Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trafalgar, only more!

So, the latest War Eagles project was a continuation of our New Year's Day battle (chronicled here).

This year's scenario was a hypothetical wherein all available Spanish and French ships in the Mediterranean Sea attempt to break past a scraped up British blocking fleet in the Straits of Gibralter. The British have a large number of frigates and smaller ships, a few third rates and a couple of East India Men which the Spanish mistook for third rates and pounded to pieces....
The break out was to reinforce the Combined Spanish/French Fleet at Trafalgar. In order to create an even tougher problem for the British, Gary researched all available French and Spanish ships and inserted a Northern Reinforcement Division of seven SOL and a Frigate and the French Ghost Fleet, a well commanded, experienced, small but powerful fleet loose in the Atlantic at the time on a commerce raiding mission.

The map below was modified from a map available at Broadside, Home of Nelson's Navy...
a collection of pages describing life in Royal Navy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century
The original map and a description of the historical battle is here.

The scenario was designed using a similar map from "Nelson, The Commander" by Geoffrey Bennett, 1972. I believe some liberty's were taken with the order of ships in the original van, which became the rear division when the Combined Fleet reversed direction prior to the battle. I have made some adjustments to the map to allow for the actual location of our ships in our What If scenario, which begins a little later in time than the original map, as the Combined Fleet has had a bit more time to gather itself into a line of battle. By the time the British fleet approached the Combined Fleet, cohesive battle lines had been formed in both the lead and lagging divisions. The Northern Reinforcement, the Mediterranean Breakout and the Ghost Fleet all entered the table in line of battle. A number of frigates were present on both sides. They are shown on the original map, but in our re-fight, the frigates all withdrew before the battle, off table to the East and West respectively, so I removed them from the map below showing our starting positions. More or less. Unfortunately, I forgot my cameras the first day, so there are no photos. In the absence of photography, I spent a lot of time with Paint working on this map.

You can see the Africa, British 64, at the head of the Combined Fleet. Captained by Henry Digby, Africa had become separated from Nelson's column during the night. Liberally interpreting his orders to rejoin Nelson, Digby sailed down the line of battle toward Nelson's Victory at the head of the windward British column, exchanging broadsides with a number of French and Spanish ships. In our refight, he didn't quite make it to Nelson, striking his flag due to hull damage about two turns short....

As the British columns approached the Combined Fleet, all ships within range fired at the rigging of the ships at the head of the columns, Nelson's Victory and Collingwood's Royal Sovereign. Both ships were dismasted about 6 inches short of the line, disrupting the British lines of battle and ultimately preventing them from their goal of penetrating and enveloping the rear division of the Combined Fleet. The first night's action took up the first twelve turns. On our second evening's session, here is how things stood:

In the historical battle, Nelson struck the center of the Combined Fleet's line, penetrated it and initiated a general melee against the rear of the column, with a substantial advantage in numbers and quality. In the meantime, the lead division sailed on for a time and was too late in returning to the rear division which was overwhelmed. With the advantage of hindsight and reinforcements, the Combined Fleet tried a different approach. After Victory had been dismasted, the gigantic Santissima Trinidad, 130 followed by the San Justo, 74 turned to engage, paralleled by Admiral Villeneuve in the Bucentaurre, 80 followed by the Neptune, 74. With the Africa struck and a hazard to navigation immediately to windward of the Santissima, turning into the British line of battle created an unholy traffic jam. The Bucentaurre, hammered by Victory (mastless but still a gun platform) and other British ships, was forced to strike on turn 14. Neptune pulled out to pass to windward. The Santissima Trinidad, engaged by three British ships is being pounded and cannot last long. San Justo and other ships from the van are engaging the British ships pulling past the Santissima. Meanwhile, Victory has been attracting attention even though dismasted. On turn 15, after taking damage every turn, Victory finally is holed at the waterline by (FR) Redoubtable's final broadside before being forced to strike herself. Tonnant, British 84, adjacent to the east of Redoubtable, hammered by the full Northern Reinforcement line a few inches further east and pounded by Redoubtable's partner immediately ahead also struck but only after forcing Redoubtable out of the fight.

The Combined Fleet van turning immediately back into the fight plus the arrival of the Northern Reinforcement's battle line has created a substantial numerical advantage for the Spanish and French ships engaged with Nelson's column. Nelson's column is no longer a column and maneuvering is hampered by the many ships which have struck or sunk in the center and the sheer glut of ships in a small space. The Victory has struck and Nelson is transferring his flag to the Neptune, 98. It's a hard pounding for everybody and more Spanish and French ships are nearing the fight as the Mediterranean breakout and the Ghost fleet sailing upwind are nearing the leeward column.

The general situation at the end of the session:

One more session was needed to reach a conclusion. But the last session would start with a huge surprise on turn 17. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Obscured by the huge cloud of smoke, throwing flaming debris and splinters everywhere, the largest ship in the world, flagship of the Spanish Fleet, the Santissima Trinidad just blew up. Good photo op. This doesn't really change the battle, she would have been forced to strike in the next turn and probably would have done very little more damage, but wow, was it unexpected. Bucentaurre (already struck), San Justo, Neptuno and Mont Blanc all took friendly damage from the explosion, but Ajax, Orion and Conqueror adjacent to the explosion, lost masts, took hull hits and lost guns.

On turn 18, Royal Soveriegn finally succumbed to the fire of the line of battle sailing past her and Collingwood transferred his flag to Belleisle. In another surprise, at the tag end of the Van's line, Intrepide, French 74 and Spartiate, British 74 coughed final defiance at each other and both surrendered. Unfortunately, neither were able to successfully fight the fires started and burned to the waterline. Behind the Spartiate, you can see where the Minotaur, hulled numerous times while sailing the length of the Combined Fleet van, has quietly sunk beneath the waves.

The Africa, Minotaur, Spartiate, Mars and Collosus (?) all managed to prove a basic principle: Sailing down a column of ships that outnumber you will spread the damage you give out over multiple ships and they will survive, while you take all the damage from the enemy ships and don't.

On turn 19, the Mediterranean breakout fleet reached engagement range, with the lead three ships all firing on what I think was Thunderer, forcing it to strike in just two turns. On turn 20, with Thunderer struck, Ajax and Conqueror unable to sail into the wind due to masts lost in the explosion of the Santissima Trinidad, the hoped for superiority of the leeward column compromised by the loss of Thunderer, Mars and Colossus, the imminent arrival of the Ghost Fleet and the head and tail of the Combined Fleet's rear division turning on it, the minor success of forcing the Argonaute to strike just didn't seem to be enough to balance the bad news. Nelson signaled for a general withdrawal.
The Lee squadron ships engaging the Mediterranean fleet at the rear of the Combined Fleet can easily sail away to the west. Belleisle and Neptune along with the two ships engaging the Northern Reinforcement, plus Orion (able to sail only down wind, but already headed that way) and Conqueror backing out of the mess can withdraw to the west. Ajax is trapped in the mess and forced to surrender.

The battle has been fought in light winds, but gale winds are expected tonight. The fleets are just a few miles off a lee shore, and ships with compromised handling are liable to be driven onto the rocks and destroyed. A common result of critical hits has been to sever the anchor cables so for many ships, anchoring in shallow water before running aground is not an option.

The final tally:

Spanish losses: The Atlas (74), San Juan de Nepomuceno (74) and San Augustino (74) all forced to strike due to hull damage and without anchors were driven onto the shore by the gale and destroyed. The Neptuno, hulled below the waterline, sank outright. And, of course, the Santissima Trinidad. All other Spanish ships were either salvaged or made port on their own.

French losses: The Intrepide (74) burned to the waterline. The Redoubtable (74) sank during the battle. The Argonaute, sailing ability compromised and anchor cable severed, was driven onto rocks and broken to splinters.

British losses: The Minotaur (74), the Colossus (74), Ajax (74) and Britannia (100) were salvaged and brought to port as prizes by the Combined Fleet. Proper allocation of the prize money remains in dispute, will remain in dispute and owing to the two countries involved, will probably have a recrimination phase lasting for centuries if the legal disputes are ever settled.... Prize crews aboard the Tonnant (80), Mars (74) and Atlas (74) were unable to keep to windward of the Cape of Trafalgar and were taken off. Peasants living near the Cape have building materials for the next 10 years. Leviathan (74), Africa (64), Thunderer (74), Royal Sovereign (110) and the Victory (100) all sank before the gale winds could wreck them.

Nelson lives, but the luster of his name has been blemished, dulled, tarred, perhaps even eclipsed. Time will tell if he can redeem himself or if the Admiralty will even ever employ him again.

UPDATE: You may have noticed in the photos above, some of (especially) the British ships are named in more than one place. I am not at all confident of where specific ships went in our scenario, and especially in the Lee Division commanded by Collingwood. Mars, Colossus and Thunderer are all over the place. If anybody can correctly identify any ships, please let me know and I will redo the photos as needed.

ALSO: I completely neglected to document the singular success of the British Reinforcing, ship. The ship which was observing the port from which a large portion of the Spanish Northern Reinforcement issued was released to Nelson as a reinforcement. Operating alone, **** harassed the tail of the returning Combined Fleet van, forcing two ships to strike, even while backtracking to rescue a politically important midshipman who had fallen overboard.

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