Battle of Lowestoft
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The Battle of Lowestoft took place on 13 June [O.S. 3 June] 1665 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. A fleet of more than a hundred ships of the United Provinces commanded by Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam attacked an English fleet of equal size commanded by James, Duke of York forty miles east of the port of Lowestoft in Suffolk.
The Dutch were desperate to prevent a second English blockade of their ports after the first was broken off by the English for lack of supplies. The leading Dutch politician, Johan de Witt, ordered Van Wassenaer to attack the English aggressively during a period of stable eastern winds which would have given the Dutch the weather gage. Van Wassenaer however, perhaps feeling that his fleet was still too inferior in training and firepower to really challenge the English in full battle, postponed the fight till the wind turned in order to seek a minor confrontation in a defensive leeward position from which he could disengage quickly and return without openly disobeying orders. His attitude would cost him a sixth of his fleet and his life.
The reason for the large number of squadrons was that the smaller Dutch admiralties—and the many new flag officers recently appointed by them—insisted on having their own squadron; the Admiralties of Amsterdam and the Maas (i.e. Rotterdam) then split their fleets to make squadrons of equal size to those of the smaller fleets.
Both national fleets could only be so large by employing armed merchants: the English used 24 of these; the Dutch twelve, some of them enormous Dutch East India Company warships, specially brought over from the Indies. The Dutch also had activated eighteen laid up warships from the previous war.
On 11 June Van Wassenaer sighted the English fleet but there was a calm and no battle could take place. On 12 June the wind again started to blow—and from the east, giving Van Wassenaer the weather gage. However, he simply didn't attack, despite clear orders to do so under these conditions. Next morning the wind had turned to the west and now he approached the enemy fleet.
The English fleet of 109 ships carried 4,542 guns and 22,055 men; it consisted of three squadrons:
- James himself commanded the van, the squadron of the red flag
- Prince Rupert of the Rhine commanded the centre, the squadron of the white flag and
- Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, commanded the rearguard, the squadron of the blue flag
The Dutch fleet of 103 ships carrying 4,869 guns and 21,613 men had no fewer than seven squadrons:
- from the Admiralty of Amsterdam, commanded by Van Wassenaer himself in Eendracht
- commanded by Lieutenant Admiral Johan Evertsen on Hof van Zeeland
- from the Admiralty of de Maze, commanded by Lieutenant Admiral Egbert Bartholomeusz Kortenaer on Groot Hollandia
- the Frisian fleet, commanded by Lieutenant Admiral Auke Stellingwerf on Sevenwolden
- from the Admiralty of the Northern Quarter, commanded by Vice Admiral Cornelis Tromp on Liefde
- the Zealandic fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Cornelis Evertsen the Elder on Vlissingen and
- commanded by Vice Admiral Volckert Schram on Wapen van Nassau
It is difficult to give a strictly coherent account of the battle. Whilst there is a wealth of historical sources, these have never been properly studied. The English found the behaviour of 'foggy Opdam' (as they would sometimes call him) puzzling and ascribed all kinds of intentions to him that, in reality, he never had. After the defeat the surviving Dutch flag officers, in order to exonerate themselves, pretended their fleet had followed the original written orders, blaming misfortune and cowardice among the merchant captains for the disaster.
In the early morning of the 13th the Dutch fleet was positioned to the southeast of the English fleet. Most English historians have assumed Van Wassenaer (who on 12 June had sent all of his silverware and other valuables home as to show how much confidence he had in himself) made a sudden dash to the west, trying to regain the weather gage, and the English beat him to it. If so, the wind must have been blowing from the southwest—otherwise there was no gain in this manoeuvre—but this makes it difficult to explain how the English fleet, sailing to the south, could be swifter than the Dutch. An alternative interpretation, more in accordance with the Dutch sources, would be that the wind was blowing from the northwest and Van Wassenaer tried to engage the English from a defensive leeward position, his favorite tactic. Indeed, both fleets passed in opposite tack and then turned. During the turn the Great Charity (originally an Amsterdam Directors' ship the "Groote Liefde", captured during the Battle of Portland in 1653) became isolated and was boarded and captured by captain Jan den Haen, the later admiral, who immediately returned with his prize to the Netherlands, an obviously unsound practice that would be forbidden after this battle.
Later an English victory tune "The Dutch Armado A Meer Bravado" declared: "Fortune was pleasant when she lent the Dutch our 'Charity' a thing they wanted much".
After this there was a second pass. Though the English had some trouble controlling these manoeuvres, the Dutch now completely failed to maintain a line of battle. In theory their being in a leeward position would have given their guns a superior range, allowing them to destroy from a safe distance the rigging of the English ships with chain-shot. In reality the several squadrons began to block each other's line of sight, those flagofficers and captains most hungry for battle left the less enthusiastic and older ships quickly behind, while company ships—never trained in these tactics—behaved as if no other vessels were present and this disorder caused a part of the English line to shift over some heavier Dutch ships who only just managed to escape to their main force. Later they would claim they had intentionally tried to directly attack the enemy in accordance with general orders. Some other ships happened to be in an optimal range for the English to concentrate their fire and took heavy damage. The young life of the commander of the Frisian fleet, Lieutenant-Admiral Auke Stellingwerf, was ended when he was shot in two. Veteran Lieutenant-Admiral Kortenaer, probably the most competent Dutch commander present, was fatally wounded in the hip by a cannonball. Quartermaster Ate Stinstra took command of Kortenaer's ship. Van Wassenaer now suspended the squadron command structure, hoping by placing all ships directly under his own guidance to bring some coherence to the Dutch force. This only added to the confusion however.
Again both fleets turned. And now something strange happened that has proven very difficult to explain. After the manoeuvre the English rear should obviously have been to the north of the centre. All sources agree however that it resulted in a reversed order of the English fleet in that the rearguard was now to the south of the centre. The traditional English solution to this riddle has been that their fleet tacked synchronously, i.e. each individual ship turned simultaneously to reverse fleet order, instead of turning one behind the other. If true that would have been a truly unique accomplishment for that age. Dutch sources suggest a different explanation: while executing the third turn the Dutch fleet lost all coherence because the wind suddenly turned to the southwest. It then slammed into the English van and centre. The English rear, avoiding the mass of confused ships, sailed behind the Dutch fleet to the south. A flotilla from the van then closed the trap completely, blocking the intended return to the Dutch coast. This scenario explains why all manoeuvring stopped and why some English flotillas clearly report trying to sail to the west, which would be inexplicable if they had not been to the east of the Dutch fleet.
If indeed surrounded the Dutch would have been in a hopeless position. The English main force to the west of them would have had the weather gage precluding boarding as a viable tactic. The English rear, firing from a leeward position, could have damaged the Dutch with impunity. As the Dutch had again the weather gauge in relation to the English rear, some of their ships wore to the east to attack it. Through such an action Montague's flagship was boarded and temporarily taken over by the crew of Oranje, commanded by captain Bastian Senten, who even raised the Dutch flag on the Prince Royal until Rupert himself in the Royal James came to the rescue retaking the ship. At that point, the entire battle seems to have degenerated into a gigantic shapeless mêlée. During these fights the Earl of Marlborough and the Earl of Portland perished. A few hours later around noon Montague raised the blue squadron flag on his mizen topmast—"A sign for my squadron to follow"—and indeed most captains of the English rear followed their leader when he went straight for the Dutch 'line' and broke through it (most likely he sailed through a gap) effectively dividing the Dutch fleet and surrounding part of it (if the traditional English scenario is true now for the first time a part only of the Dutch fleet was surrounded).
Apart from these positional problems the Dutch had a structural disadvantage: on average their guns were much lighter. Especially the eight largest English vessels were almost unsinkable themselves but could wreck the smallest Dutch ships with a single broadside. The larger Dutch vessels therefore tried to protect the little ones. The Dutch flagship Eendracht duelled the Royal Charles. James was nearly killed by a Dutch chain-shot decapitating several of his courtiers, The Hon. Richard Boyle (son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Burlington), Viscount Muskerry and the Earl of Falmouth who was not highly thought of, prompting the "poet of state affairs" (probably Andrew Marvell using the name of John Denham) to later declare: "His shatterd' head the fearless duke disdains, and gave the last first proof that he had brains". Around three in the afternoon the duel between the Royal Charles and the Eendracht ended abruptly when the Eendracht exploded, killing Van Obdam and all but five of the crew. Kortenaer was second in command; though fatally wounded he hadn't died yet and the other Admirals were unaware of his condition. For hours the Dutch fleet was therefore without effective command. After the Eendracht had exploded, the English immediately became more aggressive, while many Dutch captains faltered: some Dutch ships already fled a little later, followed by Kortenaer's ship the Groot Hollandia now commanded by Stinstra. This had a negative effect on Dutch morale.
By evening most of the Dutch fleet was in full flight, save for 40 ships or so under Vice-Admiral Cornelis Tromp and Lieutenant-Admiral Johan Evertsen, both having assumed command (showing the utter confusion on the Dutch side), who made possible an escape and covered the flight, thus preventing complete catastrophe, though 16 more ships were lost.
The English lost only one ship, the captured Great Charity mentioned above. Eight Dutch ships were sunk by the English; six of these were burnt in two separate incidents when they got entangled while fleeing and set ablaze by a fire ship: this happened to the Tergoes entangling with the company ship the Maarseveen and the merchantman the Swanenburg; and also to the Koevorden, the Stad Utrecht and the Prinse Maurits. The earlier mentioned company ship the Oranje exploded after being set on fire by another fire ship following many an attempt to block, board and enter the Charles; in which she was prevented first by the Mary under captain Jeremiah Smith (the Mary would lose 99 men of its crew), one of York's seconds, and later by the Royal Oak, the Essex and the Royal Katherine. According to some the Oranje lost half of its crew of 400 before succumbing, a severely wounded Senten (rumoured to be an expatriate Scotsman) was picked up by an English vessel and shortly after succumbed himself. During the Dutch flight the English captured nine more ships: Hilversum, Delft, Zeelandia, Wapen van Edam and Jonge Prins; the VOC-ship Nagelboom and the merchants Carolus Quintus, Mars and Geldersche Ruyter. Tromp was captured but escaped. Eight older ships had to be written off later, as the costs of repair would have exceeded their value.
The English had lost one flag officer: Rear-Admiral Robert Samsun, while Vice Admiral Lawson was mortally wounded. Notable English captains present at the battle included Captain of the Fleet William Penn in the Royal Charles, ex-buccaneer Christopher Myngs and George Ayscue. It has always been a mystery why the English fleet didn't at least try to pursue the Dutch. Several anecdotes are told to explain this. According to one Penn remarked to James that he was looking forward to the heavy fighting the next day — since he believed the Dutch were at their best when cornered. James, having narrowly escaped death already, then would have lost his nerve completely. Another report has it that Lord Henry Brouncker was frightened and gave flagcaptain John Harman the false order to take in sail Charles late at night. The Royal Charles did reduce sail in the course of the evening and the rest of the English fleet followed suit.
The outcome of the battle was partially caused by an inequality in firepower, but the Dutch had already embarked on an ambitious expansion programme, building many heavier ships. The English failed to take advantage of their victory. They never managed an effective blockade of the Dutch coast and could not prevent the VOC-fleet from returning from the Indies (Battle of Vågen). The fleets, now much more equal in quality, met again at the Four Days' Battle in June 1666.
One other result was that a Dutch captain, Laurens Heemskerck, fled to England after having been condemned to death for cowardice shown during the battle—and then, working for the English, encouraged and assisted them in their raid on the Vlie estuary resulting in Holmes's Bonfire.
- Weigley 2004, p. 150.
- Leven en bedryf van den vermaarden zeeheld Cornelis Tromp, Graaf ..., Volume 1.
- David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (1936) p. 288.
- Warnsinck, J. C. M. Van vlootvoogden en zeeslagen. Van Kampen, Amsterdam, 1941.
- Weigley, R. F. (2004). The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 9780253217073.
- Media related to Battle of Lowestoft at Wikimedia Commons