Battle of Portland, 18-20 February 1653

The three day long running battle of Portland (18-20 February 1653) saw the English inflict a heavy defeat on a Dutch fleet under Admiral Maarten Tromp, in the process regaining control of the English Channel, lost after the Dutch victory at Dungeness in the previous November.

In the aftermath of the Dutch victory at Dungeness the English Council of State ordered an inquiry into the reasons behind the defeat. Thirty new frigates were ordered, a number of captains who had performed poorly at Dungeness were arrested and the practise of allowing merchant captains to command their ships in battle was ended. More importantly the dispersion of the fleet that had followed the victory at Kentish Knock was reversed, and by February Admiral Blake had command of a fleet of eighty warships, twice the size of the fleet defeated at Dungeness. Command of the fleet was shared with General Monck, who became Admiral of the White, and with General Deane, who accompanied Blake on the Triumph. Admiral William Penn served as Admiral of the Blue.

After his victory at Dungeness Admiral Tromp, with the Dutch fleet, sailed west into the Bay of Biscay to await the arrival of a homebound convoy of 200 ships. In early February he was informed that the English fleet was back at sea much sooner than expected, and decided to try and escort the convoy through the Channel before risking a battle.

On the morning of 18 February the English fleet was already at sea, some way off Portland. Tromp, with a W.N.W. wind behind him, was heading up the Channel closer to the English coast, and to his surprise, found the English fleet to his south (on his starboard bow). Tromp decided to take advantage of the wind, and attacked the English.

When the two fleets came together the three English squadrons were somewhat scattered. Blake and Penn were to the windward, closest to the Dutch, while Monck had become separated from the main fleet, and was four miles to the east. Tromp decided to concentrate on Blake's isolated group of ten ships, and for some time Blake was in real danger. He was saved by Penn, who tacked through the Dutch line to join him, and by Lawson (Vice-Admiral of the Red), who sailed around the Dutch flank and attacked at about the same time as Penn. A fierce melee broke out between most of the Dutch fleet and most of the English Red and Blue squadrons.

About two hours after the main battle began part of the Dutch fleet, under Evertsen, engaged Monck and the White Squadron, in a separate battle that lasted until dark. At the same time a force of English stragglers was slowly working its way into a position from where it could attack the main Dutch force. This fresh English force was ready to enter the battle at about four in the afternoon, but realising that he was in danger of being overwhelmed Tromp disengaged.

The first day of the battle ended with a clear English victory. One English ship, the Samson, was sunk, and three more were forced into port for repairs. On the Dutch side the Struisvogel was captured, and at least three ships were sunk and another burnt.

Overnight Tromp managed to manoeuvre around the English fleet, and at dawn he was away to the east, between the convoy and the English. The English have chase, and at around two in the afternoon the fighting resumed. Once again the Dutch came off worst, losing two men-of-war and ten or twelve merchant ships, and the convoy began to break up.

The running battle continued on 20 February. This time Blake used his faster large ships and better frigates to attack the Dutch warships and attempted to send his lighter but faster ships against the convoy. By the end of the day the two fleets were close to Cape Gris Nez (close to Calais). The Dutch were between the English and the Cape, and taking advantage of their superior seamanship in shallow waters managed to slip away on the night of 20-21 February.

The three day battle of Portland cost the Dutch four warships captured, five sunk and possibly two more burnt. Between thirty and fifty of the two hundred merchant ships in the convoy was taken. The English lost the Samson, three other ships needed major repairs, and the Fairfaxwas accidentally destroyed. Blake himself was badly wounded during the battle, and for some time it was feared that he would die of his wounds.

The Dutch defeat off Portland was followed by a second defeat at the Gabbard (2-3 June 1653), which effectively decided the war. After this second battle the English were able to impose a blockade on the Dutch, closing off their trade. Peace negotiations soon followed, but the Dutch were able to fight one final battle (Scheveningen, 29-31 July 1653), before being forced to admit defeat.

Subject Index: Anglo-Dutch Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 August 2009), Battle of Portland, 18-20 February 1653 ,

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