Nelson’s Trafalgar Memorandum

In this memorandum, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson explains to his captains his plans for engaging the allied French and Spanish fleet. The memorandum contains Nelson’s fullest exposition of his conception of naval tactics and formed the basis of his tactics for the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Trafalgar Memorandum


Victory, off Cadiz, 9th October, 1805.


Thinking it almost impossible to bring a Fleet of forty Sail of the Line into a Line of Battle in variable winds, thick weather, and other circumstances which must occur, without such a loss of time that the opportunity would probably be lost of bringing the Enemy to Battle in such a manner as to make the business decisive, I have therefore made up my mind to keep the Fleet in that position of sailing (with the exception of the First and Second in Command) that the Order of Sailing is to be the Order of Battle, placing the Fleet in two Lines of sixteen Ships each, with an Advanced Squadron of eight of the fastest sailing Two-decked Ships, which will always make, if wanted, a Line of twenty-four Sail, on whichever Line the Commander-in-Chief may direct.

The Second in Command will, after my intentions are made known to him, have the entire direction of his Line to make the attack upon the Enemy, and to follow up the blow until they are captured or destroyed.

If the Enemy’s Fleet should be seen to windward in Line of Battle, and that the two Lines and the Advanced Squadron can fetch them, they will probably be so extended that their Van could not succour their friends.

I should therefore probably make the Second in Command’s signal to lead through, about their twelfth Ship from their Rear, (or wherever he could fetch, if not able to get so far advanced); my Line would lead through about their Centre, and the Advanced Squadron to cut two or three or four Ships a-head of their Centre, so as to ensure getting at their Commander-in-Chief, on whom every effort must be made to capture.

The whole impression of the British Fleet must be to overpower from two or three Ships a-head of their Commander-in-Chief, supposed to be in the Centre, to the Rear of their Fleet. I will suppose twenty Sail of the Enemy’s Line to be untouched, it must be some time before they could perform a manœuvre to bring their force compact to attack any part of the British Fleet engaged, or to succour their own Ships, which indeed would be impossible without mixing with the Ships engaged [3].

Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a Sea Fight beyond all others. Shot will carry away the masts and yards of friends as well as foes; but I look with confidence to a Victory before the Van of the Enemy could succour their Rear, and then that the British Fleet would most of them be ready to receive their twenty Sail of the Line, or to pursue them, should they endeavour to make off.

If the Van of the Enemy tacks, the Captured Ships must run to leeward of the British Fleet; if the Enemy wears, the British must place themselves between the Enemy and the Captured, and disabled British Ships; and should the Enemy close, I have no fears as to the result.

The Second in Command will in all possible things direct the movements of his Line, by keeping them as compact as the nature of the circumstances will admit. Captains are to look to their particular Line as their rallying point. But, 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.

Of the intended attack from to windward, the Enemy in Line of Battle ready to receive an attack,

The divisions of the British Fleet will be brought nearly within gun shot of the Enemy’s Centre. The signal will most probably then be made for the Lee Line to bear up together, to set all their sails, even steering sails [4], in order to get as quickly as possible to the Enemy’s Line, and to cut through, beginning from the 12 Ship from the Enemy’s Rear. Some Ships may not get through their exact place, but they will always be at hand to assist their friends; and if any are thrown round the Rear of the Enemy, they will effectually complete the business of twelve Sail of the Enemy.

Should the Enemy wear together, or bear up and sail large, still the twelve Ships composing, in the first position, the Enemy’s Rear, are to be the object of attack of the Lee Line, unless otherwise directed from the Commander-in-Chief which is scarcely to be expected as the entire management of the Lee Line, after the intentions of the Commander-in-Chief, is [are] signified, is intended to be left to the judgment of the Admiral commanding that Line.

The remainder of the Enemy’s Fleet, 34 Sail, are to be left to the management of the Commander-in-Chief, who will endeavour to take care that the movements of the Second in Command are as little interrupted as is possible.


3) In the upper margin of the paper Lord Nelson wrote, and Mr. Scott added to it a reference, as marked in the text, – “the Enemy’s Fleet is supposed to consist of 46 sail of the Line, British Fleet of 40. If either is less, only a proportionate number of Enemy’s Ships are to be cut off; B. to be ¼ superior to the E. cut off.”

4) In the upper margin of the paper, and referred to by Lord Nelson as in the text, – “Vide instructions for Signal, yellow with blue fly, Page 17, Eighth flag, Signal Book, with reference to Appendix.”

5) The Signature does not occur to the draught, but was affixed to the originals issued to the Admirals and Captains of the Fleet. To the Copy signed by Lord Nelson, and delivered to Captain George Hope of the Defence, was added—” N. B. When the Defence quits the Fleet for England you are to return this Secret Memorandum to the Victory.,, Captain Hope wrote on that Paper:—” It was agreeable to these Instructions that Lord Nelson attacked the Combined Fleets of France and Spain, off Cape Trafalgar, on the 21st of October, 1805, they having thirty-three Sail of the Line, and we twenty-seven.’,

Courtesy of the British Library and the War Times Journal.
Image: Plan of the action at the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, artist unknown. Courtesy of the NMM.

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