon overhauled by the Caesar and Hero and, after a further 20 minutes destructive cannonade, were compelled to surrender.

In this action, much of it fought by three British ships-of-the-line against four French, the former’s casualties numbered only 24 killed and 111 wounded, the latter’s all of 750 killed, including Captain Touffet of the Duguay Trouin, and wounded, including Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, and Captain Bellanger of the Scipion.

And while the British ships suffered relatively little damage, all four French vessels had been severely mauled. Nonetheless Strachan was able to escort his opponents in prize to Plymouth where, after being refitted, they were added to the strength of the Royal Navy. The total number of vessels finally lost by the Combined Fleets at and shortly after the battle of Trafalgar was thus brought up to 19 ships-of-the-line (of which theDuguay Trouin, renamed Implacable, continued to fly the White Ensign until after the First World War, serving during her later years as a boys’ harbour training ship at Plymouth).

Strachan’s bold and effective handling of his squadron contrasts sharply with Calder’s conduct when he encountered Villeneuve in the same area in July. To him goes the credit for providing a most effective coda to Nelson’s greatest triumph, one which brought down the last curtain on a drama for which all the north Atlantic and the western Mediterranean had been the stage for seven long months. Begun when Villeneuve slipped out of Toulon on 30 March, the Trafalgar Campaign was finally ended when Dumanoir’s ships surrendered off Cape Ortegal on 4 November. For this success Strachan was rewarded with a Knighthood of the Bath, to add to his inherited baronetcy.