This Naval battle of immense firepower and strategic importance, brought to a successful conclusion by that English Admiral of the Fleet par excellence: Lord Horatio Nelson.
Nelson won this pivotal engagement conclusively, unlike the battle of Jutland in 1916 when, although the German Imperial High Seas fleet was forced back to its North German havens until the Great War’s end, that fleet was not decimated. On this day of 21st October 1805 at Trafalgar, the British Royal Navy achieved supremacy of the seas world-wide, which would persist to 1918 to the benefit of mankind. The American and Japanese Navies were of equal power to ours, if not greater, from 1920-1945. The United States Navy has been the most effective and highly armed Navy since 1945: conventional and nuclear.
2. The Invasion
Britain faced the danger of invasion by Bonaparte (Boney) across the English Channel in 1805 and the danger was real. Martello Towers (forts) had been constructed along our south and eastern coasts to help repel this invasion. Napoleon was massing his army at Boulogne and he and his Admiral Villeneuve were acting together. If the Franco/Spanish fleet had won at Trafalgar our English Channel fleet may not have been able to prevent this incursion in to our Sovereign homeland by Napoleon. He was self-important, autocratic and militaristic. He would not have tolerated our democracy and Constitutional Monarchy, and in all probability he would have placed a puppet ruler in charge in London if his plans had succeeded. The Church of England, the religious power then behind our Country, and its armed forces with our Empire would have been relegated to a minor role. A lot was at stake at Trafalgar, as Nelson knew, for the English Crown and its people at home and abroad.
3. Nelson the Admiral
How did Nelson go about is work? First, he had to track down Villeneuve’s French fleet and bring it in to open naval warfare. The chase went across the Atlantic and back to Spanish waters before Villeneuve and his Spanish counterpart aligned their warships to face Nelson’s Navy off Trafalgar point close to Gibraltar – then our colony. Nelson conceived the battle plan of forming his ships of the line into two columns. He had thirty fighting ships approximately, each of more than sufficient firepower with sailors trained and willing to man the rigging, board enemy vessels, but most importantly conduct the firing of the ships gunnery. His Admirals and Naval Officers were of the highest calibre and with his sailors they were utterly loyal to a man to their Admiral Lord Nelson himself. Nelson had won at Copenhagen, Aboukir Bay (Egypt) and Cape St Vincent to name some of his victorious engagements. He was marked out for high command at sea from an early stage of his career. He would not be intimidated, and had no hesitation about leading from the front. Nelson was of proven quality as a commander of men and in the art of deploying warships into battle. Moreover, his Naval warfare logic in the era of heavy sail was faultless.
4. Nelson’s Tactics and Plan of Action
The Combined Fleet was in one long line (single file). Nelson devised a battle plan to attack this long line of hostile worships by forming two columns of his warships to bisect the enemy line at two points. His flagship Victory with him aboard headed one column and Nelson’s subordinate Collingwood on Royal Sovereign lead the other column. Battle would first be joined therefore by Nelson’s Victory and Collingwood’s said ship of the line. The British Warships further back in the two columns would sail up to the hostile line of warships and deliver their broadsides as Victory and Royal Sovereign had done. Thus, the British warships would go into action one by one as they bisected the enemy single line of ships. This became clear to Villeneuve and his Captains, but too late. The enemy warships could not bring their broadsides effectively to bear on our own warships as, although our ships bows were partially exposed to broadsides, the vulnerable port side and starboard were less exposed. The target area was smaller. For their part the enemy ships were subject either fore or aft to the broadsides of our Naval Warships and at very close quarters with deadly results. Our warships were not sailing parallel to the Combined Fleet of France and Spain, which would have been reckless in the extreme. Nelson had the battle won his way and within the day.
5. Note on Gunnery
Naval gunnery on Royal Navy Ships at that time depended on these warship’s lower deck cannons firing out of the sides of such ships – hence the term “broadside”. These British warships were designed to let their gun barrels “bristle” from these gun deck apertures. I believe the Combined Fleet warships were of similar naval architecture. The firepower was not fore and aft, but along the port and starboard sides of these fighting ships British, French and Spanish, at Trafalgar. Nelson manoeuvred his ships to maximise the destructive effect of these ships cannons against the enemy ships of the line.
6. The Battle Itself
Nelson knew his two lead ships would be hard hit as they drew close to the line of the Combined Fleet. This toll was exacted upon Victory herself and Collingwood’s warship, but Nelson’s tactics worked: The Royal Navy broadsides from Victory and Collingwood’s warship did withering, bodily injury and damage to Villeneuve’s crews and ships as they were engaged by these two lead warships of Nelson’s Navy, and those coming up behind in the two columns. So demoralising was the naval gunfire and destruction the heart went out of the mighty Combined Fleet as Nelson’s ships continued to bisect this enemy line. The mayhem inflicted on these enemy warships was terrifying. The slaughter became so fierce with Nelson’s warships engaging the enemy line. Eventually the Franco/Spanish commanding officers began to gradually “strike” their flags and surrender. The ear-splitting cannonades and fragmented cannon shot had overcome the opposing ships of France and Spain. Nelson was not let down by his officers and sailors who carried out their duty to the utmost. There were numerous casualties on the two lead Royal Navy ships, and far more sustained on the Franco/Spanish fleet.
7. Conclusion and Horatio Nelson the Man
Nelson was fatally wounded at Trafalgar, dying on the day of battle, but he knew his fleet had won the day. The noise of battle was going on above him, he being on a lower deck of Victory with his doctor and chaplain in attendance – in extremis. His last moments have been immortalised in his final words: “Kiss me Hardy” – his Flag Officer and Captain. Why did he make this request? Because Hardy represented his Naval Officers and men of his ships whom he had commanded for so long, and to whom he was devoted and they to him to the point of affection: The Master of the day to his last breath.