The last engagement of wooden warships - The Battle of Heligoland in 1864

9 May 1864, 150 years ago in the North Sea, a Danish squadron defeated the Austrian navy in the Battle of Helgoland (or Heligoland) during the last engagement of wooden warships and the last Danish fleet action.

“Men, there are the Austrians. Now we will meet them. I trust that we will fight like our brave comrades at Dybboel" (Orlogskaptajn Edouard Suenson)

 Danish painer Christian Mølsted’s (1862-1930) imagination of the gunners of the frigate “Niels Juel” celebrating their success against the “Schwarzenberg” called “Ombord på frigatten "Niels Juel" under slaget ved Helgoland 9. maj 1864” (1898)

The only advantage beyond sheer tenacity Denmark could bring into effect against the continental major powers Austria and Prussia during the mess that became known as the Second War of Schleswig was a superiority at sea. Both allies weren’t exactly known as thalassocracies and what the Danes could do was blockading the Prussian ports. The Austrians had at least something resembling a deep sea fleet at their disposal and a small squadron of two screw frigates and a gunboat under the command of Wilhelm von Tegetthoff was ordered from the Mediterranean to the North Sea in March 1864, a few weeks after the outbreak of the war. The gunboat “Seehund” was lost en route in the English Channel, three Prussian paddle steamers joined Tegethoff off Texel and the allies steamed onwards to challenge the Danish squadron made up of two new screw frigates and a screw corvette that had so far dominated the Frisian waters.

The Climax of the Battle of Heligoland with the burning Austrian flagship "Schwarzenberg"in the foreground, as imagined by the Danish painter Johan Carl Neumann (1833 - 1891)

The two squadrons sighted each other near the then British island of Helgoland, 40 miles northwest from the mouth of the River Elbe, Tegetthoff left his slow Prussian paddle wheelers behind and charged at the Danish battle line, trying to cross the T like the able naval commander he was. The Danish commodore Edouard Suenson reacted immediately with the appropriate manoeuvre out of the book, ordered his squadron to heave to and engage the enemy on a parallel course. For two hours, the two squadrons battled at mid-range until the experience of the better drilled Danish gun crews paid off, Tegetthoff’s flagship “Schwarzenberg” caught fire and the Austrian signalled to break off the engagement and withdrew towards the neutral waters off Helgoland. When the British frigate “Aurora” showed up to emphasise the neutrality of the place, Suenson decided not to push matters, abandoned the pursuit of the Austrians and returned to Copenhagen as a celebrated hero. A week later, Denmark surrendered to the Prussians and the war was over. Tegetthoff returned to the Med to win the Battle of Lissa against Prussia’s Italian allies two years later during the German-Austrian War and became Austria’s greatest naval hero.

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