To do this he planned to distract the British fleets by having the Brest and Toulon Franco-Spanish fleets break out of the British blockade and sail across the Atlantic and threaten the West Indies, where they would both rendezvous. After, they would then quickly sail back to Europe and help take over the Channel, before the British fleets could intervene. Then, voila! Britain would be invaded.
Sound like a good plan? It was!
... If he was dealing with armies.
The problem with Napoleon was that he never really understood the navy and how it worked. He didn't understand the problems with winds and tides and how difficult it was for his fleets to break out of a British blockade without a fight.
So, for months, nothing happened. And Napoleon got increasingly furious with the lack of action, and it was poor Villeneuve, who commanded the Toulon fleet, (more on him in another post) who bore the brunt of his anger.
Meanwhile, Nelson, in HMS Victory, was bored, bored, bored! He was now commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, and wasn't a fan of blockading. He longed to do battle with the French and Spanish.
Eventually, in March 1805, while Nelson's fleet was victualing in Sardinia, Villeneuve's fleet left Toulon (the only fleet that managed to make it out) and sailed to the West Indies. Nelson, understandably, was miffed, and looked desperately for the French and Spanish... in the wrong direction. When he finally caught on, he sped across the Atlantic with remarkable speed, and arrived in the West Indies in early June... and looked in the wrong place again. Upon Villeneuve hearing of Nelson's arrival, he quickly set sail back home. Nelson soon caught wind of this and raced after him. He sent a brig to to inform the Admiralty of the combined fleet's movements which spotted them on 19th June and sent news of their course. Following orders from the Admiralty, Admiral Cornwallis sent Sir Robert Calder to intercept Villeneuve's fleet. This resulted in the Battle of Cape Finisterre on 22 July, in which Calder captured two ships, but failed to do further damage over the following few days (he was later court-martialled for this) and the Combined fleet escaped to Virgo and later moved to Ferrol. In August, he was about to obey Napoleon's command to join with anothor fleet and sail for the channel, when the two fleets spotted each other and ran away, believing the other fleet to be a British force! Villenueve fled to Cadiz. By now, an exasperated Napoleon had abandoned his invasion plans, although the British had no way of knowing this.
A very tired Nelson joined admiral Cornwallis's fleet off Brest, and then received permission to return home. He did so in the Victory and arrived in Portsmouth on 19th August. Although he had failed to catch the Combined Fleet, he was pleasantly surprised by the reception he received at home. He was as much of a hero as ever. He spent 25 days at his home in Merton, before leaving England for the final time on 14th September. He took over command of the fleet which, under Admiral Collingwood, had been blockading Cadiz, and spent the next few weeks keeping a close eye on his opponent's actions and refining his battle plans.
Meanwhile, Villeneuve, having hugely aggravated Napoleon, found out that he was about to be replaced. In an attempt to restore his honour, he sailed his fleet on 19th October.
Nelson and his fleet were more than ready for him, and many have suggested that the Battle of Trafalgar, fought 21 October, had already been won by the British before a single shot had been fired.