The battle of Trafalgar, hour by hour: what happened and why did Britain win?

Admiral Nelson spent 10 months hunting the French fleet. Finally, as it left Cadiz, he had his chance to destroy forever Napoleon's hopes of invading Britain. Tim Clayton describes the dramatic clash between 60 warships when in October 1805 the two sides met at last

A painting by Louis Philippe Crepin depicting the battle of Trafalgar, 1805. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Trafalgar was fought against a background of fear. An eight-year struggle with revolutionary France had ended in 1802 but war had broken out again in 1803. The undefeated French General Napoleon Bonaparte had been building up forces and constructing barges on the Channel coast. Spain reluctantly entered the war as an ally of France late in 1804. By spring 1805 Napoleon, newly crowned Emperor, had his Armée d’Angleterre poised for conquest. He launched an elaborate plan to lure British ships to the West Indies before massing his fleet in the Channel. The admiral entrusted with the operation, Pierre Villeneuve, succeeded in losing Nelson, then fought an inconclusive battle with a British squadron sent to intercept him off northern Spain.

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Judging his ships too frail to continue on to Boulogne where Napoleon was waiting impatiently, Villeneuve fell back on Vigo and then to the Spanish naval base of Cadiz, a strongly fortified harbour where the fleet might be refitted. His decision was influenced by Admiral Gravina, his more experienced Spanish colleague, who had secret orders forbidding him from taking part in an invasion of Britain. Furious at the admiral’s failure to appear, Napoleon decided to strike instead against the Austrians and Russians who had made an alliance with Britain. In late August he commenced a lightning march that culminated in the tremendous French victory at Austerlitz on 2 December.

By 28 September, when Nelson took command of the British fleet blockading Cadiz, the threat of immediate invasion no longer existed. Villeneuve’s fleet received new orders to sail into the Mediterranean. Even at Cadiz men and supplies were hard to find and it was October before the ships were ready to leave. Villeneuve knew that the Emperor was displeased with him and rumours of his imminent replacement had reached the press. However, the Spanish view and that of the French officers was to wait behind the defences of Cadiz, until bad weather provided an opportunity to put to sea without fighting.

Watching and waiting

Nelson withdrew his fleet towards the Portuguese coast, leaving an advance squadron of frigates to watch Cadiz, and a chain of ships to pass their signals to him. Nelson expected the French and Spanish fleet to come out when the weather broke and urged maximum vigilance. If there was to be a battle, he had a plan and he explained it to all his captains over dinner on 29 and 30 September.

Battle tactics of the 150 years prior to Trafalgar concentrated on “the line”. Ships of the line, large warships well-armed with guns down each side but vulnerable on bow and stern, would be arranged in line to stand and fight the enemy’s line by firing broadsides. Breaking the enemy’s line was becoming a standard British tactic. In the simplified version of Nelson’s plan employed on the day, the fleet fought in two divisions, one under Nelson, the other under Collingwood.

A portrait of British Admiral Lord Collingwood. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A portrait of British Admiral Lord Collingwood. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Collingwood was at liberty to direct his own ships within the guidelines of the general plan. The divisions would approach in column in order to conceal the point of attack. To further confuse the enemy Nelson would probably steer for the foremost enemy ships. Then, using a signal created for the occasion, he would instruct Collingwood to manoeuvre into line abreast to attack the rear 12 ships of the enemy line. Each ship would seek to pass the stern of its opponent, raking her and then engaging from the leeward (the side furthest from the wind). Having led the enemy vanguard (or van, ships at the front of the line) to expect an attack, Nelson would actually break the line close to the centre, where he expected the enemy admiral to be. He had powerful three-deckers massed at the front of his line. Collingwood’s leading ships were also heavily armed. Together, Nelson and Collingwood would destroy the centre and rear of the enemy before the van could intervene to save them.

These complex evolutions would show off the skill of the British seamen, whilst employing it to devastating effect. To minimise the time during which the approaching ships took enemy fire without being able to reply, the British would attack under full sail. Everything would be done at top speed.

Why did Britain win at Trafalgar?

The main reason why the British fleet won was the superior training and discipline of the crews. They had been at sea for years and most had been together in the same ship for at least two years. They knew their drills and worked as a team. While most French and Spanish ships had recent experience at sea and in battle, some Spanish ships had inexperienced crews who had only served together for a few weeks. There was no shortage of skilled seamen in British ships to make the instant corrections to speed and direction that enabled the ship to manoeuvre into an advantageous position. Nearly every duel involving manoeuvre during the battle was won by the British. The sole clear exception was the French Pluton’s victory over Mars.

Having got into a position where more guns could be brought to bear, British gunnery was usually more effective. The rate of fire of most British crews was probably superior and they also had technical advantages. The casting of their guns and quality of their powder were both better. Fewer guns blew up and shot went faster. Most British ships were relatively heavily armed compared with their opponents. The replacement of long guns with heavy-calibre carronades on the quarterdeck, poop and forecastle of British ships gave them a great advantage in close range killing power.

Finally, despite the weather, Nelson’s plan worked. Dumanoir was confused and the centre and rear were overwhelmed before the van could intervene.

The race to engage the enemy

On 2 October Nelson sent six of his best ships to Gibraltar for supplies. This proved the catalyst. Villeneuve’s latest information told him that Nelson had only 21 ships, giving the Franco-Spanish 33 an advantage that might be enough to balance their inferior training. With his honour impugned by accusations of cowardice and a hint from his friend Marine Minister Decrès that he should act fast, Villeneuve put to sea before his replacement arrived from Paris.

Warned by his scouts, Nelson raced towards the Strait of Gibraltar, reaching it well ahead of the enemy whose favourable wind had faded away. The next day was rough, but the British frigates maintained contact while the fleet moved out to sea. At dawn on 21 October the British saw the Combined Fleet eleven miles away, approaching Cape Trafalgar and still heading for the Strait. During the night the wind had dropped away to almost nothing, and Nelson’s plan became much more dangerous, his ships advancing at walking pace being vulnerable to enemy fire for much longer. Nelson weighed up the odds, reckoning the westerly swell and the smoke of their own guns would reduce the accuracy of enemy gunnery. The country wanted an annihilating victory; Admiral Calder, who had fought Villeneuve in July, was court martialled for not pressing home his attack. Nelson decided he must fight. It was apparent to all that the leading ships would inevitably take heavy punishment. Nelson and Collingwood both chose to lead their divisions, setting an example to any captains who might now think that the plan had become too hazardous.

Villeneuve anticipated that Nelson would attempt to break his line in more than one place and isolate groups of ships. He ordered 21 ships – to match Nelson’s strength – to form a defensive line of battle in close order, to absorb the shock of Nelson’s attack. Admiral Gravina, with 12 of the best ships, was to intervene wherever he thought most effective. With a shortage of skilled seamen and a surfeit of good soldiers Villeneuve intended to fight at even closer quarters than Nelson. His men had been trained to clear enemy decks and then board, turning the sea battle into a land battle. In this manner Rome had defeated the superior seamen of Carthage.

Villeneuve’s first disquieting observation was that Nelson had 26 ships, not the 21 he had hoped for. One more, Africa, was approaching from the north, having got lost during the night. For tight manoeuvre lack of wind was even more of a problem for his own inexperienced seamen than it was for the British. The ships had great difficulty getting to their place in the line: there were gaps and overlaps. Seeing Nelson apparently threatening his rear, Villeneuve ordered the fleet to veer round, so that it now faced towards Cadiz. This created even more confusion in the line, especially in what was now the rear, where Gravina’s freedom to act was compromised by the entanglement of his ships with the rear of the line of battle. Gravina may have sought to use one of his two squadrons to extend the line to match Nelson’s while doubling up with the second, but the result was so confused that it is difficult to work out what he had in mind.

The battle: hour by hour

6.00 am At dawn the British see the enemy fleet 11 miles away. Nelson signals his ships to form in column and sail first east north east, then east.
 
8.45 am Villeneuve, commander of the French and Spanish Combined Fleet, has countered the threat to his rear by reversing direction. Collingwood signals to get into a line of bearing since lack of wind will stop them forming line abreast later. Nelson heads towards the enemy van, concealing his final point of attack.
 
11.45 am Villeneuve hoists his flag and orders his ships to open fire. As Victory comes under fire she replies and then changes course to starboard, running down the enemy line towards the centre. Unable to see through the smoke, Dumanoir, Villeneuve’s second-in-command, assumes the assault is still directed at him.
 
12.10 pm Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign breaks the line astern of Spain’s Santa Ana. Admiral Collingwood has broken the line too far forward, giving his ships more opponents than Nelson intended.
 
12.45 pm Victory passes the stern of France’s Bucentaure and collides with her Redoutable, punching a hole that is exploited by Britain’s Neptune and the ships following. In a neat manoeuvre Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror deliver successive raking broadsides through Bucentaure’s stern.
 
1.15 pm Nelson is shot by a musketeer on Redoutable and is carried below mortally wounded. The French crew masses on deck to storm aboard Victory, but the British Téméraire, out of control, collides with Redoutable. Grape and cannister from her carronades and 18-pounders massacre the French crew.
 
1.30 pm Most of Bucentaure’s guns have been knocked over or masked by fallen rigging. Villeneuve signals to his van ships to turn round. He tries to sail from danger but the ship will not respond. He finds all the boats shattered by shot. He surrenders a quarter of an hour later.
 
1.45 pm Dumanoir finally orders his ships to turn back. In the light winds they have difficulty reversing direction and it is half an hour before Captain Hardy on Victory responds with a signal to Nelson’s ships to come to the wind on the port tack.
 
2.20 pm About this time enemy ships Santísima Trinidad, Redoutable, Fougueux, Santa Ana, Algésiras and Monarca all surrender. The battle in the centre is clearly going in favour of the British. Admiral Gravina, who leads the Spanish fleet, is wounded.
 
3.00 pm Belleisle, the only British ship in serious danger of defeat, is rescued. Argonauta (Spanish), Swiftsure (French), and Bahama (Spanish) surrender. The area to the rear of centre is collapsing.
 
4.30 pm Another six ships have surrendered. Dumanoir ceases fire and steers away towards the Straits of Gibraltar; Gravina hoists signal for ships to follow him and makes for Cadiz. According to Victory’s log this was when Nelson died.
 
5.30 pm Intrépide (French) and Neptuno (Spanish) have surrendered. France’s Achille blows up.
 

The advance into battle

Once Villeneuve had reversed order, Collingwood found himself, as intended, opposite the enemy rear. Realising that in very light wind the dramatic showpiece evolution into line abreast was impossible Collingwood signalled his captains to form a line of bearing, effectively producing a diagonal row of ships facing forwards. It was a very ragged line: the ships approached in groups, moving as fast as they could. Slower ships were left behind, while one or two may not have been moving quite so swiftly as they should.

As Collingwood raced ahead, Nelson led his roughly formed column towards the enemy van. Most crews took some form of early lunch. At 11.45 with Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign within close range, Villeneuve ordered his ships to open fire and hoisted his flag, finally revealing his position. Collingwood’s leading ships took heavy fire as they came in. Nelson continued to steer towards Admiral Dumanoir, commander of the Franco-Spanish van. Some time after his own ship came under fire he replied with his starboard (the right side looking forward) broadside, then he turned his ship towards Villeneuve’s and sailed down the enemy line towards him, gradually closing with it. Successive British ships, including the approaching Africa maintained Dumanoir’s impression that he was under attack.

'The battle of Trafalgar' by William Clarkson Stanfield, c1840. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
‘The battle of Trafalgar’ by William Clarkson Stanfield, c1840. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Soon after midday Collingwood broke the line and took on the Spanish three-decker Santa Ana. Since this was not the 12th but the 16th ship from the rear, he gave the captains following a tougher task than had been intended. Belleisle broke through and was surrounded by several ships. Mars was prevented from breaking the line and then disabled by France’s Pluton, her captain killed. But the leading ships held out. Eventually, as more British ships joined the untidy melee, they overwhelmed the enemy, capturing or driving off the French and Spanish ships.

Victory had taken severe casualties and was barely under control when she passed the French flagship Bucentaure and collided with Redoutable, punching a hole in the line. Neptune led Leviathan and Conqueror through the gap and they completed the destruction of the French flagship and the mighty Spanish Santísima Trinidad. The battle between Victory and Redoutable was typical of several close fights. Redoutable’s men cleared Victory’s decks with grenades and small arms fire. Nelson was one of the last officers to fall; unlike luckier colleagues, he was fatally wounded. A ball fired from the mizen top lodged in his spine and for three hours he lay dying, his lungs filling with blood. Having cleared Victory’s top deck, Redoutable’s crew massed to board but at that moment the British ship Téméraire crashed into Redoutable’s other side; a volley from her 32-pounder carronades massacred the French crew. Dumanoir turned his ships too late. In the light winds they had great difficulty going about. Those that tried to save their admiral were cut off and defeated. Dumanoir sheered off towards Gibraltar, while the wounded Gravina led those ships that could escape back to Cadiz. Towards sunset the French ship Achille blew up, bringing the battle to a close.

Collingwood now commanded 44 ships, many riddled with holes and with no masts. He had 10,000 prisoners, many wounded. A strengthening wind was blowing towards a rocky shore and the barometer was plummeting. Nelson had ordered the ships to anchor but Collingwood cancelled this. By morning they were strung out in deteriorating weather. In the afternoon one prize sank and one drove ashore. Three French ships were recaptured and several Spanish ships headed for Cadiz, British prize crews combining with the Spanish or French to keep the ships afloat.

On 23 October the French and Spanish sallied from Cadiz and recovered Santa Ana and Neptuno. Algésiras, Aigle and Bucentaure also escaped, though Bucentaure was wrecked off Cadiz. Collingwood took the ships he had with him north to meet them, but they returned to Cadiz. That night in Cadiz Bay fierce gusts of winds dismasted three ships and drove two ashore. Collingwood feared that more prizes might escape. Most of the ships were now in relatively safe open water to the north of Cadiz but some were anchored dangerously close to the shore south of Chipiona. Collingwood decided to take the men off the remaining prizes and then sink them. British crews went out in boats in towering seas to take their erstwhile enemies from ships that were, in several cases, just about to founder.

The storm reached its height on the night of 24 October and continued at fearsome intensity for more than 24 hours. The French Indomptable sank in Cadiz Bay with around 1,000 drowned. Five more ships were wrecked on shore. The storm caused almost as many deaths as the battle. The Britons who survived the wreck of their prize were treated with generosity by the local population, who were shocked by the scale of the disaster and grateful to the British for their efforts in saving lives. The Spanish predicted the destruction of the British fleet. It is a tribute to British seamanship that none of these ships foundered. In the end the British brought four badly damaged prizes into Gibraltar, but the storm completed the work of the battle and the enemy fleet was more or less destroyed.

Historian and writer Tim Clayton is co-author, with Phil Craig, of Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm (Hodder and Stoughton, 2004)

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This article was first published in the October 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine