Saturday 9 April 2022

The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars

 It is the case that the painting of the Anglo-Dutch Wars ships is a bit stalled – fixing the sails has been a great deal more challenging than I expected, although I seem to have got four models ready for undercoating. Only another eight to go.

Still, stalled (or, perhaps, that should be becalmed) painting does not stop me reading stuff, and the latest tome is one that has been on my shelf for some years, which does seem to show the positive advantages of being interested in the same periods of history over more than twenty years.

The book in question is this:

Hainsworth, R., and C. Churches. The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars 1652 - 1674. Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

As the title implies this is an overview of the entire naval warfare between the English and Dutch navies from the Commonwealth to the semi-fiasco of the third war. As a slightly older book, of course, it does not benefit from colour pictures except on the cover, but it does make up for that by having a plethora of black and white images throughout.

Nearly half of the book is based around the first war, 1652-4. It is, I think, probably the most interesting for a variety of reasons, but it also is the one which the English really won, which might add to its interest in Anglophone nations and among those with a Whig view of history and the inexorable rise of the British Empire. Wargamers, I am sure, would never fall into either of those traps.

Still, as the book observes, there was a rather halting start to the war by the English. The Dutch were a great deal more experienced in naval warfare and command, as well as seamanship. On the other hand, the English had most of the strategic advantages. A Dutch politician observed that the English would be attacking a mountain of gold while the Dutch had a mountain of iron to attack. Most of the Dutch trade routes necessarily pass within naval strike range of English ports and anchorages.   

Leadership was another issue. The English admirals were generals, unused to handling naval vessels, unfamiliar with naval strategy and tactics. They were, however, brave, used to winning, and could learn from experience. Hence, it would appear that after the first few encounters, the fighting instructions were issued which included the directive to fight in line, rather than in groups.

This was largely a result of the different vessels that the English and Dutch used. While both resorted to armed merchantmen, the English ships were more heavily gunned and fought to batter Dutch vessels with cannonry to the hulls. The Dutch, being lighter and shallower drafted could not carry the same weight of cannon, and therefore shot to disable the masts and rigging of the English ships, close and board them, or destroy them with fireships.

To anyone who has even a passing interest in later naval warfare of the Nelson era, this probably sound familiar. The British and French navies of that era had the same sort of tactics. Even so, it was a bit difficult for the tactics to be pure: the Dutch had to shoot and the English, in order to actually win anything, had to get close up. The main difference across the hundred years or so between the Anglo-Dutch and Anglo-French wars was in the number of ships involved in a battle (which decreased) and the size of vessel involved, which increased. Hence by the mid-Eighteenth Century the line of battle did not usually involve anything less than a 74-gun ship, while in the 1650s 36-gun ships were perfectly adequate ships of the line.

The second and third wars were, relatively speaking, humiliations for the English. The Dutch ‘raid’ on the Medway was a disaster and much of the blame for that could be laid at the feet of Charles II, at least according to Hainsworth and Churches. Mind you, the earlier battles of Lowestoft and the Four Days Fight were hardly triumphs of English naval intelligence and command. Dutch naval command was consistently good, although many of the captains on both sides (more often reported by the Dutch, at least) failed to second the admirals and had a tendency to hide at the back of the formations and not engage (and, occasionally, shoot through their leaders….).

During the second war the Dutch built heavier gunned ships, even though some of their anchorages and ports might be denied to the deeper draft vessels. The alternative, of wider shallow draft vessels to carry bigger guns, was ruled out because the ships would have been slower. By the third war the difference in gunnery was much narrower, although the strategic position was very different.

The Third Anglo-Dutch naval war was really the project of Charles II in cahoots with Louis XIV to eliminate the Dutch. At sea, all the Dutch really needed to do was retain a fleet in being. Any projected naval landing of an army would be impossible if the Dutch fleet remained in the offing. As such the actions of the war were, from a tactical view, fairly inconclusive, although the French naval squadron’s behaviour was, at time, amounting to the treacherous, albeit with a degree of plausible deniability. As the authors point out, there was little that Rupert and his admirals could do to defeat the Dutch navy so long as they remained in the shallows and shoals off the Dutch coast. Getting at them was difficult, defeating them almost impossible.

An upshot of the Third War was the growing public distrust of the French and the Stuart monarchy. This was to have important consequences in the medium and longer terms, of course. Fourteen years after the end of the Third Anglo-Dutch War a Dutch naval fleet landed a Dutch army at Torbay while the English fleet and British army looked on. The die was cast for over a century of warfare between the British and French polities.  

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