The highest form of operational organisation in the Navy was the fleet. Under normal circumstances, a fleet was formed into a single line before action commenced, and in some instances broke apart in the course of the fighting into duels between individual ships.
For this reason a subordinate admiral, whether in command of a division or a squadron, did not play a vital role in combat. He was advised by Admiralty instructions to;
'Be particularly attentive in observing that a ship which carries his flag, and all the squadrons and divisions under his orders, preserve very correctly their station in whatever line or order of sailing the fleet may be formed'
The manner in which an admiral divided his fleet lay entirely at his own discretion, though he generally apportioned at least ten of his ships of the line to a squadron. These could then be sub-divided into divisions while at sea or to function in this form in battle.
Squadrons were approximately of equal strength, with those at Trafalgar being 13 and 14 ships, respectively. In 1807, Admiral Gambier had three equal squadrons of ten ships, with each squadron divided into two divisions, under a rear-admiral or commodore. While cruising, fleets did not usually organise themselves according to the line of battle that they assumed when in the presence of the enemy. They might cruise in two parallel lines of approximately equal strength, a mile or more apart, with each line's vessels sailing bow to stern with two cables to three cables (a cable being 100 fathoms, or 200 yards) between them, or in line abreast, with ships sailing on parallel courses. In order to maintain communications between the various divisions, frigates were positioned at various points around the fleet and lookouts kept aloft at their stations.
The vast majority of ships in the Royal Navy were assigned to one of the main fleets, which were distributed around the world. Some vessels served exclusively on convoy duty, while others, on individual missions from the Admiralty, were not attached to a particular fleet. Each fleet was led by a commander-in-chief - always a very senior admiral. While some squadrons were formed for specific purposes and often bore the names of their commanders, fleets were normally assigned to a particular stretch of ocean - a sort of geographical area of responsibility. The actual area covered was not always perfectly defined, so that, for instance, the Mediterranean Fleet served as far as the coast of Portugal, while the Channel Fleet cruised well into the Bay of Biscay as far as the northern coast of Spain.
Needless to say, the strengths of the various fleets varied according to the relative importance of their roles and responsibilities. Thus, the Channel Fleet, whose principal function was to defend the southern coast of England and whose secondary role was to blockage Brest, was invariably maintained on a strong footing, whereas the West Indian fleets were generally scaled down once the French were driven from the Caribbean. The Newfoundland and Nova Scotia fleets were nearly always small, with little to do until war broke out with the United States in June 1812. In all, there were seven or eight main fleets with titles based on their respective geographical areas, in addition to numerous single ships and detached or independent squadrons, usually composed of frigates and smaller craft.
The Channel Fleet served as the principal arm of the nation's defence. It not only cruised the waterway between Britain and the Continent in order to prevent invasion, but kept constant watch over the French ports of Brest, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Lorient, Rochefort and others, engaging whenever possible vessels which ventured out. Brest was the principal enemy port in this area, but where sufficient numbers of ships were available the Channel Fleet could blockade the other French ports, as well as Ferrol on the north-west coast of Spain. In 1804, the fleet was to have 20 ships of the line to serve off Brest, with another 7 off Rochefort, 7 others off Ferrol and 3 more off the Portugeuse and Spanish coasts. This ensured that no enemy could venture past Gilbratar without detection. The main bases of the Channel Fleet were Portsmouth and Plymouth, and it used the anchorages at Spithead, St. Helens and elsewhere on the south coast of England.
In 1795 the Channel Fleet consisted of 26 ships of the line, plus 17 frigates. In 1800 it had 3 first rates, 11 second rates and 33 other ships of the line. With its frigates and other vessels it numbered it total 72 ships and smaller craft. Then in 1805, at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, it numbered 35 ships of the line and 16 frigates. Since the Brest fleet was not present at Trafalgar it was never destroyed, and hence the strength of the Channel Fleet necessarily remained high. It fought one large action, on the 1st June 1794, but notwithstanding the French losses of 6 ships the remainder of the opposing fleet reached reached Brest and thereafter had to be continuously watched.
The Irish Squadron
Based principally in Cork, in southern Ireland, the Irish Squadron existed to protect trade moving westwards across the Atlantic, as well as to defend Ireland from invasion, though its smaller numbers obliged it to depend on assistance from the Channel Fleet as circumstances required. In 1797 the squadron had 16 ships, only one of which was a line of battle ship, the others being frigates and sloops. This force was reduced two years later to 12 ships. In 1805 it had 23 ships, of which 12 were frigates and 8 were sloops.
North Sea Fleet
The second most important major home command was the North Sea Fleet, whose name is slightly misleading since part of its area of responsibility extended into the Channel as far as the Dutch and Belgian coasts. In 1797 it numbered 56 ships, including 20 of the line. It was with this fleet that Admiral Duncan fought and won the Battle of Camperdown in that year. Attached to the North Sea Fleet was the Downs Squadron, which protected the entrance to the Channel. When war began in 1803 this squadron and others were combined into a single fleet, which two years later, in the year of Trafalgar, reached a strength of 80 ships, including 11 of the line and 20 frigates, the whole divided into 5 squadrons, with responsibilities for blockading the French port of Boulogne, and the Texel and the Scheldt, the main entrances to the Dutch ports.
The Baltic Fleet
While important in British naval strategy, the Baltic Fleet was not always on station in great numbers, but rather was augmented as circumstances required. This was particularly true in 1801, when formation of the League of Armed Neutrality involving Denmark, Sweden and Russia led the Admiralty to dispatch a powerful fleet under Sir Hyde Parker, with Nelson as second in command. The fleet consisted of 21 ships of the line, 11 frigates and ships of 50 guns, plus a large armada of gunboats, brigs, cutters, schooners and luggers. In fact, it was more of a fleet assigned a special mission than a permanent fixture with a geographical designation. It was with this fleet that Nelson won the Battle of Copenhagen.
The Mediterranean Fleet
The Mediterranean Fleet, second only in importance to the Channel Fleet, was a vital component of the Royal Navy, for the Mediterranean held important British strategic interests. The fleet was always led by a senior and experienced admiral whose primary responsibility lay in maintaining a close blockade on the principal French port, Toulon, and the Spanish port of Cadiz. This fleet fought off the Hyeres Islands in 1795, and in three other battles of much greater significance - Cape St Vincent in 1797, the Nile in 1798 and Trafalgar in 1805. Like the other geographical commands, the fleet designated for service in the Mediterranean did not always confine itself to what ought to have been a clearly defined area. Thus, St Vincent and Trafalgar were fought west of Gibraltar; in the latter case Nelson even chased Admiral Villeneuve across the Atlantic before following him back to European waters. The Mediterranean Fleet varied in strength as circumstances required. In 1795 it had 31 ships, including 5 first and second rates, 11 third rates, and 11 fifth and sixth rates. In 1797 it surpassed even the strength of the Channel Fleet, with 62 ships, including 23 of the line, 24 frigates and 10 sloops.
The West Indies
Whereas during the American Revolutionary War the West Indies had been a very active theatre of naval operations, particularly in the later stages of the conflict, this was not so during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, when the French did not maintain a fleet there, particularly after the fall of Martinique. The British naval forces in the Caribbean were divided into two commands, one for Jamaica and the other for the Leeward islands. The former was based at Port Royal. Its principal function was to combat privateers and provide convoy service in the western Caribbean. When the war began in the 1793, the Jamaica Squadron consisted of a 50-gun ship, three 32-gun frigates, four sloops and a schooner. In 1795 there were 19 ships on the station - three ships of the line, 2 fourth rates, 6 fifth rates, a sixth rate and 3 schooners. Two years later the station had 31 ships, including seven of the line, 15 frigates and 7 sloops. This was increased by 1805 to 51 ships, including three of the line, 14 frigates and 24 sloops.
The Leeward Islands Squadron was based at Antigua and Barbados, though it could also use Martinique and St Lucia once those French colonies had been captured. At the beginning of the war this force numbered 9 ships of the line and 14 smaller ships and vessels, though it was increased within a year by three more ships of the line and seven other vessels, together with a large convoy of troops with which began the campaigns for the capture of the French West Indian possessions. In 1795 the Leeward Islands Squadron consisted of 26 ships, including 8 third rates, 10 frigates, 6 sloops and other vessels. In 1797 it numbered 44 ships - 9 of the line, 16 frigates and 11 sloops. Thereafter the fleet was gradually decreased as a result of the capture of most of the French colonies. By 1801, just before a short-lived peace was signed at Amiens, the fleet was down to just 26 ships and vessels, including one of the line, 9 frigates, 7 sloops and other craft.
As the settlement at Amiens restored most French possessions, when war resumed in 1803 the fleet in the West Indies had to be increased so as to enable it to capture these islands all over again. In 1805 it numbered six of the line, 13 frigates and the same number of sloops.
The North American Station
Two squadrons were maintained off the American coast, with bases at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at Newfoundland. These were considered minor areas of responsibility, for the United States remained neutral until 1812. When war with France began in 1793, the Halifax Squadron had only 4 ships and vessels, none of which exceeded 32 guns; the Newfoundland Squadron had one 64-gun ship, three frigates and five sloops. Nor did Royal Navy strength grow by any considerable amount: 5 ships in 1797, seven two years later, and 13 in 1805. In 1795, the Halifax Squadron had 10 ships, of which three were third rates. In 1800 this rose to 13, including two third rates. The number fell five years later to only eight ships, none of which were larger than frigates.
East Indies and the Cape
Ships assigned to these stations carried out raids in the East Indies and protected merchantmen in convoys bound for Europe. The East India Squadron in particular mostly protected trade originating from India. IN the first year of the war it numbered 13 ships, including five third rates. By 1797 it had 32 ships, including ten of the line, 17 frigates and 4 sloops. Two years later this number had declined to 17, rising again to 23, including 17 of the line, by 1803. In 1805 it numbered 29 ships, including eight of the line.