The Anglo-Dutch War: First Actions, 1652
The battle of Dover was fought before war had been officially declared. In April 1652, Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp's fleet of forty-two ships set sail to patrol the Channel and to protect Dutch shipping from English aggression. On 18 May 1652, Tromp was forced by bad weather to shelter under the South Foreland on the Kent coast near Dover, where he encountered a squadron of nine English ships commanded by Nehemiah Bourne. Another squadron of twelve ships under the command of General-at-Sea Robert Blake was further down the coast at Rye. In an uneasy stand-off, the Dutch insisted that they were only seeking shelter from the rough weather.
At noon the next day, Tromp's ships sailed away towards Calais. In mid-Channel, Tromp met with two Dutch ships and was informed of a recent incident in which a Dutch convoy had been harassed and fired upon by an English squadron under Captain Young off Start Point. Tromp immediately sailed back to protest to Blake. In the late afternoon of 19 May, he sighted Blake's squadron near Dover and altered course into the path of the English ships. Although the Dutch fleet was in English waters, Tromp provocatively refused to make the conventional salute of lowering his flag to the English general-at-sea and Blake fired a warning shot across his bows. The confrontation escalated into a battle between the two fleets. Both sides claimed that the other fired the first broadside.
The battle lasted until nightfall. Blake's squadron included several powerful second-rate vessels of fifty guns or more, including Blake's flagship the James (60 guns), the Victory (52) and the Speaker (52). Only Tromp's flagship the Brederode (54 guns) could match the powerful English ships. The Dutch concentrated their attack on the James, with Tromp leading the line. Although the Dutch fleet was greatly superior in numbers, the attack was poorly co-ordinated and was disrupted when Nehemiah Bourne's squadron of nine ships came up from the Downs to attack the rear of the Dutch line. The Dutch fleet withdrew at nightfall, having lost two ships captured by the English.
In June 1652, the Council of State ordered Robert Blake to intercept the Dutch East Indies convoy. The convoy was expected to make its way home to the Netherlands around the northern coast of Scotland in order to avoid English warships in the Channel. Blake sailed north with most of his fleet on 27 June, leaving Sir George Ayscue to guard the Channel.
Ayscue had a squadron of ten ships anchored in the Downs while he awaited reinforcements from the Thames. On 2 July, Ayscue attacked a Dutch convoy of around thirty merchantmen near Calais. Three of the merchantmen were destroyed and five captured; most of the others deliberately ran themselves aground on Calais Sands to avoid capture. Despite French efforts to prevent him, Ayscue refloated and seized two of the beached ships. Around 8 July, Lieutenant-Admiral Tromp arrived off Dover with a fleet of eighty-two warships and nine fireships. Hopelessly outnumbered, Ayscue took up a defensive position in the Downs anchorage covered by the guns of the artillery fort at Deal. However, adverse winds prevented Tromp from entering the Downs to attack Ayscue's squadron. On 10 July, the Dutch sailed into the North Sea in pursuit of Blake's main fleet.
Meanwhile Blake had dispersed the Dutch North Sea fishing fleet and captured its escorts. He took up position off Fair Isle between the Orkney and Shetland Islands to await the East Indies convoy. Tromp sighted Blake's fleet off Fair Isle on 24 July. Before battle could be joined, however, a fierce north-westerly gale sprang up, which continued for three days. Blake's fleet took shelter in Bressay Sound. None of the English ships were wrecked in the storm, but most suffered damage. The Dutch fleet was scattered, with many ships wrecked on the rocks around Sumburgh Head. When the gale finally subsided on 27 July, both admirals decided to sail for home. The East Indies convoy had also been struck by the storm. Some of its ships were lost, but Blake's fleet was now in no condition to pose a threat to the others. Tromp returned with less than half his fleet. Although others made their way back to the Netherlands during the following weeks, the losses were a severe blow to the Dutch navy. Tromp's republican political enemies blamed him for the losses of his ships and for failing to protect the fishing fleet. He resigned his commission rather than waiting to be dismissed.
The departure of Tromp's fleet in pursuit of Blake allowed Sir George Ayscue to resume operations against Dutch shipping in the Channel. By mid-August 1652, Ayscue's fleet consisted of around thirty-eight warships and armed merchantmen, and two fireships. Having been sent to the Western Approaches to escort a homeward bound English convoy into port, Ayscue's fleet was stationed at Plymouth.
Meanwhile, the Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter with a fleet of thirty-two men-of-war had escorted a convoy outward-bound from the Texel then rendezvoused with the sixty vessels of the incoming West Indies silver fleet off Brittany in order to escort it down the Channel to safety. During the early afternoon of 16 August, Ayscue intercepted the Dutch convoy off Plymouth. De Ruyter altered course to fend off Ayscue's attack. The Dutch fleet was deployed in three squadrons: the van commanded by Rear-Admiral Verhaeft, the centre by de Ruyter, and the rear by Vice-Admiral den Broecke.
The English fleet had the advantage of the wind gage. Led by Ayscue in the George, the English line bore down on the Dutch, concentrating their attack on the centre and rear squadrons, which forced Verhaeft to tack back before the Dutch leading squadron could engage. Ayscue succeeded in breaking through the Dutch line, followed by the next six ships, but the others failed to keep their station and the attack faltered. Ayscue and the ships with him were in danger of becoming trapped in the middle of the enemy fleet. However, the superior firepower of the English ships allowed Ayscue to break out and then to tack about to charge in for a second attack. The English ship Bonaventure was almost overwhelmed in the fighting and was only saved when Captain Smithson's fireship (name unknown) was set ablaze to drift among the Dutch ships, which disrupted them enough to allow the Bonaventure to be towed to safety.
As darkness fell, Ayscue broke off the engagement and withdrew to Plymouth. De Ruyter pursued the English ships and apparently intended to attack them in their anchorage until a change of wind forced him to withdraw. Apart from the English fireship, no ships were lost during the battle but both sides suffered heavy casualties among their crews, including Ayscue's flag-captain Thomas Lisle who died from his wounds. The Dutch convoy succeeded in escaping down the Channel.
John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea, (Barnsley 2006)
Sir William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy, a history from the earliest times to the present, vol.ii (London 1898)
Bernard Capp, Cromwell's Navy: the fleet and the English Revolution (Oxford 1989)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. ii (London 1903)