This Month in Suffolk – Lowestoft June 1665
The Battle of Lowestoft took place on 13 June 1665 during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The two opponents were, at the time, struggling to dominate the ‘carrying trade’. A fleet of more than a hundred ships of the United Provinces commanded by Lieutenant-Admiral Jacob van Wassenaer Obdam attacked an English fleet of equal size commanded by James, Duke of York forty miles east of the port of Lowestoft in Suffolk, England.
What Happened Brief Explanation
If all the following is just a bit too much to be reading now, then basically what happened is – The English were just a bit more prepared and The Dutch a bit too defensive and their tactics didn’t work. So the English whooped their butts! However, the next time their battle paths crossed the Dutch were the victors.
What happened Long Explanation
The English fleet of 109 ships carrying 4,542 guns and 22,055 men consisted of three squadrons.
The Dutch fleet of 103 ships carrying 4,869 guns and 21,613 men had seven squadrons.
Both national fleets could only be so large by employing armed merchants: the English used 24 of these; the Dutch twelve, some of them were enormous Dutch East India Company warships, specially brought over from the Indies. The Dutch also had activated eighteen laid up warships from the previous war.
The English had already made a blockade of the Dutch ports but had to break off after their supplies on board were running low. The Dutch did not want the English to reform and to make another blockade of their ports and so leading Dutch politician of the time, Johan de Witt, ordered Lieutenant-Admiral Van Wassenaer to attack the English aggressively during a period of stable eastern winds which would give the Dutch the weather advantage.
Van Wassenaer however, perhaps feeling that his fleet was still too inferior in training and firepower to really challenge the English in full battle, postponed the fight until the wind turned in direction in order to seek a minor confrontation in a defensive position from which he could disengage quickly and return without openly disobeying orders. His decision would cost him a sixth of his fleet and his life.
On 11 June Van Wassenaer sighted the English fleet but there was a calm and no battle could take place. On 12 June the wind started to blow again, from the east, giving Van Wassenaer the advantage. However, he simply didn’t attack, despite clear orders to do so under these conditions. Next morning the wind had turned to the west and now he approached the enemy fleet.
Both fleets passed in opposite tack and then turned. During the turn the Great Charity (originally an Amsterdam Directors’ ship the “Groote Liefde”, captured during the Battle of Portland in 1653 by the English became isolated and was boarded and captured back by captain Jan de Haen, the later admiral, who immediately returned with his prize to the Netherlands.
After this there was a second pass. Though the English had some trouble controlling these manoeuvres, the Dutch now completely failed to maintain a line of battle. Chaos started to ensue with a few of the Dutch fleet suffering damage however some heavier Dutch ships just managed to escape back to their main force. The English were able to concentrate their fire and some other Dutch ships took heavy damage.
Again both fleets turned. And now something strange happened that has proven very difficult for historians to explain. Instead of being to the North after the manoeuvre the English ended up in a reversed order in that the rear guard was now to the south. The traditional English solution to this riddle has been that their fleet tacked synchronously, i.e. each individual ship turned simultaneously to reverse fleet order, instead of turning one behind the other. If true that would have been a truly unique accomplishment for that age. Dutch sources suggest a different explanation: while executing the third turn the Dutch fleet lost all coherence because the wind suddenly turned to the southwest. It then slammed into the English van and centre. The English rear, avoiding the mass of confused ships, sailed behind the Dutch fleet to the south. A flotilla from the van then closed the trap completely, blocking the intended return to the Dutch coast. This scenario explains why all manoeuvring stopped and why some English flotillas clearly report trying to sail to the west, which would be inexplicable if they hadn’t been to the east of the Dutch fleet.
Apart from these positional problems the Dutch had a structural disadvantage in the size of their ships and on average their guns were much lighter. The eight largest English vessels were almost unsinkable themselves but could wreck the smallest Dutch ships with a single broadside.
The battle continued and ended with the English only losing one ship, the captured Great Charity mentioned above. Eight Dutch ships were sunk by the English; six of these were burnt in two separate incidents when they got entangled while fleeing and set ablaze by a fire ship: During the Dutch flight the English captured nine more ships and eight older ships had to be written off later, as uneconomical repair.
The outcome of the battle was partially caused by an inequality in firepower, but the Dutch had already embarked on an ambitious expansion programme, building many heavier ships. The English failed to take advantage of their victory. They never managed an effective blockade of the Dutch coast.
This first British victory did not set a pattern for the war. Early in 1666 the French and Danes joined the Dutch, forcing the English to split their fleet, which was also suffering from a lack of funds. The next major clash, the Four Days’ Battle of 1-4 June 1666 would be a Dutch victory.