Why did the British defeat the Combined Fleet, despite the Combined Fleets superior numbers
- 1 The Battle
- 2 French and Spanish vs. British Gunnery and Tactics
- 3 A Fleet Comparison
- 4 The Guns
- 5 Personnel
- 6 The First Moves
- 7 Conclusion
- 8 Bibliography
The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on the 21st of October 1805 and caused the destruction of the Combined fleet by the Royal Navy. It took place off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, south of Cape St Vincent, where a previous action took place in 1797 and south of Cadiz, where the Combined fleet was previously at anchor.
The Fleets Commanders and their officers
The officers of the Royal Navy were both professional and veterans of war, because the navy, unlike the army, did not allow men to purchase a commission: to become a lieutenant the candidates had to pass a difficult oral test from a board of three Captains, after showing promise in demonstrating skill in his sea experience, probably when the candidate was a midshipman (Only a few got promoted from the lower deck, only 10 per cent of the lieutenants at Trafalgar were from the lower deck, 80 from the middle class, the balance being upper class). Because of this, the bulk of the officers were not from aristocracy but from the middle class; aristocrats tended to join the army because commissions could be purchased; Lord Brudendell purchased a colonelcy of the 15th Hussars for almost £40,000 in the money in use at the time. Then to get promoted any higher, they really needed to distinguish themselves in action. Therefore the British generally speaking had better officers than the French or Spanish. Good officers meant, in turn, that the seamen were of a higher skill, provided higher morale, and the ships themselves were handled better, so completing more complex manoeuvres, such as remaining in bow and quarter positions in combat, or repeatedly raking another ship, like Nelson did with his action against the Ca Ira, was feasible. All of these required a very high degree of seamanship. Superior standards of British officers, in comparison to the French or Spanish gave the Royal Navy an edge in the battle as the officers were more able to harm the enemy but yet still be on their toes enough (unless they got killed like Captain Duff of the Mars) to keep their own ships out of most dangers.
Nelson was, quite simply, a naval genius. He was born in 1758 in Burnham Thorpe. In 1771 Nelson joined the Raisonnable, his uncle’s ship. Then because his uncle wanted him to become a competent sailor, he found places for him on merchant and exploring vessels during the peace. He sailed to the West-Indies and the Arctic, where he met his polar bear. In 1777 he passed his exam for lieutenant, sailed on the 32-gun frigate Lowestoft from which he got his first command, a captured vessel. In 1779 he was promoted post captain, taking part in the disastrous expedition to Nicaragua, escorting Baltic convoys, after falling ill. Then he had various commands in the West-indies, marrying Fanny Nisbet. Then when the revolution broke out he was given command of the Agamemnon, his favourite ship. He lost his eye at Calvi on Corsica. He encountered the Ca Ira. He was appointed commodore in 1796 and fought in the Battle of Cape St Vincent, and due to his initiative in sailing directly for the Spanish Fleet got promoted to rear-admiral in 1797. He commanded the attacks on Santa Cruz, and in doing so lost his right arm. On the 74-gun Vanguard under Lord St Vincent, he took command of a detached squadron, and pursued Napoleon to Egypt, destroying the French fleet at the Nile (Aboukir Bay) and suffered a head injury. Then he had command of the Mediterranean for a time; in 1800 he returned home. In 1801 he was promoted vice-admiral and sailed with Sir Parker to the Baltic, to destroy the Danish Fleet at Copenhagen. After a brief command of the anti-invasion fleet he returned home during the peace. Then on 18 may 1803 he left England for the last time, chased the Combined Fleet across the Atlantic and back, and then after a short blockade, finally destroyed the Combined Fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, where he died. His body was transported back to England, for its procession, then burial. Nelson had a vast amount of experience, despite his years, and was not afraid to attack viciously. His tactics and seamanship had a major impact on the outcome of the events.
The ‘Nelson Touch’ was and is, Nelson’s plan to cut the enemies line in two places. He outlined his plans twice while he was at Merton prior to Trafalgar to Captain Keats in the garden and to Lord Sidmouth, on a park bench. This plan didn’t use completely new ideas, but rather combined ideas that worked, such as cutting a line in one place, so he decided to cut it in two places, etc. This was the ‘Nelson Touch,’ just a touch of polish to old ideas.
Nelson planned to attack the Combined Fleet with 40 ships in two lines and one advanced squadron, before the battle there was only one advanced squadron, but at the battle due to lack of ships he separated the advanced squadron and dispersed them throughout the other two columns. He decided to attack in his order of sailing, and steer straight for the enemy, rather than bring his fleet alongside, so that on the main body of the fleet sighting the enemy, the battle could be fought the same day. He gave Collingwood semi-independent command over his column, as part of his last minute adjustments, and let him attack 12 ships from the enemy’s rear. Nelson also planned to take out the enemy flagship as soon as possible, so his column attacked the centre of the enemy line, this part of the plan was accomplished early on in Trafalgar, the advanced squadrons assumed place of attack was three or four places ahead of the flagship, so that it was surrounded, this however did not happen for reasons described earlier. Nelson reckons that his plan will leave 20 ships-of-the-line untouched, and he knew it would take time before those ships came to help the rest of their fleet, however it took longer than anticipated at Trafalgar, because the van was unwilling to wear round, however he hoped he would have already captured the rear and centre before the van attacked, so he wants his fleet ‘to be ready to receive their Twenty Sail of the Line or to pursue them should endeavour to make off.’ ~ part of Nelson’s Memorandum. Nelson got all of this right except there were only 13 ships left untouched. He also knows that there would be little or no time for signalling so he just told his captains that ‘no Captain can do very wrong if he places his Ship alongside that of an Enemy’ his captains proved that, in both that they did not need signals, and their seamanship of accomplishing this statement. Most of this took place as Nelson wanted, but if things did not, the essence was still there, he still cut the line, though not in three places. His memorandum just proves how great a sailor and commander Nelson was.
Before the revolution most of the officers were aristocrats, but during the revolution many crews had mutinied, so many Captains had emigrated without even resigning. Junior officers, merchant marine officers, and pilots took their places, and peasants took theirs. The French Navy lost all the discipline it ever had, the “sailors” often were “too frightened” to set the topgallant sails. Their warships ran aground, or collided, due to the incompetence of the officers. However Napoleon wanted a good navy, so he pardoned the officers who had emigrated, officers had to complete training before being commissioned, and more money was given to the Navy, so the French officers were improving quickly, although the French captains were much less competent than their British counterparts, but not due to the revolution.
Vice-Admiral Pierre Charles Jean Baptiste Sylvestre de Villeneuve was born in 1763, so was even younger than Nelson, only 42, at Trafalgar although of the same rank. He entered the Navy in 1778; by 1793 he was a capitane de vasseau; this was when he first met Bonaparte. Then when the revolution broke out he was suspended for two years, but was put back in the book when the Navy was desperately short of officers. In 1796, when he was 33 he was promoted contre amiral and he was in command of the right wing of the French fleet at the Nile, however he escaped, and by 1804 was promoted vice-admiral, and was given command of the fleet in Toulon. Then he sailed to the West-Indies, tailed by Nelson, when he was on the return trip fought Calder, but to no decisive result, but it did ruin the chances of a French Navy making it to the channel without the British knowing. At Trafalgar he fought with great gallantry, despite the misgiving of his previous months. He was captured, and in conversation with Captain Durham, Villeneuve said ‘I wish Sir Robert (Calder) and I had fought it out that day. He would not be in his present position or I in mine.’ Then he spent five months on parole in Britain and was allowed to watch Nelson’s funeral procession. Afterwards he was swapped for four post captains. Later in life he committed suicide with a kitchen knife, stabbing himself six times. His wife was allowed a pension of 4,000 francs.
Villeneuve’s orders were to make for the Mediterranean to Naples; he planned to sail with his fleet in four squadrons; a van, centre, rear, and a squadron of observation. He purposely, intermingled the French and Spanish Fleets so no one fleet could take the glory or have to pay for the defeat. He decided that he would, if possible, try to avoid an action. But if the fleet ‘should encounter him, let there be no ignominious manoeuvring; it would dishearten the crews and bring about our defeat.’ He had decided that if he sighted the British fleet and he had the weather gauge he would order the fleet to turn together and each individual ship to attack his opposite number, like Collingwood’s column at Trafalgar. To bring on a mêlée which, knowing the lack of seamanship that his ships possessed, wanted his captains to board the enemy. However if the British had the weather gauge, and tried to press home the attack, he decided that he would form a close formed line of battle, sailing very slowly. Nevertheless at Trafalgar the line was spread out, and four miles long, and bunches of ships with large gaps in between. He also predicted that Nelson would try to break his line and ‘envelope the rear’ to form a mêlée, he ordered his captains to fight with the greatest honour. On the 18th of October, he heard that an English convoy, landing Craig’s troop’s, had set sail with Admiral Louis, so he knew that the fleet waiting for him off Cadiz must have fewer ships than normal, so he gave the order to set sail. However it must be said that Villeneuve was not as good a seaman as Nelson, so in this respect the British had the advantage.
Practically all the Spanish were aristocrats; even the lowest commissioned officers had titles. However because the revolution was not taken up in Madrid, the Spanish officers corps were in a much better state than the French officers, and the Navy had stayed in a better state, but the Spanish officers, rather like the French officers, were not as experienced, for the same reasons as the French, but the Spanish officers generally were better than the French in their own skills, such as navigation, etc.
Admiral Don Frederico Gravina entered the Spanish Navy at twelve years old in 1768. He was perhaps, the Nelson of the Spanish, a fighting commander, naval administrator and diplomat. He commanded a bomb vessel at the siege of Gibraltar, then promoted to command the Santissima Trinidad and fought against Lord Howe off Cape Spartel in 1782. In 1789 he was promoted Commodore, and in 1793 had a tour round Portsmouth dockyard. He felt that the British gunnery outweighed the Spanish but he also felt that the Spanish ship design was better and stronger. In 1803 he was appointed ambassador in Paris, getting to know Decres well and impressed Napoleon. He signed the Franco-Spanish pact in January 1805. At Trafalgar he was 49. He joined Villeneuve off Cadiz in April, so fought in the action against Calder losing two ships, but blamed Villeneuve for not helping them (proof of the hostility between the two navies). He was second in Command of the Combined Fleet (Because the French were the prosecutors of war, and provided more ships.) and commanded 12 ships of the squadron of observation at the battle, his flag being on the 112-gun Principe de Asturias. After the battle, his ship was taken in tow by the Themis to Cadiz. He died four and a half months after the battle due to a shattered left elbow, which got gangrene before the surgeons had the sense to amputate it in Cadiz. He died in his brother's arms (the brother was Archbishop Gravina of Nicea). He was honoured almost as much as Nelson and had just as big a Requiem Mass.
French and Spanish vs. British Gunnery and Tactics
Gunnery is predominantly about the rate of fire, but the efficacy is also affected by the weight of the guns used. Once the battle is joined, it is not really about how fast the ship itself is, but how effective the gunnery is and how long the guns can be kept firing, which partly depends on how able the captain is to get his ship in in the most effective position to hurt his enemy, but also avoid being raked or putting his ship in a bad position; hence, 80 per cent of the crew manned the guns in battle, leaving only 20 per cent to work the sails and steer the ship. Sharpe’s Trafalgar pays reference to this, ‘but the secret of battle, Chase insisted, was getting close and releasing a storm of shot. “It doesn’t have to be aimed,” he told Sharpe. “I use the ship to aim the guns. I lay the guns alongside the enemy and let them massacre the bastard. Speed, speed, speed, Sharpe. Speed wins battles.”’
Good gunnery is not just about how fast the gunners could fire their guns, but also what type of ammunition each gun fired, how controlled the firing is, which guns are used, and what the gunners were aiming for, these decisions were taken by the captain until the enemy was close, when it was normally left to the lieutenants on the gun decks, and when the enemy was within 150 yards the gun captains were left to ‘fire as you bear’. For example, the lighter guns on the quarter deck, forecastle and poop were likely to be firing more chain-shot or grape, with the gun captains trained to fire as the enemy’s deck tilted towards them so the effects on soft targets and masts or rigging would be greater, this type of fire was especially effective when the receiving ship's gun deck was lower than the firing ship's, as the soft targets were allways in view, however the lighter guns on the enemy’s upper decks would have difficulty elevating their guns enough to have any great effect on the targets they were trying to kill, as they would not be able to see it or the oak walls were too thick to have any great effect on the men behind them. The British had more three-deckers, which had this advantage over the Combined Fleet. The heavier guns on the lower decks would fire more solid shot, and focus on hitting the hull and killing gun crews.
In both Fleets, ships only carried enough men to easily man one broadside, but as soon as both batteries where needed, a 14 strong crew for a 32-pounder (if they're lucky) needed to be split in two to fire guns on opposite sides simultaneously, this demanded regular training, which only the British had.
The French and Spanish preferred to use dismantling fire, to use against rigging and sailing gear to slow down or disable the enemy, rather than destroy her fighting ability; this probably would have enabled the Royal Navy ships to fire for longer and more effectively. In light winds masts and spars were a great target to hit, at Trafalgar there was very little wind so the French shot away at the Victory; she sustained about 90 holes in her foretopsail, the sail is now called the Trafalgar sail. The British (along with most navies) normally used this type of shot in a chase, where they wanted to destroy a crucial piece rigging so they could catch up with their quarry to finish her off. Apart from the first 20-30 minutes of the fighting, all the shots were fired at very close range sometimes less than pistol shot, (30 yards) and not many of the lower deck guns were able to be elevated high enough to fire dismantling shot at masts etc., so more of this type of shot was fired by upper-deck guns once at close range. Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell has a very good piece portraying this; ‘”I have never entirely understood,” Lord William said, “why you fellows insist on taking your ships up close to the enemy and battering their hulls. Easier, surely, to stand off and destroy their rigging from a distance?” “That’s the French way, my lord,” Chase said. “Bar shot, chain shot and round shot, fired on the uproll and intended to take out our sticks. But once they’ve dismasted us, once we're lying like a log in the water, they still have to take us.” “But if they have masts and sails and you do not,” Lord William pointed out, “why can they not just pour their broadsides into your stern?” “You assume, my lord, that while our notional Frenchman is tying to unmast us, we are doing nothing. A ship of the line, my lord, is nothing more than a floating artillery battery. Destroy the sails and you still have a gun battery, but dismount the cannons, splinter its decks and kill the gunners and you had denied the ship its very purpose of existence. The French try to give us a long range haircut, while we get up close and mangle their vitals.”’
The French and Spanish used poorer powder than the British, as the British used cylinders rather than kilns, to char their charcoal, this produced powder that burns more uniformly, resulting in better accuracy. If the Combined Fleet had had the British powder they would have been able to open fire about 6 minutes earlier, so would have been able to fire about one more salvo. As it was, that early salvo would have probably missed.
The British superiority in their rate of fire (A British crew could fire three shot every five minutes, the French and Spanish could only manage to fire one shot every eight minutes for a 36-pounder, five minutes for a 18-pounder, and four minutes for an eight pounder.) over the Combined Fleet was for them the single most important battle winning factor. The Royal Navy only had this advantage because the British ships spent months at sea, so the captains were able to give their crew constant exercise at the guns, whereas the French and Spanish were stuck in port due to the British blockade, so rarely got the opportunity to do any serious practice. This meant that the slower firing ships suffered more than their opponents.
Really effective fire could occur when one ship raked another, and then fired one or two more broadsides in quick succession, the ship that received the rake would never be able to properly recover from it or then give fire properly again, once followed with another broadside in quick succession then the unlucky receiver then never had a hope of winning the engagement. This is what happened at Trafalgar when his majestie's ships cut the line, and some, such as the Victory, had their guns triple shotted. However, only a well trained crew, which only the British possessed, were able to pull this off well. Because the British had the best gunnery, it gave them a battle winning advantage.
‘Put simply, tactics is the art of fighting battles, operations the art of conducting campaigns and strategy that of fighting wars. In Napoleonic naval terms, the tactics were all about securing an advantage of position over an enemy so that when the guns fired, they inflicted maximum damage and casualties. Conversely, a captain sought to place his ship where his opponent’s fire would be least effective. The fleet commander's overriding aim would always be to concentrate more ships and more guns than the enemy could muster at a given place and time’-Mark Adkin. However, all of that is a waste of time if your fleet has poor gunnery, because in the end it's rate of fire that counts.
There were different ways that two fleets could join battle, one was the “End-on Approach.” The Fleets approached each other on opposite tacks in line ahead, with no firing possible until both fleets passed each other at close range. This type of action rarely came to any result, and the admiral had lots of control over his fleet even when the battle was joined.
Another way to approach has been named the “Oblique Approach” where, if the angle between the approaching ships is very shallow, normally ended up with the same results as the “End-on Approach.” However if the angle is much steeper, the ships can fire on each other before they get really close. This normally lead to battle in parallel lines, which caused serious destruction to some ships but, just occasionally, it was decisive.
Nelson used the “Head-on Approach,” where one fleet is sailing at right-angles to the other. If the Approaching fleet cuts the line then it can concentrate its fire in a very small area. However only one fleet can fire on the approach so in theory the approaching fleet should be disabled before it can cut the line. So why then did Nelson use this tactic against the Combined Fleet?
‘Nelson knew his enemy, knew his own ships’ strengths and knew the inherent weaknesses of the Combined Fleet’s tactical position. He knew that, given the comparatively short effective range of the guns, enemy fire was only likely to hit from about 700 yards. Any fire from much beyond that range would miss such a small target as a ship bow on to the firer. He knew that Villeneuve’s command was in places bunched and at others scattered, so the number of ships able to bring their guns to bear was limited. He knew that the French or Spanish gunnery was not of a high standard in terms of accuracy or speed of firing. Nelson knew he had every chance of getting through the real danger zone of a depth of 600 to 700 yards in 12 to 15 minutes (due to the sluggish wind) without crippling damage. He knew that only perhaps two or three ships would be able to fire at him twice, or at most three times, during these critical minutes, as their reloading time was decidedly sluggish. Events proved him right.’-Mark Adkin. Nelson also knew that if he could cut the line, his ships could pass within 20 yards’ of the Combined Fleet’s sterns and rake them with triple-shotted guns which would prove decisive. Nelson wanted a “pell mell” battle, where he could rely on superior British gunnery to win the day.
A Fleet Comparison
During the peace of Amiens in March 1802, the Royal Navy suffered, as ships were sold off, men sent home, and the amount of money poured into the Navy cut down. However, by Trafalgar the damage had scarcely been mended, and Nelson had a third of the useable strength of the Navy, the other 85 per cent was either being built, or unfit for sea, or undergoing major refit, so Nelson, with this percentage of the usable ships, could not call himself unfortunate, considering the service's time at sea; if Nelson had not had to send six of his ships for replenishment (such as the Donegal), his fleet would have had the same number of ships.
The French navy, due to the revolution (as described in the officers section), was in an appalling state, all the ships were undermanned, Brest was lacking skilled workers like carpenters, and at one point there was not a single block of wood in port. Furthermore Napoleon only had 46 undermanned ships, not enough for his invasion of Britain, so he had to combine with the Spanish.
The Spanish had 30 ‘very fine ships but shockingly manned’~ according to Nelson when he visited Cadiz earlier in life, Gravina on the other hand, said exactly the opposite to Nelson, this was true. To make the situation worse for the Spanish the Yellow fever had recently swept through southern Spain, so when Villeneuve stopped with his fleet at Cadiz prior to Trafalgar with seasick men, there were not enough locals to boost his ships' strength. So compared to the British, the Combined fleet was in a sorry state, this gave Britain a large advantage.
A Ship-of-the-Lines purpose was to both destroy and capture enemy ships but also, in the long term, to take command of the oceans. In the 19th Century, a powerful navy was a great commendation to any country that traded, but it was not an absolute necessity. However, because Britain is an island, it depends on trade, so a navy is a necessity, to protect her large Merchant navy. France never really put their ships to any use during the Napoleonic wars, we can see this because most places that France captured, were taken not from the sea but marching armies into other countries, therefore Trafalgar was not a major loss for Napoleon, as he could go and capture another country, but from the Land.
Because large ships beat smaller ones, Britain had to maintain large numbers of battleships to defend Britain and her merchant shipping from the impending French invasion. So Britain naturally spent more on her navy than her army, so had a large, well trained, and versatile navy, to secure an edge over her opponents, but for France it was the other way round, so defeat at Trafalgar would have been a disaster for the British, but the amount of money spent on the navy did help to ensure that it was the best navy in the world, so the British had the advantage over the French and Spanish in this sense. Below are the numbers of warships each combatant possessed:
|Ships-of-the-line||79 (27; 34%)||41 (18; 44%)||38 (15; 40%)|
|Frigates||98 (4; 4%)||35 (5; 14%)||26 (0; 0%)|
|Total||177 (31; 17%)||76 (23; 30%)||64 (15; 23%)|
(The numbers out of brackets equals the total number of ships available at that time (about a 3rd more would be in repair), while the number within the brackets equals the numbers present at Trafalgar, with the percentage this formed of the entire fleet.)
The British could only muster a 3rd of their Battleships for Trafalgar, because the rest were on active duty around the world, on blockade, for example. Due to an outnumbering British navy, this meant that the British could win wars, but not necessary all their battles, because her navy was spread out, whereas the French and Spanish navies were often concentrated, but blockaded in port. So unable to fight easily at sea.
Ħ== The Ships ==
To win a battle the commanders preferred to outnumber, out gun, and out manoeuvre their opponent.
To out gun, you needed to have big ships, which could carry more, heavier guns. 1st rates were the biggest ships, which could carry 100+ guns, which could only be matched by another 1st rate, on top of this, these ships also acted as command posts for admirals, however some admirals preferred to have their flag on a lighter ship as the 1st rates were often poor sailors. The first rates at Trafalgar were:
|Spanish||112||Principe de Asturias|
The second biggest ships were the 2nd rates which carried 90-98 guns, which only the British built, so despite the fact that the Spanish had more 1st rates than the British, with more guns, the British did have four 2nd rates, which could fire a broadside only 46lbs lighter than the Victory, so there was about even fire (British having more) from both sides, within these two classes. Both 1st and 2nd rates had three batteries, which had a very large advantage over a ship with only two. The British had seven three-deckers but the Combined fleet had only four.
3rd rates carried 64-80 guns, and normally formed the bulk of any fleet, they were probably the most versatile of the ships at that time, as they could hold their own in most battles, except perhaps against the Santisima Trinidad, which had approximately double the guns, just under three times the firepower of a 74 gun ship. They could also perform on blockade, take on shore batteries, land men and form part of a detached squadron (such as Nelson commanded at the Nile), for which the 1st and 2nd rates could not keep up, except perhaps the Victory which sailed well. At Trafalgar, Nelson had one 80, sixteen 74s and two 64s. The French had four 80s and fourteen 74s, the Spanish had two 80s, eight 74s and one 64. A 2nd or even 1st rate could be taken on by an 80-gun-for a short amount of time, making them powerful ships. At Trafalgar the Combined Fleet had 28 3rd rates against the British 17. This put the British at a major disadvantage, however despite 11 of the French ships where the renowned 80-gun vessels the British made up with superior numbers of three-deckers.
There were also 4th rates, these used to be the big warships, but by 1805 they were not fast enough to perform the duties of a frigate, but were badly out-gunned by higher classes, there were none at Trafalgar.
Frigates were 5th or 6th rates, the former carrying 32-44 guns, and the latter carrying 20-28 guns. These were the eyes and ears of any fleet; they could escort convoys, patrol, and carry dispatches from admiral to admiral. However because they had so little firepower they did not fight in battle accept against their own class and unrated ships with up to 18 guns, as a frigate only had two fifths of the firepower of a 74. 6th rate frigates had a big problem however; they had little firepower, so for a 28-gun ship to engage a 32-gun ships would be risky. 3rd and 5th rates were the commonest ships in times of war.
What gave the British an edge over the French and Spanish was, that the British seamen were better trained, so the ships could fire their guns faster, and could handle their ships better, so more destruction could be caused to the enemy faster; throughout twenty-two years of war the British only lost seventeen frigates to the French, but recaptured nine, but the French lost two-hundred-and-twenty-two.
In terms of firepower at Trafalgar, if all the guns at Battle were fired together, the Combined Fleet would have fired a heavier amount of shot, but the British could fire faster. So far, within this section I have only discussed the sizes of ships and the weight of their guns. Now rather than talk about the merits of individual rates of ships at Trafalgar, and the amount of each rate at the battle and how this had an effect, I need to discuss, who built the best ships? The answer to this relatively simple question, is that sadly the French and Spanish designed the best ships. In fact some British built and designed ships were so badly designed, that one ship needed thirty-five tons of ballast to bring her upright. Another ship's gun ports were too near the waterline, only three feet eleven inches (the required height was six feet), this meant in heavy swells the lower gun deck would have flooded. This ship was the Victory designed by Sir Thomas Slade.
Because the British were so deficient at shipbuilding, most of their ships were copies of French or Spanish prizes, such as the Belleisle, Spartiate and the Tonnant (which was said to be the finest ship in the British navy) which were formerly French, from which copies were made.
The French made longer, narrower, and taller ships than the British, these were more ‘handy’ and they could sail faster. The French Juste was seven feet longer than the 102-gun Victory which was 186 feet along the gun deck; it was also about four feet taller. The Spanish had the shipbuilder genius; an Irishman called Mullins, who designed shorter stubbier ships, which could still sail well, contradicting the rule that narrow, tall ships were best.
We must not only judge a ship's firepower on the number of guns that it carries, because there were different guns that fired different weights of shot. So here are tables that add up the number of guns of each type, to give us an estimate into the weight of fire each fleet possessed. All the figures are approximate as at the time the admiralty had given new orders to have an official number of carronades aboard each ship, but some ships had not yet had need for a refit so their armament had not been corrected, and no one kept a record. So some ships may have contained additional carronades, or fewer guns and more carronades.
|Ships||Guns (nominal)||(actual)||Type of gun (-pdr): 36||32||24||18||12||9||8||6||4||Total weight of fire (lbs)|
|Ships||Guns (nominal)||(actual)||Type of gun (-pdr): 36||32||24||18||12||9||8||6||4||Total weight of fire (lbs)|
(The French had 36- rather than 32-pounders on their lower decks, this gave French ships with the same number of guns as their opponents more firepower.)
|Ships||Guns (nominal)||(actual)||Type of gun (-pdr): 36||32||24||18||12||9||8||6||4||Total weight of fire (lbs)|
(In the Spanish fleet only the 1st rates carried 36-pounders on their lower decks, but the Spanish 80- and 74-gun ships had 18-pounders on their upper decks rather than the 24-pounders carried by the French. Furthermore if we say that a heavy gun was a 24-pounder or above, then the French had 1,060 of these, this is 78 percent of their total armament, a much higher proportion than the British and Spanish, of which both had 46 percent of their armament as heavy guns. So the French generally had the more powerful ships, followed by the British, and then the Spanish.)
(The numbers in brackets indicate the number of guns the ships actually carried, the rest were carronades)
Although separately, the British could fire more shot than anyone else, the French and Spanish together could fire more (27.5 tons to the British 19.5 tons), this give them a considerable advantage over the British.
Carronades added considerably to the weight of fire a broadside had. As a captain wanted to keep the centre of gravity as low as possible on his ship, he put lighter guns on his upper decks, but carronades were shorter than the long guns, so lighter and smaller in weight and size and there was room for more in the same amount of space, so some captains substituted long guns that fired lighter shot for carronades that fired heavier shot. Although their range was not as great as the long guns, they greatly increased the weight of fire. For example the British Belleisle was supposedly a 74, but at the battle she carried 66 long guns firing 890 lbs and 18 carronades firing 272 lbs for each broadside. So she was actually an 84 gun ship that could fire 1,162 lbs of metal. The secret to the accuracy and relatively high velocity to the length of the barrel, was that they had very little windage, some was needed so the gun could be rammed. The windage for a 32-pounder long gun was 0.6 inches but for a 68-pounder carronade it is just 0.1 inches. However because the gun was lighter it was not as able to fire double shotted. But why then were carronades only installed on the upper deck? Well although carronades fired a heavier weight of shot, due to a shorter barrel length, the range was decreased as the shot travelled at lower velocities; therefore a ship armed with solely carronades had a much decreased range, so if a stand-off battle was fought, a ship armed with only carronades had no choice but to sit and take fire, however at Trafalgar the battle was fought at close quarters, sometimes a matter of yards, over that range the carronades had devastating effects, so much so that they were nick named ‘smashers’ by the British or the ‘devil gun’ by the French. Also, as a carronade weighed less than the long guns (a 32-pounder long gun weighed 2.75 tons compared to a 68-pounders carronade's 1.8 tons), arming a ship with carronades on all the decks reduced the stability of the ship and its ability to sail well. The French carried very few carronades, but much more uniformly than the British, despite Napoleon's pleas for carronades replacing 12-pounder guns and below. Here are some of his letters to Decres:
2 June It was with carronades that the English set the L’Orient on fire and in them they have an immense advantage over us…
22 June But for God's sake ship me some carronades. It is only with guns you can arm ships of the line, and for ships of the line there is nothing but heavy calibre. (He is referring to carronades.)
The Spanish carried no carronades, but it is lightly that they employed howitzers. The Argonauta and the Neptuno both 80s carried 62 guns and 18 howitzers, and the Principe de Asturias and 112 gun ship carried 16 of these guns. Because only the British used carronades to any extent, this gave them a large advantage over her foes.
Summary British Fleet Combined Fleet Three-deckers (98-102) 7 Three-deckers (100-136) 4 Two-deckers (80) 1 Two-deckers (80) 6 Two-deckers (74) 16 Two-deckers (74) 22 Two-deckers (64) 3 Two-deckers (64) 1 Single deckers (36-38) 4 Single deckers (40) 5 Unrated ships (10) 2 Unrated ships (16-18) 2 Total guns 2,026 Total guns 2,636 Total weight of Broadside 19.5 tons Total weight of Broadside 27.5 tons Proportion of 24- to 32-pdrs 46% Proportion of 24- to 32-pdrs 63%
If we talk of number of guns, weight of guns, and size of ship, then the maths seems to make the Combined fleet more formidable, but if we bring the men who fought out those hellish hours into the equation then the British seem to have an edge over the Combined Fleet. The British Navy was a seagoing navy, therefore its officers were more competent, its seamen and marines were more skilled than their opposite numbers in the Combined Fleet. At Trafalgar the strength of the British Fleet was 18,438 men, however only eight of her ships at the battle were up to or just over strength. However, almost unusually there was a high proportion of seamen, both ordinary and able, to landsmen and boys, the seamen outnumbering, approximately five to one, due to large numbers of volunteers who tended to become better sailors than those who had been pressed into the navy, who normally ended up landsmen. Furthermore most crews had at least two years sea experience, which had given time for some of the landsmen a chance to become ordinary seamen. This is evidence that the British crews very skilled, far more so than the crews of the Combined Fleet; they could tack or wear (gibe) in a matter of minutes after the first order was given, but probably more importantly is that the Royal Navy guns crews could fire their guns every 90 seconds compared to the Combined Fleets four to five minutes. If the Victory and the Santisima Trinidad were engaged for ten minutes then the Victory would had fired 12,960 lbs, but the Santisima Trinidad only 5,640 lbs of shot. The sailor’s morale was high; they desperately wanted a fight, even if the ‘Frogs’ outnumbered them. They were confident, in both themselves and their beloved Nelson, he himself commented before he left England for his last time; ‘I had their huzzas before – I have their hearts now.’-Unknown (The book has lost its cover.) Morale may have also been raised by Nelson’s signal ‘England Expects (Nelson wanted to say Confides) That Every Man Will Do His Duty’ The men trusted that their officers would get them close to their enemy, and they knew the tactics of those who gave them their duties, so they could time their actions to perfection to get the best results. Also, of great importance, is the health of the Royal Navy compared to the French and Spanish, because of Nelson's, and his captains’ dedication to a clean ship, (very difficult to achieve at sea, imagine the Victory filled with over 900 souls at sea and you get some idea of the dirt that floated around warships) and including as much fresh food and citrus fruit as was available on the navies spin to the West Indies. The officers who had charge over these men were both experienced and professional; of the 29 captains that fought at Trafalgar 22 became admirals.
The Combined Fleet's trip to the West Indies and back had not done them much good, for when they eventually returned to Cadiz, they entered harbour with worn out ships and 1,500 sick seamen, with only a third fit to come out of hospital, should the Fleet set sail. In addition the Yellow Fever had recently ravaged southern Spain, so the many ships (especially the Spanish) that were already short of ‘hands’ could not press any more men because of an already diminished population. What's more the Spanish authorities were not willing to sell the Fleet food, or shot and powder unless they paid with money up front. The men were also severely depressed due the long sickening voyage.
Vice-Admiral Villeneuve wrote a report to Decres describing six of his ships as suffering from ‘weak crews’ and excessive ‘sickness’. Seven are described as ‘poor sailors’, ‘crank’, in a ‘bad condition’, ‘an indifferent sailor’, ‘making six inches of water every hour’, ‘foremast badly wounded by shot’ or ‘bottom bad’, only five ships survive Villeneuve’s attack on his ships. The Combined Fleet was in no position for a fight, and probably the only reason one occurred was because Villeneuve’s emperor wanted his Fleet to sail for France so he could hold the Channel long enough for his invasion army to cross to England.
The French Fleet's Personnel Naval personnel 9,173 Marine artillery 900 Army troops 4,000 Total 14,073
The French Fleet was not like the British Fleet, in that the British ships carried Marines and Seamen, whereas the French Fleet was made up of Seamen (62% of the Fleet), Marine artillery ((10% of the Fleet) acted as infantry if soldiers were not present, but in battle acted primarily as gun captains), and Army troops (28% of the Fleet), the latter often being in transit for land based operations. Villeneuve planned to use the army troops that he was carrying to make up for the lack of seamen, but soldiers were in no way able to work to work sheets or loose sails, so the soldiers only use was to add muscle power for operating the guns, but in terms of skilled men the French Fleet was particularly lacking, they could not tack or wear their ships as fast as the British, or fire their guns so swiftly.
The Spanish Fleets Personnel Naval (including naval artillery) 6,881 Army – infantry 4,135 Artillery 931 Total 11,947
The Spanish officers were experienced navigators and seamen; however like their French allies they suffered, major personnel problems, and tried to deal with those problems in similar ways. Perhaps surprisingly most of the Spanish ships sailed with over strength crews, but this was manly made up of an overdose of army troops, which cannot do much as described earlier. Furthermore of the Navel contingent about 1,240, just 18 per cent were trained seamen. 42 per cent of the Spanish Navy was made up of soldiers; the French had 28 per cent and the British only 15 per cent. In the Spanish Navy one in three men were military, but only one in five could be described as seamen. This lack of skill was made worse by large numbers of sick; 713 Spaniards had to remain at Cadiz in hospitals. Nelson himself commented on it, ‘The Captain of the (Spanish) frigate said, “It was no wonder they were sickly, for they had been sixty days at sea.” By then a British crew would be in fine condition.’
Summary of each Fleet’s Advantages British French/Spanish Four three-deckers Six more ships-of-the-line More experienced officers More heavy guns More trained and very experienced crew Overall heavier broadsides More skilled gunners Higher morale and confidence More effective battle tactics
The First Moves
Nelson arrived with the duty to bring on a decisive battle, and support Craig’s troops, meaning Nelson may have to sacrifice some of his ships to perform these duties. When the British fleet reached its maximum strength (34 ships-of-the-line), however, Rear-Admiral Calder, wanted to return to England to clear his name in a court martial, for failing to press home his attack on the Combined Fleet, before they reached Ferrol, but he insisted that he sail back on his flagship, the Prince of Wales, which was a powerful 98-gun ship, and it only meant bad news for Nelson. To make matters worse, Nelson had to send six ships of the line back to Gibraltar for replenishment, and then to land Craig’s troops on Malta under Rear-Admiral Louis in the Canopus. This is what swung the Combined Fleet's numbers, to outnumber the British Fleet. This last reduction in ships changed Nelson’s plan to attack in two lines, instead of three.
Both the French and Spanish Fleets were undersupplied (because the Spanish authorities insisted on payment in cash, up front), and both the seamen and their commanders were disappointed with their commander-in-chief, Villeneuve; Admiral Magon disliked the fact that Villeneuve had been promoted over him, and Admiral Gravina, the commander of the Spanish squadron, had the same regrets. The men and officers of the Spanish Fleet were generally hostile to the French Fleet, especially as the Spanish government was questioning its alliance to France, indeed Admiral Gravina had been ordered not to let the Spanish fleet sail to Brest, however he had to do this in secret with the Emperor knowing. Due to the long sea voyage, the hostility between the two nations had the knock on effect of demoralising the whole fleet.
When the Combined Fleet eventually weighed anchor, and got out to the open sea in complete disorder, the fleet never fully recovered from this. After encountering many difficulties with the wind and more confusion the Combined Fleet eventually sailed south, on hearing the news that the British Fleet had been sighted, on the 20th October at 8.30 p.m., Villeneuve knew a battle was imminent. During the night the fleet tried to regain some sort of line, guns were fired along with rocket etc.
Meanwhile as soon as Nelson heard the news that the enemy were coming out of port, he gave the order ‘general chase’ toward the Straights. He reached them well before the enemy on the 20th October at 6 a.m. so he had to wear the fleet back the way he had come. Then at 4 p.m. he received confirmation that the enemy fleet was out, he had never been positively sure earlier, but suddenly the wind veered, taking the fleet aback, it took considerable time to get the fleet in line sailing north. Now both fleets were converging on opposite tacks. Then at 8.30 p.m. he wore the fleet again not wanting to bring on battle during the night, as the Fleets were only 12 miles apart. Then at 4 a.m. in the morning he wore again. When light broke the skies, the enemy was 12 miles to leeward and he had the weather gauge. This gave Nelson a considerable advantage, as he could chose when, where, and how to attack.
When the Combined Fleet saw the British one, Villeneuve gave the order to wear, despite his letter to Napoleon explaining his tactics, in which he said he would not wear. This further made the line more ragged and completely demoralised the fleet.
Then there is nothing more of great importance that has not been described already in other sections, except that during the battle Dumanoir took a very long time to obey Villeneuve’s order to come and reinforce the van and centre divisions, if he had, the Combined Fleet may not have won but they would have added a huge amount of fire power in the space where the British had attacked. This is probably one of the reasons that the Combined Fleet surrendered reasonably quickly, and the Royal navy did not suffer more losses.
So in conclusion, it was the British speed of fire that won the day for them; this was the factor that Nelson was banking on for the British to rule the mêlée. Another very important factor that enabled the ships of the Royal Navy seem almost untouchable, was the British seamanship, which vastly out classed that of the French or Spanish. In addition the tactics of the Royal navy proved more effective in those modern days of seafaring, some of the French and Spanish ships had no where enough skill to compete with the British speed and their use of tactics.
The Trafalgar Companion by Mark Adkin
Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell