Raid on the Medway

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Van_Soest,_Attack_on_the_Medway.jpg
Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667 by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667. The captured ship Royal Charles is right of center.

The Raid on the Medway, sometimes called the Battle of Medway or Battle of Chatham, was a successful Dutch attack on English ships and dockyards that took place in June 1667, during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The Dutch, under nominal command of Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, bombarded Sheerness, went up the River Thames to Gravesend, then up the River Medway to Chatham, where they burnt four capital ships, and towed away the Royal Charles, pride and normal flagship of the English fleet.

Charles II's active fleet had already been reduced to accommodate the restrictions of recent expenditure, so the Dutch seized their opportunity well. They had had earlier plans for such an attack in 1666 after the Four Days Battle but were prevented from carrying them out by their defeat in the St James's Day Battle. The mastermind behind the plan was the leading Dutch politician Johan de Witt. His brother Cornelis de Witt accompanied the fleet to supervise. Peace negotiations were already in progress at Breda, but De Witt thought it best to end the war with a clear Dutch victory, which of course might lead to more favourable terms.

Sir Edward Spragge, the famous admiral, learned that a Dutch raiding party had come ashore on the Isle of Grain (a peninsula where the river Medway in Kent, meets the River Thames). Musketeers from the Sheerness garrison opposite were sent to investigate, as reports were widespread of a Dutch fleet in the Thames.

The king instructed George Monck, Duke of Albemarle to go to Chatham to take charge of matters and further ordered Prince Rupert to organize the defences at Woolwich, three days later.

Commissioner Peter Pett, at Chatham Dockyard sent a pessimistic message to the Navy Board prompted by the arrival of Van Ghent's squadron off Sheerness. Colonel and Lieutenant-Admiral Willem Joseph van Ghent was the real commander of the Dutch force and he had done all the operational planning. The Dutch fleet carried about a thousand marines (of the world's first Marine Corps), and landing parties were dispatched on Canvey Island in Essex and opposite on the Kent side at Sheerness. These men had strict orders not to plunder, as the Dutch wanted to shame the British whose troops had sacked Terschelling during Holmes's Bonfire in August 1666.

In letters to the Navy Board, Pett lamented the absence of Navy senior officials whose help and advice he believed he needed.

As events progressed two members of the Navy Board, Sir John Mennes and Lord Brouncker, travelled to Chatham, followed on 11 June (Old Style) by the Duke of Albemarle. When Albemarle arrived he reported that he could find only twelve of the eight hundred dockyard men expected.

After raising the alarm on 6 June at Chatham dockyard, Pett seems not to have taken any further action until 9 June when, late in the afternoon a fleet of about 30 Dutch ships were sighted in the Thames, at this point the Commissioner immediately sought assistance from the Admiralty.

The additional command structure was to become unwieldy early on leading to instructions being countermanded by various officers, even conflicting instructions were given, leading to great confusion all round.

The Dutch fleet arrived at the Isle of Sheppey on 10 June, and launched an attack on the incomplete Sheerness Fort. Captain Jan van Brakel in Vrede, followed by two other men-of-war, sailed as close to the fort as possible to engage it with cannon fire. Sir Edward Spragge was in command of the ships at anchor in the Medway and those off Sheerness, but the only ship able to defend against the Dutch was the frigate Unity which was stationed off the fort.

Unity was supported by a number of ketches and fire ships at Garrison Point, and by the fort where sixteen guns had been hastily placed. Unity fired one broadside at the approaching Dutch, but then, when a blazing Dutch fireship bore down on her, she beat a retreat up the Medway, followed by the English fireships and ketches. The unremitting Dutch assault on the fort led to it being finally abandoned, it having been discovered that some 800 Dutch marines had landed about a mile away. With Sheerness thus lost, Spragge sailed up river for Chatham.

Pett proposed that several big and smaller ships be sunk in Upnor Reach near Upnor Castle, presenting another barrier to the Dutch should they break through the chain at Gillingham. The defensive chain placed across the river had been lying practically nine feet under the water between its stages owing to its weight. River defences were hastily improvised with 'blockships' sunk, and the chain across the river was guarded by batteries. This way the large HMS Golden Phoenix and HMS House of Sweeden (the former VOC - ships Gulden Phenix and Huis van Swieten) and HMS Welcome and HMS Leicester were lost.

The positions of Charles V and Matthias (former Dutch merchants Carolus Quintus and Geldersche Ruyter), just above the chain were adjusted to enable them to bring their broadsides to bear upon it. Monmouth was also moored above the chain, positioned so that she could bring her guns to bear on the space between Charles V and Matthias.

De Ruyter, now personally joining Van Ghent's squadron, advanced up the Medway on 12 June passing Upnor Castle with scant opposition and attacking any ships lying above that point. The Unity was taken by Van Brakel. The fireship Pro Patria broke through the chain. The Royal Charles, abandoned by its skeleton crew, was then captured and later carried off to The Netherlands.

The following day, 13 June, the whole of the Thames side as far up as London was in a panic - some spread the rumour that the Dutch were in the process of transporting a French army for a full-scale invasion - and some of the finest vessels in the navy, including the heavy Royal James, Loyal London and Royal Oak, already sunken off to prevent capture, now perished by fire, when Dutch demolition parties rowed into the dockyards under British fire. The raid thus cost the British four of their remaining eight ships with more than 75 guns. Three of the four "big ships" of the navy were lost. The remaining "big ship", the Royal Sovereign (former HMS Sovereign of the Seas rebuilt as a two-decker), was preserved due to its being at Portsmouth at the time.

The following day Samuel Pepys wrote of the capture of Royal Charles, "...which Pett should have carried up higher by our several orders, and deserves therefore to be hanged for not doing it." He later conceded that impression given him by naval captains that "...nothing but carelessness lost the Royal Charles, for they might have saved her ... if they ... had but boats, and that the want of boats plainly lost all the other ships." On the morning of 11 June the Royal Charles had been moved higher up the river with the help of a pilot but had remained exposed at her moorings for want of the boats and crews Pett needed to remove her, these having been sent on other tasks. Some shipwrights with their boats and crews were allocated to carry out the operation which was ordered by Pett and during the morning of 11 June, with Royal James taken up to a new position just above Upnor Castle.

It was commonly understood that Charles himself was at fault for his failure to prepare the fleet. Pepys wrote "they did in open streets yesterday at Westminster, cry, 'A Parliament! a Parliament!'; and I do believe it will cost blood to answer for these miscarriages."

Significantly upon the following day "Word was brought me that Commissioner Pett is brought to the Tower and there laid up close prisoner which puts me into a fright, lest they may do the same with us as they do with him. This puts me upon hastening what I am doing with my people, and collecting out of my papers our defence" (Pepys). Pett was bailed at 5,000 and deprived of his office whilst those who had ignored his earlier warnings quietly escaped any blame. Pett was thus compelled to defended his own actions and stood alone, discredited for the negligence of others. The Dutch Admiral De Ruyter had after all captured Sheerness Fort a full two days prior to his invasion of the Medway, before he broke through the heavy chain that was strung across the river representing its meagre outer defences.

Pepys wrote "On 13 June, when Dutch frigates and sloops led the Fleet up the river, Upnor Castle was fired upon and the Castle batteries returned the ships' fire. The Dutch lost ten ships, but their advance was not halted and four English ships lying of Upnor Castle were sunk or burnt. The Dutch sailed on towards Rochester, where the inhabitants had fled into the countryside." Pepys visited the Castle on behalf of the Admiralty after the engagement and was forced to concede that the fort had been undergunned and -garrisoned. Pepys' entry about the ten Dutch ships lost was of course more inspired by hope than by facts: total Dutch losses during the whole raid were about fifty casualties - and no ships of the line at all.

As he feared a stiffening British resistance, Cornelis de Witt decided to forego a further penetration and withdraw, towing the Royal Charles along as a war trophy. Now the British villages were plundered - by their own troops. The Dutch fleet, after celebrating by collectively thanking God for "a great victory in a just war in self-defence" tried to repeat its success by attacking several other ports on the English east coast but was repelled each time. After a month peace was signed. Pepys wrote on 29 juli 1667: "Thus in all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us, and do end the war with victory on their side".


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