Oct. 21, 2022

The Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar

October 21, 1805: British naval hero Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson is mortally wounded at the Battle of Trafalgar.


Cold Open

It’s nearly midnight on July 24th, 1797, five years into the French Revolutionary Wars - a series of military conflicts between the French and the British and their allies.

38-year-old Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson crouches in a rowboat just off the Mediterranean island of Tenerife. The British naval officer peers into the darkness, trying to find a good spot to land his troops without the Spanish garrison noticing. It’s not easy for a man who has only one good eye. He lost half his sight when he was wounded in a similar amphibious assault three years ago. This time, Nelson hopes to avoid injury and to capture the town of Santa Cruz and the Spanish treasure ship rumored to be in its harbor. 

Soon, his rowboat slides onto the sand and Nelson rises to steps onto shore…

Spanish defenders begin to fire from the darkness.

Nelson stumbles back as he feels a mighty blow on his right arm. He trips over the prow of the rowboat… and falls back on the wooden planks with a thud.

Nelson looks down at his right arm. His sleeve is shredded and blood pours from a gaping hole above his elbow. Pain floods over him.

Nelson is close to fainting but is awakened after hearing sailor saying that they need to get back him back to his ship for treatment. He groans in disappointment. Nelson didn’t even take two steps onto land before the bullet hit him. It’s possible that his service in the Royal Navy is about to end in a humiliating failure.

After the unsuccessful invasion of Santa Cruz, Nelson’s right arm is amputated above the elbow. But Nelson doesn’t call it quits. Within half an hour of the surgery, Nelson is back issuing orders to his captains. Yet he does so with a heavy heart. He is now a one-eyed, one-armed admiral, and he expects to be discharged from the Royal Navy as soon as his ship returns to Britain.

Nelson is despondent. But he doesn’t have a reason to be. Back home, his superiors consider him an indispensable rising star, whether he’s wounded or not. They will allow Nelson to resume his career. And he will go on to become the greatest naval figure in British history. But his storied career will come to a tragic conclusion at the exact moment that he secures his greatest triumph at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is October 21st, 1805: The Battle of Trafalgar.

Act One

It’s September 29th, 1805, just off the coast of Cadiz, in southwest Spain; less than one month before the Battle of Trafalgar.

Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson stands in the upper gun deck of his flagship, the HMS Victory.As he supervises his crew’s gunnery drills, Nelson uses his one good arm to point at a discarded rag on the floor — it’s the kind of thing a sailor might slip on during the chaos of combat. He is satisfied when a young boy runs past and snatches it off the deck. It’s Nelson’s 47th birthday and there is nowhere he’d rather be than here, on a crowded and noisy gun deck, preparing his ship for battle.

Following his injury at the Battle of Santa Cruz, Nelson spent only a few months recuperating in England before resuming command of his ship, and he continued to win praise for his aggressive approach to war at sea. He destroyed a French armada at the Battle of the Nile and decimated the Danish navy at the Battle of Copenhagen. He was promoted to vice admiral and made responsible for the British fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. Now, Nelson is readying his ships for action again. He’s waiting for a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships to leave the harbor of Cadiz. When they do, he plans to sink them to the bottom of the gulf and help his country triumph in the ongoing French Revolutionary Wars.

Nelson slowly walks down the middle of the deck, checking that each gun crew follows the quickest and most efficient steps to load and fuse the bulky cannons. Boys as young as 12 years old dart around him to deliver gunpowder to the cannon loaders. Nelson ensures the sailors’ hammocks are safely tied up and their meager possessions are tidied away. Nothing must be out of place and everything must be perfect.

When he reaches the far end of the deck, Nelson tells an officer waiting there that he is happy with his crew’s performance but—as usual—they must drill again. Only with regular practice can Nelson be sure that his crews are faster, more disciplined, and more accurate than the enemy.

A few hours later, Nelson sits at a table in his cabin and watches as the captains of his fleet lift their glasses to toast his birthday. But Nelson is not in the mood for celebrating. His mind is fixed on the enemy fleet anchored in the Bay of Cadiz.

Nelson places his rum on the table, his expression suddenly grim. A silence descends over the room as the captains sense this shift in tone. Nelson begins to explain his plan. He intends to place his fleet just out of sight from the shores of Cadiz. When the French and Spanish ships try to sail away from the harbor, he will close in and force them into combat.

Nelson looks around the table as his captains nod in agreement. Nothing he’s said so far should come as a surprise to them. But Nelson is about to ask them to do something they’ve never done before.

Normally, in a naval battle, Nelson would order his captains to form a line alongside the French and Spanish ships. But, in this case, the British are outnumbered. If they use the standard “line of battle” approach, as it’s called, the enemy will easily overwhelm them. So instead, Nelson wants his fleet to form two columns, and approach the enemy at a right angle. This non-traditional tactic will confuse the enemy captains and cause them to break the formation.

Nelson looks around the table and sees a few worried faces. One captain politely questions Nelson’s strategy. Once the enemy breaks formation, their ships will also have to break their lines to engage them. If that happens, some of the British captains might lose sight of Nelson on board his flagship. If they can’t see Nelson, they won’t be able to see or receive his orders.

Nelson smiles. He says that’s correct. But the same will be true for the enemy. They too will struggle to see their flagship. And in the ensuing chaos, the British fleet will outmaneuver the French and Spanish ships. Nelson trusts his captains to act independently and do what needs to be done to achieve victory. He reminds his men of one of his core principles: no captain can do wrong if he simply places his ship alongside the enemy and opens fire. Hearing this, the skeptical captain smiles and nods.

Nelson has won his captains over. And soon enough, he will have a chance to put his unconventional strategy to the test. A few weeks later, the French and Spanish fleet will finally attempt to sail from Cadiz. And Nelson will lead his fleet into one of the most famous battles in naval history.

Act Two

It’s quarter to eleven on the morning of October 21st, 1805, off Cape Trafalgar in southwest Spain, three weeks after Nelson’s meeting with his captains.

Nelson looks through his telescope, trying to pinpoint which of the long line of enemy vessels is the French admiral’s flagship. He's happy that the enemy has finally dared to creep from the safety of the harbor. Their 33 ships outnumber his 27. But Nelson is not worried. He is confident that his plan of attack will succeed. But as he squints through the lens of the telescope, he can see no flags identifying the admiral’s ship. So he decides to aim for the center of the line. He lowers his telescope and looks behind him. He’s pleased to see half of the British fleet closely following HMS Victory’s wake in a tight column.

Nelson glances over the edge of the ship. Calm water laps the sides. His crew has deployed every sail but the wind is light and Victory is moving toward the enemy at a painfully slow pace. Nelson knows the lack of speed will leave his ships vulnerable to cannon fire as they advance. But he’s waited weeks for an opportunity. He isn’t about to let it slip through his fingers.

Nelson orders his lieutenant to send a message to the rest of his fleet: “England confides that every man will do his duty”. The signaler though suggests a slight alteration: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. Nelson agrees, but he tells the signaler to send another message, too: “Engage the enemy closely”.

Nelson hears musicians on the gun decks playing stirring tunes to boost morale. He’s glad they’re distracting the crew in these final moments of calm before the battle begins. But the blaring music does not drown out a series of sudden, distant booms. As a cannonball lands in the water nearby, Nelson pulls out his telescope and scans the enemy’s line of ships. On board one particular vessel, he sees French crewmen raising a large flag up the main mast. Nelson quickly realizes he’s found what he was looking for. He orders his crew to change direction and make way for the French flagship.

As a young sailor strains to turn the ship’s wheel, more cannon shots ring out. Nelson winces as a cannonball zips across the deck and crashes near the ship’s helm. The wheel is blasted into splinters, instantly killing the young sailor steering it. Nelson does his best to maintain composure. He orders his men to repair the helm as the Victory continues its slow crawl toward the enemy. 40 minutes later, after enduring a punishing onslaught of cannonfire, Victory finally closes in on the enemy’s lines.

Nelson’s heart races as Victory pulls level with the stern of the giant French flagship. Nelson gives the signal to fire the massive 68-pound cannon near the front of the ship. Its boom makes Nelson’s ears ring, but he’s pleased when he sees an enormous hole appear in the flag ship's stern.

Then Nelson orders his port side gunners to get into position. When they’re ready, he gives the signal for them to open fire. He feels the deck beneath his feet vibrate as Victory unleashes a broadside—50 guns firing a double shot in near unison. When the smoke clears, the damage is so severe, Nelson can see right into the belly of the enemy’s ship.

Nelson then raises his telescope and looks into the flagship’s quarterdeck. Several men lie on the wood, some dead, some writhing in agony. Only one man still stands, his crisp and clean uniform out of place amidst the carnage all around him. The uniformed man stares across at Victory, his pale face etched in horror. Nelson realizes he is looking at the admiral of the enemy fleet.

Thanks to Nelson’s stunning broadside, the French commander is helpless to fight, flee or call for help. And just as Nelson planned, the rest of his ships have broken the enemy’s formation. Soon, the battle descends into a series of individual melees in which the British overwhelm their enemy. 22 French and Spanish ships will be sunk or captured, while the British will lose none. Still, the British fleet will not sail away from the Battle of Trafalgar unscathed. In the end, their triumphant victory will come at a tremendous cost.

Act Three

It’s one o’clock in the afternoon on October 21st, 1805, one hour after the opening shots of the Battle of Trafalgar.

On board the HMS Victory, British Captain Thomas Hardy ducks as a cannon booms nearby. He glances over at the commander of the fleet, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who has not broken stride as he makes his way across the quarterdeck. Hardy runs to catch up, eager not to lose face in front of his courageous leader.

After crippling the enemy flagship, Victory pulled up beside another enemy vessel. The two ships are so close, their sides are almost touching. Hardy sees enemy sailors preparing to board his ship. He calls for Victory’s gun crews to leave their posts and race above deck to ward them off.

Hardy turns to Nelson and suggests that he take off his distinctive coat in case the boarders try to cut him down. But the withering glance Nelson gives in reply leaves Hardy with no doubt that the admiral will not hide from the enemy.

Hardy glances up into the enemy ship’s rigging and spots several sharpshooters peering through their sights. He hears the crack of gunfire and then the whistle of a bullet as it flies just past his head.

Hardy feels lucky to be alive. But his relief quickly fades when he turns and sees Nelson on his back, gasping for breath. Hardy runs to Nelson’s side and examines the gushing wound. The bullet has struck Nelson near his left shoulder. Hardy quickly orders a group of soldiers to carry their admiral below deck to where the ship’s surgeon is already hard at work on other injuries.

Two hours later, as the battle nears its end, Hardy leaves his post on the quarterdeck and descends into the body of the ship to the infirmary. As he enters, Hardy covers his nose to stave off the foul scent of blood and flesh. Wounded sailors litter the floor. Already, many are dead, but the surgeon and his assistants are too busy tending to the wounded to move the bodies.

As Hardy scans the room, he sees Nelson lying on the floor among the mass of bodies. Hardy makes his way toward the admiral, but the surgeon steps in his path and shakes his head. Nelson is alive, but just barely. Hardy kneels down next to his commander whose face is pale and twisted with pain. But Nelson's expression brightens when Hardy reports that the battle is all but over. The French admiral has surrendered. Many other enemy captains have done the same. When Nelson asks how many British ships were lost, Hardy smiles and answers none. Their victory here today is the most one-sided battle in the age of sail.

One hour later, Vice Admiral Nelson passes away, still basking in the glow of success. Unlike the rest of the sailors who died on Victory, Nelson’s body is not buried at sea. He is returned to Great Britain where he is given the rare distinction of a state funeral before being buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral. That his death occurred at the exact moment of his greatest triumph sealed Nelson’s status as the greatest figure in British naval history, and ensured that his reputation will live on long after the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805.


Next onHistory Daily. October 24th, 1929. An unprecedented day of plummeting prices at the New York Stock Exchange becomes known as “Black Thursday” and heralds the start of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.