The Armada - Difficulties and Blunders

The mission of the Armada was of such great complexity that success was nearly impossible. Contemporary technology, command, control, and communications were inadequate for the task.

The wisdom of such a great venture is also in doubt.  Nearly constant warfare, in Europe and against the Turks, and the financial demands the wars entailed sparked the Dutch revolt, and additional taxation would later cause serious problems within Spain itself.  The war against the Dutch had been draining money and resources for over twenty years, and a full thirteen years before, the treasury of Spain was declared bankrupt (Martin 70). Additional resources would have been better used against the Dutch rather than the English.  Regular progress against the Dutch was easily reversed when the armies were not paid and refused to fight.  In addition, the conquest of Dutch ports should have been a prerequisite for an invasion attempt as is proven by the difficulty in finding an adequate anchorage. Sluys and its good port were captured a year before the Armada sailed, but with considerable time and resources expended. However, if the effort and expense of the Armada were used against the Dutch, success would have been likely in a short time (Martin 150).

Amphibious operations have always been difficult, and previous experience shows this. Spain did have experience in this type of warfare, however it was restricted mainly to the Mediterranean with calm seas and with galleys that allowed decisive combat. Even so, detailed preparations and cohesion of the fleet were necessary, and failures such as at Algiers in 1541 were a very real risk (Martin 94). Sending troops through the Atlantic to the Netherlands had been shown to be difficult. One fleet was destroyed on the Dutch coast in 1572, and in 1574 a fleet did not reach even that point (Martin 70). Once the Armada reached Parma, there was no suitable anchorage. Parma controlled only Nieuport and Dunkirk, with Dunkirk having only a narrow entrance about which all the pilots were ignorant.  Even had the Armada made port, it would still be vulnerable to fireships, and the wind could have prevented exit until winter (151-2).  Even then, Parma`s boats were unsuitable for channel crossing.

Had forces actually landed in England without a decisive naval victory, lines of supply would not be secure. To ensure complete safety from the English, every major English port would have to be taken, and considering the navy's supply problems, the army would have had major logistical difficulties. English resistance on land could have been stronger than expected, just as the Dutch had succeeded in holding out for so long with little strong political direction.  The expectation of native Catholic help was unfounded as is shown in the 1580 expedition to Ireland.  Even in a country with a strong Catholic majority, the Irish did not rise up against the English oppressors (Martin 90).

The basic plan of the invasion was flawed, as it was a poor compromise between the plans of Parma and Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz suggested an invasion with troops sailing solely from Iberia in a huge fleet of 500 vessels, 400 of which were support ships (Martin 112). This simple and workable plan would not have required extensive communication and coordination with Parma, which was a major cause of the Armada's failure. In the end, a plan requiring just such coordination was chosen.

Decisive combat with the English fleet was necessary for the chosen complex plan to be workable. Decisive battle was exactly the intent, but the inflexible organization of the fleet and its necessity to defend the transports prevented offensive action.

Further, the superior technology and tactics of the English gave them control over the course of the battle. Although the English had more guns in their fleet and more guns per ship, the total broadside weight of the Spanish fleet was heavier than that of the English (Lewis 78). The English did have an advantage in quality and range, however the range difference was so minimal that the English found it nearly impossible to maintain an advantageous distance from Spanish ships (99).  Nevertheless, the English were still superior since their doctrine of standing off and using firepower was the whole focus of their naval program (97-8).  In contrast, Spanish ships were equipped with artillery as a supplement to troops, almost as an afterthought.  Spanish doctrine saw artillery to be used only immediately before boarding.  Since the English used their superior mobility to prevent this, very few Spanish shots were fired (Fathom 16).  Even if the Armada had desired a great gunnery duel, it would have been impossible. Ship-mounted Spanish guns mounted on land field carriages were cumbersome, dangerous, and difficult to repair and reload (Fathom 216).  Not only were gun crews untrained novices who probably never drilled, the very use of their guns would structurally damage the ship (Fathom 218-9).  Eventually, the English discovered the near uselessness of Spanish guns, and moved in closer using heavier more effective guns (147).

English gunnery combined with the mobility of the race built ships was an impressive weapon system, but was still not advanced enough to be decisive in battle. The pirate tactics which inspired English doctrine encouraged the attacker to stand off and use firepower and only then board the enemy. However, it was an entirely different matter to board a ship packed with tough experienced veteran troops, so boarding would not have succeeded for the English.  Therefore, battle was indecisive, and the Armada's fate was sealed only by the panic caused by the fireships at Calais.  This disruption and the loss of anchors ended all Spanish hope of invasion largely because of the poor sailing characteristics of the Spanish ships.

Any attempt to re-enter the Channel would have meant sailing against the southwest wind, which was out of the question (Lewis 173). The urca and naos cargo ships were the very worst in this respect, but even the galleons built for war had towering castles which prevented any significant progress against the wind (62). The strategic possibilities open to Medina-Sidonia were limited to the disastrous voyage home around Scotland and Ireland.

The Spanish ships were also led by soldiers with little nautical experience who often ignored advice of sailors.  Medina-Sidonia had no previous naval experience, but was willing to accept advice and proved to be a surprisingly good commander. But sailors should have commanded the ships, and care should have been taken to improve sanitation and provisions as these areas were totally ignored (66).

Command problems were not limited to the ships themselves, as the whole expedition was mismanaged to begin with. Even the most necessary commodities such as food and water were poorly preserved and were allowed to spoil as a result of staying on ship too long (70-1). Sanitation on ship was given low priority, and the English encountered were universally shocked at the poor hygiene (Martin 57).

The land preparations of Parma were completely inadequate to the point of questioning his loyalty. The appearance of significant effort exists, but whether the failure was treasonous or just incompetent is not known. A total force of 17,000 men and 170 barges and 45 ships were gathered (Martin 151). Parma even created a plan to capture a merchant convoy sailing from Danzig to supplement the flotilla that he knew to be weak (Martin 152).  However, the vessels were of such a low quality that they sank in the harbor, and could certainly not be expected to make a Channel crossing (160). Even had they been physically able to cross, the small Dutch flyboats would have destroyed them with impunity because the Armada could not sail into shallow depths (Mattingly 310).

Because of the distances involved, effective communication of the ideas, perceptions, and the reality of the situation was simply not possible. Isolated from his colleague, Parma lost interest and enthusiasm in the project and gave up hope of success. The king could not be fully informed of the situation, and the resulting decisions reflect this.  Overly centralized command limited flexibility, such as the order to sail along the English coast which ensured detection and English knowledge of the fleet's progress (110). The responsibility for the joint planning and cooperation of Parma's and Medina-Sidonia's forces was never made clear, and as a result, there was little cooperation at all. This lack of cooperation doomed the already slim hope of success.

To conclude, the expedition should have been postponed until conditions were much more favorable.  Better ocean going ships and tactics needed to be developed for the neglected Atlantic fleet, and the conquest of the Netherlands should have been a prerequisite for an invasion to even be considered.  Further, government finances should have been shored up before any attempt at major conquest was made.  Any attempt at invasion should have been as simple and workable as possible in order to ensure conquest.

Works Cited

Howarth, David,  The Voyage of the Armada.  New York : Penguin,1981

Lewis, Michael,  The Spanish Armada.  Macmillan : New York, 1960

Martin, Colin,  Full Fathom Five.  Viking : New York, 1975.

Martin, Colin and Geoffrey Parker,  The Spanish Armada.  WW Norton : New York, 1988.

Mattingly, Garrett,  The Armada.  Houghton Mifflin : Boston, 1959.

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