In very many ways, the officers gathered in Santiago's great cabin were completely typical of their class. Hidalgos, one and all, with fiercely trimmed mustachios and beards, strong Spanish noses, and rich clothing, bright with embroidery and gems. They stood with that complete and total confidence, that arrogance, handed down from the conquistadors who had conquered empires and squeezed the gold of Mexico and the Andes into the coffers of Spain like Incan tears. They carried the legacy of Don John, the victor of Lepanto, of Gonzalvo de Cordoba, father of the invincible tercios, and of Cortes, the conqueror of Montezuma and Cuauhtemoc. Any trifling defeats they might have suffered along the way, like the minor mishap which had befallen Medina Sidonia and his Armada, were powerless to breach the armor of that assurance.
Don Antonio de Oquendo understood that. Their background was his, as well, after all. But he also understood that Spain could not afford that blind arrogance. Not any longer.
The waiting officers broke off their side conversations as he and the cardinal-infante entered the cabin, and there was more than a hint of wariness in some of the faces they turned toward him. Which was as it should be. The fragmentary glimpses of the future Oquendo had been granted in the books the duke of Olivares' spies had acquired left him with no illusions. Incomplete as that glimpse might have been, its message had been clear enough. More than anything else, it had been the hollow arrogance of hidalgos choosing to live in the glories of the past, rather than acknowledge the defeats of the present, which had doomed Spain to decline and impotence in that other future. And so he had made it his business to bring his officers ruthlessly to heel.
In that, if nothing else, he and the prince at his side were in full agreement. Oquendo was still not certain of Don Fernando's character as a whole. But even in the short time since he and the cardinal-infante had begun working together to shape the campaign they were about to launch, Don Antonio had been reassured by the young prince's attitude. Despite his youth—or perhaps, because of his youth—the king's younger brother seemed to understand that Spain's greatness had not been created by unthinking arrogance. However bold the long line of Castilian rulers had been who, over the centuries, carried through the Reconquista and the unification of Spain, they had been neither stupid nor prone to under-estimating their enemies.
As he surveyed his assembled officers, Oquendo knew how greatly his record of success at sea had helped him in breaking their stupidity, as well. Arrogant and contemptuous of their foes though they might be, even his subordinates recognized that for forty years the accursed Hollanders and English had humiliated and humbled proud Spain upon the waters of the world. Whatever triumphs the Crown's tercios might have attained on land, naval victories—especially beyond the confines of the Mediterranean—were few and far between, which meant his own accomplishments lent him a special aura when he . . . admonished them.
The severity of his habitually stern expression threatened to falter for just a moment as he recalled some of the councils of war in which he had accomplished that admonition. But he suppressed the smile as he made his way to the head of the waiting table, accompanied by Don Fernando.
"I see we're all here," he observed dryly as he and the cardinal-infante seated themselves in the waiting chairs. He waved for the others to find seats where they could. Despite the relatively generous dimensions of the great cabin, space was at a premium. There were far too few chairs to go around, and the silent assertions of precedence which raged as eye met eye until the seating had been apportioned reminded him of a cabin full of tomcats.
Strange, he reflected. That's an image which would never have occurred to me before I read those pages from the Americans' books.
He brushed the thought aside and straightened in his own chair as the officers—seated and standing, alike—settled once more about the table.
"I will not keep you long, gentlemen," he assured them, letting his gaze sweep the circle of their faces. "All of you know our purpose and our plans. This morning, Don Mateo—" a courteous gesture indicated Don Mateo de Montalva, captain of the Princessa "—spoke with an English merchant out of London. Her master confirms that Tromp and de With have indeed reestablished their blockade of Dunkirk and Ostend.
"They seem to be making no effort to find us. No doubt they feel confident that I will move promptly to break the blockade once more . . . at which point, they and their allies will fall upon us like wolves. Under the circumstances—" he smiled thinly, and something like the soft, satisfied snarl of a wolf pack, indeed, ran around the cabin "—I see no reason we should disappoint them."
"Your pardon, Don Antonio," one of his senior captains said respectfully, "but may we assume from your words that all continues to proceed as planned?"
"You may," Oquendo replied. A part of him wondered caustically exactly what else anyone might have been expected to conclude from what he'd just said. But he allowed no trace of the thought to touch his expression or his tone. After all, he'd worked hard to ensure that his subordinates would risk their precious dignities by asking precisely that sort of question if there was any doubt in their minds.
"There is no way to be absolutely certain that all will continue to unfold according to our plans, of course," he continued. "But at this point, it would appear God is being good to us. Now it becomes our part to ensure that we do not waste the opportunity He has granted us."
"Well, at least Don Antonio is prompt," Maarten Tromp observed wryly to Captain Mastenbroek.
He stood on his flagship's poop deck beside Amelia's captain and gazed through a telescope at the approaching Spanish fleet. The telescope's brass barrel was heavy and awkward in his hands. He managed it anyway, with the ease of long practice, but even now a corner of his brain enviously recalled the "binoculars" the Americans had presented to Frederik Hendrik. (Tried to present, rather. The prince, mindful of the need to keep a certain distance from the Americans due to the exigencies of Dutch factionalism, had accepted them only through an intermediary.) Huygens had allowed him to examine the optical device at the same time the secretary had shown him the pages Richelieu had sent. The stunning visual clarity, featherlight weight, and exquisite craftsmanship of the binoculars had been convincing evidence of the marvels of which American artisans were capable.
Tromp's eye ached from staring through the glass, but he continued his examination until he was completely satisfied. The Spaniards were advancing boldly, their squadrons in line abreast. Their sail handling was no more than indifferent by Dutch standards, but their formation was better than his own ships were likely to maintain. That was impressive, but not really any less than he'd expected from Oquendo. And neatness of formation wasn't everything. In fact, it wasn't even close to everything.
"They look confident enough," Mastenbroek remarked, and Tromp snorted. The captain sounded downright complacent as he regarded the oncoming enemy fleet, like a lion debating which antelope he might dine upon. And well he might. That tidy alignment wasn't going to help the Spaniards much once Tromp's sea wolves got to grips with them!
He felt no need to waste precious time trying to pass any additional orders. Sending messengers by boat would have taken far too long, and time was the most precious commodity any naval commander could possess. Besides, all of his captains and crews, from Cornelisz down, knew precisely what they were supposed to do, and so he simply nodded to Mastenbroek.
"Indeed," he said. "They do look confident. I believe it's time we did something about that, Captain. Be good enough to get underway, if you please."
Mastenbroek nodded and turned to begin bellowing orders. In most navies, that would have been the task of the sailing master, not the ship's captain. But that was because most "navies" assigned command to men whose only trade was war—professional soldiers, rather than professional sailors. Such men might be extremely capable at fighting battles, but they had never acquired the expertise to actually manage a ship under sail. That was a task sufficiently difficult to require a lifetime's study in its own right, after all.
But the Dutch Navy was different. It, even more than the Army, was the real reason Holland had been able to win its freedom from Spain and keep it, and in the process, it had thrown up a new breed of naval officer. Men who were both professional warriors and professional seamen. Men like Captain Jan Mastenbroek, or Maartin Tromp himself.
Now men swarmed up the ratlines at Mastenbroek's orders. They scurried out along the yards to set more sail, and Amelia heeled slightly under the press of the additional canvas as she headed directly for the enemy.
The rest of the Dutch ships followed her promptly. Indeed, several of her consorts began to jockey for position, trying hard to steal the flagship's lead and reach the Spaniards first.
"We can't have that, Captain!" Tromp said, pointing at the sixty-gun Dordrecht as the other ship began to overtake and pass Amelia. Mastenbroek scowled at Dordrecht and snapped orders at his own crew, and additional canvas blossomed as Amelia set her topgallants and began to forge ahead once more.
Tromp nodded in satisfaction. Dordrecht's captain was just as eager as he was to get to grips with the enemy. His confidence boded well, and Tromp was delighted to see it, but that didn't mean he was prepared to allow Dordrecht to win the race. The lieutenant-admiral wasn't blind to the irony inherent in otherwise rational men racing to see which of them could expose themselves to hostile cannon fire first, yet it was that eagerness, that impetuous drive to fling themselves bodily upon their foe, which made the Dutch so dangerous at sea. Tromp could recognize and admire the discipline with which Oquendo's ships held their formation even as the Allies sailed down upon them, but time and again the men of the United Provinces had demonstrated that discipline alone was not enough.
No formation, however disciplined, could be maintained against the savage, unrelenting onslaught that was Holland's stock in trade. Supremely confident in the quality and experience of his captains and crews, Tromp intended to bring on a general melee as quickly as possible. It was the sort of fight at which the Dutch were best, closing in on their more massive Spanish opponents in twos and threes in brutal, close-range hammering matches. Not close enough to let the Spanish board and use their traditional advantages in manpower in hand-to-hand combat. No, Tromp and his captains would take a page from Lord Effingham's book. They would pound the Spaniards with artillery fire, as Effingham had, but their guns were far heavier than anything Queen Elizabeth's navy had been able to bring to bear against Medina Sidonia. And so, where Effingham had been forced to hit and run, the Dutch would hit and stand, smashing away until this armada was destroyed outright.
Tromp had discussed his plans, not just with de With and his own captains, but with the commanders of their French and English allies, as well. The compte de Martignac, the French admiral, had looked a bit dubious, but Tromp had expected that. And truth to tell, that was the real reason he'd organized the fleet as he had. The Dutch would lead the attack, charging down upon the Spanish fleet which had been obliging enough to present itself from leeward, while the French and English followed in their wakes. Officially, that would permit his allies to bring their weight to bear most advantageously once they had seen how the action was developing. In fact, he was less than completely confident of their stomach for the sort of brutal, short-range action he intended to bring on. If they were going to hesitate to engage, he wanted them behind him rather than in front.
He was probably doing them an injustice by doubting their determination in the first place, of course. Sir John Tobias, the English commander, obviously would have preferred to be someplace else. He'd been subdued, almost distant, in his two private meetings with Tromp. But the lieutenant-admiral suspected that any reluctance on Tobias' part reflected his monarch's prejudice against the Dutch rather than any lack of courage.
The range dropped steadily but scarcely quickly. Even under optimum conditions, a ship did well to make good a speed as high as eight knots. Under present sea and wind conditions, the Allied fleet was able to close with the Spaniards at no more than three or four, and the approach seemed to take forever. Amelia, at the head of the jostling, elbowing Dutch as they jockeyed for position in their efforts to reach the enemy first, had already entered the theoretical maximum range of the Spaniards' guns. But whatever a cannon might be capable of ashore, no naval gunner—and especially no Spanish naval gunner—was going to hit a target from the deck of a moving ship at two thousand yards. Besides, the crushing moral effect of the first, carefully aimed broadsides was too precious to fritter away at anything beyond point-blank range . . . and point-blank range was no more than a tenth of maximum.
With Amelia closing at perhaps a hundred yards a minute, she would require over a quarter-hour to reach point-blank range from the closest enemy ship. That slow, steady approach to carnage was always the hardest part for Maarten Tromp. He'd experienced it too often, and memory and his active, acute imagination replayed every one of those other battles, all the sights and sounds and horror, as his ship carried him inexorably into their midst once again. But those memories and imaginings, like the experiences which spawned them, were something Tromp had learned to deal with long ago, and he turned his thoughts resolutely away from them.
He looked astern, instead, and nodded in satisfaction. A sizable gap had opened between his own ships and his allies, but that was only to be expected. The French and English squadrons didn't share his own captains' instinctive awareness of the way his mind worked, and they'd been a bit slower off the mark when he bore down upon Oquendo. Coupled with their starting positions, farthest up to windward of any of the Allied squadrons, that meant they were at least forty or fifty minutes behind Amelia. But they were working hard to catch up, and Tobias was actually taking the lead away from the French. The Englishman obviously intended to be in the thick of things after all, whether he liked Dutchmen or not!
Tromp grinned at the thought, but then the dull thud of cannon fire brought his attention back to business. He turned to look forward once again, and found himself torn between a scowl and a laugh as he realized Dordrecht had somehow stolen the advantage from Amelia after all. The other ship was shortening sail now, slowing her speed once more but reducing vulnerable target area aloft, even as she exchanged fire with the lead Spaniard. He could hear her crew cheering in the intervals between the crashing discharges.
Captain Mastenbroek was bellowing orders of his own, and the courses on main and fore disappeared as if by magic, brailed up to the yards as Amelia, like Dordrecht, stripped down to her topsails. Her speed dropped, and the deck vibrated and quivered, shivering under Tromp's feet like a living creature, as the guns ran out in a savage squeal of wooden gun trucks.
"There!" he shouted, pitching his voice to cut through the bedlam, and Mastenbroek turned to look at him. "There!" the lieutenant-admiral shouted again, pointing across the water at a galleon in the middle of the Spaniards' second squadron. "That's your target, Captain!"
Mastenbroek followed the direction of his hand, then grinned savagely as he recognized the standard of the king of Spain flying at the head of the galleon's mainmast. He nodded in understanding, and turned back to his helmsman, gesturing and pointing himself. Tromp watched him for a moment, then grunted in satisfaction as Amelia altered course slightly to bear directly down on Oquendo's flagship.
More cannon fire thundered and bellowed as the Breda followed Dordrecht into the teeth of the Spanish squadrons, and then—finally—it was Amelia's turn.
The flagship had closed to less than two hundred yards from Santiago. The wooden deck planking seemed to leap up and hit the soles of Tromp's shoes like a hammer as her own guns roared. Amelia carried twenty-two twenty-four-pounder cannon on her lowest deck, with twenty-four twelve-pounders on the upper gundeck, and her starboard side vanished in a cloud of spurting flame and choking powder smoke. Before the rising smoke could obscure his vision, Tromp saw the heavy roundshot smashing into Santiago's side. At such a short range, the twenty-four-pounders' shot hammered straight through even the Spanish ship's massive timbers. The jagged holes in Santiago's outer planking looked deceptively small, but Tromp's experienced mind pictured the horror and carnage on the Spaniard's packed gundeck as the five-and-a-half-inch balls erupted into the gun crews amid a spreading hail of lethal splinters . . . if hull fragments which might be six feet long and as thick as a man's wrist could be called by a name as innocuous as "splinters." Then the blinding, lung-choking billow of powder smoke blotted away the sight and went rolling downwind towards the target of Amelia's rage.
The obscuring cloud seemed to lift suddenly, flashing with a deadly fury, as Santiago's broadside hurled back defiance. Amelia shuddered and bucked as Spanish roundshot blasted into her, but Santiago's gunners were less experienced than their Dutch opponents, and their fire was less accurate. No more than half a dozen of the thirty or forty balls they fired managed to hit Amelia, even at such short range. Most of the misses went high, whimpering and wailing overhead like damned souls, lost and terrified in the smoke. One of them punched through the lateen mizzen sail above Tromp's head with the sudden slapping sound of a fist, others cut away rigging like an ax through spiderwebs, and one carved a divot out of the starboard bulwark barely twenty feet from him. A cloud of splinters hummed across the upper deck, and a gunner at one of the swivel-mounted serpentines atop the rail shrieked and stumbled back, clutching his face in both hands. The butt end of a splinter thicker than one of his own thumbs protruded between his fingers, and then he slumped to the deck. His hands slipped from his face as he thudded to the planks, the jagged splinter protruding from his ruined eye socket.
More screams came from underfoot as the Spanish roundshot which had found their mark crashed into Amelia's side. The shrieks rose like the Devil's own chorus, but Tromp's was an experienced ear. Terrible as the sounds were, they were far less terrible than they might have been, and he knew Amelia's fire had hurt Santiago far more than she had been injured herself.
Mastenbroek knew it, too. The flagship's captain strode back and forth across his deck, waving his hat to encourage his crew even as he shouted the orders that edged Amelia still closer to her target. The Dutch ship turned on her heel, ranging up directly alongside the Spanish flagship to run parallel at a range of barely a hundred yards. Her port broadside belched fresh fury, and Santiago fired back, barely visible even at this range, a poorly seen ghost in the rolling bank of gun smoke. Tromp waved his own hat, adding his encouragement to Mastenbroek's while the gun crews bent to their pieces like damned souls laboring in the flames and stench of Hell itself.
The firing became increasingly ragged on both sides. The precisely coordinated, concentrated blows of the initial broadsides gave way to a fierce pounding match, crews firing independently, as quickly as they could serve their guns. The concussions of scores of guns—hundreds of them, as more and more of Tromp's fleet scrambled into action—hammered the ear like mallets, and in the fleeting intervals between them, the lieutenant-admiral could hear the cheers—and screams—from other ships.
Two more Dutch ships, Joshua and Halve Maan, came charging in to support Amelia against Santiago. The Spanish Argonauta intercepted Joshua, and the two of them squared off in a furious duel of their own, but Halve Maan took station just astern of Amelia and began hammering away at Santiago's starboard quarter. The Spaniard fired back at both her foes with the courage and determination only to be expected of Oquendo's flagship, but even that stouthearted ship found herself in increasingly desperate straits as the two Dutchmen pounded her.
Tromp dragged his concentration away from Santiago by sheer force of will and made himself look up at the sun. It seemed incredible, but the two fleets had already been engaged for the better part of an hour, and their units had become hopelessly intermingled, smashing away at one another as they stood literally yardarm-to-yardarm. Santiago was barely twenty yards clear of Amelia's side now, and still the guns bellowed their hate back and forth.
He shook himself like a drunken man and then turned to stare up to windward, searching for his allies. The rolling pall of smoke to port was all but impenetrable, but looking to starboard he could see both the French and English squadrons, still out of action but closing rapidly now. The French seemed to have fallen a bit further astern of the English, but they were making up for it now, crowding on sail with an almost Dutch-like eagerness. Indeed, he was surprised and more impressed than he might have cared to admit by the way the two squadrons were massing together. They might not yet have come into action, but that was about to change, and when they hit it would be as a concentrated fist, punching into the center of the Spanish formation almost directly behind Amelia.
He nodded in satisfaction and turned back to the battle, squinting as he peered through the smoke, trying to make out details even though an admiral of his experience knew how futile the effort must be. As always in a sea action, the universe of each combatant shrank to the world of his own ship, or perhaps two or three more on either side. It was literally impossible to see any more than that in a fight this close and furious, but he could just barely make out de With's Brederode, locked in a brutal close-ranged hammering match with the San Nicolas. Brederode seemed to be beating down the Spaniard's fire, but she'd lost her own mainmast in the process. Other ships on both sides had taken damage aloft, as well. Indeed, it seemed to Tromp—although he couldn't be positive, under the circumstances—that even more than usual of the Spanish fire had gone high. Amelia's own spars had taken relatively little damage, although strands of severed rigging blew out in the smoke and her topsails seemed to be almost more hole than canvas, but Brederode was far from the only Dutchman to have lost a mast.
Yet whatever rigging damage Tromp's ships might have suffered, the Spaniards were in far worse condition. While their fire was going high, punching through canvas and severing cordage, the Dutch guns were lacerating their hulls and massacring their crews. The Dutch ships might be becoming progressively less manageable, but that wasn't going to be enough to save Oquendo's fleet. Here and there an individual Dutchman, especially among the armed merchantmen, was hard pressed, but the tide of battle was setting strongly in Tromp's favor. He could feel it, sense the pulse and rhythm, the steady decline in the weight of Spanish fire as his own gunners beat it down. Frankly, he was amazed at the way the Spaniards continued to stand and fight; under similar conditions in other fights Oquendo's fleet would have been shedding entire handfuls of ships by now. But not today. Today, they stood to their guns, pounding back with a determination that fully matched the Dutchmen's own.
Which was going to make their ultimate defeat even more crushing, Tromp realized. His fleet might have been brutally hammered, but the Spanish had taken even more damage, and even those which might have escaped from his own lamed ships were too damaged themselves to escape the French and English now beginning to thrust vengefully into the fringes of the battle.
Santiago's fire finally began to falter, and he peered at her. Amelia's deck was littered with bodies, screaming wounded, severed limbs, broken cordage, and huge bloodstains. Her bulwarks were holed and feathered with splinters where enemy roundshot had chewed pieces from them, and he heard the doleful clank of the pumps in the fleeting instants between gunshots. But as the smoke thinned slightly he could see that the Spanish flagship was in a far worse state. Her starboard side seemed to have been beaten in with hammers—indeed, it was so badly damaged that three of her upper gundeck ports had been smashed into a single, gaping wound—and he could see thick, glistening tendrils of blood seeping from her scuppers, as if the ship herself was leaking away her life. Bodies were heaped at the feet of her masts, heaved there by the surviving members of her crew in order to clear the recoil of her deck guns, and at least half a dozen of those guns had been dismounted by Amelia's fire. Tromp could make out officers moving amidst the carnage and confusion, fighting to impose some order upon it, and one officer—he rather thought it was Oquendo himself—clung to the shattered poop deck rail, supporting himself while blood streamed steadily down one of his legs.
It was obvious to Tromp that even that stoutly fought ship had no option but to surrender. It might take a little longer, cost a few more Spanish lives, but Santiago was too badly wounded to run and her crew was too savagely maimed to continue the fight.
He turned away from her once more, listening to the howling bedlam of the battle, and looked back at Brederode as Revenge, Tobias' flagship, altered course very slightly in order to cross astern of de With. Obviously, Tobias intended to rake San Nicolas as he crossed her stern, then range up on the Spaniard's disengaged side and smash the already crippled ship into submission.
The Englishman's bowsprit was no more than sixty or seventy feet clear of Brederode's high, ornate poop as Revenge started across her wake . . .
And then Maarten Harpentzoon van Tromp's face went bone-white under the soot and grime of powder smoke coating it, as the English flagship poured a deadly broadside through Brederode's stern.
For perhaps two heartbeats, Tromp told himself it had to be an accident. A colossal blunder. But no "accident" would have been that accurate. The Englishman's guns fired two by two, upper and lower deck together, carefully aimed, and the impact of those deadly shots turned Brederode's stern windows into the gaping cavern mouth of an abattoir.
De With's flagship was over four hundred yards from Amelia, but even at that range Tromp could hear the English roundshot hammering home, crashing the full length of her hull in maiming, mangling fury. An entire twenty-four pounder slammed forward, flung two-thirds of the way out its port as a screaming roundshot dismounted it and shattered its carriage. Even as Tromp realized in horror that the attack was deliberate, Brederode's foremast toppled like a weary tree. It pitched over the side while the ship wallowed in agony, and Tromp heard English voices baying in triumph.
The Americans were right, a small, numb corner of his brain told him. Richelieu's offer was too good to be true.
He spun around as fresh, concentrated broadsides thundered, and his belly knotted as more of his "allies" poured fire into his own ships. The French flagship surged past Dordrecht, firing as she went, and Dordrecht staggered. Her already damaged mizzen mast toppled into the smoke, splinters flew from her "disengaged" side, and she began to fall away to leeward as the French fire killed her helmsman and smashed her wheel.
From triumph to despair. The transformation required no more than a minute—two, at the most. That was how long it took Maarten Tromp to realize that the Dutch Navy had just been destroyed. It might take some time still to accomplish that, but the outcome was inevitable, and he knew it. Everywhere he looked, as far as he could see through the smoke and spray and splinters, French and English warships vomited flame and fury as their fresh, carefully aimed broadsides crashed into his weary, already damaged vessels. And he understood now why the Spanish fire had been so "badly aimed." With their rigging mangled and crippled by Oquendo's gunners, his ships would be unable to outrun their undamaged "allies."
Fresh cheers went up, this time from the Spaniards' bloodsoaked decks as they saw the trap they had paid so much in life and limb to bait spring. And then Tromp flinched in shocked disbelief as Revenge's fire found Brederode's magazine and de With's flagship vanished in a single, terrible explosion.
The explosion, and the sudden blow of realizing his friend and Brederode's entire crew had just died, shocked Tromp out of his immobility. He shook himself savagely and spun away from the horrible vision while broken fragments of Brederode's hull were still rising in lazy arcs above her fireball death. Mastenbroek stood no more than fifteen feet from him, but Amelia's captain was frozen, mesmerized by the spectacle of Brederode's destruction. He didn't seem to hear the lieutenant-admiral when Tromp shouted at him, didn't even blink until Tromp seized him and shook him brutally.
"Get under way!" Tromp barked.
Mastenbroek shook his head, fighting his way up out of his own confusion.
"Make more sail—now!" Tromp commanded harshly. Mastenbroek stared at him for a moment longer, and Tromp flung out an arm, sweeping it in an arc which indicated the ruin encompassing their fleet. "All we can do is try to run for it," he grated. "So make sail, Captain! Make sail now!"