The Battle of Trafalgar 1805

The overwhelming victory over the French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 gave the Royal Navy its most famous triumph and confirmed a long tradition of naval supremacy.

The battle also immortalised the memory of Viscount Horatio Nelson who was shot and died of his wounds at the moment of his greatest victory.

The naval campaign began as part of Napoleon Bonaparte's plan to invade Britain in the summer of 1805. Napoleon needed to gain control of the English Channel to allow his Grand Armée to cross. To achieve this he ordered the French fleet's three squadrons blockaded at Brest, Toulon and other ports to break out, meet in West Indies and then return as one fleet to gain control of the Channel.

In March the squadron of Admiral Villeneuve at Toulon was able to evade the British blockade, joined up with a Spanish squadron and left for the West Indies. Nelson learned of his departure on 10 April and was soon in hot pursuit. Villeneuve lost his nerve and immediately returned to Europe. After a minor battle off Cape Finisterre he was bottled up in Cadiz in Spain. Recognising that the invasion was now impossible, Napoleon marched his Grand Armée to meet the threat posed by Austria and Russia in the east.

Nelson's fleet of 27 ships of the line now waited for Villeneuve's force to emerge. The fleet was a high peak of fighting efficiency having been at sea blockading the French for almost two years. At the end of September, Nelson revealed his plan to his captains; the fleet would be split into two columns to break through the enemy line and overwhelm the centre and rear sections of the enemy's fleet.

On 19 October a British frigate watching Cadiz spotted the Franco-Spanish fleet leaving harbour. It consisted of 33 ships of the line including the 136 gun Santissima Trinidad, the largest ship in the world. Villeneuve's orders were to try to break into the Mediterranean.

The message was passed to Nelson's fleet, 48 miles off the coast and he ordered a general chase. By dawn on 21 October the British fleet was only 9 miles away from the enemy. At 1148 HMS Victory hoisted the famous signal 'England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty' followed by 'Engage the enemy more closely'. The two columns led by HMS Victory and HMS Royal Sovereign successfully pierced the enemy line firing into the bow and stern of enemy ships as they passed between them.

The fighting was severe and much of it was at close quarters. Many of the British ships were damaged, some seriously, including the HMS Victory which engaged the French flagship Bucentaure and the Redoutable. But Nelson's faith in the superior gunnery and ship handling skills of the British crews was fully borne out with the capture of 18 enemy ships including the Santissima Trinidad. Villeneuve had surrendered at 13.45 and despite renewed resistance by some Spanish ships the battle was over by 16.30.

A great storm blew up on 22 October and when it subsided only four enemy ships remained in British hands most having sunk. The total number of killed and wounded on both sides was about 8,500 whilst the British took about 20,000 prisoners. Nelson himself had been shot by a musket ball at about 13.15 and died around 16.30 when victory was assured.

The era of British naval supremacy brought about by the victory at Trafalgar lasted for a century until Germany's naval challenge in the first decade of the Twentieth Century.

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HMS Victory

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Horatio Nelson

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