The 30th of March, 1588, is the day of days to be remembered in the history of sea power because it was then that Drake, writing from Plymouth to the Queen-in-Council, first formulated the true doctrine of modern naval warfare, especially the cardinal principle that the best of all defence is to attack your enemy's main fleet as it issues from its ports. This marked the birth of the system perfected by Nelson and thence passed on, with many new developments, to the British Grand Fleet in the Great War of to-day. The first step was by far the hardest, for Drake had to convert the Queen and Howard to his own revolutionary views. He at last succeeded; and on the 7th of July sailed for Corunna, where the Armada had rendezvoused after being dispersed by a storm.
Every man afloat knew that the hour had come. Yet Elizabeth, partly on the score of expense, partly not to let Drake snap her apron-strings completely, had kept the supply of food and even of ammunition very short; so much so that Drake knew he would have to starve or else replenish from the Spanish fleet itself. As he drew near Corunna on the 8th, the Spaniards were again reorganizing. Hundreds of perfectly useless landlubbers, shipped at Lisbon to complete the absurdly undermanned ships, were being dismissed at Corunna. On the 9th, when Sidonia assembled a council of war to decide whether to put to sea or not, the English van was almost in sight of the coast. But then the north wind flawed, failed, and at last chopped round. A roaring sou'wester came on; and the great strategic move was over.
On the 12th the fleet was back in Plymouth replenishing as hard as it could. Howard behaved to perfection. Drake worked the strategy and tactics. But Howard had to set the tone, afloat and ashore, to all who came within his sphere of influence; and right well he set it. His dispatches at this juncture are models of what such documents should be; and their undaunted confidence is in marked contrast to what the doomed Spanish officers were writing at the selfsame time.
The southwest wind that turned Drake back brought the Armada out and gave it an advantage which would have been fatal to England had the fleets been really equal, or the Spaniards in superior strength," for a week was a very short time in which to replenish the stores that Elizabeth had purposely kept so low. Drake and Howard, so the story goes, were playing a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe on Friday afternoon the 19th of July when Captain Fleming of the Golden Hind rushed up to say the Spanish fleet was off the Lizard, only sixty miles away! All eyes turned to Drake. Divining the right way to calm the people, he whispered an order and then said out loud: 'There's time to end our game and beat the Spaniards too.' The shortness of food and ammunition that had compelled him to come back instead of waiting to blockade now threatened to get him nicely caught in the very trap he had wished to catch the Great Armada in himself; for the Spaniards, coming up with the wind, might catch him struggling out against the wind and crush his long emerging column, bit by bit, precisely as he had intended crushing their own column, as it issued from the Tagus or Corunna.
But it was only the van that Fleming had sighted. Many a Spanish straggler was still hull-down astern; and Sidonia had to wait for all to close and form up properly.
Meanwhile Drake and Howard were straining every nerve to get out of Plymouth. It was not their fault, but the Queen's-in-Council, that Sidonia had unwittingly stolen this march on them. It was their glory that they won the lost advantage back again. All afternoon and evening, all through that summer night, the sea-dog crews were warping out of harbor. Torches, flares, and cressets threw their fitful light on toiling lines of men hauling on ropes that moved the ships apparently like snails. But once in Plymouth Sound the whinnying sheaves and long yo-hoes! told that all the sail the ships could carry was being made for a life-or-death effort to win the weather gage. Thus beat the heart of naval England that momentous night in Plymouth Sound, while beacons blazed from height to height ashore, horsemen spurred off post-haste with orders and dispatches, and every able-bodied landsman stood to arms.
Next morning Drake was in the Channel, near the Eddystone, with fifty-four sail, when he sighted a dim blur to windward through the thickening mist and drizzling rain. This was the Great Armada. Rain came on and killed the wind. All sail was taken in aboard the English fleet, which lay under bare poles, invisible to the Spaniards, who still announced their presence with some show of canvas.
In actual size and numbers the Spaniards were superior at first. But as the week-long running fight progressed the English evened up with reinforcements. Spanish vessels looked bigger than their tonnage, being high built; and Spanish official reports likewise exaggerated the size because their system of measurement made their three tons equal to an English four. In armament and seamen-gunners the English were perhaps five times as strong as the Armada — and seamen-gunners won the day. The English seamen greatly outnumbered the Spanish seamen, utterly surpassed them in seamanship, and enjoyed the further advantage of having far handier vessels to work.
The Spanish grand total, for all ranks and ratings was thirty thousand men; the English, only fifteen. But the Spaniards were six thousand short on arrival; and their actual seamen, many of whom were only half-trained, then numbered a bare seven thousand. The seventeen thousand soldiers only made the ships so many death-traps; for they were of no use afloat except as boarding parties — and no boarding whatever took place. The English fifteen thousand, on the other hand, were three-quarters seamen and one-quarter soldiers who were mostly trained as marines, and this total was actually present. On the whole, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Armada was mostly composed of armed transports while all the English vessels that counted in the fighting were real men-of-war.