Crossin’ da T with Horatio Nelson,
In September of 1805, Europe was under the control of Napoleon Bonaparte and heavily blockaded by the British Royal Navy. With Britain’s mastery of the sea, it was hope that the French could be starved into economic submission. However Napoleon controlled both the French and Spanish fleets. In that month, he ordered ships from both fleets to combine into one large armada, which he intended to use to break the blockade, allowing for troops to be moved in and out of Spain.
Seeing the buildup of French and Spanish ships, Admiral Horatio Nelson gathered as many ships as he could to counter the French threat. The combined Franco Spanish fleet consisted of 41 warships, Nelson’s fleet only consisted of 33. Worse yet, the ships of the Franco Spanish fleet were the largest in Napoleon’s navy. Many of the ships comprising of Nelson’s fleet were outclassed. While it is often unwise to attack when outnumbered and outgunned, Nelson had a bold plan to gain the edge over the French.
In traditional naval warfare of the age, ships form a battle line and fought broadside to broadside with the enemy. Nelson utilized a new tactic called “crossing the T”. While Nelson was not the first naval tactician to “cross the T”, he is certainly credited as being the master T crosser who revolutionized 19th century naval warfare. When crossing the T, rather than engaging the broadside to broadside, a fleet forms a battle line but crosses through the enemy fleet in a perpendicular fashion. The advantage of this is that the enemy cannot bring his broadside guns to bear against the attacking fleet, while at the same the attacking fleet can bring all of their broadside guns against the defenders.
On October 21st, 1805 Nelson order an all out assault on the Franco Spansh fleet off the coast of Trafalgar. It was then that the Franco Spanish fleet set sail from port, sailing north in a battle line. Nelson approached the fleet with two perpendicular battle lines, thus crossing the T of the Franco Spanish fleet at two points. This divided the Franco Spanish fleet into three sections. The first third of the fleet ended up being cut off from the rest, being unable to turn around due to prevailing winds and currents. This part of the fleet continued sailing north, and would play no further part in the battle. The middle section of the fleet ended up being sandwiched between Nelson’s two battle lines. Forced between a rock and a hard place, the middle section had no choice but to surrender or be blown to pieces. Finally, the final third of the fleet had no choice but to sail north into the maelstrom, again due to prevailing winds and currents. It too faced a heavy pounding until it could either escape of surrender.
The Battle of Trafalgar was a resounding victory for Nelson and the British Navy. During the battle, the Franco Spanish fleet had lost 22 of its 41 ships. The Royal Navy lost no ships, however Nelson himself was mortally wounded during the fighting. The Battle of Trafalgar was Britain’s resounding victory during the Napoleonic Wars, securing British naval dominance over the world for decades to come. As for Napoleon, the French and Spanish fleets would never pose a threat to Britain and her allies again.