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Edited and
Designed by:

Johnny E. Balsved

 

The Navy before 1801

The Birth of a Navy,
the first Operations, and 200 years of
Danish-Swedish War

It began with a united North under the Calmar-Union followed by nearly two hundred years of repeated clashes with its declared archenemy.

From early on it has been obvious the Danish Kingdom’s security was strongly dependant on a strong navy, which could protect the country’s coasts and ensure passage through the Danish straits. If the navy failed, the nation would fall.

By Johnny E. Balsved/translated by Robert Rayce

The Danish navy’s earliest history can be dated to the end of the 1300's, where Queen Margrethe the First (1387-1412) ordered equipping a navy to defend the empire in particular against the Hanseatic League.

It is important to remember the kingdom in its entirety, after the Calmar-union (July 1397), consisted of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

It was originally the nobility and the market towns' duty to both pay for and equip the navy's ships. Not until the rule of Erik of Pomerania (1412-1439) in the 1420's does history mention a navy that included ships owned by the king.

The Sound Tolls

During the 1400's, shipping increased with the growth of the cities. The need for a permanent navy to protect trade and uphold the entire kingdom's sovereignty grew with it.

Thus, Erik of Pomerania established the Sound Toll. It would procure for more than 400 years considerable income to the Danish state coffers and aid greatly in establishing and maintaining the navy.

The sound toll was collected from foreign merchant ships on passage of Kronborg and the Great Belt. Collecting the Sound Toll was at the same time the cause of several international conflicts through the years.

On April 1, 1857, the Sound Toll stopped after more than 400 years existence.

Gateway to the Baltic

Denmark's role as gateway to the Baltic was decisive for development of Danish naval power. The role was also expressed by Copenhagen's strategic location at the center of the Denmark of those days.

The word "Holmen" as base for the navy's ships is mentioned for the first time in 1461. It is probably a reference to Slotsholmen, where the beach adjacent to the then castle of Copenhagen made it possible to lay up and maintain ships.

King Hans (1482-1513) consolidated the structure of the navy, and the construction of ships by order of the king is heard of for the first time. Mention of Bremerholm as the navy's base also occurs for the first time.

During the 1400's, the number of royal ships grew in relation to the ships requisitioned from the nobility and market towns.  Further, the navy's tasks for union kings, Hans and Christian II (1513-1523), were chiefly keeping the burgeoning Swedish independence in check.

The Bloodbath in Stockholm

In 1520 Christian II outfitted a fleet, captured Stockholm and ordered the killing of the greater part of the Swedish nobility. This was the so-called "Stockholm bloodbath".

Christian II’s fleet off Stockholm Castle in 1521

Christian II’s fleet off Stockholm Castle in 1521.
(Illustration from the Royal Danish Naval Museum)

Three years later, it was necessary for the king to go into exile in Holland. He chose, to take the major part of the navy with him, however, as he considered it his personal property.

The lack of a Danish navy at once created a power vacuum in the Baltic, which was promptly exploited by a number of the Baltic States – including Sweden.

The Danish navy was in dissolution, but after Christian II in 1523 finally had been pacified, the construction of the navy continued. During the 1500's, a new Danish navy was established with its base in Copenhagen.

Frederik II developed the navy

The navy received a great degree of attention when Frederik II (1559-1588) came to power and the shipyard at Bremerholm was expanded. From the mid 1500's, the organization of the navy was changed so market towns no longer were bound to deliver naval ships.

In the future, the merchant towns were only to supplement cannon, crew and supplies.

In return for the Sound Toll, the king was to keep the Baltic free of pirates, and set out navigational markers in the Danish waters, to benefit the traffic in and out of the Baltic.

During the reign of Frederik II, the Danish navy succeeded in re-establishing itself. However, after the middle of the 1500's, Sweden had also built up an impressive navy, and a long-term rivalry for the control of the Baltic began.

1st Nordic War 1563-1570

At the beginning of 1563, a Danish Norwegian fleet blocked the Oresund strait for Swedish ships, and later in May of the same year, the two fleets engaged in battle off the coast of Bornholm. The Swedes won a clear victory.

Later in the summer, the two fleets met again off the coast of Gotland. The battled ended in a draw. The Danish navy was under the command of Admiral Peder Skram.

In 1564, Admiral Herluf Trolle took over command of the Danish Navy, which then numbered more than fifty ships. In two major battles off Oeland, Sweden, the combined Danish – Hanseatic navy dealt the Swedish navy its first decisive defeat.

The power struggle for the Baltic continued with battles being fought in the waters between Nydyb and Bornholm and, once again, off Oeland, both battles being won decisively by the Danish – Hanseatic navy.

The original old naval anchor forge in Copenhagen was consectrated as Naval Church i 1619

The original old naval anchor smitty in Copenhagen was consectrated as Naval Church i 1619.
(Photo: Johnny E. Balsved)

The Navy under Christian IV

Frederik II's son Christian IV (1588-1648) had inherited his father's interest for the navy, and during the next 60 years of his reign, the navy experienced a dramatic rise in prosperity.

Under Christian IV's dominion, shipbuilding developed considerably. The size of the ships increased and the navy's facilities in Copenhagen were expanded. The Royal Arsenal and victualling yard with its protected harbor are from the beginning of the 1600's.

At Bremerholm, Holmen's church was established in the original anchor smithy. The sail storehouse, Admiralty and the first Nyboder (accommodations for the navy's people) also belong to this period.

To begin with, the fortunes of war smiled on the young king as he took up the fight against the Swedes during the Calmar war of 1611-1613. The Elfsborg fortress was captured in 1612 and the navy flew the colors as far north as the Stockholm skerries.

The Baltic power balance changes

However, Denmark and the Danish navy ran out of luck in the so-called Torstenson war of 1643-1645. In May 1644, a Dutch auxiliary fleet was stopped at Lister Deep on its way to Sweden.

The first of July 1644 the famous battle off Kolberger Heide west of Fehmern took place. It was in this battle that King Christian IV lost his one eye.

The king himself was squadron commander in chief on the ship of the line TREFOLDIGHED (TRINITY). The battle ended without a clear-cut victor, but the fleet succeeded in preventing a Swedish landing on the islands.

Later in the year, the navy ran into its greatest defeat ever when a combined Swedish-Dutch force in the Fehmern Belt routed a Danish squadron on October 13, 1644. The battle cost the Danish squadron 12 ships and more than 1,000 men taken prisoner.

The peace treaty of Brømsebro 1645 entailed Denmark giving up Gotland, Oesel, Jaemtland, Haerjedalen and Halland for 30 years.

Progress in the Thirty Years War had given Sweden control over the larger part of the Baltic coastal area. The Danish dominance in the Baltic had been broken.

Christian IV on-board TREFOLDIGHED

Christian IV on-board TREFOLDIGHED, where the king lost one eye during the battle off Kolberger Heide - between Fehmern and Kielerfjorden on July 1, 1644
(Painting by Nicolai Wilhelm Marstrand, Frederiksborg Museum)

The Swedish wars of 1657-1660

After Christian IV's death in 1648, the navy declined because of the country's poor economy. Even so, in 1657, extensive preparations for a war of aggression against Sweden were conducted, and on June 1, 1657, Denmark once again found itself at war with the Swedes.

The Danes had difficulties finding a suitable strategy for the land based war, as well as having problems finding supporting alliances.

The navy's task was, however clearly defined: Sweden's lines of supply to the west and over the Baltic had to be cut.  In addition, the main Swedish fleet – when it became operative – had to be prevented from gaining supremacy at sea.

Throughout the first Swedish war, many small episodes had often ended to the advantage of the Danish-Norwegian navy. At the end of August, the Swedes finally succeeded in equipping their main fleet, and Saturday September 13, 1657, the opponents met off Falsterbo.

The Swedish fleet outgunned by far the Danish-Norwegian fleet, but it did not succeed in breaking the Danish-Norwegian blockade in the Baltic. The engagement ended in a draw much as the battle of Kolberger Heide had ended 13 years earlier.

The navy had succeeded in keeping the Swedish navy in check in the southern part of the Baltic, and prevented a Swedish landing on the Islands. The Swedish king, King Carl X Gustav, chose instead to let his army move up through Holstein and occupy Jutland.

The harsh ice winter in the beginning of 1658 put the navy out of business and the Swedish king succeeded in moving his army over the ice to occupy Sealand in record time. The Danish will to resist was small, and on the 18 of February 1658, an armistice was signed.

At the final, peace treaty in Roskilde on February 26, 1658 Denmark-Norway had to give up Scania, Halland, Blekinge, Bornholm, Trondheim and Bohus province to Sweden, a painful and irreplaceable loss for the kingdom.

The unusually harsh peace agreement in Roskilde led the major powers of England, France and Holland to fear the Swedish dominance could threaten their Baltic trade. This belief spurred them to change sides to the advantage of Denmark-Norway.

A single optimistic note in the ice-winter of 1658 was Captain P. Jensen Bredal, who, with four men-of-war had remained in the Great Belt to prevent a Swedish crossing.

His ships had been ice-bound off Nyborg, but he succeeded in defending himself against the Swedish cannon fire until the ice thawed, and he was able to return to Copenhagen.

I will die in my nest

After the peace treaty, the Swedish navy controlled the Baltic. The Danish navy in 1658 was not equipped because of lack of funds. Sweden had left Sealand in accord with the peace treaty, but remained in possession of Funen and Jutland.

In the middle of June 1658 Carl X Gustav changed his plans and decided to capture all of Denmark and Norway. Without warning, Swedish ground troops landed near Korsør on August 7, 1658, while the main Swedish fleet blockaded Copenhagen.

The Swedish king had counted on a rapid defeat of the city, but Copenhagen had decided this time, to defend itself.

When Carl X Gustav reached the hills of Valby on August 11, the suburbs were aflame and the defensive works around the capital were being reinforced.

Carl X Gustav was forced to give up storming the city immediately, and began planning for a long-term siege.

In Copenhagen Frederik III (1648-1670) was urged to remove himself and his family to a safer location. The king answered this request with his famous words; "I will die in my nest!"

The king and the citizens of Copenhagen were determined to fight to the end.

The same determination was unfortunately not shared by the troops at Kronborg. They surrendered without a struggle on September 6 despite the king's express orders to fight to the last man.

In Norway, the army had not been disbanded after the peace treaty and the Northern commander, Jorgen Bielke, aided by a number of skerry-boats succeeded in laying siege to Trondheim, which was occupied by the Swedes. The siege resulted in the recapture of the entire province in September.

On Bornholm, the people killed the Swedish commandant and a good many Swedish soldiers. Then a deputation sailed to Copenhagen with the remaining Swedish soldiers as prisoners, and gave back the island to the king.

A Swedish attempt to capture Amager, south of Copenhagen failed and could have had a decisive effect on the war. The Swedish king – who led the assault personally, came close to being taken prisoner.

Holland intervenes

The news of the unprovoked attack on Denmark had meanwhile come to the attention of Holland. The Dutch feared the annihilation of Denmark-Norway would give Sweden total dominance of the Baltic trade. Holland decided to equip a fleet to relieve Copenhagen and Kronborg.

The Dutch fleet arrived on October 23 under the command of the Dutch admiral Jacob Wassenaer van Obdam. It anchored at the entrance to the Sound to wait for a favorable wind.

The arrival of the Dutch fleet caused the main Swedish fleet to gather south of Kronborg, to counter the new threat. October 29 a fresh wind from the north enabled the Dutch to enter the Sound. Obdam chose the middle of the Sound to avoid the Swedish cannon in Helsingborg and Kronborg.

Just south of Ellsinore, the Dutch engaged the numerically superior Swedish fleet and the battle of Oresound was on. It was not only a naval battle, but also a battle of crucial importance for Denmark.

After five to six hours of heavy fighting, and the loss of one ship to the Swedes five, the Dutch succeeded in breaking through the Swedish battle line to deliver fresh supplies and troops to the hard-pressed defenders of Copenhagen.

The Swedes chose not to pursue the Dutch fleet south of Hven for the probable reason that a Danish squadron of nine or ten ships, commanded by Vice Admiral Henrik Bielke, was on its way north to aid the Dutch.

The Dutch intervention broke the siege of Copenhagen from the seaward side, and gave renewed hope and courage to the embattled citizens.

The day after the battle of Oresound, a combined Danish–Dutch fleet blocked the Swedish ships, which had sailed to Landskrona for reparation and re-supplying. In November, the fleet attempted to bar the approach to Landskrona by sinking ships in the entrance.

However, the Dutch relief of Copenhagen did not make the Swedes give up the siege from the landward side. On February 11, 1659, the Swedish king began the storming of Copenhagen. The attack was repelled, and was a decisive turning point for Carl X Gustav's Danish campaign.

The Battle of Oresound, October 29, 1658.

The Battle of Oresound, October 29, 1658. In the middle of the drawing, the sinking Swedish ship of the line MORGONSTJÄRNAN (Morning Star) can be seen.
(Drawing by Willem van der Velde, from the Warship Museum’s archives.)

Supremacy at sea

Most of Denmark was still occupied by the Swedes while peace talks began under intense pressure from, among others, England, France and Holland.

In June, another Dutch squadron lead by the famous Dutch admiral, Michael Adrian de Ruyter, arrived in the Great Belt, and shortly after that, an English fleet arrived.

The Swedish troops on Sealand and Lolland-Falster were now isolated from Funen and Jutland and in November, Danish and allied troops were landed on Funen where they put the Swedish troops there under siege.

Carl X Gustav had to stay on Sealand, and had no possibilities to relieve his troops on Funen.

Once again, it was demonstrated that initiative goes with command of the seas. Even though the Danish navy had not played a deciding role, it was obvious the defense of Denmark was strongly dependent on a strong navy.

Peace negotiation dragged on, not in the least because England feared a possible Dutch dominance in the Baltic area. In addition, the presence of the English fleet, and repeated truces prevented the united Danish and Dutch fleet from taking advantage of their command of the seas.

The truce, however, did not hamper the Swedes, who aided by an alliance with France, and with varying degrees of success, continued with small attacks here and there. The truce did prevent the Danish-Norwegian-Dutch navy from intervening.

August 24, 1659 the agreements in Haag, the so-called Haagerkoncerter, were concluded, and the English fleet sailed for home. This gave the initiative to the Danish-Norwegian-Dutch fleet, and working in concert area after area of the occupied territory was recaptured.

It appeared the war could be ended when Carl X Gustav suddenly died on February 12, 1660. The Swedish government had to concede that an essential basis for continuing the war had left the scene.

A new truce was established on March 7. This, however, did not prevent the Swedes from making a sortie against Fehmern, which was in Danish hands. When the Swedish navy attempted to resume the blockade of Copenhagen, the Dutch made it clear that this was entirely unacceptable. The blockade was lifted on March 31, 1660.

On May 26, 1660, a peace settlement was ready for signing in Copenhagen. The settlement was based mainly on the treaty in Roskilde, except that Bornholm and Trondheim- province were returned to Denmark-Norway.

In addition, Sweden had to give up their demand of allowing no foreign warships in the Baltic.

Rebuilding the navy

Introduction of absolute monarchy in 1660 by Frederik III brought with it the gradual rebuilding of the navy. It had been severely neglected since Christian IV's death in 1648. The Admiralty residence, however, had been established in 1655.

It was clear, that Denmark-Norway's security was dependent on a strong navy. Particularly since the Swedish boundary had moved forward to Oresound.

In 1663, the Norwegian Cort Sivertsen Adeler was called home from Holland to assume command of the navy. He had previously served as naval officer in the Venetian and Dutch navy. With the assistance of the Dutch, he began rebuilding the navy in the Dutch style.

The navy's task was, of course, to protect the supply lines between Denmark and Norway and to protect Dutch trade in Danish waters against English privateers.

Protection of the Dutch trade was a part of the much larger conflict between Holland and England; A conflict that because of the Danish-Dutch alliance brought Denmark-Norway into a short war with the English in 1666-1667.

During this war, only one skirmish took place off Marstrand May 17 1667, where two Danish-Norwegian ships on their way from Bergen to Copenhagen met an English frigate. The battle was stopped after loss on both sides.

The Dutch progress in the war caused Denmark to equip a fleet for recapturing the Orkney Islands. The islands had been mortgaged by Christian I in 1465 for a dowry for his daughter. Peace, however, intervened and the plan had to be abandoned.

The navy was given top priority when Christian V (1670-1699) ascended the throne in 1670. Admirals Cort Adeler and Niels Juel were given the task of modernizing the navy.

It was a natural wish for Denmark-Norway, and not in the least for the king, to regain the lost provinces Scania, Halland, Blekinge and Bohus-province. To this end, the navy was indispensable, not only for an invasion of Scania, but also for keeping the large Swedish navy in check.

The Scanian war 1675-1679

In 1675, Denmark-Norway once again found itself at war with Sweden. The war was an offshoot of a larger European conflict in which Sweden and France opposed Holland, Spain, the German Emperor and Brandenburg. Denmark had formed an alliance with Holland and Spain in 1674.

Under the treaty, Denmark was obligated to enter the war when Swedish troops advanced into Brandenburg in December 1674. The war was better known as the Scanian war because of the attempt to regain the lost provinces east of Oresound.

A combined Danish-Dutch fleet patrolled the Baltic without engaging the Swedish navy. The Swedish navy had been late in equipping and a lethal illness broke out among the crews causing deaths on both sides of the conflict. The crews suffered severely.

Cort Adeler, who in 1663 had been appointed General-admiral, was also stricken with an illness and died suddenly in 1675. Command of the navy was temporarily given to Niels Juel. The following year Christian V appointed the Dutch admiral Cornelis Tromp to Danish General-admiral.

Generaladmiral Niels Iuel

Niels Juel
as General-admiral.

Niels Juel comes of age

The dedication with which the navy was rebuilt began to pay off, and in 1676, Niels Juel succeeded in readying the navy by the end of March. A month later, he captured Gotland, which stayed in Danish hands during the entire war.

In the latter part of May, the Swedish navy was spotted in the southern Baltic. Niels Juels was successful in keeping the superior Swedish fleet at bay until he was able to unite with the Dutch fleet commanded by General admiral Tromp, who entered the Baltic from the sound.

The combined Danish-Dutch fleet was after that equal to the Swedish fleet.

On June 1, 1676, the two fleets met in a violent battle off Oeland with the Danish-Dutch fleet drawing the longest straw. The Swedes suffered heavy losses and the victory gave control of the Baltic to the Danish-Dutch. This made possible a Danish invasion of Scania.

Once again, however, the army lacked the necessary luck in its land operations. After capturing the major part of Scania during the summer of 1676, the army lost the deciding battle near Lund and had to retreat to Landskrona.

At the beginning of 1677, the navy was once again equipped at an early date. In the May, it was at sea under the command of Niels Juel. The Swedes tried to unite the Gothenburg squadron with the main fleet to regain naval supremacy.

The Swedish Gothenburg squadron came down through the Great Belt right into the waiting arms of Niels Juel and his squadron. The Swedish squadron suffered a total defeat in the battle off Moen on June 1, 1677.

The Battle of Køge Bay

The Swedes worked hard to ready their main fleet, and in June of 1677, a squadron of 36 ships sailed for the southern Baltic with orders to attack and destroy the Danish navy.

After the battle of Moen, Niels Juel had formed a line with his 24 ships between Stevns and Falsterbo. At the same time, he tried to keep himself informed of the Swedish navy’s maneuvers. On June 24, the Swedish ships cast anchor off Moen.

Six days later, the two fleets made contact, and the day after, July 1, 1677, the battle of Køge Bay began. The Swedish fleet consisted of 18 men-of-war, 12 frigates, 6 fireships and 11 smaller ships. Niels Juels squadron was made up of 16 men-of-war, 9 frigates, 2 fireships and 7 smaller ships.

In total, the Swedes mustered 1.624 cannon and 9.200 men, while the Danish fleet "only" mustered 1.422 cannon and 6.700 men.

The battle of Køge Bay, July 1, 1677

A dramatic episode from Denmark’s most famous naval battle, the battle of Køge Bay, July 1, 1677. Admiral Niels Juel defeats a superior Swedish force.
(Painting by Viggo Faurholt, from the naval museum’s archives)

Beginning at 5:30 a.m., the two fleets were engaged in violent battle. After nearly ten hours of intense fighting, the Swedish fleet was forced to withdraw after having lost eight men-of-war.

Before the battle, Niels Juel had received news the Dutch fleet was approaching from the north. They never made it to the battle, and with the solely Danish victory, Niels Juel won international fame.

The victory also meant the end of Danish dependence on the Dutch. The Danish navy had regained its confidence, which had suffered a severe blow from the Swede’s victory off Fehmern in 1644.

A brief peace and reorganization

In the last years of the Scanian war, the Danish navy had supremacy in the Danish-Norwegian territorial waters. However, mastery at sea was unable to compensate for the losses suffered by the army in Scania.

France dictated the conclusion of peace in Lund on October 7, 1679. It entailed an unchanged border between Denmark and Sweden and the return of all the captured land areas in Scania.

The peace treaty was a bitter pill to swallow after the many victories, particularly by the navy, during the three years of war. The war marked, however, a turning point for the building up of the navy.

Christian V introduced not only "Danske Lov" (Danish Law, 1683), but attempted various methods of reorganizing the navy and its structure.

The naval wharf at Bremerholm had become too small, and in 1680, it was decided to establish a wharf on Refshalen, east of the navy's until now base. This constituted the founding of Nyholm, and Holmen, the Royal Dockyard, which was later to become the navy's main base.

To support the navy in its operations in the Baltic, a base was also established on the Ertholm-islets. On October 4, 1684, the king gave the order to call the fort on the Ertholm-islets Christiansø.

Since 1671, the navy had had a small base at Glückstadt, and a wharf at Frederikshald in Norway, which was expanded and moved to Christiansand in 1687. Naturally, shipbuilding continued.

The Swedish war that never happened

Once again, in the winter of 1682-1683 Denmark prepared itself for war with Sweden, and once again, the navy was equipped. Conflicts between the great powers and events beyond the realm’s borders lead yet again to sabre-rattling.

This time Sweden was allied with Holland, while Denmark formed an alliance with France, and both lands hoped for assistance from their allies' navies.

The French came first with a fleet that arrived in the Sound on June 26, 1683 and united with the Danish fleet. The French force was under the impression that war had already broken out. That was, however, not the case.

In August, the united Danish-French fleets weighed anchor and sailed into the Baltic and nothing happened. War never broke out, and in the beginning of October, the French fleet sailed for home.

The relationship between the Nordic countries improved – even though a provocative French foreign policy, repeatedly, came near to drawing Denmark into conflicts around Europe.

To war again

The threat of war with Sweden was minimized at the beginning of 1684, and Christian V ordered reductions in both the army and the navy. However, using the strength at his disposal right at the time, the king occupied the ducal enclaves in Slesvig, strongly provoked by the continuing intrigues of the Duke of Gottorp.

He had thereby once again united Slesvig with the Danish realm. The king's arbitrary line of action, however, did not sit well with the great powers of Europe, and in 1689, at Altona, Christian V was forced to make a compromise, which returned the captured areas.

This compromise would, only a few years later, in 1700, give Frederik IV problems and later yet create problems in Danish-German relations.

After the death of Niels Juels in 1697, command of the navy was given to the only nineteen year-old Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve. The navy was still in good shape and, at the beginning of 1700; it was equipped to its full strength to once again be used against Sweden.

Yet again, events in Europe came to set their mark on Danish history. Frederik IV (1699-1730) had his army in Holsten, and had full confidence in the navy’s control of the sea.

The king had possibly not counted on Sweden’s new allies, Holland and England, arriving, each with their own fleet, to unite with the Swedish navy. During the summer, Karl XII succeeded in transferring an army to Sealand with the support of the large allied fleet.

Gyldenløves squadron, which lay off Copenhagen, had no chance for intervention against the superior force. The situation resembled all too well the siege of Copenhagen in 1658. At the end of July, Copenhagen was subjected to a naval bombardment, which had no great effect.

Karl XII's invasion of Sealand gave Holland and England cold feet. They feared Swedish control of the Sound, and their fear resulted in what was practically a dictated peace.

The peace treaty meant for Denmark, that they were forced out of an alliance with Russia and Poland and had to accept the Duke of Gottorp's rights. The Swedish army was, escorted by the allies, transported back to Sweden.

For a short period peace reigned in Denmark-Norway. In the following years, only a small part of the navy was completely equipped. During the following decade, Denmark-Norway was like a uniquely peaceful enclave in a Europe that burned in the flames of war.

The Great Nordic War 1707-1720

Some years passed before Denmark once again found an opportunity to recapture the Scanian provinces.

 Karl XII had been occupied at the beginning of the 1700s, in waging war against Russia and Poland. Denmark-Norway, in alliance with Russia and Poland used the opportunity to declare war on Sweden in 1707. The king gave the order to equip the navy.

´The Great Nordic War, the last war against Sweden had begun, and the navy’s task was again obvious.

As in earlier wars, the navy’s task was to keep the Swedish navy in check, protect supplies to Norway and at the same time prevent the Swedes from doing the same with their possessions along the Baltic coast.

With the navy’s support, an army of 16,000 men was landed at Raa slightly south of Helsingborg in 1709. Incidentally, the same location had been used in the invasion of 1676.

July 10, 1710 the two fleets met again in Køge Bay, this time though, the battle ended with no clear victor.

The Danish-Norwegian fleet succeeded in making it back to Copenhagen without suffering any great losses. This was in no little way due to the heroic efforts of Captain Iver Huitfeldt on board the man-of-war DANNEBROGE.

Despite a violent fire on-board, he kept up the fight thus drawing the Swedish fleet’s attention away from the rest of the ships. After an hour's battle, the man-of-war exploded killing nearly 600 men – including Captain Iver Huitfeldt.

Health conditions on-board were not good in this year: In 1711, the navy's crews and the populations of both Copenhagen and Karlskrona were struck by the Plague, thus greatly reducing wartime activities.

Peter Wessel Tordenskiold (Thundershield)

When talk falls on the Great Nordic War, there is no avoiding the Danish-Norwegian navy's most colorful officer through the ages; Peter Jansen Wessel (1690-1720), from 1716 knighted under the name Tordenskiold (Thundershield).

Peter Wessel, born in Trondheim, Norway was received as a cadet in the Danish-Norwegian Navy in 1709 and in a mere 11 years advanced to the rank of Vice admiral during the Great Nordic War. He was killed in a duel in Hildesheim in Germany.

His untraditional and always quick-witted actions captured attention and commanded both national and international respect.

The absolute zenith of his carrier was marked by the outstanding victories at Dynekilden, Gothen-borg and Marstrand, and they ensured Peter Wessel Tordenskiold a permanent place in Danish-Norwegian naval history.

Peter Wessel Tordenskjold

Contemporary portrait of vice admiral
Peter Tordenskiold.

Naval superiority

The Navy's success during the Great Nordic War was not alone because of Tordenskiold, but just as much due to the modernization that had taken place, and the navy's supreme commander General admiral Ulrik Christian Gyldenløve (1678-1719).

In 1712, Gyldenløve had succeeded in destroying and burning 80 Swedish transport ships, a daring operation, which effectively prevented the Swedes in relieving their forces at Stralsund.

After the shooting of Karl XII on December 11, 1718 during the siege of the Frederiksstens fortress in Norway, England and Holland decided the following year, to withdraw from the war. After that it became solely a Danish–Norwegian, Swedish affair concerned with the recapturing of the lost provinces.

When peace was finally established, on July 3, 1720, through English-French mediation, it had to be concluded that not much had been gained at all – despite the fact that Denmark-Norway emerged as the victor.

Yet again the interests of the great powers interfered, and Denmark-Norway had to return the captured areas in Bohus-province including Marstrand. In return, Denmark-Norway received guarantees for the possession of Slesvig and Sweden had to give up their freedom from duty in the Sound and pay Denmark-Norway a compensation 600.000 rix-dollars.

The end of the Great Nordic War also meant the end of nearly 200 years Danish-Swedish rivalry for the control of the Baltic.   A third naval power, Russia, with borders on the Baltic, now became a player.

A period of peace

Nearly 13 years of war had taken its toll on both the navy and the national treasury. That meant a long-term period of building-up and reorganizing. Through the nearly eighty-year period of peace, the navy was rarely equipped in its entirety.

Denmark-Norway followed the terms of the mutual aid treaty and this meant that a Danish-Norwegian squadron in 1726-1727 operated with an English squadron in the Baltic to keep the large and aggressive Russian navy in check.

Count Frederik Danneskiold-Samsøes appointment as Commander in chief of the navy in 1735 resulted in many innovations for the Danish-Norwegian navy. These included an expansion of Nyholm and construction of the naval artillery's buildings.

The years of peace meant the navy's area of operations was limited to maintaining guard-ships in the Sound and the Great Belt, training cruises with cadets, and test cruises with new ships. In addition, there were cruises to Iceland, Greenland and the overseas colonies.

St. Jan and St. Thomas had been acquired at the end of the 1600's, and in 1733 St. Croix was purchased from France. This presented the navy's officers with great opportunities for cruises to the colonies, both with naval vessels and, increasingly, Danish-Norwegian merchant ships.

Convoying

During the last half of the 1700's, the navy received a new task far from home: escorting Danish Merchant ships in the Mediterranean. A rise in piracy had made this protection necessary.

Piracy had practically been systematized by the North African Barbary states, giving the piracy an air of officiality. Tribute had to be paid to the princes in Algiers, Tunis and Morocco to secure safety for the Danish flag.

When the tributes occasionally grew too large, a Danish-Norwegian squadron was equipped to bring the situation back into perspective. A case in point was the attacking of the city of Algiers in 1770 by a Danish-Norwegian naval force consisting of four men-of-war, two frigates and four smaller ships.

Even greater success was had by Commander Steen Bille when he, with the frigate NAJADEN, the brig SARPEN and a smaller ship sailed to Tripoli in 1797 to secure the release of Danish prisoners. After a dramatic battle with the Corsair's ships, Bille was able to make a settlement and buy the freedom of the Danish prisoners.

In 1762, the long period of peace was ending, as Czar Peter III rose to the throne in Russia. Peter was a descendent of the Gottorp lineage and was therefore a sworn enemy of Denmark. The Czar sent immediately an army toward Holsten, and Denmark was forced to mobilize.

A naval force of 14 men-of-war and 8 frigates were equipped and sent to the Baltic. However, before they go into action, Czar Peter III was overthrown, and the crisis resolved for the time being.

The battle off Tripoli, 1797.

The battle off Tripoli, 1797.
To the left is the frigate NAJADEN and to the far right, the brig SARPEN.

(Picture from The Naval Museum’s archive)

War clouds gather once again

Towards the end of the 1700's, Denmark-Norway was marked by unstable government during the reign of the deranged Christian VII (1766-1808): A situation that also affected the leadership of the navy. The conditions were first stabilized when Crown Prince Frederik assumed leadership of the country with A. P. Bernstorff.

Conflicts between England and France, and the observance of various alliance related obligations entailed equipping part of the navy a number of times.  However, Denmark succeeded in staying out of any military operations.

In 1794, Denmark-Norway formed a union of neutrality with Sweden, and the increased trade with war-torn Europe brought prosperity to the country. However, after the English in 1798 were successful in defeating the French navy, they began to search neutral shipping.

England began also to show interest in the neutral countries shipping which, protected by convoys could ship goods to England's enemies. Their attitude towards Denmark-Norway became more critical.

In July 1800, a Danish convoy was stopped in the English Canal, and the frigate FREYA and six merchant ships were forced to strike their flags after a short battle with three English frigates.

The event resulted naturally in diplomatic complications between Denmark and England, but Denmark-Norway was forced to stop the convoy service.

War clouds were gathering over Denmark-Norway. The situation with England was soon to be resolved.

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Sources:

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Danmarks Flåde - fra bue og pil til missil, by Jørgen Teisen, Bogans forlag, 1984 (ISBN 87-7466-027-6)

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Den Danske Flådes Historie 1533-1588 - Christian 3's flåde, af Jørgen H. Barfod, Marinehistorisk Selskabs Skrift nr. 25 i samarbejde med Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1995 (ISBN 87-00-24526-7)

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Den Danske Flådes Historie 1588-1660 - Christian 4's flåde, af Niels M. Probst, Marinehistorisk Selskabs Skrift nr. 26 i samarbejde med Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1996 (ISBN 87-00-28586-2)

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Den Danske Flådes Historie 1660-1720 - Niels Juels flåde, af Jørgen H. Barfod, Marinehistorisk Selskabs Skrift nr. 27 i samarbejde med Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1997 (ISBN 87-00-30226-0)

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Flåden gennem 450 år, edited by Commander s.g. R. Steen Steensen, Martins Forlag, 2. edition, Copenhagen, 1970 (ISBN87-566-0009-7)

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Flådens fødsel, af Jørgen H. Barfod, Marinehistorisk Selskabs Skrift nr. 22, Copenhagen 1990 (ISBN 87-87720-08-6)

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Orlogsmuseet - Introduktion til Flådens historie, af Ole Lisberg Jensen, Orlogsmuseet, Copenhagen 1994 (ISBN 87-89322-14-2)

44You are also referred to the Naval Bibliography

- Do you miss a major event on this Site,
or do you hold a great story?

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This page was first published: December 8, 2005

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