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The Baltic: Victory’s Forgotten War

At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 HMS Victory took incredible punishment from enemy fire. Her bow was smashed, her thick oak sides and masts were pummelled with heavy iron round shot from the French and Spanish cannons, and her wheel was shot away.

Her once proud figurehead – so much the symbol of fighting ships in the Age of Sail – was damaged beyond repair. 

Thanks to Nelson’s tactics, and the bravery and skill of the men, the battle was won.

Victory’s wounds mirrored that of the great naval hero, but unlike Nelson, Victory lived to fight another day. 

A battered and bruised Victory off the Isle of Wight returning from the Battle of Trafalgar with Nelson’s body, by John Wilson Carmichael (1847).

Three Years Later - Napolean's Continental Blockade

Three years after the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson had become a legend, and the weeping from his funeral was drowned only by the murmuring of a new threat – Napoleon’s continental blockade.

The French failed to beat the Royal Navy at sea, and Napoleon now tried to starve Britain of vital supplies.

It was clear HMS Victory’s work wasn’t finished, she was refitted and the ageing ship was dragged back out to sea.This time north, to the Baltic as the flagship of Rear Admiral Saumarez.

The Baltic & Sir James Samurez

Sir James Saumarez was cut from a different cloth to Nelson. Nelson had an ingrained ability for battle, but Saumarez was an altogether more academic character.

A Channel Islander, he spoke French, he was well read, and well-travelled – Saumarez just the man for the delicate mission in the Baltic.

But this wasn’t to be a great fleet engagement like Trafalgar – this was diplomacy by force.

Rear Admiral Sir James Saumarez

The Russians and Danes had sided with the French and tried to prevent vital supplies of iron, hemp and timber reaching Britain.

These were critical ingredients for building and rigging ships, without them the Royal Navy had no chance. 

Swedish Support

Saumarez saw the support of Sweden as key to wrecking Napoleon’s cunning plans.

Anchored Vinga Sound, just outside the Swedish city of Gothenburg, Saumarez used Victory as a floating embassy. He entertained Swedish dignitaries on board the great flagship in the hope of gaining their support.

The battle scarred Victory of Trafalgar fame, no doubt made a suitable impression on the Swedes. They agreed to keep trade flowing and help Saumarez against the Russians and Danes. 

The Danes were a shrewd opponent, despite having had much of their fleet captured by Nelson in 1801, and Copenhagen all but destroyed in 1807, the Danish Navy had taken to using small manoeuvrable gunboats in the shallow inlets on their Baltic coast.

Often the threat of force from Victory was enough to keep these small ships in port, but just to the south of Vinga, Victory's crew managed to capture two Danish gunboats that were threatening merchant shipping. 

To the east of the Baltic Sea, lurked the danger of the Russian fleet.

The Russian Fleet

John Whick, a shoemaker who had joined the Royal Marines, wrote home to his sister from Victory, ‘Up the Baltic I expect it will be very warm work with the Russians for we are to have 26 sail of the line and 40,000 troops’.

Saumarez nipped it in the bud, cleverly managing to trap the Russian fleet by ordering an attack while it was anchored at Baltiski. The Russians lost one ship, and never threatened the safety of British trade again.

The Situation of the English and Swedish Fleet at Port Baltic (Baltiski) in 1808.

An Important Part of Victory's History

Part political, part naval the successful campaign led by Saumarez is an almost forgotten part of Victory’s history.

However, for good or ill, this type naval-diplomacy would become one of the sharper tools in Britain’s imperial toolbox.

With Britain’s navy bigger than the next two rivals combined, the huge fleet engagements like Trafalgar became a thing of the past.

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