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Battles of Schooneveld

The Battles of Schooneveld were two naval battles of the Franco-Dutch War, fough
t off the coast of the Netherlands on 7 June and 14 June 1673 (New Style; 28 May
and 4 June in the Julian calendar then in use in England) between an allied Ang
lo-French fleet commanded by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the fleet of the Un
ited Provinces, commanded by Michiel de Ruyter.
The Dutch victories in the two battles, and at the Battle of Texel that followed
in August, saved their country from an Anglo-French invasion.
The Franco-Dutch War of 16721678 resulted from the attempts of Louis XIV of Franc
e to annex the Spanish Netherlands. In 1672, troops from France, Münster and Colog
ne invaded the Netherlands by land, while England's navy attacked Dutch shipping
and threatened a seaborne invasion. The conflict between England and The Republ
ic is commonly called the Third Anglo-Dutch War.
The years 1672-1673 were particularly desperate for the Dutch, with the French s
topped only by The Dutch Water Line, a deliberate flooding of large parts of the
Dutch countryside, and the withdrawing of guns and men from the fleet to augmen
t the army of William III of Orange, now Admiral-General of the fleet. A surpris
e attack by De Ruyter in June 1672, resulting in the Battle of Solebay, had howe
ver prevented the allies from establishing naval superiority on the North Sea, k
eeping open the sea lanes so vital to Dutch trade.
When the French invaded, the Orangist party took power, falsely accusing the for
mer leading politician Johan de Witt and his personal friend Lieutenant-Admiral
Michiel de Ruyter of plotting to betray the Republic to the French. The Orangist
s themselves were in fact subsidised by the English. Both England and France hop
ed to create a Dutch puppet state, using the enormous Dutch mercantile assets to
gain world trade dominance, each expecting that any moment the Dutch might surr
ender to either one of them, but greatly fearing he wouldn't be the main benefic
iary. Therefore during the battles mutual suspicion between the French and the E
nglish was enormous: the English were wary that De Ruyter might suddenly team up
with the French; the French thought the Orangist Lieutenant-Admiral Cornelis Tr
omp, readmitted to the Dutch fleet early in 1673, might well do the same with th
e English. In fact De Ruyter didn't feel too sure about Tromp himself, but his f
ears proved to be unfounded. Tromp cared for battle honours above anything else.
Michiel de Ruyter, since February 1673 Lieutenant-Admiral-General of the confede
rate Dutch fleet, planned to blockade the main English fleet in the River Thames
by sinking blockships in its narrowest part, and then to deal with the remainin
g English squadrons at his leisure. But the English fleet took sea in time to pr
event the blocking operation, and De Ruyter retreated on 15 May to the Schooneve
ld, the coastal waters at the mouth of the Schelde River, near the island of Wal
cheren, to prevent the allies from establishing the naval superiority needed for
the transport and landing of a force of 6,000 soldiers waiting at Yarmouth. The
Schooneveld basin, between two shoals, was so narrow the allies couldn't take a
dvantage of their numerical superiority. There he was joined by Tromp, adding th
e squadrons of the admiralties of Amsterdam and the Northern Quarter to that of
the Admiralty of de Maze and the Zealandic fleet. De Ruyter read a message from
the stadtholder to his captains, informing them they were not only the champions
of their nation but of the whole of christendom and that for any cowards "the l
east safe place will be the ports of the State for there they shall escape neith
er the severe hand of Justice nor the curse and hatred of their compatriots", ma
ny later being overheard repeating these words to themselves.
First battle
On 2 June 1673 (New Style; 23 May in the Julian calendar then in use in England)
, the allies, deciding they had waited long enough, approached the Dutch fleet.
Prince Rupert had a considerable superiority in ships (eighty-six against sixty-
four), men (24,295 to 14,762) and cannon (4,826 to 3,157) indeed the Dutch admir
als nicknamed their fleet the "Little Hope". The Dutch fleet was smaller than us
ual because the Admiralty of Frisia was unable to assist, that province and Gron
ingen being attacked by Bernhard von Galen, bishop of Münster. However a sudden st
orm prevented a battle. On 7 June, the wind blowing from the northwest, Rupert t
ried again and arranged his own squadron of the Red in the van, the French squad
ron of the White commanded by Jean II d'Estrées in the centre, and Sir Edward Spra
gge's squadron of the Blue in the rear. The Dutch van was commanded by Tromp, th
e centre by Lieutenant-Admiral Aert Jansse van Nes under direct supervision of D
e Ruyter himself and the rear by Lieutenant-Admiral Adriaen Banckert.
Rupert, convinced that the smaller Dutch fleet would withdraw to Hellevoetsluis
when pressed, detached a special squadron at nine in the morning to cut off the
retreating Dutch from the north. In this taskforce he concentrated all lighter s
hips from the regular squadrons so that it would be able to manoeuvre more easil
y over the shoals. However De Ruyter didn't budge. When however the squadron at
last returned to the main allied line, joining Rupert's squadron, the Dutch star
ted to move, but surprisingly in the direction of the enemy. This forced Rupert
to attack immediately to prevent the Dutch from gaining the weather gauge, befor
e he could form a proper keel line.
The battle began at noon and lasted for nine hours. Using his superior knowledge
of the shallow waters, De Ruyter was able to manoeuvre his fleet so close to th
e shoals that the allies found it difficult to engage without grounding.
Rupert first made contact with the squadron of Cornelis Tromp. He had now about
half of the allied fleet with him. Sailing slowly to the northeast after some ti
me he reached the edge of the basin. This gave him the opportunity to surround T
romp from the north with the mass of frigates while simultaneously using his fav
ourable windward position to attack him directly from the west with the heavy En
glish ships. The frigate squadron was now in complete disarray however and could
n't execute such a complicated manoeuvre. Nor did Rupert choose the direct attac
k. He was much criticised for this afterwards and defended himself by claiming h
is approach would have been blocked by shoals. This was simply not true and Rupe
rt knew it. Whatever his motives he turned to the southwest, both fleets bombard
ing each other from a distance, the Dutch inferiority in numbers compensated by
the fact that their leeward position gave their guns a better range and the lack
of a proper battle line in the enemy squadron.
De Ruyter had at first closely followed Tromp; but becoming aware the French flo
tilla of de Grancey had joined Spragge against Banckert, creating a gap in the F
rench line, he suddenly tacked to the southwest, separating Tromp from the rest
of the Dutch fleet. This greatly surprised the French fleet. The French main for
ce of d'Estrées, both frightened and delighted by what it saw as a brilliant manoe
uvre, disengaged slowly to the northwest to keep the weather gauge, but like Rup
ert didn't use this position to attack. This caused De Ruyter to comment: "The D
e Zeven Provinciën can still inspire awe among its enemies". The Dutch centre now
moved in opposite tack behind the enemy rear. Spragge understood that if De Ruyt
er reached the southern edge of the basin his force would be trapped between the
Dutch centre and rear. He immediately broke formation to tack to the southwest
also, narrowly escaping to the west with his flotilla, but leaving the flotilla'
s of Ossorey and Kempthorne behind with that of de Grancey in a slower turn in t
he same direction. Banckert now united his squadron with the Dutch centre by mak
ing a similar but larger turn, sailing behind De Ruyter. The Dutch supreme comma
nder had thus gained an excellent position: the enemy fleet was now divided in f
our uncoordinated parts and he could attack the confused enemy rear with a numer
ical superiority having the weather gauge. At that moment he had no knowledge of
Tromp's situation however and typically decided not to take any unnecessary ris
ks but to join Tromp with the remainder of the Dutch fleet instead, saying: "Fir
st things first; it's better to help friends than to harm enemies". He tacked to
the northeast, Banckert now in front, towards both vanguards moving in the oppo
site direction. Seeing him approach Tromp yelled to his men: "There's Granddad!
(the Dutch sailors used this term of endearment for De Ruyter) He's coming to he
lp us. I in return shall never abandon him, as long as I can breathe!" That thes
e things needed to be said at all shows the underlying political divisions withi
n the Dutch fleet. As the Dutch crews of the van had become rather nervous by th
e size of their opposing force, Tromp had for hours pretended to be in signal co
ntact with the Dutch centre. The allied rear could now escape to the west also.
When the Dutch main force reached Tromp it again tacked to the southwest forming
a perfect continuous line of battle with his squadron. The allied rear tried to
do likewise with their centre and van, but its formations remained very confuse
d. Spragge, having moved far to the north to reach Tromp, his personal enemy, no
w inserted his flotilla between d'Estrées and Rupert. The combined Dutch fleet the
n broke repeatedly through the many gaps in the allied line and Rupert, worried
by the mounting disorder in his fleet, was happy to disengage at nightfall, only
halting his retreat at first light, when it became clear the Dutch weren't purs
uing. Two French ships were lost, one Dutch ship was captured and then recapture
d, and one, Deventer (70), sank after grounding the next day. Dutch Vice-Admiral
Volckhard Schram (of the van) and Rear-Admiral David Vlugh (of the rearguard) w
ere killed.
Second battle
The allies cruised off the Dutch coast for a week, each accusing the other of ha
ving caused the failure, while the British recriminated among each other also. S
pragge accused Rupert: "...the battle was, in truth, as ill fought on our side,
as ever yet I saw". Worse was to come however. The allies had no intention to en
ter the Schooneveld again. Captain George Legge of HMS Royal Katherine wrote to
his Lord High Admiral the Duke of York: "That hole is too little and the sands t
oo dangerous for us to venture among them again". They hoped to lure the Dutch f
leet to open sea; when at first nothing happened they grew so despondent, they w
ere surprised when the Dutch did in fact come out. On 14 June 1673 De Ruyter, re
inforced by four ships (among which the heavy Oliphant and Voorzichtigheid) and
fresh crews and fully resupplied, took advantage of a favourable northwest wind
to attack the allied line. In this battle the allies were in total disarray part
ly the result of having been two weeks at sea, including one battle but mainly b
ecause of a curious coincidence: it so happened Spragge, now commanding the van,
visited Rupert the moment the Dutch attacked. He immediately left for his squad
ron, but Rupert, suddenly fearing Spragge could never reach his force in time, d
ecided to form the van with his own rear squadron. He tried to overtake the Fren
ch in the centre; but they, Rupert never having made his intentions clear to the
m, did their utmost to remain in formation, i.e. in front of Rupert. Needless to
say chaos was complete.
Edward Spragge wrote in his journal:
The Prince placing himself in the van, the French in the middle, the line-of
-battle being 89 men-of-war and small frigates, fireships and tenders, is so ver
y long that I cannot see any sign the general admiral makes, being quite contrar
y to any custom ever used at sea before, and may prove of ill consequence to us.
I know not any reason he has for it except being singular and positive.
Rupert repeatedly raised the bloodflag and then lowered it again upon seeing the
confusion among his ships made a coordinated attack impossible. De Ruyter, utte
rly amazed and exclaiming: "What's wrong with this man? Has he gone mad or what?
" exploited this disarray by engaging from some distance and firing at the allie
d masts and rigging severely damaging Rupert's squadron. The French, when attack
ed by Banckert, disengaged immediately, very suspicious of the bizarre course of
events. Only Tromp clashed with great fury with his eternal enemy Spragge until
A heavy sea made it impossible for the allies, though in a leeward position, to
open their lower gunports, and strong gales had driven all three fleets dangerou
sly close to the British coast. Rupert now desperately attempted to close with t
he Dutch to save his fleet from destruction, but they at four miles to the coast
retreated to save theirs, and by the morning of 15 June the damaged allied flee
ts sailed into the Thames and De Ruyter was safely back in the Schooneveld.
The allies had not lost any ships, but they had suffered considerable damage and
had to return to port for repairs.
By skillful manoeuvre, De Ruyter had fought two engagements against a superior f
leet, inflicted such damage against his opponents that they were forced to lift
the blockade and retire, and taken care to avoid the decisive battle that the al
lies were hoping to fight.
After refitting and establishing with great difficulty somewhat more cordial rel
ationships, the allies decided to cruise off the Texel in the hope of drawing De
Ruyter out of the Schooneveld and bringing him to action. But the resulting Bat
tle of Texel was a Dutch victory, and England was forced to withdraw from the co
stly and unproductive war.