Today marks the 207th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar – perhaps the most noted victory by the Royal Navy in its 400 year history. Fought during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the battle was the result of Napoleon Bonaparte’s efforts to invade Great Britain. Napoleon dispatched a fleet to rendezvous with a Spanish fleet in the Caribbean and then return to France to provide an armed escort for Napoleon’s invasion fleet. The combined French and Spanish fleet numbered 41 ships and was commanded by Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. After the rendezvous in the Mediterranean, the fleet sailed to Cadiz, Spain where they were found by Admiral Horatio Nelson and his 33 ship fleet.
Napoleon had changed his plans for an invasion of Great Britain and decided instead to have Villeneuve sail to the Mediterranean to support his operations there. Eager to engage the enemy, Admiral Nelson kept only a few frigates on station close to Cadiz in order to lure Villeneuve into making a run for the Mediterranean. Sensing an opportunity to break out of Cadiz, Villeneuve ordered his ships to weigh anchor.
Upon receiving the signal that Villeneuve was setting sail, Nelson laid out a daring and audacious plan to his officers in the cabin of his flagship, HMS Victory. Instead of following the traditional tactics of the day and sailing abreast of the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson divided his fleet into two squadrons. Each squadron was to sail perpendicular to Villeneuve’s fleet and slice through their battle line. If successful, the plan would split Villeneuve’s fleet and allow Nelson’s fleet to riddle them with broadsides from both sides.
Before engaging the Franco-Spanish fleet, Nelson ordered the signal “England expects that every man will do his duty” to be raised from the Victory. Nelson’s plan worked brilliantly and before the day was over more than 21 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet had been sunk or captured. Tragically, Nelson paid for his triumph with his life as a French marine mortally wounded him with a musket shot.
Today, Admiral Nelson is honored as one of, if not the, greatest admiral who ever served in the Royal Navy. His statute guards Trafalgar Square in London and the HMS Victory serves as the flagship of the First Sea Lord and as a museum ship alongside the Mary Rose.