Thursday, October 20, 2005


As Napoleon Bonaparte surveyed the English Channel in 1805 his ambitions of conquest were checked by one single factor – the Royal Navy. At the time of Trafalgar the Royal Navy was a superbly skilled, well led and disciplined force. Officers were promoted on merit, and constant training at sea gave her crews a distinct edge in seamanship and gunnery. Confidence, aggression and the inspirational leadership of men such as Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson had crushed French naval ambitions and led to defeatism and despondency amongst French sailors. By 1805, Britain had firmly established her naval superiority over her enemies with a string of victories that ensured British dominance at sea. The most stunning of these encounters occurred in 1798 when Nelson destroyed the French fleet at Aboukir Bay in Egypt – crippling French naval power and leaving an entire French army stranded on the North African coast. However, by 1805 the pendulum had begun to swing back towards Napoleon’s empire. The fragile peace treaty of 1802 between Britain and France had fallen apart and the entry of Spain into the conflict brought a wealth of naval power under the emperor’s command. The French Ruse After years of forced submission on the oceans, the newly-crowned French Emperor finally saw an opportunity to defeat the old enemy once and for all. With his army encamped at Boulogne and poised to strike across the channel, Napoleon devised an elaborate and ambitious plan. French and allied Spanish squadrons would escape the ports in which they had been blockaded by the Royal Navy and would head out towards the West Indies. There they would evade Nelson’s pursuit and return to the Channel to achieve a temporary naval superiority – giving Napoleon time to ferry his troops across to Britain. Execution Admiral Villeneuve, the French naval commander, duly broke out of Toulon in March and sailed for the West Indies. However, too few squadrons managed to break free and Nelson, who had pursued Villeneuve to the Caribbean, suspected he had been deliberately lured away from European waters and quickly returned. Any hope of a French invasion of Britain was now lost and Napoleon was forced to turn his attention elsewhere. Villeneuve, demoralised by his failed to live up to his Emperor’s expectations, took his fleet to Cadiz in Spain where he was promptly blockaded by the Royal Navy. Ordered by Napoleon to sail to Italy to support French operations there, Villeneuve procrastinated until, stung by the Emperor’s accusations of cowardice and incompetence – and by news that he was to be replaced – he finally gave orders to sail. Nelson, now cruising fifty miles outside Cadiz, was informed by frigates of the departure of the Franco-Spanish fleet on the 19th October. Two days later the British intercepted the allied fleet en route to the straits of Gibraltar. Perhaps sensing disaster, Villeneuve ordered his fleet to about-turn and head back to Cadiz. Nelson, spotting the enemy’s attempt to escape, rushed in to attack. The Battle The French fleet formed up in a line of 33 ships - a standard tactic of naval warfare - although the quickly executed about-turn for home had disorganised their formation. Nelson, audacious and unorthodox as ever, formed his fleet of 27 ships into two columns that sailed directly at the enemy line, with designs to split the French column into three separate parts. As the British fleet approached, they were at the mercy of enemy broadsides and were able to return only limited fire. One column was led by Nelson aboard HMS Victory, the other by Collingwood aboard HMS Royal Sovereign. Both lead ships had fire poured upon them as they sailed toward the enemy. The pace of the advance was slowed by light winds and, at 11.25am, the British fleet finally drew near to their targets. Nelson now sent a signal to all ships that has since become legendary in naval history: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Breakthrough The first British ship to break the enemy line was the Royal Sovereign, which proceeded to rake the colossal Spanish flagship Santa Anna. The rest of the column followed her through the line, each raking enemy ships to port and starboard. HMS Victory made slower progress towards the French fleet, all the while coming under heavy fire. Finally, at 1pm, she broke the enemy line, pouring fire into the French flagship the Bucentaure. Victory now closed with Redoutable, exchanging broadsides at point-blank range. It was during this engagement that a French sharp shooter spotted Nelson’s unmistakable guise on the deck of Victory and aimed a lethal shot at the British admiral – Nelson was mortally wounded. Carried below, Nelson continued to attempt to direct the battle, despite the fact that it was clear his own fate was sealed. The battle raged on and soon, after receiving terrible punishment, Redoutable surrendered. With the French van cut off from the fighting, and only a few of its ships managing to rejoin the fleet, the superior gunnery of the Royal Navy began to take its toll. At 4.15pm Villneuve’s flagship Bucentaure struck her colours. Just minutes later, Nelson, having received the news of this most dramatic of victories, finally succumbed to his wounds. The battle’s brutal finale came at 5.45pm when the French ship Achille was destroyed in a spectacular explosion. Aftermath In total, nineteen French or Spanish ships had been destroyed or captured while the British had not lost a single vessel. The decisive British victory ended Napoleon I's hopes of securing dominance on the ocean and confirmed Nelson’s reputation as the Britain’s greatest naval hero.


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