I was reading about The Battle of Trafalgar and found this interesting section about the consequences:

Napoleon instituted a large-scale shipbuilding programme that had produced a fleet of 80 ships of the line at the time of his fall from power in 1814, with more under construction. In comparison, Britain had 99 ships of the line in active commission in 1814, and this was close to the maximum that could be supported. Given a few more years, the French could have realised their plans to commission 150 ships of the line and again challenge the Royal Navy, compensating for the inferiority of their crews with sheer numbers.

It has a single citation, but for such a large paragraph it's hard to know exactly what details are vouched for. Anyway this raises a few questions.

Where were these 80 French Ships of the Line constructed (what port or harbor)?

Why did the British Navy not raid and destroy them?

AFAIK, the British Navy still roamed with impunity all throughout the Napoleonic Era, even into the Baltic Sea during the Russo-Swedish War and in fact afterwards as well, even stationing ships in Swedish ports despite Sweden being a French Ally on paper. So if they could sail anywhere and not be blockaded from a chokepoint like Denmark guarding the Baltic, then I don't see how or why Britain would not find this French armada under construction and simply raid the port.

  • 1
    How many ports were successfully ’raided’ during that general period? Britain preferred to blockade for good reasons.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 3, 2022 at 14:58
  • 2
    Raiding a harbor was an enormously risky proposition in the age of sail. The wind might help you get in, but hinder you getting out, or the other way around (or you might hope and pray for the wind to shift exactly as you need it), plus you need enormous amounts of space for maneouvering. Note that "hinder" = "sitting in front of prepared shore batteries, which might pelt you with heated shot" (see the Hornblower series for a realistic depiction) - a single such cannonball could set your ship afire, and this is specific to shore batteries, because heated shot on board a ship was impossible. Dec 4, 2022 at 11:02
  • Most harbor raids in these times involved small craft and "cutting-out" expeditions: send in a small rowboat at night, and try to cut out a vessel. This can be done for small merchantmen, but not ships of the line, which were manned so strongly to overwhelm a small raiding crew. Note finally that of course, the main French shipyards were constructed far inland in estuaries to use exactly this advantage, or near islands that could command approaches - take a look at maps of the major harbors. Dec 4, 2022 at 11:05

1 Answer 1


Where were these 80 French Ships of the Line constructed? In all of the same ports, harbors and rivers of France that the previous ships had been, with the addition of other construction yards in allied/occupied countries in Europe. Given that France either directly occupied or held sway over most of continental Europe, they didn't have the same shortages of materials (timber especially) that the British did.

From 1807 till 1813 Bonaparte was building or massing line of battleships at the Texel, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Flushing, Antwerp, Cherbourg, Brest, L'Orient and Rochefort, Bordeaux, Toulon, Genoa, Naples and Venice and was building frigates in lesser dockyards. He was building new harbors or fortifying old ones at Flushing, Antwerp, Cherbourg, and Pola. New ships built in Genoa seized opportunities to slip along the coast and join the main Mediterranean fleet in Toulon. Pola was fortified as an intended (but never used) base for his new Adriatic squadron, whose ships were best built in the dockyards at Venice but had difficulty in getting in and out of that port's shallow waters.

The French Fleet, 1807-1814: Britain's problem and Madisson's opportunity, Glover

Why didn't the British raid these ports to destroy these newly built vessels? The simple answer is that it would have been too costly. The British success in capturing the Danish fleet at Copenhagen in 1807 might give the impression that they could do that sort of thing at will. However, that success relied on the bulk of the Danish army being in the south of the country defending against possible attack by the French.

However, conducting that kind of operation against a fortified French port would have been a very different proposition. While the attack against the French fleet at Basque Roads (1809) was a notable if limited success, it was largely because of the panic in the French fleet that left a number of their ships aground. The attacking force was mainly small vessels and fireships because the British commanding officer wouldn't risk committing his ships of the line into the shallow waters of the bay. The chances of a more successful raid on a better prepared and fortified port (such as Brest or Toulon) were far, far lower.

The French Fleet, 1807-1814: Britain's problem and Madisson's opportunity, Richard Glover, The Journal of Modern History Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), pp. 233-252 (20 pages)

  • Britain had a shortage of timber at this time? If they have access to North America then I don't see how that's possible. Can you elaborate a little on that? +1 answer btw.
    – DrZ214
    Dec 4, 2022 at 4:09
  • 2
    Britain had a shortage of usable timber throughout the Napoleonic wars. The loss of the native forests meant that she was reliant on timbers from elsewhere. The introduction of the Continental System meant that timbers then had to come from further away. The dramatic increase in size of the navy and merchant fleets had a corresponding effect on the available timber stocks. Remember that ships are built using seasoned timbers, you don't just chop down a tree and start building. Even if raw timber production had increased with demand, it would take years for the results to reach the shipyards.
    – Steve Bird
    Dec 4, 2022 at 8:56
  • I'd add that when one attacks a fleet at port, one fights not just the fleet, but also shore defenses. The British would surely beat the French in a fleet-on-fleet action, but it's not a fleet-on-fleet action since ground forces are also involved.
    – Allure
    Dec 4, 2022 at 15:12
  • Here's a DOI based link to the article by Glover.
    – hardmath
    Dec 4, 2022 at 19:37
  • @SteveBird you can use green timber in ship production, it will just give you a ship with a very short lifespan of a few years - fine for immediate use (invasion, defence etc) but not fine for building up a long term fleet, which is what I think you intend.
    – Moo
    Dec 5, 2022 at 0:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.