Battle of Plymouth - Battle

Battle

On 25 August, the English spotted the Dutch fleet off the coast of Plymouth, and took sea. Ayscue the next day, off the coast of Brittany, around 13:30 attempted a direct attack from the north against the convoy, having the weather gauge. He hoped it would scatter, allowing him to capture some very profitable prizes, but De Ruyter unexpectedly separated his naval squadron and changed course in order to meet Ayscue’s attack, shielding the merchantmen. Ayscue’s ships were on average more heavily armed, but extremely disorganised because the fastest vessels, among them Ayscue's flagship the George and the Vanguard of his vice-admiral William Haddock, had broken formation in the hope of catching, during a running battle, straggling Dutch merchantmen; they were now unable to form a line of battle and fully exploit their advantage in firepower over the Dutch. The Dutch squadron however, sailing to the northwest, was in a rough defensive leeward line formation, with the Frisian acting Rear-Admiral Joris Pieterszoon van den Broeck commanding the van, De Ruyter himself commanding the centre and Hollandic Rear-Admiral Jan Aertsen Verhoeff commanding the rear. Around 16:00 the Dutch fleet and seven forward English vessels met and almost immediately passed through each other — both sides afterwards claiming to have "broken the enemy line". Having thus gained the weather gauge the Dutch at once exploited this by turning and attacking from the north. They would describe this as a second breaking of the line but probably the battle soon degenerated into a confusing mêlée. With their best ships now surrounded by the mass of Dutch vessels and bearing the brunt of the fight, the slower remainder of the English fleet, largely consisting of poorly trained hired merchantmen, was, reaching the scene of the battle, not overly zealous to get involved. Their numerical superiority thus also gained the English little.

The largest Dutch vessel, the Dutch East India Company warship Vogelstruys, by Dutch standards heavily armed with a lower tier of 18-pounders, got separated from the rest of the Dutch fleet and was attacked by three English ships at once and boarded. Her crew was close to surrendering when her captain, the Frisian Douwe Aukes, threatened to blow her up first. Faced with this alternative the crew rallied, drove off the English boarding team and put up such a fight that the English vessels, much damaged and two even in a sinking condition, broke off the attack. The Dutch employed their favourite tactic of disabling enemy vessels by firing at their masts and rigging with chain shot; at the end of the afternoon Ayscue, feeling rather unsupported, decided to break off the unsuccessful engagement and to retreat to Plymouth to repair his ships before any became so damaged they would be captured. The Bonadventure could only disengage after an English fireship, the Charity commanded by Captain Simon Orton, set itself alight and frightened off the attacking Dutch vessels. De Ruyter in his journal concluded:

If our fireships had been with us — they remained leeward — we would with the help of God have routed the enemy; but praised be God who has blessed us in that our enemy fled by himself, though 45 sails strong and of great force

Neither side lost a warship, but both sides suffered heavy casualties among their crews. The Dutch had about sixty dead and fifty wounded. The reports on the English losses differ: one set the number as high as seven hundred casualties including the wounded (most from the failed attack on the Vogelstruys), another mentioned 91 dead, among them Ayscue's flag captain Thomas Lisle. Rear-Admiral Michael Pack had a leg amputated and shortly afterwards died of the complications. The English spent one fireship.

De Ruyter pursued the English fleet after its retreat. On the morning of the next day both forces transpired to be still close to each other and De Ruyter hoped by aggressively pursuing to capture some stragglers; several English ships were in tow and might well be abandoned if he pressed hard enough. However Ayscue, fearing for his reputation, on 27 August convinced the English council of war to again give battle if necessary and brought his entire force safely back to Plymouth on 28 August. De Ruyter then sent two warships to escort the merchant fleet through the Channel to the Atlantic. For a while he considered trying to attack the enemy fleet at anchorage in Plymouth Sound, but in the end decided against it as he did not have the weather gauge. Then hearing that General-at-Sea Robert Blake was sailing to the west with a superior force of 72, he chose to withdraw to the west and kept assembling incoming West Indies ships throughout September. On 25 September Blake had reached Portland and sent out a squadron of eighteen sail commanded by William Penn to intercept De Ruyter, but the latter escaped east along the French coast while Blake had been forced by a storm to seek shelter in Torbay. De Ruyter escorted twelve merchantmen safely to Calais on 2 October when his supplies had nearly run out. In October nine or ten of the Dutch ships, among them De Ruyter's flagship the Kleine Neptunis, then had to return to port for repairs, probably because of insufficiently repaired damage from the battle.

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