As it began closing with the enemy off Cape Trafalgar on the morning of 21st October 1805, everything was going wrong for the British fleet.
The expected reinforcements had not arrived, several ships were not in their planned positions, their Franco-Spanish opponents were sailing too close together to allow their line to be pierced as intended, the target ship of the French commander could not be identified, and in the light breeze the British fleet was making less than three knots, which would expose the leading ship, the Victory, to the murderous attention of full broadsides for a long time before she could reply at all. To add to it all, Victory, being a faster vessel, began pulling away from her followers. It looked as though, if she were to survive long enough to make contact, she would be overwhelmed before help could be at hand.
So it was that the diminutive, pale and sickly figure standing on the deck of that ship, a half blind, one-armed cripple who had designed the plan, was leading his country’s main battle fleet into what was promising to turn into the greatest disaster in the history of the Royal Navy.
Yet the little man did not seem to be worried at all. In fact he was so relaxed that he decided to use his new, flag-based communication system to ‘amuse the fleet with a signal’. When, after some tribulations caused by the system’s limited bandwidth, the signal was hoisted at 11:50, it read ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. The British sailors cheered.
Notwithstanding the cheering, the little man’s Second in Command, Admiral Collingwood, was not amused. ‘I wish Nelson would stop signalling,’ he caustically remarked to his captain. ‘We know well enough what we have to do’. So they did. And Nelson knew they did. Which is why he wasn’t concerned. When Collingwood read the decoded signal, he relented. ‘Great man, I forgive him!’ was his final comment. The forgiveness was timely, for a few hours later Nelson was dead.
During those hours his captains realised his intentions and disabled or captured 18 out of the 33 Allied vessels opposing them. Their victory was historic, for it represented the first decisive naval engagement to be conducted on the high seas out of sight of land. Previous battles on the high seas had been inconclusive. The only decisive naval battles had all been fought close to the shore, or indeed with one fleet at anchor.
Nelson’s aim was to achieve decision by annihilating the Allied fleet. This was the only military goal which served Britain’s overall aim, which was to make Britain secure against French invasion. At the same time, securing this goal would allow the Royal Navy to carry out a full blockade of Continental Europe and give it control of the world’s sea-lanes, as the Franco-Spanish fleet was the only one still able to challenge it.
So Nelson was attempting something hugely ambitious that had never been achieved before. With the initial steps of the execution of his plan in such a mess, why was the knowledge that his captains all knew what to do enough to make him so confident?
His plan was a simple idea, though carrying it out required considerable skill. We have a copy of it, sketched out not on the back of an envelope, but on a piece of paper very much like one, probably during one of the dinners he held for his captains whilst they patrolled the seas outside Cadiz waiting for the allied Franco-Spanish fleet to emerge. It shows lines representing two fleets sailing towards each other, with one turning in to break the line of the other in two places. It would not look very elegant in Powerpoint:
By turning in where it did, the attacking British fleet would cut off the leading third of the other’s line - the van - gaining local superiority in numbers. The ships of the van would take a long time to turn around and join the fight (assuming they chose to do so), by which time their opponents would be ready to deal with them in turn. To do that, the British had to win the ship to ship battles quickly.
The wooden ‘line of battle’ ship was the most expensive high technology weapon of its day, but the technology was identical on both sides. Being of wood, ships like this were vulnerable to fire, and occasionally their stocks of gunpowder blew up, but they were very hard to sink. So the usual purpose of gunnery in a sea battle was not ship-killing but man-killing and de-masting. In a ship to ship engagement decision was usually reached by getting alongside and boarding. The ships themselves were effectively floating castles. That was how the French and Spanish intended to use them, cramming on board as many soldiers as they could, even up in the rigging among the sails.
Nelson had a different idea. The weakest point of the ‘line of battle’ ships was the stern, which was covered by glass windows. If a ship could be ‘raked’ by another passing behind it, it could be crippled as each gun of the broadside, loaded with two or even three cannon balls, fired through the stern along the exposed length of the gun decks. If the attacking ship then came alongside its target after raking it, it risked being boarded, but Nelson calculated that the ship which fired its guns faster would win. The damage done by C18th cannon from a few hundred yards away was limited, but at point blank range it was devastating. Pulling this off would take superb seamanship and superior rate of fire.
The initial manoeuvre illustrated in Nelson’s sketch would allow each British ship to rake an Allied one and then turn alongside it, which was difficult but not impossible for an experienced crew. With the Allied van taken out of the equation, many Allied ships would face two British ones. But even if they did not, the British gunners could loose off a shot in just under two minutes, whereas the Allies needed between five and eight minutes per shot depending on the size of the gun, giving the British a massive advantage. The British crews were mainly sailors and, unlike their opponents, had been continuously at sea for years. Nelson had some Royal Marines on the top deck to deter boarders, but kept his rigging clear of soldiers so as not to interfere with the handling of the ship. He was betting on seamanship and gunnery to beat musketry and boarding. He wanted a sailors’ battle, not a soldiers’ one.
The plan was risky, but each element of it had been tried before and worked. Nelson’s innovation was to pull everything together. Everyone had to understand what mattered, why it mattered and how the bits fitted together. He met two groups of his captains on board Victory for face to face briefings on 29th and 30th September and then, on 9th October 1805, wrote a Memorandum which was copied to all his captains, laying out the plan.
The Memorandum explains Nelson’s intentions and the logic behind them and then covers what was critical to successful execution. They would not waste time manoeuvring but go straight in: the order of sailing was to be the order of battle. The second line would be directed by Collingwood. Nelson’s line would aim at the centre and try to engage the enemy flagship and its commander. ‘Something must be left to chance’, he commented, for ‘nothing is sure in a sea fight above all others’. But he was confident that the plan would shift the odds in his favour. He and Collingwood would try to keep their lines compact. ‘But’, he observed, ‘in case signals can neither be seen or perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy’.
With that observation, in what he expected to be a chaotic ‘pell-mell battle’, Nelson had given his captains a simple rule which they could all follow, without further direction, even when deafened by gunfire and blinded by smoke. The whole risky business would work if they all followed the one, simple operational imperative: ‘lay your ship alongside that of an enemy’. Never mind which one; never mind what others are doing or who is behind you. Go for the nearest enemy ship, rake it, get alongside it and start pounding. Your crew will do the rest. So they did. The result was 18:0 to the Royal Navy. Nelson had set a target of 20. They missed it. But the 18 ships they did get had the intended effect: effective annihilation.
The Allied ships fought hard, not least the aptly named Redoutable under the redoubtable Captain Lucas, which fought the Victory and then the Téméraire as well from about 12:15 to 13:45 before striking its colours. It suffered the highest personnel losses of any ship at Trafalgar, reported to have been no less than 568 out of a complement of 643, a horrifying 88% casualty rate.
One could argue that given their strategy the Allied performance was extremely good. One of the soldiers in the rigging of the Redoutable managed to shoot Nelson through the shoulder at about 13:15. Nelson was taken below, took no further part in the battle and died at about 16:30. Under different circumstances, killing the enemy’s most successful admiral would have been a triumph. But in fact it made no difference during the battle because Nelson’s captains all knew what to do without any more signals from him, and no difference after it because the defeat at Trafalgar meant that Napoleon no long had the power to seriously challenge the Royal Navy. Nelson had rendered himself superfluous. The Allies superbly executed a losing strategy.
Nelson’s simple rule was a way of guiding his captains’ decisions and actions in a complex and uncertain environment. It was specific to the situation, distilling the essence of what it took to execute his plan for that one engagement. If his captains remembered that injunction and acted on it, they would win. Collectively, it turned the 28 ships of the British fleet into a single self-organising system with 28 moving parts. All the things that were going wrong did not matter if they just got that right. By simplifying complexity, Nelson made it possible for his fleet to master it.
Nelson’s guideline opened up space for each captain to make choices of his own about which ship to engage, which side to go about on, whether to lash the ships together and so on. It was not a law, but a principle guiding decisions and actions. It was the logical consequence of hard thinking about the nature of naval warfare distilled from the experience Nelson had built up over his whole career, placed in the context of the overriding strategic aim of achieving decision, his insight into what it would take to do that, and the specific situation.
We put a lot of time into developing strategies. The more time and effort we put in, the more complicated they tend to become. Then we have to communicate them, and get ‘buy-in’. The effort redoubles, and the volume of communication grows, until it becomes a deafening cascade of Powerpoints, videos, townhall meetings, targets, objectives, initiatives, workplans and so on. All too often, this cacophony actually makes it harder to understand what matters and what they are supposed to do about it.
Nelson just invited his captains to dinner, drew a crude sketch on a spare piece of paper and then issued the memorandum containing that one crucial injunction – whatever happens, place your ship alongside that of an enemy. That made it clear to everybody what they had to do, whatever the circumstances.
Perhaps before you launch the communication cascade of your latest strategy, you too could invite your key operators to dinner and work out together what it is that everyone has to get right to make the strategy work. You can leave the Powerpoints behind. But don’t forget to ask for paper napkins.