The Armoured Ram Stærkodder

In 1864 the Danish navy bought an armoured ram from France. The vessel never entered service in the Danish navy, but later found it way into the Confederate Navy, where it was named STONEWALL. In 1968 R. Steen Steensen, Commander, RDN, dedicated a chapter in his “Vore Panserskibe 1863-1943″ to the Stærkodder, as the ship was to have been named, had it entered Danish Service. The text has here been translated by Søren Nørby, stud. mag. Royal Danish Naval Museum.

af R. Steen. Steensen translated by Søren Nørby

From the book “Vore Panserskibe” [Our Armoured Vessels]. By Robert Steen Steensen, former Commander in the Royal Danish Navy. Published by “Marinehistorisk Selskab”, Copenhagen 1968. Page 178-195.

Translated by Søren Nørby, stud. mag. The Royal Danish Naval Museum, August 2001.

Notes from the translator:

I have added some details in brackets [….] in order to make the text easier to understand. The author, R. Steen Steensen, often shifts between the past and the present tense, but since I have tried to keep the text as close to what he wrote as possible, I have tried to translate the text as he wrote it. I have, however, a few places been forced to change from present to past tense in order to make the English text make sense…

I have not included any extra information about the war between Denmark and Prussia in 1864, even though it seems that the evens in this war played some part in the decision not to accept the Stærkodder. (The war was over when the Stærkodder reached Copenhagen).

I have not included any information regarding the fate of Stærkodder’s sister ship Cheops, which entered German service. This ship had but a very short life in the German navy, and I would believe that the fate of this ship – given that most of the reasons why it was soon decommissioned was due to a bad design – might be of interest.

Søren Nørby

The Armoured Ram Stærkodder (1)

Negotiations between the Danish Ministry of Naval Affairs and the representative from M. L. Arman in Paris regarding the purchase of one or two Armoured Rams (béliers) were continued after the initial offer [initiated by the French] in December 1863 (2). The negotiations were probably continued through January and February of 1864, even though it has not been possible to find any information about this in the archives in the Public Records Office in Copenhagen.

The major part of the original dispatches regarding the Stærkodder appears to have been removed from the Public Records Office without having been returned (3), but it has still, thanks to a concurrent summary which was found in the files still in the Archive, been possible to piece together this outline of the events (4).

In March 1864 the director of the Royal Dockyards [Holmen], Otto Frederik Suenson, was in France (5), where on the 9th he was ordered to go to Bordeaux to examine the armoured vessels offered to the Danish government from Baron Arnous de Riviére [The agent from Arman], and, if it gave rise to an opening of negotiations about a possible purchase, then induce the Danish emissary in Paris, Count Molkte, to telegraph directly to the [Danish] Foreign Ministry, and at the same time suggest to de Riviére that he came to Copenhagen.

The Stærkodder (Picture: Orlogsmuseets collection)
The Stærkodder (Picture: Orlogsmuseets collection)
On the 13th of March the emissary in Paris telegraphed [to Denmark] that director Suenson recommended that the Danish Navy purchase both or one of the armoured vessels. The telegram ended with the words “Prussia will not bring these vessels out of Bordeaux, but perhaps we can” (6)

On the 14th director Suenson wrote to the Danish Ministry of Naval Affairs from Paris and included a description of the vessels. They were constructed of wood with iron shoring, armoured and had two gun towers. The engines, which had 300 hp, were to be built at “Mazaline et Cie” in Le Havre, and the three heavy guns were to be delivered by “Armstrong & Co.” at Elswick. Despite misgivings that the displacement – and thereby the depth of the ship – was to be more than originally planned, the acquisitions were granted – provided the manufactures were to guarantee the ship a speed of twelve miles per hour, and that the delivery was to take place within 2½ months in a Danish harbour. (7)

On the same day, Arman authorized Baron de Riviére to close the deal with the Danish Government concerning the sale of the two ships.

The following negotiations in Copenhagen were partly about the price and partly whether or not the purchase should include both ships or just one of them. Among the documents [in the Public Records Office] there is a draft for a contract regarding a purchase of both ships.

On the 31st of March the contract regarding one of the ships (Sphinx) was signed. This ship was to be delivered on the 10th of June 1864 at a price of 800.000 rdl [rigsdalere], to be paid when the ship was delivered [to the Danish Government] in the Sound [between Denmark and Sweden].

[The next two pages is a Danish translation of a part of the contract. Not included here].

Data - Stærkodder

  • Displacement: 1400 tons, 1535 deep load
  • Dimensions: 171 feet, 10″ (between perpindiculars), 187 feet overall x 32 feet, 8 inches beam (52.38, 56.99 x 4.37 meters)
  • Machinery: 2 tubular boilers, 2-shaft RCR (return connecting rod), 1200 ihp (indicated horsepower) – 10 knots – coal: 200/28o tons
  • Armour: Iron. Side: 4 inches-3 1/2 inches; turret – 4 1/2 inches, after guns: 4 inches
  • Armament: 1-10 inch, 300 pounder Armstrong rifled muzzle-loader; 2-6.4 inch, 70 pounder Armstrong rifled muzzle-loaders.
  • Complement: 130
  • Builder: Arman, Bordeaux
  • Contracted - July 16, 1863
  • Launched: June 21, 1864
  • Completed - January, 1865

While the price of the offer Arman had given in December 1863 was 2.4 million Francs (aprox. 864.000 rdl), in March it had increased to 937.500 rdl. per ship – presumably stimulated by a growing Prussian interest in the ships (8).
But since the amending Act of December 22nd 1863 only included 800.000 rdl. for the purchase, that was the price the parties agreed on when the contract was closed on the 31st of March 1864.

The final contract included a number of details which were in favour of the buyer. The first draft of the contract had not included a specification of the maximum depth of the ship, and had also not included any details regarding the handing over of the ship to the Danish Navy. Last but not least the draft had not included any specific date for the handing over of the ship. [But these details were now included in the contract].

On the 4th of April G. P. Schönheyder, deputy director of the Royal Dockyard in Copenhagen, was ordered to travel to Bordeaux in order to monitor the building of the “Stærkodder”. This is the first time the name “Stærkodder” is used in connection with the new vessel.

The first rapport from the deputy director is dated the 18th of April and it contained a number of critical remarks.
“The woodwork is not as beautiful as the work done at home” [at the Royal Dockyard in Copenhagen].”
“Coal trimmings on board will be difficult”.
“[The constructors] have not made any calculations regarding the displacement. The Coal stores can only hold 200 tons in stead of the promised 280 tons. I dare not insist on a larger increase than to 220 tons – which Arman has promised to make.”

The report does however, also include a couple of flattering remarks. On the 2nd of May he reports that “the ship is very strong”. But later on he complains that neither the engines nor the armour has arrived and [he] predicts that the ship will not be finished according to schedule.

Finally on the 6th of June he writes; “A part of the engines and the armour has arrived, but a mistake has been made regarding the aft. gun tower, so the guns on each side will protrude 14 inches further out than planned. One must put up with this or request that the gun tower is rebuilt.” “The gun carriages might be shortened to minimize the problem”. New drawings of shorter gun carriages were included in this letter, and were later approved by the Ministry of Naval Affairs [in Copenhagen].

On the 13th of June Schönheyder wrote that he “had complained that the work was proceeding too slowly”. The boilers will not be placed below the waterline as promised. They are however protected by the armour and the coal stores.

20th of June; “The engines and the boilers have arrived. I will travel to Rochefort in order to compare the ship [Stærkodder] with French naval units, in particular in regard to the putting on of the armoured plates (9).

On the 27th of June he reports from Rochefort; “Stærkodder has been launched on the 21st of this month. It will most likely draw four inches too deep. My studies of the French naval vessels regarding the armour indicates that the accurate adaptation of the armoured plates are not as good as planned. We can do nothing about this, but it is important in regard to the decision whether or not to accept the ship”.

On the 3rd of July he writes from Bordeaux “The Prussian government has bought [Stærkodder]‘s sister ship “Cheops”.”

On the 11th of July he writes from Bordeaux that the steerage way of the Stærkodder will be far too great. This is another reason why the Ministry of Naval Affairs might decide against accepting the ship.

On the 22nd of June: “The draught aft is 1½ feet to great, the steerage way is too big and the armouring inadequate. The armoured plates have been fashioned very carelessly.
[I] have requested that these faults be corrected before we can accept the ship.”
Schönheyder furthermore “challenged” Arman to prove him wrong in regard to his presumption about the depth [of the ship].

On the 24th of July Schönheyder reports that Arman refused to accept the charges mentioned in his last report. Schönheyder suggest that he following his protest allows the work to proceed and that one waits and sees what Arman will do about the faults.

On the 27th of June the [Danish] Ministry of Naval Affairs wrote to Schönheyder; “[whether or not we accept the Stærkodder] depends more on whether the overall strength of the ship has suffered from bad work or poor materials, and that the draught and speed of the ship are as stipulated in the contract, than whether the work has been done with more or less accuracy and care.

In the same letter the Ministry of Naval Affairs wrote that Arman was to be informed that the work was not to be judged until it had been completed, and that [the ministry of Naval Affairs] hoped that [Arman] would do all he could to make sure the ships is delivered in such a state that they [the Danish Ministry of Naval Affairs] would be able to accept it.

Arman then offered to deliver some new armoured plates, by which some of the gravest errors might be corrected, and the discarded plates would be given to the Danish Naval Ministry. The Naval Ministry accepted this (10).

[According to the article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen 1939, p. 192, Arman on the 8th of August admitted that the steerage way of the Stærkodder was greater than stipulated in the contract.]

On the 28th of August [Schönheyder writes that] problems with the screws on the Stærkodder means that the ship has to be placed in dock for repairs.

On the 18th of September Stærkodder had been placed on the slipway in order to fix the problems with the screws. The armoured plates for the [gun]towers were just as difficult to fit as the plates that had been used on the sides of the ship.

On the 30th of September Stærkodder was back in the water.

9th of October: The engines worked well during the tests. However, the draught would be larger than stipulated [in the contract].

14th of October: The ship draws too much depth. One foot aft. and 6,5 inches in the center.
[The Naval Ministry] asks it the ship ought to be rejected if the tests show that the speed is less than stipulated in the contract. To support this decision the following list is included in the rapport.


  • The ship is strong build.
  • Has a powerful armament.
  • Good engines.
  • Handles well.
  • Good stock.
  • Faults:
  • Constructed in wood and iron.
  • The armoured plates are below minimum thickness and are very badly fitted.
  • Not enough room in the aft. gun tower.
  • Aft. gun tower does not have a free field of fire abeam.
  • The boilers are exposed.
  • Bad sea boat.
  • Limited room on the deck and in the crew’s quarters.
  • Poor coal trimming conditions.
The Stærkodder (Picture: Orlogsmuseets collection)
The Stærkodder (Picture: Orlogsmuseets collection)

21st of October: (by telegram) “Speed during trials [is] 10.8 knots. Handled well. Speed with only one engine [is] 5.8 knots. The engines worked well. Easy movements, but takes a lot water in [over the stern].

23rd of October the Naval Ministry ordered the head of the Third department [in the Ministry of Naval Affairs] to travel to Bordeaux and decide the case in cooperation with Arman. He was given full authority and the following order: “The Naval Ministry is ready to accept the ship, if Arman will accept a 80.000 frcs. reduction of the price. However, the penalty for a late delivery (1000 frcs. a day) is still to be paid by Arman.

25th of October: The deputy director cabled from Bordeaux that “the Stærkodder has left for the Sound. Arman entrusts it to the Ministry of Naval Affairs to decide whether or not they will accept the ship on other conditions than the one stipulated in the contract.

On the 29th of October negotiations started in Paris between Arman [and the Danish Government]. The Danes requested a 300.000 frcs. reduction of the price. The amount included the penalty for the late delivery.
Arman offered a 200.000 frcs. reduction.

On the 30th of October, the negotiations break down and Arman orders the Stærkodder be stopped at Cherbourg.
On the 2nd of November the Danish emissary sends a telegram to the Danish Naval Ministry stating that the negotiations have been broken off. The same day the Naval Ministry wrote back asking “Why? The offer from Arman was reasonable”

[According to the article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen, 1939, p. 194, the Danish emissary replied that Arman had not been willing to accept a reduction of the price, and that he had instead demanded an arbitration. Why this information was not included in the text in Vore Panserskibe in 1968, I do not know.]

The resume ends here, and the file in the records in the Public Records Office mentions a few more telegrams, but these are no longer in the file.
The resume concluded with a note saying that the deputy director on the 11th of November had been ordered to examine the Stærkodder, which by now had been ordered to proceed to Copenhagen from Cherbourgh.

As it has not been possible to find more information in the Public Records Office, the next passage is based on four notices in the paper “Berlingske Tidende”.

11th of November 1864: “The new armoured vessel Stærkodder, which has been build in France and is rigged as a brig, arrived at the Copenhagen Roads yesterday evening.

First of December: “This morning the new armoured brig Stærkodder carried out a trial run in the Sound.”

Fifth of January 1865: “The armoured brig Stærkodder yesterday moved from the Royal Dockyard [Holmen], to the Copenhagen Roads. From here it is later to leave for Bordeaux.

Seventh of January: “The armoured brig Stærkodder got under way yesterday and sailed north”

Last note about the Stærkodder is from the diary of the Danish Ministry of War, who writes “Stærkodder, which left Copenhagen flying Danish colours (11), is now in the hands of the Confederation”

It is not possible to say exactly why the Danish Naval Ministry did not purchase the Stærkodder.
The most likely reason is that the technicians at the Royal Dockyard [Holmen], who were used to work of a higher standard than the work done on the Stærkodder, have recommended against the purchase of the strange armoured vessel, which – in spite of a few very good sides – are to be viewed as a faulty construction.
The later fate of the Stærkodder, which hull in the course of but a few years were found to be a very poor state, seems to justify the decision not to purchase the vessel.

But apart from these misgivings about the quality of the design, which the people at the Royal Dockyard had, the end of the war [between Denmark and Prussia] must have had something to do with the decision to refuse the buy. Furthermore the Royal Dockyard had already begun projecting a new armoured battery [which was to become the Lindormen], which were to be build at the Royal Dockyard.

[The next couple of pages deals with the sale of the Stærkodder to the Confederation, and it later fate in USS and Japanese service. Not included in this translation].

[Last notes from the translator:
* Stærkodder never actually did enter the Danish naval lists.
* It is worth noting that the Stærkodder was equipped with a ram even though it was built three years before the battle of Lissa.]


(1) “Stærkodder” means “Strong Otter”
(2) Note from the translator: I take it for granted that you know the history of the Stærkodder before it was offered to the Danish Government, and I have therefore not included this in this translation.
(3) Since R. S. Steensen wrote this in or around 1968, the papers might today be back in the archive, but since I deem this rather unlikely, I have not used the time needed to check this.
(4) R. S. Steensen, article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen, April 1939.
(5) It has not been possible to clarify whether or not Suenson was in France because of the offer from Arman or whether he was there on other business. (Tidsskrift for Søvæsen 1939, s. 182) The war between Denmark and Prussia began on the 1st of February.
(6) Already in the middle of February Agents from Arman had offered the armoured rams to the Prussian government.
(7) According to the article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen, April 1939, the Danish Government was to pay all expenses regarding the trip from France to Denmark.
(8) According to the article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen 1939, p. 186, the price was divided as follows: 357.000 rdl. was to be paid upon the signing of the contract, 281.250 was to be paid when the ship was launched and the remaining 281.250 was to be paid when the ship was handed over to the Danes in Bordeaux. These numbers must have changed a bit when the price of the ship was lowered to 800.000 rdl., but the text does not include the new numbers.
(9) According to the article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen, April 1939, the armoured plates were made by Petin & Guadet in Rive de Gier. (p. 187). The article furthermore states that the armoured plates were not to be placed until after the ship had been launched.
(10) According to the article in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen, 1939, p. 191, these armoured plates were later sold in order to pay for the extra expenses connected with adding a fourth layer of armoured plates on the Stærkodder. By accepting this agreement with Arman, the Danes at the same time waived the right to make further complaints in respect to faults with the placing of the armoured plates.
(11) According to R. Steen Steensen, it has not been possible to clarify whether or not the Stærkodder was flying Danish or French colours when it left Denmark.