1800 - Appendices

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Naval History of Great Britain - Vol III

No. 36.
See. p. 334.

Lord Nelson's Plan of Attack.

" The business of an English commander-in-chief, " says his lordship, " being first to bring an enemy's fleet to battle, on the most advantageous terms to himself (I mean, that of laying his ships close on board those of the enemy as expeditiously as possible, and secondly, to continue them there without separating until the business is decided), I am sensible, beyond this object, it is not necessary I should say a word, being fully assured, that the admirals and captains of the fleet I have the honour to command will, knowing my precise object, that of a close and decisive battle, supply any deficiency in my not making signals ; which may, if extended beyond these objects, either be misunderstood, or, if waited for, very probably, from various causes, be impossible for the commander-in-chief to make. Therefore it will only be requisite for me to state, in as few words as possible, the various modes by which it may be necessary for me to obtain my object, on which depends not only the honour and glory of our country, but possibly its safety, and, with it, that of all Europe, from French tyranny and oppression.

" If the two fleets are both willing to fight, but little manúuvring is necessary. The less the better ; a day is soon lost in that business. Therefore I will only suppose that the enemy's fleet being to leeward, standing close upon wind on the starboard tack, and that I am nearly ahead of them, standing on the larboard tack ; of course I should weather them. The weather must be supposed to be moderate ; for, if it be a gale of wind, the manúuvring of both fleets is but of little avail, and probably no decisive action would take place with the whole fleet. Two modes present themselves ; one, to stand on just out of gun-shot until the van-ship of my line would be abreast of the centre-ship of the enemy, then make the signal to wear together, then bear up, engage with all our force the six or five van-ships of the enemy, passing certainly, if opportunity offered, through their line. This would prevent their bearing up, and the action, from the known bravery and conduct of the admirals and captains, would certainly be decisive ; the second or third rear-ships of the enemy would act as they pleased, and our ships would give a good account of them, should they persist in mixing with our ships. The other mode would be, to stand under an easy but commanding sail, directly for their headmost ship, so as to prevent the enemy from knowing whether I should pass to leeward or to windward of him. In that situation, I would make the signal to engage the enemy to leeward, and to cut through their fleet about the sixth ship from the van, passing very close ; they being on a wind, you, going large, could cut their line when you please. The van-ships of the enemy would, by the time our rear came abreast of the van-ship, be severely cut up, and our van could not expect to escape damage. I would then have our rear-ship, and every ship in succession, wear, continue the action with either the van-ship or second-ship, as it might appear most eligible from her crippled state ; and, this mode pursued, I see nothing to prevent the capture of the five or six ships of the enemy's van. The two or three ships of the enemy's rear must either bear up or wear ; and, in either case although they would be in a better plight probably than our two van-ships (now the rear), yet they would be separated and at a distance to leeward, so as to give our ships time to refit ; and by that time, I believe, the battle would, from the judgment of the admirals and captains, be over with the rest of them. Signals from these moments are useless, when every man is disposed to do his duty. The great object is, for us to support each other, and to keep close to the enemy and to leeward of him. If the enemy are running away, then the only signals necessary will be, to engage the enemy as arriving up with them, and the other ships to pass on for the second, third, &c. ; giving, if possible, a close fire into the enemy in passing, taking care to give our ships engaged notice of your intention. " Clarke and M'Arthur's Life of Nelson, vol. ii., p. 427.

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