Battle of Trafalgar

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1. The Battle of Trafalgar, October 1805, vs Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (France) and Frederico Gravina (Spain)

The Battle of Trafalgar, fought just west of Cape Trafalgar (on the south-west coast of Spain) during the War of the Third Coallition, saw a British Royal Navy fleet under Admiral Lord Nelson crush the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies. The British victory spelled the end of Napoleon's hopes to ever invade the British Isles and confirmed British naval dominance established in the 18th century.

In early 1805 the French fleets were stationed in Brest and Toulon, while the fleets of their Spanish ally were stationed in Ferrol and Cadiz, All of these ports were under British blockade. Napoleon's plan for the invasion of Britain called for all the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and in Cadiz to break through the blockade and join forces in the Caribbean. This combined force would then return and help the French fleet in Brest break out of its blockade before clearing the English Channel of the Royal Navy. The first part of this plan was successful when a storm blew the ships in Nelson's loose blockade of Toulon out of position. Villeneuve's fleet escaped from Toulon, rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He then returned to Europe but after an indecisive engagement at the Battle of Cape Finisterre which resulted in the capture of two Spanish ships of the line he proceeded to Ferrol instead of Brest. Napoleon then ordered him to set sail for Brest in accordance with his invasion plan.

At this point Villeneuve commanded 33 ships of the line. However if he were allowed to break the blockade of Brest his force would increase to a staggering 59 ships of the line. Fortunately for the British the French Admiral was nervous that they were aware of his movements and instead of sailing to Brest, on 11 August he headed south to Cadiz. On 26 August Napoleon was forced to commit the invasion force to war against the Austrians and Russians (culminating in the his famous victory at the Battle of Austerlitz). This removed the immediate and primordial threat to the British Isles themselves put kept the pressure on the Royal Navy. On 2 September the Admiralty received news of the Combined Fleet in Cadiz and by 15 October there was a full strength British fleet under Nelson, in his flagship HMS Victory, in the waters off of Cadiz.

HMS Victory

Villeneuve ordered the Combined Fleet to set sail on 18 October. Napoleon had ordered him, on 16 September, to sail to Naples; however Villeneuve's real motive was the news that he was soon going to be stripped off his command. Owing to the light wind, the Combined Fleet did not get far before, on 20 October, it spotted the British in pursuit. At 8 a.m. on 21 October Villeneuve, aboard the Bucentaure, ordered the fleet to reverse course and return to Cadiz. The turn, effectuated in very light winds, spread the the single line of the Combined Fleet out unevenly.

The Combined Fleet of 33 ships of the line (18 French, 15 Spanish) was a theoretically very powerful force, though it was manned by very inexperienced crews. It included some of largest ships in the world; the Spanish 136-gun Santisima Trinidad, 112-gun Principe de Asturias and 112-gun Santa Ana were much larger than any ship in the British fleet. Indeed the Santisima Trindad was the largest ship in the world. The Spanish 100-gun Rayo brought the number of first-rate vessels in the fleet up to 4. The fleet also had 6 80-gun third rates, 1 64-gun third rate, and 22 74-gun third rates, as well as 5 frigates and 2 brigs.

Trafalgar Ships

 The British fleet, manned by expert crews, had only 27 ships of the line: 3 100-gun first-rates, 4 98-gun second rates, 20 third rates (1 of 80 guns, 3 of 64 guns, and the remaining 16 of 74 guns), as well as 4 frigates and 2 smaller vessels.In total the 2568-gun, 30000 man Combined Fleet outgunned the British fleet by 20% and outmanned it by 75%.


By 11 a.m. the two fleets were within one hour of each other. The British fleet had, in accordance with Nelson's highly unorthodox plan, been drawn up in two parallel lines both perpendicular to the enemy line. Attacking in this formation was a calculated risk. On the one hand it would expose the leading British ship to raking broadside fire as they approached the enemy line. On the other hand, Nelson's tactic would allow the British ships to close quickly, break up the Combined Fleet's line, and engage in a melee of individual ship to shipe engagements, a kind of fight in which the British sailors' superior seamanship, gunnery, and morale would give them the greatest advantage. In addition, this tactic would allow the entirety of the British fleet to focus on a portion of the enemy line; the vanguard of the Combined Fleet would have trouble turning around to help the center and rear.

Trafalgar Map

At 11:45 a.m. Nelson sent the famous signal "England expects that every man will do his duty," 15 minutes later the Fougueux fired the first shots of the battle. For the next 40 minutes the lead ships of the British lines, especially the Victory, the Royal Sovereign and the Belleisle came under heavy fire before cutting the enemy line. The Victory engaged first the Bucentaure and then the Redoutable, with which she locked masts. During this engagement Lord Nelson received a fatal bullet wound from a shooter in the Redoutable's mizzentop, dying soon after. As more and more British ships joined the melee the French and Spanish vessels, including the Bucentaure and the Santisma Trinidad, were gradually overwhelmed. After three hours the battle was over. The vanguard of the Combined Fleet did little and escaped unscathed. The British destroyed 1 ship and captured 21 others. Two days later a powerful storm and a Franco-Spanish counter-attack resulted in the wreck of many of these prizes; by the end only 4 British prizes were able to make it back to England and a total of only 9 French and Spanish ships made it back to Cadiz.

Trafalgar melee

Though the British victory at Trafalgar ensured that the Royal Navy was never again seriously challenged by a French fleet in a large battle, throughout the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars Britain had to actively prevent the ships of smaller European navies from falling into French hands. Despite these efforts by 1814 the First French Empire had built a fleet of 80 ships of the line; if Napoleon had remained in power his plan to build 70 more could have been realised and the Royal Navy would once again have to face a major threat. In any case, Nelson's daring tactics had acheived a stunning victory at the Battle of Trafalgar; he was given a hero's funeral and is immortalised as one of the greatest military commanders of all time.

Nelson's death