The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on the 21st of October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, between the combined fleets of Spain and France and the Royal Navy. It was the last great sea action of the period and its significance to the outcome of the war in Europe is still debated by historians.
After an aborted attempt Admiral Villeneuve eventually managed to evade Nelson, blockading him in Toulon, and sailed for the West Indies on March 30th. According to Napoleons plan to meet up with Ganteaume ( who was blockaded in Brest ) , and then to sail back to Europe and with the Rochefort, Ferrol and Brest Squadrons 'procure our superiority before Boulogne for some days'.
When Nelson was told that the French fleet had sailed he assumed they were heading for Egypt, so he sent his ships off to the South East. When he discovered his mistake he set off in pursuit of Villeneuve. Villeneuve picked up Admiral Gravina and the Spanish fleet from Cadiz, and sailed for Martinique.
Villeneuve, unable to reach Ferrol, sailed for Cadiz, but bad weather forced him to to run into Vigo. From there Napoleon ordered him to sail for the Straits of Dover. Decres, the French chief minister of marine, whose confidence in the invasion project had never been high, wrote the orders, stating that Villeneuve was to sail for the Channel, unless the state of the fleet was such as to mitigate against this, in which case he was to sail to Cadiz.
On August the 13th the Combined Fleet of 29 battleships sailed westwards, Villeneuves' initial intention was unclear. But after picking up intelligence from passing merchantmen and sighting some British ships in the distance Villeneuve decided to head for Cadiz. He arrived there on August 20th.
Nelson arrived off Cadiz to join Collingwoods' fleet on September 28th and ordered his frigates, under Captain Blackwood, to watch Cadiz while he cruised 50 miles offshore with the rest of the fleet, hoping to draw the Combined Fleet out.
Villeneuve sailed slowly in the light winds to the south-east. He had in fact guessed what form Nelsons attack would take, but had failed to specify any defence to his captains. The Combined Fleet sailed in a line with the Neptuno in the rear and the San Juan de Nepomuceno commanded by Commodore Churraca in the van. Admiral Gravina was in the Principe de Asturias and Admiral Villeneuve sailed in the Bucentaure. Gravinas' squadron of observation should have been sailing to windward of the Combined fleet , to come to the aid of any part of the line threatened by the British, but had in fact taken up station at the van.
Shortly after dawn the French frigate Hermione spotted the British fleet to windward in the west and signaled to Villeneuve. Villeneuve could have sailed on for Gibraltar, but instead deciding not to fight off a lee shore, he thought to try and return to Cadiz. So at 8 a.m. he ordered the fleet to wear, an order which was finally completed by 10 a.m. The Combined fleet now had to reform the line of battle, sailing in the opposite direction. The variable quality of the Combined Fleets crews now began to show, the ships found it difficult in the light wind to find their position in the line of battle, and the line sagged way to leeward in the middle. Villeneuve now saw that Gravinas' squadron was out of position and signalled him to keep to windward, but it was too late. The French and Spanish captains could clearly see the British ships advancing on the centre of their line in two columns, and some like Commodore Churruca realised the danger, that the van of the Combined Fleet would be cut off and out of the battle. Churruca thought that Villeneuve should order the leading ships to turn now and bear down on the British.
On board the Victory Nelson ordered Lieutenant Pasco to make a signal to the fleet "Mr Pasco, I wish to say to the Fleet 'England confides that every man will do his duty'". Pasco asked Nelson if he could substitute the word 'expects' for 'confides' as that was in the telegraphic vocabulary whereas confides would have to be spelt, Nelson agreed and the signal was run up Victorys' halyards. Changing the wording subtly changed the meaning, and the signal caused confusion on some ships, with sailors saying they would always do their duty and didn't have to be asked.
One final signal was run up on the flagship, the telegraphic flag and then numbers one and six 'Engage the enemy more closely'.
Soon after this the first shots were fired by the Combined fleet at the Royal Sovereign as she came within range of the Fougueux. The Royal Sovereign opened fire at 12 noon, and fifteen minutes later the first of the enemy ships opened fire on the Victory at long range.
As Victory cleared the French ship she came within range of the Neptune which fired her broadside into the Victory damaging the foremast and bowsprit. Hardy ordered the helm over to bring Victory alongside the Redoubtable which was on her starboard side, and as the guns came to bear she fired her starboard broadside into the French ship.
Fighting continued on the decks above and as Redoubtable was bombarded by Victory 's guns the Temeraire closed on her starboard side and fired into her. The three ships locked together and the Redoubtable was slowly pounded into submission.
At the head of the lee column the Royal Sovereign had been engaging the Santa Ana and the Fougueux for some 30 minutes alone, having sailed into the enemy line well ahead of the rest of the division. Collingwood had ordered the lee column to form on the larboard line of bearing, so his ships were not in line like Nelsons but approaching on a broad front. At this end of the Combined Fleets line of battle the ships were closed up in a loose formation, not in a line. As the other ships of Collingwoods line joined the battle they were presented with a confused array of ships.
The battle continued in the dying wind and, as their masts and sails were shot away, the ships of both fleets drifted slowly about each other, looking for targets through the clouds of smoke. The Mars lost most of her sails and rigging and swung uncontrollably in the swell. Captain Duff, leaning over the side to try and spot the enemy ships was decapitated by a round shot, and the Mars was raked by several French ships including the Pluton.
Two hours after the start of the battle, the Combined fleets van under Admiral Dumanoir finally wore or tacked and made back for the battle. Four ships, including Dumanoirs Formidable sailed to windward of the British and exchanged shots with them as they passed, then sailed away from the battle. Three ships sailed straight for Cadiz and only the Intrepide and the Neptuno sailed to Villeneuves aid. The Intrepide was engaged by several British ships, and was singled out for her bravery in the face of overwhelming odds by several of the British captains.
Slowly the British ships gained the upper hand as one by one the ships of the Combined Fleet struck their colours or sailed away from the battle. Captain Hardy reported to Nelson that the battle was won, 'Thank God I have done my duty', were his last words, and he died at 4.30pm.
Of the Combined Fleet, Bucentaure, Algeciras, Swiftsure, Intrepide, Aigle, Berwick, Achille, Redoubtable, Fougueux ( French), Santissima Trinidad, Santa Anna, Argonauta, Bahama, San Augustino, San Ildefonso, San Juan de Nepomuceno, and Monarca ( Spanish) were taken by the British. Redoubtable sank, Achille blew up, San Augustino and Intrepide burned, the British scuttled Santissima Trinidad and Argonauta, and in the gale that followed the battle Monarca, Fougueux, Aigle, and Berwick were wrecked.
On the 23rd of October a sortie by French Commodore Julien Cosmao from Cadiz with Pluton, Indomptable, Neptuno, Rayo, and San Francisco de Asis attempted to recapture some of the British prizes. Santa Anna and Algeciras were recovered, but Neptuno, Indomptable, and San Francisco de Asis were wrecked and Rayo was taken by the Donegal and then wrecked.
On the 3rd of November, Admiral Strachan, with Caesar 80, Hero 74, Courageux 74, Namur 74, and four frigates defeated and captured the force of four French ships which had escaped at Trafalgar under Dumanoir: Formidable 80, Duguay-Trouin 74, Mont Blanc 74, and Scipion 74. All four are taken into the Royal Navy, with Formidable renamed Brave, Duguay-Trouin renamed Implacable, and the other two keeping their names. The Victory was towed into Gibraltar her masts and sails shot to pieces. The casualties were high, as might be expected in such a close fought action. The British lost 449 men killed and 1241 wounded (some of whom subsequently died), the French and Spanish fleets lost 4408 men killed and 2545 wounded, ( figures are from Lewis 'A Social History of the Navy').
The ultimate outcome of the victory was to secure the supremacy of the British navy on the high seas for the next hundred years, and the end to any threat of invasion from France. It lead Napoleon to his Continental strategy, and possibly to his disastrous campaign against the Russians in 1812.
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