Battle of Trafalgar

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Trafalgar, battle of

(trəfăl`gər), naval engagement fought off Cape Trafalgar on the SW coast of Spain on Oct. 21, 1805, in which the British fleet under Horatio NelsonNelson, Horatio Nelson, Viscount,
1758–1805, British admiral. The most famous of Britain's naval heroes, he is commemorated by the celebrated Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square, London.
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 won a famous victory over the allied French and Spanish fleets under Pierre de VilleneuveVilleneuve, Pierre de
, 1763–1806, French admiral. He commanded the rear guard of the fleet in the disastrous battle of Abu Qir (1798). His defeat at the battle of Trafalgar (1805) was partly due to the unpreparedness of his fleet and to his initial refusal to leave
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. Nelson's strategy was to divide his own fleet into two sections, one led by himself in the HMS Victory, the other by his deputy Cuthbert Collingwood in the HMS Royal Sovereign, and to penetrate the enemy line in two places. This maneuver resulted in the capture of 20 enemy ships (one was blown up). The British lost no ships. Among the dead was Nelson himself, struck by a bullet from the French ship Redoutable. The decisive English victory ended Napoleon I's power on the sea and made a French invasion of England impossible. The words signaled by Nelson at the beginning of the battle—"England expects that every man will do his duty"—became immortal.


See studies by D. A. Howarth (1969), O. Warner (1971), and A. Nicolson (2005).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Trafalgar, Battle of


an engagement fought by a British fleet and a combined French and Spanish fleet on Oct. 21, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar, on the Atlantic coast of Spain near Cádiz, during the war between Napoleonic France and the Third Coalition.

In August a British squadron of 27 ships of the line, under the command of Admiral H. Nelson, had blockaded at Cádiz a Franco-Spanish squadron of 33 ships of the line, under the command of Admiral P. Villeneuve. On October 20, on orders from Napoleon I, the allied squadron of 18 French and 15 Spanish ships set out in an attempt to break through the blockade into the Mediterranean Sea; in doing so, Villeneuve, lacking any kind of strategy to deal with an enemy encounter, sought to avert a battle with the British. Nelson, however, was prepared for such an attempt and put in motion his plan of attack. It called for 15 British ships, under the command of C. Collingwood, to deliver the main blow against the enemy’s rear of 12 ships, with the object of cutting it off and destroying it; the remaining 12 British ships, under Nelson’s command, were then to attack the enemy’s center of 11 ships in order to isolate it. Nelson calculated that the enemy’s van of ten ships would not be able to come to the center’s aid in time.

At dawn on October 21, Villeneuve was informed that British ships had been sighted. He thereupon ordered a turn northward, but the maneuver took too long and caused the formation to be broken. At 12:30 P.M., Collingwood’s column broke through the enemy’s rear, cutting off 16 ships, on which it inflicted heavy losses. At 1:00 P.M., Nelson’s column broke through the enemy’s center line, effectively severing it from the van, which continued northward; only after a long delay did the van turn and advance in groups toward the center to render assistance. The battle lasted 5½ hours and ended with the complete destruction of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The allies lost 18 ships, 17 of which were seized, and 7,000 men. British casualties totaled 1,700 men. Nelson himself was mortally wounded in the battle.

The British success at Cape Trafalgar was achieved as a result of Nelson’s tactics, which had first been applied by the Russian admiral F. F. Ushakov. With its victory, the British Navy secured supremacy at sea in the war against France.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.