One of my greatest delights is discovering some historical event whose conventional narrative is just plain wrong.
Take, for instance, the story of the Spanish Armada.
In 1588, the most powerful nation in the world, Spain, amasses a huge fleet of over 130 ships, packs them with soldiers and cannon and sends them up the English Channel to conquer piratical, Protestant England. Having no professional navy, Britain collects everything that floats to confront the Armada. Out-sized and outgunned, they still manage to defeat and devastate Phillip’s “Invincible” fleet, leaving few of them to make it home to Spain.
But it didn’t really happen like that. You can read a plethora of learned books about how it happened. Every event of every single day has been dissected in minute detail. The irony is that all that detail is totally irrelevant to the end result. The simple truth of the matter is that neither Sir Francis Drake, Lord Howard, nor even Elizabeth herself could claim to be the victor. Instead, the real victory goes to a man named Federigo Giambelli.
Never heard of him? Neither has almost anyone else. But he was the man who was really responsible for the destruction of the Armada and the defeat of Phillip’s plans.
In 1588, Spain found herself with the greatest army in the world looking across the English Channel at her most infuriating enemy. The commander of that army, the Duke of Parma, had been trying for years to suppress a tiresome revolt in the Netherlands, fomented, in part, by British agents and British gold.
Parma’s army was a hardened crew of solid veterans, used to living off the land, hard marching, and hard fighting. England had no real standing army, just a ragtag, almost completely untrained militia which might or might not answer the call to sacrifice itself to defend Good Queen Bess and Protestantism against Phillip’s bloody minions.
There were two solid points of agreement between all the parties of the drama. The first was that once Parma and his soldiers landed in England it was all over but the shouting.
Of course, there was that small problem of the Channel and those English ships. If Elizabeth had only a few ships of her own, she led a seafaring nation whose leaders, like Howard, Drake, and Frobisher, had been demonstrating for years just how good they were by raiding Spanish possessions and “singeing of the king of Spain’s beard.”
Which brings up the second point of agreement: Unless supported by a Spanish fleet, any attempt to invade England would simply put a lot of Parma’s best soldiers at the bottom of the Channel.
Hence the Armada. That giant fleet was to sail up the Channel, defeating the English on the way if possible, but in any case arriving at the Low Countries and guarding the passage of Parma’s troops to their English landing.
The man Phillip chose to lead the “Enterprise of England,” the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was a superb organizer. Just as important, since at least half the anarchy of Spain’s great enterprises stemmed from aristocratic insubordination, Medina Sidonia’s patents of nobility were such that he out-ranked everybody else. He was not only in charge by the king’s fiat, he was also right at the top of the aristocratic pyramid.
All those histories emphasize how ship-to-ship warfare of the period was a lot like land warfare somehow translated onto water. The idea was to bring your ship alongside that of the enemy, then board her and fight it out man-to-man on the decks. Given the Spanish superiority in both numbers and quality of their soldiers, this system gave them a solid advantage in naval battles and they knew it.
The English, taking a shrewd look at things, reached the same conclusion as the Spanish: without a radical change, the odds were all in Spain’s favor. Hence they set about, in their “diabolical” and “perfidious” way, to change the rules of the game. They planned to do this using a brand new ship design…and cannons.
Essentially what they wanted was to have their trump, superior seamanship, top the Spanish trump of superior fighting skills. Their new ship design, called a race-built galleon, was designed be both faster than the Spanish ships and able to sail closer to the wind. This meant that the English ships should always be able to position themselves upwind of the Spanish. If the Spanish tried to attack them, they could simply beat their way further upwind and avoid the fight. On the other hand, any time they saw a vulnerability in the Spanish, they could turn and suddenly swoop downwind to seize the opportunity.
But they never intended to actually close with the Spanish. Instead, they planned to rely on their cannon to stand off from the Spanish ships and batter them into submission. The key to this was having their cannon mounted on a new four wheeled truck carriage. It allowed the guns to recoil inboard which let them load and fire three times faster than the Spanish.
So then, here are the two plans: The Spanish intended to bull their way up the channel, boarding whenever possible, but holding a tight enough formation that they could shrug off the superior English seamanship. The English intended to plant themselves upwind and nibble away at the Spanish, cutting off detachments and then hammering them into submission.
The Spanish fleet was sighted on Friday, July 29th, majestically and ever so slowly moving towards the Channel with the wind behind them. The English fleet rushed out and took up their commanding position upwind (i.e. behind the Armada). The first fighting took place on July 31st. From then on, the English harried the Spanish fleet, desperately trying to tempt them into breaking formation. In a totally uncharacteristic fashion, and solely due to Medina Sidonia’s prestige and authority, they refused to take the bait. Again and again large and small groups of English ships would rush downwind, using their much faster rate of fire to pummel small groups or individual Spanish ships.
It did them no good at all. Day after day the English fleet flailed away at the Spanish using up prodigious amounts of ammunition. By August 4th the Spanish had lost a grand total of two major ships. On that day the English had to break off the fight for resupply: they had run out of gunpowder.
The simple truth was that the British plan had a grave technical flaw: at anything less than point blank range (i.e so close that they would be in danger of being boarded by the Spanish), the cannon of the day lacked the power to do enough damage.
The result was that Medina Sidonia was able to pull off a virtual miracle. On August 6th he anchored his battered but essentially intact fleet in the roadstead off Calais, just 25 miles away from Parma’s army, and sent for news. The news he got could hardly have thrilled him. It seems Parma hadn’t started loading his troops yet. His message to Medina Sidonia was – just give me six days and I’ll be ready!
So Medina Sidonia discovers he is supposed to just sit there for six days, anchored in an open roadstead on a lee shore, with a huge hostile fleet busily re-supplying itself. It was a certain bet that as soon as it returned it would attack, probably beginning with the traditional tactic against an anchored fleet: fireships.
This consisted of taking some number of old, expendable ships, loading them with combustibles and a minimum volunteer crew, setting them afire, and sending them sailing downwind towards the enemy fleet. Depending on how well they had calculated the rate of spread of the fire, the strength of the prevailing wind, and the crew’s courage, a fireship might collide with and set fire to several anchored ships.
The problem was that fireships were essentially a surprise weapon, since they could be coped with a little intelligent preparation – Medina Sidonia’s forte. He issued all the proper orders. Lookouts were to be in place, carefully scanning upwind for any sign of flame. Spars were to be ready on deck to fend off the fireships before they could ignite the tar-soaked rigging. Lastly, gangs were told off and trained to man the fending spars and to put out any minor fires that might occur. The Armada really had little to fear.
The English obviously knew that the Armada would be prepared for an attack by fireships, but they really had no good alternatives. So on the night of August 7/8, they launched 8 fireships against the anchored Armada and waited to see what would happen. They clearly didn’t expect much more to come of it than Medina Sidonia.
But everybody, it seems had reckoned without Giambelli.
Some years before, as a young Italian engineer in search of work, Federigo Giambelli, had offered his services to the Spanish army in the Low Countries. Being rebuffed, he turned around and offered his services to the Dutch, who were somewhat more receptive. When the Duke of Parma decided to lay siege to Antwerp (in 1585) Giambelli had a real opportunity to show what he was capable of.
Since the Dutch controlled the coastal waters, there seemed little Parma could do to a great seaport like Antwerp whose access to the sea was guaranteed by the river Scheldt. Parma, having some pretty good engineers of his own and a whole army of idle soldiers, decided to defeat the river itself. In what was the engineering wonder of the age, he constructed a timber bridge, 800 yards long, right across the river, effectively blockading Antwerp.
The Dutch tried to use fireships against the bridge, but the Spanish were ready with large standing patrols equipped with spars to fend off the fireships. Knowing all this, Giambelli proposed a whole new wrinkle on the ancient idea of a fireship. Instead of simply loading a ship with combustibles and setting it on fire, Giambelli built a brick and mortar magazine below decks. He filled it with 7,000 pounds of gunpowder and covered the whole thing with stones and assorted ironmongery. Then he set a clockwork timer going and launched the ship down the river with a slight fire going on deck.
The well-trained Spanish soldiers gathered en masse and stopped the “fireship.” They were just congratulating themselves on their skill when Giambelli’s timer set off the gunpowder and the whole thing blew up in a massive explosion of wood, brick, stone, and iron. A huge hole was torn in the bridge, at least 800 soldiers were killed, and the “Hell-Burner of Antwerp” passed into legend.
So when the English launched their relatively harmless fireships on the anchored Armada, that wasn’t what the Spanish saw. What they saw was eight “Hell-Burners” charging down upon them, ready to blow all and sundry to kingdom come. They promptly and enthusiastically forgot all of Medina Sidonia’s instructions and his careful plans. On ship after ship, the captain decided that the smart thing to do was to cut his anchor cables, beat out to sea, and save his own ship.
All Medina Sidonia’s hard-won discipline simply dissolved. The tight formation that had gotten them within a few miles of their goal was lost along with it. The delighted (and re-supplied) English swept down upon the Armada, eager to finish the job.
Once again, the truth is that they simply lacked the firepower to destroy the Spanish ships. The state of technology was against them. But it didn’t matter. Despite Medina Sidonia’s largely successful effort to re-gather his ships, by the time the time the fleet was reformed it had been blown helplessly past Parma’s army and the whole purpose of the Armada was lost. Far worse, having no friendly shore ahead to repair and re-supply, the fleet had no choice but to continue sailing north past Scotland, then to turn west to clear Ireland and finally south toward home.
Half of them never made it. The storms of the North Atlantic, battle damage, starvation, and the hungry rocks of the Irish coast did what the English ships and cannon could not: they destroyed the Invincible Armada.
So there you have it. The history books tell in agonizing detail what the Spanish and the English tried to do to each other, ignoring the fact that they so completely failed. In the end, despite all of man’s best efforts, it was wind and water that won the day.
With a little help from an engineer from Mantua.