The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on the 21st of October 1805 off Cape Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, between the combined fleets of Spain and France and the Royal Navy. It was the last great sea action of the period and its significance to the outcome of the war in Europe is still debated by historians.
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In 1805 under Napoleon, the French were the dominant military power on the European continent, while the British controlled the seas. The British, during the course of the war, managed to impose a naval blockade on France. This blockade both affected French trade and had the effect of keeping the French from fully mobilizing their own naval resources. Although there were a number of occasions when French naval ships evaded the blockade, they were never able to fully exploit this or inflict a major defeat on the British.
The British control of the seas also enabled them to attack French interests at home and abroad with relative ease. When the Napoleonic war broke out in 1803, after the short lived Peace of Amiens, Napoleon Bonaparte was determined to invade Britain. To do this he had to ensure that the Royal Navy would be unable to disrupt the invasion flotilla while the invasion was in progress. This would require the French fleet to control the English Channel. At that time, there were major French fleets in Brest in Brittany and Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. Other ports on the French Atlantic coast had smaller but not insignificant squadrons. In addition, France and Spain were now allied so the Spanish fleet based in CÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡diz was also available. Napoleon’s plan was for the French and Spanish fleets in the Mediterranean and CÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡diz to break through the blockade and combine in the West Indies. Then they would return and assist the fleet in Brest emerge and in combination clear the English Channel of Royal Navy ships and ensure a safe passage for the invasion barges.
Early in 1805, Admiral Lord Nelson was commanding the British fleet blockading Toulon. Unlike Cornwallis, who commanded the Channel Fleet’s tight blockade of Brest, Nelson adopted a loose blockade in the hope of luring the French fleet into leaving port. Nelson hoped to then engage the French in a major battle and so too, destroy them. However, the danger of this tactic was that the French would emerge and evade Nelson’s forces and so be free. This is what occurred. Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve’s ships sailed when Nelson’s forces were blown off their station by storms.
While Nelson was searching for them in the Mediterranean, Villeneuve passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, rendezvoused with the Spanish fleet and sailed according to plan to the West Indies. Once Nelson realised that the French had evaded him and crossed the Atlantic Ocean, he abandoned his station in the Mediterranean and pursued them. This was typical of his attitude that the leader on the spot could make the best decisions. In the West Indies, the French fleet again evaded Nelson’s forces; on one occasion, they passed close to each other but without detection by either side.
The French sailed for Europe to break the blockade at Brest but after an encounter with a squadron under Admiral Sir Robert Calder which resulted in the capture of two Spanish ships, Villeneuve decided not to try and join the fleet in Brest and sailed back to CÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡diz where he was blockaded by a small British squadron under Admiral Collingwood. Nelson’s forces followed the French back and joined Collingwood to enforce the blockade of CÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¡diz. Nelson returned to England for a short time before sailing to join Collingwood and assuming command of the blockading forces. Nelson wanted to bring the Combined Fleet to battle so most of the British fleet remained at sea out of sight of land with only a few frigates close inshore to monitor the fleet’s movements.