Friday, May 22, 2015

Guest Post by Chris Oakley: Ill Wind

July 24th, 1588

The Spanish Empire's plans to conquer England were dealt a fatal blow when the armada carrying King Philip II's invasion force ran into a massive storm that lashed the armada's ships with torrential rains and hurricane force winds. Before the storm was over, more than three hundred vessels belonging to King Philip and his Italian ally Duke Alessandro of Parma would be sunk; fewer than a hundred would survive to limp home. When Philip was informed of the catastrophe, the shock proved almost too much for him to bear, and he would not be seen in public again for weeks as he went into seclusion to try and recover his nerves. The disaster would be an even worse shock for the Duke, whose physical health rapidly went downhill and who would die from a cerebral hemorrhage just two weeks after the storm.With the Spanish navy effectively neutralized and the Spanish government plunged into crisis after the catastrophe, a triumphant Queen Elizabeth I moved swiftly to capitalize on the strategic opportunity these developments had opened for her and assembled an armada of her own to occupy Spain's neighbor Portugal and subjugate Spain itself.

While the British couldn't quite take over all of Spain, they were able to seize control of most of the Spanish mainland's southern regions as well as the islands of Majorca and Minorca and maintain that control until the late 1690s. With Spain effectively kneecapped, Great Britain's only remaining challenger for supremacy among the European powers was her old neighbor and rival France; by the time King George III assumed the British throne in 1760, the Spanish had been shut out of most of the New World and were locked in a bitter three-way battle with the British and French for the rest of it. Not until after the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1782 would Spain be able to begin reasserting herself on the world stage. Seeking to avenge what many Spanish nationalists referred to as “the century of humiliation,” the Madrid government negotiated a military alliance with French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 and assembled a massive invasion force with the goal of landing on the southern British coast and overthrowing the Hanover dynasty in London.

Right from the beginning, the invasion plans ran into trouble. Napoleon insisted on personally assuming command of the joint Franco-Spanish expeditionary force as well as having the last word on matters of strategy and tactics, something which didn't sit well with the Spanish army general staff or the admiralty of the Spanish navy. Complicating matters still further, all three nations had profitable and growing trade ties with the United States and there were concerns among the Spanish diplomatic corps that a “friendly fire” mishap might provoke the U.S. into joining forces with Britain. Last but not least, growing unrest among Spain's own few colonies in the Americas made it necessary for the Spanish army to shift many of its most experienced troops to the New World, leaving its contingent in the expeditionary force to Britain made up in the most part of ill-trained recruits. When the expeditionary force finally departed for southern England in June of 1803, it was confronted by a well-prepared Royal Navy coastal squadron who opened fire on the lead Spanish warship in the invasion force as soon as it was sighted; in an engagement lasting nearly three full days most of the expeditionary force was wiped out in the English Channel with its primary target. Folkestone, still over two hundred nautical miles away. In an eerie coincidence, the spot where the Royal Navy defense contingent confronted and ultimately turned back the would-be invaders was the precise location where the Duke of Parma’s own flagship had sunk back in 1588 at the height of what is now called “the Armada storm.”

By 1806, Napoleon’s empire was on the verge of collapse, and Spain was on the verge of the biggest internal revolt any European nation had experienced since the French Revolution of 1789. The Spanish Liberation War broke out in the spring of 1807 and would last nearly  fifteen years, ending in January of 1822 when the last Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, fled to Mexico as the rebel armies were advancing on Madrid. The Spanish Republic was established in 1823 by a constitutional convention in Seville; over the next century, under the Republican government, Spain’s old adversarial relationship with Britain would give way to a more cordial rapport. In the First World War Spanish naval power would play a crucial role in the success of the main Allied landing at the Turkish port of Gallipoli, and when right-wing extremists tried to launch a coup in 1920 to restore the Spanish monarchy, British marines aided the Spanish army in quashing the revolt. One of the Spanish regular army officers who worked with the British at the time, a  young captain named Francisco Franco Baramonde, would receive the Empire Medal for his heroism during the uprising and go on to serve as Madrid’s chief military liaison to the British army high command during the Second World War.


In reality the Spanish Armada fell victim not to storms but to the English navy’s ingenious use of “fire ships”(vessels packed with combustible materials and set adrift to burn enemy vessels). The Spanish monarchy would survive until 1931, when King Alfonso XIII went into exile after an electoral landslide by republican political parties in municipal elections. Spain would be neutral in both World Wars, although the Falangist regime that took over the country in 1939 leaned to a significant degree in favor of the Axis.

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