Dead Admirals Society Goes Danish

In last week’s two posts, I talked about the lovely Swedish city of Karlskrona, and the international conference on dockyards that I attended there. I bookended the trip with stays in Copenhagen, which I’d never visited before – a shocking admission, especially as my grandfather was there as long ago as 1965, arranging the deal that brought Tuborg lager to the UK. (Long story.)

Mermaid (little)(one). Regrettably photobombed by museum warship and former dockyard in background.

Now, I could provide you with a boring tourist travelogue of Copenhagen.

  • Mermaid (Little)(one) – check
  • Pastries (large)(many) – check
  • Beer (excellent)(also many)(especially Tuborg) – check
  • Danish crown jewels (nice, but not as hardcore as ours) – check
  • Bookshops (excellent, apart from shortage of books in English on [a] Danish history [b] Danish naval history)(several) – check
  • Tivoli (don’t be silly) – not checked

But I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll concentrate on what you’ve come to expect from this blog, namely the more obscure historical and naval bits.

The HMS Africa diorama

Naturally, I made a beeline for the Tøjhusmuseet, or Royal Arsenal Museum, as this now contains the history of the Danish navy too, following the sad closure of the dedicated naval museum in 2015. Fortunately, the new seapower gallery is pretty substantial, and the literally parallel exhibits of Danish military history supply useful context. There’s no glossing over some of the navy’s less glorious hours, notably its encounter with one Nelson, H, in 1801 (illustrated by an excellent diorama), and the subsequent bombardment of Copenhagen and capture of the fleet in 1807. I learned a great deal, thanks partly to exemplary bilingual signage – for example, about the gunboat attack on HMS Africa in 1808, which I’d simply never come across before, but which is the subject of another fine diorama; and about the events of 29 August 1943, when tensions between the Danes and the occupying Germans came to a head, and most of the navy’s ships were either scuttled or taken over by the Kriegsmarine.

Models. Hundreds of ’em.

One interesting contrast between the Arsenal museum and some of its British counterparts is that its entire naval gallery, and, indeed, its telling of the whole naval history of Denmark, is shaped around its superb collection of ship models. This is utterly unlike the situation in certain institutions over here, where such things seem to be regarded as slightly embarrassing, even ‘politically incorrect’, and likely to be of interest only to reclusive modellers in sheds or those with obscure obsessions with futtocks: hence, all too often, many ship models in major British museums are shunted off to some dark and distant corner, preferably the reserve collection. In this respect, as in quite a few others – Denmark, I salute you.

Shtandart under way off the new opera house

It was also nice to see the Shtandart alongside at the quay adjacent to the Arsenal and the Royal Library, and later under way in the harbour. This lovely reconstruction of the first true warship of the Russian navy, based in turn on British sixth rates and royal yachts of the late seventeenth century, is an old friend, encountered most memorably at St Petersburg on New Years Day 2003, when she was iced in – as was the entire city, with several kilometres of frozen Baltic lying in front of it, with it being possible (allegedly) to walk across the sea to Finland. However, I learned at the Karlskrona conference that the Shtandart hasn’t actually been back to her nominal home port for getting on for ten years, allegedly because her owners refuse to pay the bribes demanded by some of those running the port for turning a blind eye to the fact that according to their regulations, a ship of her size can only be built of metal, not wood. I kid you not.

The tombs of Niels Juel and his family, plus spectacular monument to his victories

Anyway, from the Arsenal I walked the short distance to Holmen Church, originally the anchor forge of Copenhagen’s dockyard (now that’s what I call an imaginative conversion – Grand Designs, eat your heart out). This is traditionally the naval church, and contains the mausoleum of Denmark’s two greatest naval heroes. Niels Juel fought on the Dutch side during the first Anglo-Dutch war before leading his own navy to success in the battles of Jasmund (1675), Öland (1676), Møn (1677) and above all Køge Bay (1677) where he routed a much larger Swedish fleet. In later years he became a successful naval administrator, respected as ‘the good old knight’, and died in 1697 at the age of 68. There’s a statue of him just across the road from the church, which I hoped to photograph; but sod’s law dictated that it was covered in scaffolding for a facelift. In marked contrast, Denmark’s other great naval hero, Peter Wessel Tordenskjold – actually a Norwegian – died at the age of only thirty after a ‘shooting star’ of a career that makes Nelson’s look positively slow and staid. He went from second lieutenant in 1711 to captain in 1714 to rear-admiral in 1719 to being killed in a bizarre duel in 1720, having won many single ship actions, distinguished himself in fleet actions, captured one of Sweden’s greatest fortresses, and been ennobled. Of course, I’d heard of him, but hadn’t known that his name was actually Peter Wessel, and that Tordenskjold, literally ‘Thundershield’, was in fact a nickname granted to him by the king at the time of his ennoblement.

The grave of Tordenskjold – absolutely Peak Dead Admiral

‘Thundershield’. Let’s just think about that.

Now, there are nicknames and there are nicknames: Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, Boris ‘Foreign Secretary’ Johnson, to give just a few. But British naval history really could do with a few more of them, or at least, ones that have come down to posterity. It’s entirely possible, for example, that Nelson was known to some of those under his command as ‘the vertically challenged one-eyed sex machine’, or something of the sort, but such irreverence was, naturally, silenced comprehensively on 21 October 1805. Several of those from my own principal period of study, the late seventeenth century, really should have had nicknames: for example, Sir Frescheville ‘Armless’ Holles, Sir Richard ‘Life’s a’ Beach, or Sir Cloudesley ‘Ship and’ Shovell. But nothing, nothing at all, could ever come close to ‘Thundershield’. So much respect to the Danes for having what has to be the best dead admiral’s name of all time, period.

Sadly, though, I fear that ‘sea blindness’, regarded by some as a significant problem in the UK, might not be confined to this sceptred isle alone. I was in the naval mausoleum for the best part of half an hour, and except for five minutes or so at the very end, when one other person came in, I was the only person there. Imagine if Nelson and Drake were buried together in the same church, in central London, and nobody ever visited their tombs; but let’s not do that, because that sort of exercise might also lead to imagining a situation where, to save a bit of money, a country closes its dedicated naval museum and merges it with that of the army.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m shuddering.


  1. Daniel Caramagno says:

    Have to visit Denmark some day to see the models. When on vacation several years ago I was disappointed that the NMM had few Admiralty models on display. They told me no one looks at them anymore. The Naval Academy here has the Rogers Collection on grand display. They totally redid the second floor of the museum just for them. I say, send them over here.


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