Battle of Solebay, 7 June 1672

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The battle of Solebay (28 May/ 7 June 1672) was a Dutch naval victory early in the Third Anglo-Dutch War that prevented a planned Anglo-French invasion of the northern Netherlands (Solebay was an alternative, older, name for Southwold Bay, which in 1672 was a sizable indentation in the coast, now largely filled in).

The war had been deliberately provoked by the British, after Charles II came to an agreement with Louis XIV of France. The allies planned a two-pronged assault on the Netherlands. While one French army invaded from the Spanish Netherlands, a joint Anglo-French fleet would land a second army on the Dutch coast, bypassing the United Provinces' water defences.

Early in May a French squadron under Admiral D'Estrées joined the British fleet at Portsmouth, and the allied fleet sailed east into the North Sea. The French provided thirty warships and eight fireships, while the British had around sixty-five warships (some sources say fifty five) and twenty two warships. The Dutch had seventy five ships of the line and frigates, thirty six fireships and a number of smaller ships.

The Dutch, under de Ruyter, were already at sea, and on 19 May the two fleets came together off the Essex coast, but the weather prevented a battle. The Allies sailed on to the north and anchored in Solebay, wit the French to the south, Edward, Montague earl of Sandwich to the north, and the commander-in-chief, James duke of York, in the centre. Sandwich was worried that the fleet was in danger of being trapped against the shore by the Dutch, but the Duke of York dismissed his fears, believing that the Dutch had sailed over to their own coast after the earlier encounter.

This was not the case. Early on the morning of 28 May the Allies were alarmed to discover the Dutch fleet sailing towards them from the north-east. This was potentially the most dangerous moment for the allies –the allies were in disarray, and if the wind had held then the Dutch fireships might have won a crushing victory, but at a key moment the wind dropped.

This gave the Allies time to restore order. Sandwich and the Duke of York both moved north-east, gaining valuable room to manoeuvre, but the French squadron headed off to the south-east, possibly because of secret orders from Louis XIV not to take too many risks. De Ruyters responded by splitting his own fleet, sending between twenty and twenty-five of his ships to face the French while the remaining fifty to fifty five headed for the British. The French role after this is controversial. They effectively fought a separate battle out of sight of the British, in which they lost two ships, but French claims of a major part in the battle are unsupported.

The main Dutch fleet and the two British squadrons fought in line-of-battle, a distinct change from the melee battles of the First Anglo-Dutch War. Sandwich, with the English rear, was first into action against Van Ghent with the Dutch right/ rear. Sandwich's own flagship, the Royal James, came under attack from the much smaller Groot Hollandia (Jan van Brakel), two fireships and Van Ghent's flagship. Both admirals were killed in the fighting, which ended when a third fireship grappled the Royal James, setting her on fire. After this fight the Dutch rear withdrew from the action for some time, allowing the rest of the British rear to support the Duke of York.

In the centre the Dutch attack was so fierce that the Duke of York was eventually forced to move his flag from the Royal Prince to the St Michael. The arrival of the British rear might have given the Duke of York the advantage, but the Dutch right/ rear soon rejoined the fight, and from about 8 pm the battle began to wind down, and after 9 pm the Dutch moved off to the north.

The battle ended as a hard-fought draw. The Dutch lost the Stavoren (48) and the Jazua (60), and suffered around 1,600 killed. The British lost the Royal James and one other ship, while the Royal Katherine was briefly captured. British casualties were around 2,500. The French lost two ships. A great number of fireships were used up during the battle, although the Royal James was the only ship to be sunk by a fireship attack.

Both fleets had to remain in port for some time for repairs, but the allies were back at sea in June, and at the start of July they even planned to land on Texel, but bad weather prevented this, and the rest of the year passed relatively quietly at sea.
De Ruyter, Dutch Admiral, ed Jaap R. Bruijn, Ronald Prud'homme van Reine and Rolof van Hövell tot Westerflier. A collection of interesting essays written by Dutch historians and that examines different aspects of de Ruyter’s life and the wider world of the Dutch Republic. This is a valuable piece of work that helps explain the important of de Ruyter as a European figure (not just as a commander during the Anglo-Dutch Wars). [read full review]

Fireship: The Terror Weapon of the Age of Sail, Peter Kirsch. A lavishly illustrated look at one of the most feared weapons of the age of sail. This is a very impressive piece of work – well written and researched, wide ranging in scope and with detailed accounts of most of the key fireship attacks from the sixteenth century wars against Spain to the Greek War of Independence. An essential read for anyone interested in naval warfare in the age of sail. [see more] cover cover cover

Subject Index: Anglo-Dutch Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 August 2009), Battle of Solebay, 7 June 1672 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_solebay.html

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