English fireships terrorize the Spanish Armada
The English sighted the Spanish fleet off Plymouth on July 29. As the tide turned, fifty-five English ships emerged from the harbor and engaged the Armada for the first time on July 31, avoiding close-quarters combat, neither side losing a ship. They re-engaged on August 1 off Portland, this time the Spanish losing several ships in accidental collisions and two captured. On August 1, the Armada anchored off Calais in a tight formation, expecting the Spanish army of Flanders to join them there. In the middle of the night of August 6 to 7, the English set alight eight fire-ships filled with pitch, tar, gunpowder, and brimstone, and turned them loose among the closely packed Armada. Most of the fleet cut their anchors and scattered. With the Armada out of fighting formation, the English attacked the next day off Gravelines.
The Surrender of Pedro de Valdés to Francis Drake aboard Revenge during the attack of the Spanish Armada, 1588
Closing to within one hundred yards of their prey, the English cannon pounded the lumbering galleons. The cannon on the Spanish decks were too close together, with ammunition packed in too close between the artillery, hampering the effectiveness of the Spanish rate of fire. Drake’s ships provoked Spanish fire but stayed out of range of boarding and fired broadsides into the Armada vessels, causing horrific casualties on some, and sinking others. Both sides were close enough for musket fire from the rigging. After eight hours, the English began to run out of ammunition and withdrew. Five Spanish and Portuguese ships sank and others ran aground, a few on the shoreline where they were set upon by Dutch and English soldiers.
A ship of the Spanish Armada lies wrecked off the coast
The next day the remainder of the Armada sailed north around Scotland and Ireland, a number of ships sinking in storms or from the battle damage. Spanish sailors who survived were usually killed by the Scots or the Irish, depending on where they happened to come ashore—too many providential circumstances arrayed against the Armada that even the Pope couldn’t overcome them . . .