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Lasting Lessons of Trafalgar

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    Lasting Lessons of Trafalgar

    By Rear Admiral Joseph F. Callo, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)

    Navy History, September, 2005

    After years of doggedly seeking a climactic naval battle with France, Admiral Horatio Nelson seized the moment on 21 October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar, Spain. The long British campaign and ensuing dramatic fight offer enduring lessons of importance.

    Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson's flagship HMS Victory breaks the French and Spanish Combined Fleet's line during the opening stage of the 21 October 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, in Tom W. Freeman's The Nelson Touch.











    The crowning chapter in the history of naval warfare" was how Julian Corbett, Great Britain's early apostle of sea power, described the Battle of Trafalgar. 1 The climactic battle was also the final achievement in the astonishing career of its victor, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. But Trafalgar's importance transcends Nelson's heroic death and the battle's lofty place in the pantheon of great naval fights. It is one of the best examples of relevant history, and Trafalgar's bicentennial provides a special opportunity to illuminate its enduring lessons and to draw on the legacy of leadership left by Nelson, a naval officer who changed the course of history from the decks of his ships.

    Run-up to Combat

    The Battle of Trafalgar, fought just off the southwestern Spanish port of Cadiz, was the culmination of Britain's maritime strategy to defeat France, its main rival for empire. The battle did not end the war between the two countries, but it was a pivotal victory after which Britain clearly had global momentum toward a preeminent empire. The bloody naval action at Trafalgar also marked the beginning of the end for a particularly aggressive threat—represented by Napoleon Bonaparte—to Britain's very survival. Great Britain's complex maritime strategy included blockades, amphibious thrusts, support of army ground operations, attacks on commerce, protection of merchant convoys, support of allies, and pitched battles against massed fleets and smaller naval units. Intricately interwoven was the need to protect the trade-based economic foundation supporting Britain's war efforts and to weaken the economic base of France's corresponding efforts. Similarly, present-day countries use naval forces for power projection, sea denial, support of land campaigns, interdiction, protection of critical trade routes, and diplomatic presence.

    Already famous for his spectacular 1798 victory at the Battle of the Nile as well as other triumphs, Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson assumed command of the British Mediterranean Fleet on 8 July of 1803. For nearly two years he attempted to lure the French fleet from Toulon in order to engage it in a climactic battle.


    On 16 May 1803 Britain renewed its war with France, an intermittent conflict that stretched from 1756 to 1815. 2 Anticipating the resumption of fighting, the British government had begun rebuilding the Royal Navy, and as a result it had 52 ships of the line in service by 1 May and 75 by the end of 1803. 3 Thus, Britain entered its renewed war with France with a significant naval nucleus around which it continued to build. Although stretched thin, the Royal Navy would serve as Britain's military leverage in the struggle against Napoleon, as well as in the longer war against France.

    On the other hand, because the renewal of war came earlier than Napoleon had anticipated, the French had only 47 ships of the line in service and 19 under construction in May. 4 France's navy could not reverse its numerical and strategic inferiority to the Royal Navy. As a result, while the Royal Navy was an extremely effective instrument of national policy, Napoleon's navy was significantly less effective in that regard. France never achieved naval superiority in the English Channel long enough to launch an invasion of Britain. Thought-provoking comparisons are Germany's inability in World War II to establish the theater naval control needed to effect a cross-Channel invasion of Britain and the contrasting ability of the Allies to mount the June 1944 Normandy landings.

    Napoleon primarily used his navy in conjunction with his land campaigns; the Royal Navy performed the same function—and much more. Britain's naval capability was built around two standing fleets. The Channel, or Ushant, Fleet was responsible for the protection of the United Kingdom and Ireland against a French invasion, the protection of British merchantmen in the Channel area, and the suppression of French naval forces and privateers operating out of Cherbourg and Atlantic ports. The Mediterranean Fleet operated almost continually on that sea and had a wide range of operational responsibilities including suppressing French naval units and privateers operating from Toulon and other Mediterranean ports, protecting British allies, convoying merchant ships, and dealing with diplomatic irritants such as the dey of Algiers. Also of paramount strategic importance was blocking France's military and political ambitions at various key points along the rim of the Mediterranean, such as the small kingdoms of northern Italy. In addition to the standing fleets, the Royal Navy periodically formed squadrons to cover such strategic areas as the Baltic, the American theater, the West Indies, and the Irish coast.

    Napoleon assigned Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (above) command of the fleet at Toulon and the naval component of France's planned invasion of England.


    The result of Britain's sea-based strategy was that the Royal Navy was constantly on the move. Its arduous duties stretched crews and materiel to their limits. As an important, positive consequence, the British crews were well trained and confident. Nelson frequently reflected his understanding of the correlation between operating tempo and skill level with statements such as his acerbic assessment of the commanders of the Franco-Spanish fleet, or Combined Fleet, blockaded in Cadiz before the Battle of Trafalgar: "These gentlemen must soon be so perfect in theory, that they will come to sea to put their knowledge into practice." 5

    France, on the other hand, generally husbanded its naval forces, frequently in ports that the British then blockaded. Their crews were courageous but neither honed nor hardened to the high degree of the officers and sailors of the Royal Navy. Compounding the relative lack of operational experience, much of the professional officer corps of the French Navy was aristocratic and had become suspect during the French Revolution. Many of the service's best leaders were purged or fled the country.

    Nelson Takes Command

    In May 1803 Vice Admiral Lord Nelson was selected for the Mediterranean command on the basis of his record as an operational leader. At that point, he had 14 years of wartime experience against the French and had proven tireless, aggressive, and totally dedicated to maintaining his forces in a constant state of readiness. He achieved two strategically important fleet victories at the battles of the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801). He also knew the operating theater, having previously been commander in chief of an important squadron sent into the Mediterranean in March 1798. Perhaps most important, from the moment Admiral Nelson took command of the Mediterranean Fleet, he knew what Britain needed: a decisive victory by the Royal Navy over the French. As he put it in a letter written from HMS Victory , his flagship, to a British politician in early October 1805: "[I]t is . . . annihilation that the Country wants." 6

    For many months Nelson doggedly kept the French Navy bottled in Toulon, its main Mediterranean port. Despite his own deteriorating health, he paid close attention to the health of his sailors and the readiness of his ships. The latter was a special challenge because Malta, the only British base east of Gibraltar, was too distant to be useful when focusing on Toulon. To compensate, Nelson frequently used Agincourt Sound, an anchorage among the Maddalena Islands off Sardinia's northern coast. In addition, he used store ships to resupply his units on station. Almost two centuries later, the U.S. Sixth Fleet brought the technique to a high state of operational efficiency with underway replenishment in the Mediterranean theater.

    One of the more significant characteristics of Nelson's command was the special quality of his blockade of Toulon. He used his forces to closely monitor the French rather than to prevent their exit, a strategy intended to eventually lure the enemy fleet out of port, to where he could destroy it. He characterized his strategy in an August 1804 letter: "[T]he Port of Toulon has never been blockaded by me: quite the reverse—every opportunity has been offered the Enemy to put to sea, for it is there that we hope to realize the hopes and expectations of our Country." 7

    An early 19th-century map depicts the Battle of Trafalgar at the moment HMS Victory , leading the British windward division, crashed into the Combined Fleet's line. In breaking the enemy line at two places, Admiral Nelson was able to attain a close-in fight in which superior British gunnery was most effective.


    In January 1805, Nelson's blockade strategy worked. The French fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, sortied from Toulon, only to be driven back into port by a storm. It broke out again on 30 March, however, and this time a lack of reliable British intelligence and an insufficient number of frigates for scouting allowed the French fleet to slip out of the Mediterranean and head for the West Indies. In his dispatches and letters, Nelson frequently wrote about how the lack of frigates compromised his operations in the Mediterranean. In September 1798 he had written emotionally to the first lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, "Was I to die this moment, 'Want of Frigates' would be found stamped on my heart." 8 Nelson's complaints illustrate the often-inconvenient reality that there is a strong correlation between force numbers and a force commander's ability to carry out a mission—a point that two centuries later continues to elude build-to-budget military planners.

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