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The Battle of Anholt - 27 March 1811

The Gunboat War 

The Gunboat War (1807-1814) was a naval conflict fought between the Royal Navy and the naval forces of Denmark and Norway and was part of the wider Napoloenic Wars (1803-1815). The Battle of Anholt (27 March 1811) was one battle in this war.

Anholt Island

Anholt Island, located in the Kattegat midway between Jutland, Denmark and Sweden, was strategically important as a forward base for British trading interests in the Baltic.

The island was also a source of fresh water for ships of the British Fleet and a safe anchorage for British merchant ships sailing to and from the Baltic.

At the start of the war, the Danes closed the island’s lighthouse. From November 1808, HMS Proselyte, a British bomb vessel was stationed as a lightvessel off the island for the safety of passing convoys.

The following January, Proselyte struck the Anholt Reef and sank. A squadron of British ships was sent to Anholt to capture the island and restore the lighthouse.

On 18 May 1809, Captain William Selby RN of HMS Owen Glendower landed a task force of seamen to capture the island.

They were assisted by Captain Edward Nicolls RM and 120 Royal Marines from HMS Standard. Nicolls subsequently served as the island’s first British Governor before being replace by Captain James Wilkes Maurice RN in August 1810 when the island became a ‘stone frigate’ with an establishment similar to a 50 gun ship.

By the spring of 1811, Captain (later Major) Robert Torrens RM commanded a garrison of 350 Royal Marines and 31 Royal Marine Artillery, manning four field howitzers, on the island. 

The British expected an attempt by Danish forces to re-capture the island so ordered naval frigates to patrol the approaches to the island.

The Battle of Anholt

On 27 March 1811, the Danes launched their unsuccessful attempt to re-capture the island – this event became known as the Defence of Anholt or the Battle of Anholt. 

A force of nearly 2,000 Danes landed unopposed on the island about four miles to the west of the main defensive fort, Fort Yorke, and attempted to outflank the British positions.

The fighting between the Danes and the British took place over a series of sporadic encounters during the day.

A final attack by the Danes was undertaken at 10pm, it was repulsed by the Royal Marines defending the fort and the battle was over. More than 600 survivors surrendered to the Royal Marines garrison.

The battle was a crushing defeat for the Danes. 200 were killed and wounded while the British suffered two killed and 50 wounded.

An aquatint print depicting the defeat of the Danes at Anholt, 27 March 1811 after Lt Richard Turnbull RM. Engraved by John Heaviside Clark and Joseph Jeakes and published by Edward Orme. RMM 1971/195
Image © National Museum of the Royal Navy

An extract from the personal notes (archival collections (NMRN 2019/1/4)) of Thomas Hester, Second Master of a naval ship based in the Baltic reflects on the events of the 27 March 1811:

"Capt N. [Nicolls] took it which so enraged the Deans, that they landed on the island
very early and when the man went to fire the morning gun he saw them all resting
under the sand hills with their swords drawn, he beat to arms immediately and our
soldiers were soon out, but they found their numbers much to great for them so our
people went into the garrison and fired upon them as they came up."

Major Robert Torrens

Torrens was an Ulsterman, born around 1780, he commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into the Corps of Royal Marines in February 1796.

Before his service at Anholt, he served on ships of the Channel Fleet and at Copenhagen in 1807.

In recognition of his service at the Battle of Anholt and to mark his bravery and in consideration of the good conduct he showed to those under his command, Torrens was presented with a sword from his NCOs and men.

A second sword was presented to him by the Officers, who served alongside him. It is rare for an officer to be presented with two swords – a sabre from the NCOs and men and a small sword mounted in silver gilt from the officers – but it highlights the high regard in which he was held by his comrades.

Both swords now form part of the collections of the Royal Marines Museum. A third sword awarded to the island’s Governor, Captain Maurice RN and it too can be found in the collections of the NMRN.

Torrens was wounded during the Anholt action but continued to serve in the Corps of Royal Marines until he retired in 1834.

In later life, he was best known as an economics writer. The River Torrens in Adelaide, Australia was named for him – he served as the Chairman of the board of the Colonisation Commissioners of South Australia promoting immigration especially from his native Ireland, 1834-1841.

In 1847, the Naval General Service Medal with the bar ‘Anholt 27 March 1811’ was first issued – over 40 were awarded. Six medals are held in the NMRN Collections including those awarded to Torrens and Maurice.

Presentation sword  given to Major Robert Torrens, Royal Marines, by the Royal Marines serving under him during the Defence of Anholt, 1811.  Made by Henry Tatham Sword Cutler to the King, London. NMRN 2011/9
Image © National Museum of the Royal Navy

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