Nelson joined the British fleet off Cadiz in late September. His very presence electrified the men under his command, while his new battle plan, explained at his table on HMS Victory, was key to decisive combat. If the enemy put to sea Nelson wanted to be able to annihilate them completely, ending the need for Britain to stand on the defensive.
At dawn on the 21st the fleets were in visual contact. Nelson's fleet was formed into two columns, for a risky head-on approach that exposed the unarmed bows of his leading ships to the full weight of enemy broadsides. He knew a storm was coming, and he had to engage the enemy quickly.
He was to lead the first column into the attack and destroy the enemy flagship, leaving his opponents, leaderless and confused, to be destroyed by the second column, led by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood
>>562500 As his vessels approached their enemy, Nelson walked around his flagship, talking with the crew - having sent the immortal signal 'England expects that every man will do his duty' to the fleet. All his men cheered this example of courage and confidence that they had but to follow.
As Victory bore down on the enemy line she had to endure heavy fire from the allied line, without being able to reply. Round shot came smashing through the flimsy bow of the ship, killing and wounding the men on the upper deck. John Scott, Nelson's Public Secretary, was standing on the quarter deck talking with Captain Thomas Hardy, when a shot cut him in two.
At the start of the battle, when the first British ships arrived, they were initially fighting a far greater number of enemy ships. They won the day because of their speed and flexibility, and by the time they were weakening, a later wave of vessels was in place to administer the coup de grace.
>>562506 At 12.35pm the concave enemy line allowed the Victory to open fire at last, shrouding the ship in smoke. Soon afterwards the Victory ran right under the stern of the French flagship, the Bucentaure, and fired a double shotted broadside that made the enemy ship shudder, and killed or wounded over 200 men. Admiral Villeneuve was the only man left standing on the quarter deck.
The Redoutable then blocked Victory's way through the enemy line, and Nelson was immobilised on a ship fighting three opponents in the middle of the combined fleet - but he had administered the decisive stroke. Villeneuve was trapped on a crippled ship, and the Franco-Spanish centre was reduced to chaos, lacking the leadership to meet the irresistible British.
British casualties tell the story - 12 ships fought the early and decisive phase of the battle, suffering some 1200 deaths and injuries.
Nelson, his work done, continued to walk with Hardy, while the captain of the Redoutable tried to clear Victory's upper deck with musket fire and hand grenades. Then, at about 1.15pm, Nelson was hit by a 0.69in-diameter lead ball, which cut an artery in his lung and lodged in his spine. He was knocked to the deck, and it was clear the wound was mortal.
Meantime the battle raged, with the faster and more effective British gunnery steadily wearing down the enemy. Over the next three hours the Franco-Spanish force would collapse. Nelson's attack had broken all the rules of tactics, treating a fleet waiting for a fight like one running away, substituting speed for mass, precision for weight, and accepting impossible odds.
At 2.15pm Villeneuve surrendered. The genius of his opponent, the power of the Royal Navy and the failure of his lead squadron to come to his aid had doomed his brave effort. He lived to return to France, only to be murdered by Napoleon.
By 2.30pm Hardy was able to go below, to report to Nelson that 12 or 14 of the enemy were taken, and no British ship had surrendered. That last answer betrayed Nelson's anxiety about the outcome of the battle. Hardy, however, could not linger, the lead enemy squadron was belatedly trying to join the battle, only to be bettered by Edward Codrington's brilliantly handled Orion, the Minotaur and the Spartiate. Hardy went back on deck and signalled the ships nearby to support the flagship.
Hardy visited Nelson again at 3.30pm to confirm a glorious victory, but could not satisfy Nelson's determination to have 20 prizes. 'Anchor, Hardy, Anchor!' the dying man demanded, as the rising sea reminded him of his weather forecast.
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