In the Battle of Copenhagen History, a British fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, fought against a Danish-Norwegian fleet anchored just off Copenhagen on April 2, 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.
The battle was the result of multiple failures of diplomacy in the latter half of 1800 and the beginning of 1801 during the French Revolutionary Wars. Great Britain's principal advantage over France was its naval superiority. The Royal Navy searched neutral ships trading with French ports, seizing their cargoes if they were deemed to be trade with France. The eccentric Russian Tsar Paul, after having been a British ally, arranged a League of Armed Neutrality comprising Scandinavia, Prussia, and Russia, to enforce free trade with France. The United Kingdom viewed the League to be very much in the French interest and a serious threat. The League was both hostile to the British blockade and its existence threatened the supply of timber and naval stores from Scandinavia.
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 Tallinn). If the Russian fleet joined with the Swedish and Dano-Norwegian fleets, the combined fleets would form a formidable force of up to 123 ships-of-the-line. The British fleet was under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, then in poor favour owing to his activities with Hamiltons, as second-in-command. Parker, aged 61, had just married an eighteen year old and was reluctant to leave port in Great Yarmouth. Prompted by a letter from Nelson to Captain Thomas Troubridge, a friend and a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, a private note from St Vincent, the First Lord of the Admiralty, caused the fleet to sail from Yarmouth on 12 March. Orders were sent to Parker to go to Copenhagen and detach Denmark from the League by amicable arrangement or by actual hostilities, to be followed by an immediate and vigorous attack on the Russians at Reval and then Kronstadt. The British fleet reached the Skaw (Danish: Skagen) on 19 March, where they met a British diplomat, Nicholas Vansittart, who told them that the Danes had rejected an ultimatum. 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 Denmark and Sweden, who were both reluctant partners in the alliance, and instead sail to the Baltic to fight the Russians. In the end Nelson was able to persuade Sir Hyde to attack the Danish fleet currently concentrated off Copenhagen. Promised naval support for the Danes from Karlskrona, in Sweden, did not arrive perhaps because of adverse winds. The Prussians had only minimal naval forces and too could not assist. On 30 March, the British force passed through the narrows between Denmark and Sweden, sailing close to the Swedish coast to put themselves as far from the Danish guns as possible; fortunately for the British, the Swedish batteries remained silent. 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 island of Amager, in front of the city in the King's Channel. The northern end of the line terminated at the Tre Kroner (Three Crowns - Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) forts armed with 68 guns (equal to the armament of a large ship-of-the-line). North of the fort, in the entrance to Copenhagen harbor, were two ships-of-the-line, a large frigate, and two brigs, all rigged for sea, and two more hulks. Batteries covered the water between the Danish line and the shore, and the further out to sea a large shoal, the Middle Ground, constricted the channel. The British had no reliable charts or pilots, so Captain Hardy spent most of the night of 31st March taking soundings in the channel up to the Danish line. Even so, the British ships were not able to locate the deepest part of the channel properly and so kept too far to seaward. Fixed batteries had a significant advantage over shipborne cannon owing to their greater stability and larger guns, and the Danes were able to reinforce their ships during the battle (including the replacement of a captain at one point). On the other hand, their ships were a motley collection, many of them small, and if engaged by the whole of Nelson's force, outgunned.
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Nelson wanted a pre-emptive show of force, but Parker over-ruled him and demands were made by a single frigate. The Dano-Norwegians refused to negotiate. Parker 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 Copenhagen to engage the northern defenses. (William Bligh of Bounty fame, commanded Glatton, one of Nelson's ships.) Nelson's plan was for the British ships to approach the weaker, southern end of the Danish defenses 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 Riou of the 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 defenses, the destruction of the southern ships would be enough to allow the bomb vessels to approach within range of the city and force negotiation 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 in about half an hour, and the battle was general by 11.30am Once the British line was in place there was very little manoeuvring. 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, 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 Isis if the Desirée, assisted by the Polyphemus, had not raked the Danish vessel. The Monarch, suffered badly from the combined fires of the Holsteen and Sjælland. 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 be being fought to a stand-still but 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. 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 a heavy fire that killed him.
It was at this time that the battle swung decisively to the British as their superior gunnery told. 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 (Some Danish historians contest the timing, stating that the entire Danish-Norwegian line continued to resist until 2.30pm. The cessation of firing left the way open for the British bomb vessels to approach Copenhagen. In addition, the reinforcements of the ships from the shore batteries were causing the latter to become ineffective. The Nyborg tried to leave the line with the Aggershuus in tow, but both sank. The most northerly ship, the frigate Hjaelperen, successfully withdrew. The Danish commander, Olfert Fischer, moved from the Dannebrog at 11.30am when it caught fire, to the Holsteen. Once the Infødsretten, immediately north of the Holsteen struck its colors at about 2.30pm, he moved on to the Tre Kroner fortress. There he lightly engaged three of Parker's ships, which had been able to tack to within range. The Infødsretten resumed firing after Captain Schrodersee was ferried to the Indfødselsretten and took command of the ship. Perhaps because of inexperienced crews, several Danish ships fired on British boats sent out to them after their officers had signalled their surrender. Nelson said that he must either send on shore and stop this irregular proceeding, or send in our fire ships and burn them and went to his cabin to write a note to the Danes. He sent it with a Danish speaking officer, Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, under a flag of truce to the Dano-Norwegian regent, Crown Prince Frederik, who had been watching the battle from the ramparts of the Citadel. The note read:
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 later Danish historians have suggested that Nelson would have lost the battle if it had not been adopted, though this is not the modern view. Though the British had lost no ships, many were severely damaged. The Tre Kroner fortress was still very much active, and a withdrawal under its fire with badly damaged ships and navigation would have been very difficult; the alternative would have been to wait for a change of wind. However, while the truce spared British as well as Danish lives, by this time the guns of the remainder of the Danish line east of the Tre Kroner battery had fallen silent and Copenhagen was open to bombardment. 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 Copenhagen. In reply, Nelson wrote a note:
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 London. Following him there at 4pm a twenty-four hour ceasefire was agreed. At 4.30pm, the Danish flagship, the Dannebrog exploded, killing 250 men. By the end of the afternoon, three further British ships grounded, including the Elephant. The Danish-Norwegian ships had been partly manned by volunteers, many of whom had little or no naval experience, so it is not clear what the exact Danish-Norwegian casualties figures were, but estimates vary between 1,135 to 2,215 killed and wounded. The official report by Olfert Fischer estimated the Danish-Norwegian casualties to be between 1,600 and 1,800 killed and 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, three escaped, two sank, one exploded, and twelve were captured. The British could not spare men for manning prizes as they expected further battles so they burned eleven ships, and only one, the Holsteen returned to England with the wounded under a surgeon, called Ferguson, where the Royal Navy took her over and renamed her HMS Nassau.
The next day, Nelson landed in Copenhagen to open negotiations. Colonel Stewart reported that "the population showed an admixture of admiration, curiosity and displeasure". In a two-hour meeting with the Crown Prince (who spoke English), Nelson was able to secure an indefinite armistice. He then tried to convince first Fischer (whom he had known in the West Indies), and then the Prince of British protection against the Russians. Negotiations continued by letter and on the 8th April Nelson returned in person with a formal agreement. The one sticking point out of the seven articles was a sixteen-week armistice to allow action against the Russians. At this point Stewart claims that one of the Danes turned to another and said in French that disagreement might lead to a renewal of hostilities. "Renew hostilities!" responded Nelson, and turning to his interpreter said "Tell him that we are ready in a moment; ready to bombard this very night!" Hurried apologies followed (the British fleet was now in positions that would allow the bombardment of Copenhagen) and agreement was reached and signed the next day. The armistice was reduced to fourteen weeks, but during it Armed Neutrality would be suspended and the British were to have free access to Copenhagen. Danish prisoners were also paroled. In the final hour of negotiations, the Danes found out (but not the British) that Tsar Paul had been assassinated. This made the end of the League of Armed Neutrality very likely and freed the Danes from the fear of Russian action against them, allowing them to easily come to agreement. The final peace agreement was then signed on 23 October 1801. 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 Copenhagen, where he found that news of his lack of vigour had reached London. On the 5 May he was recalled and ordered to hand his command over to Nelson. Nelson sailed eastwards again and leaving six ships-of-the-line at Karlskrona, he arrived at Reval on 14 May to find that the ice had melted and the Russian fleet had departed for Kronstadt. He also found out that negotiations for the ending of the Armed Neutrality had started and so withdrew on 17 May. As a result of the battle, Lord Nelson was created Viscount Nelson of the Nile. 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.
Even 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 the battle for the extraordinary valour of the Navy's personnel and the many Copenhagen volunteers who fought for hours against overwhelming odds.
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