The British and Franco-Spanish Fleets met off Cape Trafalgar, near Cádiz in southern Spain, on October 21, 1805. Two days earlier, the 33 ships of the Franco-Spanish fleet commanded by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve had sailed south from Cádiz heading for the Mediterranean.
British frigates, or light scouting vessels, had sighted them and signaled to the remainder of the British fleet, under Admiral Horatio Nelson, waiting beyond the horizon. The frigates pursued Villeneuve's fleet until, on the morning of October 21, 1805, he realized he could not escape and ordered his ships to turn and sail in a straight line back to Cadiz. The 27 ships of the British fleet formed two parallel columns and sailed towards the enemy line from the west, aiming to break it in two places. The Battle of Trafalgar had begun.
During the 18th century sea battles were fought by parallel lines of ships - as a result, the vessels were called ships-of-the-line'. They were categorized by the number of guns they carried - 'first-raters' had 100 or more, while 'fourth-raters' mounted 50-64. The larger ships had three gundecks and the smaller had two. Frigates were lighter and smaller single-decked ships, with just 24-38 guns. The admiral sailed in the flagship, one of the ships of the line which signaled tactics and orders to the others.
Blasting the rigging, cracking the hull
The naval strategy of the time differed between the French and British fleets. Each had a distinct philosophy as to how ships should be attacked: the French fired at a ship's masts and rigging, while the British aimed lower, at the ship's hull. Once the ships were locked together, the victor sent across a boarding party to force the other to surrender by "striking" (lowering) her colors.
It was a Scottish amateur naval strategist, John Clerk, who first suggested new tactics. He argued that if squadrons of ships turned through 90 degrees and sailed directly towards the enemy line they would initially present a much smaller target. As they broke through the line they could bring all their guns to bear on the ships to both port and starboard. But the enemy ships could only use the guns mounted on the side from which they were being attacked. This maneuver became known as "crossing the T", since it involved moving at right angles across a line.
It was the tactic triumphantly employed by Nelson at Trafalgar. He himself led one of the attacking divisions in his flagship, HMS Victory. By nightfall, 17 Franco-Spanish ships had been captured and another had been blown up; the British lost none. It was a decisive victory, but it was marred by the death of its architect, Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was shot by a French marksman as he stood on his quarterdeck.