How Did Lord Nelson Win the Battle of Trafalgar So Convincingly?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive Nelson fan. By the time of his death in the Battle of Trafalgar Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was a veteran with tens of thousands of sea miles under his belt, who had been at sea since childhood and had spent years learning his craft in the Arctic, in terrifying storms and in combat with the enemy.

He had a charisma that made men undertake his commands willingly. His letters are filled with concern for the welfare of his crews. But I cannot pretend that the scale of his crushing victory at Trafalgar was down solely to his leadership.

Britain’s Georgian Royal Navy was a phenomenon. Technologically and numerically superior to all the other navies of the world combined, its officers and men hardened by generations of war, and motivated by a powerful tradition of victories.

The HMS Victory in Portsmouth in 1900, where it remains to this day. Credit: Library of Congress / Commons.

The stunning defeat it inflicted on its French and Spanish enemy at Trafalgar is testament both to the potency of the Royal Navy as an instrument of war, and to the leadership of Nelson, who recognised its strengths, and came up with a plan of battle that would accentuate them.

The result was a decisive victory that annihilated the French and Spanish navies, capturing or destroying two thirds of their force, bringing to an end any talk of invading Britain, and creating a reinforcing a myth of British invincibility that would endure for over a century.

A change in strategy

Since the Spanish Armada in 1588, ships carrying cannon along either side of the vessel could only do serious damage to an enemy who were perpendicular to their line of advance, so tactics evolved whereby long lines of battleships would blast each other while travelling on parallel courses.

Nelson decided to dispense with these tactics at Trafalgar. They too often allowed one side to break off the action and it was hard to achieve a decisive result with long cumbersome lines tacking and wearing ship in unison. Nelson would split his fleet and send two columns right into the middle of the enemy.

Tactical map showing Nelson’s strategy to split the French and Spanish lines. Credit: Oladelmar / Commons.

This would precipitate a melee in which he knew his better trained crews, and faster, heavier guns would overcome the enemy.

His decision has gone down in military legend. Hungry for a result, he would sail straight at the enemy fleet, crash through their line, throw all into confusion, cut off at least a third of their ships and systemically destroy them. This was the plan of an admiral confident in the superiority of his raw materials.

Superior gunnery

Nelson’s cannons were triggered by gunlocks, these mechanisms sent a spark instantly down a touch hole to ignite the gunpowder in the barrel of the cannon. They made them quicker and safer to reload and much easier to aim than the Franco-Spanish fleet who were still using a much more primitive method.

A gun onboard HMS Victory. Credit: HMS Victory.

Nelson’s ships also carried a terrible new weapon, 68-pounder carronades. These massive guns were designed for short range battering.

One infamous shot from a carronade on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, saw a keg of 500 musket balls blasted through the stern windows of a French ship and effectively wiping out the crew manning the cannon on her gundeck.

A very able crew

It was not just the technology that was superior, the captains, officers, marines and seamen were hardened by years at sea. Whereas enemy ships had spent huge amounts of time cooped up in harbour, crewed by untrained landsmen, the British had been blockading the ports of Europe, beating back and forth in all weather, until crews were drilled to perfection.

Nelson’s signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, flying from Victory on the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Credit: Tkgd2007 / Commons.

Nelson’s last instruction to his captains was simple, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” He knew that the plan would inevitably fall apart on contact with the enemy, in that situation, his captains knew the minimum of what was expected of them.

The risks

There was one great drawback to Nelson’s plan. While his ships were making straight for the great sickle shaped enemy fleet of 33 battleships the French and Spanish would be able to blast his columns with their full broadsides while the British fleet would effectively be unable to fire back. He gambled on the fact that his enemy crews were ill-trained, and their gunnery poor.

However, the leading ship of either of Nelson’s column would certainly take a pounding. That is why Nelson insisted that his ship, HMS Victory would lead one column, and his second in command, Rear Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, aboard HMS Royal Sovereign would lead the other.

Conspicuous exposure to enemy fire was always a hallmark of Nelson’s leadership. Before Trafalgar he had been wounded several times, and had lost an arm and an eye. At Trafalgar he declined the opportunity to switch his flag to a ship further removed from the heat of battle and he paid for this with his life.

The Battle of Trafalgar

On 21 October 1805 Nelson’s 27 battleships glided on a gentle breeze towards the 33 strong French and Spanish fleet. Victory and Royal Sovereign did indeed take a pounding as they closed with the French and for a terrifying few minutes they found themselves isolated as they ploughed into the enemy lines. Victory suffered terribly and Nelson was mortally wounded.

La Bucentaure at Trafalgar in a painting by Auguste Mayer. Credit: Auguste Mayer / Commons.

However, within minutes giant British battleships were arriving one after the other and the enemy was terribly outgunned and their crews slaughtered. Most of the enemy ships who escaped this onslaught fled rather than reinforce their beleaguered comrades. No fewer than 22 enemy French and Spanish were captured, not a single one of Nelson’s ships was lost.

Nelson died, below the waterline on the orlop deck, at the very moment of victory. But so great was the victory, and so dominant did it leave the Royal Navy, that he left behind a country that did not depend on a single leader of genius to retain its command of the oceans.