Battle of Trafalgar

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Battle of Trafalgar
Painting of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Turner
Painting of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Turner
date October 21, 1805
place in front of Cape Trafalgar , southern Spain
output British victory
Parties to the conflict

United Kingdom 1801United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland United Kingdom

France 1804First empire France Spain
Spain 1785Spain 


United KingdomUnited Kingdom (Naval War Flag) Horatio Nelson Cuthbert Collingwood
United KingdomUnited Kingdom (Naval War Flag)

FranceFrance (national flag of the sea) Pierre de Villeneuve Federico Gravina
Spain 1785Spain

Troop strength
27 ships 33 ships

449 killed,
1,241 wounded

4408 killed
2545 wounded
17 ships handed over

The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Stanfield

The Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805 was a naval battle at Cape Trafalgar between the British and the allied French and Spanish as part of the Third Coalition War . With it began the more than a century of British supremacy at sea. It contributed indirectly to Napoleon's defeat on mainland Europe.

In the course of the battle, the Royal Navy under Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the Franco-Spanish Armada under French Vice Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve . This was supposed to break out of the port of Cádiz, which was blocked by the British, on behalf of Napoleon, in order to support a landing in southern Italy - Napoleon had to give up the planned landing in England shortly before after a failed diversionary maneuver by Villeneuve. The Franco-Spanish fleet suffered a devastating defeat off Trafalgar: the British captured or destroyed 20 enemy ships, including the unique Santissima Trinidad , while not losing a single ship themselves. Nelson fell in battle, but his victory defeated Napoleon's plans to invade the British Isles for good.

Strategic background

Crucial to Napoleon's original plan to invade Great Britain was his fleet, which had to cover the landing of his army and to do so by eliminating or at least distracting the Royal Navy. After Villeneuve had united his fleet in Toulon with the allied Spanish fleet at Cádiz, he was supposed to sail to the West Indies to attack British possessions there and to reinforce the French troops in Martinique , for which an additional 12,000 soldiers were embarked. This was intended to lure part of the Royal Navy away from European waters. It was then planned to turn the combined fleet around and sail to Brest to meet the French Atlantic fleet there. With this force, Napoleon wanted to gain naval supremacy in the Canal in order to secure the planned invasion of Great Britain.

The British tried to prevent this by blocking the ports of Brest and Toulon. On March 30, 1805, however, the French fleet was able to leave Toulon unnoticed, as the British ships were prevented from effectively blocking by adverse winds. As a result, the French ships managed to meet the Spanish fleet off the Spanish coast and cross the Atlantic. The British Mediterranean Fleet under Nelson took up the pursuit, but could not put the enemy to fight. Villeneuve did not take advantage of his maritime domination in the Caribbean, however, but remained almost inactive. He even failed to unload the 12,000 soldiers. His fleet at that time consisted of 19 ships of the line and a few frigates, while Nelson pursued him across the Atlantic with only nine ships of the line and two frigates.

When the latter arrived in Barbados , Villeneuve, despite his overwhelming superiority, was not looking for a decision, but instead fled the Caribbean waters for Europe. However, the British Admiralty sensed Napoleon's plan and ordered Vice Admiral Robert Calder to sail towards the enemy with his ships. This fleet managed to put the numerically superior enemy force on July 22, 1805 off Cape Finisterre to fight. The British captured two Spanish ships before the battle was called off due to poor visibility.

Then Villeneuve succeeded in strengthening his forces with another ten Napoleonic ships of the line that Calder had previously blocked in Ferrol . However, in disregard of Napoleon's orders, he did not sail on to Brest to put the canal fleet to battle, but sought refuge in Cádiz on August 20. Allegedly, Villeneuve was given false information about a superior British fleet in the Bay of Biscay, which is why he ignored the orders and returned to Cadiz. This lost the strategic advantage of the French, because now the Royal Navy immediately blocked the port of Cádiz: initially only with the inferior forces of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood , who were reinforced by Calder's ships on August 30th. Nelson himself initially returned to England, only joined the blockade fleet on September 29 with another three liners and took over command. Nevertheless, the British were just outnumbered by the enemy.

Comparison of the fleets

British ships Cannons Type French ships Cannons Type Spanish ships Cannons Type
Victory 104 Triplane Buccentaure 80 Two-decker Santissima Trinidad 136 Four-decker
Royal Sovereign 100 Triplane Formidable 80 Two-decker Santa Ana 112 Triplane
Britannia 100 Triplane Indomptable 80 Two-decker Principe de Asturias 112 Triplane
Dreadnought 98 Triplane Neptune 80 Two-decker Rayo 100 Triplane
Neptune 98 Triplane Achille 74 Two-decker Neptuno 80 Two-decker
Prince 98 Triplane L'Aigle 74 Two-decker Argonauta 80 Two-decker
Temeraire 98 Triplane Algeciras 74 Two-decker Bahama 74 Two-decker
Tonnant 80 Two-decker Argonaute 74 Two-decker Monarca 74 Two-decker
Achille 74 Two-decker Duguay-Trouin 74 Two-decker Montañes 74 Two-decker
Ajax 74 Two-decker Fougueux 74 Two-decker San Agustin 74 Two-decker
Bellerophon 74 Two-decker Hero 74 Two-decker San Francisco de Asis 74 Two-decker
Colossus 74 Two-decker Intrépid 74 Two-decker San Ildefonso 74 Two-decker
Conqueror 74 Two-decker Mont-Blanc 74 Two-decker San Juan Nepomuceno 74 Two-decker
Defense 74 Two-decker Pluton 74 Two-decker San Justo 74 Two-decker
Defiance 74 Two-decker Redoutable 74 Two-decker San Leandro 64 Two-decker
Leviathan 74 Two-decker Scipion 74 Two-decker
Mars 74 Two-decker Berwick 74 Two-decker
Minotaur 74 Two-decker Swiftsure 74 Two-decker
Orion 74 Two-decker Cornelie 40 frigate
Revenge 74 Two-decker Hermione 40 frigate
Swiftsure 74 Two-decker Hortense 40 frigate
Thunderer 74 Two-decker Rhin (ship) 40 frigate
Belleisle 74 Two-decker Themis 40 frigate
Spartiate 74 Two-decker Furet (ship) 18th Sloop
Africa 64 Two-decker Argus 10 Sloop
Agamemnon 64 Two-decker
Polyphemus 64 Two-decker
Euryalus 36 frigate
Naiad 36 frigate
Phoebe 36 frigate
Sirius 36 frigate
Pickle 10 Sloop
Entreprenant 10 Sloop
to hum
Four-decker - Four-decker - Four-decker 1
Triplane 7th Triplane - Triplane 3
Two-decker 20th Two-decker 18th Two-decker 11
Frigates 4 note Frigates 5 note Frigates -
Sloops 2 note Sloops 2 note Sloops -
Cannons: 2312 Cannons: 1584 Cannons: 1280
Note Frigates and sloops are not included in the number of ships mentioned in the article due to their low combat strength.

Course of the battle

Nelson's flagship HMS Victory in Portsmouth around 1900

Napoleon was appalled by Villeneuve's behavior, which forced him to temporarily abandon the planned invasion of England. So he ordered Villeneuve to sail to Naples to land the 12,000 soldiers who were still embarked. Although Villeneuve received the order on September 28th, he remained inactive. Only when he learned on October 18 that Napoleon wanted to relieve him of his command and that his successor, Vice Admiral François Étienne de Rosily-Mesros , was already on his way, did he become active and let the united Napoleonic navy out of port on October 19, 1805 depart from Cadiz. But because of unfavorable winds and poor navigation, this lasted until noon the following day. His attempt to escape the British blockade failed.

Since the British frigate Sirius had observed the departure of the enemy and immediately reported it to Vice-Admiral Nelson, he was able to work out a battle plan. The previously valid doctrine provided for the heavy ships to be sailed in a battle line parallel to the enemy fleet in order to shoot at them from a distance. In the further development of already successful British maneuvers ( Battle of Les Saintes ), Nelson planned, however, to break through the enemy ship line with two lines of battle from the side vertically. The enemy ships in the center were to be put down in close combat before other ships from the battle line could turn around and rush to help. In addition, the withdrawal should be cut off. Nelson also trusted above all in the better training and greater experience in fighting and navigating on the high seas that his sailors had to show.

On October 21, Nelson hired the 33 French and Spanish ships under Villeneuve's command with only 27 British ships and around 20,000 seafarers (six British ships were not present because they had been assigned to take in fresh water the day before) 40 km south of Cadíz the Strait of Gibraltar to battle. His last diary entry that day before the start of the battle read:

“Monday Oct 21st 1805
At daylight saw the Enemy's Combined Fleet from East to ESE; bore away; made the Signal for Order of Sailing and to Prepare for Battle; the Enemy with their heads to the Southward: at seven the Enemy wearing in succession. May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet. For myself, individually; I commit my life to him who made me, and may his blessing light upon my endeavors for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen, amen, amen. "

“Monday, October 21, 1805. At dawn sighted the enemy's united fleet from east to east-southeast; kept going; gave the signal to adopt the order of battle and prepare for battle; the enemy ran south: at seven the enemy ships halved one after the other. May the great God whom I venerate give my country a great and glorious victory for the good of all of Europe; and may no breach of duty by any man tarnish him; and may humanity be the predominant trait in the British fleet after victory. For me personally, I entrust my life to whoever made me, and may his blessings be upon my efforts to faithfully serve my country. To him I surrender myself and the just cause, the defense of which is entrusted to me. Amen, amen, amen. "

- Horatio Nelson

In order to be able to escape to Cadiz, Villeneuve gave the order to the fleet to turn around at 8 a.m. With the wind weak and the crews inexperienced, the order of the battle was a mess. Some ships pushed forward, others fell back. The maneuver was finally completed at 10 a.m., so that the ships were now on a northbound course. However, there were now large gaps in the ranks. When the two fleets were heading towards each other at a right angle, Nelson sent a flag signal to his own ships at around 11:35 am: “ England expects that every man will do his duty ” (German: “England expects every man to do his duty ").

Contemporary representation of the Trafalgar battle formation.

The command of the southern of the two British lines in Lee ( Lee-Column ) led Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood , the northern line in windward ( Weather Column ) Nelson commanded himself on his flagship , the HMS Victory . Although Villeneuve suspected his maneuver, he did not take any suitable countermeasures, but instead let his fleet sail on in line as the two battle lines of the British approached from the west. The Africa lost contact with the windward line and therefore only approached the enemy from the north. Other ships in Nelson's line also sailed too slowly. But he trusted in the superiority of his plan and unwaveringly continued his attack. As the last signal, he sent signal No. 16 on the Victory, “ Engage the enemy more closely ” (close combat ship to ship).

The Napoleonic fleet opened fire at 11:30 a.m. with the first long-range shots. However, the actual battle did not begin until around 12 noon when the British ships approached the enemy line and finally broke through it. The Royal Sovereign , on which Collingwood had set his flag, was the first to penetrate the enemy line between the Santa Ana and the Fougueux . It fired more than 100 bullets into the stern of the Santa Anna in around a minute, killing or wounding a large part of the crew. Then the Sovereign turned and lay alongside the Santa Anna. At the same time, however, half a dozen enemy ships also opened fire on Colligwood's flagship, which still had to fight alone. A battle was fought with extreme violence: the ships exchanged devastating broadsides and sometimes collided with each other, which led to bitter boarding battles .

HMS Victory in action with several French ships of the line by John Constable (1806)

About twenty minutes later, the Weather-Column with the Victory at its head also reached the line of the Franco-Spanish fleet between the Santissima Trinidad and the Bucentaure in front . The Victory lost her mizzen mast and part of the rigging when the Trinidad was shot at. The northern division also did not quite succeed in breaking through the enemy line. For a long time, the first ships had to fight several ships alone at the same time. The Temeraire pushed into the gap behind the Victory , covering the flagship, which would otherwise have been destroyed. Nelson was looking for the enemy flagship, the Bucentaure , which was not initially marked as such. Only when the Victory pushed past the stern of the Bucentaure and sunk a triple charge at pistol range into the stern of Villeneuve's flagship did the French admiral raise his flag. In addition, he was now signaling to his vanguard, which was undeterred on a northerly course, that they should turn around and come to the rescue. Admiral Dumanoir, who commanded these ships, reacted only with some delay to this order. It is unclear why he did not turn around immediately, but possibly he was concentrating too much on HMS Africa approaching from the north , which was trying to work its way towards the center.

Nelson's battle plan turned out to be a complete success: the French and Spaniards soon found themselves embroiled in bitter hand-to-hand combat and could not withstand the faster and more reliably firing British artillery. As planned, the French vanguard did not manage to rush to the aid of the beleaguered ships in the middle.

The flagship Victory was in the midst of the toughest fighting. Together with the Neptune and the Temeraire , it surrounded the Bucentaure and the Santissima Trinidad . After the French flagship, the Bucentaure , was largely destroyed , the Victory moved towards the Redoutable . As the two ships collided, snipers from the Redoutable's rigging opened fire on the deck of the Victory . Nelson was hit by a ball of musket that pierced his shoulder, lung, and spine at the sixth and seventh thoracic vertebrae and lodged in the muscles of the back two inches below the right shoulder blade. He was brought below deck but remained conscious long enough to receive the news of the overwhelming British victory. A little later, around 4:30 p.m., he died on board the Victory in Captain Thomas Hardy's arms, while Nelson's last wish "Kiss me, Hardy" was fulfilled. Nelson's last words are said to have been “ Thank God I have performed my duty ” (German: “ Thank God I have done my duty”).

Painting of the Battle of Trafalgar by William Turner - The picture shows several successive events of the battle at the same time: Nelson's famous signal blows on the mast of the Victory , in the background the French Achilles burns and in the foreground the redoutable sinks .

Now Collingwood took over command of the British fleet. At about the same time, the French Intrépide approached from the north in the direction of the fighting, but was immediately taken under heavy fire - and shot at the wreck. The other captains dared a rather half-hearted attempt, but then turned away and fled. On the evening of October 21, a large part of the Napoleonic fleet was destroyed or captured; 17 ships fell into the hands of the British as prizes . According to official British figures, the Royal Navy had 449 dead and 1241 wounded, on the Napoleonic side 4408 sailors fell and 2545 were wounded. Villeneuve was taken prisoner along with thousands of his seamen.

A devastating storm shortly after the battle affected many of the already badly damaged ships even more: The British prize crew had to abandon many of them and leave them to sink or run aground, including the Santissima Trinidad . She sank with 150 wounded after the tow was cut. The following day, the Redoutable suffered the same fate. But Collingwood was able to bring all the Royal Navy ships and the remaining four prizes safely to British ports. Most of the remaining ships of the Napoleonic fleet fled back to Cádiz, four ships of the line under Rear Admiral Dumanoir-Pelley made their way to France. In a follow-up battle off Cape Ortegal on November 4th, they too were captured.

The Victory was first towed to Gibraltar ; Nelson's body was in a brandy barrel on board. After their transfer to London , he received a state funeral and was buried in St Paul's Cathedral . Legend has it that the rum that had preserved his body was distributed to the sailors, who invented the name Nelson's Blood for it .

Reasons for the victory of the British fleet

Villeneuve's leadership quality in July / August 1805 has been criticized many times. He did not seem sovereign in those months. It should be noted, however, that he was subordinate to a fleet that could hardly be dangerous to its opponent in the Battle of Trafalgar - despite the numerical superiority of the two allies. His slaughter day decisions were appropriate to the situation, and he had clearly seen Nelson's battle strategy. For example, he signaled to his vanguard to turn around and stab the British in the back. On that day, Villeneuve also generally did everything a military leader could do at the head of an inferior force.

When a British fleet - this time outnumbered by a ratio of 8: 5 - met the German navy in the North Sea in the Battle of the Skagerrak in 1916 , they expected an overwhelming triumph. But their hopes were dashed, because their victory failed to materialize and only something like a draw was achieved. The British drew on the myth spun after the Battle of Trafalgar for about a century. The battle and the circumstances of his death finally sealed Nelson's fame. After that, every British admiral had to measure himself against the myth he had created about himself.


Trafalgar Square with Nelson's Column

The Battle of Trafalgar finally eliminated France's fleet as a rival to the Royal Navy . From then on Napoleon was no longer in a position to endanger the unrestricted maritime rule of Great Britain. He had to give up his plans to invade the British Isles and focus his campaigns on mainland Europe. This led to his campaign against Russia in 1812 , which ended in disaster for his army.

Admiral Nelson was celebrated as a national hero in Great Britain and honored by numerous memorials. The most famous monument is the Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square in central London . In addition, Trafalgar Day became an unofficial holiday to commemorate the victory.

The flagship of the British fleet at the time, the HMS Victory , can now be viewed in the Historic Dockyards of the southern English port city of Portsmouth , where the big 200-year celebration also took place in the summer of 2005. Today, in keeping with British tradition, this ship is still the official flagship of Her Majesty's First Sea Lord .



  • Tim Clayton, Phil Craig: Trafalgar. The men, the battle, the storm. Hodder & Stoughton, London 2004, ISBN 0-340-83026-3 (English).
  • Rene Maine: International Fleet History. Volume 1: From Lepanto to Trafalgar. Stalling TB, Oldenburg 1982, ISBN 3-7979-1894-1 .
  • Alan Schom: Trafalgar. Countdown to Battle 1803-1805. Penguin Books, London 1992, ISBN 0-14-011164-6 (English).

Web links

Commons : Battle of Trafalgar  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Nicholas Harris Nicolas (ed.): The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson. Vol. 7, August to October 1805. Colburn, London 1846, pp. 139-140. Text archive - Internet Archive
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on May 10, 2005 in this version .