The Battle of Trafalgar was fought on October 21st, 1805. It was a naval engagement between the Royal Navy and the combined French and Spanish fleets. Nelson led a fleet of 27 ships against a combined total of 33 enemy ships commanded by Admiral Villeneuve. The engagement took place in the Atlantic to the Southwest of Spain, just West of Cape Trafalgar.
Although outnumbered, and against ships with more guns, Nelson had the advantage of superior tactics, better-trained and experienced crews, and higher morale, both at the command level and among the seamen. Nelson wanted a decisive victory, not a stalemate with a few losses on each side, as often happened in sea battles.
Napoleon had wanted Villeneuve's 33 ships to link up with Ganteaume's 21 ships at Brest, giving him sufficient naval superiority to launch his planned invasion of Britain. Nelson's aim, therefore, was to prevent this link-up by engaging Villeneuve at Trafalgar.
His tactics were unorthodox. In place of sailing parallel to the enemy's line, firing at each other, Nelson led his ships in a perpendicular attack, with two rows of his ships heading straight at the enemy line to break it into three pieces, and surround one-third, giving it no escape avenue. This posed the danger that as they approached the enemy line, their bows would be exposed to enemy broadside fire that they would be unable to return. Nelson counted on the poor gunnery of the enemy, plus the rolling swell that made the gun platforms unstable. To minimize the danger period, he ordered another break with normal tactic by ordering his ships to deploy all available sails, including stunsails (studding sails).
It was a one-sided, stunning victory. The Royal Navy took 22 ships of the combined enemy fleet, losing none itself. Nelson was killed on the deck of HMS Victory, but had achieved his objective. Napoleon never again planned an invasion of Britain, and the French never again presented a serious threat to the British navy's command of the seas. The battle conformed Britain's naval supremacy and, even as Napoleon established himself as master on Continental Europe, Britain established itself as a global power.
Napoleon still retained naval ambitions, and had plans to build a fleet of 150 warships to challenge Britain's dominance, but his defeats in 1814 and 1815 cut short that project. Nelson, meanwhile, passed into legend. He had written the signal "England confides every man to do his duty," but was told that 'confides' was not in the vocabulary and would have to be spelled out letter by letter. Anxious for speed, Nelson agreed to change it to 'expects,' which is how it passed into history. The term 'England' was then used to include Scotland and Wales, which took their share in the action.
Nelson had a state funeral, attended by the now-captive Villeneuve, and is buried in St Paul's. He sits atop his column in his square in London, blind in one eye, and missing one arm, reminding people that disabilities can be overcome to achieve greatness. His victory at Trafalgar, with that of Wellington at Waterloo, ensured the hegemony of the British Empire over that of Continental monarchs and despots. It set the seal for the eventual Anglo-American partnership that did so much to save the world from evil. We salute Nelson on this day.