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Parallels Between the Defeat of the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Britain

Updated on April 16, 2010

In 1940, under orders from Hitler, the German military initiated operationSea Lion, a plan to invade Britain. The manner in which they attempted this and their reasons for failure are remarkably similar to Philip II of Spain’s attempted invasion in 1588. Both Spain and Germany realized that the most difficult stage of an invasion of England would be transporting the invading troops across the channel.

The biggest hurdle in invading England is getting ground troops past the English navy. Any interference with the invasion force before it lands would prevent the invasion from succeeding because a scattered invasion force will not succeed in gaining a beachhead. As such any force wishing to invade England first has to destroy or hold completely at bay the entire British navy. It would then follow logically that the first thing an invader would need is a force much stronger than the British navy; for the Spanish this strong force was the 137 ships of the Spanish Armada. Since the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, would never be a match for the Royal Navy, Germany’s “stronger force” would have to come in the form of their air force, the Luftwaffe. Before the Germans could attempt to dominate the Royal Navy using air power they first needed to control the air which meant destroying all of England’s air forces. The Battle of Britain was the Germans attempt to destroy the RAF and gain total air superiority.

Both Spain and Germany believed they could overcome any advantages the English might have with overwhelming numerical superiority. The Spanish did this by creating the largest fleet the world had ever seen. It would be easy to see the 137 ship strong behemoth that was the Spanish Armada as invincible when compared to the English navy’s meager 55 ships. The disparity in numbers between the RAF and the Luftwaffe was even greater. At the beginning of the battle of Britain the 640 fightercraft strong RAF was dwarfed by the over 2,600 German aircraft participating in operation Sea Lion. The biggest way in which the British overcame their numerical inferiority was by only entering engagements in which they could outmaneuver their opponents; this was true for both the battle of Britain and their struggle with the Spanish Armada.

The Spanish Armada was composed mainly of refitted galleons that had been used to transport goods from the Americas. The Spanish galleons were huge, which allowed them to carry a large number of marines, and had been fitted with enourmouse high caliber cannon. These traits made them perfectly suited for the conventional method of naval warfare that ships had used for years. During conventional naval warfare at that time ships would pass to one side of an enemy ship, deliver a full broadside above the waterline, and then attempt to board and capture the ship. The British ships however were small and maneuverable dedicated warships that had incorporated the latest advances in artillery technology. The English galley’s cannons were not as large as their Spanish equivalents but they were more accurate had slightly better range and most importantly were designed to be reloaded in the heat of battle. The English had been trained to be able to reload quickly and fire multiple salvoes from a decent distance unlike the Spanish ships which could only fire once. This meant that the English ships could harass the Armada constantly without being in much danger of taking damage. The English could approach and begin to fire upon the Spanish with little fear, for after the Spanish had fired one volley the only way they could destroy the English ship would be to chase after the galley and attempt to board it. Since the English ships were much faster than the Spanish giants they could easily keep a good lead on any pursuing Spanish ship and they could continue firing on the Spanish ship the entire time. The Armada protected itself from this sort of harassment by sailing in a tight crescent shaped formation. This kept English galleys at a safe distance, for any ship to approach the Armada would come under fire from 30 or 40 ships at once regardless of the direction it approached from.

This strategy of tight formation proved to be a very effective one until the Armada reached Calais. When the Spanish Armada reached Calais, where they were supposed to rendezvous with the barges carrying the invasion force, the invasion force was not assembled yet. Since there were no friendly deepwater ports along the channel for the Armada to take refuge in it was forced to anchor in unprotected water just outside of Calais while it waited. This delay would be the killing blow to the Spanish Armada.

The Spanish felt safe in their decision to wait by Calais, the tight formations that had worked so well up to that point should have prevented the English fleet from attacking. The protection provided by the tightly packed mass of warships had one weakness which the British exploited at midnight on July the 28. Rather than attack the Armada conventionally, the British took advantage of the anchored Armada’s total immobility. The British packed 8 ships to the brim with tar and gunpowder and towed them into position, when the fireships were released they floated straight towards the tightly packed mass of Spanish galleons. As soon as the Spanish realized that there was a flotilla of massive bombs bearing down of them panic broke out. In order to get away in time the ships of the Armada were forced to cut anchor. This scattered the Spanish fleet all over the channel and since ships had no way of maintaining their position the fleet could not regroup. Ironically not one Spanish ship was damaged by a fireship. Once the Spanish’s tight formation was scattered the heavy Spanish galleons were easy prey for the maneuverable English galleys. On July 29 the English fleet attacked the disorganized Spaniards. The Spanish lost eleven ships and suffered over 2,000 casualties in what is known as the Battle of Gravelines; the English casualties were negligible. After the loss of their anchors the Armada was now unable to fulfill its role of guarding the invasion fleet.   

At the start of the battle of Britain it would have been difficult to see how the RAF could gain an advantage in maneuverability. The main fightercraft of the Luftwaffe were the Messerschmit 109 and 110. The Me 110 was a heavy long ranged fighter used as the primary bomber escort; it had served well in blitzkrieg operations in the beginning of the war. The Me 109 was a superb fighter, it had excellent handling when climbing and diving, an extremely fast top speed of 419 mph and was highly maneuverable, its primary role was patrolling over England in order to engage and destroy English fighter squadrons. The two main fightercraft of Britain’s Royal Air Force were The Supermarine Spitfire, which was evenly matched with the Me 109, and the Hawker Hurricane, which was a decent fighter. Though it was slower than the Me 109 and had poorer performance when climbing and diving, the Hurricane could actually outmaneuver the 109 at low altitudes which gave the Hurricane a fairly decent chance in dogfights.

The weak link in the German’s plans was the Me 110. Though the Me 110 had preformed well in the beginning of the war, it had only encountered outdated ineffective enemy fightercraft from anemic air forces like France and Poland. When confronted with the RAF’s powerful Spitfires and Hurricanes, the Me 110s did not stand a chance. Since Me 110s were shot down so easily, the bombers they were supposed to have been escorting suffered horrendous losses. In order to protect their bombers the Germans had to reassign most Me 109 squadrons from hunting English fighter squadrons to bomber escort. The Me 109 had not been designed for escort duty; its range was only 1,000 km as opposed to the 2,400 km range of the Me-110. The Me 109s short range meant that the Luftwaffe could only reach as far as London. The Me 109’s short range also meant that it could only dogfight for a maximum of 20 minutes before it ran out of fuel. Being forced to guard the bombers put the Me 109 at an additional disadvantage in combat. Since the 109s were tied to the bombers they were protecting they were unable to use their exceptional maneuverability to its full extent.

The British took full advantage of this weakness. The RAF would ignore all squadrons of Me 109s unless they were escorting bombers. If a squadron of bombers with its escort was detected, the RAF would scramble their fighters to intercept. The Spitfires and Hurricanes had the advantage when attacking escort fighters for, unlike the 109 pilots which had to baby-sit the bombers in addition to dogfighting, they had nothing to protect and could move around as they liked in order to take full advantage of their fighter’s maneuverability.

The similarity between these two attempted invasions is not coincidental. The invasion plans were similar because the Germans and the Spanish both had to overcome the same circumstances and the best way to do that will inevitably be the same for both of them. The English response to these plans will be the same each time for the same reasons, if all invasions require the same strategy the best method of fighting against it will likely  be the same every time. If all invasions require numerical superiority than the English will be outnumbered every time someone tries to invade, thus the English will be forced to use tactics that counteract numerical superiority every time someone invades. In short, invaders will always attack England the same way because that’s the only way it can be attacked and the English will fight back the same way every time because that’s the only way to fight against that type of attack, fortunately for Britain this situation favors defense.

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    • profile image

      Ron Joseph 

      7 years ago

      Sort of true, but until the mistaken bombing of Coventry where the Luftwaffe ran astray due to English interference with radar control guidance the RAF was at the mercy of the Luftwaffe. The problem for the English was that the Me109's could engage the spitfires in the air and the Me110's simply waited for the spitfires to land. The Luftwaffe simply engaged the smaller number of the RAF 100% of the time. At the time of the Coventry raid the RAF was down to 50 serviceable fighters and was on the brink of collapse. After Coventry and the 'retaliatory' Berlin raid wich sent Hitler into one of his infamous tirades the emphasis shifted to bombing British cities and it allowed the RAF time to recover. After that the 20 minute over London time of the Me109 proved fatal as the RAF was able to outman particular raids by converging their own forces.

    • LiamAnderson profile image

      LiamAnderson 

      8 years ago

      Hi

      Many thanks for the article, an interesting comparison between 2 invasion attempts.

      Best wishes

      Liam

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