Nelson: Early RN years

 Royal Navy: the early years

Sociologists tend to argue that it is not so much the individual who changes history. Instead, it is the struggles of the masses and random chance that selects any one of hundreds if not thousands of otherwise suitable individuals to be the figurehead for inevitable societal change. On the other hand, it might be difficult to argue against the position that it takes a very singular person with very special leadership qualities, rather than the struggle of the masses, to produce a person with the unique “Nelson touch”.

Superior leadership

Consistent superior leadership under fire is just one of the many essential prerequisites to success in war. Bad leadership certainly loses battles, if not wars, even nations. In Nelson’s day, his reputation alone was sufficient to create a sense of panic in his enemy, causing them to make errors of both omission and commission.

At Aboukir in 1798, the otherwise meticulous de Brueys should have ensured that his theoretically sound anchor plan had been executed properly. He failed to do this, allowing Nelson’s ships not only to exploit a tactical weakness but, by Nelson’s overwhelming victory, drastically alter the strategic balance of the European nations competing for Asian influence and trade.

Villeneuve, at Trafalgar in 1805, knew that his fleet was at least equal to if not superior in every numerical respect to Nelson’s. He also correctly guessed Nelson’s tactics. Nevertheless, instead of attacking, as Nelson probably would have done, he tried to scuttle back to Cadiz when he heard that Nelson was in the offing. This course reversal threw his fleet into disarray, contributed to his defeat and significantly changed European history.

Nelson, although brilliant, did not appear magically and achieve these remarkable victories alone. He had the support of ships, men, stores and systems that responded to his superior leadership qualities. He learned his trade the hard way, through experience, studying battles, listening to others, and finally making sure his officers and men knew exactly what he wanted of them.

To understand Nelson, it is useful not only to study Nelson’s history, but to put that history into context by studying his contemporaries. Some of the British, French and Spanish leaders who are interwoven with the Nelson legend are described on the following pages. They are chosen more at random than order of importance and there are just as many other commanders deserving mention. They are presented in no particular order.

Where to start in the story of the naval commanders? It would be too long a bow to draw to go all the way back to the Classis Britannica of Ancient Roman times, although it was these tiny warships that first demonstrated the fundamental strategy of controlling the English Channel with a strong fleet as a bulwark against invasion.

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It was the three Tudor monarchs, Henry 7 (left), Henry 8 and Elizabeth 1 who established the first potent English navy. It was allowed to fall into disrepair, but they set the standards by which later leaders reinvigorated the Service.

When that organisation fell into disuse, the fourth century Jutes and Saxons found it easy to raid and even colonise English coastal towns. After some fits and starts, usually in response to one seaborne threat or another, it was the Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who started naval shipbuilding and naval dockyard construction in earnest.

The “privateering” of chiefly Spanish ships and Caribbean ports became strongly linked with British naval service in Elizabethan times. While British valour and efficiency was acknowledged, failure to curb this piratical behaviour, together with Drake’s Cadiz raid, contributed to Philip of Spain’s decision to invade England in 1588.

Legends notwithstanding, weather and other considerations might well have been more important than British naval efficiency in the destruction of the 130-ship Spanish Armada. Both sides virtually emptied their magazines without causing much vital damage to their opposite numbers.

It was after the British attack with eight fireboats off Calais that the entire remaining Spanish fleet of 120 or so ships could probably have negotiated the English Channel again and returned to Spain, had the wind been fair. Instead, their reluctant and inexperienced commander, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, ordered the scattered Armada to retreat left-about the British Isles. Due to navigation difficulties and storms, the fleet lost half its ships and three quarters of its men.

Not so well known is the fact that between 6000 and 8000 of the British sailors who participated in the Armada died of typhus and dysentery shortly after the battle. Many were never paid for their sacrifice and service.

Nevertheless, the invasion attempt once more demonstrated the necessity of a strong navy in the defence of the British Isles. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm did not last. Time and again, after promising starts, the fleet was left to languish, ostensibly for lack of money. This culminated in a Dutch raid in 1667 that decimated a virtually immobilised and rotting British fleet at Medway.

British ships laid up in the Medway.

Therefore, compared with the well-founded Dutch and Spanish fleets, there was not much on which to build a British Navy in 1667. Beginning about 1668, the diligent Samuel Pepys and future James II revitalised the newly-christened Royal Navy (RN). By the end of the 17th century the RN had a clear strategic aim, improved support and much better administration.

It was Samuel Pepys (left) and the future James II who revitalised and named the Royal Navy.

While the RN had virtually nothing to do with initiating settlements in the Americas, it found itself defending these outposts against French, Spanish and other raiders. It also became embroiled in the War of American Independence as France and other nations took active sides supporting the rebels. The West Indies and the North American stations became the crucibles that forged the careers of many brilliant RN officers, including Nelson.

These roles swiftly expanded until the RN became an important force with world-wide reach. Naval forces captured a number of territories, frequently in response to aggression, such as Gibraltar and Minorca. At the same time they defended others, including the North American and Caribbean colonies. Epic journeys of exploration in the name of natural philosophy followed, such as those by Cook and Franklin. However, graft and corruption, even mutiny, flourished from time to time until strongly checked by FADM John Jervis and others in the late 1790s.

RN officers developed reputations, not only for maritime prowess, but also for an ability to command army units ashore, apply diplomacy and oversee civil administration. It was in 1788 that the First Fleet, commanded by Captain Phillip RN, landed on Australian soil and established a convict colony that grew into the Australian nation of today.

Around the 1780s a number of brilliant British naval commanders virtually re-wrote the rules of naval warfare. One of the first may have been ADML Sir George Rodney, who claimed responsibility for defeating a 30-ship French invasion force in the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. However it may not have been Rodney, but his second-in-command, VADM Hood, or even a fortuitous change of wind that was primarily responsible.

As well as Nelson, others of interest in this period, discussed in the pages that follow, might include FADM Jervis, ADML Hood and VADM Collingwood. For comparison, Nelson’s defeated opponents VADMs de Brueys, Villeneuve and Gravina are included.