THE COMMON FLEET
The Royal Dano-norwegian Navy had Medieval origins and achieved spectacular victories as well as notable defeats
With large coastlines, Denmark-norway long had an intimate relationship with the sea. Vikings from both countries were renowned sailors but it wasn’t until the 14th century that records of a unified navy in Western Scandinavia began to appear. Queen Margaret I of Denmark (r. 1387-1412) ordered the building of a navy to be maintained for the Danish monarchy. However, a full naval force was not officially enshrined in law until 1510, under King Hans I. This still predated the establishment of the Royal Navy of England, which occurred in 1542. By this time, Denmark was unified with Norway and so the navy was known as the Royal Dano-norwegian Navy or the ‘Common Fleet’.
In the beginning, the navy’s role was to counter the power of the Hanseatic League and secure control of the Baltic Sea with Sweden becoming its main rival. The fleet was considered to be the Danish monarch’s personal property and the ‘King’s Waters’ were extensive. The navy’s reach included seas off Iceland, Greenland and the
Faroe Islands as well Arctic waters off the North Cape and Spitsbergen.
Before the Great Northern War, the fleet had success during the Scanian War (1675-79) where it won a decisive battle against the Swedes in 1677 at Køge Bay. In Tordenskjold’s day, there were 19,000 enrolled personnel – the majority of whom were Norwegian. In the later 18th century there were victories against the Barbary States in the Mediterranean Sea that stopped attacks against Scandinavian merchant shipping. However, the Dano-norwegians twice suffered defeat at the hands of the British Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Two battles were lost at Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807. The first was one of Lord Nelson’s famous victories while the second forced the surrender of the entire fleet. Denmark and Norway separated only seven years later in 1814 with the Common Fleet being split into what is now the Royal Danish and Royal Norwegian navies.
fighting ship-to-ship duels, the Imperial Russian Navy won its first decisive victory against the Swedes at Gangut.
During this time, Charles XII had been in enforced exile in the Ottoman Empire. By the time he returned to Sweden he found himself fighting a reduced, defensive war for the first time. His primary foe was now Denmark-norway and he decided to split the union by invading Norwegian territory. By attacking Norway, Charles aimed to cut Denmark’s supply lines and force the Danes to withdraw from Sweden’s southernmost province of Scania.
The invasion began in 1716 with the Norwegian capital Christiania (Oslo) being occupied. By May 1716, Charles was besieging the fortress of Fredriksten in the city of Halden, with Swedish troops being transported to Norway by sea. Tordenskjold was ordered to sail from Copenhagen to stop the Swedish shipping and on 7 July 1716 he learned that a Swedish troop escort fleet had anchored at Dynekilen. This was a narrow fjord north of Strönstad in the Västra Götaland region of western Sweden near the Norwegian border.
Tordenskjold commanded a small fleet of seven warships containing 931 men. These were outnumbered by the Swedes who had 13 warships and 1,284 men as well as a land battery and 14 additional merchant vessels. The Swedish ships were arranged defensively and the battery of six 12-pounder guns was placed on an island in the fjord. Soldiers were also placed on both sides of Dynekilen harbour to provide crossfire. Tordenskjold was undeterred by these defences and on 8 July 1716 he sailed his ships into the fjord in a surprise attack that began at 4.00am.
The Dano-norwegian ships were quickly anchored and opened fire on the Swedes. The ensuing battle lasted all morning and into the afternoon of 8 July. At 1.00pm, Tordenskjold’s men captured the battery and the largest Swedish ship, Stenbock, surrendered. The Danonorwegians had effectively won the battle but the Swedes were determined to scuttle their fleet. By the late afternoon the majority of the Swedish fleet was sinking, burning or being deliberately run aground. Tordenskjold, who was never one to miss lucrative prizes, became determined to capture as many Swedish vessels as possible.
The stricken enemy ships were ordered to be made seaworthy and the Dano-norwegians made great efforts put out the fires on board the Swedish ships and free the ones that had run aground. This was done despite the dangers of the various infernos and musket volleys from the Swedish soldiers on the shore. By 9.00pm, Tordenskjold left Dynekilen with over two dozen captured ships and his own fleet intact.
This impressive victory forced Charles XII to end his invasion of Norway and he returned to Sweden. Tordenskjold was promoted to postcaptain and given the command of the Kattegat Squadron while his subordinates were each awarded a gold medal.
A sudden demise
After Dynekilen, Tordenskjold’s career continued to flourish. On 19 December
1718, he heard rumours that Charles XII had been killed at the resumed Siege of Fredriksten. When the rumour was confirmed he immediately travelled to Copenhagen where he conveyed the news to Frederick IV. The king was so pleased that he promoted Tordenskjold (who was still only in his late 20s) to rearadmiral on the spot.
In 1719, Rear-admiral Tordenskjold directed a devastating attack against the Swedish Gothenburg fleet that lay at Marstrand. The coastal city had a stone fortress called Carlsten, which Tordenskjold tricked the Swedes into surrendering. He claimed there was a huge Dano-norwegian force in Marstrand but this was an elaborate bluff. The admiral actually passed the same troops in and out of the town square to make it look as though there were more soldiers than there actually were. Some historians have claimed this incident is a myth but Tordenskjold was again promoted to viceadmiral shortly afterwards.
Denmark-norway eventually concluded peace with Sweden on favourable terms in
July 1720 at the Treaty of Frederiksborg but Tordenskjold’s fighting spirit struggled to adapt in the absence of war. He travelled to Germany and became embroiled in a gambling scandal within months. While he was staying in Hanover, he heard that several men had cheated one of his friends during a card game at a party. During the telling of this rumour, one of the accused men – Colonel Axel Jacob Staël von Holstein – introduced himself. He denied any wrongdoing and demanded an apology.
The hot-headed Tordenskjold defended his friend and a brawl broke out that ended with
“THE VETERAN SWASHBUCKLER REFUSED TO BACK OUT OF THE FIGHT AND WAS STABBED THROUGH THE CHEST BY VON HOLSTEIN”
von Holstein challenging the admiral to a duel. On 12 November 1720, Tordenskjold and von Holstein faced each other at Gleidingen in Lower Saxony. It was an uneven match because von Holstein was armed with a military rapier while Tordenskjold only had his ceremonial dress sword. Despite this, the veteran swashbuckler refused to back out of the fight and was stabbed through the chest by von Holstein. Tordenskjold died in the arms of his servant aged only 30 and his corpse was brought to Copenhagen. He was buried without ceremony in the Holmen Church because duelling was illegal under Danish law.
Despite his unnecessary death and ignominious burial, Tordenskjold has since become a national hero in both Denmark and Norway. After Charles XII, he is regarded as the most heroic Scandinavian figure of the Great Northern War. The Danish and Norwegian navies have named several ships after him along with street names and five statues. He is mentioned by name in the Norwegian national anthem and the Danish royal anthem and has also been the subject of two films and a musical. For a man who embodied an exclusively Nordic brand of swashbuckling heroism, this adulation seems to be well founded.
The Battle of Køge Bay is regarded as the greatest victory in Danish naval history because it gave Denmark-norway control of the Baltic Sea ABOVE: The 1807 bombardment of Copenhagen resulted in 3,000 Dano-norwegian casualties compared to just 42 British sailors killed
Tordenskjold cheekily enquired why the Swedish commandant of Marstrand had not surrendered in 1719 with the words, “What is taking you so long?”
On 1 December 1717, Tordenskjold’s fourgun vessel was pursued by a much larger Swedish ship. Tordenskjold shot the Swedish captain after he was asked to surrender and managed to escape in the ensuing confusion
Tordenskjold’s sarcophagus in Holmen Church, Copenhagen
Tordenskjold’s valet Christian Kold prays over his corpse after his death in a duel