The Spanish fleet which had appeared off the Lizard Point a week previously had been engaged by Howard (though Drake , the more experienced sailor, was often in effective command), but to no great effect – in fact much of the English ammunition was wasted, failing to penetrate the thick Spanish hulls).
Of course the fleet arriving from Spain was but one part of the plan, the second being the arrival of the Duke of Parma and his troops from the Spanish Netherlands. Given the poor communications between the two arms, however, there would inevitably be a delay while the fleet anchored to await the reinforcements. This was the golden opportunity for the English to strike.
Medina-Sidonia, or perhaps his more experienced lieutenants, once the ships were anchored off Calais, set out defensive measures to reduce the danger from the expected fire-ship attack – the Hell-Burners as they came to be known. Smaller craft patrolled, ready to grapple and drag away any unmanned ships set ablaze and launched at the main vessels. The great ships had also used buoys to moor against, these buoys attached to the ships' anchors – by this method rather than cutting and losing the anchor for good they could be regained later if a sudden exit were required.
In spite of these measures, when the English sent eight blazing vessels downwind into the Spaniards some panic ensued. The galleons and transports cut loose from their buoys and headed for the open sea, none suffering major damage from fire, but vitally their previously highly effective crescent formation was broken, or more accurately was not reformed.
The English now attacked, and three vessels on the Spanish side were destroyed off the port of Gravelines by the more effective English gunnery – strangely the Spanish were largely ignorant of how to reload at sea, thus they mainly fought back with muskets not cannon.
Though the damage to the fleet was in percentage terms very little, the morale of the officers, already less than enthusiastic at the top, was broken. When the English broke off their attack to seek more powder, the Spanish decided to run for home. This was not so easy, as the prevailing winds meant that the ships had to head north, with the aim of rounding Scotland and heading south either through the Irish Sea, or round into the open Atlantic to the west of Ireland. Here the gales, rocks, and lack of anchors would bring carnage to Philip's Great and Invincible Armada .
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