Last week, I was in Karlskrona, Sweden, attending and speaking at a conference on dockyards and port cities organised by the Swedish Naval Museum. It was my first ever visit to the town, and shamefully, that’s also true of Copenhagen, where I stopped over en route in both directions. So this week, there’s two for the price of one at this website – in this blogpost, I’ll provide my impressions of the town and museum, while in a second post, which I’ll aim to complete by Wednesday or Thursday, I’ll give my take on the conference. Then, next week, I’ll take a slightly left field look at some of the lesser known aspects of the naval and 17th century histories of Copenhagen…possibly with added discussion of beer…
So, then, Karlskrona. This is a World Heritage site, a fact of which the locals are clearly, and rightly, very proud. Created from scratch by King Carl XI in 1680, it’s a planned Baroque new town, still adhering to the original grid pattern, and retaining many buildings from its early days, including a wooden Admiralty church, supposedly ‘temporary’ when it was built but still going strong. The same is true of the naval base, which was sited where it is because it lies at the heart of a complex archipelago, with easily defended approaches. (Kungsholm, the principal island at the entrance to the inner archipelago, was also begun in 1680, and claims to be the oldest continuously occupied active fortification in the world.) The archipelago in question achieved global notoriety in 1981, when a Soviet Whisky class submarine suddenly appeared, stranded, on an islet in the outer echelons of it, having – ahem – ‘made a navigational error’. This incident, inevitably christened ‘Whisky on the rocks’ in the media, still resonates in Karlskrona – indeed, a substantial part of the first floor of the museum is given over to an interactive display recording this and other Cold War run-ins between the Swedes and their eastern neighbours.
The consequence of more recent Russian expansionism is that security in Karlskrona has been tightened markedly. The local museum staff bemoan the fact that it’s now not possible to do things that one could do three or four years ago; for example, one has to drive, not walk, from building A to building B in the naval base, even if said buildings are a couple of hundred yards from each other, and the passport check at the gate into the base is of positively Trumpian rigour. However, there seem to be several incongruities in the Swedish navy’s approach to security. For one thing, while one can’t take external photographs within the base, it’s possible to see virtually every corner of it from public vantage points in Karlskrona town (and goodness knows how good a view those living on the top floors of some of the apartment blocks overlooking the base must have) – so a good Putinista with a decent zoom lens could probably snap the lot in half an hour. Let’s face it, s/he probably has, many times, perhaps disguised as a Polish tourist on the very convenient daily ferry from Gdynia – and that’s before one considers Google Earth…
Bizarrely, too, at night the entrance to the naval base is surmounted by a vast blue neon sign proclaiming it to be the Sodom and Gomorrah Nightclub.
OK, yes, I invented that last bit, but personally, I can’t imagine any circumstances in which the Royal Navy would stick a large blue neon sign bearing the legend ‘NAVAL BASE’ (subtitle – ‘Beware: Contains Instruments of Thermonuclear Doom’) above the entrance to HMNB Clyde at Faslane. Let’s face it, you either know something is a naval base or you don’t, and in the latter case, the nice men (and women) with very big guns will set you right soon enough.
Anyway, the conference timings enabled us to explore the naval museum at our own leisure, and also included a guided tour of the naval base. The museum was built twenty years ago on Stumholmen island, formerly an exclusive military site which includes, for example, a wonderful eighteenth century boathouse and some early twentieth century flying boat hangars, plus a bastion which provides an excellent public viewpoint over much of the naval base. (See above.) The museum’s main building has recently been complemented by a brand new submarine hall, which displays Sweden’s first submarine, the Hajen, built in 1904, and the Neptun, commissioned in 1980, which dominates the space. We had a tour of the latter on the first evening of the conference, and it was fascinating to compare it with the RN submarines that I’ve been aboard: above all, the egalitarian Swedish navy had all ranks, including the officers, dining communally in the torpedo compartment, something that might get old British submariners spluttering.
The museum has several other preserved ships: the Bremön, a minesweeper-cum-minelayer of 1940; the Västervik, a 1970s attack craft originally designed as a MTB but subsequently converted to take missiles; and the Jarramas, a splendid sail training ship dating from 1900, for which the museum is fundraising to finance a full restoration.
The older building has some excellent displays chronicling Sweden’s naval history, and devotes a large amount of space to the technical side of ship construction. As mentioned earlier, it also has a large section devoted to the Cold War, although unlike the rest of the museum, where displays are bilingual, this is exclusively Swedish. The museum also has a tunnel below water level, designed to enable viewing of one of the many wrecks that litter the bottom of the harbour (more on this in my next post about the conference itself). Undoubtedly the highlight of the museum, though, is the floor-to-ceiling glass hall that contains figureheads of many of Sweden’s greatest sailing warships.
The shed in which the figureheads were originally carved was the first stop on our tour of the naval base. This was the workshop of the sculptor Johan Törnström, and contains modern examples of the sort of templates from which he and his subordinates would have worked. Several of the other buildings still bear the imprint of the most influential figure in the history of the yard, Fredrik Henrik af Chapman, and if you’re thinking that Chapman doesn’t sound like a very Swedish name, you’d be right – his father was a Yorkshireman who went into the Swedish service in 1716. Chapman was so influential that he was eventually ennobled, and built a substantial villa for himself outside Karlskrona, crowned with a cupola from which he could keep an eye on work in the dockyard even when he was notionally off duty.
Our next port of call was the ropery, below, built in 1690, three hundred metres long and built of wood for most of its length – a remarkable structure where displays of practical rope-making are still staged.
Close to the ropery stands the so-called Vasa Shed, a covered slipway built in the 1760s, and named after the greatest warship built there – no, not that Vasa, a later one. Next to the Vasa Shed is the remarkable Polhem dry dock, constructed despite two obvious difficulties: the ground here is solid rock, and there are no tides, normally essential to filling and flushing dry docks. The Swedes overcame these difficulties in 1724, and although it looks somewhat nondescript now, the pride felt in its creation led to it being described locally at the time as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.
Now, even though we couldn’t take photographs outside, this didn’t prevent us deploying the Mark One Eyeball to good effect. Thus I can exclusively reveal that the base contained a couple of the Swedish navy’s highly futuristic stealth warships, thus suggesting one final flaw in the draconian security policy: if they’re that stealthy, how come you can actually still see them??
Seriously, though, Karlskrona should be an absolute must on every serious naval buff’s ‘bucket list’, and it thoroughly deserves its World Heritage status. I certainly hope to return there!
(Later this week, I’ll blog about the conference itself.)