Battle of Copenhagen - Battle


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 defences.

On 30 March Nelson, and his second-in-command, Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, accompanied by Captain Domett and the commanding officer of the troops, sailed in the hired lugger Lark to reconnoiter the Danish defenses at Copenhagen. They found the defenses to be strong and so spent the evening discussing the plan. 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.

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 1 pm, 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 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 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!". Rear Admiral 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 Copenhagen. In addition, the reinforcements of the ships from the shore batteries were causing the latter to become ineffective. Nyborg tried to leave the line with Aggershuus in tow, but both sank. The most northerly ship, the frigate Hjælperen, 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 colours at about 2:30pm, he moved on to the Tre Kroner fortress. There he engaged three of Parker's ships, which had lost their manoeuvrability after being badly damaged and had drifted 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 is 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 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 4 pm, 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 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 losses 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 England with the wounded under surgeon William Fergusson, where the Royal Navy took her over and renamed her HMS Nassau.

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