The Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail

The Four Days’ Battle of 1666: The Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail. By Frank L. Fox. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2018.

Reviewed by John Johnston

IN an era when naval forces broke off combat at nightfall and rarely encountered one another the next morning, the running fights in the southern North Sea between 1 and 4 June 1666 were incredible and soon became the stuff of naval legend. Their success in crippling the English fleet and forcing it to flee into the shelter of the Thames was a moment of national pride for the Dutch republic, whilst national disgrace led to political recriminations in England that came close to threatening the recently restored monarchy.

Inevitably, therefore, the political consequences of the battle have been the focus of historians’ attention and the events of the fight and those surrounding it disappeared into the background.

Frank Fox’s achievement with this book, originally published in 1998 and republished with additional materials in 2009, was bringing English and Dutch sources together to place the battle into the context of grand strategy and to trace the evolutions of each day‘s fighting. Neither protagonist could afford a prolonged conflict, but the Dutch were the more vulnerable as their economy depended totally on the arrival of convoys of merchantmen bringing spices, calicoes, and luxuries from the New World, the Levant, and the Indies. The war thus became a struggle for control of the North Sea and the Four Days‘ Fight was, Fox argued, an unavoidable consequence of that strategy, as the English sought to intercept the convoys and the Dutch tried to prevent that by forcing the English to remain in the Thames.

Equally, in reconstructing the events of each day‘s fighting, Fox revealed how innovations in military technology were altering the conduct of naval battles. Mounting heavy and long-range cannon on the lower decks, for instance, enabled the English to destroy an enemy by bombardment instead of by boarding, and English naval commanders drew on their experiences with cavalry during the War of the Three Kingdoms (1638-52) and deployed their ships in a line to make bombardments more effective. The Dutch adopted sailing in a line after suffering catastrophic broadsides during the Battle of Lowestoft in June 1665, so that the Four Days‘ Battle may be seen as the first combat test of what would become the principal characteristic of naval warfare until the disappearance of sailing vessels in the late nineteenth century.

Fox‘s work remains the authoritative study of the battle and its strategic context, and Seaforth Publishing is to be congratulated on reissuing for a new generation of students of naval warfare. The book, however, has lessons for the present day. The English fleet was nominally stronger than that of the Dutch, but on receiving intelligence that the French were preparing to land troops in Ireland, the English divided their fleet, sending the more powerful vessels into the Channel and leaving a screen off the Kentish coast. The Dutch, deploying to prevent the English breaking out into the North Sea, thus had an advantage in mauling the vessels of the Kent coast and then inflicting severe damage on the vessels returning from the Channel. The political recriminations that followed in England and the government’s uneasy in explaining how the decision to divide the fleet came to be taken will be uncomfortably familiar to present-day readers, but the incident is an example of how competing priorities can fatally damage military capabilities and strengths.

Secondly, having control of the Channel and the Dover Strait, the English could force the Dutch convoys or French squadrons sent to support their Dutch allies around the north of Scotland and attack them as they entered the North Sea. The Dutch responded by taking the convoys into Danish and Norwegian waters at the cost of prodigious efforts to maintain influence at the Danish court, while the French could offer no practical support in the maritime war. The only viable response, however, was to prevent the English deploying into the North Sea, but the consequence were the heavily damaging Four Days’ Battle and St James’s Day Fight. The daring raid on the Medway (the Royal Netherlands Navy’s counterpart to Trafalgar) brought temporary relief, but the English threat was not finally eliminated until the invasion of England in 1688.

There are evident analogies between the strategic situation of the seventeenth-century Dutch republic and that of Australia today, and contemporary strategists will find important lessons in this book when contemplating the choke points of the Western Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *