Turning a blind eye

From Ocean Navigator #120
March/April 2002
In the early part of the 19th century, one of the most vicious sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars occurred off the Danish coast. The engagement, fought between British and Danish naval squadrons, lasted just over four hours. In spite of its brief duration, the British forces alone suffered nearly 1,000 sailor and marine casualties.

Nelson would not command HMS Victory until after his success at Copenhagen, but this vessel would become inextricably linked with his name.
   Image Credit: Steve C. D’Antonio

Before this battle began, the British were in an unpleasant position. War with France had dragged on for eight long years. A union of Baltic states, allied with Russia, was on the verge of joining Napoleon. If this coalition were to succeed, the threat üould be almost unimaginable. From these Baltic states England obtained the very lifeblood of the Royal and merchant navies: spars, timber, hemp and tar, among other maritime supplies. Additionally, if the Danish Fleet were to join France’s, they woutd prove a formidable foe to the British, whose battles with Napoleon thus far had been at sea, rather than ashore.

Sir Adm. Hyde Parker, commander of the British Baltic Fleet, had in his senior years, developed a reputation for avoiding battle. At 61, he had grown quite wealthy from prize money and was newly married to a young lady 43 years his junior. He was, therefore, less than anxious to see action. His second in command, Vice Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson, on the other hand, had built a reputation as an indefatigable and seasoned combat commander, whose officers and men would follow him unquestioningly. Nelson’s aggressiveness in battle was clearly evidenced by his battle-planning motto: “The boldest measures are the safest.” He demonstrated the efficacy of this theory years earlier, during the now famous Battle of the Nile, by breaching his enemy’s lines (at the time, the French fought from anchor) and attacking from their rear.

At the Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s doctrine would again be tested. Three hours into the action, Parker, who commanded the reserve division to Nelson’s rear, raised a flag signal ordering his subordinate to disengage and essentially retreat. Of course, Nelson was preoccupied with what he did best and loved most: defeating enemy ships. At the moment the signal was hoisted, he was doing just this. When Nelson’s signal officer informed him of the disengage code, Nelson raised a glass to his eye and said, “I really do not see the signal.” You see, Nelson had lost an eye in a previous battle and it was to this blind eye that he held his glass. He went on to exclaim, “I have only one eye; I have a right to be blind sometimes!” Nelson ignored the order and, in the following hour, went on to trounce the Danes.

In the aftermath of the battle, Nelson proved himself nearly as able in diplomacy as in battle, securing a treaty of surrender without utterly destroying his enemy, in an attempt to prevent the Danes from becoming lasting enemies of Britain. Parker was, not surprisingly, relieved of his command, and Nelson took his place as commander of the Baltic Fleet and the alliance of Baltic states collapsed. Regard for Nelson as an able tactician, secured at the Battle of the Nile, was further enhanced by Copenhagen.

The phrase “turn a blind eye” to deliberately overlook or ignore a request or order has its origins in the willful genius of a great naval commander.

Steve C. D’Antonio

By Ocean Navigator