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