Peter Wessel Tordenskjold, also known as Peter Wessel, Peder Tordenskjold, or Peder Tordenskiold, (October 28, 1691-1720), was an eminent Norwegian naval hero in the service of the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway. He rose to the rank of Vice-Admiral in the Royal Danish Navy for his services in the Great Northern War.
Early life and career
Born at Trondheim, he was the tenth child of alderman Jan Wessel of Bergen. Wessel was a wild unruly lad who gave his pious parents much trouble, eventually stowing away in a ship bound for Copenhagen. Here, the king's chaplain Dr Peder Jespersen befriended the boy and sent him on a voyage to the West Indies, and finally procured him a vacant cadetship. After further voyages, this time to the East Indies, Wessel was, on the July 7, 1711, appointed 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Danish Navy and shortly afterwards became the captain of a 4-gun sloop Ormen (The Serpent), in which he cruised about the Swedish coast picking up useful information about the enemy.
Exploits in the Great Northern War
In June 1712 he was promoted to a 20-gun frigate, against the advice of the Danish admiralty, which considered him unreliable. His patron was the Norwegian admiral Løwendal, who was the first to recognize the young man's potential as a naval officer. Wessel was already renowned for two things: the audacity with which he attacked any Swedish vessels he came across regardless of odds, and his unique seamanship, which always enabled him to escape capture. The Great Northern War had now entered upon its later stage, when Sweden, beset on every side by foes, employed her fleet principally to transport troops and stores to her distressed German provinces. The audacity of Wessel impeded her at every point. He was continually snapping up transports, dashing into the fjords where her vessels lay concealed, and holding up her detached frigates.
In July 1714 he encountered a frigate which had been equipped in England for the Swedes and was on its way to Gothenburg under the command of an English captain. Wessel instantly attacked her but in the English captain he met his match. The combat lasted all day, was interrupted by nightfall, and renewed again indecisively the following morning.
Wessel’s free and easy ways won him many enemies in the Danish navy. He was accused of unnecessarily endangering his majesty’s war-ships in the affairs with the frigate and he was brought before a court-martial. But the spirit with which he defended himself and the contempt he poured on his less courageous comrades took the fancy of King Frederick IV of Denmark-Norway, who cancelled the proceedings and raised Wessel to the rank of captain. When, in 1715, the return of the Swedish King Charles XII of Sweden from Turkey to Stralsund put new life into the dispirited Swedish forces, Wessel distinguished himself in numerous engagements off the coast of Swedish Pomerania and did the enemy considerable damage by cutting out their frigates and destroying their transports. On returning to Denmark in the beginning of 1716 he was ennobled under the title of Tordenskjold ("Thundershield"). When in the course of 1716 Charles XII invaded Norway and laid siege to the fortress of Fredrikshald, Tordenskjold compelled him to raise the siege and retire to Sweden by pouncing upon the Swedish transport fleet, laden with ammunition and other military stores, which rode at anchor in the narrow and dangerous strait of Dynekil, utterly destroying the Swedish fleet with little damage to himself.
For this, his greatest exploit, he was promoted to commander, but at the same time incurred the enmity of his superior officer Admiral Gabel, whom he had failed to take into his confidence. Tordenskjold’s first important command was the squadron with which he was entrusted in the beginning of 1717 for the purpose of destroying the Swedish Gothenburg squadron. which interrupted the communications between Denmark and Norway. Owing to the disloyalty of certain of his officers who resented serving under the young adventurer, Tordenskjold failed to do all that was expected of him. His enemies were not slow to take advantage of his partial failure. The old charge of criminal recklessness was revived against him at a second court-martial before which he was summoned in 1718; but his old patron Admiral U. C. Gyldenløwe again intervened energetically in his behalf and the charge was quashed.
In December 1718 Tordenskjold brought to Frederick IV the welcome news of the death of Charles XII and was made a rear-admiral for his pains. Tordenskjold’s last feat of arms was his capture of the Swedish fortress of Carlsten at Marstrand, when he partially destroyed and partially captured the Gothenburg squadron which had so long eluded him. He was rewarded with the rank of vice-admiral.
Death by duelling
Tordenskjold did not long survive the termination of the war. On November 20, 1720 he was killed in a duel with a Livonian colonel, Jakob Axel Stael von Holstein. He fought von Holstien in a duel using nothing but a decorational rapier, whereas von Holstein with a solid steel longsword (called a Karolinerverge). Tordenskjold refused to back out, even though his sword was ridiculously inferior. This duel was encouraged by a dispute with von Holstein, whom Tordenskiold offended by labeling as a cheater at gambling. He metioned the Hydra from Greek mythology, and asked the man if he were the owner of it. This dispute turned into a melee, but Tordenskjold wacked the living daylights out of him. When Stäel tried to pull a sword, he was unsuccessful, and Tordenskjold used this sword to beat him up (not using the blade). Stäel demanded a duel, and it were agreed that it were to be fought with pistols, a weapon that Tordenskjold was very skilled with. Instead, Stäel cheated and had it arranged so that it would be fought with swords instead - he tricked the man keeping the firearms to travel away, believing that the duel was cancelled. Tordenskjold only had his small decorational rapier, and was run through by his adversary, the blow slicing both arteries wide open. He stumbled a couple of steps backwards, and died in the arms of servant Kold.
Although, Dynekil excepted, Tordenskjold’s victories were of far less importance than Sehested’s at Stralsund and Gyldenløwe’s at Rügen, he is certainly, after Charles XII, the most heroic figure of the Great Northern War.
The young admiral has been memorialized in a variety of fashions. His life has been retold in fiction and on film; the 1910 Danish motion picture Peder Tordenskjold was based on the novel by Danish writer Carit Etlar (1816-1900).
The Royal Danish Navy named its Niels Juel-class corvette KDM Peter Tordenskiold (F356) after him.
- Peder Tordenskjold (1910) - from Internet Movie Database (IMdB) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0001358/)
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.