The Battle of Copenhagen 2nd April 1801
Formerly aligned with Britain, the Russian navy was hemmed in its home ports by the winter ice in the Baltic. Britain during one of her many spats with Napoleon’s France had begun intercepting any foreign vessels that it suspected of trading with France. Russia meanwhile had joined with Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Prussia in forming an alliance against Britain, calling itself the League of Neutrality. The League was determined to force free trade with France, but the existence of the League of Neutrality threatened the supply of high quality oak and the tall pines suitable for ships’ masts. Britain saw this as an act of aggression and felt compelled to act.
Post-revolutionary France under Napoleon Bonaparte had probably the strongest army in Europe, but Britain held supreme on the high seas. The British fleet was under the command of Sir Hyde Parker. He was the son of Sir Hyde Parker and also the father of yet a third Hyde Parker, all with illustrious careers in the Royal Navy; all becoming Admirals, with the third becoming First Sea Lord.
Second in command was Vice Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, probably Britain’s greatest ever naval commander.
However, Nelson’s reputation at this time had become somewhat sullied in the eyes of the British public, owing to his ménage a trois with Lady Emma Hamilton. For his part the 61 year old Parker had just married the 18 year old Frances and found it difficult to motivate himself to leave the port of Great Yarmouth. To Admiral Parker though, Nelson was his outstanding subordinate, extremely capable of not only carrying out a battle plan, but also possessing the ability to think on his feet.
Prompted by the frustrations of Nelson, who had muttered in private about the lack of activity, Parker was ordered to sail for Copenhagen. On arrival, he was to secure the separation of Denmark from the league, either by diplomacy or if necessary force.
Parker’s fleet lay at anchor, off the shore of Copenhagen on the night of 31st March. Due to the lack of reliable charts of the approaches to shore, Captain Thomas Hardy, another hero of the later Trafalgar campaign, took depth soundings along the channel. The waters were to prove to be very shallow except for a deeper channel that made it possible for lighter ships to navigate.
It was decided that Nelson would lead an inshore attack with all the lightest vessels, better suited to the shallower waters, while Parker remained in the deeper water with his heavier ships.
Denmark’s allies in the League of Neutrality, failed to come to her aid with any effect. The reluctant Swedes were too slow to act. Prussia had no effective navy and the Russians were still in port.
The Danish fleet, which was generally not in good shape, were lined up along the shoreline, along with some old hulks forming a powerful gun battery along with shore based batteries. Hostilities began a little after 10am and by 11.30 am a battle lasting until shortly after 1pm was in full swing.
On the approach to the battle three British ships were grounded, one of which was HMS Agamemnon that took no further part. The other two continued but were severely disabled.
As the battle raged on, Parker from his withdrawn position could not see the signals of his ships because of the smoke of gunfire. Seeing the distress signals from the Agamemnon, he signalled for the withdrawal of his ships. Nelson was told of the signal, but turned to his flag captain Thomas Foley saying, “You know Foley, I have only one eye, I am entitled to be blind sometimes”. It is thought that he put his telescope to his blind eye and said “ I really do not see the signal”.
Nelson fought on and by about 2pm most of the Danish guns had fallen silent.
Between 1600 and 1800 Danes were killed, wounded or captured. 264 British were killed and 689 wounded.
Following the battle Nelson ordered the destruction of most of the remaining Danish fleet and within a week had secured the objective of Denmark’s withdrawal from the League.
News had reached the Admiralty of Parker’s reticence in the affair and he was summoned back to London being replaced in command by Nelson.
Unfortunately the battle was repeated later in 1807 with the second Battle of Copenhagen by which time of course Nelson was dead.
If you want to learn more about Nelson and his life why not book our Nelson’s Column to his Flagship Taxi Tour