Skorostnoi Bombardirovshik SB

On October 1936 the Republican Spanish Air Force received an infusion of about 50 Russian aircraft. SB[SD-2] Katuska bombers began operations before the month was out.

The well known workhorse of the Spanish Civil War and 1939-40 Russo-Finnish “Talvisota” (winter-war),  the Tupolev SB, which certainly fits the stated engine and armament criteria you proposed. The SB was obsolete by the outbreak of Barbarossa in June 1941, and many were shot-up on the ground by the Luftwaffe during the first hours and days of the attack. However, enough survived until at least early 1942 to have been employed as night attack aircraft, which was in fact, the only role they were actually suited for because of their vulnerability to German day fighters. In this role, the remaining SB’s reportedly did well, until phased into rear-area transport and target-tug duties.

The SB was driven by twin 850-horsepower M100 V-12 piston engines to a top speed of 255 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 27,885 feet. Its range was a modest 746 miles. Wingspan was 66 feet 8 ½ inches, and defensive armament consisted of two 0.3-inch machine guns in a nose turret, one in a dorsal turret, and one in the ventral position. Bomb capacity was 2,205 pounds, and the plane was crewed by three.

The two ANT-40 light bomber prototypes of Andrei N. Tupolev’s design bureau were years ahead of their time when they first flew in October 1934: the all-metal construction, enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear were then comparatively novel features. Indeed the ANT-40’s maximum speed of 325 km/h (202 mph) at operating height was faster than the biplane interceptor fighters that equipped most of the peacetime air forces. The initial production version as selected for export and service with the VVS was based on the second prototype, and was known as the Tupolev SB (skorostnoi bombardirovshchik, or fast bomber); the engines were two 830-hp (619-kW) licence-built Hispano-Suiza 12Ybr engines, termed M-100 by Soviet industry, and initially these were fitted with two-bladed fixed pitch propellers. The first SBs were passed to the VVS’s bomber aviation regiments in February 1936, and in October of that year the first of 210 were transferred with Soviet crews to Spain to fight on the side of the Republican air force against the insurgent Nationalists.

The theory that fast, well-armed bombers would survive (particularly if flying in tight formations protected by interlocking fire from their machine- guns) held water at first – but only because the fighters of 1936 lacked the speed to reach them and the, armament to do serious damage. For example, a Russian Tupolev SB [SB-2] twin-engine monoplane with a speed of 255 mph was a difficult target to intercept by an Italian biplane Fiat CR32 with a top speed of 233 mph – although on occasion this feat was performed. Evidence of this sort underlined the widespread opinion of those, such as the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, that `the bomber will always get through’. It was assumed that this technical imbalance would persist and that, in any case, fighter actions would be impossible if their speeds increased much beyond the extant 220-mph mark. A natural reaction was to build bigger, faster and heavily-defended bombers in the pious hope that their existence would deter an aggressor from using his bombers – in much the same way as it was hoped that the possession of gas would deter its use.

Familiarly called the Katyusha, the Tupolev SB was first flown on October 7, 1933. Intended as a high-speed bomber, it was at the time one of the Tupolev organization’s most advanced designs, based on a heavy fighter airframe rather than a bomber. Construction was all metal and, in service during the Spanish civil war, its 255-mile-per-hour speed outflew many enemy fighters-until the appearance of the German Bf- 109 fighter. A total of 6,656 SBs were built up to 1940, and some remained in service until 1943, despite heavy losses to the Bf-109s.

Fast-flying SBs were among the world’s best bombers when they appeared in 1936. They enjoyed a distinguished career in Spain, Mongolia, and Finland before suffering heavy losses in World War II.

In 1933 the Soviet government announced specifications for an entirely new light bomber, one so fast that it could operate without escort fighters. The Tupolev design bureau finessed the problem with great skill, and in 1934 it built two prototypes with radial and in-line engines respectively. The new SB was Russia’s first stressed-skin aircraft, a midwing, all-metal monoplane bomber. It was modern in every respect to Western contemporaries and possessed such advanced features as retractable landing gear and flush-riveting. A crew of four was comfortably housed, and the plane flew faster than any fighter or bomber then in service, including the highly touted Bristol Blenheim. In 1936 the in-line engine prototype entered production as the SB, and nearly 7,000 were produced. These modern, capable craft formed the bulk of Soviet tactical aviation over the next five years and played a major role in modernizing and revitalizing the Soviet bomber forces.

SBs were bloodied in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), where they proved impervious to slower Nationalist fighters. They also enjoyed similar success in Mongolia against the Japanese and were exported to China in quantity. Several new versions were also introduced with more powerful engines, but this robust design was growing obsolete in light of developments elsewhere. SBs again fought well against Finland during 1939-1940, but when Germany invaded Russia the following year they lost their speed advantage. The SB’s record as a day bomber came to an abrupt end during the fierce fighting following the German invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941. Those that were not destroyed on the ground ventured into the air on numerous and gallantly-flown missions over the front line and paid a heavy price to the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109F fighters. Thereafter the SB and SBbis bombers were relegated to night work with the VVS and the Soviet naval air arm. They did so in a wide variety of roles, including that of night intruder and torpedo-bomber. By the time SBs withdrew in 1943, they had sustained the heaviest losses of any Russian aircraft in World War II. Production amounted to 6,967 of all marks.

Specifications (SB 2M-103)

General characteristics

Crew: 3

Length: 12.57 m (41 ft 2¾ in)

Wingspan: 20.33 m (66 ft 8 in)

Height: 3.60 m (11 ft 9¾ in)

Wing area: 56.7 m² (610.3 ft2)

Empty weight: 4,768 kg (10,512 lb)

Loaded weight: 6,308 kg (14,065 lb)

Max. takeoff weight: 7,880 kg (17,370 lb)

Powerplant: 2 × Klimov M-103 liquid-cooled V12 engine, 716 kW (960 hp) each


Maximum speed: 450 km/h (243 knots, 280 mph) at 4,100 m (13,450 ft)

Range: 2,300 km (1,243 nmi, 1,429 mi)

Service ceiling: 9,300 m (30,510 ft)

Climb to 1,000 m (3,280 ft): 1.8 min

Climb to 9,000 m (29,500 ft): 32 min


Guns: 4 × 7.62 mm ShKAS machine guns (two in nose, one in dorsal and one in ventral position)

Bombs: 6 × 100 kg (220 lb) or six 50 kg (110 lb) bombs in bomb-bay, 2 × 250 kg (550 lb) bombs on wing racks


Index SB of Arkhangelsky’s high-velocity bomber comes from plain meaning:

“Skorostnoi Bombardirovshik”.

skorostnOi = high velocity

bombardirOvshik = bomber

Actual index must be like below



SB 2M-100

SB 2M-100A

SB 2M-103


the index reads “SB with TWO engines <namely>”.

I don’t know why west took TWO as a part of plane’s name.

It is not SECOND bomber or SECOND design.

All articles related to the Tupolev SB still carry the misnomer of SB-2 [including this one for familiarity]. It may well be that the Germans started this incorrect nomenclature.


Post-Armada English Maritime Exploits I

Battle of Cadiz Bay by Aert Anthonisz

Insula Gaditana, vulgo isla de Cádiz. Mapa de la bahía de Cádiz, perteneciente al “Blaeus Grooten Atlas” de 1664.

After Sir Francis Drake died Sir Thomas Baskerville assumed command of the 1596 Panama expedition and decided to cut his losses. Scuttling two more ships to distribute their crews among the rest, the disease-ridden fleet sailed back to England, pausing to fight Avellaneda off the Isle of Pines. Avellaneda later captured the fleet’s reconnaissance caravel Help off the north coast of Cuba, a meagre return for the largest war fleet sent to the Indies during the reign of Philip II. On the other hand the galizabras had sailed back with the bullion from Begonia as soon as Drake departed San Juan, which was the greater victory for their cash-strapped monarch. It was not enough, however, and in 1596 he had to default on his debts, mainly to Genoese bankers, leading to a drying up of credit for the last two years of his reign.

The factor that precipitated Philip’s default was assembling in England even as the ships of the Caribbean expedition limped back. The returning fleet was kept away from Plymouth, where the largest of all the Elizabethan amphibious operations was about to set out under the joint command of Lord Admiral Howard and the manic-depressive Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the last and least worthy of Elizabeth’s favourites. He stepped into the void in her affections left by the death in September 1588 of his step-father Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The death of Sir Christopher Hatton in 1591 and the disgrace of Sir Walter Ralegh in 1592 (when his secret marriage became known) also cleared Essex’s path, to the point that for the first time Burghley found himself faced with a rival whose influence over the queen threatened his own.

The infatuation was not limited to the ageing queen. Leicester’s last service to Elizabeth had been the carefully choreographed apotheosis (‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too’) at Tilbury during the Armada scare. The aura did not survive her apparent indifference to her people’s welfare during the demobilization and the failure of the counter-armada. By the mid-1590s the populace was turning out to cheer Essex as a breath of fresh air. More ominously, he also gained a strong following among professional soldiers exasperated by the queen’s chronic dithering and perceived parsimony.

Hindsight supports the charge of indecisiveness, but from Hakluyt to the present day historians have given too much credence to the clamour of Elizabeth’s naval and military commanders for more of everything, without regard to her limited means. Yet honest dealing and cost-effectiveness were alien concepts to most royal officers – Christopher Carleill and Sir John Hawkins (in his capacity as Treasurer of the Royal Navy) being among the rare exceptions – and if there’s one constant in history it’s that military men invariably blame their failures on lack of resources.

Although devastating to Philip II’s prestige and precarious finances, the 1596 raid on Cadiz failed to bring home the one thing Elizabeth needed above all: the means to pay for the on-going war, which now extended to a rebellion in Ulster led by Hugh Roe O’Donnell, openly joined in 1595 by his father-in-law Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, with stronger Spanish encouragement than practical support. The Cadiz raid was mounted to disrupt the preparations for a new armada, this time aimed at Ireland, but failed to do so because the ships were concentrated in Lisbon and Vigo. However, it did succeed indirectly, because Philip’s finances could no longer stretch to opening a new front in the war. New orders were issued to sail instead to reinforce Águila in Brittany, but Jehovah flavit with a vengeance and the armada was shattered by a storm off Cape Finisterre in late October.

The 1596 armada was no small undertaking. At Lisbon there were 24 galleons and 53 hired Flemish and German merchant ships carrying nearly 11,000 men, joined by 30 shallow draft felibotes with 2,500 men from Seville. A further 41 ships with 6,000 men were assembled at Vigo. The storm sank 14 ships, including 2 pay ships carrying 30,000 ducats. Thirty more were unaccounted.

The Howard/Essex fleet, entirely paid for by the queen, was not much smaller. It consisted of her 13 most powerful galleons in four squadrons led by the Lord Admiral, Essex, Lord Thomas Howard and Sir Walter Ralegh. Distributed among them were a London contingent of 10 armed merchantmen, assorted royal and London pinnaces, and 64 store ships and troop transports carrying 14,000 men. It was joined by a Dutch contingent of three large and 15 smaller warships with six store ships.

Initially hesitant to risk the queen’s ships by sailing straight into the bay – as Drake had done in 1587 – the Lord Admiral first tried to land the troops on the western side of the peninsula. As a result he sacrificed the operational surprise he had achieved by a cloud of disinformation indicating that Lisbon was the target (he had only revealed the true objective to his captains once he was at sea). The Spanish were granted time to moor their warships in a line between the Puntal and Matagorda peninsulas, and to move the merchant ships of the outgoing Indies flota to the inner harbour.

The battle line included four of the Apostles, two large Portuguese galleons, three medium-sized galleons from the flota escort, three of the galizabras that had brought back the bullion from San Juan, and two large and heavily armed Ragusan carracks. Eighteen galleys were moored off the city with their heavy bow armament ready to hit the attackers in the flank.

The English should not have been able to break through such a line, but the crews of the Spanish warships were not the men of 1588. They let go their anchors and the biggest, the Apostles and the Ragusan carracks, promptly ran aground. Ralegh observed ‘tumbling into the sea heaps of soldiers so thick as if coals had been poured out of a sack, [from] many ports at once, some drowned, some sticking in the mud’. Some remained long enough to set fire to San Felipe, San Tomás and one of the Ragusan carracks, but San Mateo, San Andrés and the other Ragusan were captured intact by English boarding parties.

The way was clear to send the smaller ships into the inner harbour to capture the flota, but instead Essex charged ashore and the Lord Admiral, not greatly against his will, was compelled to support him. Cadiz fell surprisingly easily and the entire expedition devoted itself to looting the city. While they were thus occupied, the Duke of Medina Sidonia arrived and ordered the 42 large and uncounted smaller ships in the inner harbour burned. The loss was estimated at 12 million ducats, while Howard and Essex were demanding one percent (120,000 ducats) of that as a ransom for the hostages they had taken. When this was not forthcoming they set fire to the city and sailed away with the hostages.

Furthermore, with their auxiliaries (and not a few of the royal ships) anxious to get home with their loot, they made no effort to comply with the second part of their commission, which was to intercept the Portuguese East Indies carracks or the incoming Spanish flota that were due to arrive at the Azores. Instead of being rewarded with enough money to keep the war going indefinitely, the queen was reduced to trying to wring her share from the participants, from whom her commissioners managed to extract a mere £8,359 against her outlay of £50,000.

It almost defies belief that the queen was persuaded to give Essex another naval command, but to some extent circumstances forced her hand. In the investigation that followed the Cadiz raid it became clear that Essex, Ralegh and Lord Thomas Howard had consistently voted in favour of the more aggressive course of action in all the councils of war summoned by the Lord Admiral, and 1597 brought credible intelligence that the Spanish were assembling yet another armada at the arsenal port of Ferrol, located a few miles north-east of Coruña across a broad bay. (See Map, page 267.)

The entrance to the Ferrol estuary was through a narrow, twisting channel commanded by forts on either side, and whatever wind permitted a fleet to enter the harbour would keep it there. Even more than at Santander, the neutralization of the land defences was an absolute prerequisite for any naval attack on the port. Yet the original English plan provided only 5,000 troops, of which 1,000 were experienced soldiers drawn from the Netherlands and the rest untrained levies.

Even if supplied with siege artillery, which they were not, and if there had been a suitable place to land, which there was not, it would have required a landing force considerably larger even than the one sent to Cadiz in 1596 to take the forts and to hold both sides of the mouth of the Ferrol estuary against Spanish counter-attacks. The whole plan was based on a contemptuous under-estimation of the enemy, and magical thinking with regard to the wind and weather conditions required for the operation to have any chance at all of success.

Adverse winds delayed the departure of the expedition, and after it sortied on 10 July a violent storm drove much of it back to Plymouth with masts sprung and yards broken. It became apparent that standards in the royal shipyards had slipped since the death of Sir John Hawkins when ship after ship, including the brand new Warspite and Essex’s flagship Merhonour, developed serious leaks. As the end of the campaigning season drew nearer, the operation was scaled back to the bare core, a charge into the harbour led by the two huge captured Apostles, now known as Saint Andrew and Saint Matthew, counting on confusion among the gunners in the forts. They were to be followed by a flock of smaller vessels, some of which were to be expended as fireships while the rest would bring off the crews of the Apostles, which would also be burned.

When the expedition sailed again on 17 August, now with only a reduced number of the Netherlands veterans embarked, bad weather disabled the two Apostles and opened a dangerous leak on the newly built Due Repulse, Essex’s replacement flagship. His orders were to destroy the armada and only then to seek to pay for the expedition by trying to intercept the Indies fleets. The queen could not have been more categorical that under no circumstances should Essex leave the Channel unguarded if he could not first destroy the ships assembled in Ferrol.

So that is just what he did. The loss of the Apostles alone doomed the planned attack, and steady easterly winds – ideal for a Spanish sortie – made a blockade impractical. Instead of returning to England, Essex sailed to the Azores on the basis of the flimsiest intelligence. After dashing off madly in all directions and failing to achieve anything significant he finally set sail for England, came close to running the fleet onto the Isles of Scilly, and finally reached Plymouth on 26 October.

It would be a considerable understatement to say that he met with a frosty reception. In his absence the largest armada since 1588 – 136 ships, 60 of them warships – had sortied from Ferrol on 9 October towing 20 purpose-built landing craft with which to put ashore a well-equipped army of 8,600 troops. Their objective was to seize the great harbour at Falmouth, where the troopships would remain while the warships sailed offshore to intercept Essex’s fleet returning from the Azores. It was a realistic plan and required only for the Spanish to enjoy some long overdue good luck.

It was not forthcoming and the armada was hit by a storm out of the north when almost in sight of Falmouth. Although not as severe as in 1596, losses were disabling (all the landing craft were lost) and the ailing king had neither the will nor the means to try again. Queen Elizabeth had nothing to complain about God’s partiality, but she sensibly judged it best not to presume on divine providence any further and turned against any further grand expeditions to concentrate on matters nearer to hand.

A month before his death on 4 August 1598, Lord Burghley had the satisfaction of seeing the queen box Essex’s ears after one too many insolences. Shortly before his death on 13 September, Philip II had the slight consolation of learning that Tyrone and O’Donnell had inflicted a stinging defeat on the English at Yellow Ford a month earlier. The outcome of these events was that the queen granted Essex one more opportunity to redeem himself, in Ireland in 1599. As Tacitus once wrote of the Emperor Galba, so Wernham sums up the chasm between theory and practice in Essex’s military career: had he not held high command, everyone would have thought him well qualified for it.

After his failure in Ireland (reaching a truce with Tyrone rather than defeating him) and subsequent house arrest, there was no-one left at court to balance the influence of Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, Secretary of State since the death of Walsingham in 1590, who in alliance with Lord Admiral Howard dominated the Privy Council to a degree his father had never achieved. There remained only the tragi-comedy of Essex’s attempted coup d’état and execution in early 1601. The queen had successfully balanced factions throughout her long reign, but she was approaching 70 and in her last bravura speech to Parliament in 1601 spoke frankly: ‘To be a king and wear a crown is a thing more glorious to them that see it than it is pleasant to them that bear it’.

In Spain, Philip III came to the throne determined to succeed where his father had failed. Elizabeth wanted peace but did not feel she could leave the Dutch unsupported, although she obtained a commitment that they should pay for the English forces still fighting alongside them and also begin to repay the large sums she had lent them over the preceding 13 years. They could afford to do so because throughout the war they had continued to trade very profitably with Spain.

Nobody ever accused the Spanish Hapsburgs of learning from their mistakes, thus one of Philip III’s first acts was to order all Dutch ships in Spanish ports seized and to ban trade between Spain and the Dutch Republic, a ban extended to trade with the Spanish Netherlands in January 1599. The Dutch responded with a ban of their own and, confident that they could succeed where the English had failed, sent a large fleet to raid both the Spanish ports and the Atlantic islands.

It was a complete fiasco but it did help England indirectly. Philip III had prepared an armada against England in 1599, which caused Elizabeth to order a full mobilization of the Royal Navy, but the Spanish fleet was sent instead to deal with the Dutch threat to the Atlantic islands. Oppressed by the heavy cost of maintaining 17,000 troops in Ireland, Elizabeth ordered the demobilization of the fleet as soon as she learned of this. But with attention fixed on the armada that never came, the Narrow Seas squadron left its station off Calais and failed to prevent six Spanish galleys from Santander and their attendant fragatas under 28 year-old Federico Spinola from running the Channel gauntlet past Dunkirk to Sluys, the Spanish-held port across the main channel of the Scheldt estuary from the English cautionary port of Flushing.

Federico was the younger brother of Ambrogio, who was to keep the Spanish cause in the Netherlands alive from 1602 to 1625. After the Dorias, the Spinolas were the second most powerful of the Genoese banking clans that provided the backbone of the Hapsburg Mediterranean galley fleet. They were also owed so much money by the Spanish crown, and had such extensive land holdings in Spanish Lombardy, Sicily and Spain itself, that their interests were inseparable.

Galleys had a wretched record in combat with galleons. In April 1590 a flotilla of Levant Company ships, including Alderman Boreman’s Salomon, John Watt’s Margaret and John and Thomas Cordell’s Centurion, all 1588 Armada veterans, beat off 12 large galleys under the command of Gian’Andrea Doria himself in the Straits of Gibraltar. Margaret and John had previously taken part in the July 1586 battle. In April 1591, again off Gibraltar, Centurion alone defeated five galleys even though they managed to grapple with her and board.

Federico, who had served in the Netherlands for many years under Farnese, was convinced that galleys would be able to regain control of the Flanders coast from Justin of Nassau’s cromsters, and had been petitioning Madrid since 1593 to be permitted to prove his theory. When Philip III became king he gave his assent to a complicated deal involving the Spinolas lending him 100,000 ducats interest free for a year, in return for which the king undertook to provide six galleys and a tercio of troops to man them, and to maintain the flotilla to the tune of 81,000 ducats every six months.

Upon the death of Philip II the Spanish Netherlands became a semi-autonomous principality under Cardinal Archduke Albert of Austria, previously the governor-general after the death of his older brother in 1595. Permitted to renounce the purple by Pope Clement VIII, he married Philip III’s sister in April 1599. Archduke Albert was a party to the agreement between the Spinolas and Philip III and undertook to provide quarters for Federico’s troops, also heavy guns and ammunition for the galleys. The aim was to regain the military initiative in the Netherlands and to force the Dutch and English to negotiate from a position of weakness.

Although Federico Spinola’s ambitions extended to seizing a beach-head in England, his first priority was to support Archduke’s Albert’s renewed offensive against the Dutch enclave around Ostend. In combination with the Dunkirk felibotes, and joined by two galleys built there by shipwrights sent from Genoa by his older brother, Federico did such damage to coastal traffic in 1599–1600 that Elizabeth ordered the construction of four 100-ton galleys (all given Anglo-Italian names – Advantagia, Superlativa, Gallarita and Volatillia) and even the Dutch, who had never before employed galleys, built three, including the 200-ton Black Galley of Zeeland.

Spinola’s activities suffered from lack of support from Archduke Albert, who suffered a humiliating defeat after trapping the hyper-cautious Maurice of Nassau at Nieuport in early July 1600. Further negotiations with Philip III in 1601 saw a revival of the English beach-head project with the promise of eight fully manned galleys to come from Genoa, supported on land by Ambrogio Spinola who would raise 6,000 troops in Italy at his own expense and march them to the Netherlands, where he would take over the active conduct of the war.

Post-Armada English Maritime Exploits II

Battle of Sesimbra Bay. Attack on Spanish Treasure Galleys, Portugal 1602.

Before that, in September 1601, the Spanish at last struck at what had always been England’s Achilles’ heel in Ireland. Juan del Águila landed with 3,000 troops at Kinsale and a smaller force under Alonso de Ocampo landed at Baltimore. They were about as far away as it was possible to get from rebel-held territory in the north and the idea seems to have been to turn the two ports, already notorious havens for pirates with no regard for English authority, into corsair ports preying on Dutch and English shipping, following the successful example of the felibotes operating out of Dunkirk.

Águila was promptly cut off by sea while Sir George Carew, Lord President of Munster, besieged Kinsale by land. When Tyrone and O’Donnell marched south their forces, joined by Ocampo, were defeated outside Kinsale on Christmas Eve by Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, Essex’s competent successor as Lord Deputy of Ireland. Mountjoy had already torn the heart out of the rebellion with an amphibious landing in the north and a scorched earth campaign on Tyrone’s lands.

Richard Leveson

The suppression of the rebellion was possible only because the Royal Navy established control of the waters around Ireland for the first time. The naval commander was Sir Richard Leveson, one of a new generation of naval commanders in their early 30s who also included Sir William Monson, author of the multi-volume and occasionally accurate Tracts that gave historian Michael Oppenheim the hook on which to hang the first detailed history of the 1585–1604 war.

Leveson and Monson came the closest of all Elizabeth’s admirals to capturing a silver flota off the Azores during the last fund-raising cruise of her reign, in the summer of 1602. It was supposed to be a combined operation with the Dutch but they were late to the rendezvous in Plymouth. Leveson sailed on ahead with five Royal Navy ships while Monson remained behind with four to wait for the Dutch. Within a few days Monson received an order from the queen to sail immediately, as word had reached London that the flota had reached the Azores.

It had, and sailed on to Lisbon past Leveson, who attacked one of them unsuccessfully. Monson, delayed by malfunctions on his ships, arrived just too late. They found a consolation prize at the Portuguese port of Sesimbra, south of Lisbon, where on 12 June they fought off eleven galleys to capture the large carrack São Valentinho. Her cargo was sold for £44,000, which barely covered the queen’s costs, rapidly rising amid the wholesale corruption and shoddy workmanship presided over by Lord Admiral Howard. ‘If the queen’s ships had been fitted out with care’, Monson wrote, ‘we had made her majesty mistress of more treasure than any of her progenitors ever enjoyed’.

Three of the galleys at Sesimbra had come from Lisbon under the command of Alonso de Bazán, but the other eight were Spinola’s Genoese galleys, which Federico had only just joined in Lisbon to lead on the last part of their voyage to the Netherlands. The galleys had massive 60-pounder cannon in their bows and formed a tight defensive screen in the shallows around São Valentinho.

Monson, who had spent a year as a slave on one Bazán’s galleys, anchored outside their effective range and bombarded them with the 16 culverins on Garland to force them to break formation. When Bazán’s galleys did, the shallow draft Dreadnought (360 tons to Garland’s 532) sailed into the gap and took them on at close range with her 11 demi-culverins and 10 sakers. After Bazán was badly wounded his battered galleys rowed away, but Spinola stayed and fought until he had lost two and the rest were in imminent danger of sharing their fate.

Spinola took his six remaining galleys back to Lisbon and with royal consent took oars and rowers from Bazán’s galleys. On 9 August the galleys departed, carrying 36 pay chests for the army in Flanders. At Santander he took on a further 400 troops to complete an on-board tercio of 1,600 men and reached Port-Blavet in Brittany by mid-September. This time there was no armada to distract attention: the English and Dutch were well informed of his movements and they were ready for him.

Off Dungeness during the night of 3–4 October Spinola ran into the 400-ton Hope, launched in 1559 and along with Victory the last unreconstructed carrack in the Royal Navy. She was the flagship of 29-year-old Sir Robert Mansell, one of the Lord Admiral’s placemen of whom Julian Corbett wrote the damning verdict that ‘it is the rise of this man that marks the commencement of a reign of selfishness and corruption that almost brought the navy to ruin in the next reign’. Mansell had little naval experience but his excellent flag captain anticipated that Spinola would try to repeat his 1599 tactic of sailing close to the English coast. The carrack savaged San Felipe before the other five galleys came up in support, and followed them until they rowed over the Goodwin Sands.

When they made a break for the Flemish coast the Dutch inshore squadron was waiting for them and sank San Felipe and Lucera by ramming. Padilla escaped to Calais, where the French interned her and used her as firewood. San Juan and Jacinto made it inside the Flanders Bank but were too badly damaged and their rowers too exhausted to do more than run aground near Nieuport. Only Spinola on San Luis, carrying the 36 pay chests, managed to row to safety in Dunkirk.

Queen Elizabeth died on 24 March 1603 and Federico Spinola survived her by barely two months. Having brought his Sluys squadron back up to its eight-galley strength, he sortied on 26 May to attack three Dutch oared ships, including Black Galley, which were accompanied by the 34-gun cromster Gouden Leeuw (Golden Lion). Spinola, standing on the forecastle as his galley led the charge against Black Galley, had an arm shot off and was hit in the stomach by swivel guns, after which his men lost heart and rowed back to Sluys.

Sir Walter Ralegh and George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland, spanned the gap between the wholly royal and wholly private naval expeditions during the latter years of Elizabeth’s reign. As such they represent the (not very close) English equivalent to the Spinolas as men so indebted or devoted to their monarch that they spent their own fortunes in her service. Ralegh was a parvenu whose fortune came entirely from the favour Elizabeth had shown him. The Barons de Clifford were an old established northern borderer dynasty, but the earldom of Cumberland was created for Clifford’s grandfather by Henry VIII as a reward for the family’s dog-like loyalty to the Tudors.

Posterity exalted Ralegh, mainly because, thanks to his Roanoke venture, he was seen as the prophet of the British Empire, but also because his five-volume History of the World, written when imprisoned in the Tower under sentence of death, was an intellectual tour de force that put him on a par with Sir Francis Bacon as the most influential English author of the 17th century. I cannot improve on the conclusion of his Dictionary of National Biography entry:

Those who came after him, who never met him, have instinctively liked Ralegh, or their version of Ralegh. He was certainly a most astonishing and compelling man, in his writings as in the rest of his life touched by genius and greatness, the focus of legend. It should not be forgotten, however, that many of those who lived in the same small world of the Elizabethan court, after long association with Ralegh, either disliked him intensely or distrusted him profoundly.

Cumberland’s loyalty was sparingly rewarded and mercilessly exploited by Elizabeth. He began to lose his hair early and was not particularly good-looking, but the biggest obstacle between him and the royal favour that cascaded on prettier men may have been that he was too awkward to indulge convincingly in the artifices of courtly love. He was also an inveterate gambler, and although granted the ceremonial role of Queen’s Champion in 1590, Elizabeth never gave him a military command or admitted him to the Privy Council. His best-known portrait, a 1590 miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, shows a man dressed in extravagant jousting armour with the queen’s jewelled glove pinned to a feathered hat that makes the whole ensemble seem rather ridiculous.

Both men were among the foremost promoters of the corsair war, but neither was solely motivated by the prospect – in Cumberland’s case the urgent need – of profit. We have seen Ralegh’s attempt to set up an operational base in Virginia from which to interdict the Spanish flotas, and Cumberland adjusted his ventures to supplement the Royal Navy’s attempt to blockade the Spanish coast, thereby saving Lord Thomas Howard from disaster at Flores in 1591. Of course both hoped for wealth as well as glory, but they would probably have achieved more of the former if they had not also wished to perform some outstanding service in the hope of tangible recognition by the queen.

Both of them built giant galleons that could not possibly pay their way simply as corsairs and must have been intended to supplement the Royal Navy. Ralegh, as we have seen, was relieved of the expense of his Ark, which became Lord Admiral Howard’s flagship. In 1595 Cumberland built an even bigger (600 tons burden) ship named Malice Scourge at the queen’s suggestion. In it he led, brilliantly, the largest entirely private military-strategic operation of Elizabeth’s reign to take San Juan, Puerto Rico, three years after Drake had failed to do so during his last voyage.

It did nothing to change Elizabeth’s opinion of him and after 1598 he was compelled to sell off his fleet. Malice Scourge, renamed Red Dragon, became the flagship of the new East India Company in 1600. Rather pathetically Cumberland tried to console himself with the thought that ‘I have done unto her Majesty an excellent service and discharged that duty which I owe to my country so far as that, whensoever God shall call me out of this wretched world, I shall die with assurance I have discharged a good part I was born for’.

He spent less time at court, curtailed his gambling and devoted his last years to salvaging some of the lands he regretted having ‘cast into the sea’. He also made himself useful to James VI of Scotland and, despite having been among those who condemned James’s mother to death, was finally made a privy councillor when the king became James I of England. Cumberland died in 1605.

Ralegh’s meteoric career stalled after he got with child and secretly married Bess Throckmorton, one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting. When the truth emerged in April 1592, after the birth of the child, the queen was incandescent. Husband and wife were put under separate house arrests, but after Ralegh grossly misjudged the situation and indulged in some insultingly theatrical expressions of contrition the queen had them both consigned to the Tower. He was let out a month later to salvage what he could of the queen’s share of the richest single prize taken during her reign.

This was the great Portuguese East Indies carrack Madre de Deus. According to the results of an ‘exquisite survey’ given in Hakluyt, she was about 1,450 tons burden and in excess of 2,000 tons fully laden. The model in the Lisbon Museu de Marinha confirms she had a two-storey forecastle and a staggered three-storey sterncastle. With 32 guns, 10 of them sakers or larger firing through main deck gunports, and a complement of 600–700 men, she was a formidable challenge.

How Madre de Deus was taken and what followed provides a suitable microcosm through which to explain the corrosive failure of public–private ventures in the English guerre de course. Three groups met by chance off Flores in the Azores. With the scandal of his secret marriage hanging over his head, Ralegh made a desperate effort to put together an expedition involving the ever-popular queen’s ship Foresight (295) under Robert Crosse. The private component was Ralegh’s own Roebuck (240) under Sir John Burgh, John Hawkins’s Dainty (200) under Thomas Thompson, Bark Bond (56) sent by John Bond and partners of Weymouth under Nicholas Ayers (the previous Bark Bond had been used as a fireship in 1588), and a number of pinnaces and frigates.

Ralegh tried to get away on 6 May but, blown back, he was superseded a week later at the queen’s command by Sir Martin Frobisher in Garland (532) and recalled to London. Frobisher may have been accompanied by some unnamed ships grudgingly sent by London merchants in response to the conditional release by the queen of £6,000 on the money due to them for prizes taken by the London squadron in 1591. This was something new: the queen was not only retaining the proceeds of her subjects’ ventures as a forced interest-free loan, but was also using it to tell them what to do.

The objective was to intercept five East Indies carracks expected at the Azores in July. Ralegh intended to lead the whole flotilla to the Azores, but Frobisher brought with him instructions for the main component to sail with him to Cape St Vincent while a smaller group under Burgh patrolled the Azores. Frobisher was not one to question orders, but Crosse on Foresight and Thompson on Dainty knew it was folly to divide the command and slipped away to join Burgh’s Roebuck.

Cumberland’s ships made up the second component, led by John Norton in Tiger (170), followed by Abraham Cocke in Sampson (260), Phoenix (60), the frigate Discovery (12) and two other small ships, Grace of Dover and Bark of Barnstaple. Gold Noble (200), owned by the London merchants John Bird and John Newton, was supposed to sail with them but became separated and sailed instead to the coast of Portugal, where it took a 900-ton (presumably ‘tons and tonnage’) prize.

The third component was two ships returning from an already highly successful West Indies voyage, in which they raided San José de Ocoa and captured Yaguana on Hispaniola, and then cut a prize out from under the guns of the fort at Trujillo and captured Puerto Caballos in Honduras. The syndicate that sent the expedition was headed by John More and included John Newton (again), Robert Cobb and Henry Cletherow, all of London. It was led by Christopher Newport in Golden Dragon (130) followed by Hugh Merrick in Prudence (70). Golden Dragon carried two demi-culverins, six sakers, seven minions and four falcons. She had a crew of 70–80 men with 31 muskets and three arquebuses.

Burgh arrived at Flores on 21 June to learn that he had missed the first of the East Indies carracks, which also slipped past Frobisher during the night of 7–8 July. Immediately afterwards Burgh sighted Santa Cruz, pursued by Cumberland’s ships. In a dead calm he rowed to examine the carrack, intending to board her next day, but during the night a storm came up and she ran herself aground, where her crew were seen frenziedly unloading the carrack before setting her on fire. Burgh and Norton sent a landing party that routed the Portuguese and captured some of the cargo, as well as the ship’s purser, who was coerced into admitting that three more carracks were 15 days behind. He did not know that two of them had already wrecked.

When Newport arrived he agreed to ‘consortship’ with Burgh, but Norton refused to acknowledge that Burgh’s commission from the queen had seniority over his own from Cumberland. Despite this, the two agreed to act in concert and stationed their ships in a screen west of Flores, each ship spaced about 6 miles/10 kilometres from the other on a south–north axis. From the southern (windward) flank the sequence was Dainty, Golden Dragon, Roebuck, Tiger, Sampson, Prudence and Foresight.

In the morning of 3 August Dainty sighted Madre de Deus and attacked her at about midday, followed at two-hour intervals by Golden Dragon and then Roebuck, joined by Foresight – which was either out of station or sailed past Cumberland’s ships and Prudence – at about 7pm. Dainty had her foremast shot away and lost contact for five days. Burgh and Crosse, desperate to prevent the carrack running herself aground, crashed Dainty and Foresight into her, under her main deck guns, and disabled her by cutting the bow rigging.

After that it was a pell-mell night assault with the crews of Golden Dragon, Sampson and Tiger pouring aboard alongside the men of Foresight and Dainty in a looting frenzy that nearly resulted in the loss of the ship and all aboard her, as recounted by Purchas: ‘The English now hunted after nothing but pillage, each man lighting a candle, the negligence of which fired a cabin in which were six hundred cartridges of powder’.

There never has been honour among thieves. When Thompson’s Dainty rejoined he asked Burgh for a share of the silks, jewels and coins that now filled the cabins of the other captains. Burgh gave him a seaman’s chest that had already been broken open. Norton, who had promised the Portuguese captain that his passengers would not be personally robbed, kept his word and gave them Grace of Dover to take them to Flores. But Nicholas Ayers on Bark Bond intercepted the pinnace and stripped them naked, collecting hundreds of diamonds, rubies and pearls sewn into their clothing.

The extent of the preliminary looting can be judged from the fact that Madre de Deus drew 31 feet when she left Cochin but only 26 when she sailed into Dartmouth harbour on 9 September. There, theft on an industrial scale began with two thousand buyers flocking to the port. When it became apparent that Sir Francis Drake, vice-admiral of Devon and Cornwall, and the other queen’s commissioners were taking a decidedly broad view of this, Burghley sent his son Robert Cecil to try to stop the carrack being emptied of all her contents. He reported from Exeter that everyone he met within 7 miles/11 kilometres of the city smelled strongly of pepper, cloves and other spices.

Finally the queen ordered the release of Ralegh from the Tower to recover whatever he could. He managed to have what was left of the bulkier goods to the value of £141,200 loaded on Garland and Roebuck for transport to London. Elizabeth, whose investment had been a mere £3,000, tried to claim all of it, ‘challenging the services of her subjects’ ships, which are bound to help her at sea’. The Lord Admiral, anxious to preserve the income from his tenth, persuaded her that ‘it were utterly to overthrow all service if due regard were not had of my Lord of Cumberland and Sir Walter Ralegh and the rest of the adventurers, who would never be induced further to venture’.

The point being that the looting had cost the ship owners, promoters and suppliers – who were entitled to two-thirds of the value of the prize – far more than it had diminished the Lord Admiral’s tenth and the twentieth due to the queen for customs duties. Nonetheless she took the lion’s share of the remainder, arguing that the sailors had already taken much more than they were entitled to and that the adventurers must recover what they could from their ships’ crews. Cumberland’s syndicate was allowed £37,000, with which he was deeply unhappy but which gave them all a reasonable return. Ralegh and his partners were allowed only £24,000, which was a stinging slap in the face. Against this he had earned the queen’s forgiveness, which he must have considered worth the price. But he was still banned from the court until 1597, and never recovered her favour.

The conclusion to be drawn from this episode is obvious. Elizabeth’s public–private ventures did severe damage to the subjects of King Philip II and on occasion caused the Spanish monarch acute financial embarrassment. However, she herself gained much less from those ventures than she might have done because she presided over a kleptocratic state and was herself guilty of dishonest dealing. Majesty is the first casualty when a monarch descends to squabbling with her subjects over the division of loot, and it’s perfectly clear that it was not just her increasing age that caused Elizabeth’s moral authority to drain away during the last decade of her reign.

Miracle of Empel

Interpretation of the Battle of Empel by Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg.

The Battle of Empel was a decisive battle. The Spanish force was decimated and backed onto a mountain without food and their fate seemed to be left to the enemy’s whims. The die appeared to be cast for the soldiers of the Spanish Tercio and yet, something unexpected happened. The events of the morning of December 8, 1585 would go down in history as “The Miracle of Empel.”

The Eighty Years’ War

The   Eighty Years’ War  began in 1568 and ended in 1648. It was a lengthy struggle between the provinces of the Netherlands against their ruler at the time, the King of Spain. Numerous battles were fought during these eight decades, with some of the more well-known being those of Antwerp and Ostend, as well as the famous  siege of Breda . The Battle of Empel was also part of this drawn-out war.

For years the fighting took place in Flemish territory, claiming thousands of lives. However, the arrival of certain military leaders, such as Alessandro Farnese , seemed to signify a change. Yet the Spanish victories in the late sixteenth century did not quell the revolts.

When Farnese regained Antwerp for the Spanish in the summer of 1585, he sent an infantry to the island Bommelerwaard, situated between the rivers Maas (Meuse) and Waal. In response, Admiral Holak located a fleet of 10 vessels between the Empel dam and the city of Bolduque-Hertogenbosch, completely blocking in the Spaniards and leaving them at the mercy of his naval artillery. The Tercio, led by Francisco Arias Bobadilla, could not resist the pressure for long.

Holak offered the Spanish an honorable surrender but, according to sources of the time, this was the answer he received: “Spanish soldiers prefer death to dishonor. We’ll talk about capitulation (surrender) after death.”

Maestre de Campo Francisco Arias de Bobadilla were besieged on the island of Bommel by 100 ships of the rebel army of the United Provinces. Dutch forces surrounded the Spanish Tercios, who suffered a hopeless situation. Added to the shortage of food there was the flooding of the land caused by their enemies when they opened the levees containing the rivers.

Faced with such colossal arrogance, Holak decided to rid himself of the Spanish soldiers and ordered the opening of the dams’ floodgates (which were located above the enemy camp) to flood the island and drown the soldiers. However, the Spaniards quickly fled to embrace the only piece of high land: the tiny mountain of Empel, which was able to hold about 5000 soldiers.

Soon the Dutch attacked Mount Empel and the night was filled with endless artillery and musketry fire. For the Spanish, the situation reached a new level of desperation: the soldiers were soaked, shivering, and hungry, and did not have dry wood or any food. Surrounded by enemy troops, with no apparent chance of escape, the Spaniards decided to resist until the end.

On the morning of December 7, 1585, the situation was unbearable for the Spaniards, but then something happened that would change the destiny of these soldiers. Legends says that while digging a trench, one of the soldiers found a painting with the image of Mary of the Immaculate Conception.

The finding was interpreted as a divine sign by the soldiers and it greatly raised the morale of the troops. They placed the image in a makeshift altar of a flag and, after praying, had recovered their hopes to escape alive from what they previously felt was a death trap.

Following the unexpected discovery, Francisco Arias de Bobadilla gathered his captains and told them that when night fell they were to attack the main ships. Some captains proposed killing each other instead of falling to enemy fire, but Bobadilla would not hear of it, and berated them for the thought, then encouraged them to fight to the death – entrusting their lives to the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

And Then a Miracle …

During the early hours of December 8, an icy wind began to blow, which caused the waters of the Meuse (Maas) to freeze – something that had not been witnessed for many years. So, Bobadilla ordered Captain Cristobal Lechuga to prepare two hundred men to attack the enemy.  Thus, the Spanish infantry marched onto the ice and completed a surprise attack. The Spanish infantry took many prisoners and captured and burned all the ships of the enemy fleet.

On December 9, the Spaniards charged and conquered the Dutch fort located along the river. The Spanish victory was so complete that many sources claim that Admiral Holak went on to say:

    “In my opinion, it seems that God is Spanish to work so great a miracle [for them]. Five thousand Spaniards who were also five thousand soldiers […] and five thousand devils.”

Since then, the Immaculate Conception is patroness of the Spanish Tercios of Flanders and Italy.

Vamos a satisfacer la curiosidad sobre las tablillas que portan los soldados del grupo religioso. Estas conmemoran el conocido como “Milagro de Empel”.

En 1585, durante la Guerra de los Ochenta Años, unos pocos miles de hombres comandados por el Maestre de Campo Francisco Arias de Bobadilla, se encontraban sitiados en la isla de Bommel por cien navíos del ejército rebelde de las Provincias Unidas. Las fuerzas holandesas contenían al Tercio español, que sufría una situación desesperada. A la escasez de víveres se le une la inundación del terreno al abrir sus enemigos los diques que contenían los ríos.

Tal y como ocurriera en otras ocasiones, los tercios no aceptan la oferta de rendición, prefiriendo la muerte a la deshonra. Refugiándose en la única zona de tierra firme, el pequeño montecillo de Empel, preparan trincheras y parapetos para una defensa final. Mientras cavan, un soldado encuentra unas tablillas enterradas con la imagen de la Inmaculada Concepción. Emocionados, consideran el hallazgo como una señal divina e improvisan un altar encomendándose a la Virgen Inmaculada.

 Esa misma noche se desata un viento inusualmente helado que congela el río Mosa, permitiendo a los españoles cruzar sobre el hielo y atacar por sorpresa. Animados por el fervor religioso, obtienen una victoria completa sobre las tropas de las Provincias Unidas.

Es, desde entonces, la Inmaculada Concepción patrona de los Tercios de Flandes e Italia.

The Siege of Antwerp

Parma’s bridge across the Scheldt at Antwerp

Over the next few years the Duke of Parma consolidated the line between the loyal south and the rebellious north, and set about reducing the northern strongholds by means of a long succession of sieges, a process that culminated in the thirteen-month-long Siege of Antwerp – one of the most fascinating operations of the Eighty Years War. Parma’s plans involved cutting the city off from the north by building a bridge across the Scheldt. To many this was the strategy of a lunatic. That a river half a mile wide could be bridged while there were so many rebels around to prevent its construction was one reason for the scepticism. The other reason was that some years previously, when Antwerp was still in Spanish hands, William the Silent had attempted to build a bridge, only to see his creation swept away with the coming of winter and the pounding of ice floes. Nevertheless, William remained one of the few people to take Parma’s threat seriously, and he proposed a drastic course of action to frustrate Parma’s plans.

William’s plan involved the almost total inundation of the area. Downstream from Antwerp, the Scheldt was confined within its banks by a complex system of dykes, the most important of which extended along its edges towards the sea in parallel lines. On the right bank this barrier became the mighty Blauwgaren dyke, which was met at right angles by the equally formidable Kowenstyn dyke. Not far from where they joined, the Dutch had a strong fortress called Lillo. If the Blauwgaren dyke was pierced, it would take the Kowenstyn dyke with it and would cause such an extensive flood that Antwerp would become a city with a harbour on the sea. It would then be almost impossible to starve out.

Had William the Silent’s orders been carried out immediately, then Antwerp might indeed have been safe, but a fateful and time-wasting debate took place, and just a few weeks later William was assassinated. The idea of a massive flood was certainly not well received. In an echo of Alkmaar, it was pointed out that twelve thousand head of cattle grazed upon the fields protected by the two dykes. If Parma was intent upon starving Antwerp’s citizens, then surely there was no better way of helping him than by the Dutch destroying such a huge food supply.

The tiny village of Kallo, which lay about nine miles from Antwerp, became the construction site for Parma’s bridge, but the scheme was such a huge undertaking that by the autumn of 1584 little seemed to have been achieved. Antwerp continued to be supplied by flotillas of craft, which exchanged fire with Parma’s forts as they boldly made their way upstream. The Antwerp authorities then made an astounding blunder. It transpired that grain bought in Holland could be sold for four times its original price in beleaguered Antwerp, a mark-up that was attractive enough to make Spanish cannon fire an acceptable hazard. But the city fathers then set a fixed price for supplies brought in, and simultaneously regulated the accumulation of grain in private warehouses. Seeing their profit wiped out, the ships’ captains stopped the traffic stone dead. Even Parma could not have created such an effective blockade!

At the same time, the inundation urged by William the Silent had actually begun, albeit in a much-reduced fashion. Yet, ironically, the opening of the sluices on the Flanders side actually made Parma’s communications that much easier, because the flooded countryside now enabled him to give Antwerp a wide berth. By the time it was finally decreed that the dykes of Blauwagaren and Kowenstyn should be cut there were strong Spanish garrisons in place to prevent this happening. The Kowenstyn in particular now resembled a long, bastioned city wall bristling with cannon and pikes.

Meanwhile, the bridge grew slowly. On the Flemish side a fort called Santa Maria was erected, while on the Brabant side opposite developed one named in honour of King Philip II of Spain. From each of these two points a framework of heavy timbers spread slowly towards the middle of the river. The roadway was twelve feet wide, defended by solid blockhouses. Numerous skirmishers attacked the workmen in order to prevent the two halves meeting, but skirmishes is all that these attacks were. In spite of entreaties from Antwerp the vacuum of power since the death of William the Silent prevented any concerted attack from occurring.

Parma was also suffering from a lack of money. His army had not been paid for two years, and he was not yet in a position to promise early payment from loot. A botched attempt by the rebels to capture s’Hertogenbosch, Parma’s main supply centre for the siege, served only to increase the commander’s determination to complete his bridge, against which the wintry weather was now providing the only real challenge. The ocean tides drove blocks of ice against the piers, which stood firm, but in the centre portion of the construction the current was too strong to allow pile-driving, so here the bridge had to be carried on the top of boats. There were thirty-two of them altogether, anchored and bound firmly to each other and armed with cannon.

Parma’s bridge was completed on 25 February 1585. It was twice as long as Julius Caesar’s celebrated Rhine bridge, and had been built under the most adverse weather conditions. As an added precaution, on each side of the bridge there was anchored a long heavy raft floating upon empty barrels, the constituent timbers lashed together and supported by ships’ masts, and protected with iron spikes that made the construction look like the front rank of a pike square. An entire army could both sit on the bridge and walk across it, and, to impress the citizens of Antwerp, Parma’s soldiers proceeded to do both.

So that they should be under no illusions as to the strength and size of the edifice, a captured Dutch spy, who expected to be hanged, was instead given a guided tour of the bridge and sent safely back to relate in wide-eyed wonder what he had seen. `Tell them further’, said Parma to the astonished secret agent, `that the siege will never be abandoned, and that this bridge will be my sepulchre or my pathway into Antwerp.’

The Dutch ship Fin de la Guerre (“End of War”) during the Siege of Antwerp in 1585.

The first marine application of mine warfare occurred in 1585 at the city of Antwerp. Fighting for their independence from Spain, the Dutch were under siege by Spanish forces, who had built a fortified bridge across the Scheldt River to prevent supplies from entering the city. Frederigo Gianibelli sent a small ship loaded with gunpowder down the river, with a time fuse. The ship detonated directly beneath the bridge, destroying it and the Spanish soldiers guarding it.

The Diabolical Machine

The besieged citizens of Antwerp, however, still possessed one possible winning card. In their city lived a sympathetic Italian engineer by the name of Frederigo Gianibelli, and in a similar display of enthusiasm to that with which Parma had built his bridge, so did this Gianibelli determine to destroy it using exploding ships. His proposal to the city authorities involved the construction of a fleet, but by the time his project was approved the parsimonious city fathers had reduced the fleet to two ships, which disgusted Gianibelli, even though each of the vessels, to be optimistically named Hope and Fortune, was enormous. The two ships were nothing less than artificial volcanoes. In the hold of each was a chamber of marble, along their entire length, built upon a brick foundation. This chamber was filled with gunpowder under a stone roof, on top of which was a `cone’ – also of marble – packed with millstones, cannonballs, lumps of stone, chain-shot, iron hooks, ploughshares and anything else that could be requisitioned in Antwerp to cause injury when blown up. On top of all of this were piles of wood that gave the vessels the appearance of conventional fireships. The one difference between the two ships lay in the means of ignition of the volcanoes within. On the Fortune this was to be done by means of a slow match. On the Hope the business would be done by clockwork and flint, rather like an enormous wheel-lock pistol. The progress of these infernal floating mines was to be preceded on the ebb tide by thirty-two smaller vessels laden with combustible materials, which would keep the defenders of the bridge busy until the two great ships reached Parma’s masterpiece and utterly destroyed it.

The date for the attack was to be dusk on 5 April 1585, and the enterprise was placed into the hands of Admiral Jacob Jacobzoon. He began badly, sending all the thirty-two vanguard ships down the Scheldt almost all at once rather than in the steady progression previously agreed upon. On each bank, and from every dyke and fortress, the Spanish troops gathered in their thousands to gaze at the burning flotilla that was turning the night back into day with its ruddy glow. Some of the boats hit the forward barges of the bridge and stuck on the spikes, where they burned themselves out ineffectively. Others struck the banks or ran aground. Some simply sank into the river as their own fires consumed them.

To the guardians of the bridge the attack seemed to be having no effect, but behind these minor vessels there now loomed the two great ones. They meandered somewhat aimlessly with the tide and the current, because their pilots had long since abandoned them. There was a moment of concern for the Spanish when the Fortune swung towards the side of the river, completely missing the forward protective raft. It eventually ground itself while, unknown to the Spanish defenders, the slow match burned through. There was a small explosion, and some minor damage, but so slight was the effect that Parma sent a boarding party to examine the interior of the ship.

They did not stay long, because the Hope had now followed its sister downstream. Its precision in finding its target could not have been better if it had been guided until the very last moment, because it managed to hit the bridge next to the blockhouse where the middle pontoons began. However, as Parma had confidently expected, the bridge had been so strongly built that the impact alone caused it no damage. Expecting it to be another fireship, Spanish boarders leapt on to the deck, and with excited whoops of laughter promptly extinguished the decoy fire. With some sixth sense, an ensign rushed up to his commander and begged him to leave the scene. So earnest were the man’s pleas that Parma reluctantly withdrew to the Fort of Santa Maria. This saved his life, for at that very moment the Hope exploded.

Not only did the ship vanish, so did much of the bridge, the banks, the dykes, the fortresses, and for a brief moment even the waters of the Scheldt, as possibly the largest man-made explosion in history up to that date lit up the night sky. The facts and statistics of the act took months to establish, and still have the power to cause amazement. The entire centre section of the bridge disintegrated. More than a thousand Spanish soldiers died instantly, and their bodies were never found. Houses nearby collapsed as if hit by an earthquake, and the pressure wave blew people off their feet. From the sky there began to fall the cannonballs and stones that had been crammed into the ship, accompanied by the mortal remains of its immediate victims. Slabs of granite were later found buried deep in the ground having travelled six miles from the scene of the explosion.

The personal tales were also quite remarkable. One Marquis Richebourg, who had been in command on the bridge, simply disappeared. His body was located several days later, its progress through the air having been arrested by one of the chains Parma had strung across the river. Seigneur de Billy’s body was not located until months afterwards when his golden locket and an unpleasant stain on one of the surviving bridge supports provided identification. The fortunate Duke of Parma was merely knocked unconscious by a flying stake. One captain was blown out of one boat and landed safely in another. A certain Captain Tucci was blown vertically into the air in his full armour and dumped in the river, where he still retained the presence of mind to remove his cuirass and swim to safety. Another young officer was blown completely across the river and landed safely after a flight of half a mile.

The original plan was that immediately after the expected explosion Admiral Jacobzoon should launch a signal rocket that would send boatloads of armed Dutchmen pouring on to the scene. Instead, he was totally stupefied by the explosion and gave no order. No rocket was fired and no one advanced. During the hiatus Parma regained consciousness, and by displaying leadership skills of unbelievable quality he managed to marshal his men to begin to repair the damage. Even though the Dutch advance was expected at any moment, it never came. By daybreak, even Parma began to believe the unbelievable – that the Dutch rebels, having set off the largest explosion since the introduction of gunpowder to Europe and blown a hole in his bridge, were now going to let him mend it. Yet this is precisely what happened.

The battle for the Kowenstyn dyke

The Kowenstyn Dyke

With the initiative lost it took the defenders of Antwerp a full month to mount another attack on Parma’s besieging army. The new attack was not against his damaged bridge but on the mighty Kowenstyn dyke. As the target was an earthen dam explosives would not have been effective, so the goal of breaking the great barrier would be made by men capturing the dyke with pike and musket and then cutting it with pick and shovel. It was a low-tech solution, and it was likely to be a very bloody one.

Following a successful landing a fierce `push of pike’ began on top of the Kowenstyn dyke. The rebels could well have been shoved back into the water had it not been for the arrival of the other half of their army downstream from Antwerp. For once in this campaign a co-ordinated effort had actually worked, and three thousand men now occupied this small section of the dyke. Among them was an eighteen-year-old youth called Maurice of Nassau, the son and heir of William the Silent, who was experiencing his first real taste of combat in what was to become a renowned military career. While two walls of soldiers shot, cut and speared their enemies, the sappers began two very different but complementary operations: to reinforce the dyke with trenches and mounds, and also to cut a hole through it. At last a loud cheer went up as the salt water rushed in a torrent through the newly created gap. A few moments later a Zeeland barge sailed through.

It is to the great credit of the Spanish commanders on the scene that they did not immediately panic; they stayed calm, even though their leader was some distance away. They were also sensible enough to realise that a breach sufficient to allow a Zeeland barge through was by no means sufficient to permit the passage of an entire fleet, and if the dyke could somehow be recaptured then the rupture might even be repaired. Five attacks followed along the dyke in a manner that demonstrated beyond all doubt why the Spanish were regarded as the finest infantry in Europe. The last assault was successful, and it was not long before intelligence arrived in Antwerp that the wild celebrations currently taking place were somewhat premature.

The failure plunged Antwerp into despair and forced its rulers back to the negotiating table. They sought three reassurances from Parma: that religious freedom would be granted, that troops would not be stationed in the city, and that the hated citadel would not be rebuilt. Knowing that King Philip II would accept none of these `exorbitant ideas’, as Parma termed them, he reminded the citizens of Antwerp of the stranglehold he still had on their city. But he had other cards to play, and drew their attentions to the role of Antwerp as the `great opulent and commercial city’ that it had been in the past and could be again. What cause, what real cause, did rich Antwerp have with the heretical Sea Beggars of Holland and Zeeland? Surely the loyal south was more to their liking?

Parma’s own fears lay with the winter that was fast approaching. It turned out to be so severe that Parma’s bridge would have been unlikely to survive, but by the time winter came a settlement had already been reached. A minor concession regarding the troops to be stationed in Antwerp proved sufficient for all parties to be satisfied, and Antwerp capitulated with honour on 17 August 1585 without a shot having been fired at the city itself. There was no massacre, no sack, no pillage and Parma’s soldiers were paid not by loot but in hard cash. The noble Duke of Parma had achieved his objectives, and, unknown to him at the time, he had actually achieved something quite remarkable. By detaching the fate of Antwerp and the lands to the south from the United Provinces of The Netherlands he had effectively created a recognisable and workable border. In 1648, as part of the Treaty of Westphalia, this border was to be given both recognition and reality, confirming that Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, had invented Belgium.

Dogs of the Conquistadors

The Spaniards began using dogs at least by the 1260s, as King Jaume I of Aragon-Catalonia supplied guard dogs to garrisons of regional castles.

When Christopher Columbus returned to the New World in 1493, Don Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, in charge of supplying the expedition, included 20 mastiffs and greyhounds as weapons. The Spanish destroyed the Guanches of the Canary Islands by use of war dogs. Later the dogs fought the Moors. The mastiffs, which could weigh as much as 250 pounds and stand three feet high at the shoulder, were brute attackers, while the greyhounds were speedy and made lightning-quick strikes, often trying to disembowel their opponent. In May 1494 the Jamaican natives did not look friendly, so Columbus ordered an attack. One war dog caused absolute terror, so Columbus in his journal wrote that one dog was worth 10 soldiers against Indians. During the Haiti campaign, opposed by a huge native force, all 20 dogs fought at the Battle of Vega Real in March 1495. Alonso de Ojeda, who had fought with them against the Moors, commanded the dogs. He released the dogs shouting, “Tomalos!” (basically, “Sic ’em!”). An observer said that in one hour, each dog had torn apart at least a hundred natives. The island was taken largely by terror of the dogs. Later conquistadores including Ponce de Leon, Balboa, Velasquez, Cortes, De Soto, Toledo, Coronado, and Pizarro all used war dogs.

Some Spaniards started a cruel practice called “la monteria infernal” (“the hellish hunting”) or “dogging,” setting the dogs on the chiefs or other important people in tribes. When their leaders were torn to shreds, the tribes often surrendered. To increase the ferocity of attacks, some conquistadores fed the dogs on the flesh of natives. One Portuguese fellow “had the quarters of Indians hanging on a porch to feed his dogs with.” The dog Amigo helped in the conquest of Mexico. Bruto, belonging to Hernando de Soto, assisted in the conquest of Florida. When Bruto died, the Spaniards kept it secret, because the natives feared him so much.

A dog named Mohama gained a soldier’s share of the booty for fighting courageously at Granada. Perhaps recognizing the Spanish love for war dogs, in 1518, King Henry VIII of England sent 400 war mastiffs “garnished with good yron collers” (spiked collars) to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Spain. Apparently one of Charles’s foes heard of this acquisition and started collecting war dogs of his own. At the siege of Valencia, the iron-clad mastiffs sent the newly trained French dogs fleeing with their tails between their legs.

The Spanish sent war dogs to their New World campaigns to help conquer much of South and Central America. Just as the invaders’ horses terrified the natives, so did the dogs, because the likes of these creatures had never been seen. The Aztec king, Montezuma, was told that the Spanish dogs were huge, “spotted like ocelots, with ears doubled over, great hanging jowls, blazing yellow eyes, gaunt stomachs, and flanks with ribs showing.” They “went about panting, tongues hanging out. Their barks astounded the Mexicans since, though they had their little dogs, they did not bark; they merely yowled.” A mastiff belonging to Francisco de Lugo barked most of the night, causing the local people to ask if the beast was a lion. They were told that the dogs would kill anyone who annoyed the Spaniards. The dogs often preceded the horsemen in column, panting with “foam dripping from their mouths.”

A German explorer accompanied the Spaniards to Colombia and saw a brigade of mastiffs used to scout out ambushes by the Chibchas Indians. These animals wore quilted armor to protect them from arrows, and they learned to kill the natives by tearing out their throats. The Indians were terrified of these dogs.

An account in 1553 says Pizarro’s dogs were “so fierce that in two bites with their cruel teeth they laid open their victims to the entrails.”

The dogs the Spaniards brought were mostly war dogs. These dogs were strong and ferocious, accompanying their owners in battles. They were usually wearing armor to protect them from enemies and were incredibly valued.

The Spaniards depended so much on their war dogs that they trained them to kill. They often had them fast days before a battle to make them more lethal against their enemies. They were also used as a method of torture against Americans.

The Aztec natives were familiar with certain breeds of dogs, but they were generally small and harmless species, without much fur. The species known by these natives were an antecedent of the modern chihuahua and the Xoloitzcuintle. These dogs were raised as pets and also as food and source of protein.

Unlike these more timid endogenous breeds, European dogs were large and aggressive. The Aztecs had dogs. They were small, hairless, timid creatures, related to the modern Chihuahua, which were reared not as pets but as a food source. Accordingly when the Aztecs first met the Spanish war dogs – wolfhounds, greyhounds, lurchers, pit bulls and gigantic mastiffs similar to modern Rottweilers, they had absolutely no idea what they were dealing with. Indeed they did not think these animals were dogs at all. They thought they might be some species of dragon – an impression compounded by the fact that the Spanish dogs were armored in chainmail and steel plate like their masters and were thus almost invulnerable to stone weapons. Fasted before battle so they were in a state of voracious, slavering hunger, trained to fight and kill with the utmost ferocity, these terrifying animals already relished human flesh having been used repeatedly in acts of genocide against the Indians of Hispaniola and Cuba. Unleashed in snarling, baying packs, their tongues lolling, drool dripping from their fangs and sparks of fire seeming – in the imagination of the victims – to flash from their eyes, they tore into the Aztec front lines with devastating effect, disemboweling men, ripping out their throats, feasting on their soft, unarmored bodies. “They have flat ears and are spotted like ocelots,” reported one Aztec eyewitness of the Spanish war dogs. “They have great dragging jowls and fangs like daggers and blazing eyes of burning yellow that flash fire and shoot off sparks. Their bellies are gaunt, their flanks long and lean with the ribs showing. They are tireless and very powerful. They bound here and there, panting, their tongues dripping venom.”

Clad in metal armor and chains, the natives did not believe that these creatures were dogs and regarded them as beasts. These attack dogs, often wearing their own armor, were the common European shock and awe tactic of the period. The first documented New World use of these canine swat teams occurred in 1495 when Bartholomew Columbus, Chris’s brother, used 20 mastiffs in a battle waged at Santa Maris el Antigua, Darien with his brother employing the same approach a year later.  These dogs were trained to pursue, disembowel and dismember humans and to this purpose, enjoyed a human diet in the Americas. The Spanish reveled in holding human hunts called “la Monteria infernal “where much sport was made of chasing and killing the local men, women and children. The noted Spanish apologist Bartolme de La Casas has left us numerous accounts of the exploits of these hounds from hell and it is easy to understand why these horrific memes still prevail in the cultures of Latin America. The names of many of these dogs so esteemed by the Spaniards still live on and here are but a few:

Bercerruillo the terror of Borinquen, until he was fallen by 50 arrows, received a salary one and a half times that of an archer from his owner Ponce de Leon.

Leoncillo (Little Lion), Bercerruillo’s son, was Balboa’s warrior, earned over 500 gold pesos in booty during his many campaigns, and he was the first Western dog to see the Pacific. When ordered to catch a native he would grab the man’s arm in his mouth. If the man came along quietly, they walked slowly to Balboa. If there was any resistance, the dog ripped him apart.

Bruto, De Soto’s champion, received 20 slaves as spoils before his career ended.

Chincha Islands War

Spanish ships exchange fire with Peruvian coastal defenses at the Battle of Callao.

Ironclads: Chincha Islands War 1866

Spain tried to restore by force its influence on its former colonies, Chile and Peru. This strong Spanish squadron occupied the Chincha Islands, very important to the economy of Peru. Peru received support from neighboring Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia. After several battles, the heavily damaged Spanish squadron was forced to withdraw to the Philippines for repairs. In 1866, Peru strengthened its fleet and sent ships to the Philippines in order to inflict retaliation on Spain. The Spaniards decided to use a weakening of the allies to send a new fleet to South America. The opposing forces gathered strength for the decisive battle of the Chincha Islands.

This unexpected conflict (1864–1866) between Spain and a coalition of several Latin American countries represented a belated attempt by Spain to reassert control over its former colonies. Taking advantage of the United States’ involvement in its own civil war, which undermined its ability to strenuously enforce the Monroe Doctrine (a policy that prohibited European nations from meddling in Latin America), Spain occupied the territory of the present-day Dominican Republic and then sent a naval expedition to Peru. Ostensibly on a scientific mission, the squadron’s commander, Admiral Luis Hernández Pinzon, carried secret orders to support Spanish citizens if they complained that their host nations maltreated them. The Spanish soon found reason to intervene.

In 1863 group of Spanish workers charged that a Peruvian hacendado abused them. When the local courts upheld the landowner, Spain sent an envoy to protect its nationals. The Peruvian government, however, refused to meet with him until Spain recognized the existence of the Peruvian republic. Spain’s demand for compensation was ignored, so it seized the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru in 1864. These were valuable as a source of guano, used as fertilizer.

Insulted by Peru’s actions, and arguing that a state of war still existed between the two nations—they had never signed a peace treaty—Spain seized Peru’s Chincha Islands, some guano-covered spits of land. The Spanish act infuriated Peru because exports of this nitrate-rich fertilizer funded its economy. It also distressed Peru’s neighbors, particularly Chile, which organized an international congress to protest Madrid’s aggression. The Spanish remained unmoved, demanding that Peru pay 3 million pesos if it wished to regain possession of the islands. Without the revenues from guano sales, which constituted Peru’s main source of income, Lima had no choice but to capitulate. Thus in January 1865 Peru paid the extortion.

The matter still did not end: Madrid, distressed by Chilean insults, ordered its fleet south. When Chile refused to apologize for insulting the Madrid government or to fire a salute to the Spanish flag, Pareja blockaded Valparaiso.

Peru’s General Mariano Ignacio Prado declared war on Spain in January 1866. Chile, fearful of a renewed Spanish presence in South America, joined Peru. It also convinced Bolivia and Ecuador to join an anti-Spanish coalition. In the maritime war that followed, Chile captured a Spanish corvette, the Covadonga, which so depressed Spanish Admiral Pareja that he committed suicide. His replacement, Admiral Casto Méndez, failed to defeat the allied fleet. Finally he demanded that Chile either fire a twenty-one gun salute to Spain or he would bombard Valparaiso.

They tried to close their ports, but Spain managed to bombard Valparaiso in Chile on March 31 and Callao in Peru on May 2 before a ceasefire the following week. This was the last attempt by Spain to recapture South American territory.

In the 1860s relations between Spain and its former colonies Peru and Chile deteriorated into open warfare after the Spanish seized Peru’s guano-rich Chincha Islands. Admiral Casto Mendez Nuñez steamed from Spain on board the newly built ironclad Numancia to take command of a Spanish squadron off the coast of Chile. He bombarded the port of Valparaiso in February 1866, then moved north to Peru, choosing the fortified naval base at Callao as his target. The Spanish fleet had 245 guns on board, arranged in broadside. The Peruvian armament totaled around 90 guns, including some very heavy shore guns in armored emplacements. On the morning of May 2, the Spanish ships advanced within range and a ferocious gun duel began; it lasted six hours. The Spanish vessels received many hits, especially Numancia, deliberately positioned by Mendez Nuñez in the place of greatest danger. More than 40 Spanish officers and men were killed and a further 160 were wounded, including the admiral. But the Spanish had the better of the duel, silencing almost all the shore guns with their more skillful shooting. There were some 600 Peruvian casualties, including the minister of war Juan Galvez, killed in the destruction of an armored strongpoint. The Spanish squadron subsequently left for the Philippines, leaving the bombardment without consequence. Returning home to Spain, Numancia became the first ironclad to circumnavigate the globe.


Cortada, James W. Spain and the American Civil War: Relations at Mid-Century, 1855–1868. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1980.

Davis, William C. The Last Conquistadores: The Spanish Intervention in Peru and Chile, 1833–1866. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1950.