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British[ edit ] On 21 October, Admiral Nelson had 27 ships of the line under his command. He also had four 98-gun second rates and twenty third rates. One of the third rates was an 80-gun vessel, and sixteen were 74-gun vessels. The remaining three were 64-gun ships, which were being phased out of the Royal Navy at the time of the battle. Nelson also had four frigates of 38 or 36 guns, a 12-gun schooner and a 10-gun cutter.
Franco-Spanish[ edit ] Against Nelson, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve—sailing on his flagship Bucentaure—fielded 33 ships of the line, including some of the largest in the world at the time.
The Spanish contributed four first-rates to the fleet. The fourth first-rate carried 100 guns. The fleet had six 80-gun third-rates, four French and two Spanish , and one Spanish 64-gun third-rate. The remaining 22 third-rates were 74-gun vessels, of which fourteen were French and eight Spanish. In total, the Spanish contributed 15 ships of the line and the French 18. The fleet also included five 40-gun frigates and two 18-gun brigs , all French. One reason for the development of the line of battle system was to facilitate control of the fleet: First, the British fleet would close with the Franco-Spanish as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that they would be able to escape without fighting.
Nelson knew that the superior seamanship, faster gunnery and better morale of his crews were great advantages. The ships in the van of the enemy fleet would have to turn back to support the rear, which would take a long time. The main drawback of attacking head-on was that as the leading British ships approached, the Franco-Spanish fleet would be able to direct raking broadside fire at their bows, to which they would be unable to reply.
The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell , causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating the problem. The order of sailing, in which the fleet was arranged when the enemy was first sighted, was to be the order of the ensuing action so that no time would be wasted in forming a precise line. One, led by his second-in-command Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood , was to sail into the rear of the enemy line, while the other, led by Nelson, was to sail into the centre and vanguard.
In preparation for the battle, Nelson ordered the ships of his fleet to be painted in a distinctive yellow and black pattern later known as the Nelson Chequer that would make them easy to distinguish from their opponents. Nothing is sure in a sea battle, so he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy. Admiral Villeneuve himself expressed his belief that Nelson would use some sort of unorthodox attack, stating specifically that he believed—accurately—that Nelson would drive right at his line.
But his long game of cat and mouse with Nelson had worn him down, and he was suffering from a loss of nerve. Arguing that the inexperience of his officers meant he would not be able to maintain formation in more than one group, he chose not to act on his assessment. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.
At first, Villeneuve was optimistic about returning to the Mediterranean, but soon had second thoughts. A war council was held aboard his flagship, Bucentaure , on 8 October. This was used as the pretext for sudden change.
The weather, however, suddenly turned calm following a week of gales. This slowed the progress of the fleet leaving the harbour, giving the British plenty of warning. Villeneuve had drawn up plans to form a force of four squadrons, each containing both French and Spanish ships.
It took most of 20 October for Villeneuve to get his fleet organised; it eventually set sail in three columns for the Straits of Gibraltar to the southeast. That same evening, Achille spotted a force of 18 British ships of the line in pursuit. The fleet began to prepare for battle and during the night, they were ordered into a single line.
Villeneuve again ordered his fleet into three columns, but soon changed his mind and ordered a single line. The result was a sprawling, uneven formation.
This reversed the order of the allied line, placing the rear division under Rear-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley in the vanguard. The wind became contrary at this point, often shifting direction. The very light wind rendered manoeuvring virtually impossible for all but the most expert seamen. The French and Spanish fleet now formed an uneven, angular crescent, with the slower ships generally to leeward and closer to the shore. The two fleets would be within range of each other within an hour.
Villeneuve was concerned at this point about forming up a line, as his ships were unevenly spaced and in an irregular formation. As the British drew closer, they could see that the enemy was not sailing in a tight order, but rather in irregular groups. Nelson could not immediately make out the French flagship as the French and Spanish were not flying command pennants.
Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned, the enemy totalling nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to his 17,000 men and 2,148 guns. The Franco-Spanish fleet also had six more ships of the line, and so could more readily combine their fire.
As the two fleets drew closer, anxiety began to build among officers and sailors; one British sailor described the time before thus: