Battle of Copenhagen
The Battle of Copenhagen (Danish: slaget på Reden) was an engagement which saw a British fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker fight and strategically defeat a Danish-Norwegian fleet anchored just off Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led the main attack. He famously disobeyed Parker's order to withdraw, destroying many of the Dano-Norwegian ships before a truce was agreed.
BackgroundThe battle was the result of multiple failures of diplomacy in the latter half of the 18th century. At the beginning of 1801, during the French Revolutionary Wars,
In early 1801, the British government assembled a fleet at Great Yarmouth, with the goal of breaking up the League. The British needed to act before the Baltic Sea thawed and released the Russian fleet from its bases at Kronstadt and Reval (now
Although the Admiralty had instructed Parker to frustrate the League, by force if necessary, he was a cautious person and moved slowly. He wanted to blockade the Baltic despite the danger of the combination of fleets; Nelson wanted to ignore
Attacking the Danish fleet would have been difficult as Parker's delay in sailing had allowed the Danes to prepare their positions well. Most of the Danish ships were not fitted for sea but were moored along the shore with old ships (hulks), no longer fit for service at sea, but still powerfully armed, as a line of floating batteries off the eastern coast of the
Sketch of the battleParker had given Nelson the twelve ships-of-the line with the shallowest drafts and all the smaller ships in the fleet, while he himself stayed with the remainder of the fleet to the north-east of the battle, screening Nelson from external interference and moving towards
On 30 March Nelson, and Rear Admiral Graves, accompanied by Captain Domett and the commanding officer of the troops, sailed in the hired lugger Lark to reconnoiter the Danish defenses at
Nelson's plan was for the British ships to approach the weaker, southern end of the Danish defences in a line parallel to the Danish one. As the foremost ship drew alongside a Danish ship, it would anchor and engage that ship. The remainder of the line would pass outside until the next ship drew alongside the next Danish ship, and so on. The frigate Desiree, together with small gun-brigs, would rake the Danish line from the south, and a force of frigates, commanded by Captain Edward Riou of HMS Amazon, would attack the northern end of the line. Troops would assault the Tre Kroner fortress once the fleet had subdued the Danish line of ships. Bomb vessels would sit outside the British line and bombard the Danes by firing over it. Should the British be unable to subdue the stronger, northern defences, the destruction of the southern ships would be enough to allow the bomb vessels to approach within range of the city and force negotiations to prevent the bombardment of the city.
With a southerly wind on the 1 April, Nelson picked his way through the shoals. However, the Agamemnon ran aground before entering the channel, and took no part in the battle. Then the Russell and Bellona ran aground on the Middle Ground, severely restricting their role in the battle. The loss of the three vessels required hurried changes in the line and weakened the force's northern end.
The Danish batteries started firing at 10:05am, the first half of the British fleet were engaged for about half an hour, and the battle was generally over by 11:30am Once the British line was in place there was very little manœuvring. The British ships anchored by the stern about a cable (240 yards) from the line of Danish ships and batteries, which was relatively long range, and the two exchanged broadsides until a ship ceased firing. The British encountered heavy resistance, partly because they had not spotted the low-lying floating batteries, and partly because of the courage with which the Danes fought. The northern Danish ships, which were rigged and manned, did not enter the battle but remained on station as reserve units, even though the wind direction forced Parker's squadron to approach only slowly.
At 1pm, the battle was still in full swing. Prøvesteenen's heavier fire would have destroyed the
Parker would have been able to see little of the battle owing to gun smoke, though he could see the signals on the three grounded British ships, with Bellona and Russell flying signals of distress and the Agamemnon a signal of inability to proceed. Thinking that Nelson might have fought to a stand-still but be unable to retreat without orders (the Articles of War demanded that all ranks do their utmost against the enemy in battle), at 1:30pm Parker told his flag captain, "I will make the signal of recall for Nelson's sake. If he is in condition to continue the action, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him." Nelson ordered that the signal be acknowledged, but not repeated. He turned to his flag Captain, Foley, and said "You know, Foley, I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes," and then, holding his telescope to his blind eye, said "I really do not see the signal!". Nelson's second-in-command, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, repeated the signal, but in a place invisible to most other ships while keeping Nelson's 'close action' signal at his masthead. Of Nelson's captains, only Riou, who could not see Nelson's flagship, the Elephant, followed Parker's signal. Riou withdrew his force, which was then attacking the Tre Kroner fortress, exposing himself to heavy fire that killed him.
It was at this time that the battle swung decisively to the British, as their superior gunnery took effect. The guns of the dozen southernmost Danish ships had started to fall silent owing to the damage they had sustained, and the fighting moved northward. According to British eyewitness accounts, much of the Danish line had fallen silent by 2pm. The cessation of firing left the way open for the British bomb vessels to approach
To the Brothers of Englishmen, the Danes 'Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when she no longer resisting, but if firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them.
Some British and Danish officers thought the offer of a truce a skillful ruse-de-guerre, and some historians have suggested that the battle would have been lost if it had not been adopted, as many of the British ships, like many of the Danish ships in the battle, could not carry on fighting much longer. Furthermore, neither side had deployed the ships which they both held in reserve, of which the Danish reserve was arguably the larger, and the truce effectually prevented this deployment at a moment where the British fleet was exposed. Though the British had lost no ships, most were severely damaged and three ships of the line had lost all their manoeuvrability and had at the time of the truce drifted within the range of the Tre Kroner's heavy guns which, up until then, like the other fortresses, had been out of range of the British ships. All action ceased when Crown Prince Frederick sent his Adjutant General, a Danish member of parliament, Hans Lindholm, asking for the reason for Nelson's letter. He was asked to put it in writing, which he did, in English, while making the joke: 'If your guns are not better pointed than your pens, then you will make little impression on
Lord Nelson's object in sending the Flag of Truce was humanity; he therefore consents that hostilities shall cease, and that the wounded Danes may be taken on shore. And Lord Nelson will take his prisoners out of the Vessels, and burn and carry off his prizes as he shall see fit.
Lord Nelson, with humble duty to His Royal Highness the Prince of Denmark, will consider this the greatest victory he has ever gained, if it may be the cause of a happy reconciliation and union between his own most gracious Sovereign, and His Majesty the King of Denmark.
which was sent back to the Crown Prince, and then referred Lindholm to Parker on the
At 4.30pm, the Danish flagship, the Dannebrog exploded, killing 250 men. By the end of the afternoon, three more badly-damaged British ships ran aground, including the Elephant. The Danish-Norwegian ships had been partly manned by volunteers, many of whom had little or no naval experience, and as they were not all listed after the battle, it is uncertain what the exact Danish-Norwegian loses were, but estimates vary between 1,135 to 2,215 captured, killed or wounded. The official report by Olfert Fischer estimated the Danish-Norwegian casualties to be between 1,600 and 1,800 captured, killed or wounded. According to the official returns recorded by each British ship, and repeated in dispatches from Nelson and forwarded by Parker to the Admiralty, British casualties were 264 killed and 689 wounded.
Of the Danish ships engaged in the battle, two sank, one exploded, and twelve were captured. The British could not spare men for manning prizes as they feared that further battles would come up so they burned eleven ships, and only one, Holsteen, returned to
Another view of The Battle of CopenhagenThe next day, Nelson landed in
On the 12th April, Parker sailed to Karlskrona and on the British approach, the Swedish fleet returned to the port where Parker attempted to persuade them to also leave the League. Parker refused to sail into the eastern Baltic and instead returned to
This was not to be the end of Dano-Norwegian conflict with the British. In 1807 similar circumstances led to another British attack, in the Second Battle of Copenhagen.
LegacyEven though a changed political scene after the death of Russian Tsar Paul reduced the political importance of the battle and material losses in the battle were of little importance to the fighting strength of either navy (the Danish side had taken great care to spare its first-class ships), the battle is nevertheless still remembered on the Danish side for the extraordinary valour of the Navy's personnel and the many Copenhagen volunteers who fought for hours against overwhelming odds.
Nelson's squadronPolyphemus 64 (Captain John Lawford)
Isis 50 (Captain James Walker)
Edgar 74 (Captain George Murray)
Ardent 64 (Captain Thomas Bertie)
Glatton 54/56 (Captain William Bligh)
Elephant 74 (flag of Vice-Adm. Lord Nelson, Captain Thomas Foley)
Ganges 74 (Captain Thomas Francis Fremantle)
Monarch 74 (Captain James Robert Mosse )
Defiance 74 (2nd flag of Rear-Adm. Thomas Graves, Captain Richard Retalick)
Russell 74 (Captain William Cuming)
Bellona 74 (Captain Thomas Boulden Thompson)
Agamemnon 64 (Captain Robert Devereux Fancourt)
Désirée 36 (Captain Henry Inman)
Amazon 38 (Captain Edward Riou )
Blanche 36 (Captain Graham Eden Hamond)
Alcmène 32 (Captain Samuel Sutton)
Jamaica 24 (Captain Jonas Rose)
Arrow (ship-sloop, Captain William Bolton)
Dart (ship-sloop, Captain John Ferris Devonshire)
Cruizer (brig-sloop, Cmdr. James Brisbane)
Harpy (brig-sloop, Cmdr. William Birchall)
Discovery (bomb, Cmdr. John Conn)
Explosion (bomb, Cmdr. John Henry Martin)
Hecla (bomb, Cmdr. Richard Hatherhill)
Sulphur (bomb, Cmdr. Hender Whitter)
Terror (bomb, Cmdr. Samuel Campbell Rowley)
Volcano (bomb, Cmdr. James Watson)
Zebra (bomb, Cmdr. Edward Sneyd Clay)
Otter (fireship, Cmdr. George M'Kinley)
Zephyr (fireship, Cmdr. Clotworthy Upton)
London 98 (flag of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, with 1st Captain William Domett and 2nd Captain Robert Walker Otway)
St George 98 (Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy)
Warrior 74 Captain Charles Tyler)
Defence 74 (Captain Henry Paulet)
Saturn 74 (Captain Robert Lambert)
Ramillies 74 (Captain James William Taylor Dixon)
Raisonnable 64 (Captain John Dilkes)
Veteran 64 (Captain Archibald Collingwood Dickson)
Denmark-NorwayFischer's division in the King's Deep
(order south – north. Only Siælland and Holsteen were in good condition, also note the age of the ships.)
Prøvesteenen 52/56 (3-decker battleship, rebuilt as a two-deck defensionsskib (Defence-ship), Kaptain L. F. Lassen
Wagrien 48/52 (2-decker ship of the line, 1775), Kaptajn F.C. Risbrich
Rendsborg 20 (pram), Kaptajnløjtnant C.T.Egede
Nyborg 20 (pram) Kaptajnløjtnant C.A. Rothe
Jylland 48/54 (Originally 70 gun 2-decker ship of the line, 1760), Kaptajn E.O.Branth
Sværdfisken 18/20 (radeau, 1764),Sekondløjtnant S.S. Sommerfeldt
Kronborg 22 (frigate, 1779), Premierløjtnant J.E. Hauch
Hajen 18/20 (radeau, 1793), Sekondløjtnant J.N. Müller
Dannebrog 60 (flag, 2-decker ship of the line, 1772), Kaptajn F.A. Bruun
Elven 10 (frigate, 1800), Kaptajnløjtnant H. Holsten
Grenier's float/Floating Battery No. 1 20, 1785
Aggershus 20 (Defensionsfartøj (Defence vessel) 1786), Premierløjtnant T. Fassing
Siælland 74 (2-decker ship of the line, 1776), Kaptajn F.C.L. Harboe
Charlotte Amalia 26 (Old Danish East Indiaman), Kaptajn H.H. Kofoed
Søehesten 18 (radeau 1795), Premierløjtnant B.U. Middelboe
Holsteen 60 (ship of the line, 1772), Kaptajn J. Arenfelt
Indfødsretten 64 (2-decker ship of the line, 1778), Kaptajn A. de Turah
Hielperen 16 (frigate), Premierløjtnant P.C. Lilienskiold
Fischer's division in the Inner Run
(These ships did not see action)
Sarpen 18-gun brig
Nidelven 18-gun brig
Trekroner 74 (not to be confused with Tre Kroner fortress)
Land battery Sixtus ? guns.
Land battery Quintus ? guns.
Fortress Kastellet ? guns.