Saturday, 22 May 2021

All at Sea - Trafalgar Battle Planning

HMS Tonnant accepts the surrender of the Monarca - Nicholas Pocock 
One of my favourite Pocock pictures of a particular incident during the Battle of Trafalgar.

I think scenario and battle planning is one of the most interesting aspects of the wargaming hobby and alongside creating the model collection for a particular era, the pulling together of a battle scenario and producing a game from it has to be for me one of the most satisfying aspects, perhaps more so than playing the game itself.

I liken it to actors becoming directors and moving from the on stage/in front of the camera role to combining the two, sometimes being in among the cast but more often directing from back stage or behind the camera.

The Battle of Trafalgar has to be one of the most written about actions in history with numerous accounts from all sides and maps compiled over the years attempting to give an idea of where the ships in each fleet were when the fighting began.

That the battle is extensively covered is a bit of a two-edged sword in that, as with all battles, no one source can ever be certain as to what was going on at any particular time across the battle as a whole. If you don't believe me, consider the comments of the Duke of Wellington when asked to give an account of his battles, of which he had a few to recount, coming up with his famous quote about battles being rather like balls (dances) in that you could only ever know what was happening in your particular part of the ballroom at any one time.

This issue is only magnified with a battle like Trafalgar with seventy three vessels spread across some nine square miles or more of open sea adding to that discrepancy between accounts and the dreaded battle map!

A period map from close to the time of the battle. Ok so far as it goes in giving a general impression of the set up but not detailed enough for our purposes.

As so often in our hobby and indeed history itself, we are left with educated guesswork and a certain amount of conjecture mixed with inevitable concessions to be able to translate a battle set up to our table, and thus I thought I would go through my basic principles for doing this.

I start, as always, with the end in mind, namely why are the forces where they are and what are they trying to achieve, so that I can work out the parameters of any given battle from the players perspective  who in an historical refight will normally be trying to do a better job than their historical counterparts but hopefully constrained with similar issues and thus forced to make choices within those constraints.

If done well these kind of scenarios can really help to illustrate the difficult choices the generals and admirals in history faced and as well as having a good time rolling bones we might also come away from the game with a lot of sympathy for our historical counterparts or not.

So the situation Trafalgar presents is of a poorly manned and trained Combined Fleet, a combination of sickness breaking out in Cadiz, losses sustained in the cruise to the West Indies and the need to bolster ships compliments with landsmen and soldiers, hoping to avoid interception and itself intercept a British convoy reported to be coming through the Gibraltar Straits before then heading to Toulon to dominate the Mediterranean after the Emperor's plan to dominate the Channel had to be postponed.

Villeneuve, the Allied commander knows his job and reputation is on the line with his replacement on the way to Cadiz from Paris and needing to score any sort of a victory to help repair his reputation in Imperial circles.

Thus to find himself and his fleet intercepted outside the Straits and thirty miles from Cadiz is not part of his plan and in desperation he has attempted to reverse course back to the Spanish port at 08.00, somewhat throwing his fleet into disorder by the manoeuvre; and its now beating against a bow wind with the British having the wind gage, thus leaving the only option to get his line in order as best he can and hope to present enough guns against a British attack he expects to come at his line with the intention of bringing on a pell-mell melee. Any attempt to flee will disorder his fleet still further and leave them to be decimated in detail, so his only hope is to so badly damage the British aloft, that he might still get most of his fleet into Cadiz and maybe take the odd British prize in a boarding action where he hopes his extra soldiers, marines and snipers in the tops will get him some compensation for his anticipated losses.
The map I chose to plan the game around is from Adkin's Trafalgar Companion and shows the fleets in position as the Allies opened fire on the lead British ships at 11.45am. The notes provide a convenient briefing around the situation and the scale of the map and approximate positions make this a really useful planning tool.

For the British, the sight of the Combined Fleet in its current situation is like the shark smelling blood in the water and Nelson has his battle plan well understood by his captains who feel confident in what they have to do and how to set about it.

The wind gage will allow them to choose where they will attack and look to pass between the Allied ships, whilst having the speed to close the gap on the Allied line quickly reducing the time for the Franco-Spanish gun crews to target their rigging on the way in and to deliver raking fire as they get to the leeward side of the Combined Fleet to begin battering it at close range and prevent them escaping once they have struck.

Nelson's plan focusses on the importance of Collingwood's Lee Column attacking in echelon to quickly overwhelm the rear of the Allied fleet, some twelve to fifteen ships in the rear, whilst he will look to take out the commander as soon as he can identify his ship, and so will attack in column headed for the enemy van, thus pinning it before veering towards the centre as soon as Villeneuve reveals his position.

The column approach of Nelson's Weather Column serves a two fold plan to attack and take out the Allied centre whilst having a reserve of British ships arriving in the latter stages able to support as required and to prevent any interference from the Allied van should it arrive in time.

Thus the set-up arrived at is as you see it based on the appreciation of these facts presented by Adkins in the Trafalgar Companion with a copy of his map I started to plan around based on the game scale of one inch to twenty-five yards or roughly six feet to the mile, and I have set the fleets up as the Allied fleet opens fire at 11.45am on the 21st October 1805.

My final table plan and initial set up with the five tables allowing the Combined Fleet to occupy its battle position with room ahead for the van to come about and with the furthest tables away able to allow the British to make their approach. The ships that opened fire are indicated and might make a good start point for the game.

The Adkin's map provides a good basis for a set up plan and even shows the Allied vessels that started the battle, marked as opening fire, however I needed to translate the set up into tables that would allow access to the models constrained as always by the length of the average human arm and to decide on the separation between the ships which I have set at around four to six inches or one-hundred to one-hundred and fifty yards, which is likely to open up as the Spanish find it difficult to maintain their station (as covered in Kiss Me Hardy)

Once the table plan was sorted out I needed to translate it to the table to make sure what my mind was seeing was realistic, particularly with the deployment of the Combined Fleet which is where the fighting will take place, given that they are moving slowly into a bow wind.

Thus you can see in the plan below and how the fleet will be distributed across three tables and in relation to the approach of the first British ships set up in echelon for Collingwood's Lee Column and in column and arriving later for Nelson's Weather Column.

The likely final table plan above and how it translates the Combined Fleet to the table, illustrated below in more detail. Each square on the plan is a square foot of table space, with four 10 x 5 foot mats alongside the 9 x 5 mat you see in the pictures.

An important aspect of the Combined Fleet set up was to make sure the line was spread out sufficiently within the scale distance that captures the gaps between its individual ships that the British exploited to pass between them.

In Kiss Me Hardy the Spanish will find it difficult to maintain their station and other gaps are likely to open up just as quickly as the more able French ships look to close them with not much scope for any rapid adjustments sailing into a bow wind. Likewise the British will have no such constraint's with plenty of movement options and the ability to maintain station and likely arrive in groups of ships able to support one another.

In reality the Combined Fleet set up will be one long line of models spread over twenty-three feet of table and these three pictures attempt to show the arrangement organised over my nine foot table broken into the three parts as illustrated on the planner.

The only gap in the tables will be that between the British approach tables and the Combined Fleet set up tables with British ships arriving on the latter transferred from one to the other as needed. Thus HMS Africa is shown running down the line of the Allied van and Collingwood's Royal Sovereign will likely come onto the table in front of the Allied rear sometime in the opening turn.

With the set up sorted I am now looking at the other scenario conditions principally around the parameters set up in the Too Fat Lardies scenario plan from 2005 but with adjustments to look at squadron and fleet morale as a whole.

Wargamers tend to ask their land and naval warriors to fight on far longer than their historical counterparts, willing to accept ridiculously higher casualties that would have been the case in reality.

From the accounts of the battle, this break point becomes obvious after about a couple of hours of close fighting with Allied ships starting to drift away from the action leaving comrades on the wrong side of the British line to their fate. Obviously when this becomes more general the battle dies down providing the break point where those that can, get away off table, and also providing a sense check for the players to see if the game continues or is called with outcomes assessed.

So there we are, the fleets are built, the game plan is set up, the storage and carriage boxes are organised and, as I write this post, the additional sea mats have arrived, so now we just need to sort out the time and the venue. England Expects!

Next up, I have a book review from the War of 1812, and the Spanish and French are joined by reinforcements in the form of another three Spanish 74's kitted out for Cape St Vincent and the French with the mighty L'Orient ready for her trip to the Nile.

In addition Carolyn and I are off on our first trip away after a very long winter of lockdown and headed to Shrewsbury, the Welsh borders and North Wales for a few days, so I hope to capture a look at some interesting places while we are away.


  1. Wonderful to see the planning to get the battle to the table top(s). I remember some quote to the effect that British troops in the Peninsula always fought on the slope of a hill on the join between two maps and in the rain. Your plan seems to work well with the scale space and so forth, but it seems Collingwood will be hitting the allied line on the join between two tables. I'd be very tempted to centre the allied line tables where the British columns will encounter them. Then have a small table for the rear of the allied line - effectively allowing them to join the fight from a sort of reserves table. The allied van table would then mostly be a table to demonstrating how a loose line tacks in succession.

    1. Hi Andrew, thank you and yes your Peninsular War quote rings true after my efforts planning Talavera back in 2008 and working out the height of the Pajar Vergara in relation to the Medellin and where exactly on my table it should go.

      The plan shows each table separately but it is not how they will be laid out on the day. You have to imagine the Combined Fleet occupying one complete 'L' shaped table twenty feet long with only the two British tables separated from it but also together, twenty feet long, thus Royal Sovereign in O7 will enter P5 on its first move and can be fired upon in either with the gap between the table ignored for range purposes, so no gap effectively.

      KMH activation is randomised so the positions are estimated by Adkin as to where the ships were when the first Allied ships opened fire at long range, aiming at British rigging, thus the chit draw in KMH will decide when the movement and firing actually occurs for which KMH gives the allies a bonus on their firing, which could be immediately before or after the Royal Sovereign has closed the range and moved directly on to the enemy table.

      Given the distances of following ships it will be very simple to randomise the precise entry points and time of arrival for off table British ships, and as they are beyond long range fire they do not impact on the game until they present themselves on the British entry table.

      Because the Combined Fleet is moving very slowly with a bow wind the action should develop on their table as more British ships enter and it should be rather intimidating for the allied players as more British ships enter in turn.

      Well that's the idea anyway. Playtesting will validate it or not, but I'm confident based on the original Lardy layout in 2005 and now seeing the models laid out.

  2. Coming along very nicely Jonathan. It's a shame to have to split it over tables, but a necessity of your relatively large models and an extensive area of sea to cover. Do you have the space to enable the three tables to be pushed together at any stage, or are they (as I assume) actually 'stacked' in the room rather than in a long line?
    I'll follow with keen interest.
    Regards, James

    1. Hi James, thank you and getting there bit by bit.

      Yes as explained above there is only one gap between the British and Combined Fleet tables where the British players can move their models onto the allied table as they close into medium and short range. You need the British table to deploy on to assess the damage the allies cause at long range as the British approach, but eventually the action should come together on the allied 'L' shaped table alone which will be one long table with the opposing players spread along it on either side.

      Room size and tables is the next part of the planning and preparation phase, and I have a few ideas in place that need checking out once we can start moving around and normality returns.