General-at-sea Blake, the greatest English sailor of the Commonwealth, had one or two scores marked up against Admiral van Tromp. First, this doughty Hollander had refused to salute the Red Cross of England; then he had beaten Blake off the Goodwins, and, for a crowning insult, had swept down the Channel, flaunting his victory and vowing to sweep the English from the seas.
Blake was angry.
He resolved to take his revenge. Therefore, on the 17th of February, two months after the fight at the Goodwins, he was waiting off Portsmouth for Tromp to pass up the Channel, convoying about three hundred Dutch merchantmen from the Isle of Rhé. Tromp arrived, bringing with him seventy-three men of war, whereas Blake had but fifty sail, which he had divided into three squadrons, distinguished by their colours, the Red, White and Blue. The first was commanded by Blake and Deane, keeping each other company on board the Triumph; the second by Monk; the third by Penn.
Late on the 17th Blake received news that Tromp was about twenty leagues off to the westward of him, and everything was made ready for battle. Unfortunately, during the night the wind shifted, and when the dawn broke Blake found that his fleet was scattered. Lawson, the rear-admiral, was about a mile to the north-east, Penn as far off to the west, and Monk four miles to the south, thus leaving Blake and the Red Squadron to encounter the enemy, who, taking in the situation at a glance, determined to give battle at once.
Van Tromp, therefore, with his four squadrons of men-of-war, swept up the Channel towards the Red Fleet, making straight for the Triumph, in the hope of being able to cut out the valiant Blake. Blake decided not to be cut out, and banged away, taking on four Dutch vessels at once, among them being Tromp's own ship, the Brederode. Holding his fire until within musket shot, Tromp let fly a broadside into the Triumph, tacked about nimbly, and gave him the other side, repeating the process with such good results that Blake's ship was raked through and through. Supported by about a dozen other vessels, Blake, however, kept the fight going merrily for six hours, taking and giving many effective broadsides. Blake's captain was killed, as also was his secretary, while the Admiral himself received a wound in the thigh by a splinter, fortunately not seriously, although later it grew worse, owing to the fact that when on shore after the fight he foolishly managed to catch cold.
WHEN BLAKE WHIPPED THE SEAS
"Blake kept the fight going merrily...giving and taking many effective broadsides."
Although Blake put up so stubborn a fight, things were beginning to look black, when, fortunately, Lawson managed to come up in the Fairfax, which, with well directed fire, kept the Dutch at bay. Several of Tromp's largest vessels concentrated their fire on the Triumph and the Fairfax, and so hotly were these two engaged that when the fight was over the casualties on them alone amounted to two hundred, and the Triumph, moreover, was battered in her hull, and her sails shot to ribbons.
But this is anticipating. In a little while the rest of the scattered English fleet was able to sail up and enter into the fun, and a battle that had seemed to be going in favour of the Dutch assumed a different complexion. Broadside after broadside the combined English fleet poured into the Dutch, and so near were the opposing vessels, that the English musketry swept the decks of the Dutch ships with a galling fire, and by four o'clock in the afternoon twenty-six of the largest of Tromp's vessels were so crippled that they had to retire.
This lightened the work for Blake, although the battle was by no means at an end. Indeed, it was after this that some of the sternest fights took place.
De Ruyter's ship and the Prosperous, commanded by Captain Barker, engaged in a fierce duel. After raking the English vessel with his broadside, de Ruyter brought his ship alongside the Prosperous, gave the order to board, and, sword in hand, dashed at the head of the boarders on to the English deck, whereupon a great fight ensued. The English were ready. Standing their ground firmly, they received the Dutchmen as they swarmed over the sides on to the deck, hurled them one by one into the sea, or made them scamper back to their own vessel, and in a little while the Prosperous was free of Hollanders. Barker decided to pay de Ruyter a return visit, especially as he had been reinforced by a number of sailors from the Merlin, which had immediately come to his assistance. As soon as de Ruyter divined their intention, he rallied his men again, and, sword in hand, cried, "Come on, lads; at them again!"
And once more they scrambled aboard Barker's ship. This time they were more successful, and despite the brave show made by the English, in a little while the Prosperous was won. Hardly had they had time to haul down the English flag, than the Triumph and several other of the wooden walls of England arrived on the scene, boarded the captured vessel, and compelled de Ruyter to retire to his own ship. Barker, however, was dead, having "made a good end against de Ruyter."
This scene was re-enacted, in a measure, on several other English ships—the Oak and the Assistance being boarded, captured, and re-taken and put into action again. The Sampson, however, was not so fortunate. Rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the enemy, the crew scuttled her; this was the only vessel that Blake lost, though several others were so battered and torn that they were unfit for service until repaired.
As for the Dutch, they were in a poor state; the headstrong courage of the English, and the disastrous effects of their firing, had given them such a thrashing that, as we have said, twenty-six of their ships were compelled to sheer off during the afternoon, too crippled to keep up the strenuous fight, which was going all in favour of the English. That first day Tromp lost eight ships, either sunk or captured, for not to his force alone did the glory of boarding appeal. Pouring in their broad-sides, the English ran their ships alongside the Dutch, and, swords, pistols, muskets and weapons of all kinds in hand, hurled themselves on board their foe, fought many a fierce hand-to-hand encounter, and made the Dutch on several ships haul down their flags.
In this vigorous way did the battle proceed. Towards evening, Blake, confident that the victory would be his, and finding he could spare some of his fastest vessels, dispatched them to cut out some of the merchantmen. This was too much for Tromp: after all, his task was to protect the convoy, and as his ammunition was giving out, he thought discretion was the better part of valour, and sailed off after his convoy, the whole armada making its way up the Channel. Close on his heels hung those of the English vessels that were able to follow, the rest contenting themselves making what repairs they could to render them fit for further battle in the morning.
As soon as they were able, off up the Channel they swept, and early in the morning the Dutch fleet hove in sight. Tromp had drawn up his ships in half-moon formation, with the merchantmen in the centre for safety, but though Blake worried him as a dog does a rat, for a long time he refused to engage again.
At last, urged to desperation and fearful for his merchantmen, many of whom were heaving their cargo overboard and running for it, Tromp doubled and opened fire on the English, still keeping his half-moon formation. Blake immediately hurled himself on his foe, straining every effort to break through Tromp's line of battle, with such good result that several of the convoy fell victims. This fight was as stubborn as that on the previous day. De Ruyter, engaged in a fierce conflict with an English vessel, had his own dismasted and left a helpless hulk at the mercy of his foes. Quickly his friends came to his assistance, and, taking him in tow, sailed with him out of danger.
Courage met courage, boarders met boarders; from deck to deck they swarmed; now was an English ship boarded, only to hurl the attackers back and to follow them on to their own decks. The Dutch fought as brave men, and though some perforce hauled down their flags, others refused, and fought and drove their enemy off. One of them, finding himself attacked by an English ship on each side, and disdaining to strike, even although the fight was all against him, deliberately set fire to his own vessel, hoping, no doubt, to carry the English heavenward with him. Luckily, they sheered off, and hardly had they done so, than, with a sound as though the heavens were falling, the Dutchman blew up, every man on board perishing.
Once more night came on and put an end to the battle, leaving Blake in possession of eight men-of-war and sixteen merchant ships. A good day's work indeed!
Repairs, rest and morning found the English ready for the fray again. Tromp's ships were hugging the French coast, intending to make off for Holland, but ere they could do this the English were upon them.
With many of his ships captured, and half of those remaining to him without powder, and nearly all the others refusing, despite his threats and his entreaties, to renew the battle, Tromp was in a bad plight. The weaklings left him, making their way to Holland, and Tromp found himself with scarcely more than thirty ships. Nothing daunted, and scorning to run, he once more fell to, doing his utmost to keep the English from reaching what was left of the convoy. All in vain! Despite his reckless bravery, his dogged determination, his line was broken, the battle was lost at last, forty of his merchants fell to the English, and, broken and dispirited, Tromp retired at night to the sands before Calais.
Exulting in their victory, and firm in their belief that Tromp could not give them the slip before morning, the weather being all against him, the English hauled to and lay by. Between Tromp and Holland lay Cape Grisnez. How could he escape without coming out to sea again? So argued the English. But otherwise thought the Dutchman. Hoisting his sails, and putting out his lights, while the English rejoiced over their triumph, he quietly stole out with the turn of tide and headed for home, entering the Texel with a battered and woeful fleet.
So did the wily Tromp outwit Blake; but Blake had done better—he had shown Tromp that empty boasts frightened not an Englishman.