Friday, November 26, 2004
My current thoughts about Witte de With
Witte de With was certainly a controversial figure. He never became the main fleet commander for any extended period of time because of his violent temper and because of his rivalry with Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp. Witte de With was not alone in having a temper. I had not realized that Michiel de Ruyter was another flag officer with a violent temper. De Ruyter was accepted, because he was clearly the preeminent admiral in the Dutch navy, after the death of Maarten Tromp. However, De Ruyter reported to Witte de With during the latter part of 1653. Witte de With was always acknowledged to be a skilled admiral, one of the best in the Netherlands, during his professional career. When important operations were planned, he was usually given command. In 1645, he commanded the operation to push a large fleet of merchant ships into the Sound without paying the toll. In late 1647, he was sent, with a small fleet, to try to retrieve the deteriorating situation in Brazil. He was totally without support from the homeland, and finally returned, to keep from losing the entire force from lack of maintenance. He was made the scapegoat, and probably only the death of Prince Willem II kept him from being executed. He was quietly returned to the service with a slap on the wrist, as we would now say. When Tromp was clearly not doing well in the late summer of 1652, Witte de With was given command of the fleet for the Battle of the Kentish Knock. The Dutch should have been badly beaten, but they only lost one ship sunk and one captured. Apparently, they fought in an informal line, and kept the English from closing. The English, under Blake, never were in good order, and some individual ships were badly damaged. Blake rushed into battle with the leading ships, so that despite their large size, they were greatly outnumbered, at the point of contact. Blake didn't seem to comprehend the importance of formation and maneuver, despite having been an army officer. The general animosity towards Witte de With kept the Dutch from recognizing that the battle had gone better than could have been expected. Tromp was restored to command, and so for several more battles, the main fleets were commanded by officers who underperformed (Tromp and Blake). The Dutch was so strong at Dungeness, that despite missteps, they won. Blake was blind to his failings, and blamed his captains for the loss. The Battle of Portland was fought under similar circumstances, except with the English fleet being much stronger. They finally wore down the Dutch and should have annihilated them, but let them go, instead. It wasn't until George Monck took command on the English side that the effects of Tromp's leadership really were shown. The Gabbard was a disaster, more from the manner of the loss than the actual numbers, although they were bad enough. Scheveningen was almost as bad as to material loss, but the surviving vice-admirals kept the battle from turning into the rout that had taken place at the Gabbard. Witte de With was instrumental in forming the rear-guard that kept the English from achieving a Trafalgar-like victory. They needed to do better, as they were up against an English fleet lead by George Monck, who was an able commander. The English also had men like Edward Montagu and William Penn, who were as able as Monck. In the fall of 1653, when a returning fleet of Indiamen needed escort home from Norway, Witte de With lead a fleet of 70 ships to retrieve them. Michiel de Ruyter was his second. Again, when the Dutch needed someone on an independent command, they went to Witte de With, as they recognized his ability. Witte de With continued to gain grudging respect until his death at the Battle of the Sound. There, he was subordinated yet again to an admiral of lesser ability, in this case Jacob Wasseaner van Obdam.