Meet the daring admiral who rules the Baltic seas
During the romantic Age of Sail in the early 18th century, Peter Wessel Tordenskjold became the embodiment of naval heroism and derring-do. A daredevil combination of dashing warrior and gentleman adventurer, his exploits against Sweden turned him into the Scandinavian equivalent of Admiral Lord Nelson. His brief life story was a meteoric blaze of fire during the Great Northern War that consumed the regions around the Baltic Sea for over 20 years. However, like a curiously high number of young people who achieve rapid achievements, Tordenskjold became a self-destructive victim of his own success. An obscure figure in international history, he is nevertheless a national hero in both Norway and Denmark.
Ambition in a dual kingdom
The future ‘Tordenskjold’ was born as Peter Jansen Wessel in 1690 to a wealthy merchant family in Trondheim, Norway. He was the 14th of 18 children and as a youth he was reputedly uncontrollable and involved in many fights. Eventually, the teenage Wessel ran away to sea with hopes of becoming an officer in the Royal Dano-norwegian Navy.
Denmark and Norway had been united since 1523 with Denmark being the dominant country. Consisting of the two countries as well as Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the German duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, Denmark-norway was a formidable Scandinavian power. Much like the union between England and Scotland, Denmarknorway was a legal state of ‘Twin Realms’ with a single Danish monarch and a concentration of institutions in the larger capital, which was Copenhagen. There were also some differences with both kingdoms having separate legal codes, currencies and governmental bodies.
Norway was the junior partner and although later Norwegian historians disparaged the connection with Denmark as the ‘400-year night’, it was largely not perceived like that at the time. Norway actually prospered with a thriving economy and was one of the wealthiest countries in the world throughout the union.
This filtered through the military system and it was common for Norwegian men to take up service in the Danish armed forces as it was seen as a lucrative career opportunity, particularly in the Royal Dano-norwegian Navy.
Wessel was one of those ambitious Norwegians who wished to earn his fortune as a naval officer but he was initially rejected as a cadet. He instead spent three years serving on merchant ships that sailed to Guinea and the Caribbean. In 1710, he was finally accepted as a cadet and although he was only 20 years old he was already a highly experienced sailor.
Over the next ten years he would experience rapid promotions thanks to his reckless courage and military skill.
In the spring of 1711, Wessel became a second lieutenant and served as second-incommand of the frigate Postillion from July of the same year. He soon became the protégé of the Norwegian admiral Waldemar Løvendal who promoted him to captain-lieutenant of a fourgun sloop called Ormen.
The Great Northern War
At this time Denmark-norway was involved in the Great Northern War (1700-21), a huge conflict that was primarily fought between Russia and the Dano-norwegians’ great rival – Sweden. Under the rule of the formidable soldier-king Charles XII, Sweden was a great power and had a large European empire that was the envy of the regional Baltic countries. Russia, Saxony-poland-lithuania and Denmarknorway formed an alliance to challenge the supremacy of the Swedes but Charles XII won a series of impressive military victories in the early stages of the conflict.
Denmark-norway had been one of the first victims of Charles XII’S success when he attacked the Danish mainland in 1700. Copenhagen was bombarded and Denmarknorway was initially forced out of the war by the terms of the Peace of Travendal. However,
“HE WOULD EXPERIENCE RAPID PROMOTIONS THANKS TO HIS RECKLESS COURAGE AND MILITARY SKILL”
when Charles was decisively defeated by Tsar Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, Denmark-norway re-entered the war in a new anti-swedish alliance.
There were significant land campaigns in this phase of the war but naval confrontations between the Dano-norwegians and the Swedes were also commonplace. Wessel eagerly participated in these engagements and started out by cruising along the Swedish coast in the Ormen on reconnaissance missions. Promoted to the command of an 18-gun frigate called Løvendals Galej in June 1712, he quickly gained a reputation for randomly attacking Swedish ships regardless of the odds and always evading capture.
These actions prompted the Swedes to put a price on his head, which only served to enhance his reputation. Far from pleasing the Dano-norwegian admiralty, Wessel had actually only been given his command of Løvendals Galej by his mentor, Admiral Løvendal. This was against senior advice because other naval officers perceived that Wessel was an impulsive young man. He never considered the consequences of his actions and his arrogance often earned the wrath of his superiors.
For example, on 12 August 1713, Wessel wrote a mocking letter to the Swedish governor of Gothenburg. He accused them of letting their privateers attack merchant ships instead of fighting real warships and cheekily urged the governor to send a ship for him. This was because there was a reward on his head and he wanted to be collected for imprisonment in style. The governor did not share Wessel’s sense of humour and complained to a senior general in Norway. He consequently received a reprimand from King Frederick IV of Denmark-norway but the confident seaman was not to be deterred.
A gentlemanly duel
The prime example of Wessel’s romantic, buccaneering spirit occurred during 26-27 July 1714, when Løvendals Gallej fought a Swedish frigate called De Olbing Galley. This ship was disguised by an English flag and commanded by a mysterious Englishman with a Germanic name called Bactmann. Wessel himself was flying under a Dutch flag and when the two ships realised their true colours they opened fire and fought for over 14 hours. Wessel met a considerable match in Bactmann, although the Swedish ship attempted to escape after prolonged fighting. This only encouraged Wessel to raise more sails and pursue the frigate.
Eventually, after taking much damage, Wessel ran out of ammunition and messaged his situation to Bactmann. He thanked him for a fine duel and boldly requested the Englishman for more ammunition so that the fight could continue. Bactmann declined this
“WESSEL WAS COURTMARTIALLED FOR THIS GENTLEMANLY FIGHT ON THE ORDERS OF FREDERICK IV BUT HE WAS ACQUITTED AND THEN PROMOTED TO CAPTAIN”
outlandish request but the two ships came together. Both crews cheered and drank to each other’s health before the captains agreed to sail away in opposite directions. Wessel was court-martialled for this gentlemanly fight on the orders of Frederick IV but he was acquitted and then promoted to captain.
Throughout 1715, Wessel remained the scourge of the Swedes, particularly off the coast of Swedish Pomerania (now the Germanpolish Baltic coast). During a battle off Kolberg (Kołobrzeg) he captured the Swedish Rearadmiral Hans Wachtmeister and a frigate called Vita Örn (White Eagle). This was granted as Wessel’s flagship and it was renamed Hvide Ørn.
On 8 August 1715, he distinguished himself again at the Battle of Rügen under the command of Peter Raben. Twenty-five Danonorwegian ships fought 22 Swedish vessels in a clash that was tactically indecisive but a strategic success for Raben’s fleet. Wessel was personally able to chase away enemy ships in Hvide Ørn by sheer courage and skill. He was now a valued asset for the high command and was knighted by Frederick IV on 24 February 1716. The king permitted him to adopt the name of ‘Tordenskjold’, which literally translates as ‘Thunder Shield’. The former Peter Wessel was only 25 years old.
While Tordenskjold was wreaking his unique brand of naval havoc, the war continued to go badly for Sweden. The Battle of Poltava had begun a downward trend in Charles XII’S fortunes that, with a few exceptions, proved to be irreversible. Russia’s military confidence was increasing and while Tordenskjold was
A contemporary portrait of Peter Wessel Tordenskjold by Dutchdanish painter Jacob Coning (1647-1724) who was a popular portraitist at the Danish court OPPOSITE PAGE: The Royal Arms of Denmark-norway above an 1897 photograph of Tordenskjold’s pistol PETER WESSEL TORDENSKJOLD
Wessel’s crew toast the health of their duelling partners after the clash of the Løvendals Gallej and De Olbing Galley, 27 July 1714
Tordenskjold painted at the pinnacle of his career as a vice-admiral