THE LAST VOYAGE: AN ACCOUNT OF THE BRITISH SHIPS OF THE LINE HMS ST. GEORGE AND HMS DEFENCE AND THEIR HISTORY UNTIL THEIR STRANDING ON THE WEST COAST OF DENMARK ON 24 DECEMBER 1811

Reviewed by: ANDREW LAMBERT

This book can be obtained by emailing info@strandingsmuseet.dk

This striking book reminds us that the Royal Navy has always been a global force, in peace and war, high times and disasters. On the west coast of Jutland stands a museum dedicated to two sailing ships from Nelson’s era, ships the great man had known, the 98 gun three decker St. George had been his flagship in 1801, although he shifted into the smaller 74 Elephant to fight the battle of Copenhagen.

That battle secured British access to vital supplies of shipbuilding timber, hemp, flax, pitch and tar, along with the grain needed to deal with bad harvests at home. In 1807 a second attack on Copenhagen used a terror bombardment to secure the Danish Navy, before Napoleon forced the Danes to hand it over. It opened a five-year campaign that became the Navy’s largest task. Commanded by Vice Admiral Sir James de Saumarez, with his flag in HMS Victory, the fleet’s primary task was to hold open the Danish Narrows, secure access to Baltic supplies, and blockade Russia, which had joined Napoleon’s Continental System to close European markets to British trade. After the unprovoked attack, Denmark fought back with almost 600 privateers, swarms of rowing gunboats and the occasional warship. Once inside the Baltic the Royal Navy faced little opposition: Russian ships retreated into fortified harbours, while Sweden avoided hostilities through a deal that Saumarez arranged: Sweden declared war, to satisfy Napoleon and the Tsar, but did nothing. This political masterstroke crowned a great career, Saumarez remains a model for all sailor-diplomats.

The bulk of the book is a fine study of the Baltic campaigns, from the Danish perspective. The emphasis is on convoying merchant shipping, and the powerful battlefleet that was needed to keep command of the inland sea. Each year the fleet followed the trade out of the Baltic in November, before the brackish ocean iced up. By the end of the 1811 campaign the Russian economy lay in ruins, and the Tsar was ready to switch sides. This success had been secured with hardly a shot fired, and precious few casualties, usually ignored by those who confuse cost with consequence.

As the British fleet struggled to round up the last merchant ships and shepherd them through the Danish narrows, HMS St. George ran aground, lost her rudder, and suffered serious damage to the rigging. Although a temporary rudder was quickly made and installed, and the masts and yards patched up, the ship was no longer entirely seaworthy. Saumarez advised Rear Admiral Reynolds and Captain Guion to lay the ship up for the winter at Gothenburg. The Admiral and the Captain were adamant that the ship was seaworthy, and Saumarez did not insist. Sailing with the 74s Defence and Cressyin company, the former towing the damaged ship, the St. George was hit by a hurricane off the Jutland coast. Defence loyally held station, but both were driven ashore and destroyed. The Captain of the Cressy decided his duty was to save his ship and crew, without orders from the Admiral, and the Admiralty agreed when the loss came before a Court Martial.

Of the 1,491 men on board these ships only 18 survived. They were cared for by local people, despite the ongoing war, and repatriated. Those who could be identified by survivors were given a named burial: the rest were interred in mass graves. Danish excavations since the 1980s have revealed a host of artefacts, three skeletons, interred with their shipmates, and other details of naval life. The museum set up in the 1980s close to the wreck site, includes St. George’s rudder from the original grounding. This is a striking book that has much to offer for historians, archaeologists and anyone for shipwrecks. It is richly illustrated with original art, contemporary images and modern photographs.