Invasion of Britain, Battle of Trafalgar

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© Bob Denton 2014

Invasion of Britain, Battle of Trafalgar, 1805

Many of the more senior French naval officers had been executed during the early French Revolutionary period, so the navy was somewhat short on experience making his invasion of Britain plan unlikely,

Napoleon realised he needed to find a way to control the English Channel, from the French perspective La Manche. He surmised he needed to find a way to clear the waterway of the Royal Navy for a period of six hours.

He planned that the French and Spanish naval assets located in the Mediterranean break through their blockade and then gather together in the Caribbean and lure the Royal Navy away from the Channel. The combined Franco-Spanish force would then travel back to the Channel where they would link up with the Brest and Ferrol forces.

The Toulon fleet was led by Villeneueve, the Spanish admirals were Ignatio Maria D’Aliva and Baltazar Hidalgo Cisneros.

This mighty assemblage would break the blockade their and support an invasion flotilla from Boulogne; to transport Napoleon’s 93,000-strong Armée d’Angleterre.

The first bit of the plan went well. Nelson’s ships had been on station hoping to lure out the French fleet in Toulon but they were temporarily blown off station by a storm. The blockaded fleet managed to escape in part because Nelson assumed their objective would be Egypt.

Villeneuve instead turned west and passed out through the Straits of Gibraltar. He linked up with the Spanish fleet and set off across the Atlantic, once there it launched several attacks on British possessions in the Caribbean. When Villeneuve learned that Nelson had followed him across the Atlantic he broke off and headed back to the Channel as planned.

En route towards Brest, Villeneuve’s 27 ships were chased all the way by Nelson’s fleet. But Nelson naturally assumed he was heading towards the Mediterranean and so steered too far to the south to catch up with him.

Villeneuve’s fleet did however meet up with another British fifteen-ship fleet and they engaged; the Battle of Cape Finisterre. Action started so late in the day and visibility soon became an issue. When Villeneuve lost two Spanish ships to the inferior force he decided they should divert to Ferrol.

Napoleon’s ploy did succeed in that the British had now virtually stripped its Channel resources dry by sending 20 ships to Cádiz to blockade the combined fleet there. The French fleet in Brest then made an attempt to leave port but this proved unsuccessful.

Villeneuve was ordered by Napoleon to join up with the Brest force and he put to sea. When he spotted a French fleet emerging from Rochefort to join him, he mistakenly thought this was the British fleet and hurried away south to Cádiz.

This ensured the invasion of Britain was stymied. Napoleon accepted it was over and ordered the troops, assembled at Boulogne for the invasion, to march south towards Austria.

Nelson arrived off Cádiz with HMS Victory to take command of a moveable feast of resources as the British ships broke off to be resupplied or reallocated.

Napoleon, with new objectives, now ordered Villeneuve’s fleet to Naples to land reinforcements for his troops there. Villeneuve and his senior officers talked about this order and they initially seemed to conclude on inaction. Villeneuve was only stirred into action when he learned he was to be removed from his command; though to save face he suggested to his team that his change of mind was because he had received intelligence that six of the British ships had put in to Gibraltar to be resupplied.

Villeneuve had 33 ships of the line including some of the largest that existed at the time, but after years of being blockaded the experience and skill of his sailors had been much depleted. Nelson had 27 ships at his behest. Villeneuve had 30,000 men and 2,568 cannon, Nelson just 18,000 men but 2,148 cannon.

Villeneuve’s fleet was slow to emerge from Cádiz and also slow to assume its planned formation. When he heard of the size of the British force facing him he tried to return to port but was intercepted off Cape Trafalgar.

Nelson had painted his ships in a yellow and black check so that in any mêlée they would be easily identifiable. He also employed an unorthodox approach, driving two lines into the crescent formation of the Franco-Spanish fleet, dissecting them into three groups and interfering with their communications.

The Battle of Trafalgar was fought in light winds and the British tactic had good fortune because the gunnery skills displayed by Villeneuve’s ships proved very poor.

Nelson prevailed, capturing twenty-two ships while losing none of his own. However a subsequent storm did see a number of ships sink from their battle-damage. During that storm several small British prize crews were also overwhelmed by the Franco-Spanish who recover several of their ships in this manner. A group of French ships also regrouped and mounted a rearguard to recapture further ships.

A fortnight later four French ships that had escaped from the battle to the north, heading for Rochefort, were lured into chasing a British frigate. But at Cape Ortegal they encountered a fleet of five British ships which harried them until they surrendered.

So the final count was two of the Franco-Spanish fleet lost at Finisterre, twenty-one at Trafalgar and the subsequent storm, four more taken at Ortegal – 27 out of 33 ships had at one stage or other been lost. This major defeat and the ongoing blockade of its ports effectively destroyed any confidence in a French and/or Spanish naval capability.

The British recorded some 450 deaths (including that of Nelson himself) and 1,200 wounded. The Franco-Spanish force suffered over 3,000 deaths, 2,500+ injured and some 8,000 captured, close to 50% of its original force.

Villeneuve had been captured and was taken to England where he was allowed to live in Hampshire with 200 of his men under parole. He was invited to and attended Nelson’s funeral. Released in late 1805 he returned to France and sought to resume his military career without success. In 1806 his body was found in the Hotel de la Patrie in Rennes with seven stab wounds; the official verdict was suicide!

Nelson’s death – Nelson was hit by a French marksman from the Redoubtable, the shot hitting him in the left shoulder and passing through his spine. He was carried beneath decks, placing a handkerchief over his face so as not to alarm the crew. He took three hours to die but used the time to regularly dispense advice.

His body was placed in a cask of brandy then at Gibraltar transferred in to a lead-lined coffin filled with distilled wine for return to England. ‘The Times’ reported ‘The country has gained the most splendid and decisive victory that has ever graced the naval annals of England; but it has been dearly purchased’.

His funeral was attended by the Prince of Wales and his brothers, tens of admirals and hundreds of captains. The cortege was escorted by 10,000 soldiers to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Some forty years later he and the battle were commemorated by the creation of London’s Trafalgar Square and the erection of Nelson’s column.

Forward to Land battles – Back to Third Coalition
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014