Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson is remembered as England’s most beloved admiral. His innovative style of warfare is responsible for the total defeat of the French and Spanish fleets and the rise of the British Royal Navy to supremacy at sea.
His decisive battle (and the one at which he lost his life) was the battle of Trafalgar. 27 British ships took on a line of 33 Spanish and French Ships. At the end of the day 22 enemy ships were captured or sunk, without a single British ship lost! The style of his attack during that battle was called “crossing the T.”
There is a common misconception that crossing the T meant lining up the ships so that the entire British fleet could fire on one French ship at a time. This is absolutely not the case. Crossing the T actually meant two things:
1) An absolute, all-out attack on the enemy aiming for total victory, and
2) A distribution of command so that individual ship captains could make decisions on their own during the heat of battle.
At the time, traditional naval warfare required a careful maneuvering of ships to keep them all in a line. This allowed the admiral to communicate with and control his entire fleet, and it also allowed the fleet to escape quickly if the battle went poorly. Usually, this resulted in fairly indecisive battles.
Instead of lining up with the combined French and Spanish fleet, Nelson split his force into two lines and plowed right into the middle of the Combined Fleet’s line. Each of his captains understood the plan of attack, and each was empowered to make independent decisions during the battle. This put all the British ships into a very vulnerable position, where they had to fight fiercely to win. But it also cut off communications between the enemy ships.
The resulting battle was chaotic, furious, ferocious — and decisive.
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