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This Week in History

Iraq invades Kuwait (2 August)

An extract from Essential Histories 55: The Gulf War 1991

Saddam invades Kuwait


By spring 1990, Saddam Hussein was desperately seeking a financial solution to his rapidly downward-spiralling economic and political situation. In February of that year at the Arab Co-operation Council in Jordan, the Iraqi leader put forward the idea of a suspension of his country’s wartime debts and the urgent need for extra funding, but his pleas fell on deaf ears among his Arab neighbours. Furthermore, his continual requests for oil quotas to be adhered to in order to halt the slide in the price of oil were also ignored. In fact, the attitude of both Kuwait and the UAE to his calls for a cancellation of wartime debts and more credit were decidedly unhelpful: no debt would be absolved and the only money that Iraq would receive from them would be in the form of charity. This blunt rebuff of Saddam Hussein generated a very dangerous condition for an Arab leader (often underestimated by western politicians) – that of a humiliating loss of face. The collapse of Saddam’s dignity combined with the perilous state of the Iraqi economy brought about a sharp contrast in policy by the summer of 1990.

At the height of July, Iraq adopted a dual-track policy of intense diplomacy allied with military manoeuvres near the border with Kuwait. The diplomatic line consisted of a series of accusations of Kuwait: firstly, that it had stolen oil from Iraq’s Rumaila oilfield (near the Iraq–Kuwait border), estimated to be over $2 billion in value, which should be immediately repaid; secondly, that its loans to Iraq in the 1980s were largely from oil profits due to overproduction (exceeding OPEC quotas), which was harming its neighbour; and thirdly, that Kuwait had a long-held secret agenda to acquire Iraqi territory while Iraq was distracted by the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. The proposed Iraqi solution to these crimes encompassed a huge cash rebate, a price hike in oil prices to at least $25 a barrel, the complete suspension of war debts and a comprehensive financial package to aid the economic reconstruction of Iraq. To support his diplomacy, Saddam concurrently started moving large numbers of the élite Republican Guard towards the border with Kuwait; with just under 40,000 troops in position by the 19 July.

The Kuwaiti reaction, after the initial shock of Iraq’s new hard-line policies, was surprising. Having digested all of the diplomatic and military information, the Kuwaiti political administration came to the staggering conclusion that Saddam was not serious and was just trying to improve his negotiating position. On 19 July, despite having initially been put on alert, the Kuwaiti armed forces were stood down just as the Iraqi forces were building up along the border. At this point in the growing crisis, it was conceivable that, perhaps with a more flexible attitude on the part of the Kuwaitis, the invasion could have been averted. However, the subsequent diplomatic response ensured that a collision course was set. The official Kuwaiti line was bullish in a letter to the secretary-general of the Arab League, Chadly Klibi, and categorically denied Iraq’s accusations, stating that Kuwait would not surrender to threats. The reaction of the Arab League itself was to send Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, to act as mediator between the two sides and to try to generate a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Mubarak’s mission came away from Baghdad with the impression from Saddam himself that Iraq would not invade Kuwait and was willing to start face-to-face negotiations at a summit in Jeddah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on 31 July. The peaceful tone set by Mubarak’s impression of Saddam’s intentions was further reinforced by his meeting with the US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, on 25 July. The United States had been worried about Saddam’s new approach to negotiations with Kuwait, in particular the build-up of military forces that was clearly identified through intelligence assets in the region. The choice of a female ambassador to a Muslim country in which gender equality was certainly not regarded in the same way as in the United States raises certain questions in retrospect. Did Saddam see beyond Glaspie’s gender and take her seriously, or, instead, did her gender reduce the weight of her message? In this meeting, Glaspie stressed that the border dispute should be resolved peacefully, but at no stage did she convey any threat to Saddam about the consequences of force being used. This fact has led historians to question whether the United States inadvertently gave Saddam a green light or merely failed to show a red one. In fact, Glaspie came away from the meeting so reassured and with a pledge from Saddam not to invade Kuwait that she felt happy to go back to Washington (and a long-planned holiday) on 30 July. To the west, all signs pointed towards peace, despite the fact that over 100,000 Iraqi troops were on the border with Kuwait.

The end game of Iraq’s diplomacy was played out in the evening of 31 July in Jeddah when Saddam’s representative, Izzat Ibrahim, the Vice-President of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council, started talks with the Kuwaiti Crown Prince, Sa’d Abdallah Al-Sabah. Iraq brought to the table a demand for $10 billion for the loss of oil from the Rumaila oilfields in exchange for which the massive army on the border with Kuwait would be substantially reduced. The Kuwaitis offered $9 billion in order to score a diplomatic point: Saddam would not get everything he demanded. Again, personal honour was at stake, and the Kuwaiti brinkmanship backfired badly. With the failure to obtain Iraq’s demands in full, despite an agreement to resume negotiations on the 4 August, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to attack Kuwait. At 1.00 am, 2 August 1990, over 100,000 Iraqi soldiers with almost 2,000 tanks launched an attack on Kuwait. The invasion plan was competent and effective. The Republican Guard led the attack on Kuwait City in concert with a Special Forces division. Elsewhere in Kuwait, helicopters landed troops at strategic sites. Within 12 hours, the bulk of the resistance had been extinguished and the royal family had fled to Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s political miscalculation had proved to be nothing short of disastrous, despite some heroic fighting from elements of the Kuwaiti armed forces, and now Kuwait and all its wealth belonged to Saddam Hussein.

The international reaction was one of complete surprise. All indicators had previously pointed towards a peaceful conclusion. However, Iraqi tanks now occupied Kuwait City. Regionally, many leaders had hoped for an Arab solution to an Arab problem but it simply did not appear. Saddam’s unwillingness to negotiate with the Al-Sabah family in exile and the fact that many powerful Arab leaders like Hosni Mubarak had the proverbial ‘egg on their faces’ for telling the world that Iraq would not invade Kuwait meant that a local diplomatic solution (despite intense efforts) was unlikely. Internationally, reaction was mixed. President Bush was initially cautious about possible responses; however, his support for a military option was considerably bolstered by the intervention of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher who wanted a tough response.

Traditionally, the British had always maintained a strong interest in the affairs of the Gulf states and in 1961 had guaranteed Kuwait’s sovereignty against Iraqi aggression with military forces. In the United Nations (UN), reaction to Iraq’s invasion was swift and the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution (UNSCR) 660 just hours after the start of hostilities, condemning the military assault and calling for an immediate withdrawal. The UN would pass a series of resolutions over the coming months that put in place an economic embargo of Iraq (UNSCR 661) and then facilitated the legitimate use of force for the coalition forces with a deadline for Iraqi withdrawal (UNSCR 678) set for the 15 January 1991.

Diplomacy with Iraq over the issue of the invasion of Kuwait was by no means a clear-cut proposition for the international community. Many nations, for example, the Soviet Union and Japan, had strong economic links with Iraq that would inevitably be damaged by heavy-handed international diplomacy. All agreed that the occupation of Kuwait was wrong, but the means to liberate the country was still an issue of debate. The United States took the lead concerning the response to Iraqi aggression. Weighing heavily on the minds of the President’s advisers was the unchallengeable economic dimension: Saddam now directly controlled 20 per cent of the world’s oil supplies and threatened another 20 per cent in Saudi Arabia. Diplomacy seemed unlikely to work given Saddam’s intransigence towards giving up Kuwait so a greater emphasis was placed on the military angle. Remarkably, on turning to his military planners who had for years focused their attention on the Cold War, a plan existed in CENTCOM called Plan 1002-90 that was designed for just such a contingency – defending the oilfields of Saudi Arabia. The key factor would be to persuade the very conservative Islamic kingdom to accept large numbers of Christian soldiers into a country that possessed the holiest site in the Muslim world, Mecca. A high-level delegation comprising the Secretary of Defence, Dick Cheney, the commander of CENTCOM, General Schwarzkopf, and the Deputy Adviser on National Security Affairs, Robert Gates, showed King Fahd the latest satellite intelligence that revealed thousands of Iraqi troops close to the border with Saudi Arabia on 6 August. The issue of whether Saddam intended at the time to invade Saudi Arabia is still a matter of conjecture and debate but the information that the Americans showed to the Saudis on 6 August led to an immediate decision by the King to allow the United States to move at least a quarter of a million troops to Saudi Arabia in an operation called Desert Shield.

The sheer size of the Iraqi forces in Kuwait meant that, as Plan 1002-90 had foreseen, it would take months to build up the necessary forces in order to compete on level terms. Everything needed for the future battle – tanks, aircraft, warships and, of course, critically, the soldiers – would have to be sent to the Middle East. As the US and coalition forces established themselves, the plan was modified substantially because, after all, its strategy had been to defend Saudi Arabia, rather than liberate Kuwait. Manpower levels would be tripled and coalition forces would comprise a variety of nations that included regional powers like Egypt and Syria. At the conceptual level, the idea that Christian and Muslim soldiers would fight side by side in Islam’s holiest country was a scenario that few could have predicted prior to 1990. Logistics were the essence of the forthcoming war and millions of tons of military equipment were shipped out to Saudi Arabia to create one of the most powerful conventional forces in history. In the background to these preparations, intense negotiations continued, but the failure to reach agreement before the deadline for hostilities on 15 January provided a timetable for the shift from diplomacy to the use of force. The failure of Saddam to evacuate Iraqi forces from Kuwait by the stroke of midnight (GMT) 15 January 1991 led to the execution of one of the most technologically sophisticated military campaigns in human history: Operation Desert Storm.



Further reading

Essential Histories 55: The Gulf War 1991 assesses the defensive Operation Desert Shield (the build up of coalition forces) and the offensive Operation Desert Storm (the liberation of Kuwait) as well as the key personalities on both sides.

Combat Aircraft 27: Air War in the Gulf 1991 analyses the five weeks of crucial air attacks during the war, and details the aircraft involved, including the British Tornadoes and US F-117A Stealth fighters.

Elite 45: Armies of the Gulf War focuses on the structure, equipment, effectiveness, and employment of the coalition troops which fought in the Gulf War, covering not only the US forces, but also those of Britain, France, the Arab League and Iraq.

Other forces involved in the conflict:

Elite 54: UN Forces 1948–94

Elite 57: The Royal Marines 1939–93

Titles covering tanks involved in the conflict:

New Vanguard 2: M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank 1982–92

New Vanguard 6: T-72 Main Battle Tank 1974–93

New Vanguard 10: Warrior Mechanised Combat Vehicle 1987–94

New Vanguard 23: Challenger Main Battle Tank 1982-97

New Vanguard 68: Centurion Universal Tank 1943–2003

New Vanguard 80: Chieftan Main Battle Tank 1965–2003

New Vanguard 86: M109 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer 1960–2005

New Vanguard 102: T-54 and T-55 Main Battle Tanks 1944–2004

Titles covering helicopters involved in the conflict:

New Vanguard 111: Apache AH-64 Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) 1976–2005

New Vanguard 125: Huey Cobra Gunships

Missiles used by Iraqi forces:

New Vanguard 120: Scud Ballistic Missile and Launch Systems 1955–2005

The Armada Campaign (8 August)

Early on 8 August, Lord Howard's fireship attack drove the Spanish Armada from its anchorage off Calais. Most ships had to abandon their best and heaviest anchors as they manoeuvred rapidly to escape the threat and so were unable to return to the French coast where it had been planned that the Duke of Parma's invasion force would board. The Spanish were now widely scattered with the English fleet poised to windward and about to engage for the final, decisive battle of Gravelines. Superior English gunnery and a change in the wind ultimately overcame determined resistance and the Armada was driven up into the North Sea to sail home round Scotland. It was still intact as a fleet and a threat for the future, but in September Atlantic storms sweeping onto the west coast of Ireland destroyed around 45 of the 110 ships that had set sail from Lisbon five months earlier. Philip II did plan a second attempt to invade England with a new Armada, but, in 1596 and 1597, bad weather again defeated him and preserved the Reformation.

Further reading

Campaign 86: The Armada Campaign 1588 The Great Enterprise against England (see extract) is a detailed and gripping account of the 10 days of action between the first sighting of the Armada off the Devon coast and the battle at Gravelines and also covers the build-up to the invasion and the aftermath of its failure, all in the context of the national and religious politics of the time, and naval technology, tactics and strategy. Elite 15: The Armada Campaign 1588 focuses on the organisation, troops and equipment of the opposing sides while Elite 70:Elizabethan Sea Dogs 1560-1605 (extract below) goes into more detail on the swashbuckling English sea captains of the era, notably Drake, Grenville, Hawkins and Frobisher who were all involved in the action against the Armada. It also includes background on the Elizabethan art of war and on the ships that defeated the Armada.
An extract from Campaign 86: The Armada Campaign 1588 The Great Enterprise against England

Fireships off Calais

Late on Saturday night Howard sought the advice of Sir William Winter of the Vanguard, who reportedly suggested using fireships against the Spanish fleet. Howard was enamoured with the idea, and early the following morning he called his senior commanders together for a council of war on board the Ark Royal. Seymour, Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher approved the plan, and its execution was set for midnight that night. Howard sent Sir Henry Palmer of the Antelope to Dover to commandeer suitable vessels and combustible materials. Seymour had already gathered a store of brushwood and pitch at Dover for exactly this purpose. The freshening south-westerly wind made their arrival before midnight unlikely, so Howard was forced to sacrifice vessels from his own fleet. After further consultation with his squadron commanders, eight armed merchantmen were selected for conversion into fireships.

The ships selected were the Bark Talbot and Thomas Drake (both of 200 tons), the Hope of Plymouth (180 tons), the Bark Bond and Cure's Ship (both of 150 tons), the Bear Yonge (140 tons), the small Elizabeth of Lowestoft (90 tons) and one other even smaller vessel. For the rest of the day carpenters worked on the vessels, strengthening rigging, altering or removing the gunports and possibly cutting exit ports in the stern for the skeleton crew to escape through. Other seamen gathered all the combustible materials which could be found in the fleet (old sails, cordage, hemp, tar, pitch, etc.), and soaked the ships in oil. They also loaded and double-shotted the guns, so that when the heat ignited the charges, they would fire into the enemy fleet and increase the confusion. A handful of volunteers were selected to steer each ship towards the Armada. At the last moment the tiller or whipstaff would be lashed and the crew would escape over the stern into a waiting longboat which was towed behind each fireship.

While the English were busy preparing for their night-time attack, the Duke of Medina Sidonia was trying to determine his next move. Although he had sent two messages to Parma as the Armada sailed up the Channel, he had not received any reply. On 2 August Parma was informed that the Armada had left La Coruña, but he only heard it was approaching Calais on 5 August, the day before the fleet anchored in Calais Roads. For the first time, the two commanders could communicate with each other. A messenger reported that the Duke of Parma was still at his headquarters in Bruges, and his troops and stores were still in their camps. They had not even started to board the invasion barges which would transport them to Kent. Meanwhile word also came of a Dutch coastal squadron blockading Dunkirk and Nieuport, making it difficult for Parma to put to sea. The barges would have to creep towards Gravelines using the Flemish network of small canals and rivers, and it was estimated that the process would take anything up to two weeks. Medina Sidonia's fleet was in an unsheltered anchorage off a neutral port, with a powerful English fleet to windward and the mass of sandbanks known as the Banks of Flanders to leeward. It was an unenviable position, but he had little option but to remain in place and wait for Parma.

The French Governor of Calais was Giraud de Mauleon, Seigneur de Gourdan. As a Catholic who had lost a leg fighting the English 30 years earlier, his sympathies lay with Spain. Presents were exchanged between the governor and Medina Sidonia, and a Spanish delegation went ashore to liaise with the French and buy provisions for the fleet. It was headed by the Duke of Ascoli, who also established firm lines of communication with Parma in Bruges. Throughout the day French boats ferried food and supplies out to the waiting Spanish ships, supervised by the Armada's paymaster-general, Don Jorge Manrique. That evening Don Jorge was ordered to ride to Bruges to persuade the Duke of Parma to speed up his embarkation.

During the evening the wind changed from the south-west to the west, the same direction as the tidal flow. That Sunday it was also a full moon, so the spring tides were at their strongest. Both the wind and the flood tide were therefore in the English favour, and as final preparations were made for the fireships, the rest of the fleet prepared for a naval attack on the Armada the following day. For his part Medina Sidonia placed a screen of light craft (carvels, pataches, falúas or zabras) to the west of his anchorage, between the Armada and the English fleet. Similar screening vessels were presumably deployed to the east, to prevent any surprise attack by the Dutch. Soon after midnight Spanish lookouts on these screening craft spotted two glowing ships heading towards them from the English fleet two miles away. What had happened was that the fireship attack had been launched on schedule, but on two of the eight vessels the fires had either been ignited prematurely or the vessels had proved particularly combustible. This gave the Spanish some advanced warning of the impending attack, and the alarm was raised.

To the Spanish, fireships had a particularly alarming association, since just over three years before, the Dutch rebels had launched an attack against a Spanish pontoon bridge across the River Schelde, near Antwerp. The Dutch fireships had been packed with explosives, and the resulting devastation destroyed the bridge and cost the lives of 800 Spanish soldiers. The Dutch engineer who had created them was known to have moved to England, and could well have been behind this attack. In fact the English fireships were far less lethal and consequently far less effective. Around midnight the flood tide moved east at three knots, and although they carried minimal sails, the fireships would be among the Armada within 15 or 20 minutes. The small screening ships managed to grapple and tow two of the eight vessels out of the path of the Armada, but the other six were presumably blazing too fiercely to approach. Medina Sidonia reacted swiftly to the threat, and issued the only sensible order he could. Pinnaces were sent through the fleet ordering the ships to cut their anchor cables, raise their sails and escape to seaward. He hoped that once the threat had passed, the Armada would be able to regroup and anchor in the same position again.

Subsequent English accounts have suggested that the Spanish panicked and fled, but this has since been refuted. Like almost all evolutions undertaken by the Armada, it was a seamanlike manoeuvre, accomplished with almost complete success. Of the mass of craft that made up the fleet, only one vessel collided with another in the darkness. The galleass San Lorenzo broke her rudder in the collision and spent the night trying to creep back towards Calais under oars. The remainder of the fleet avoided the fireships but were unable to regain their original anchorage in Calais Roads. The strong flood tide, combined with a seabed which provided poor holding meant that most of the ships were unable to anchor and they drifted to the north-east, towards Gravelines and the Banks of Flanders.

This turned out to be the single most decisive incident of the campaign. The Armada had been driven from its anchorage, and its ships had been forced to sacrifice their best and strongest anchors. These were irreplaceable, and the remaining smaller anchors would be unable to provide a purchase in the tidal waters off Calais. Although the Armada remained undamaged, it was scattered, and for the first time since the campaign began it was strung out over miles of sea; it had lost the tight defensive formation that had enabled it to cross the Channel in relative safety.

The loss of the anchorage also meant that the Armada was now unlikely to be able to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma. One English historian called the purchase of the eight fireships for just over £5,000 'the cheapest national investment the country has ever made'. It was also one of the most effective. The Spanish lay off some of the most dangerous coastal waters in Europe, and without anchors their position was precarious. Only five galleons managed to anchor in their original position, including Medina Sidonia's San Martín and Recalde's San Juan de Portugal. The rest of the Armada lay scattered in the darkness, and to windward the English fleet was preparing to fight the climactic battle of the campaign.



An extract from Elite 70: Elizabethan Sea Dogs 1560-1605

Naval gunnery

By the mid-16th century, artillery had established itself as a necessary tool in naval warfare. It was still not the dominant weapon type, but instead formed part of an integrated range of weaponry. Evidence from the warship Mary Rose which sank in Portsmouth harbour in 1545 emphasises this integrated approach. She carried a mixture of ordnance, including large bronze pieces as well as wrought-iron breech-loading guns mounted on wooden beds. Swivel guns mounted on the ships rail provided close-range firepower, augmented by 'hackbutts' and 'arquebuses'. On board, archers outnumbered firearm-carrying infantry, while bills and other staff weapons were provided for use during a boarding action. To complete the array, firepots and other incendiary weapons were carried in limited numbers. The Mary Rose was designed primarily as a platform for close-range weaponry, and her ability to engage in a protracted artillery duel was minimal.

Naval tactics had developed by the middle of the century to take advantage of the revolution created by ship-borne artillery. Two theories had emerged, the more traditional based around using the ship as an integrated weapon and favouring boarding actions; the other, more revolutionary notion advocated using the artillery carried on board as the primary offensive weapon. The English, and to a lesser extent the Dutch and the French took full advantage of the introduction of reliable artillery to rethink their approach to naval warfare. Although circumstance largely dictated which approach was used, these nations tended to develop a doctrine based around the use of artillery as an offensive weapon. In short, the Spanish relied on boarding to win a sea battle, while their enemies preferred to keep their distance and rely on gunnery to win the fight.

During the Armada campaign, soldiers loaded the Spanish guns, and then a solitary gunner was left to man the artillery piece while the soldiers armed themselves with boarding weapons. The role of the soldiers and the swivel gunners was to engage enemy boarding parties immediately before two ships locked in combat. Artillery was fired one salvo at the same time, partly to sweep the decks of the enemy and partly to pound the forecastle and sterncastles of the enemy vessel, creating a breach through which assault parties could storm the enemy ship. This was the same tactic used in the days of the Mary Rose over 40 years earlier, and made no concessions to recent developments in gunnery. Spanish vessels did not rely on this form of combat to the exclusion of gunnery, and evidence from engagements as early as 1568 suggest that the Spanish could perform long-range fire if they chose to. During the attack on Filipo Strozzi's French fleet in the Azores in 1582, the Spaniards used gunnery to defeat their opponent, and tended to employ tactics developed by the galley fleets of the Mediterranean. During the Elizabethan period, they were clearly still writing the tactical manuals, and innovation and organisation were often more important than tactical doctrine.

The big advantage that the English enjoyed over the Spanish was that for the most part they used a four-wheeled gun carriage. It allowed the gun to be run up closer to the gun port, making the piece easier to aim or to traverse. Also, the gun's weight was distributed between four points, each of them a small truck wheel. The Spanish relied on two-wheeled carriages which resembled land guns, but with solid or almost solid wheels. On some vessels, these wheels could be as much as three feet high, making the piece unwieldy, and also distributing the weight onto three points (two wheels and a trail). Another significant innovation was that the English developed a simple system of blocks, ropes and tackles which allowed the guns to be pulled inboard by their own recoil, reloaded and then run out again with the minimum amount of effort. The same system was refined until it became the standard form of mounting and firing naval guns in the 17th century. By contrast, archaeological and historical evidence suggests that the Spanish, who lashed their guns to the hulls of their ships, had to untie the ropes, and then physically manhandle them inboard in order to reload. Another advantage of the truck carriage was space. While a typical English carriage was smaller than the gun itself, many Spanish carriages had long trails, making the gun and carriage a lengthy and unwieldy addition to an already crowded gundeck. During the Armada celebrations of 1988, two replicas were made and given to trained naval crews to operate. It was found that the same gun mounted on a replica Spanish carriage took about ten to 15 minutes to reload compared to the five minutes when mounted on the replica truck carriage. The four-wheeled truck carriage was present on the Mary Rose when she sank in 1545, so it was far from a new invention in 1588. The Spanish simply ignored the innovation, and continued to ignore it well into the 17th century. The remains of two-wheeled naval carriages were recovered from the wreck of the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which wrecked in 1622.

Once these guns were fired, they had to be reloaded. The physical problems have already been discussed, but reloading had tactical implications as well. In a number of contemporary accounts of gunnery actions, vessels are said to have fired a broadside, then turned, presenting their bow or stern guns to the enemy and fired the other broadside after continuing to turn. This derived from the notion that in order to reload in safety, a ship would have to retire to a safe distance from the enemy, or alternatively, reload on the disengaged side while firing the rest of its armament at the enemy. The tactic used was similar to the carracole, a contemporary cavalry evolution, where a column of riders took turns to fire at the enemy, retiring to the rear rank to reload. It was not uncommon for warships to fight an enemy by sailing in a 'figure of eight', alternately firing each part of its heavy armament at the enemy while reloading on the disengaged side. These tactics were a far cry from the 'line of battle' actions fought from the late-17th century onwards.

The greatest sea battle of the century between rival fleets of sailing ships was fought at the end of the Spanish Armada campaign of 1588. The engagement at Gravelines was a loose mêlée, and was the exception rather than the rule, but the Armada campaign taken in its entirety demonstrates the two rival doctrines and their drawbacks. For the entire campaign, the Spanish maintained a dense formation, where each ship was supported by several others. In a number of occasions during the progress up the English Channel the Spanish broke the formation to rescue ships which had fallen behind, or to attack isolated groups of English ships. The English were unable to make any impression on the dense Armada formation. Gunnery alone seemed unable to break up an enemy fleet. It was only when the formation was broken that the English were able to gain a tactical advantage over their adversaries, and with their faster vessels and efficient artillery were able to concentrate on individual Spanish ships. Throughout the campaign the Spanish relied on their 'boarding action' tactic, but the English simply stayed out of the way, although often the two fleets came close enough to fire arquebuses at each other. The successes of many of the Elizabethan 'sea dogs' arose from their ability to understand the tactical problems facing both themselves and their opponents, and their skill in adapting these limitations to their advantage.