England’s greatest naval leader, Horatio Nelson, was born at Burnham-Thorpe, in Norfolk. He went to sea as a midshipman at the age of 12 and rose to lieutenant in the Royal Navy by 19. Promoted to post-captain (1779), Nelson served in the Caribbean to enforce the Navigation Laws during a time of relative peace (1784—1787).
The start of the French Revolution provided action for Nelson. His first command was that of the 64-gun warship Agamemnon. He partici¬ pated in the capture of the island of Corsica (1794) and lost the use of his right eye in combat there.
Nelson had studied and absorbed the les¬ sons of the great 18th-century British commanders Sir George Rooke,Admiral George Anson, Admiral Edward Hawke, and Admiral George Rodney. From them, he created his simple but revolutionary plan of battle: depart from the traditional for¬ mation of a line of ships (a for¬ mation that had been prevalent for over 100 years) and break the enemy’s line. This plan was riskier by far, but it had the potential to win great victories.
This strategy was first evident at the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent. Nelson sailed directly into the Spanish line of ships and captured two ships that were both larger than his own. He was knighted and promoted to rear admi¬ ral. Nelson went on to meet and completely defeat the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1798). After this, he was elevated to the level of peer of the realm.
Nelson fought the Danish navy at the Battle of Copenhagen (1802). When the bat¬ tle action was hanging in the balance, he received a signal from his superior officer to retire. Nelson pretended not to see the sign,
fought on, and won a complete victory. His last battle came at Cape Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain, in 1805. Nelson had 27 ships; the com¬ bined Franco-Spanish fleet had 33 ships including the Santissima Trinidad the largest ship in the world. Nonetheless, the French and Spanish were demoralized from the start, because they knew that Nelson led the British. For his part, Nelson was confident of victory. His last signal to the fleet read “England expects every man will do his duty.”
Nelson broke the Franco- Spanish line and battered the enemy with carronades (short- barreled cannons known as “smashers ”) and double-shotted cannon firing at close quar¬ ters. The French and Spanish fought with great courage, but the British gunners were superior. Nelson was wounded on the deck of HMS Victory by a bullet from a sharp¬ shooter during the action. He died on board and was brought to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for burial.