Fleet battle is aimed, through the defeat and even destruction of the enemy's main force at sea, at gaining command of that sea. Battle, in the form of fleet actions, is the crowning act of naval warfare and the supreme test of the naval profession. Naval victories and defeats have been pivotal to the fate of nations. A long history of naval engagements supports this statement - Ramses II defeat of the Sea People, the Battle of Lepanto, destruction of the Spanish Armada, the Battle of Midway, among others - all of which are turning points in history. Such battles have been rare, and by one calculation in all not more than 135 have occurred between 1587-1945, and rarely more than three or four in each of the thirty major wars over this period. Fleet battle has now become even more rare than in the preceding four centuries.
1588 - Spanish Armada
In 1588, before the naval battle that destroyed the Invincible Spanish Armada, Spain and England not only had clashes over overseas trade but also had irreconcilable ideological battle. Spain stood for the old Roman Catholic Church and England for the Protestantism. Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) reigned as Queen of England from 1516-1558. After her death, she was succeeded by Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Queen Mary had attempted during her reign to return England to the Catholic faith, thereby dividing the country into Catholic and Protestant factions, each resolute in its convictions that its respective causes were right and just.
Elizabeth I (1533-1603), daughter of King Henry VIII, assumed the throne at the very beginning of the European Renaissance. When she became Queen in 1558, the country was weakened from war, the treasury was empty and religious strife was tearing the country apart. She faced immediate threats from both Spain and France. When Elizabeth ascended the throne, the Protestant religion again achieved primacy in the form of the Church of England. Mary, Queen of Scots, a pretender to the throne and a staunch Catholic, was imprisoned by Elizabeth, but conspiracies persisted that were intended to depose Elizabeth and crown Mary as queen. Among those in the forefront of these efforts to replace Elizabeth were the Kings of Spain and France. Throughout most of the 16th Century, Spain was Europe's dominant power.
Sir Francis Drake's accomplishments as an explorer and naval strategist were unparalleled. His most notable feat was circumnavigating the earth from 1577-80, the first such voyage since Magellan's in 1522 and the only one up to that time captained by the same man from start to finish. Drake's expeditions to the Caribbean and the Pacific, undertaken during the circumnavigation and in subsequent voyages, revealed significant new geographical data about the New World and added greatly to Queen Elizabeth I's [1533-1603] treasury. Relations with Spain continued to deteriorate, and in 1585 Drake returned to the West Indies. This expedition did not make great profits for investors but it did inflict great damage on the Spanish Empire and led almost directly to the launching of the Armada that Philip II began to assemble. The Spanish planned to attack in 1587; but, learning of these plans, Drake attacked Cadiz and Lisbon, where he destroyed ships, and at Cape St. Vincent, where he burned barrel staves needed for casks for food and water. These actions delayed the Armada until 1588 and caused it to sail with unseasoned casks which leaked water and allowed food to spoil.
When his proffer to marry Elizabeth was rejected, Philip II of Spain mounted the Spanish Armada to conquer England by force. Perhaps the greatest test of Elizabeth I's monarchy came when King Phillip II of Spain began his campaign to conquer England and bring it back under the rule of the Pope. Despite the Drake Caribbean raid--despite the hostilities at Cadiz -- despite the preparation of the great Armada in the harbor of Lisbon -- the diplomats continued to negotiate up to the very last moment. In 1588, Phillip II sent the mighty fleet of the Spanish Armada to England to defeat the English Navy and invade the country. On 19 May 1588 the Spanish Armada departed Lisbon, Portugal for the invasion of England. The fleet of 130 ships carrying 2,500 heavy artillery, and 30,000 soldiers began to sail off the English Channel. The plan was for the Spanish to pick up 30,000 more troops in the Spanish Netherlands.
Queen Elizabeth prepared for the inevitable attack. Many debated her capability as a leader because she was a woman in a man's war, but she reassured those who doubted. At one point she spoke to her people saying, "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.and should Spain or any prince of Europe dare to invade the borders of my realm . I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field."
Although her fleet was much smaller, she employed the services of the great naval commander Sir Francis Drake. The Spanish on the other hand, were depending on the leadership of an Army general, which proved to be fatal for the Spanish fleet. Historians now discredit the tale that Drake continued his game of bowls while the Spanish Armada approached England. Even with the tide against him a man such as Drake would have been actively preparing to fight. Drake was accused of attempting to obtain personal gain to the detriment of the English efforts when, at night in the lead ship Revenge, he suddenly extinguished his lights, causing confusion in the English fleet. He said that he had followed ships he believed were maneuvering to take advantage of the wind. The Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, accepted Drake's explanation. The defeat of the Armada in 1588 was Drake's last success.
The Spanish plan was to sail up the Channel; to join with transport vessels which would ferry the army of the Duke of Parma across from the Spanish Netherlands to England, to land the troops and defeat the English, and to have Philip resume his reign as King of England, a title he had acquired by his marriage to Mary Tudor. On 28 July 1588 eight English fireships loaded with explosives were sent among the vessels of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel, damaging and dispersing them. Adverse winds and storms delayed the Armada's appearance off southwest England until 30 July 1588.
Drake's 1587 attack had certainly delayed the sailing of the Armada, and his destruction of supplies for it also contributed to its defeat. Nevertheless, it did reach the shores of England in good order, and hard fighting was also necessary to insure victory over it. Throughout this week and a half of confused naval maneuvers and battles, Drake was in the thick of the conflict. He captured a disabled galleon, Nuestra Señora del Rosario , on July 30, with Don Pedro de Valdés, one of the main commanders of the Armada, on board. Drake was again outstanding in his dashing attack on Medina Sidonia's flagship, San Martín de Portugal , on August 8th, the day when the Armada suffered heavy damage and was scattered in the North Sea.
Though outnumbered, the English outmaneuvered the Spanish Armada and after 10 days of fighting the Armada was completely defeated. The English utilized their advantages of speed and artillery to hammer the foe with their long guns, while keeping out of range of his muskets and lighter cannon. The hit-and-run tactics employed against the Spanish Armada were not too different from those used against Mark Anthony at Actium, although in the 1600 years between those engagements the sail had replaced the oar and the sword had largely given way to the cannon. The well-organized British Navy which, although smaller than the Spanish, was aided by a communication system of beacon fires across the country to signal fleet locations. The most disappointing of the Spanish ships which took part in the Armada were the galleys. This campaign demonstrated their almost complete uselessness.
Because of bad storms, the fleet never reached its objective. The remaining Spanish ships endeavored to escape by sailing northward around the Isles. Blown off course, the vessels went all the way north and around the British Isles, and ended up in the North Atlantic. They were caught in terrible storms and the ships were dashed to pieces on Scotland and Ireland's rocky coastline. The Spanish Armada owed its defeat mainly to the violent storm it encountered off the coast of Britain. Upon hearing of the defeat Phillip II calmly and simply said, "I sent my ships to fight against men and not against the winds and waves of God."
By September of 1588, bad weather and three battles with the English navy under the command of Admiral Howard and Vice-admiral Drake had already reduced the Invincible Armada to a straggling caravan limping homeward around the coast of Scotland. Only half of the ships and just a handful of men ever returned to Spain. Out of one hundred and thirty sail of which the Armada was composed when it left Lisbon on 30 May 1588, sixty-three were lost. Of these only nine fell in battle or in immediate consequence thereof, although the injuries received in the various actions in the Channel doubtless contributed to the ultimate shipwreck of many. Nineteen were cast away on the Scottish and Irish coasts; thirty-five disappeared altogether.
The Spanish vessels themselves were not adapted for the kind of fighting which they were expected to do. Relying upon boarding rather than upon artillery, they nevertheless were neither swift enough nor handy enough to grapple their agile English antagonists. The latter, expert with their guns, which were more powerful than those opposed to them, and able by their better nautical qualities to choose their distance and time of attack, fought upon their own terms.
A confusing multiplicity of gun sizes, ammunition and gunners' rules hindered gunnery performance of the Spanish Armada. Recent research has revealed that the Spanish Armada of 1588 - which was composed of vessels built and equipped in several countries - was armed with cannons having numerous different calibers. Ammunition could not be supplied interchangeably among the ships. Failures and delays in resupply left the great fleet open to the hit-and-run attacks of England's defenders. This failure of interoperability and logistics commonality so diminished the huge Spanish advantage in firepower that an outnumbered English force prevailed. The history of the Western World was ineradicably altered by a failure to recognize the importance of standardization and interoperability.
Upon the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588, Spanish power weakened considerably. Spain was an empire in decline. The Spanish opted for a land invasion of England that depended on avoiding or overcoming English sea power. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, when it tried to cross the English Channel, wrecked hopes for an invasion. On the English side, the options were either to invade Spain or destroy her economy by using sea power to isolate her from the source of her wealth in the Americas. England opted for the latter and succeeded.
Following this victory, Elizabeth continued her rule in England and gained the adoration and respect of the English people. Her reign became known as the Elizabethan Age. Writers such as Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare thrived in her kingdom. The English Navy ruled the seas and the beginning of British Empire began in infancy. Her subjects basked in the sunlight of the glory of their bold, brave, and virtuous queen. By the end of Elizabeth's reign some 45 years later, English ships had defeated the Spanish Armada and were in command of the open seas.The small island kingdom had begun to establish its position as a world leader. Queen Elizabeth was devoted to her island country. She never married and many said she gave the love she should have had for a spouse to the country she served.
Philip made two later attempts to invade England, in 1595 and 1597. In 1595 an actual landing was made in Cornwall, and Penzance was destroyed. In 1597 a large fleet was sent against England, but it was dispersed by a storm, and it returned to Spain without accomplishing anything. The 1595 Drake-Hawkins expedition to America was seriously delayed by the invasion attempt of that year, as it was feared that a large-scale landing of Spaniards was being planned, and the English government wanted to keep their ships on hand for such an event. Testimony concerning the Armada of 1597 is contained in "The depositione of Peeter Lemman". Lemon's figures of 300 ships, 100 galleys and 120,000 men for the flotilla are, of course, much too high, but is it certain that it was a very large fleet, and it has been stated that it was even larger than the 1588 Armada, which consisted of about 130 vessels.
Over a period of several centuries, historians have written of the important consequences of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. But it appears that the defeat of the Armada, mighty and melodramatic as it was, may have been remarkably barren of result. Its defeat may have caused very little, except the disruption of the Spanish strategy that sent it on its way. That judgment is sure to violate the patriotic instincts of every Englishman and the aesthetic sensibilities of us all. A big event must have big results, we think.
1805 - Trafalgar
In an age when a successful admiral might gain one victory in fleet or squadron action during his lifetime, Nelson gained three: at the Battle of the Nile (1798), the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The scale and significance of these victories was also unparalleled. His taking of nineteen French and Spanish ships off Cape Trafalgar - the "great and glorious victory" he prayed for - gave him more enemy ships than any of his predecessors had captured or destroyed in all their battles put together, and, more important, it secured for Great Britain command of the sea for over a century. Killed by a sharpshooter at the height of the battle, Nelson died the way he always wanted: at the moment of victory in a great battle in the service of his country.
Nelson's devotion to God, country and navy stems from his birth in September 1758 as the son of a humble Norfolk parson (who was doubtless his greatest early influence) and his entry into naval service at the tender age of twelve. His first years at sea brought him under the guidance of William Locker, a fatherly captain and faithful Christian, who inspired the young Nelson to share his loves of God, England and the sea. At age 18 Nelson rose to lieutenant and two years later to commander of a frigate. Thus, the 20-year-old became the youngest captain in the history of the Royal Navy.
He became a rear admiral and a household name in England following his heroic and skillful contribution to the Battle of Cape St. Vincent on 14 February 1797, and despite losing his right arm in a failed attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife later that year (to go with the eye blinded three years earlier at Calvi) he never caused the British people to grow disillusioned with his efforts. On the contrary, they delighted in the news that he destroyed Napoleon's Egyptian invasion fleet on 1 August 1798, and forced the Danes, through a tough battle at Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, to cease supporting France and agree to a treaty with Britain. Before the Battle of Copenhagen, Lord Nelson told his "band of brothers," "No captain can do wrong if he brings his ship alongside that of the enemy."
When a French invasion of Britain loomed in 1801, his great popularity prompted the Admiralty to place him in charge of Britain's naval forces in the channel, where his presence would boost morale and reassure the fearful. After a short spell of peace with France ended in May 1803 and rekindled fear of invasion, an exhausted Nelson once more gave up the rest he craved to meet his nation's expectation of vigilance, valour and victory. After trying to entice the French Mediterranean Fleet out of Toulon so he could destroy it once and for all, Nelson failed to stop it slipping through his net and escaping from the Mediterranean. Gripped by anxiety about its possible link-up with a Spanish fleet, which would probably attempt an invasion of Britain, Nelson doggedly pursued the French fleet for four months back and forth across the Atlantic. He failed to bring it to battle, but won further praise at home for protecting the West Indies and displaying such tenacity and dedication.
In September 1805 Nelson rejoined his fleet after a brief period of shore leave and prepared a final showdown with the Combined Franco-Spanish Fleet. This time he would not let it escape without battle. The stakes were too high. Nelson conceived a marvelous tactical plan. Rather than engage the enemy in parallel lines of battle (the pattern of naval warfare for over a century) he would attack the enemy fleet from a right angle, using two separate squadrons to break the enemy line into three sections, each of which would be defeated in detail. It was a bold plan - no, a most perilous plan, especially as it would expose the ships in the two spearheads to heavy cannon fire - yet Nelson, selfless and valiant, refused to place himself into a ship further back. To ensure proper execution and to inspire his sailors, he would remain in one of the two spearhead ships that would bear the brunt of the enemy's firepower.
Nelson was acutely aware of the risks, for both his fleet and his own person. Five weeks before the battle commenced he wrote in his diary these moving, humble words: "May the great God whom I adore enable me to meet the expectations of my country; and if it is His good pleasure that I should return, my thanks will never cease being offered up to the Throne of His Mercy. If it is His good providence to cut short my days upon Earth, I bow with the greatest submission, relying that He will protect those so dear to me, that I may leave behind. His will be done: Amen, Amen, Amen."
On 21 October 1805, the day Nelson realised battle was imminent and drafted his famous battle prayer, he prayed on his knees in his cabin before ordering the enemy to be engaged according to his innovative plan. It worked marvelously, with the Combined Fleet suffering a humiliating and total defeat. Nelson lived long enough to learn that he had justified his nation's trust and permanently removed the threat of invasion. "Thank God I have done my duty," he sighed as he lay dying. He asked those present to ensure that Lady Hamilton and the daughter she bore him would be taken care of. Then, with his pain increasing and death approaching, his mind turned again to the Creator he soon anticipated meeting and to whom he had committed his soul. To Dr. Scott he whispered, almost as a rhetorical question: "Doctor, I have not been a great sinner." The last words caught by Dr. Scott, bending close to the great admiral's lips, were the fitting: "God and my Country." Despite his flaws, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson had served them both extremely well.
At Trafalgar, the outcome was decided by British sailors and marines capturing enemy ships, once the British admirals had broken the French line in a way that nullified its numerical advantage, and once each British captain had placed his ship alongside an enemy ship. Yet, when Nelson finally swept the combined Franco-Spanish fleet from the seas at Trafalgar, Napoleon still fought on for another decade until he finally met defeat at the great land battle of Waterloo. The seas may have belonged to England, but it was the European continent on which victory or defeat would be determined.
1916 - Jutland
The British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet sought a decisive naval engagement for nearly two years after the start of the Great War. In mid-1916, the Great War's major sea battle was fought, the Battle of Jutland. May approached and nearly ended before the German High Seas Fleet, under Adm. Reinhard Scheer, made a definite move to encounter the Royal Navy. Jellicoe was ready. Advised in advance that a squadron of German battle-cruisers had been ordered to Norwegian shores for a show of force, he ordered Adm. Sir David Beatty, leading a similar but larger British squadron, to intercept.
In devising their tactics, the commanders realized that the best position for achieving the maximum concentration of fires from their naval column was to place their column at a right angle to that of the enemy, forming the cross bar of the letter T. As British Admiral Jackie Fisher noted during fleet maneuvers in 1901, "The lesson that has been emphasized is that the one all important, immediate imperative step is to form the fleet in one single line at right angles to the direction in which the enemy is sighted. . . . If both sides practice this golden rule and employ the single line of bearing then the fleet with the superior speed must win; that is, battleships of superior speed".
Earlier in the year, the 20,000-ton Cunard liner Campania was converted by the British to carry seaplanes and was assigned to Adm. Jellicoe's Grand Fleet. HMS Engadine, operating with Beatty's squadron, launched a seaplane for reconnaissance at 1530 on the 31st. The pilot reported three enemy cruisers and ten destroyers taking a northwesterly course. Fifteen minutes later, the German ships changed course to the south. The pilot tried to flash this signal by searchlight, but his message was not received. One of the ships of the squadron noted the alteration, however, and the ships shifted in time. Thereafter, poor visibility and rough water kept Beatty's plane on deck. The British also used coastal radio direction finders to locate and determine the direction of the German fleet before the Battle of Jutland.
The two squadrons clashed and, even though outnumbered, the German ships under Adm. Franz von Hipper, sank two of Beatty's vessels. Scheer's High Seas Fleet crested the horizon, and Beatty led his remaining ships on a strategic retreat, north toward Jellicoe. At 1735, a signal was flashed to all ships of Jellicoe's fleet to stand by to get under way. At 1900 the order to raise full steam was given and at 2254, the "proceed" signal was flashed.
About 1800 on 31 May 1916, the High Seas Fleet met with the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe made a thrust to cut off Scheer's retreat, but the German admiral ordered his ships first south and then east. By this maneuver, he came up in pursuit along the flank of the British ships, turned again and launched torpedoes, forcing Jellicoe to retreat. Scheer then ordered Hipper to engage Jellicoe's attention while the High Seas Fleet maneuvered for an escape route. Scheer found it by 2100, cutting east across the southerly-moving British ships, and dashed to safety. While integral to the German operation, U-boats failed in that engagement, proving unable to attack the relatively fast moving British Royal Navy warships - specifically the battle cruisers of British Admiral David Beatty-successfully.
At battle's end, each fleet had lost several ships, but the British suffered more heavily in tonnage - by almost double. Fatal design flaws in British battlecruisers led to the loss of a total of three of them, together with thousands of sailors, at the Battle of Jutland. Various explanations were advanced for the failure of the Grand Fleet defeat the High Seas Fleet: Jellicoe's deploying his twenty-four battleships on the "wrong" flank; faulty design of the British battlecruisers; poor shooting on the part of the British battle cruisers; poor reporting by the cruiser force; and the selection by the Royal Navy of a fire control system that performed poorly when ships were maneuvering.
In post-battle retrospect, the Battle of Jutland could easily have ended in a triumphant victory for the Allies, had Jellicoe had the advantage of Capania's plane to report movements of Scheer's ships. The German fleet had no seagoing aircraft. German reconnaissance Zeppelins furnished tactical information to the High Seas Fleet during the Battle of Jutland. Most of the two hundred and fifty ships that took part had been built during a "revolution in military affairs," though the battle's outcome depended ultimately on the effectiveness of the command styles of its principal commanders. Even without a decisive victory, Jutland confirmed British naval superiority and put the German High Seas Fleet out of the picture for the remainder of the war.
1944 - Leyte Gulf
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was the largest fleet battle in naval history. On 20 October 1944, an invasion fleet of 738 allied ships landed more than 160,000 troops at Leyte Gulf, marking the beginning of the Allies' and Philippine forces' liberation of the Philippines.
It was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf that the enemy unleashed a new air weapon -- the Kamikaze or suicide plane. In the skies over Leyte, the enemy fought tenaciously but dissipated his strength in frequent small attacks. As Japanese air strength diminished' the defenders began to use a new and deadly weapon, a corps of pilots willing to crash their bomb-laden planes directly into American ships, committing suicide in the process. Termed kamikaze or "divine wind" to recall the 13th century typhoon that scattered and sank a Mongol invasion fleet off southern Japan, these pilots chose as their first target the large American transport and escort fleet that had gathered in Leyte Gulf.
To destroy US Navy forces supporting the Sixth Army, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) decided to commit nearly its entire surface fleet to the Leyte Campaign in three major task groups. One, which included four aircraft carriers with no aircraft aboard, was to act as a decoy, luring Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet north away from Leyte Gulf. If the decoy was successful, the other two groups, consisting primarily of heavy surface combatants, would enter the gulf from the west and attack the American transports.
When his airmen spotted the four enemy carriers far to the north of Leyte the afternoon of 24 October, Admiral Halsey took his Third Fleet carriers and battleships in pursuit. That night, the two Japanese surface task forces, unmolested by air attacks, moved toward Leyte Gulf and MacArthur's transports and escort carriers. Seventh Fleet battleships sank or turned back units of the smaller Japanese attack force moving through Surigao Strait south of Leyte. But the second and larger task force, which included the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi, successfully moved through the San Bernardino Strait, then south along the east coast of Samar Island, northeast of Leyte, to within range of the soft support shipping.
On the morning of 25 October, after two and one half hours of desperate fighting by light US Navy escorts, the Japanese battle fleet mysteriously broke off the engagement and withdrew from the Gulf, thereby leaving unexploited the opportunity presented by the Third Fleet's departure. To the north, the Third Fleet caught up with the Japanese carriers and sank all four of them. These encounters, later known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf, represented the largest naval battle in the Pacific. The battle cost the IJN most of its remaining warships, including 3 battleships, one of which was the huge Musashi, 6 heavy and 4 light cruisers, and 9 destroyers, in addition to its remaining carriers.
Americans and Japanese came away from the battle of Leyte Gulf with extremely divergent views of what had occurred. These different assessments provoked planning revisions which completely changed the character and duration of the battle for Leyte. The Americans believed they had dealt the IJN a severe blow; events later proved them correct. But in the immediate aftermath of the sea battle, Japanese commanders believed they had ruined the American carrier force. In fact, they had sunk only one light and two escort carriers and three destroyers. Nevertheless, convinced that they had won a major naval victory and bolstered by reports of air victories in the ten days before A-day, the Japanese Southern Army resolved to fight the decisive battle on Leyte. Believing MacArthur's ground forces were now trapped on the island, the Japanese command moved to wipe out the American Sixth Army.
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