How Danes sank their own fleet

It was 4 a.m. when the boots of the commander’s boots echoed on the stairs, then calm prevailed, but only for a while. A shout was heard: “Signal from : and the officers ran to the wheelhouse. The commander ordered the engines be started and said: “We’ll try to escape”.

In late August 1943, shots reverberated through the very heart of Copenhagen, which had been under German occupation for three years. The Germans attempted to seize the Danish Navy’s warships, and the Danes decided to scuttle them rather than surrender to the enemy. After the drama of the French fleet at Toulon in 1942, it was the largest, and most spectacular self-sinking of a navy.

How many Germans were killed during the invasion of Denmark in April 1940? This has been disputed for years. Officially there were about a dozen soldiers, unofficially – about 200 (the Germans weren’t eager to reveal this information). Denmark defended itself for a very short time, as it had no chance of standing up to her powerful enemy. She surrendered and the capitulation terms were very favourable to the Danes.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The army and the fleet went continued to operate (unlike the air force, which was destroyed by the Germans in the 1940 attack) and carried out military manoeuvres. The warships were only engaged in clearing the coastal waters of mines and could only sail freely in basins designated by the German command – but this was normal training, with live ammunition being fired ( watch the heavy guns of the battleship Peder Skram being fired on YouTube).

Telegram Crisis

Meanwhile the resistance movement was gaining strength: an organisation called Holger Danske (a legendary figure, a knight who sleeps but will wake up when it is necessary to save Denmark), composed of the politically unaffiliated and the communist BOPA (Borgerlige Partisaner, Civil Partisans).

The so-called Telegram Crisis from September 1942 became a significant breakthrough. Hitler sent very long and cordial greetings to the king Christian X on the occasion of his birthday. The king replied laconically: “Giving my best thanks, King Christian”. Führer was terribly offended. The conciliatory ambassador in Copenhagen, Cécil von Renthe-Fink was replaced by the creator of one of the first German concentration camps, Werner Best. The Germans also forced Denmark’s social democratic prime minister Vilhelm Buhl to step down; he was replaced by the foreign minister Erik Scavenius. The Danes merely defended themselves against introducing representatives of their own national socialist party, the DNSAP, which had won 2.1% of the vote and three seats in parliament in the March 1943 elections.

King Christian X dealt harshly with Hitler’s wishes. Photo: Wikimedia
The occupation authorities also forced the command of the Danish navy to “borrow” six of its newest torpedo boats, but the Germans became increasingly afraid of the Danish soldiers. So they decided to seize the ships of the Danish fleet and disarm the army. This is how the plan for Operation Safari, scheduled for August 29, 1943, was devised.

Perform K N U!

The Danish command had been preparing for the German action since the spring of 1943. Secret instructions ordered to oppose attempts to seize barracks or military facilities. The warships themselves were also being prepared – it was decided that, if necessary, they should either try to reach neutral Sweden or be sunk by their own crews.

And Denmark had a considerable fleet: the coastal defence battleship “Peder Skram” built in 1908 (3,700 t. displacement, 2 x 240 mm guns, 4 x 150 mm guns, 10 x 75 mm guns, anti-aircraft guns) and the “Niels Juel” launched in 1914 (3,800 t. displacement, 10 x 150 mm guns, anti-aircraft guns), numerous torpedo boats, minesweepers, submarines and smaller vessels.

On the afternoon of Saturday, August 28, defence minister Søren Brorsen and fleet commander vice-admiral Aage H. Vedel held a meeting. There was only one conclusion: there is no possibility of repelling a possible German attack. The Naval Command issued a new ministerial order to the units stationed at the Holmen base in Copenhagen. It read: “According to government decisions, the seizure of ships at Holmen must not be resisted by force”. However, the Naval Command itself added the sentence to this order: “In these circumstances, ships may be sunk”. Brorsen gave a similar order to the commander of the army, General Ebbe Gørtz, who replied that he could not prevent possible fighting in the barracks.

On the night from Saturday to Sunday, August 29, it was cloudy and it was raining at times. At exactly 3.56 a.m., three German military vehicles drove up to Værftsbro, the main bridge over Holmen. The German officer demanded to speak with the commander. It became clear that it was about capturing the base and the ships.

Austria - a state that even the Austrians did not want

Only after 1945 did their longing for Germany leave them. More comfortable than Pangermanism was the position of Hitler's first victim.

see more
It was 04.08 when the signal “K N U” was sent from the Danish command, meaning the order to scuttle the ships. Five minutes later, the first explosions could be heard. The last charge was fired at 4.35. On that day, of the 52 ships of the Danish Navy, two were in Greenland, thirty-two were sunk, four (not counting smaller vessels) reached Sweden, and fourteen undamaged were taken over by the Germans.

This is how those events were described in the memoirs of I. Westergaard, the deputy commander of the small minesweeper “Lougen” (274 tons of displacement, armament of two 20 mm cannons). The ship had a 20 kg bomb on board, which was placed just above the keel. There was a wire from the bomb to the officers’ cabin, connected to a clock mechanism that was supposed to work 10 minutes after being turned on. As Westergaard wrote, on Saturday evening in Copenhagen “it was raining and the wind was blowing, and I was dressed in a waterproof coat and high sailing boots. Most of the time I was walking up and down the foredeck and thinking about what would happen next. Is it possible that we have to blow up this nice, pleasant ship on which I spent so many good days?” At midnight the commander released him, so Westergaard went down to the wardroom, where he threw himself on the couch and fell asleep.

It was 4 a.m. when the boots of the commander’s boots echoed on the stairs, then calm prevailed, but only for a while. A shout was heard: “Signal from : and the officers ran to the wheelhouse. The commander ordered the engines be started and said: “We’ll try to escape”. But the entire harbour was illuminated by searchlights from German ships, and as Westergaard wrote, “escape was as impossible as freezing schnapps in hell”. The commander ordered the entire crew to be brought to shore as soon as possible. “I pressed the button and both [with the commander] made sure the clock was ticking, then we went ashore and took shelter behind a warehouse. The minutes dragged on terribly slowly (…) around us we heard and saw detonations from other ships”.
The sunken coastal defence battleship “Peder Skram”. Photo: Wikimedia
They considered going back and checking why there was no explosion, but “we saw a flash, followed by a bang, and then the debris of the began to rain all around”. After a while they ran towards the ship, which could not be completely submerged because the water there was shallow. Westergaard recalls that “the descent to the officers’ quarters amidships was a tangle of twisted steel sheets, shattered woodwork and flames of fire. On Holmen, detonations and gunfire could still be heard”.

Similar events took place outside the main naval base. The clash near Ballonparken on Islands Brygge in Copenhagen (once a base of an artillery school and a balloon company, hence the name, now a residential district) can be an example of particularly intense, though short-lived, fights. The Danes were prepared for defense, they had the heaviest 20 mm machine guns and a 37 mm anti-tank gun (Bofors, identical to Polish ones in 1939). Around 3.30 in the morning, a German patrol approached the guardhouse building, and as it did not respond to calls to stop, Danish soldiers opened fire. For some time there was a lively firefight, the Danes used grenades, but the Germans continued to try to break into the barracks. At 4.30 a German tank was spotted – it was immobilized with a cannon shot. Around 5.05 the defenders made contact with the Ministry of War, which ordered the fight be stopped.

Half an hour later there was silence; the defenders destroyed some of their armament. Three Danish soldiers and at least one civilian were killed in the fighting, as well as at least one German tanker.

Lower the ensign!

As naval captain Henning Valentiner wrote, in August 1943 “I was ordered to take command of the torpedo boat “Hajen” (built in 1917, displacement 109 tons, armed with two 57 mm guns and a torpedo tube). The change of command was to take place on August 29 at Korsør in the west of Zealand. “On August 27, I was on board to get ready to sail on August 28 (...). We had no doubt that the overall situation was extremely difficult, and we commanders were warned of what would happen. We also had sealed, secret orders”.

An explosive was placed on the ship, but, as Valentiner pointed out, he and other commanders of ships outside Copenhagen had to make their own decisions, because problems with radio and telephone communications were mounting. And even if you managed to connect, you had to speak very carefully – the Germans could be eavesdropping.

On August 28, at 6 p.m., the ships’ commanders gathered on board the torpedo boat Søløven. Unfortunately, a large number of German ships were stationed in the port, and there was no chance of escaping or fighting – the only thing that could be done was to sink your own ships. Punctually at four o’clock in the morning there was a German attack: “a violent fire from rifles on board all ships, and from German units standing directly opposite us at a distance of 150 meters, also fire from light cannons”.

Pole adored by Greeks

„Gorski, Gorski, Gorski!” – chanted supporters at Athens airport.

see more
The Germans boarded the torpedo boat. One was shot dead, another tried to attack the Danes with a bayonet, but the second-in-command drew his revolver and started firing. There was hand-to-hand combat, scuffles, increasingly sharp exchanges of fire. Captain Valentiner could not detonate the prepared bomb because there were Danish officers and sailors on board. After a while, German soldiers surrounded him. He was taken to an internment camp. A few days later, he and other officers were allowed to go to the funeral of two officers killed in the German attack.

“After the funeral, I asked to be taken to the on my way back to recover, if the commander’s pennant and flag, if possible. Permission was granted, and to my great surprise both the flag and the pennant were still there. I took both down. And I have kept these somewhat worn and torn sheets of fabric as a dearly bought memory of August 29.”

The most powerful ship of the Danish navy, the “Niels Juel”, was in the Isefjord – despite its name, it is more of a bay surrounded by flat Zealand than a real fjord. It was commanded by captain Carl Westermann. On Sunday at 4.20 a telegram arrived on board saying that the ship was to flee to Sweden. So she sailed from the port of Holbæk and headed towards Kattegat. To reach the high seas at its low speed (16 knots), it had to sail for an hour and a half. But German ships and planes were sighted at the mouth of the fjord. Captain Westermann ordered the machines to be stopped. Soon, Stukases and then a Heinkel appeared above the “Niels Juel”, firing and bombarding the Danish ship. Anti-aircraft fire hit one of the planes, but German bombs fell very close. The electrical system was damaged and five sailors were injured. However, the battleship retained her combat strength and could destroy any German unit, even one the size of a destroyer, with a single salvo of her guns.

Clearly, captain Westermann was afraid to make any decisions that would lead to a direct confrontation with the Germans. Fortunately for him, at 9.48 a representative of the Danish naval command arrived with a written order to anchor the ship and wait for further instructions. Westermann realised that the order was written under pressure from the Germans and decided to destroy the ship. Eventually, “Niels Juel” ran aground in shallow water south of Nykøbing. The bomb failed to detonate, so the sailors destroyed everything they could and opened the kingstones (sea valves). One of the officers died of his wounds, and three sailors were hospitalized.
Sunken ship at the Holmen base. Photo: Wikimedia
The commander of the minesweeper “Havkatten” behaved differently (previously a torpedo boat, built in 1918, equipped and armed like “Hajen”). Lieutenant Poul Würtz made a successful attempt to break through to Sweden. It was similar in the case of the small MS 1 minesweeper (74 tons of displacement, 1 20 mm cannon and 2 machine guns). When its commander received a coded telegram on 28 August ordering “high readiness”, the unit was near Mariager in the east of Jutland. She reached another, small port, the sailors painted the ship with tar (!) and covered the cannon, and on the side they wrote the name “Sorte Sarma” (“Black Sarah”). They successfully avoided arrest by the Germans and reached Trelleborg. Later, a dozen ships formed the “Danish Flotilla” in Sweden.

During Operation Safari, 25 Danes were killed and about 53 wounded; German losses were similar. Shortly thereafter, the Danish government resigned, finding it unable to run the country. Ministries were run by top officials, so it was said that a “government of department directors” had been formed. Events in Denmark in 1943, including photos from Copenhagen Holmen, can be viewed in a short American video on YouTube.

Toulon drama

The Danes knew perfectly well what the Germans could do, because just over half a year earlier the French fleet had sunk in Toulon. The difference was that, compared to the German forces, the Danish forces were very weak; the French, defeated in the war, still had a powerful navy.

After the armistice of June 22, 1940, part of France remained unoccupied. It is true that the navy was to be disarmed, but after the British attack on the Algerian port of Mers el-Kébir (in July 1940, the British destroyed one battleship there and damaged several ships, and 1,297 French sailors died in British shelling) and Dakar (a modern battleship “Richelieu” was damaged), the Germans allowed the French to leave some of their units in combat readiness.

On November 8, 1942, the landing of Allied troops in North Africa began. On November 27, 1942, the Germans entered previously unoccupied French territory, leaving Toulon and its base under French control. But at the same time they planned to seize this base and its ships.
Meanwhile, the French secretly stockpiled fuel so that they could possibly escape to Africa – but at the same time began preparations for the ships to scuttle the ships. The command was afraid of going over to the Allies for several reasons – first, they still recognized Marshal Philippe Pétain as their superior, and secondly, the highest-ranking officers were reluctant to Great Britain. Meanwhile, neither the Germans nor the Italians had enough strength to stop the French ships from going to sea. However, the crews clearly sympathized with the Allies. The news that François Darlan had gone over to their side stirred the sailors to shout: “Long live de Gaulle!”.

In the early morning of November 27, 1942, German troops launched Operation “Lila”: the 7th Panzer Division and part of the II SS Panzer Corps entered Toulon. Fortunately, the Germans got lost in the huge port and their operation was delayed – news of the German action reached Admiral Jean de Laborde. At 5.20 the tanks finally broke into the naval base, and ten minutes later de Laborde, on board the mighty battleship “Strasbourg” (36,000 tons displacement, 8 x 330 mm guns, 16 x 130 mm guns) gave the order: “Sabordez les navires! Sabordez!” (“Scuttle the ships! Scuttle!”) – but he lacked the courage to make the decision to escape.

A veritable pandemonium has unleashed in the port. The French blew up explosives, destroyed propulsion devices and armaments, demolished the equipment.

The “Strasbourg” sank to the bottom of the harbor basin, and Admiral de Laborde remained on her bridge in protest against the German attack. When one of the German tanks fired at the battleship, it was answered by light cannon fire. Only the “Strasbourg” could easily oppose all the tanks of the entire German panzer division. De Laborde left the ship only at Pétain’s explicit order.
The burning French cruiser “Marseillaise”. Photo: Wikimedia
Three battleships, four heavy and three light cruisers, about 30 destroyers and torpedo boats, a dozen submarines and about ten other smaller vessels were scuttled in the harbour. But four submarines managed to escape. The “Casabianca” and “Marsouin” reached Algiers, “Le Glorieux” Oran, and the “Iris” Barcelona. The auxiliary ship “Leonor Fresnel” also escaped and reached Algiers ( several shots from Toulon can be viewed on YouTube).

Paradoxically, the drama at Toulon pleased the Allies as the possibility of the French fleet falling into German or Italian hands was eliminated. In turn, Hitler didn’t worry about it too much because he didn’t believe in big battleships, especially after the sinking of Bismarck. But Fascist Italy, which hoped to strengthen its navy, was greatly disappointed; paradoxically, after the Italian capitulation in 1943, the ships of the Regia Marina left the country and were retained by the Allies. After the war, they returned when France had to build its fleet from scratch.

Breakthrough events

In Poland, the tragedy of Copenhagen or Toulon could only be read in books or magazines devoted to the history of warfare at sea during World War II. And yet, these were significant events for the course of the entire war. Toulon marked the final defeat of Marshal Philippe Pétain. Although his rule continued, society began to turn away from him, and General Charles de Gaulle and the idea of fighting the Germans gained support.

Admiral de Laborde was sentenced to death after the war for scuttling his fleet, the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment, but he was released in 1951. He died in 1977.

The self-sinking of the Danish fleet was the end of the benign German occupation of Denmark. Although the Germans in this country never behaved like in Poland, after August 1943 they became much more ruthless there, and the Danish resistance movement began to grow in strength. Vice-Admiral Vedel was a highly respected person after the war, he was friends with King Frederick IX, he received, among others, Denmark’s highest decoration, the Grand Cross of the Dannebrog. He died in 1981.

Piotr Kościński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Sunk ships at the Holmen base. Photo: Wikimedia
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.