Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Another famous military blunder, the Spanish Armada. Proof that combining two good ideas is a really bad idea.

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Ah the Spanish Armada. Everyone has heard of the Spanish Armada. An invincible fleet sent by Spain’s  King Phillip II to invade England, defended by Sir Francis Drake and the plucky English.   Yes, the small nation of England defeated the world’s then greatest military power, prevented England’s conquest by Spain, and by extension leading to the democracy and freedom now enjoyed by English speaking peoples and their allies. Yes, Phillip was the Hitler of his time, and his crushing defeat by the forces of freedom was a crucial step toward a world where evil is defeated forever.

Sorry, got carried away there. Like virtually all wars, especially wars between imperial powers, the undeclared Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604 was a typical war over access to resources and empire. As part of the war, Spain was trying to crush protestants rebels in the Netherlands. England was supporting the Dutch insurgents. Spain wanted to cut off this support, and King Phillip decided that invading England would be getting to the source of the problem.  And as a codicil, while I usually rave against war, the one just war is defence of one’s home against an invading army. As the Parthians in my previous post were perfectly justified in attacking an invading army, the English defence of their home from a Spanish invasion fleet was a just and proud cause.

However, the Spanish didn’t lose because the Brits outfought them. The Spanish lost because King Phillip II was a micromanager (surrounded by yes-men) who ordered his forces to do the impossible. Ordering the military to do the impossible is always a bad idea (and yes, I am making  not-so-subtle references to certain current wars in these history posts.) In this case, Phillip asked his best general and best admiral for their ideas on how to invade england. They were in fact, great military minds. They came up with two great ideas. The general said he could marshal his armies in the Netherlands, hire ships, and sail to England. The admiral also came up with a good plan, build a huge fleet in Spain, sail to England with an army, and invade it. Since England basically didn’t have an army, if a Spanish army could be gotten ashore the country should quickly fall.

These were both pretty good ideas. Either might very well have brought England to its knees. Which did Phillip chose? Well, if both are good ideas, why, choose them both! A huge armada would be built in Spain, it would sail to the Netherlands, and convey the Duke of Parma’s invincible army to England! Phillip’s yes-men went wild, what a great idea your lordship! How could the admiral and general argue, the plan included their ideas?

Unfortunately, while each was a good idea alone, in tandem it was unworkable. A huge fleet was to sail from Spain to the Netherlands, meet up with a huge army, and carry it to England? All this in an era with no radio or other means to communicate long distance and coordinate such a complicated plan?  In the modern era trying something like this would be risky. In 1588, this was crazy. This would be like if the Allies for the D-Day invasion started the invasion fleet in Egypt, and sailed to England to pick up the troops for the invasion. The Germans would have known what was going on as soon as the fleet set sail, attacked it along its entire route, and been ready for it if it did manage to get to England and load the D-Day invasion forces. I kid you not, the plan behind the Spanish Armada was more or less that ridiculous.

The admiral lucked out. He died while the armada was being built. Phew. The plan proceeded. The fleet was built. The British pretty quickly noticed the Spanish were building an invasion fleet and did their best to foil the plan. They gathered a fleet to oppose the Armada. The Armada was built, it set sail under the command of one totally loyal Duke of Medina (a man with no military experience) who was determined to follow the King’s orders no matter what. And off they went.

And when they got to England, what did they see? An large English fleet at anchor in Plymouth Harbour, they had caught the British completely by surprise! The winds and tides were in their favour, the British fleet was helpless. All the Spanish had to do was attack and England’s navy would be crippled. Why didn’t they attack? Because the Duke of the Medina was not about to disobey the King’s orders, he had been ordered to sail to the Netherlands and pick up Parma’s army, and by God that was what he was going to do! Some Spanish officers pleaded and argued with him…surely the King would forgive him for disobeying orders and destroying the better part of England’s fleet! We’ll never know. Spanish sailors gnashed their teeth in frustration as they sailed past Plymouth, and the English thanked their lucky stars and set out to pursue and harass the Armada.

So the Armada made it to Holland. Was the Spanish army waiting there to be swiftly taken to England? Nope. They were still getting ready. See previous remark about coordinating military operations over great distances. So the Armada just had to wait. The British, sensibly enough, weren’t going to sit around while the Spanish got their act together. This was the opportunity they needed to launch their fire ship attack on the Armada, and this they did. By know the English had learnt a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish ships. So when they attacked the Armada at the battle of Gravelines, they were able to severely damage it and drive it away from its rendezvous with Parma. The Armada then tried to sale home around Ireland, but bad weather, navigational errors, and the fact that many of them had lost their anchors escaping from the British fire ship attacks meant that many of them were blown helplessly onto the Irish coast and wrecked.

Most of the Armada did make it safely home, but it was still an expensive and costly failure. King Phillip forgave the Duke, and he served the King the rest of his life. Popularly he was mocked, especially in England, where he was portrayed as a coward and a fool. No, The Duke of Medina was a loyal man who did a pretty good job considering he had been ordered to undertake an almost impossible task that he was seriously underqualified for. The defeat of the Spanish Armada illustrates the inherent difficulty of combined operations, where armies and fleets have to coordinate their actions. History is replete with combined operations that came to a ruinous end, though there have been a few spectacular successes. And of course the folly of a King trying to manage a military operation from afar, another topic I’ll be returning to.

As always, God rest the souls of all who died. I always try to remember these were all real people. What would I think and feel if a huge fleet of warships carrying a hostile army sailed into the San Francisco Bay. It, um, must have been pretty intense for all concerned.

For first time readers, welcome to Doug’s Darkworld. This post is one of my most popular posts of all time, if you liked it you might also like Just for fun, Hitler’s ten dumbest mistakes, Crassus and the Cataphract Catastrophe, and The British have a bad day near Maiwand. A number of Doug’s Darkworld posts are available in a more organized fashion on the Doug’s Darkworld Annex. I am a professional writer and my commercial site is Doug Stych, Writer-at-Large. Peace.

(The above image of the Spanish Armada is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. It comes from the British Library. I chose it because I thought it had images of the “Spanish Square” in it, but turns out it’s a north to south perspective, Tilbury was a British fort defending the mouth of the Thames.  So the Spanish Square, the ultimate weapon of its day, will have to wait until another post.)


Written by unitedcats

October 9, 2008 at 11:22 am

Posted in History, Politics, War

7 Responses

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  1. admiral also came up with a good plan, build a huge fleet in Spain, sail to England with an army, and invade it. Since England basically didn’t have an army, if a Spanish army could be gotten ashore the country should quickly fall.

    The only state to effectively conquer England, Wales, and Scotland (and the latter somewhat doubtfully, except in the case of England; although you could make the case they still haven’t conquered the Scots) was Rome. And you know how that worked out.

    An armada is one thing. It’s like parking a CVBG off the coast of Iran or Iraq and expecting it to “hold” the territory. Invading England from Spain is a terrible idea. Kind of like invading CONUS from Japan or Germany. Strategic bombing only gets you so far, as we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Ha Noi, etc).

    Alex J. Avriette

    October 13, 2008 at 7:54 am

  2. […] of my most popular posts of all time, if you liked it you might also like The Battle of the Crater, The Spanish Armada, and The Battle of Lissa, When Ironclads Ruled the Seas. A number of Doug’s Darkworld posts are […]

  3. In 1588, sea power was still a new concept. Not surprising that King Phillip II had some flaws in his planning for amphibious assault of England. It is an art that was still being perfected even in WW2. Deployments of large forces across long distances was a novel concept, King Phillip was developing new tactics, he innovated and demonstrated a lot of what could be accomplished with this new technology. Fortunate for England, Phillips operational test and evaluation didn’t quite meet his expectations. And it took another 200+ years for Alfred Thayer Mahan to capture the potential and limits of Sea Power.

    Fortunate for Western Civilization, Phillip II failed. But to characterize him as a buffoon is to fail to recognize this was an era when time keeping and magnetic north were still “high tech”. His grasp exceed the reach of existing technology.


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    May 17, 2011 at 9:28 am

  7. Re. ‘Another famous military blunder, the Spanish Armada …’

    The writer of this piece implies that the failure of the 1588 Spanish Armada expedition was due exclusively to a combination of mismanagement and bad weather. This is not borne out by the facts. Rather, the Spanish defeat is attributable overwhelmingly to the superiority of English naval power, a factor the Spanish had totally failed to take into account. Shot up and severely damaged by the English off the Dutch coast at the battle of Gravelines, the Armada fleet from that moment on was no longer a viable fighting unit and therefore hopelessly vulnerable to the succession of fierce storms which drove its ships way off course and round the northern coast of Scotland.

    British versus English. The writer at times carelessly uses the term ‘Brits’ or ‘British’ as a synonym for ‘English’. Dead wrong! The British didn’t exist as a people until 1703 – i.e. 115 years after the Armada. There were only English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish in 1588. Let’s have – just for once – some historical accuracy here!

    ‘Spain wanted to cut off this support, and King Phillip decided that invading England would be getting to the source of the problem’. The writer attributes the launching of the Armada to Spanish anger at English support for the Dutch rebellion against Spanish rule in the Low Countries. But while this support certainly upset King Philip II and undoubtedly fired the ambition of his deputy in the Low Countries, the Duke of Parma, to mount an invasion of south-east England, the meager aid given by the English to the Dutch had so far been of little value or significance (the dispatch of a small English force to the Netherlands under the Earl of Leicester in 1586 had ended in abject failure). Far more important in Philip’s motivation to launch the Armada was maritime competition, the increasing threat to Spanish coastal possessions in Latin America and the Caribbean posed by raiding parties of English privateers and the disruption to shipping traffic to and from Spain attributable to their activity, activity openly encouraged by England’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth. The Armada is also to be viewed very much in a religious light, a crusade ordained and blessed by the Pope to crush heresy of the type represented by Elizabeth in particular, a ruler in the very vanguard of the Protestant Reformation. As the principal Catholic monarch, Philip took very seriously his role as champion and secular standard-bearer of the Catholic faith.

    ‘The British fleet was helpless (I.e. in Plymouth Harbor)’. The writer claims the Spanish could have early on easily destroyed the English fleet while it was ‘helpless’, i.e. hemmed in by the tide, in Plymouth harbor. This statement ignores the fact that the majority of the English fleet was not located there – barely 40% of the total was in the harbor at this time. It also ignores the fact that the entrance to the harbor was (and still is) very narrow, allowing no more than 2 or 3 craft to enter simultaneously and that it was heavily guarded by powerful shore gun emplacements. Any Spanish ships trying to sneak through and attack the English would have risked being blown away long before making contact with the enemy. The Spanish command was well aware of this and wisely decided to follow Philip’s instructions to stay on course and not to attempt such a risky venture.

    ‘The Spanish didn’t lose because the Brits outfought them’. This insistence that the Armada failure was due to other factors than the Spanish being outfought by the English simply doesn’t add up. The writer makes virtually no mention of the superior tactics employed by the English captains nor of the more advanced naval architecture, greater maneuverability and gunnery quality of the English ships, gunnery which not only enabled their sailors to target the Spanish from a greater distance than the enemy but which also enabled them to reload and re-fire much more frequently. The writer does record the English fire ship attack on the Spanish but doesn’t mention the major chaos this caused. The panic fleeing and widespread dispersal of the Spanish fleet as the fire ships approached severely reduced its cohesion, proving a major factor in the subsequent English naval victory off Gravelines. The writer concedes that the Spanish fleet was severely damaged in this decisive encounter but then fails to mention that its overall effectiveness was thereby destroyed. Despite the loss of only 5 ships, at least 50% of the remainder were no longer sea worthy. This loss of effectiveness rendered the fleet hopelessly vulnerable to the ensuing bad weather and was the critical factor in the disastrous final outcome of the expedition. The stark difference in seaworthiness between the two fleets is highlighted by the fact that the English vessels, by contrast, emerged largely unscathed from the encounter and had no problems – despite the poor weather – in pursuing the disorganized Spanish as far north as Scotland and then returning without incident to base in southern England.

    ‘Either (i.e. the Armada itself or the Duke of Parma’s force in the Low Countries) might very well have brought England to its knees’. Yet another extraordinary claim. As things turned out, the Armada mission to conquer England was alone a total fiasco well before the coup de grace administered by the N. Atlantic weather – as already detailed above. Quite apart from being outfought by the English at sea, the Spanish never came near to evading the enemy’s ships and anchoring their fleet in a safe haven on the English coast – the essential pre-requisite to landing their military. As for the Duke of Parma, a fine commander but one who, like Philip, had been seduced by poor intelligence into thinking the English were a pushover, like almost everyone else he had no experience (his military expertise was largely limited to siege warfare) of mounting a major amphibious assault, let alone one across a huge tidal waterway like the English Channel. Could he have pulled it off? Given his lack of galleons and total reliance on slow, flat-bottomed boats to ferry his men across, it’s very difficult to see how he could have achieved the element of surprise and successfully eluded the English naval patrols, not to mention resisting the enemy warships in close attendance. When one factors in the presence of the Dutch too whose fly-boats were likewise a constant feature in these waters and who almost certainly would have joined in the action alongside the English, a lose-lose scenario for the Duke appears the only conceivable outcome.


    June 19, 2013 at 6:50 am

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