On this day in history : 2nd April 1801 – The Battle of Copenhagen takes place – Admiral Horatio Nelson ignores orders to withdraw his forces and proceeds to sink the pro-French Danish fleet….

Christian August Lorentzen – Public domain

It was in early 1801, during the Napoleonic Wars, that Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Prussia formed a coalition to ensure free trade with France…. By joining forces to protect their own shipping against Britain they cut Britain’s vital supply of timber and other associated goods needed to sustain the Royal Navy…. Britain responded by sending a fleet to break the coalition….

The fleet, under the command of Admiral Hyde Parker with Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson as his second-in-command, reached Denmark on the 21st of March…. It had been essential to get there before the Baltic Sea thawed, allowing the Russian fleet to leave its bases in order to assist its Scandinavian allies….

Britain began negotiations with the Danes to try and come to an agreement – but the talks proved fruitless…. So, it was Nelson, onboard 74-gun HMS Elephant, who led 12 ships in an effort to gain entry into Copenhagen Harbour…. The Danes formed a blockade and so battle commenced – with a British attack on the Danish ships and land defences….

Nicholas Pocock – Public domain

It was a bold plan…. The waters being shallow and the British having no detailed charts of the area – it did not take long for three of the British ships to run aground….

Parker, observing from a far – with his view obscured by all the smoke – felt that Nelson was taking unnecessary risks…. At 1.30pm he ordered Nelson to retreat – his words to his flag captain… “I will make the signal to 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 on seeing the signal flag joked to his own flag captain…. “You know, Foley, I only have one eye – I have the right to be blind sometimes”…. He then held his telescope up to his blind eye – the result of an old injury – and said…. “I really do not see the signal”…. He then ignored Parker’s command and carried on with the task in hand….

Christian Molsted – Public domain

By late afternoon the British had the upper-hand in the battle and the Danes were taking a thorough battering…. By the end of the fighting 12 Danish ships had been captured or destroyed, with 1,700 men dead or wounded; a further 2000 were captured…. Several British ships were grounded (but later re-floated) with 1,000 men dead or wounded….

Christian Molsted – Public domain

Negotiations were reopened – helped by the fact that Russia’s Czar Paul had been assassinated and his successor Czar Alexander was known to be far more sympathetic to the British…. Eventually an agreement was secured with the Danes….

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