This one-hour 2004 BBC documentary, part three of an eight-part series entitled Battlefield Britain and presented by the father-son team, Peter and Dan Snow, offers a fascinating account of the events of the summer of 1588 in the waters of the English Channel and the west of Ireland. Spanish King Philip II, militantly Catholic, was at the time the head of the world’s greatest empire, and he was tired of English privateers raiding his gold shipments from the New World. His solution: invade and conquer England. So he prepared one of the greatest fleets the world had ever seen–130 warships–and dispatched them to ferry his soldiers from Flanders to deal with the pesky Protestant Brits. This was the Armada Invencible, the Spanish Armada.
Philip’s battle plan was to slip past the English defenders in the Channel, pick up 20,000 Spanish soldiers with all their weapons and supplies from Flanders (the Netherlands at that time were under Spanish rule), and ferry them to the English coast. No naval battle was foreseen by the Spanish. In fact, Philip’s instructions to his commanders were to avoid engaging the English fleet at all costs. He was unaware that Queen Elizabeth’s spies had informed the English of Philip’s plans, so an English fleet of 58 ships was prepared and waiting in the port of Plymouth under the command of Admiral Lord Howard. Second in command was Sir Francis Drake.
According to this BBC documentary Philip II’s strategy included some telling details. His fleet commander was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a rich nobleman of impeccable breeding and insuperable social standing, but he had never fought a naval battle. And, typical of Phillip II and his time, the crews of the Spanish ships included more priests than gunners.
The first Spanish opportunity occurred with the English trapped in the port of Plymouth by low tide, but the Spanish heeded their orders and sailed on toward Calais where they were to rendezvous with their troops. As soon as the tide permitted Howard and Blake split their fleet and tacked against the wind until they were up wind of Spanish fleet. The English fired some 2,000 cannon balls, but failed to sink a single enemy ship and the Spanish continued their trip north. Five days later, with the public watching from the cliffs of Dorset a second battle took place. It was a dead calm day so the British towed their ships into battle with rowboats until a wind arose. The English managed to drive the Armada away from the port of the Isle of Wight, and in a desperate move the English prepared to sacrifice eight of their boats, converting them into floating fireships and sailing them into the midst of the Armada. No Spanish ships were burned, but they were badly dispersed in the panic, and the wind drove them dangerously close to the sand banks. The manoeuvre to escape from the sand banks took them north of Calais with no possibility of turning back. They still had not lost a single ship yet but the die was, nevertheless, cast.
Let’s let the Peter and Dan Snow tell the end of this story. Here’s the link: http://youtu.be/Jl3stf20X10.