Sunday, August 31, 2014

Things: In the Navy!

 The Naval Advantage in 1776

This past week has been the anniversary of the British landing on Long Island and the battle of the same name. As most readers of this blog know, the invasion and the events following it provide the background for my novel, The Patriot Spy. I thought I would use this blog to discuss the role of naval power in the campaign. The American Army under General George Washington had essentially no knowledge of what the British intentions were after General William Howe withdrew his besieged army from Boston. However, it did not take a stretch of genius to know what the overriding British advantage was in the war: the Royal Navy.

1776: British fleet at Staten Island 

Early success, defeat and triumphs

Destruction of the Spanish Armada

William III of England, Prince of
Orange and Dutch Staathoulder
In some ways, the story of Britain is the story of its navy. During the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies, Britain had the greatest navy in the world, and more importantly, had over a century of knowledge and experience in knowing how to effectively use that advantage in a decisive way. Many are familiar with the victories of the 16th century English navy under Elizabeth I against the Spanish.  But during the 17th century England and its navy went through a time of upheaval.  The English Civil War, three wars with the Dutch (who had eclipsed Spain  as the world's dominant mercantile and naval power) and the "Glorious Revolution" had impacts on the navy's development, both positive and negative. During that time the English and Scottish fleets merged, but on paper were still separate. The Dutch Wars at first favored the Dutch, who won some remarkable naval victories, but Britain gained the critical Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (1664) and it learned how to develop its navy through the experience of defeat. By 1692, the British had the finest fleet in the world. The political accommodation with the Dutch by declaring their ruler, William of Orange, as William III of England made both navies stronger. And in a curious alliance, the Dutch fleet sailed under British admirals in the subsequent wars with France and Spain that dominated the close of the 17th and most of the 18th century. The British were able to expand operations globally, and in a series of wars picked off colonial possessions, large and small, to build a support structure for its naval and mercantile needs.

Dutch burn the British fleet at Chatham

 Britannia rule the waves!

1759: Royal Navy landing General Wolfe's forces at the
Plains of Abraham, Quebec

The Royal Navy of 1776 had a swagger built on achievement. Part of that achievement included what would later be called "combined arms" actions. That is the use of Royal Marines for small sea-land actions, and cooperation with the Royal Army for major actions, mostly transporting forces and protecting the supply lanes of those forces. This had been developed during the Seven Years War (French and Indian) in North America. With the onset of the rebellion, the Royal Navy was Britain's biggest advantage over the rebellious string of coastal settlements poorly connected by a handful of bad roads. America relied on the sea and control of it was central to any strategy to suppress the colonies. Trade could be cut off, starving the rebellious colonies who relied on the mother country for so many finished goods. That this policy was one of the grievances leading to rebellion is ironic. And Britain's decisive edge at sea was a factor in some Loyalists sympathies, or at least antipathy to the cause of rebellion. To many, it appeared insane to take on the greatest global (read naval) power the world had ever seen. And those concerns were well founded for most of the war. America had no navy in comparison, and was urgently building a semblance of one more as a show of  national pride than to gain strategic advantage. In fact, the American advantage at sea was its force of privateers, many from merchant vessels re-purposed because of British control of the seas - another irony. The effective use of naval superiority got Howe out of a tactical trap in Boston and enabled him to effect a well executed envelopment from the sea and sweep into New York harbor and changing the venue and tempo of the war to Britain's advantage.

Invasion, they're coming!

British landing at Gravesend on Long Island
(near the site of Brooklyn's Verazano Bridge)

"Black Dick" - Admiral
Richard Howe
The Royal Navy was able to isolate New York from the sea and render its port useless. The port gave the city its strategic importance as New York in the 18th century was not the largest American city. The Royal Navy provided reconnaissance, naval gunfire and transport for a succession of landings at Staten island, Gravesend, Kips Bay and Westchester (Throgs Neck, Pelham etc). British naval movements were used to confuse the Americans and threatened areas General Howe had no intention of attacking. As importantly, it restricted General Washington's ability to move troops, and forced him to try to defend more land than he had soldiers and guns to cover. Surprise, maneuver and firepower are critical multipliers in any conflict but even nicer when you have overwhelming forces as well! As discussed in The Patriot Spy, only extremely unfavorable winds and tides prevented the other Howe (Admiral Sir Richard, William's brother and naval force commander) from enveloping Washington's forces on Long Island who huddled in a desperate defensive position on Brooklyn Heights. Had the conditions been right, Howe's fleet could have bombarded Washington from the rear and coupled with the army besieging Washington's front, forced a surrender in the summer of 1776. Would the loss of George Washington and a large chunk of the Continental Army have ended the war then and there to Britain's advantage? Well, that's the subject of another blog.

British landing at Kips Bay exemplifies the initiative provided
by an experienced naval-land force

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