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Lessons learned from Trafalgar tactics

If you are going to learn about Royal Navy leadership and the value of training, you might as well do so by beating seven bells out of the French and Spanish…

And before our European friends and comrades bridle at that thought, this international spat is a rough-and-ready re-enactment of the Battle of Trafalgar staged by 16 trainee sailors under the tutelage of Royal Naval Association officials.

Groups of trainees – in this case 16 Part 2 Air Engineers from HMS Sultan – travel to Portsmouth Naval Base for ‘culture and value’ sessions run by RNA General Secretary Paul Quinn and Deputy GS Andy Christie.

The sessions – and there can be up to three in a busy week – are not history lessons, but help to put concepts such as leadership into a Naval context, giving the young sailors opportunities to think about how their development as individuals fits in with the wider Navy.

Standing in the Victory Arena, close to Nelson’s flagship, the trainees are led through an introduction to HMS Victory as the powerful war machine that she would have been in 1805, and the strategic importance of the battle off Cape Trafalgar.

They are then invited to line up; seven face the Mary Rose Museum as the Franco-Spanish force, eight are divided into two parallel columns facing their enemy, and the 16th is Nelson’s signal frigate, off to one side.

Slowly the British lines, led by Nelson and Collingwood, walk up to and break the Franco-Spanish line of battle – and the trainees are reminded that the battle itself would have been conducted at a slow walking pace as winds were light on 21 October 1805.

The two British lines initially take a pounding as they sail slowly head-first into enemy broadsides – but when they break the line they put the leading enemy ships out of the battle as they drift upwind, and the others are mercilessly blasted by highly-trained and motivated (thanks in part to tots of rum) British gunners, who rake them stem to stern as the British ships cross the line, each bank of guns firing as the target ships come into their line of sight.

Nelson’s leadership, and the trust placed in him by commanders and ordinary sailors, meant despite the initial dangers, his plan was followed and led to a famous victory – and provide a valuable insight for today’s sailors as they set out on their career paths.

“It is good for them to see history in this way, and we normally get positive feedback from these sessions,” said the group’s divisional leading hand, LAET Baz Mahon.

Paul Quinn said: “This is delivered as part of the Charter between the Royal Navy and the Royal Naval Association, and we are proud to do it.

“Capt Rob Vitali, the Commanding Officer of HMS Collingwood, was the signalling frigate in our little re-enactment two months ago – he declined to get involved in the fighting…”

Picture: The Franco-Spanish fleet (foreground) are about to be engaged by Nelson’s ships, split into two columns, as RNA General Secretary Capt Paul Quinn (partly obscured) directs the re-enactment of Trafalgar in the Victory Arena, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.