The Battle of Copenhagen
Nelson’s “hardest fought battle”,
against the Danish Fleet and capital city.
War: Napoleonic Wars.
Date: 2nd April 1801.
The Battle of Copenhagen: Nelson's British Fleet sails up the Royal Channel to attack the Danish Fleet and the Trekroner Citadel. The 3 British ships aground are to the right: Bellona, Russell and Agamemnon
Place: Off the coast of Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark.
Combatants: A British Fleet against the Danish Fleet.
Admirals: Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and Vice Admiral Lord Nelson against the Danish Crown Prince.
Winner: The British Fleet.
The Battle of Copenhagen: The British Fleet under Lord Nelson
sails up the Royal Channel attacking the Danish Fleet
The British Fleet: Nelson’s Division: His Majesty’s Ships Elephant (Flagship: Captain Foley: 74 guns), Russell (Captain Cumming: 74 guns), Bellona (Captain Thompson: 74 guns), Edgar (Captain Murray: 74 guns), Ganges (Captain Freemantle: 74 guns), Monarch (Captain Moss: 74 guns), Defiance (Rear Admiral Graves and Captain Retalick: 74 guns), Polyphemus (Captain Lawford: 64 guns), Ardent (Captain Bertie: 64 guns), Agamemnon (Captain Fancourt: 64 guns), Glatton (Captain William Bligh: 54 guns), Isis (Captain Walker: 50 guns): Frigates: La Desiree (Captain Inman: 40 guns), Amazon (Captain Riou : 38 guns), Blanche (Captain Hammond: 36 guns), Alcimene (Captain Sutton: 32 guns): Sloops: Arrow (Commander Bolton: 30 guns), Dart (Commander Devonshire: 30 guns), Zephyr (Lt Upton: 14 guns), Otter (Lt McKinlay: 14 guns).
His Majesty's Ship St George
Parker’s Division: His Majesty’s Ships London (Flagship: Captain Domett: 98 guns), St George (Captain Hardy: 98 guns), Warrior (Captain Tyler: 74 guns), Defence (Captain Paulet: 74 guns), Saturn (Captain Lambert: 74 guns), Ramillies (Captain Dixon: 74 guns), Raisonable (Captain Dilkes: 64 guns), Veteran (Captain Dickson: 64 guns).
The Danish Fleet: Dannebroge (Captains Fischer and Braun: 80 guns), Saelland (Captain Harboe: 74 guns), Infodstretten (Captain Thura: 64 guns), Holsteen (Captain Ahrenfeldt: 60 guns), Provesteenen (Captain Lassen: 56 guns), Wagrien (Captain Risbrigh: 48 guns), Jylland (Captain Brandt: 48 guns), Charlotte Amalia (Captain Kofod: 26 guns), Gerner Radeau (Captain Willemoes: 24 guns), Kronborg (Captain Hauch: 22 guns), Rendsborg (Captain Egede: 22 guns), Nyborg (Captain Rothe: 20 guns), Svaerdfisken (Captain Sommerfeldt: 20 guns), Hayen (Captain Moller: 20 guns), Hjelperen (Captain Lilienskold: 20 guns), Elven (Captain Holstein: 6 guns), and Aggerhus (Captain Fasting: 15 guns).
Lieutenant Willemoes of the Royal Danish Navy fights
his ship Gerner Radeau during the Battle of Copenhagen
In addition the Trekroner Fortress and numerous batteries along the coast.
Ships and Armaments: Sailing warships of the 18th and 19th Century carried their main armaments in broadside batteries along the sides. Ships were classified according to the number of guns carried or the number of decks carrying batteries. The size of gun on the line of battle ships was up to 24 pounder, firing heavy iron balls or chain and link shot designed to wreck rigging. At the Battle of Copenhagen the British ships anchored by the moored Danish Fleet and fired broadsides at a range of a few yards.
Ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides in the most destructive manner, the greatest effect being achieved by firing into an enemy’s stern or bow quarter, so that the shot travelled the length of the ship wreaking havoc and destruction. The position of the Danish ships made this difficult and most of the firing was broadside to broadside. The first discharge, loaded before action began, was always the most effective. To achieve this effect the British ships held their fire until alongside the Danish ships.
Ships carried a variety of smaller weapons on the top deck and in the rigging, from swivel guns firing grape shot or canister (bags of musket balls) to hand held muskets and pistols, each crew seeking to annihilate the enemy officers and sailors on deck.
Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing horrific wounds. Falling masts and rigging inflicted crush injuries. Sailors stationed aloft fell into the sea from collapsing masts and rigging to be drowned. Heavy losses were caused when a ship finally succumbed.
A Danish gunboat at the Battle of Copenhagen
Ships’ crews of all nations were a tough bunch. The British with continual blockade service against the French and Spanish were particularly well drilled, British gun crews firing three broadsides or more to every two fired by other European crews.
British captains were responsible for recruiting their ship’s crew. Men were taken wherever they could be found, largely by means of the press gang. All nationalities served on British ships although several ships permitted Danish crewmen to transfer rather than serve against their own countrymen. Loyalty for a crew lay primarily with their ship. Once the heat of battle subsided there was little animosity against the enemy. Great efforts were made by British crews to rescue the sailors of foundering Danish ships at the end of the battle.
Life on a warship, particularly the large ships of the line, was crowded and hard. Discipline was enforced with extreme violence, small infractions punished with public lashings. The food, far from good, deteriorated as ships spent time at sea. Drinking water was in constant short supply and usually brackish. Shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables meant that scurvy easily and quickly set in. The great weight of guns and equipment and the necessity to climb rigging in adverse weather conditions frequently caused serious injury.
Map of The Battle of Copenhagen
In early 1801 Britain faced a coalition of Northern states, masterminded by France, combined in hostile neutrality against Britain; Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Prussia. The British Admiralty ordered Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with a British fleet to the Baltic, Admiral Lord Nelson as his second in command, with the purpose of breaking up the confederation.
On 18th March 1801 the British Fleet anchored in the Cattegat, the entrance to the Baltic, and diplomats set off for Copenhagen.
Admiral Lord Nelson forcing the entrance to the Sound and entering the
Baltic: passing the Danish fortress of Kronborg.
Nelson’s plan was that the British Fleet should attack the Russian squadron wintering in Revel, the Russian navy being the strongest and the dominant force in the Baltic. There was not however a trust between commander in chief and subordinate; Parker keeping Nelson at arm’s length. Negotiation with the Danes particularly exasperated Nelson; quintessentially a man of action; his flagship St George being cleared for action for a week.
On 23rd March 1801 Parker called a council of war at which the diplomats revealed that the Danish Crown Prince and his government, actively hostile to Britain, were not prepared to withdraw from the Confederation and that work was progressing on strengthening the defences of Copenhagen. Nelson urged attack without delay: “Let it be by the Sound, by the Belt, or any how, only lose not an hour.”
On 26th March 1801 the Fleet moved towards the Sound, the gateway to the Baltic, and the great Danish fortress of Cronenburg. Preparing for the battle Nelson moved his flag to the smaller ship Elephant, 74 guns, whose captain, Foley, had led the attack at the Nile.
On 30th March 1801 the wind was fair for the advance and the British Fleet passed the Sound, keeping to the Swedish side. In the event the Swedes held their fire while the Danes at Cronenburg fired without effect, the range being too great. The British Fleet anchored five miles below Copenhagen, allowing the senior officers to reconnoitre the city’s defences in the lugger Skylark. During this reconnaissance key buoys, removed by the Danes, were replaced by pilots and sailing masters in the British service.
The plan required the commander in chief, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, to advance from the North with the largest ships, pre-empting any relieving attack by the Swedish Fleet or a Russian squadron, while Nelson took his division into the channel outside Copenhagen Harbour along which the Danish ships were moored and, sailing northwards up the channel, attacked the Danish Fleet, whose main strength lay at the northern end of their anchorage around the powerful fortress of Trekroner, at the entrance to Copenhagen Harbour proper.
Admiral Sir Hyde Parker generously left the planning to Nelson, even offering him two more ships of the line for his squadron than Nelson had requested.
On 1st April 1801 Nelson carried out his final reconnaissance on the frigate Amazon. The captain of Amazon, Captain Riou, impressed him most favourably and Nelson resolved to give him a leading role in the attack.
On the night of 1st April 1801 Nelson drafted his final plans and briefed his officers while Captain Hardy ventured right up to the Danish ships in a long boat and took soundings; the pilots placing the last of the buoys.
Nelson’s plan was simple: his ships in line ahead would sail into the inner channel, Royal Passage, each anchoring in its appointed place and attacking its assigned Danish rival. Riou was to lead a squadron of smaller ships and attack the Trekroner which was to be stormed by marines and soldiers at a suitable moment after it had been reduced by bombardment.
At 8am on 2nd April 1801 the assault began with His Majesty’s Ship Edgar leading the division from its anchorage and tacking from the Outer Deep into the Royal Passage. Immediately disaster struck Nelson’s division as Agamemnon, Nelson’s old ship, unable to weather the turn into the channel, ran aground on the shoal known as the Middle Ground. Polyphemus taking over Agamemnon’s lead role made the U turn into the Royal Passage and came under heavy fire from the Danish ship Provesteen.
The following ships, Isis, Glatton and Ardent, made the turn and anchoring engaged the Danish vessels they had been allocated.
Attempting to pass these ships Bellona grounded on the Middle Ground shoal, as did the following Russell. Stuck fast these ships fired on the Danes as best they could, but several of the guns on Bellona burst killing their crews, due to the age or the miscasting of the barrels or overcharging in an effort to achieve greater range.
The grounding of Agamemnon, Bellona and Russell caused the Trekroner to be left unmarked, requiring Riou to carry out the bombardment with his squadron of smaller vessels, the billowing smoke concealing his ships and protecting them initially from excessive damage.
Nelson in Elephant took the anchorage allocated to Bellona, with Ganges and Monarch anchoring immediately in front of Elephant. With the line in place the battle fell to a slogging gunnery match between the British ships and the Danish ships and batteries, floating and land, which lasted some two hours.
To the North the commander in chief listened with increasing anxiety as the large ships of the line in his squadron beat slowly down the channel, the wind fair for Nelson but contrary for them. Seeing the intensity of the battle, Sir Hyde Parker concluded that he should Nelson the opportunity to break of the action and hoisted the signal to disengage, giving the battle its most famed episode.
The Battle of Copenhagen seen from the City
Nelson’s signal officer queried whether the signal should be repeated to the other ships, to which Nelson directed that only an acknowledgement was to be flown, while signal 16, the order for close action, be maintained. No ship in Nelson’s division acted on the signal except Captain Riou’s squadron, attacking the Trekroner Fortress. Riou, expecting that Nelson would call off the assault, turned his ship to begin the withdrawal. The Danes redoubled their fire causing significant damage and casualties on Riou’s ships, with one shot cutting down a party of marines and the next killing Riou himself.
Nelson turned to Colonel Stewart, commanding the contingent of soldiers carried in the fleet, and said “Do you know what’s shown on board of the commander in chief? Number 39, to leave off action! Leave off action! Now damn me if I do.” Turning next to his flag captain, Nelson said “You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes.” Nelson then raised his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal.”
Nelson goes ashore after the Battle of Copenhagen
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By 2pm much of the Danish line ceased firing, with ships adrift and on fire, several having surrendered, their captains on board Elephant.
Captain Thesiger, a British officer with extensive experience of the Baltic after service in the Russian navy, went ashore with correspondence from Nelson to the Danish Crown Prince inviting an armistice. During the negotiations only the batteries on Amag Island, at the southern end of the Danish line, the Trekoner fortress and a few ships continued to fire.
The British and Danish Fleets at the Battle of Copenhagen
A senior Danish officer, Adjutant General Lindholm, went on board Elephant to negotiate, directing the Trekoner to cease firing on his way. The British ships also ceased fire and the battle effectively ended.
Defiance and Elephant went aground and the Danish Flagship, Dannebroge, grounded and blew up, with considerable casualties.
The surrender of a Danish ship during the Battle of Copenhagen
The next morning Nelson went aboard the Danish ship Syaelland, anchored under the guns of the Trekoner, and took the surrender of her captain Stein Bille, who refused to strike to any officer other than Nelson himself. British gunboats took the Danish vessel in tow to add to the clutch of Danish ships that had been taken in the battle. 19 Danish vessels were sunk, burnt or captured. Just before the battle, on 24th March 1801, the Tsar of Russia, Paul I, was murdered by members of the St Petersburg court and replaced by his anti-French son. The effect of the Battle of Copenhagen and the Tsar’s murder was to bring about the collapse of the Northern Confederation.
Captain Edward Riou, Royal Navy: killed in action at the Battle of Copenhagen
British casualties were 253 killed 688 wounded. No British ship was lost. The Danes lost 790 killed, 900 wounded and 2,000 made prisoner.
Anecdotes and traditions:
- Nelson considered Copenhagen to be his hardest fought fleet action. Although hampered by many of their ships being unprepared for service the Danes fought fiercely and at times with desperation in defence of their capital city, relays of army and civilian reinforcements replacing the losses in the batteries.
- The battle sealed Nelson’s reputation as Britain’s foremost naval leader. Soon afterwards Sir Hyde Parker was recalled and Nelson left in command of the operations in the Baltic.
- The incident with the signal became an important part of the Nelson legend.
- The attack on Copenhagen, considered essential by the British to prevent the Danish Fleet from acting in the French interests, caused great resentment against Britain in Denmark. On Nelson’s return to England and appearance at court King George III did not mention the battle.
- His Majesty’s Ship Glatton was commanded in the battle by Captain William Bligh who had 10 years earlier commanded HMS Bounty on its trip to the Pacific and been cast adrift in a ship’s boat by mutineers.
- A memorial was raised in Copenhagen to the Danes killed in the action.
- Life of Nelson by Robert Southey
- Nelson by Carola Oman