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Horatio Nelson's Three Greatest Victories (Part 1)

By Edited Jun 10, 2014 1 0


Horatio Nelson was a British flag officer in the Royal Navy famous for his stunning naval victories during the Napoleonic Wars. Joining the navy in 1771 and obtaining his own command in 1778, he had the chance to fight in the American Revolutionary Wars. After the end of this conflict there followed a time of peace that left Nelson unemployed. With the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, Nelson returned to service and performed well in 1797 at the Battle of Cape St Vincent while in command of the HMS Captain, a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line. Though he and his command were badly mauled at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, also in 1797, he redeemed himself over the next 8 years by winning the three stunning naval victories outlined in this list. Overall, Nelson's inspiring leadership, unparalleled grasp of strategy and willingness to employ unorthodox tactics assured that the Royal Navy remained the dominant sea power throughout the crucial transition period between the 18th and 19th centuries.

L'Orient Ablaze

3. The Battle of Aboukir Bay, August 1798, vs François-Paul Brueys (France)

The Battle of Aboukir Bay, fought in the eponymous Aboukir Bay as part of the ongoing war between Britain and France, was the victorious culmination of Nelson's two month hunt for the French Mediterranean fleet. The significantly more powerful (in number of cannons) French fleet had taken up position in the bay, a coastal indentation to the north-east of Alexandria, Brueys ordering his 13 ships of the line and 4 frigates to line up right against the shoals of the shore in the shallowest water possible, theoretically making them unflankable. This formation also allowed the ships to disembark supplies from their port side while covering the bay waters with the cannons of their starboard sides. In addition, each ship attached strong cables to the bow and stern of their neighbours, theoretically making the line impenetrable as well as unflankable. Brueys hoped to force the British into attacking the powerful center (around the massive 118-gun flagship Orient as well as the two 80-gun ships Franklin and Tonnant) and then counter-attacking with the rear of his line (commanded by Pierre-Charles Villeneuve in the 80-gun Guillaume Tell).


 However the formation Bruey had decided on was in fact massively flawed. There was enough space between the leading ship, Guerrier, and the shoals for British ships to cut across the head of the line, bringing the vanguard under attack from both sides at once. In addition, the rear of the line would not be able to sail forward to help the vanguard easily because of the unfavorable direction of the prevailing wind. Lastly, despite the strong cables between the ships, the large gaps in the French line created blind spots where British ships could anchor and engage the French ships without being fired upon in return (see the Leander's final position).

Nelson (aboard the Minotaur) exploited every one of these weaknesses when the fleet of 13 74-gun ships of the line and 1 50-gun fourth-rate ship (the Leander) under his command attacked at 6 p.m. on 1 August. After a fierce three hours melee the entirety of French vanguard had been successively put out of action and the British ships Alexander, Swiftsure and Orion turned their attention to the massive Orient. The massive French flagship was seen to be on fire at 9 p.m. and in a few minutes the vast sails were ablaze. At 10 p.m. the Orient was famously destroyed by a a massive explosion as the fire reached its magasines; the shocking detonation stopped all firing for ten minutes. The battle continued sporadically through the night; in the morning the British at last engaged and defeated the rear of the French line, putting an end to the fighting.

The French fleet was undone almost entirely, with 2 ships of the line and 2 frigates destroyed and 9 ships of the line captured. The British on the other hand lost no ships and became once again dominant in the Mediterranean. News of the victory, which arrived in England three months later, was greated with great joy. Nelson was lavishly rewarded, being granted the title of Baron as well as huge cash prizes. Three of the captured ships of the line were put into Royal Navy service: Tonnant and Spartiate both kept their names and both later fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, while Franklin, considered the best two-decked ship in the world, was renamed HMS Canopus. Lastly and most importantly, this French naval defeat ended Bonaparte's hope of carving out an Empire in the Middle-East.


Battle of Copenhagen

2. The Battle of Copenhagen, April 1801, vs Olfert Fischer and Steen Andersen Bille (both Denmark-Norway)

The Battle of Copenhagen, fought just off Copenhagen as a part of the British effort to break up the League of Armed Neutrality, was a very hard-fought and ultimately victorious engagement for the Royal Navy. Though Lord Nelson was not in overall command of the British fleet as a whole (Admiral Sir Hyde Parker had this command), he did lead the main attack, which savaged the Danish-Norwegian fleet. The Danes, forewarned of British intentions, had prepared their positions strongly, mooring their 24 ships (not fitted for sea) in the shallow waters along the shore along with 11 powerfully armed hulks (ships not fit for sea). In addition the north of the Danish line was anchored on a series of 68-gun forts.

Battle of Copenhagen map

Undaunted, Nelson, having been given command of the 12 British vessels with the shallowest drafts, formulated a plan that would nullify the Danish advantages. The British ships would approach the Danish position from the southern end in line parallel to the Danish ships. When the first British ship drew alongside the first Danish ship it would anchor and engage. The following British ship would pass outside the anchored vessel until it drew alongside the second Danish ship where it too would anchor and engage, and so on. Simultaneously a force of frigates would attack the northern end of the line. The attack started at 10 a.m. on 1 April and the virtually immobile battle raged for around four hours, the Danes fighting courageously.

At 1 p.m. Admiral Parker, unable to see much of the battle because of gunpowder smoke, signaled to Nelson, giving him the option to retreat (since without orders he would have been unable to retreat). This produced the famous episode wherein Nelson held his telescope up to his blind eye and said, to his flag Captain, Foley, "You know, Foley, I only have one eye - I have the right to be blind sometimes, I really do not see the signal!" His decision to stand firm proved appropriate as by 2 p.m. the British had silenced much of the Danish line. At 2:30 p.m. Nelson, in a move now considered a skillful ruse owing to the vulnerable state of the British fleet, offered the Danes a truce. At 4 p.m. the truce was accepted, sealing Nelson's victory.

Though the Battle of Copenhagen itself was fierce and determined, the destruction of 14 Danish vessels represented an insignificant part of the Danish fleet. In addition, the successful peace negotiations that followed the engagement came to mean very little because of the changed political scene following the assassination of the Russian Tsar, Paul, on 23 March, which would have put an end to the League of Armed Neutrality. Nevertheless, from a purely military point of view the battle remains one of Nelson's greatest acheivements.   




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