Tuesday, October 25, 2005

On October 21st in military history....in 1805

(Ed. note: OK, since the Cap'n brought it up, here is my post for October 21st.)

On October 21st in military history….in 1805. The British fleet under command of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson defeats the combined Spanish and French fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar off the southwest coast of Spain. At the start of 1805, the France was the dominant military power on the European continent, but the British Royal Navy dominated the seas. Because of this, the British were able to attack the French when and wherever they chose while the French were always unable to move beyond the European continent. The British also were blockading the French ports, which affected French trade. In 1805, when a coalition of European countries (Britain, Russia, Austria, Sweden and Naples) declared war against France, Napoleon decided to invade Britain. However, to do so, he would have to break the British blockade and defeat the British fleet.

Napoleon believed that he could wrest control of the seas from the British this time since Spain was also now allied with France. He felt that the combined French/Spanish fleets would be more than a match for the British. The plan was for the Spanish fleet on the Atlantic and the French fleet in the Mediterranean would break thru the blockade and join up in the West Indies. From there, the combined fleets would sail towards Brest to help the French fleet there and then sail to the English channel where they would destroy the English fleet and take control of the English Channel so that Napoleon’s could invade Britain.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, Lord Nelson was commanding the British fleet that was blockading Toulon. The blockade was very "loose" since Lord Nelson hoped to lure the French fleet out of port so that they could be destroyed. Because of this, the French fleet was able to escape from Toulon, pass thru the Straits of Gibraltar, rendezvous with the Spanish fleet and sail towards the West Indies. When Nelson realized what had happened, he left station and sailed in pursuit.
The French commander, Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve started sailing towards Brest, but after a setback at the Battle of Cape Finisterre, decided to sail back to the Spanish port of El Ferrol and from there, south to Cadiz. Nelson had returned to England to provision his ships, but kept the French/Spanish fleet under surveillance in Cadiz by using frigates. When he set sail for Cadiz, the French/Spanish fleet was still sitting in port.

Naval battles at this time relied on two ways to destroy the other fleet, by gunfire and by hand-to-hand combat. The battle usually started with opposing fleets facing each other on line, exchanging broadsides until the fleets closed with each other for hand-to-hand combat or one of the fleets retired. A major component of naval warfare was the direction of the wind. Whichever ship had the best wind position usually won. As a result, both ships would maneuver to place themselves into a position where their guns could be brought to bear on the undefended bow or stern of the opposing ship. This was called "crossing the T" and would usually result in the surrender of the opposing ship.

The largest warship of the era was the ship-of-the-line that could carry up to 100 cannons and the combined French/Spanish fleet outnumbered Nelson’s fleet by 33 ships-of-the-line to 27. Because of this, instead of exchanging broadsides with the French/Spanish fleet from 2000 yards away in two parallel lines, Nelson decided to sail his fleet directly at the French/Spanish fleet. This would force the battle to be fought as a number of individual ship-to-ship battles where the superior training of the British seaman would win the day. This would also divide the French/Spanish fleet in two where the ships in front would be unable to turn around and help their ships to the rear due to the prevailing winds. However, Nelson’s front ships would be exposed to full broadsides from the French/Spanish fleet, as they would be in the position of crossing the British "T".

As the battle opened, the French/Spanish fleet was off Cape Trafalgar, heading north towards Cadiz. Before entering battle, Nelson issued the famous command "England expects that every man will do his duty" and his second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood told his officers, "Now gentlemen, let us do something today that the world may talk of hereafter". Nelson divided his fleet into two columns, one led by him on-board his flagship, the 100-gun Victory and the other lead by his second-in-command, Collingwood on-board the 100-gun Royal Sovereign. He sailed both columns at a right angle to the French/Spanish fleet so that they would meet at about the same point in the French/Spanish fleet. During the ensuing battle, the British captured or destroyed 22 enemy ships and lost none. Lord Nelson was shot and later died while leading the battle his flagship Victory and he is forever remembered as Britain’s greatest Admiral. Trafalgar Square in London commemorates his victory and Nelson’s Column was erected there upon which his victories at Aboukir Bay, Copenhagen and Trafalgar are inscribed. Nelson’s Pillar was also erected in Dublin, Ireland to commemorate his victory (many sailors at Trafalgar were Irish) but it was blown up by the IRA in 1966. The French were never able to challenge the British Royal Navy again and the British Royal Navy was the eminent world sea power until World War II when it was eclipsed by the United States Navy.


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