Naval Tactics

British naval strategy imparted numerous responsibilities upon the Royal Navy, including the seizing of the enemy's colonial resources, the defence of the nation from invasion and the protection of British supplies from overseas. Control of the sea was largely maintained by frigates, which could operate as reconnaissance vessels, perform convoy duty, and fight in ship-to-ship actions. Ships of the line did not cruise the seas in this manner, but rather performed blockade duty and, when possible, confronted the enemy in fleet actions. This, indeed, was a fleet's raison d'etre: to bring a rival fleet to battle and destroy it. 
Once engaged with the enemy, general strategy gave way to the more technical art of tactics - the actual methods employed to defeat the enemy in battle. British tactics were based on the line of battle, which required an admiral to draw up his fleet in one or two lines, usually with the flagship in the centre and the frigates stationed on the unopposed side, so distributed along the line as to be capable of repeating orders from the flagship to the rest of the fleet before the engagement began. The enemy would also form a line, and the British attack would come either obliquely or in parallel, with, theoretically, every ship engaging an opponent of equal or weaker strength. By employing such tactics, the maximum strength of each ship's broadside could be brought to bear. Prior to action, the admiral would already have decided whether he wished to attack with the weather gauge or the lee gauge. the side with the weather gauge, by which the wind blew one's force in the direction of the enemy, could almost invariably make contact with an opponent, whether he wished to engage in combat or not. The side with the weather gauge also provided the attacker with the opportunity to double the enemy's line (i.e. to attack him from both side simultaneously) or pass through or break his line. On the other hand, the fleet with the lee gauge could allow its weaker or damaged ships to leave the line when necessary. Moreover, the heel of the ship, which elevated the trajectory of the guns on the lower deck, allowed vessel's lower-deck ports to remain open longer, and provided more opportunities for firing on the enemy, the angle of whose opposing guns being depressed would not allow continuous fire. In short, a fleet determined to engage an enemy always favoured the weather gauge, whereas a fleet seeking the lee gauge normally did so to be sure of surviving an action, not least through the option of escape. 
In most of the major actions of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the British sought to break or otherwise disrupt the enemy's line, and therefore sought the weather gauge. Contrary to popular belief, the notion of breaking the enemy's line was not original to Nelson, nor even a product of the battle of the Saintes in 1782, penetrated the French line in an unprecedented feat later repeated in similar style at the Glorious First of June (1794), Camperdown (1797), St Vincent (1797) and, of course, most famously at Trafalgar (1805). In all these instances British tactics were invariably aggressive, with admirals and captains taking the initiative to attack, confident that their better-trained crews, even when faced by a numerically superior foe, would carry that day.
 
 

Various positions of attack

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.13_edited.jpg

Fleet in the line of battle. This was the standard formation for attack, with each ship of the line (so-called because it was large enough to fight in the line of battle) drawn up bow to stern. The flagship, bearing the commander-in-chief, was positioned at approximately mid-point in the line to enable its signals to be seen clearly by the 'repeating' frigates. These were positioned to windward, so poised to be able to repeat the signals for the benefit of all the ships in the fleet. 

The fleet to windward enjoyed the advantage of bring able to choose the approximate time and point of attack. Here, the windward fleet approaches in an attempt to manoeuvre around the head of the enemy's line, so forcing it to accept battle. 

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.17_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.17_edited.jpg

The windward fleet attempts to engage an enemy which, positioned to leeward, has the option to avoid battle by turning away and fleeing with all its sails deployed. 

The windward battlefleet successfully engages the enemy fleet, which is sailing to leeward. 

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.28_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.17_edited.jpg

Breaking the line. The attacking fleet passes through the opposing line in order to engage the enemy on both sides - a manoeuvre known as 'doubling'.
This tactic was employed successfully by the British fleets at the Saintes (1782). St Vincent (1797)  Camperdown (1797), the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805).

Isolating the van. Having passed through the opposing line, the attacker isolates the enemy van, thus preventing him from escaping to leeward. 

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.17_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.17_edited.jpg

Breaking the line. The attacking fleet passes through the opposing line in order to engage the enemy on both sides - a manoeuvre known as 'doubling'.
This tactic was employed successfully by the British fleets at the Saintes (1782). St Vincent (1797)  Camperdown (1797), the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805).

Fleet formations for battle

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg

Line abreast was often adopted in waters where the presence of an enemy fleet was considered remote. Still, patrolling frigates positioned around the fleet performed the task of reconnoitring to ensure that an admiral was not caught unawares. 

Line ahead (also called Line of battle) had since the mid-17th century remained the standard method of deploying ships of the line preparing to engage the enemy. By the end of the 19th century, however, bolder, more innovative commanders such as Nelson had begun to depart from the Admiralty's official Fighting Instructions in order to break the enemy line and fight what he called a 'pell-mell' battle; that is, pitting individual ships against one another in scattered positions, relying on superior British gunnery and discipline to decide each contest and thus achieve a successful outcome for the battle as a whole. 

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg

Line of bearing enabled ships both to communicate easily with each other and to form into line ahead with a minimum of time and effort. 

Various positions of attack

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg

Broadside onto larboard bow and broadside onto starboard quarter. As shown here, vessels able to bring to bear their full broadside against an enemy whose position limited his own field of fire, enjoyed a significant tactical advantage. Thus, with skillful manoeuvring an attacker could maintain such a position - more often in a ship-to-ship, rather than in a fleet, action - so crippling an enemy whilst sustaining relatively little damage in return. It was precisely in such circumstances where superior seamanship, as opposed to superior gunnery, often told. 

Holding the weather gage. A vessel so positioned enjoyed the advantage of determining the approximate time and place of engagement, though it could not usually prevent the enemy from avoiding battle if he so desired. 

Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 08.18_edited.jpg
Screenshot 2021-07-28 17.34_edited.jpg

Crossing the bow and crossing the stern. These were the most effective positions of attack, especially the latter. Also known as crossing the 'T', this position enabled the attacker to fire with virtual impunity against the most vulnerable parts of the enemy vessel, above all the stern windows of the opposing captain's cabin. Round shot fired along the length of an enemy's lower decks inevitably caused frightful havoc, overturning guns and bowling over the men like ninepins. 

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please Contact us.