The Battle of Portland (a.k.a. The Three Days' Battle), 1653
The Dutch victory at the battle of Dungeness in November 1652 left the the Dutch navy in control of the Channel through the winter of 1652-3 and allowed a revival of trade and commerce. By early February 1653, however, the English fleet had been refitted and reorganised. Around eighty ships put to sea on 11 February under the joint command of the generals-at-sea Robert Blake, George Monck and Richard Deane to intercept Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp, who was expected to escort a large merchant fleet homeward-bound from the Mediterranean.
The English fleet was divided into three squadrons, each with its own vice- and rear-admirals to establish a clear command hierarchy for the first time: the Red squadron was commanded by Blake and Deane in the Triumph (62 guns) with John Lawson as vice-admiral in the Fairfax (64) and Samuel Howett as rear-admiral in the Laurel (38); the White squadron was commanded by Monck in the Vanguard (56), with James Peacock as vice-admiral in the Rainbow (58) and Roger Martin in the Diamond (40) as rear-admiral; the Blue squadron was commanded by William Penn in the Speaker (64) with Lionel Lane as vice-admiral in the Victory (60) and John Bourne as rear-admiral in the Assistance (48). The most powerful English ships, the 90-gun Sovereign and the 80-gun Resolution, were not present in the fleet because they were still undergoing repairs for damage sustained at Kentish Knock the previous September.
Tromp's fleet of seventy-five warships rendezvoused with the 150 ships of the Mediterranean convoy at La Rochelle early in January 1653. Tromp hoped to sail home through the Channel before the English fleet was ready to put to sea, but stragglers and adverse weather conditions delayed him. The Dutch convoy finally reached the mouth of the Channel on 16 February. The English generals planned to attack Tromp in the deeper waters of the western Channel, where the Dutch fleet was far from home and could not salvage damaged ships easily. However, the width of the Channel at its western end meant that the English fleet had to cover a wider area in order to ensure that the Dutch did not slip past.
Blake was at Alderney in the Channel Isles when he received news that Tromp had entered the Channel. The English fleet lost cohesion as it hurried north to intercept the Dutch off Portland Bill on 18 February 1652. Blake and Deane were in the Triumph with a few ships of the Red squadron; others of the same squadron were with Lawson in the Fairfax a mile behind. William Penn in the Speaker was ahead of Blake with ships of the Blue squadron. Monck with the White squadron was four miles behind to leeward.
With the wind in the north-west and favouring the Dutch, Tromp sensed an opportunity to overwhelm the disorganised English fleet. He left the merchant convoy four miles to windward and charged downwind to attack. Tromp, leading his squadron in the Brederode (58), concentrated his attack on the small group of English ships around the Triumph. Rather than fall back and attempt to form a line with Lawson, Blake turned into the wind to face the Dutch attack. Tromp came under heavy fire as he closed with Blake's ships. Penn drew the ships of the Blue squadron together and began to turn about in order to come to Blake's assistance. This was a lengthy manoeuvre, which left Blake's small group facing the Dutch attack alone for about an hour. Penn came under attack from Michiel de Ruyter, who led his squadron in the Witte Lam (40). He also had to fight his way through Pieter Floriszoon's squadron, which attempted to interpose between his own and Blake's squadron. The Dutch boarded three of Penn's ships: the Oak (32), the Prosperous (42) and Rear-Admiral Bourne's Assistance (48). Meanwhile, Lawson with the rest of the Red squadron executed a complex manoeuvre to outflank the Dutch and join the battle from the south-west. Under the impact of Lawson's intervention, the three captured ships were re-taken by the English. Penn and Lawson then broke through the Dutch ships threatening to surround Blake's squadron, and the Dutch attack faltered.
While the main battle raged fiercely around the flagships, part of Jan Evertsen's squadron intercepted Monck and the White squadron in a separate battle that continued until nightfall. Meanwhile, by four o'clock in the afternoon, English stragglers from the Red and Blue squadrons had worked their way into a position from where they could join the main battle. Tromp realised that his attack was broken and that his ships were in danger of being overwhelmed. Fearing that the English would bypass the main fighting to attack the unprotected merchantmen, Tromp's warships disengaged from the battle and withdrew to reform the convoy.
During the first day's fighting, the English suffered a high number of casualties but lost only one ship, the Samson (26), whose captain, Edmund Button, was killed along with most of the ship's company. Three ships were so badly damaged that they had to withdraw to Portsmouth for repairs: the Oak, the Advice (48) and Rear-Admiral Bourne's Assistance, with Bourne himself suffering a serious head wound. Blake's flagship the Triumph, which had been in the thick of the action throughout the day, suffered heavy casualties, including Blake's flag-captain Andrew Ball and his secretary, Sparrow, both of whom were killed. Blake himself was badly wounded in the thigh by a splinter.
Dutch casualties included Commodore Balck and twelve captains killed. One Dutch ship, the Struisvogel, was captured and sent dismasted into port. At least three others were sunk and another burnt. During the early hours and the morning of 19 February, Tromp deployed his warships in a defensive crescent formation to protect the rear and flanks of the merchant convoy as it moved eastwards down the Channel. Tromp's flagship the Brederode was placed at the centre of the rearguard, with Evertsen in the Hollandia (38) commanding the left horn of the crescent and de Ruyter in the Witte Lam the right.
After making hasty running repairs to the damaged ships, Blake's fleet set off in pursuit of the convoy. The wind had become light and fitful, but the English ships caught up with the Dutch in the early afternoon of 19 February off the Isle of Wight. Although intermittent, the fighting was heavy and continued through the afternoon and evening until nightfall. Lawson in the Fairfax with some of the fastest English ships attacked de Ruyter's wing of the rearguard and succeeded in cutting off two or three escorts and a number of merchantmen. De Ruyter's flagship, the Witte Lam, beat off several English attacks, but by the time darkness fell she was dismasted and riddled with shot, and had to be taken in tow. Two Dutch warships and ten or twelve merchantmen were captured by the English. Morale in the convoy was very low; several of the captured merchantmen had broken formation and tried to escape to French ports.
By the morning of 20 February, the Dutch convoy had passed Beachy Head and was making for Boulogne. The attack was resumed at about 9am and the running fight continued throughout the day as the English ships tried to get to leeward of the convoy in order to cut off its retreat through the Straits of Dover. By nightfall, the Dutch were running desperately short of gunpowder and ammunition. Only about thirty-five Dutch warships were still capable of fighting. With Blake's ships threatening to cut off the route home, Tromp resorted to desperate measures. As darkness fell, he sailed close in to the lee shore of Cape Griz Nez on the French side of the Straits of Dover. The English ships with their deeper draught and damaged rigging did not dare follow the Dutch so close inshore. They anchored three miles offshore, convinced that the Dutch would not be able to weather the Cape and could be cut off and destroyed the next morning. However, the English had underestimated Tromp's seamanship. During the night, the Dutch convoy succeeded in escaping through the shallow waters around Cape Griz Nez. To the astonishment of the English, Tromp was off Dunkirk by dawn on 21 February with a clear run home for his surviving ships.
The three-day running battle of Portland had cost the Dutch four warships captured, another five sunk and possibly two more burnt. Between thirty and fifty of the merchant ships had been taken. The English claimed that the Dutch suffered 3,000 casualties. Blake had lost only one ship but several were badly damaged and three completely disabled. English casualties were estimated at around six hundred. Blake's wound proved to be serious and put him out of action for several months. However, the battle had restored English naval supremacy and the Channel was now closed to all Dutch seaborne trade.
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)