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The Battle off Helgoland
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by Gert Laursen
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In 1864 Denmark was once again at war with Germany and its ally Austria over the Slesvig issue. The war had been a disaster and in February 1864 the Danish army had retreated from most of the southern part of Jutland in the face of a numerous, superior, and better equipped Preussian army. Only one small bridgehead was still held at Dybboel.

But Denmark had one small advantage: it's strong fleet. On the 26th of February Denmark declared a blockade against the harbours of Schleswig and Holstein and on the 8th of March the blockade was expanded to the Preussian harbours of the Baltic Sea. Only possessing a rather small navy compared to the Danish, the Preussians called their Austrian allies for help. The Austrians equipped one squadron consisting of the frigates Schwarzenberg and Radetzky and the gunboat Seehund. They left their bases in the beginning of March under the leadership of commander Wilhelm von Tegetthoff.

Meanwhile the Preussians attempted to break the blockade by their own means. On the 17th of March, a Preussian squadron engaged the Danish fleet off Rügen, but the battle that followed, clearly showed that the Preussian navy was no match for the Danish, and after a short battle, the Preussian ships were forced to retreat into the harbours of Northern Germany.

That the Austrian had equipped a squadron and was on its way, was not a surprise for the Danish Ministry of Naval affairs. Through the Danish legations in Madrid, Paris, London and neutral sources the enemy squadron was closely followed, and as soon as the Austrians arrived or left a harbour the Ministry was notified.

Being stationed in the Mediterranean, it took some time before the Austrian squadron could reach the North Sea. On the 30th of March the squadron ran into the Atlantic, and in late April it reached the English Channel, where the Seehund was damaged in an accident, and forced to stay in an English port. On the 1st of May the reduced Squadron reached Texel in Holland, where the three Preussian gunboats, Basilisk, Blitz and Preussisher Adler, were waiting to join them. On the 3rd of May, the 5 ships continued northwards toward Danish waters, to begin their mission.

The Danish North Sea squadron
On the 30th of March 1864 the Danish North Sea squadron was formed under the leadership of commander Edouard Suenson. Its purpose was to protect Danish commerce, seizing German ships, and prevent any enemy warships from entering the North Sea. It consisted of the frigate Niels Juel as flagship and the corvette Heimdal. They were to join with the corvette Dagmar in the North Sea. On the 6th of April they left Copenhagen and a few days later they arrived in the North Sea where they began seizing German ships.

To strengthen the Danish squadron, the frigate Jylland which had participated in the blockade of the North Sea harbours, was ordered into the North Sea in the beginning of May to take up the Dagmar's place.

On the 5th of May it joined the Niels Juel and Heimdal with orders from the Admiralty to turn south at once and intercept the Austrian squadron, which were reported to have left Texel. The two squadrons were now on a collision course.

The two squadrons:

The Danish squadron (Suenson)
Niels Juel
Screw frigate
Screw frigate

The Austrian-preussian squadron (Tegetthoff)

Screw frigate
Screw frigate
Preussischer Adler


Mac Lean
The Battle
Shortly after 10 a.m. a Danish lookout observed smoke from the Southwest. During the next hour, it became clear that it was the Austrian squadron steaming North. The Danish squadron accelerated, and the ships were prepared for the coming battle. On the flagship a signal was hoisted, and the Jylland and Heimdal took up positions on both sides of the Niels Juel. The squadron commander, Suenson, pointed in direction of the smoke and the masts of the enemy squadron, and said in a loud voice that could be heard onboard the three ships:

"Men, there are the Austrians. Now we will meet them. I trust that we will fight like our brave comrades at Dybboel". After this the three ships fell into line again. At about the same time Suenson's adversary, Tegetthoff, was addressing his men, who had been gathered on the deck. He said: "Our armies are victorious, we will be the same".

The Austrians manned their guns. The ships fell into line, with the Preussian gunboats a little further away. Everything was ready for the forthcoming battle.

At 1:45 p.m. the Schwarzenberg opened fire at 3800 meters with its front swivel-guns (1). The shells went down in front of the Niels Juel. A few more followed but none of them hit. A little later when the guns of the Niels Juel could bear she also opened fire. Shortly after the other ships joined in and soon a dense smoke covered the ships. Almost at once the Danes scored hits on the Schwarzenberg. One of the first shells exploded on the gun deck, killing or wounding 14 men.

se større kort
Map of the area around Helgoland

At 2000 meters the two lines of ships passed each other, and while doing so, the three Danish ships directed their fire against the Schwarzenberg (2).

After the passing, the Danish squadron turned starboard in an attempt to cut off the gunboats, that were still out of range of the Danish guns. Tegetthoff immediately realised the danger, and turned 180 degrees (3). The two squadrons were now following a parallel course South, at a distance of about 900 meters (4). The Danish squadron turned slightly starboard, so the distance was reduced to about 400 meters.

While the Jylland and Heimdal, now were concentrating their fire against the Radetzky, Niels Juel was exchanging broadsides with the Schwarzenberg, which was hit hard. Many of the artillerists were killed or wounded and twice fire broke out. The first fire was quickly extinguished, but the second one set the sails depot above the powder magazine on fire. It was only put out with great difficulty. But also the Danish ships were hit.

Especially the Jylland was hit hard. One shell penetrated the hul, and exploded close to gun no. 9 killing or wounding the gun crew. At gun no. 8 and 10, the gun crew shocked by the sight of their comrades and almost unconscious from the blast of the shell, staggered back from their guns. An officer quickly restored discipline. Gun no. 9 was taken over by other artillerists, and soon the guns were back into action.

The battle had now lasted for about 2 hours, and thanks to the greater accuracy and rate of fire of the Danish ships, they were slowly gaining the upper hand. While no Danish guns had been put out of action, several guns on the Schwarzenberg and Radetzky had been silenced, and the losses among the crew had been heavy. The gunfire of the Austrians began to weaken.

The squadrons were now approaching Helgoland, and from the hill of the island, and the top of the masts of the British warship Aurora, civilians and British sailors were watching the battle. The gunfire was so violent, that it shook the windows and doors on the small island. Suddenly the spectators saw a ship coming out of the dense smoke, with its foretop in flames.

In one moment the battle had been decided. A Danish shell, set fire to the foretop on the Schwarzenberg, and in a few moments it was an inferno. The situation onboard the flagship was very serious. It was impossible to put the fire out, and it threatened to spread to the rest of the ship.

Kampen ved Helgoland - det brændende Schwarzenberg
The burning Schwarzenberg

Tegetthoff's only possibility to save his ship and the squadron, was to disengage from the battle and seek refuge in the neutral water off Helgoland. He signalled to the other members of the squadron to turn north.

In an attempt to cover the burning Schwarzenberg, Radetzky continued it´s course. But the fight was now to unequal; Tegetthoff repeated his orders to disengage, and the Radetzky broke off the engagement (5). The enemy squadron steamed, full speed, toward Helgoland. The Danish ships tried to follow the fleeing enemy, but the steering gear of the Jutland had been damaged, and the enemy improved its lead. A few gunshots more were exchanged, before Suenson, at 4.30 p.m., gave orders to break of the pursuit, in order to not to violate British territory. Fifteen minutes later the Austrian squadron anchored by Helgoland (6).

The Danish squadron stayed in the area, ready to continue the battle if the Austrians tried to run for it. On the Schwarzenberg the fire was so strong, that the crew still had great difficulty in putting it out. It was finally extinguished at about 1 a.m. Tegetthoff decided to take his chances and make a run for the German port Cuxhaven. With all lights extinguished he went to sea again. A few hours later he arrived at Cuxhaven.

During the battle, the Austrian squadron had suffered 37 casualties and 92 wounded. At the Schwarzenberg alone 101 men had been killed or wounded. The German gunboats hadn't had any loses or suffered any damaged. On the Danish side 14 men had been killed and 54 wounded. 1746 shells had been fired at the Austrian-Preussian ships.

Despite the Danish victory, it never had any influence on the war. A few days later a truce was negotiated, and on the 15th of May the squadron returned to Copenhagen to a hero's welcome. On the battleground the Danish army had been defeated, but the victory at sea helped restore some of the national prestige.

The survivor
Of the participants of this last naval battle between wooden ships, only the Jylland remains. The Jylland has been on the brink of being broken up several times, but today it rests, beautifully restored, in the harbour of Ebeltoft, and is one of Denmarks premier tourist attractions.

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Further reading
HMS Aurora at Helgoland
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