Sunday, 10 August 2014

WMDs - Sixteenth Century Style

     426 years ago, as July turned into August, Philip II's great battle fleet (armada in Spanish) reached the 'narrows' between France and England. On 7 August (according to the Gregorian calendar newly-adopted in Spain) admiral Medina Sidonia led his 183 ships into Calais Roads, the only suitable anchorage on that stretch of coast, where he planned to take on board an invasion force gathered in the Spanish Netherlands. Everything was going remarkably well. He had kept his fleet together, despite harassment by the English navy. But now two pieces of bad news reached him. The first was that the promised army was not ready to embark. The second was that, after nightfall, flaming vessels were seen approaching from the direction of the English fleet. Fireships? Or could they be hellburners? If they were the diabolical 'man-made volcanoes' Philip's entire grand Armada would be reduced to splinters and dismembered bodies.
     Fear of the hellburners had escalated since their first use three short years before by Dutch defenders during the Spanish siege of Antwerp. They were the brainchild of Mantuan engineer Federigo Giambelli, currently in the pay of Elizabeth I. As Philip's spies well knew, the Italian had many ideas for horrendous war machines that he was trying to sell the English government and the Antwerp experience had given ample proof of his devastating ingenuity.
     In 1584-5 the Spanish had built a long, strong bridge over the flooded plain surrounding Antwerp in order to gain final access to the city. What Giambelli designed for the defenders was two floating bombs. Each ship contained a long, stone-walled chamber, packed with gunpowder. Above was a cone, again of stone construction, filled with chunks of iron, marble, old ploughshares, pieces of chain - anything that would cut a swathe through the bridge's timber framework and any human flesh upon it. Ignition was by means of a long fuse in one ship and a clockwork device in the other. When the 'volcanoes' exploded they would spend their deadly contents over a vast area - no-one, not even Giambelli, knew how wide the circle of devastation would be.
     On the night of 5 April 1585, the two hellburners were set to drift with the tide. One went harmlessly aground. The other did not stop until it was nestled snugly against the bridge. Soldiers gathered to douse the fires which had been set to trick them into thinking that this was just another fireship. Then, it seemed the bowels of Hades had been opened  up. The largest man-made explosion the world had ever seen lit up the river and the land. The shock wave demolished the central section of the bridge, military block-houses and other buildings far from the river. Then the deadly debris rained down, battering, flattening, slicing and smashing everything and everyone on which it fell in a radius of more than eight kilometres. A thousand Spanish soldiers were slaughtered in an instant. Many bodies were never recovered. Scattered human remains could not be re-assembled. No wonder Medina Sidonia's sailors, three years later, scrambled about severing anchor cables and hoisting sail.
     In fact the English weapons were only fireships and Medina Sidonia's captains were able to manoeuvre out of their path with little mishap. It was much the same with Giambelli's weapon of mass destruction. Effective though it was, it only delayed the capture of Antwerp by four months, and the terror weapon was never deployed again. Ironically, it proved to be more effective against the Armada. Medina Sidonia's ships, many of them now anchorless, were unable to find another haven. They were forced to sail northwards before the wind.
     The rest is ...

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