The Age of Sail’s Pearl Harbour
In 1667 the English crown was in trouble. Charles II had only been restored to the throne seven years before and things were going from bad to worse. A country still recovering from years of civil war had first been hit by plague and then the destruction of its capital city in the Great Fire of London. The government was bankrupt and was locked in a cycle of ruinous wars with the Dutch Republic. Peace negotiations were underway, but had made little progress. It was at this moment that the Dutch chose to unleash the most audacious raid of the age. With their principal trading rival on his knees, a large Dutch fleet of sixty-two warships and thirty smaller vessels set sail in June 1667 to cross the North Sea, under the command of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter.
Rumours that the Dutch fleet was planning to put to sea had reached London, and the attack should have been intercepted long before it reached the English coast. Unfortunately, there were almost no major Royal Navy ships available to do this. With peace in the offing and no money to pay the sailors, the great ships of the Stuart navy had been taken out of service and laid up. Samuel Pepys, who was the senior civil servant at the Admiralty recorded the situation in his diary when he wrote "…the Dutch are known to be abroad with eighty sail of ships of war … while we have not a ship at sea to do them any hurt with.” On the 10th of June the Dutch fleet entered the Thames estuary, causing panic in London. The militia was called out, chains of barges were strung across the river to block the enemy’s path, while the wealthy fled to their country estates. But de Ruyter was not planning to attack the capital. Instead, he headed south towards the River Medway and the Royal Dockyard at Chatham, England’s most important naval base.
On 10th June the Dutch arrived off Sheerness and drove off the tiny number of Royal Navy ships with skeleton crews they found there. Then they began an intense bombardment of the partly built fortress that guarded the entrance to the River Medway. Once the fire from the fortification began to slacken, de Ruyter landed eight hundred Dutch marines, at which point the garrison, who had not been paid for months, promptly surrendered. Having captured all the fortress’s guns and blown up the building, they were able to enter the lower reaches of the river.
The senior official in the area was Peter Pett, Commissioner of Chatham Royal Dockyard. He was not a military man, being a civilian administrator and a shipwright by trade. He sent repeated messages to London, lamenting the absence of any senior Naval officers to help him, but his letters arrived in a capital gripped by panic, to be read by a monarch bombarded by alternative theories as to what the Dutch plan was. With no clear lines of command, it was several days before Charles instructed Admiral George Monck, Duke of Albemarle to go to Chatham to take charge. On the way he could see columns of smoke rising into the air, marking the Dutch fleet’s progress up the winding river, destroying everything in their path. When he arrived, he found that the naval base was in no position to repel an attack. Of the hundreds of shipyard employees based there all bar twelve had fled. He had been told that Chatham boasted thirty Royal Navy sloops in commission but discovered that only ten were available, the others having been used to evacuate the personal possessions of senior officials.
With the Dutch navigating their way ever closer through the shoals and mudbanks of the Medway, he set about organising Chatham’s defence. He first ordered the transfer of heavy artillery from Gravesend, although this would take some time to arrive. Next, he set about establishing a defensive line to block Dutch progress. The last line of the Dockyard’s defence was Upnor Castle, a Tudor fortification, which guarded one end of a chain of six-inch-thick iron links meant to block the river. He sent the few troops to hand – a company of soldiers and a squadron of cavalry to reinforce Upnor Castle, and managed to find some batteries of light guns to protect the end of the chain opposite the castle. Next, he had ten ships of various sizes deliberately sunk to block the approaches to the chain. These were a mixture of smaller ships and Dutch prizes from earlier engagements. Just above the chain Monck positioned three larger ships, two captured Dutch ones and the Royal Navy warship Monmouth, moored across the river so they could cover the chain with their broadsides. Finding gunners to man these ships and sailors to sail the ten block ships into position used all the Royal Navy personnel available to Monck. He was staking everything on the chain stopping the Dutch. He had just completed his arrangements when the first enemy ships arrived.
The location of the block ships was clearly visible to the enemy thanks to their masts rising proud of the muddy water, allowing de Ruyter to gauge the relative sizes of the various obstacles. Undercover of a murderous barrage from his fleet, he ordered the smallest of the sunk ships, the Edward and Eve, to be dragged aside, clearing a channel through. Then he landed troops to attack the end of the chain opposite Upnor Castle. Having overwhelmed the small number of gunners protecting that bank, his men broke the chain with hammers, and it dropped down to the riverbed. Finally, he attacked the three vessels positioned to protect it with fireships. Only the Monmouth escaped the resulting conflagration.
With no further cards to play, Monck ordered that the sixteen major warships remaining at Chatham should be sunk to avoid capture, although the order came too late to save all from destruction. Three of the navy’s largest ships, the Loyal London, Royal James and Royal Oak were set on fire by the Dutch and destroyed. Most humiliating of all, the fleet’s flagship, the Royal George was captured and taken away in triumph by the Dutch as they retreated back down the river. The decision to deliberately sink much of the fleet caused derision amongst the satirists of the age. As Andrew Marvel wrote
Of all our navy none should now survive,
But that the ships themselves were taught to dive
For Charles and the Royal Navy, the Medway raid was an unmitigated disaster. The cost of the damage and lost ships was estimated at the time at £200,000. Some of the warships scuttled by Monck were raised and brought back into service, but it was not until the 1670s that a major building program restored the size of the Royal Navy, and some decades after that before its prestige recovered.
De Ruyter returned to the Netherlands to a hero’s welcome. Total losses for the Dutch were the eight fireships they had used and about fifty casualties. The Royal George was too large to operate from shallow Dutch harbours, so instead was drydocked near Hellevoetsluis as a tourist attraction. She was eventually broken up, although part of her stern is still on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.