Battle of Beachy Head
The escape of James II from England – probably engineered as putting him on trial or killing him would have been to say the least awkward for William of Orange – left unresolved the dynastic struggle between James on the one side and William and Mary on the other. James focused on Ireland as the best starting point for his campaign to regain the throne, taking a significant army there, bolstered by 6,000 French troops and local Catholic support. William followed, leaving England with Mary and her advisors in control.
James’s French allies decided to attack the English and Dutch fleets in the Channel, a move that potentially would leave England without maritime defence close to hand, and could cut off William in Ireland.
Admiral Torrington, in charge of the combined English and Dutch fleets – some 56 ships – found themselves face-to-face with 75 French ships. Torrington withdrew eastwards from the Lizard , and skilfully avoided engaging with the superior French forces until pressed to do so by Mary, who did not believe his reports of French strength, and issued direct orders to attack.
Torrington’s gradual withdrawal in the face of the French fleet had led his ships to a position off Beachy Head . Here, having reviewed the situation with his officers, he decided to attack, knowing to do otherwise was punishable in all probability by death.
The Dutch ships under Cornelis Evertsen bore the initial brunt of the encounter on the Allied right, and on the other Ralph Delaval also engaged superior French numbers. Torrington attempted to manoeuvre his central squadron into position, but the French line before him was bowed to remain out of contact. French ships doubled behind both left and right Allied squadrons, inflicting some damage. The major losses, however, came when Torrington decided to run for the Thames , destroying several of his own ships as he did so to prevent them falling into enemy hands. In all the allies are thought to have lost more than 10 vessels.
Torrington withdrew intelligently, taking up the navigation buoys in the Thames as he went, rendering pursuit by French Admiral Tourville highly unwise. Though Torrington had been vindicated in his assessment of the strategic situation and had commanded his forces with skill, avoiding the loss of the major part of the fleet, he was still tried later for his actions – he was, however, acquitted, in spite of which William summarily dismissed him from the Navy.
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