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Dawn of the Gun Ships

By Angus Konstam
5/24/2018 • Military History Magazine

John Hawkins drew on his experience at sea to create a state-of-the-art fighting ship, ultimately crushing the Spanish Armada and securing English dominion of the high seas.

The introduction of heavy guns to naval warfare came at a time when innovations in sailing ship technology were creating a type of ship capable of carrying these new weapons. While combining the two technologies wasn’t an easy process, it produced the breakthrough that allowed mariners to conquer new worlds and their royal masters to enrich themselves from the wealth of the Indies or the Americas.

While there certainly was a major leap forward in the design of ships during the Renaissance, and the introduction of guns into ships transformed the ability of these ships to fight, these two great developments also led in other directions. The most important of these was probably the establishment of national navies—an institution pioneered by the English and the French. The creation of national fleets also led to the possibility of waging a new kind of war. Rather than just maintaining ships to transport an army across the sea or to raid an enemy coast, the owners of a powerful fleet could attempt to gain control of the seas.

By the later 16th century most ship designers had realized that size wasn’t everything. A more agile warship could run rings around a more lumbering opponent. After all, sailing ships can only fire to the side, so by keeping out of the enemy arc of fire while bringing your own guns to bear, you could outshoot the enemy ship with impunity. This lesson was demonstrated fairly spectacularly during the Spanish Armada campaign, when the Spaniards found themselves outsailed by their English opponents.

The popular misconception about the Spanish Armada of 1588 is that the fighting was a David and Goliath affair, where small but nippy English ships were able to run circles around the big lumbering Spanish galleons. Of course the reality was a little different. Many of the Spanish galleons weren’t that big, and some of the English fleet were just as large as the Spanish flagships. However, the veteran English captains knew that in two key areas they held the decisive advantage. First, their ships were better equipped to engage in a gunnery duel than their Spanish rivals. Second, the handful of royal warships that made up the cutting edge of the English fleet were more than a match for any ship in the Spanish Armada. These ships—the so-called “race-built” Elizabethan galleons —were purpose-built to combine speed, maneuverability and firepower. They represented a development of naval warfare—the prototypes of the ships-of-the-line that would dominate the age of fighting sail for more than two centuries.

Once John Hawkins returned to England, the “sea dog” had come to two decisions. The first was that war with Spain was inevitable and that he needed to help Elizabeth prepare the Navy Royal for the coming fight. Second, he decided that his experience could be used to help create an improved type of warship— one that would allow the Tudor fleet to hold its own against the Spanish. In 1570 Hawkins entered into partnership with master shipwright Richard Chapman, and together they designed a small, 300-ton galleon called Foresight. She had a 78-foot keel, a 27-foot beam and a length-to-beam ratio of 3:1. The key to her success was the line of her hull below the waterline, which Hawkins had based on the sleek hull lines of the war galley. The superstructure was kept low, sweeping upward from waist to stern, while a long beak and rakish stem were designed to improve her handling in rough seas. Finally, the foremast was placed farther forward than normal and was raked forward slightly, which slightly improved the vessel’s handling.

Sea trials showed that Hawkins and Chapman had got their calculations right. She proved easy to handle, she could sail closer into the wind than any other ship in the fleet, and her armament made her the equal of warships twice her size. During these sea trials a few other Hawkins innovations became apparent. The draft of Foresight was deeper than on most other vessels of her size, and this deep hull acted much like a centerboard on a sailing dinghy, a counterbalance to the force of the wind on the sails that greatly reduced her tendency to heel over like the Mary Rose. This made her a very stable gun platform.

Just as important, Foresight carried a powerful broadside armament of 28 guns, arrayed on one continuous gun deck. The aptly named Foresight was the ship of the future. Describing her gun deck as “continuous” is a little misleading. The trouble was, the decks of a wooden sailing ship followed the lines of the wales, or the curve of the hull. This meant they sloped upward toward the stern, and underneath the sterncastle the decks became too steep to mount guns on. Hawkins’ solution was to break the run of the gun deck just behind the mizzenmast, stepping it down by half a level. This created a sort of lower mezzanine deck at the stern, which became known as the gunroom. This meant that guns could be carried lower down in the hull than before, and so the center of gravity of the warship was lowered.

In effect he had created the closest thing to the perfect sailing “battleship” that the technologies of Tudor England would allow. This new type of vessel would later be dubbed the “race-built galleon,” a term that perfectly captured its sleek, powerful appearance.

In 1577 Sir John Hawkins was appointed treasurer of the navy, and for the next decade he took on the job of rebuilding the Tudor fleet using Foresight as his template.

On paper the plan looked perfect. All Don Alvaro de Bazán, the Marquis of Santa Cruz, had to do was gather a force of some 150 major ships in Lisbon Harbor, then use them to transport an army of 55,000 men to England. This force would include artillery, engineers and supplies—everything the army needed to fight its way ashore, defeat the English and then march on London. Once it sailed, the armada would form itself into a tight defensive formation, designed to prevent the English from attacking the transports or picking off stray ships. When it reached the beachhead, the army would be carried ashore in 200 specially built landing barges, while a force of 40 galleys and six galleasses would provide the landing ships with fire support. Once the veteran Spanish troops reached dry land, it was assumed they would have little difficulty dealing with the hastily assembled militias raised by Queen Elizabeth of England. However, like so many plans, in so many wars, someone decided to cut a few corners.

Unfortunately for him, the Spanish king also asked his foremost general, Alessandro Farense, the Duke of Parma, to submit his own plan. He proposed a landing in Ireland by way of a distraction, and when the English were distracted, he would make a dash across the English Channel from Flanders. In April 1586, Philip reviewed the two schemes with his military advisor Don Juan de Zúñiga. The result was a compromise. Don Alvaro had already begun assembling the ships he needed, but he found that his enterprise had been scaled back to just 100 ships, plus 30 small dispatch vessels. Worse still, instead of embarking the entire invasion force in Spain, he was expected to sail up the English Channel to the coast of Flanders, where he would escort the Duke of Parma’s troops across the narrow waterway to their English beachhead. Thirty-five thousand troops were to launch the invasion, half of who would sail from Spain and the rest from Flanders. What had been a simple plan had been turned into a disjointed and overcomplicated one, a scheme that relied on perfect timing and the cooperation of two commanders a continent apart.

The fleet that gathered in Lisbon came from all over Europe—from Spain and Portugal, from Spain’s Mediterranean allies, and it even included neutral ships that had been impounded and commandeered to make up the numbers. For administrative more than tactical reasons it was divided into squadrons, each named after a province. For the most part these squadrons were composed of ships of a particular type. However, once the fighting started, the fleet commanders rearranged their force based on the fighting abilities of the ships. The exception was the Squadron of Portugal— those large and well-armed oceangoing galleons captured in Lisbon harbor in 1580. They were the core of the fleet and stayed at the forefront of the action throughout the armada campaign. Altogether this polyglot armada represented the largest concentration of shipping ever assembled during the Renaissance.

Over in England a fleet was gathering too. In 1587 Queen Elizabeth issued a decree that stopped English ships leaving port, and all along the south coast small English merchantmen were being hastily armed with whatever ordnance was available. The problem was that of the 163 private ships that took part, 108 were less than 100 tons burden.

Like the Spanish, only a small portion of the English fleet consisted of proper warships. In 1588 the Navy Royal included 21 warships of 200 tons or more, and only four of these had been built in the past 10 years. However, the four exceptions—Revenge, Vanguard, Rainbow and Ark Royal—were “race-built” galleons. Several of the others had been modified, and all carried a greater firepower than their Spanish counterparts. Although these royal warships made up less than a fifth of the entire English fleet, they and the largest of the Spanish galleons would be the ships that would decide the fate of Elizabethan England.

The coming battle would be a test between two different approaches to shipbuilding and to the way ships were used in battle. The Spanish commanders learned their trade in the Mediterranean, and their tactics would reflect the way galley fights were organized—which in turn was a maritime version of a battle on land. It would be fought with a center, two wings, a vanguard and a reserve. The aim would be to pin the enemy in a bitterly fought melee, while the rest of the force would concentrate against part of the enemy force, hoping to crush it before help could arrive. This was going to be a brutal fight, fought at close quarters and where cold steel rather than round shot would decide the day. Unfortunately, the English never fought in the Mediterranean, and so they wrote their own rulebook.

The different approaches to naval warfare were reflected in the two flagships, which were the center of a frenzy of activity in their home ports of Lisbon and Plymouth. One, a proud Portuguese galleon, would already have stood the test of battle in the sea fight off the Azores six years before. San Martín de Portugal might have begun life as a Portuguese warship, but she was now armed and equipped with Spanish guns, troops and seamen. She represented the ultimate in galleon design—a floating leviathan whose guns could sweep an enemy’s decks before her own troops took the fight to the enemy.

The other would be a completely new departure—an English adaptation of the galleon that would combine size with agility, speed with firepower. Unlike her Spanish counterpart, Ark Royal had still not undergone a baptism of fire. These two flagships represented the most powerful warships in either fleet, and the coming clash would be as much a prizefight between these two greatest ships in Europe as a fight between two rival maritime powers.

San Martín had an overall length of approximately 150 feet and a beam of 40 feet, which made her considerably leaner than most Spanish galleons of the period. She was a three-masted vessel, and in typical galleon fashion she had a low forecastle with a pronounced beak, while further aft her superstructure sloped gently upward toward her narrow stern. Her length on the waterline was less than 125 feet, which shows the length her towering sterncastle overhung the rudder or how far her beak extended underneath her bowsprit. For all her size she was apparently maneuverable.

She was armed with 48 guns, of which just over half were modern bronze muzzle-loading pieces and the rest were swivel guns. While this represented a relatively modern collection of ordnance, compared to larger warships in the English fleet she was seriously undergunned.

By contrast, Ark Royal was a floating arsenal. She had been built just two years before at the Royal Shipyard in Deptford, although her building was a private venture. Her owner was Sir Walter Raleigh, the queen’s favorite courtier, commander of her guard, explorer, poet, writer—and one of the most hated men in England.

She was originally called Ark Raleigh and was an improved version of the royal warship Revenge, built almost a decade earlier, and an enlarged sister of the 380-ton Rainbow, which Peter Pett was building in the same shipyard. She was listed as being of 550 tons burden, although this tonnage varied considerably from record to record, with an overall length of 140 feet, a beam of 37 feet and a draft of about 15 feet. She carried 50 tons of ordnance—55 guns —a total that probably included 38 large bronze muzzle-loading pieces ranging from demi-cannons to sakers. For the record this small but powerful warship carried four demi-cannons, four cannon perriers (firing stone shot), 12 culverins, 12 demi-culverins and six sakers. Also listed are four port pieces, two fowlers.

She also carried up to a dozen more conventional swivel pieces, and her guns were served by 32 gunners, supported by 100 soldiers and 268 mariners, giving her a total complement of 400 men.

[On the Spanish side, all were confident.] After all, even the English had described the great armada as “invincible.” What could possibly go wrong?

The answer lay in the black art of gunnery. The Elizabethan sailors enjoyed two major advantages. The first was a qualitative one—they had a larger number of reliable modern guns. The second was all down to tactical doctrine—the Spanish relied on the old-fashioned method of firing a broadside, then boarding the enemy in the smoke. By contrast, the English had developed the ability to keep their distance from the Spanish and to pound their ships with round shot. The coming battle would be a contest between two fighting doctrines as much as a testing ground between the Spanish and English versions of the galleon.

Although both the Spanish and the English made good use of the latest bronze muzzle-loading pieces of ordnance, the bulk of the Spanish fleet were still armed in part with obsolete wrought-iron breech-loading guns.

Of course the guns were only part of the equation. Although the Spanish had started experimenting with more mobile gun carriages, most of their bronze guns were mounted on two-wheeled carriages—just like the typical gun carriages of the period found on land. The only real difference was that naval carriages tended to be a little shorter, and the wheels were often built from solid pieces of timber rather than being spoked. The carriages used for wrought-iron breech-loading guns were also just like those used half a century before, with heavy wooden beds and mounted on two wheels. This meant that in terms of gun mounting, the Spanish were half a century behind the English.

English gun carriages had four small wheels rather than two big ones. The whole carriage sat on two axles, each of which was fitted with small solid wooden wheels called trucks. What was so special about this contraption was that it was perfectly designed for the gun decks of a wooden sailing ship. It took up much less space than the taller two-wheeled carriages used by the Spanish, and the smaller wheels were better able to absorb more of the recoil when the gun was fired. They could be trained and elevated relatively easily or rolled back from the gunport for loading. This was the key. The four truck-wheeled gun carriage could be reloaded in the middle of a battle with relative ease. The Spanish guns couldn’t.

Before a Spanish muzzle-loading gun was fired on board a wooden sailing ship, the two-wheeled gun carriage was tied to the side of the ship. In effect the timbers of the ship absorbed the recoil, which placed a huge strain on the hull of the vessel. By contrast the English gun carriages were only loosely secured, so that some of the force of the recoil could be absorbed by the wheels of the carriage scraping across the deck, while a rope secured to the side of the ship prevented the carriage from careering too far back across the gun deck. This also meant that the gun was already pulled back from the side of the ship, ready to be reloaded. Once the gun crew had prepared the gun for firing, all they needed to do was to move it forward to the gunport again. It was simple and straightforward. By contrast, in order to reload one of the Spanish guns, it had to be untied from the side of the ship, then rolled backward. The longer carriage made it hard to move the gun around on the gun deck. Once the piece was reloaded, it was then rolled forward and tied to the side of the ship again. Experiments with replica carriages of both types demonstrated that the English system was far faster than the Spanish one, which meant the English were able to keep up a far heavier rate of fire.

Worse, the organization of the gun crews on board the Spanish ships made the reloading of the guns all but impossible once a battle had started. Each large gun was commanded by a gunner, assisted by a number of “sea soldiers.” Once the gun was ready for action, these soldiers picked up their pikes, halberds or handguns again and rejoined the rest of their company. It was all a matter of doctrine. The Spanish were geared up to fight a boarding action. The gunners would fire off one big broadside, then the Spanish soldiers would board the English ship before the smoke had cleared.

The superiority of the Spanish soldier was legendary—during the late 16th century they were widely regarded as the finest troops in Europe. Once they managed to grapple and board an English ship, then victory was virtually assured.

This Spanish advantage dictated English tactics. By keeping out of close range, the English ships could avoid being boarded, and their advantage in gunnery meant that they would be able to batter the Spanish ships without much risk of any serious return fire.

The only time the English came close enough for these obsolete muzzleloaders to be effective was during the final battle of the campaign off Gravelines. However, when the English finally closed to within range, the obsolete breech-loading guns of the Spaniards proved just as effective as the more modern English guns. However, by that time the Spanish Armada was already in serious trouble.

[Francis] Drake led the first attack in Revenge, followed in turn by Hawkins in Victory and [Martin] Frobisher in Triumph. At one point all three flagships lay within musket range of San Martín, pouring fire into her at point-blank range. During the next two hours the hull of the Spanish flagship was hit by over 200 round shot, her rigging was badly damaged and her decks were literally awash with blood. The other Spanish ships of Don Alonso Martínez de Leiva’s forlorn hope were equally battered, but somehow all five galleons held the English off and slowly managed to creep northward toward the rest of the fleet.

By 9 a.m. Don Alonso had managed to pull the rest of the armada together, and he even managed to create a rearguard. Then, shortly after 10 a.m., the five battered galleons passed through the cordon of the Spanish rearguard and were soon ensconced in the comparative safety of the armada’s defensive box. The English pulled back to regroup, but the respite was only temporary. The battle proper was about to begin. What followed would be a running battle, with the Spanish heading toward the northeast, away from the coast and its treacherous sandbanks. For their part, the English nipped at the edges of the Spanish formation, trying to pull it apart. Drake led his squadron toward the armada’s left, supported by Hawkins’ squadron on his right. Hawkins led his squadron against the armada’s center. Mary Rose was in the thick of the fighting, and an observer on board her later wrote with some detachment, “As soon as we that pursued the fleet were come up within musket shot of them, the fight began very hotly.” He probably wasn’t exaggerating. At close range the English superiority in firepower was really making its mark, and the Spanish ships were literally being shot to pieces.

That night the Duke of Medina Sidonia thought he could still renew the battle. He knew that the English must be desperately short of ammunition again, and if he could only hold his ground— and his formation—then he still had a chance of working his way back to Calais or Gravelines. As Tuesday morning dawned, the two fleets lay about two miles apart, some 25 miles northeast of Calais, somewhere to the east of the Goodwin Sands, where the Scottish Sir Andrew Barton had met his end three quarters of a century before. However, morale in the armada was low, and several captains refused to renew the fight. Then the wind changed again—a strong offshore breeze that began driving the battered armada into the North Sea. Whatever else he could do, the Duke of Medina Sidonia was unable to harness wind, tide and the English. He called another council of war, and this time the course was clear. Any rendezvous with Parma’s army was now impossible. The admiral had little choice but to order his fleet to continue on to the north and to head home by circumnavigating the British Isles.

 

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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