While patrolling off Cadiz, Nelson invited his captains to dinner with him on two occasions to explain to them his plan for the coming battle. The prevailing tactics of the day were that both sides would approach the enemy in a single line of battle and then engage in parallel lines exchanging broadsides, this system also made it easier for an Admiral to control the fleet by signals that could be relayed from ship to ship. This system also allowed a fleet to break off an action and escape if they were being overpowered. Nelson proposed that his attack should be made in two lines approaching the enemy at right angles and cutting their line in three pieces surrounding each third and forcing them to fight to the end. He knew that in a general melee his superior seamanship and gunnery would prevail. This move would also isolate the front portion of the enemy line that would need some time to turn and reform before coming to aid their comrades. He further ordered that all of his fleet be painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern to make them easier to distinguish from their opponents.
The one drawback was that, while approaching the enemy, only his forward guns could bear on them while they, in return, could aim full broadsides at his oncoming ships. Against conventional thinking and in order to minimise this danger he ordered his captains to make all available sail on their approach to the enemy. He gambled that with a heavy swell running and with inexperienced French and Spanish crewmen manning the enemy guns, he could be in among them before they could inflict much damage. He also knew that few plans survived contact with the enemy and wished his captains free of hampering rules, stating that, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy”.
Villeneuve’s ships, partly through poor seamanship and partly through the reluctance of some captains to leave port, took most of the 20th October to form up in three columns and head for the Straits of Gibraltar. That evening the fleet sighted eighteen British ships in pursuit and Villeneuve ordered his ships into single file. The following morning, Nelson’s fleet of 27 ships of the line and four frigates were sighted, causing Villeneuve to again order his ships into columns of three, but shortly after, he changed his mind yet again and ordered them back into single file causing confusion and leaving the fleet in a sprawling uneven formation. Villeneuve panicked and ordered the fleet to turn about and return to Cadiz, this manoeuvre reversing the order of the line and placed the rear division under Rear Admiral Pierre Pelley in the vanguard and the whole Franco/Spanish fleet strung out in an uneven five mile line.
As Nelson approached, he knew that he was outnumbered and outgunned, facing an enemy of some 30,000 men and 2,568 guns against his own 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. He was confident however in his officers and men and at 11.45 am, ordered John Pasco, his signaller to send the famous signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”. This was not the original message that Nelson intended to send. Here, in Pasco’s own words, is the conversation with the Admiral. “Mr Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY,” adding,” you must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action”. Pasco replied, ” If your lordship will permit me to substitute expects for confides, the signal will sooner be completed” His lordship replied in haste and with seeming satisfaction, “That will do Pasco, make it directly”.
As the ragged Franco/Spanish fleet sailed north, Nelson’s ships approached in two columns, the first headed by himself in the Victory and the second commanded by Admiral Colingwood in Royal Sovereign who, as the two forces closed, said to his officers, “Now Gentlemen, let us do something today that the world may talk of hereafter”.
Nelson’s two columns now closed on the enemy at right angles, Royal Sovereign having recently had her bottom cleaned, was the fastest and as she approached the enemy line, she came under fire from their combined guns until she broke their line just astern of the Spanish flagship Santa Ana and raked her with a devastating double shotted broadside. The next ship in Colingwood’s line, the Belleisle was not so fortunate, engaged by four enemy ships she was dismasted, unable to manoeuvre and with her broken sails blinding the gunners, largely unable to fight, but kept her flag flying for 45 minutes until the following British ships came to her rescue.
As Victory drew close she came under heavy fire from the French ships Heros, Neptune, and Redoutable, and the Spanish Santisima Trinidad, killing and wounding a number of her crew and destroying the ship’s wheel so that she had to be steered from her tiller belowdecks. The next fusillade tore through a detachment of eight marines on the poop deck, killing them all. With shot, chain and canister flying around, Nelson, in his full Admiral’s uniform, stood with Captain Hardy on the quarter deck directing the action. His secretary, John Scott, standing beside him was cut in two by a cannonball as he spoke to Hardy whose shoe was struck by a splinter tearing off the buckle and causing Nelson to remark,” This is too warm work to last for long”. Victory was unable to return fire for some 40 minutes before she finally broke the enemy line between Villeneuve’s flagship Beaucentaure and Redoutable. As she crossed the rear of Redoutable, she fired a devastating broadside through her stern, killing and wounding more than 200 men on her gun decks.
Villeneuve, fearing that he was about to be boarded, rallied his men, shouting that he would throw the Eagle of his ship onto Victory, “and we will take it back from there”. Nelson however, aimed his ship at the damaged Redoutable, leaving Villeneuve’s ship to be dealt with by the next three ships of the British line, Temeraire, Conqueror and Neptune. With the enemy line now split in three parts, more and more British ships entered the battle and began to surround and gradually overwhelm the rear and centre sections of the enemy. Broadsides were now being exchanged at point blank range causing terrible damage to both ships and men. The two sides used different strategies in their cannon fire, the British favouring solid roundshot, firing when the roll of the ship depressed the angle of the cannon and causing the shot to breech the enemy’s hull with shattering force and attempting to sink her. The French made more use of chainshot and barshot, aiming when the ships roll elevated the guns so that their fire destroyed the masts and rigging of the enemy, after which they would board and capture their prey.
The conditions on the gun decks of both fleets were horrendous, with red hot cannonballs crashing through the solid oak bulwarks, splintering the wood and causing terrible injuries to the crew. These decks were often painted red, thought by many to minimise and disguise the effect on the living of blood splashes from the dead and wounded, but more likely because red ochre paint was cheap and, above all, waterproof. The orlop deck, where the ships surgeon and his assistants tended the wounded and dying, was however painted red for the reason given in the first instance.
As the battle increased in ferocity, Nelson’s ship closed and locked masts with the Redoutable. The crew of the French ship included a large contingent of infantry who gathered for an attempt to board Victory and it was at this moment that a French sniper perched on Redoutable’s mizzen mast, fired his musket at Nelson, the ball striking him on the left shoulder and shattering his spine. He remained conscious and was lifted to his feet by two seamen. Victory’s captain rushed to him and Nelson is reported to have said, “They’ve done for me at last Hardy, My backbone is shot through”.
He was carried below to the surgeon, but it was obvious that little could be done for him. Nelson himself described his symptoms as “a gush of blood every minute within his breast”. Sending the surgeon away to tend the other wounded he said, “You can do nothing for me now”. Nelson called for Hardy and asked, “How goes the battle?, to which Hardy replied that between 12 and 14 enemy ships had been captured. Nelson went on to ask whether any of his own ships had struck their colours and had to be reassured that none had surrendered to the enemy. An hour later, Hardy returned to tell Nelson that the battle was over and Nelson replied, “Now I am satisfied, Thank God I have done my duty”.
Meanwhile on Redoutable’s deck, the crew were preparing to board the Victory when the Temerraire approached from the starboard side and fired a massive carronade, decimating the attackers. So fierce had been the fighting that out of a crew of 643 on Redoutable at the start of the battle, only 99 were alive or uninjured and the ship surrendered. Victory and Temerraire then turned their attentions to the Bucentaure and the giant Santisima Trinidad who both surrendered after a short fight.
The front section of the enemy fleet, led by Rear Admiral Pelley, so far unscathed and seeing their comrades being overwhelmed, decided that discretion was the better part of valour and sailed away intending to make for their original destination of Naples, but on the 4th November were found by a British squadron and all were captured at the ensuing battle of Cape Ortegal.
The British had won a decisive victory, had captured 22 ships and had lost none. 458 British sailors were killed and 1208 wounded, against Franco/Spanish losses of 3243 killed and 2538 wounded. French and Spanish naval might had been smashed and the victory guaranteed Britain’s control of the oceans for the next 150 years. Napoleon, abandoning dreams of invasion, turned his attention to Russia.