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At 2.30am on the morning of 28th May, 1672, a French frigate sailed into Southwold Bay (called Sole Bay). It reported that the Dutch Fleet had been sighted and were two hours away. It was disturbing and unexpected news. Southwold provided much to entertain sailors, especially the town’s ale houses, and the English fleet had assembled there to refit. Many seamen and soldiers had been sent from London, and most of the crews were enjoying shore leave with battle a remote prospect.
There was an urgent call to arms and at 5.30am the English ships at anchor on the lee shore put to sea. The Anglo-French fleet was commanded by James, Duke of York – later to become James II – and the Earl of Sandwich, both of whom had spent the night at their headquarters, Sutherland House in the High Street. This was one of the few buildings to have escaped the great fire of 1659.
The fleet had 71 ships each with over 40 guns, plus frigates and fireships: 90 in all. It amounted to over 5,500 guns and 24,000 men. But the French fleet, whether through accident or design, steered south and left the scene of battle.
This left the Dutch fleet of 61 warships to fight it out with the English, and the battle raged much of the day. The Duke of York had to transfer twice, as his flagships Prince Royal and St Michael were taken out of action. The flagship of Lord Sandwich, HMS Royal James, the biggest and newest ship in the English fleet, was set on fire. Sandwich drowned trying to escape, his body washed ashore further down the coast and was only recognisable by the Star and Garter on his clothing.
As the noise of the battle grew, crowds gathered on the cliffs. The thunder of the guns brought people hurrying from nearby villages. However, they saw little of the battle taking place some ten miles out tosea. Clouds of smoke billowed from burning fireships – vessels deliberately set alight to destroy enemy ships. And when the day seemed to be doing badly for the English, an order went out that no person should leave the town, but remain to repel the Dutch in case they landed.
Losses were heavy on both sides – the Dutch lost two ships and about 1800 men, and the English also lost two ships and some 2000 men. The battle ended inconclusively at sunset. Predictably, both sides claimed victory.
The people of Southwold had to deal with around 800 injured sailors, not to mention the many bodies which washed up along the shoreline for many weeks afterwards.http://www.southwoldmuseum.org/war_battleofsolebay.htm
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