Lord Nelson and amateur tacticians*

* Moderator’s Note: This post appeared originally in the Letters to the Editor section of The Washington Times on 30 March 2007. It is no longer available on-line.

A large part of Canadian naval history is traced back to that of the Royal Navy. The history of that organization is long and rich, with a veritable pantheon of naval heroes (and a few scoundrels) to study and emulate. The problem with most Canadian naval history is that it is very superficial in its analysis and barely gets beyond the recounting of tactical events. The commentary, below, was written in response to comments made in the American press after the surrender of two boats’ crews from HMS Cornwall to six motor patrol boats from the IRGCN [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Naval]. (You can read more on this under Topic #7, Swarming Tactics). The critic of the surrender by fifteen Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel felt that the ‘traditions’ of the Royal navy had been denigrated by a ‘cowardly act’ and that the RN no longer had any stomach for fighting. I wrote this comment in reply to the criticism that ignored the facts and relied on nothing but a tactical platitude for it justification.

How I hate this overused quote from Lord Horatio Nelson: "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy" Nelson never intended that his ships' captains should take on impossible odds, but that is what history buffs and ignorant tacticians think he meant. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nelson was a very good operational commander. He knew how to keep his fleet concentrated and how to take advantage of his considerable gunnery advantage. On several occasions, he did not disperse his fleet adequately to detect French forces that eluded him as a result, which forced him to play a chase-me-chase-me game.

Nelson would not allow the French an opportunity to turn quickly upon his scouting forces and kept his battlefleet together to prevent defeat in detail. He also knew how to devise innovative tactics that gave his fleet additional local advantage (doubling the line, etc.), albeit with some risk, which he knew was acceptable because of the superior performance and reliability of his crews. When the opportunity finally presented itself, Nelson had all the advantage he needed to succeed as a fleet commander and had given his ship commanders the opening they needed to win their individual engagements.

So, the preamble to the quote should read: "Once your fleet commander has brought his forces to bear in the right time and place ..." The rest, as they say, is history.

The ‘lesson’ here for Canadians is to understand that history is more than a collection of facts and dates. The significance of events is derived from understanding the context for the events and the motivation behind the decisions taken by the leaders that caused the actions. This cannot be accomplished without a good grounding in strategic theory and operational concepts. (You can read more on the contemporary pros and cons of the concentration of force under Topic #9, Canadian Naval Doctrine.) When reduced to nothing more than a platitude, even the most famous of statements by the greatest of leaders can become misleading and may even be dangerous when used as a general guide.