Magazine article History Today

The Battle of Copenhagen

Magazine article History Today

The Battle of Copenhagen

Article excerpt

April 2nd, 1801

THE MOST FAMOUS act of insubordination in the annals of the Royal Navy occurred when Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson, second-in-command of the British fleet at Copenhagen in the 74-gun battleship Elephant, put his spyglass to his blind eye and said to Elephant's captain, the future Admiral Sir Thomas Foley, `I really do not see the signal.' The signal was from his commanding admiral, Sir Hyde Parker, ordering him to disengage and Nelson, who thought Parker an old woman, had no intention whatever of obeying it.

Britain and Denmark were not formally at war, but the British fleet had sailed to deter the Danes and Swedes from allying themselves with the French. The ships reached the northern point of Jutland in whirling snow on March 18th and moved on down the Kattegat. Several days passed while an ultimatum was sent to Copenhagen and rejected. Then Nelson's bold plan of attack was accepted and with a fair wind on the 30th the whole fleet of fifty-two ships, their towering white sails gleaming in the sun, passed through the narrow gap between Sweden and Denmark, to a harmless cannonade from batteries at Elsinore on the Danish bank. They anchored some five miles from Copenhagen and Parker, Nelson and other senior officers took a schooner to survey the city's defences. The harbour was protected by shoals, by seventy or more heavy guns in rite Trekroner fort and by the cannon of nineteen dismasted warships moored in a line a mile-and-a-half long. Nelson decided to attack from the weakest, south-eastern end of the Danish defences and spent hours in small boats planning exactly how buoys should be placed to guide his squadron through a narrow and dificult channel for the attack. After a conference in Parker's flagship, the London, on the 31st, the buoying work was completed and on April 1st Nelson in infectiously high spirits entertained his captains to dinner in Elephant.

Next morning the wind was fair, but several ships' pilots -- `with no other thought than to keep the ship clear of danger and their own silly heads clear of shot', Nelson commented -- flatly refused to lead the way along the channel because it was too dangerous. Eventually a veteran of the Nile, the master of the Bellona, volunteered for the task and at 9. …

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