Naval Weaponry, Tactics, and Their Strategic Importance at Trafalgar and Midway

On October 8th, 1805, a fleet of the British Royal Navy, under command of Horatio Nelson, launched an attack against Spanish and French ships that were stationed off the coast of Cape Trafalgar, Spain, and was successful in defeating the Franco-Spanish forces. Although Nelson died in battle, his fleet of 27 ships was able to sink one enemy ship, as well as capture 17 others.[1] On June 4th, 1942, United States Admiral Chester Nimitz, the commander of the American Central Pacific Fleet, went to battle with Japanese Admiral Isoroki Yamamoto at Midway. The Americans won, even though they were going up against almost every single combat ship in the Japanese Empire’s navy.[2] These two battles, though over 100 years apart, share various similarities in terms of military technology and tactics. They also, however, share multiple differences in those two categories as well. That being said, each of the main combatants in these two battles used their navy extensively during the war their respective battle was a part of.

One key similarity between the British, French, and Spanish navies in the Battle of Trafalgar, and the American and Japanese navies at Midway, was the use of explosives or other weapons to take advantage of flammable components on enemy ships. Explosive projectiles were mobilized in the early 19th century. “Shells” were explosive rounds fired at ships by cannon, which could cause a considerable amount of damage. However, another projectile that was deadly was the heated shot. This cannon ball was heated to very high temperatures, so high that the crews had to be careful when loading them into the cannons so that they did not ignite the gunpowder. They were then fired at opposing ships that were then set ablaze because they were made of wood which was ignited by the heated shot. This made fires very common aboard these ships, and the fires could cause huge amounts of damage.[3] In the Battle of Midway, one of the key weapons was explosives. The bombs carried by American dive-bombers were short fused, and highly explosive. However, that was not enough on its own to sink something as large as an aircraft carrier. Due to the high amounts of fuel, ordinance, and planes present on the Japanese carrier decks, there was enough secondary explosions to sink 3 of their carriers within the first 2 minutes of the battle.[4] In both of these battles, explosives and other forms of artillery were being used to exploit simple flaws in enemy ships, such as flammable materials like wood and fuel being so openly exposed.

A difference between the weapons used at the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Midway was the use of aircraft carriers, in conjunction with planes, as the main feature of a fleet as opposed to a three-decker. At Trafalgar, Nelson put three-deckers, ships with higher firepower, at the vanguards of his two lines as they approached the Franco-Spanish fleet.[5] However, the difference these ships made in their respective fight is much less than the aircraft carrier. The carrier allowed for the implementation of dive bombers as well as torpedoes. Dive bombers were planes that would dive down toward enemy boats, dropping an explosive on them while flying right above at low atitude. This increased the speed of the battle, because with the amount of fuel and other explosive material on the decks on the carriers, 3 of Japan’s 4 carriers were sunk within the first 2 minutes of the battle. Torpedoes were also a major form of weaponry used extensively in WWII. Aerial-torpedoes, torpedoes dropped into the water from a plane,[6] would have hit the hull of a ship as opposed to the side of a ship, which would then sink a ship far faster. Japanese torpedoes were more advanced than those of the Americans, and were much harder to stop.[7] While they might have been projectiles, just as cannon balls are, the fact that they were able to be dropped from a plane gave the navy many more options for attacking the enemy, as they could do more damage than a cannon ball, and the carriers did not have to get as close to enemy ships.

Another area where the two battles share similarities in in regard to tactics. One of the similarities in the tactics used in both of the battles was the attempt to surprise the enemy, either with a surprise attack, a diversion, or by employing unconventional tactics. At Trafalgar, the British fleet under control of Nelson, took an unconventional approach to attacking the French and Spanish coalition. The common practice was for each of the fleets to form one row, and then the two opposing rows would repeatedly broadside each other. This is the formation that the Spanish and French were in at the time of the battle. However, to confuse the enemy, Nelson had the British ships form two perpendicular columns toward the enemy line.[8] The British would then sail at full speed toward the enemy in an attempt to break through their line while suffering as little damage as possible. It would take the Franco-Spanish fleet a long time to reposition and return fire.[9] Before Midway, the Japanese had tried to create a diversionary attack against the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. However, because of advances in American code breaking, this diversion proved to be futile.[10] The diversion by the Japanese failed, and it alerted the Americans to their true intention which was taking Midway. Admiral Nimitz had intended for the American assault on the Japanese fleet to be a surprise attack, but the Japanese were alerted to a U.S carrier’s presence 3 hours before the battle by one of its spy planes.[11] While the U.S ultimately won the Battle of Midway, they were not successful in carrying out a surprise attack, as their intentions were made known to their enemy.

One of the main differences between the tactics used at the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Midway was the intent that the fleets had when engaging the other. At Trafalgar, even though it is considered a British victory against the French and the Spanish, the British only sunk one ship. They did, however, capture 17 other ships. This is not only because these ships took a long time to sink, but because each ship was valuable. If a ship could be taken instead of being destroyed, it could be repurposed as a ship for the British navy. Therefore, it was in the best interest of Britain to not destroy the ships in the enemy fleet, rather to capture them.[12] This is very different from the Battle of Midway, where the goal of both Japan and the United States was to destroy as many enemy ships as possible and cripple the enemy fleets.

Another important tactical difference was the use of planes. As there were obviously no planes being used in the Battle of Trafalgar, the fighting took place within a much closer proximity. Ships would try to get very close to each other in order to broadside one another.[13] However, in the Battle of Midway, airplanes were used to drastically increase the size of the battlefield. Instead of ships fighting in a confined location, planes allowed the war zone to stretch on for many miles. The Americans had 221 planes on its 3 carriers present for the battle, along with around 100 planes on Midway itself. Because Admiral Nimitz knew that the Japanese pilots were more experienced than the American pilots, and the Japanese planes had far superior firepower, he decided to launch a surprise attack with planes. However, at least one of the carriers that the planes were on, at approximately 3 hours before the battle, was 240 miles away from Midway.[14] The speed of planes allowed for them to travel long distances over a relatively short period of time, which therefore increased the potential size of a battlefield as planes can be launched from a variety locations and travel many miles in just a few minutes.

Britain’s overarching strategy was very dependent on its naval forces. The Napoleonic Wars began in 1803 when Britain declared war on France. Britain had 3 main objectives that it would seek to fulfill in order to guarantee its security. These 3 goals were to defend all British territorial possessions, protect the British homeland itself by preventing a French invasion, and attack French trade. Naval warfare was absolutely key to accomplishing these objectives. The main British tool for controlling the French navy was the use of blockades. Creating close blockades around French ships was a way for Britain to secure its territorial integrity and prevent a French invasion. British ships would also defend trade, protecting the British economy. Protecting sea communications was also a top priority for the nation.[15]

France’s navy played into its overall strategy, but not to the same extent as it did for the United Kingdom. France had an interest in invading the U.K. At one point, France went was far assembling a flotilla that could transport around 100 thousand soldiers.[16] As Britain is an island nation, the only way France could have invaded would have been by using ships. As Austria was also at war with France, the French had a greater need than the British to focus on their continental army.

The U.S. also had a large use for its navy in its general strategy in WWII. After Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States came to the decision to go to war against the Axis powers. However, the United States knew could not fight both Germany and Japan at the same time. Germany posed an existential threat to the United Kingdom, America’s ally, and had far greater military strength than that of Japan. Therefore, the U.S. navy was to play a defensive role in the Pacific, while the country was fighting Germany in Europe. Once the Allies regained Europe, the battle in the Pacific would begin.[17] The navy played a very large role in war against Japan. The Japanese empire had gained control of much extra territory while the United States was fighting Germany. The navy was the main component that would slowly start to rollback Japanese control of various pacific islands. The Battle of Midway crippled Japan’s ability to launch aircraft towards allied positions, and put them on the defensive. For the U.S. it became a matter of leapfrogging island to island in order to get closer to Japan. The end goal of the United States was to get close enough to Japan to have a staging point for the eventual atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The navy was key in transporting planes for the bombing of the Japanese mainland, and the invasion of other outlying islands such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The Japanese navy was used to extend Japanese territorial control to surrounding areas in Asia and Oceania. During WWII, Japan was engaging in a large amount of conquest. One of the other uses of the navy, however, was to launch the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor to try and effectively disable the American navy, putting it out of commission for a great deal of time and giving Japan control over the pacific.[18] However, at the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces failed to destroy the American aircraft carriers that they suspected to have been with the rest of the United States fleet stationed at the base.[19] By the middle of 1943, American shipyards were producing Essex-class aircraft carriers at a rate of one per month. Japan could not match that level of production. Therefore, the main aim of Japan in the Battle of Midway was to sink the 3 American aircraft carriers that it knew were nearby.[20] The Japanese strategy was to completely and utterly overwhelm the Americans. Japan may have taken over much of its surrounding territories but because of the industrial strength of the United States, Japan feared that if it did not take Midway and destroy America’s main aircraft carriers, that it would start being pushed back toward the Japanese mainland. Once they lost their aircraft carriers, they began to slowly lose control of its newly conquered territories, and their navy began to stand much less of a chance against that of the U.S.

The battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Midway share various characteristics. In terms of the weapon technology that was used in each, one can see a heavy use of explosives in both battles, and an attempt to make use of flammable materials aboard enemy ships, using them as weapons. A similarity in tactics that the two battles shared was that attempts to surprise or deceive the enemy were present. The two battles also shared several differences. The Battle of Trafalgar was confined to just the sea, but at Midway the battle took place in the sky as well because of the creation of aircraft carriers. This change also led to more sophisticated forms of bombing and projectile usage, in the forms of dive bombs and aerial-torpedoes. The tactics used in battles were much different at Midway than at Trafalgar. One of these changes was that while at Trafalgar, that British fleet tried to simply capture ships instead of destroy them, but the United States made sure to destroy the Japanese aircraft carriers. While planes were a difference in weaponry, they also caused a difference in tactics. The battlefield became much larger with the introduction of planes into warfare. Britain’s primary goal regarding their navy in their overall strategy was to use it to protect trade, communication, and their territorial integrity. During the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, France planned to use its navy for an invasion of the U.K. but was stopped by that of the British. In WWII, the U.S used its navy in the Pacific to rollback Japanese expansion and to have a staging ground for its bombing of island nation. Japan originally used its navy to expand its territory, but once it lost its aircraft carriers at Midway, its navy played less of a role in the war. Be it in 1805, or in 1942, a country’s navy played a heavy strategic role, employing varying tactics and weaponry, and ultimately deciding the victors in many battles.

1: Gilbert, Gregory P. “Re-Evaluating the Battle of Trafalgar.” Australian Defence Force Journal no. 168 (2005): 7–18. doi:

2: Dallas, Woodbury Isom. “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 60–100.

3: History 283 Lecture 06, October 4

4: Woodbury Isom Dallas. “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 60–100.

5: Marianne Czisnik. “Admiral Nelson’s Tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar.” History 89, no. 4 (296) (2004): 549–59.

6: Jonathan B. Parshall, and Anthony P. Tully. Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005.

7: Woodbury Isom Dallas. “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 60–100.

8: History 283 Lecture 06, October 4

9: Marianne Czisnik. “Admiral Nelson’s Tactics at the Battle of Trafalgar.” History 89, no. 4 (296) (2004): 549–59.

10: History 283 Lecture 20, December 6

11: Woodbury Isom Dallas,. “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 60–100.

12: History 283 Lecture 06, October 4

11: History 283 Lecture 06, October 4

14: Woodbury Isom Dallas. “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 60–100.

15: Gregory P. Gilbert. “Re-Evaluating the Battle of Trafalgar.” Australian Defence Force Journal no. 168 (2005): 7–18. doi:

16: Gregory P. Gilbert. “Re-Evaluating the Battle of Trafalgar.” Australian Defence Force Journal no. 168 (2005): 7–18. doi:

17: Samuel Eliot Morison. “Thoughts on Naval Strategy, World War II.” Naval War College Review 51, no. 1 (Winter, 1998): 58–66.

18: History 283 Lecture 06, October 4

19: Woodbury Isom Dallas. “The Battle of Midway: Why the Japanese Lost.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer, 2000): 60–100.

20: History 283 Lecture 20, December 6

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Hunter Campbell’s story.