Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trafalgar Day

Wargame admirals habitually fight very sanguinary naval battles. It's not uncommon to find one surviving battered hulk pounding away at an equally wrecked opponent in a bid for final victory.

In contrast, if there's any characteristic that seems to define a real life admiral, it's his circumspection. Sensitive to the smallest disadvantage, the real admiral, who unlike his game counterpart, could face a dip in the drink and invariably controls a significant investment of national treasure, will endeavor to avoid that disadvantage at almost any cost. The end result is that the naval battles of history are often remarkably tentative, indecisive and bloodless. The French admiral Suffren and British admiral Hughes fought four squadron-sized naval battles in 1782-1783 without either side losing a ship in action. It goes without saying that a wargame campaign recreating that campaign will not have the same result.

But every so often there was a truly decisive naval battle. And when they occurred they illustrate the stakes of a naval battle, the potential cost and help explain why real admirals feared allowing their opponent any advantage at all. Battles such as Tsushima, Surigao Strait, Manila, Santiago, the Nile and Narvik demonstrate the danger of being caught with your pants down at sea.

Trafalgar, fought on this date 205 years ago, was one of the most decisive battles of history. While the Napoleonic Wars would continue for 10 more years, they went on with England essentially invulnerable to French direct attack. England would be the pre-eminent naval power for the next century, only facing a serious challenge after 1905.

The two sides were fairly evenly matched in numbers. Nelson's British fleet had 27 ships of the line, the combined Franco-Spanish fleet had 33. Neither side was under any illusions, however, that the two sides were evenly matched in combat power. Both sides recognized that the British had a clear advantage on a ship-to-ship level. So long as the Allied fleet maintained an unbroken formation it might lose a battle, but wouldn't lose too many ships. This had been demonstrated as recently as Calder's Action on July 22, 1805, which involved many of the same ships that would fight at Trafalgar. Calder's 15 British ships of the line defeated the 20-strong Franco-Spanish fleet, but did not destroy it. Just 2 Spanish ships were lost.

Nelson's genius was employing a plan that allowed the British fleet to break up the Allied formation and the courage to take the risk involved in doing so. He took the risk after making the calculation that the ill-trained Allied ships wouldn't be able to take advantage of his vulnerable approach. Events proved him right and the British were able to concentrate all their force on about 2/3 of the Allied fleet. The British destroyed 18 of the 33 ships in the Allied fleet and a subsequent action on Nov. 2 eliminated 4 more. The surviving Allied ships were blockaded and never again able to mount a dangerous coordinated campaign.

Compared to most fleet actions, then, wargaming Trafalgar is more likely than usual to result in a battle resembling its historical antecedent. Nelson was willing to risk his life, the lives of his men and a substantial part of England's wealth in search of decisive victory. In the end he did lose his own life, but British losses otherwise were relatively light, less than 10 percent of the men engaged and no ships. As much as admirals admire Nelson's example and may wish to emulate him, the fate of his opponent Villeneuve is never far from their minds. He also eventually paid for his loss with his life, with the added penalty of disgrace and the knowledge that he had cost two nations their navies.

Among the games depicting Trafalgar are Flying Colors, Wooden Ships & Iron Men and 1805 Sea of Glory

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