What was it like to fight at Trafalgar? How would the modern media report the greatest sea battle of the Georgian era which still resonates today? A victory against all odds which secured the pre-eminence of the Royal Navy and heralded Pax Britannica, Britain’s dominance of the seas for a hundred years; a victory which etched the name of a fallen hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson deep into the nation’s psyche.
Naval combat correspondent John Pretty was embedded with the Fleet, witnessed the action first hand, interviewed Admirals and sailors alike for a unique insight into the strategy of war at sea in the age of sail. These are his eye-witness reports. This is the story of Trafalgar.
With meticulous historical accuracy Roger Busby recreates the build up, the battle and it’s aftermath as if it happened today when correspondents are routinely embedded aboard Royal Navy warships and conflicts are played out on television screens across the nation. A Lieutenant Commander RNR attached for twelve years to the headquarters of the Sea Cadet Corps, junior image of the Senior Service and custodian of the Trafalgar legend, he is uniquely placed to give the epic tale of war at sea a modern setting as a journalist and correspondent for the monthly naval magazine Warships International Fleet Review. With the pace of a thriller, Trafalgar-Dispatches brings the timeless story of an epic sea battle right up to date for an internet generation.
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Cape Trafalgar Southern Spain — Jesus I can hardly breathe. Smoke, black scudding dirty grey flecked with orange from the cannon flashes, just rolls down on us from out of nowhere. Now you can’t distinguish it from the sickly colour of the sea, just the motion of our cutter rising and falling on the long swell is the only sense of movement. The lads are heaving on the oars, sweaty faces ashen, squinting against the stinging gun-smoke, and I can feel the fear in the air writhing out of this choking smoke like a serpent.
Heave and away – steady lads – steady..
That’s the cox’n leaning hard on the tiller, threading us through the tangle of debris all around us now. I can make out shattered spars and rigging, all tangled up, and shredded canvas, washing about in the sea, and we’re crashing through it, and it’s a miracle we’re still afloat. The lads are straining on the oars, willing the boat through this graveyard. Man, it’s hard to believe just a few hours ago this was a clear sunny day with white sails against a blue sky and the only noise the gulls around the masts. Like we’ve been plunged into hell.
Two-six heave and away – two six heave..
I can see spurts of fire through the fog, and muffled thunder, getting closer now, percussions hitting us like dull clapper blows. I reckon we must be in the thick of it by now, not that we’ve been able to get our bearings much since we left the Pickle seems like an age ago.
Steady.. steady now
The cap’n was getting frustrated because we couldn’t see what was going on, so he called for volunteers to take the sea boat over to the Victory and get a SITREP, and I jumped in for the ride, thinking the chance to file a first person piece from the flagship was too good to miss. So here I am, crouched in the bottom boards, just trying to keep a running commentary going for as long as I can, so I don’t miss any of the colour. Only this looks bad, I mean really bad.
That’s the lookout in the bow, and there’s a break in the smoke now, and I can see a ship close by, looks like a black cliff from down here, and I can’t make out — Jesus, a big splinter of mast just came flying past us, and there’s the thump of a carronade going off somewhere up there, shot whistling over us.
AHOY THE SHIP!
That’s the cox’n, yelling at the top of his voice so they don’t shoot at us. Lots of boats get lost to friendly fire, blue on blue, from itchy gunners and we sure as hell don’t want to join them. Just hope this is one of ours. Just got to pull for it, and hope for the best. There’s bits of wood and rope swirling all around us, and we’re going to …Oh boy, that was close, looked like part of the mainmast, all chewed up, hit the water right alongside with a terrific splash, and we shipped scummy green over the side. Oh this is so bad. Now the smoke is clearing, like someone just drew a great big curtain aside, and I can see the hull right on top off us. Hey, good old English warship oak all right, black and ochre. It’s the Victory all right. What– what? Collins, one of our midshipmen is tugging at my sleeve. I can’t hear him over the din from up above, but he’s pointing to an open gun-port just overhead — I can just make out the mouth of the cannon, so they must be firing on the far side, the starboard side and we’ve come up to larboard. I can’t hear him, but I think he wants to jump for the gun-port. I can see a scrambling rope, the cox’n’s bringing us alongside now. I’m on my feet watching the pitch of the boat. Only a couple of yards to go, and I’m grabbing my stuff and thinking shall I jump for it? Weighing the odds. What the hell — I’m going to jump…
Trafalgar, the greatest sea battle of all time, destined along with its charismatic commander to grace the pages of the history books. Trafalgar, the last ditch stand against a rapacious enemy. Just think of it. While you’re having breakfast, a mere twenty miles away across the English Channel Napoleon Bonaparte is consolidating his forces getting ready to invade our shores, and if he succeeds the next knock on your door could be a French grenadier. But before you choke on your cornflakes, all is not lost, not yet anyway, because to get across the Channel his invasion barges need the protection of sea power and right now old Boney’s fleet is bottled up in Cadiz under the watchful eye of the Royal Navy. How do I know that? My name is John Pretty the only combat correspondent “embedded” with the Fleet. And these are my dispatches – this is reporting Trafalgar, up close and personal!
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Navy Blues by John Pretty
Cape Trafalgar – Loitering off the coast of Spain under sun kissed skies and balmy breezes may seem like a holiday cruise, but here on the Royal Navy’s most powerful warship, these languid days on patrol belie a much more serious intent, a deadly game of cat and mouse.
For at any moment the lookout’s cry of "sail ho" could send battle hardened sailors to their guns ready to fight to the death. Strange as it may seem in this tranquil setting of blue seas and endless sky, we are the last line of defence against a cunning and determined enemy pledged to put England to the sword.
Not that this threat lurking just over the horizon in any way dampens the spirit of the gun crews aboard HMS Victory, First Rate Ship of the Line and flagship of the British fleet. Pressed men, landsmen and veteran sailors alike go about their routine duties, dressing sails and working the ship as if they were all on that pleasure cruise. Men like boatswain’s mate Lee Miller squatting on the blanched deck of the forecastle splicing a hawser, the marlin spike dancing a jig in his hands. "I don’t care what they throw at us," he told me with a cheerful grin, "long as the boss is on the quarterdeck we’ll be all right."
The boss of course is Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte in Sicily, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Grand Cross of the Orders of Ferdinand and of Merit and Knight of the Imperial Order of the Crescent, charismatic victor of the battle of the Nile and countless sea duels of outstanding seamanship. This is his flagship, a gun platform of devastating firepower poised to deliver a hammer blow to any aggressor who dares challenge England’s supremacy at sea. This is the might of the Royal Navy personified in one man. And the crews of his fleet, from the career captains to the men so often snatched from the taverns of old England, the Kings shilling pressed into their palms, would follow him into the jaws of hell, so powerful is the myth and legend of this extraordinary seaman, this man of our time whose time has now come.
Dwarfed by the vastness of the C-in-C’s stateroom, The Great Cabin with its sweeping seascape panorama, the diminutive figure of Nelson wearing his battle honours, eye-shade and armless sleeve, pores over a bundle of charts.
"There was a time when I could have had him," he exclaims, the good eye sparking with intensity as he stabs a forefinger into the parchment. "Only dammit, the old fox secured the weather gage and gave me the slip." He is referring to his arch rival the French Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve who ducked and weaved and eventually succeeded in outmanoeuvring the Toulon blockade in March to escape through the Straits and strike out for the West Indies.
French Admiral Pierre Charles Villeneuve
Villeneuve played a key role in the failed execution of Napoleon’s scheme for the invasion of England in 1805. In the autumn of 1804 Napoleon had named Villeneuve commander of the fleet at Toulon. The duty of Villeneuve’s fleet was to draw the British admiral Horatio Nelson’s fleet to the West Indies, return rapidly in secret, and, in combination with other French and Spanish ships, enter the English Channel with an overwhelming naval force for the invasion of England. Villeneuve apparently had little confidence in the success of this operation, but nevertheless he took the command in November. In March 1805 he sailed out of Toulon and succeeded in drawing Nelson after him in a cruise out to the West Indies. Villeneuve’s fleet then returned to Europe in June-July, during which time it fought an indecisive encounter off El Ferrol, Spain, with an English squadron led by Sir Robert Calder.
Villeneuve then turned south to the port of Cádiz, disregarding Napoleon’s standing orders to proceed immediately to the Channel and rendezvous with the other French and Spanish naval forces gathered there. This act of timidity on Villeneuve’s part effectively ended Napoleon’s hopes for an invasion of England while Nelson’s fleet was somewhere else. In Cádiz Villeneuve then received orders to sail his fleet into the Mediterranean for an attack upon Naples, but, while making his preparations, he learned that another officer had been sent to replace him in his command. In a spasm of wounded vanity, he embarked his fleet out of Cádiz to face the waiting fleet of Nelson, and the result was the Battle of Trafalgar of October 1805. Villeneuve’s impulsive decision to leave Cádiz and give battle to Nelson’s better-prepared fleet has been severely criticized.
At Trafalgar Villeneuve showed personal courage, but the incapacity of the Franco-Spanish fleet to maneuver gave him no opportunity to influence the course of the battle, which ended for the French in complete defeat. Villeneuve himself was captured and was taken as a prisoner to England, but he was soon released. Shortly after returning to France he committed suicide at an inn in Rennes, where he had been waiting to learn the extent of the emperor’s displeasure with him.
Text: Britannica Online
Nelson turns and leans on the chart strewn table. "Ah well, the word is his days are numbered, old Boney has lost confidence in his ancient mariner and plans to replace him with that popinjay Rosily, well time will tell, we’ve chased each other’s tails half way around the world so I’ll miss him when he finally swallows the anchor."
A slight frown darkens his brow. "We only have ourselves to blame for the last fiasco. If I’d had the ships I could’ve bottled him in so tight not even a ship’s rat could have got through. But as you know, after the Treaty of Amiens, our masters in their infinite wisdom, decimated the Navy, paid off the ships and imagined we were basking in newfound peace." He gives a bark of rueful laughter, "But the plotters across the channel hadn’t given up their desire to seize the jewel."
He is right of course, Napoleon still dreams of dominating Europe and that means crushing the British. He knows only too well that if he launches an assault, the Royal Navy will simply blockade his ports, as they have so successfully in the past, and put the squeeze on French trade routes until the pips squeak. But now I can reveal that his master plan involves a fleet of invasion barges to carry his army across the Channel, and for that expedition to succeed he needs to dominate the sea. That’s why he’s ordered his fleets in Toulon, Brest and Ferrol to break out of the blockaded ports.
"When I got wind that the French fleet had sneaked out, I fear I backed the wrong horse," confided the Admiral, "I assumed he’s head for Egypt so I set a fleet course south east. When I realised my mistake the old fox was making for the Indies with a spread of canvas and a fair wind. I was left trailing in his wake."
As Nelson made up for lost time, Villeneuve rendezvoused with his opposite number, Admiral Gravina and the Spanish fleet from Cadiz and they sailed in convoy for Martinique to water and provision. So went the early months of the summer, a chase across the Atlantic and back to Europe, the creak of wood and the slap of canvas as the ships strained to hold station and the fleets dogged each other, seeking to make the most of fickle winds and mixed weather.
The game of cat and mouse has gone on for weeks, Villeneuve lost some of the initiative while he waited for Ganteaume to join him, but his attempt to beat the blockade was foiled and as he limped back to lick his wounds, so Villeneuve headed back for Ferrol, fighting off Calders’ squadron of fifteen British battleships which intercepted him at Cape Finistere.
"Calder should have known better," Nelson reflects on the engagement, "Ok, so the weather was bad and visibility was poor, but he had the edge and if he’d pressed home his attack the Frenchies would have been badly mauled to say the least. Now all he’s got to look forward to is a court martial and I’ve lost the ninety-eight guns of the Prince of Wales." A sigh of exasperation escapes his lips at the recollection that he had been obliged to release one of his finest ships to take his disgraced commander home to face the music at the Admiralty.
But there was a bonus. The action unnerved Villeneuve who abandoned his plan to reach Ferrol, changed course for Cadiz, but then foul weather forced him to put into Vigo to re-supply and just to add insult to injury, Napoleon, increasingly frustrated at his Admiral’s inability to get his act together ordered him to sail for the Straits of Dover where his invasion force was gathering.
"We got wind of that too," said Nelson, "and we would have taken him on there and then, but he didn’t have the appetite for a fight with half his ships run ragged, and personally I don’t blame him – I guess that’s why he connived with that snake Decres, the Frenchies Chief Minister of Marine and Lord High Fixer and bolted for Cadiz – and that’s where we stand today."
He fixes me with that brilliant eye, and I can see why his men worship him; this is tungsten steel. Nelson turns on his heel and sweeps his arm across the view from the stern gallery. "The combined enemy fleet tucked away in there and my picket ships watching for signs of activity while we make ready for the battle which must surely come." Swings around to face me, features set in implacable determination, "And mark my words Mr Pretty, he won’t escape me this time."