From the Life of Steen Bille: Hohlenberg, the Norge, and the Norge’s Sea trials with the Danmark

The noted 19th Century Danish naval officer Steen Bille provides his observations on the Danish naval architect Hohlenberg, the design of Holenberg’s battleship Norge, and Norge’s sea trials witht the Danish battleship Danmark.

af Claus Christensen and Eric Nielsen

The center piece of this article, found in Part II below, is a verbatim translation from the Danish account of the noted Danish naval officer Steen Bille, found in Biographiske erindringer af admiral Steen Billes liv. This article is located in Archiv for Søvæsenet Vol. 12, p. 26, written by Steen Bille (jun.), Copenhagen July, 1839. Published by H.B. Dahlerup, and printed by Udgiverens Forlag, Copenhagen, in 1840.

I. Introduction

This interesting account discusses, from Steen Bille’s personal perspective as an experienced Danish sea officer, (1) the merits of the design features of Hohlenberg’s new ship-of-the line, the NORGE, the first of Hohlenberg’s ship-of-the-line designs and a major innovation in Danish warship design at the capital ship level; (2) some of Hohlenberg’s warship design theories; and finally (3) the comparative sea trials conducted between the NORGE and DANMARK in 1801, while these ships were acting as a squadron under Steen Bille’s overall command.

The NORGE was launched in 1800, the first of 4 ships-of-the-line designed and built by the Danish navy’s Fabrikmester (i.e., “master builder,” or master shipwright), Frantz Christopher Hohlenberg, who served as the Danish navy’s Fabrikmester from 1796-1803. The DANMARK was a 76-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1794 and designed by Hohlenberg’s immediate predecessor, Ernest Wilhelm Stibolt, as the Danish navy’s “master builder” for the period of 1788-1796. Stibolt, like Hohlenberg, also designed 4 of the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway’s ships-of-the-line. Incidentally, both the NORGE and DANMARK, along with two other Hohlenberg-designed battleships, were actively employed in British naval service after their seizure by the British at Copenhagen in 1807.

Although only a mere six years separated the DANMARK’s launch from NORGE’s, as the Danish naval historian Hans Christian Bjerg so perceptively observes, in his Danske Orlogsskibe 1690-1860 (p. 58), in concept the DANMARK’s design was an 18th Century warship design, whereas the NORGE’s design was a 19th Century warship design.

Although, in retrospect, DANMARK may be validly deemed to be an 18th Century warship design in concept, it was nevertheless an accomplished 18th Century warship design, and as one may read from Steen Bille’s account provided below, in selecting DANMARK for comparative sea trials with NORGE in order to assess the merits of the NORGE’s design, contemporary Danish naval authorities basically regarded DANMARK to be evenly matched – for comparison purposes – with Hohlenberg’s NORGE; the vastly experienced (and consequently picky) British also did not derogate DANMARK, as DANMARK was the only non-Hohlenberg designed Danish-Norwegian battleship actively employed by the British in operational sea service during the Napoleonic Wars.

As a final initial observation, the Danish navy’s title of Fabrikmester, as applied to Hohlenberg and Stibolt, implies that these men were merely master shipwrights who did no design work, whereas in fact both of these individuals are known and highly regarded today for their high quality work in warship design. However, Stibolt and Hohlenberg were not “naval architects” in the modern sense that they did not supervise the actual construction of the warships they designed. To the contrary, Hohlenberg and Stibolt did “double duty,” as both naval architects and as naval constructors of the warships they designed and built for the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway.

II. Steen Bille’s Account

[And now, Steen Bille’s verbatim account, translated from Danish – bracketed material has been added:]

The NORGE was the first ship-of-the-line designed by Hohlenberg. This brilliant shipbuilder had, in his ship designs, introduced all of the modern features which he, based upon his theories about warship requirements, believed to be necessary.

Providing the stern and bow with the best defense, combined with the smallest possible above-the-waterline hull volume, was the goal he struggled for, and for which he sacrificed all preexisting considerations about conventionally-accepted hull forms. The wide stern with heavy galleries and quarters with occasional balconies had to yield to a narrow stern, the only ornaments of which were gunports and a few light decorative structural protrusions.

the NORGE (picture: Orlogsmuseets collection)
the NORGE (picture: Orlogsmuseets collection)
The bulwark was closed in with solid timber all the way around the upper battery deck. That these were considerable improvements, nobody can deny; and that is why one always has to admire the genius of this man, who from the first abandoned conventional rules of design and construction, in order to immerse himself into something that was, contemporaneously, unknown. Furthermore, we have to be proud of this man who was the first constructor who formulated principles which, several years later, were introduced (with modifications) in other European Navies.

The fact that Hohlenberg’s theories also went to extremes, leading to results which subsequently had to be modified, cannot be overlooked. As an example it is evident that, in making the stern too narrow to provide the greatest angle to that quarter, while the two cannon mounted in this space could hardly be operated [by their gun crews], was going too far.

The NORGE’s stern width was 21 feet. The inside width in the lowest battery deck, in spite of employing as much curvature between the side and the stern as possible, was only 15 feet. But for the battery of two adjacent 36 pdr. cannon mounted here there was only 23 feet of space. This was in fact somewhat more space than in DANMARK, where this space amounted to only 21 feet 3 inches. Even though 20 feet of space was considered sufficient for operating two 36 pdrs., NORGE lacked adequate space because of the location and operation of the rudder in between these two cannon. On the other hand, the configuration of this quarter of the ship offered good space for the crew near the sides.

NORGE was designed as a 74 gun ship and was armed with:

  • Lower battery deck: 32 36 pdrs.
  • Upper battery deck: 34 18 pdrs.
  • Quarter deck: 6 36 pdr. carronades
  • Forecastle: 2 36 pdr. carronades

Giving a total of 74 guns.

In addition to the foregoing, 6 carronades (probably 12 pdrs.) were placed on the poop [or roundhouse]. These, strangely enough, are shown on the ship’s plans and were actually embarked, but were not considered in the armament calculation and were, furthermore, not mentioned in handwritten description [of the armament] contained in the design plans.

Of the foregoing armament, 4 guns on the lower battery deck were supposed to be permanently positioned, combat ready, in the two stern and two [bow] chase ports. On the upper battery deck, 2 18 pdr., and on the quarterdeck 2 36 pdr. carronades, were supposed to be permanently placed, combat-ready, at the stern ports. But in the broadside battery NORGE only had 14 36 pdr., 16 18 pdr. cannon, and 3 36 pdr. carronades, together with the 3 12 pdr. carronades on the poop. This broadside battery would, according to contemporary classification criteria, be designated as a 66 gun ship.

Conducting this type of calculation, our present 80 gun ships, whose comparable class corresponds to other nations’ weakest 74 gun ships, qualifies those ships to be deemed to be 90 gun ships. These ships would fare badly by comparison to ships of this class from the English or French navies.

Viewing this type of armament, it is obvious that it is primarily the number of guns ordinarily mounted on the forecastle and the quarterdeck that is missing [in Hohlenberg’s design]. Hohlenberg paid no attention to the value of this kind of armament. He spoke against it in every possible way: “That this kind of armament could not be operated at any angle forward or astern, that it partially interfered with the channels, that it was liable to be hampered by falling rigging, etc.” Yes, he went so far in his enthusiasm that he claimed that on a flagship, where the commanding admiral is supposed to have as much tranquility as possible, cannon should never be mounted on the quarterdeck.

Of course, a commander should have tranquility, but if he does not have this internally, external tranquility will hardly avail him.

The poop has a very special shape. It is cut-off astern, so that it is not connected to the taffrail, thus forming an open space athwart the ship’s stern with sufficient space to operate the 36 pdr. carronades. Within this poop, which according to Hohlenberg was more of a deckhouse, the commander and some of his officers were berthed. On the port side was a gangway below the poop deck, providing access to the taffrail and the carronades mounted there.

In this way Hohlenberg’s design took the first step toward relinquishing the poops. He wished that the commander should berth in the lower cabin, and that the poop was for the petty officers only. He believed that only two cabins, and subsidiary cabins, were needed because of the great number of officers. If this belief was valid, then it consequently followed that the orlops below could be utilized to berth a greater number of officers, thus reducing excessive top weight and providing a more spacious quarterdeck.

But in recognizing the importance of a warship’s batteries, one will recognize that a warship is built entirely for the operation of these batteries. To me it is incomprehensible how one could encumber the battery decks with captain and officer cabins, bearing in mind that these officer cabins normally reduce the combat-ready fighting capacity by 1/4 on the quarterdeck batteries and by 1/5th of the lower batteries, until completing the troublesome job of preparing the officers’ cabins for combat. This kind of trouble is in fact the reason why these cabins are rarely prepared for combat.

Bearing the advantages of a poop in mind, providing an unhindered view of the horizon and the poop serving as a sort of citadel from where boarding could either be repelled or even initiated from. I dare say that, under equal circumstances, the ship having a poop is superior to the ship without. In the light of all that is done to construct ships which have the same fighting capability of ships of the same class from other nations, the poop is a necessity. A poop’s disadvantages must be countered in the design of the ship.

Another new feature of the NORGE was the positioning of the quarterdeck gunports. These were located independently of the ports on the lower battery deck, in favor of the necessary interval of space between the guns mounted on the quarterdeck. This not only provided room for mounting one additional 18 pdr., but also avoided the normal cutting of the rib timbers.

This resulted in a completely new feature, the placing of several quarterdeck gunports directly above the lower battery gunports. In order to determine whether this type of positioning generated any disadvantages when firing of the guns, trials were undertaken. These involved the blockship NORSKE LØVE, where three gunports on the quarterdeck were cut directly above the lower battery gunports. Several trials concluded that this unusual construction feature did not present any greater disadvantages compared with other ships.

Regarding structural accommodation, Hohlenberg dispensed with a considerable number of bulkheads in the ship. A wide gangway circumvented the entire interior of the ship on the orlop deck. The ship’s cables were, for the first time, stowed in cable vaults in the ship’s hold. Most of the victuals, including bread, were placed in casks and special containers in the hold.

The NORGE’s most brilliant feature was its lower battery. This, located 6 feet above the waterline, provided unprecedented height [i.e., battery freeboard], and space between the guns, which characterized this ship as a very good fighting ship.

The Sea Trials

Shortly after the 1801 battle [i.e., of Copenhagen Roads], new sea trials were to be executed. These were to be performed between two ships, DANMARK with Captain General aid-de-camp Riegelsen, versus NORGE with Captain Bille, who at the same time acted as squadron commander.

Commander O. Lutken was trials-commissioner aboard the NORGE, and Commander Just Bille was trials-commissioner aboard the DANMARK. Master-shipbuilder Hohlenberg was aboard the NORGE. The brig NIDELVEN and the schooner MERCURIUS acted as tenders.

The trials lasted only for a brief period. On September 14th the squadron weighed anchor, proceeded north, passed Store Belt, but was compelled to call at Kiel because of heavy weather in which NORGE lost a foremast yard. Again weighing anchor, the squadron proceeded east of Bornholm, where several trials were performed. Following that, the squadron returned to Copenhagen, arriving in mid-October. The ships were immediately laid-up.

The results of the trials were: There had been no opportunity to evaluate the ships as sea-going ships; NORGE was a good, but DANMARK perhaps a bit better windward ship; DANMARK was a good, but NORGE was a bit better sailing ship; both ships were equally stiff; DANMARK was a good, but NORGE was an extremely good fighting ship; and both ships answered the helm equally well. Finally, as a result of these trials, NORGE was declared to be the best of these two ships, primarily because of its fighting capabilities.

Any seaman would, with no further comment, realize how inconclusive a final result of these trials could be, considering the trials’ brief duration. Bearing in mind that both ships were untried, newly rigged, and having put to sea for only a short period, conclusive judgements could not be made. If comprehensive conclusions are to be made, trials would need to be conducted with ships being at sea for extended periods, having well-trained officers and men, good standing rigging and, finally, the period of trials should not be restricted to some specific short duration of time.

III. Concluding Critique, by Eric Nielsen, on Aspects of Steen Bille’s Account

1. Steen Bille does not expressly criticize Hohlenberg’s theory of permanently mounting guns at the stern and bow of the ship on the basis of the serious stress this permanent placement of heavy cannon at a warship’s extremities would have obviously placed upon the structural strength of the hull of any warship. However, this idea of permanently mounting heavy cannon at a warship’s stern and bow was an extremely serious flaw in Hohlenberg’s design concepts, because of the unnecessary strain thus imposed on the structural strength of a ship’s hull.

In this regard, Steen Bille couples his criticism of Hohlenberg’s concept of permanently mounting heavy cannon at NORGE’s narrow stern with the fact that NORGE’s truncated stern was too narrow to allow NORGE’s gun crews to effectively serve and operate the heavy cannon placed there.

Steen Bille thereby seems to imply that the narrow stern was itself an inherently objectionable design feature, because of the fact that there was insufficient room for the gun crews to serve their guns, rather than because of the strain such guns would impose upon the structural strength of a ship’s hull. However, Steen Bille’s objection regarding the operation of the stern guns could be mitigated by a practice of not firing and reloading the stern guns simultaneously, but in sequence, i.e., what was referred to in WWII as “ripple” fire.

Finally, I not only reject the proposition that a narrow stern is inherently objectionable, but I also believe that this feature was in fact was a basically meritorious concept, regardless of whether any cannon were mounted in a warship’s truncated stern, because a truncated stern reduced the potential effects of an enemy’s raking fire.

2. One factor Steen Bille specifically points out as constituting an obstruction to gun crews’ operation of the cannon placed in the NORGE’s stern is the operation of the NORGE’s rudder, the head of which when operating traversed from side to side in a wide arc in the same manner as a door to a building when swinging open, thus further cramping the already truncated operating space at the extreme stern of the NORGE’s hull where Hohlenberg had permanently placed cannon.

This observation by Steen Bille raises the issue of the NORGE’s rudder design, which was the traditional “rule-joint” style of rudder – both the original Danish Admiralty design plans of the NORGE, and the British admiralty draughts of the NORGE made in 1809, indicate that the NORGE was equipped with the old “rule-joint” style of rudder, until at least late 1809.

Contrasted with the traditional “rule-joint” type of rudder was the new “plug-stock” type of rudder, which was beginning to be introduced in U.S. navy warships in 1801, a type of rudder design which would seem to have alleviated some of the space problems imposed by the old “rule-joint” type of rudder, i.e., the “plug-stock” type of rudder had a cylindrical rudder head that would not have traversed as did the old “rule-stock” type of rudder.

3. Hohlenberg’s “pink” type warship stern was not entirely unknown in naval history (and, at one time, was common in the commercial trades), and smaller, non-capital warship types had occasionally employed this structural feature, as in, e.g., the 17th century. Hohlenberg’s pink-type stern, coupled with its omission of stern and quarter galleries in larger warships, particularly ships-of-the-line, was a meritorious innovation which, however, did not meet approval in the English navy, where more conventional stern and quarter galleries were demanded by sea officers, for their personal comfort, prestige and accommodation. Notwithstanding British officers’ objections to this stern design feature, this Hohlenberg-type stern continued to be retained, for a time, in the construction of post-Napoleonic war Danish frigates.

4. Regarding Steen Bille’s remarks about the classification of warships according to the number of cannon carried and measuring their corresponding firepower, Hohlenberg’s concept of permanently mounting heavy cannon in a warship’s stern must also be viewed as being to the detriment of a warship’s main broadside battery, it’s principal offensive weapon. Because cannon at this time were smoothbore, and hence inaccurate, these cannon were most effective when placed in massed batteries, i.e., a ship’s broadside batteries.

Therefore, Hohlenberg’s hope for the defensive effect of the fire of a handful of smoothbore cannon placed in a ship’s stern, to the detriment of the offensive power of a ship’s main broadside battery, does not appear to be a valid concept when smoothbore cannon are the weapons employed on shipboard. Hohlenberg’s concept of permanently diverting a number of a ship’s smoothbore cannon to the stern for defensive purposes is also in derogation of the principle that offense is the best defense.

5. It’s not fully known here on what comprehensive professional basis Hohlenberg objected to placing guns on a ship-of-the-line’s quarterdeck, other than those cited in Steen Bille’s account of Steen Bille’s interpretation of verbal remarks Hohlenberg made in this regard. However, there is a considerable degree of merit to Hohlenberg’s basic objection to placing smaller caliber and, therefore, far less effective cannon on a warship’s quarterdeck, which was a long-standing practice in all European navies during this period and which was seemingly predicated upon the theoretical basis of the presumed value of cramming as many cannon into a warship’s broadside batteries as possible, regardless of the combat effectiveness (e.g., range and destructive power) of the caliber of a warship’s individual cannon.

However, at the time of the NORGE’s launch, the recent availability of the new, hard-hitting but lightweight carronades for close quarters work reduced the force of Hohlenberg’s theoretical objection to mounting guns on a warship’s quarterdeck, an objection which was apparently predicated upon the combat effectiveness of the individual pieces of naval ordinance so mounted.

6. It’s not known if, or whether, a principal reason Hohlenberg based his theory about permanently mounting cannon in a warship’s stern to improve its defensive capability was an over-reaction to the then current theories of gunboat warfare that were widely prevalent among Hohlenberg’s contemporaries, particularly in Scandinavia where local weather conditions could expose heavy warships to a serious threat of gunboat attack when a heavy warship was becalmed in coastal waters.

Conversely, Hohlenberg may have simply conceived of this defensive design feature as a defense to potential attack by another square-rigger which sought to rake a square-rigged warship’s stern while its assailant was rounding the rear of its antagonist, under full sail and in a fair wind. Or, perhaps, Hohlenberg never even distinguished in his own mind between these two different forms of attack when Hohlenberg formulated this particular theory of permanently placing cannon in a warship’s stern.

7. Steen Bille’s objection to temporary ships’ cabins for naval officers is somewhat difficult to understand, particularly in light of extensive British experience. British warships typically carried officer cabins made of removable cabin walls, which could quickly be dismantled when a warship “cleared for action;” cannon were also sometimes located in such cabins so that a ship’s aggregate armament would not be diminished by the presence of such officer cabins. Therefore, it is difficult to understand why a well-trained, well-disciplined and efficient warship’s crew would find the presence of such temporary officer cabins to be a seriously objectionable obstruction to their warship’s combat efficiency or power.

8. Steen Bille’s argument in favor of warship poops, or deck houses, is not convincing, for if the presence of deck guns on a warship’s spar deck (or a warship’s quarterdeck) obstructed the warship officers’ all-round view of the adjacent sea area, of their warship’s tactical maneuvering in ship-to-ship combat, and of a warship’s crew’s handling of the warship’s rigging during combat operations, then the presence of a deck house on a warship’s spar deck or quarterdeck not only imposes a massive obstruction to the undertaking by a warship’s officers and crew of these essential warship handling requirements, but it also increases a warship’s topweight as well as a warship’s resistance to the wind (i.e., a large deckhouse would have the practical effect of acting as an additional sail to catch the wind, making a ship more leewardly).

9. Steen Bille is absolutely correct in his observation that comparative sea trials of very limited duration (particularly in the Baltic’s undemanding sea conditions), between warships which are closely matched in quality and performance, most certainly could not be either very instructive or enlightening regarding these warships’ respective merits.

Therefore, rather than relying upon the very restrictive conditions of such limited sea trials on which to base comparative judgements, one would think that instead of such ineffectual sea trials, an insightful naval architect’s professional examination and analysis of the warships’ respective design plans would provide far greater insight regarding the comparative merits of the qualities of two closely matched warships.

10. Steen Bille’s unqualified assertion the “NORGE’s most brilliant feature was its lower battery. This, located 6 feet above the waterline, provided unprecedented height . . . to the guns,” deserves further examination. More factual information would need to be known about the relative “gunport freeboards” (i.e., height of the lower gundeck’s gunports above the waterline, when the ship was fully loaded for sea service) of the Danish-Norwegian navy’s ships-of-the-line (with special reference to the DANMARK), as well as of the ships-of-the-line in other navies, to assess the validity of this remark, and just how “unprecedented” NORGE’s six feet of gunport freeboard was for its lower battery.

Sufficient gunport freeboard for a ship-of-the-line’s lower battery was a perennial and vexing problem of warships of all navies, during much of the period in the age of “fighting sail.” Frigates, because of the unique presence of the unarmed “berth deck,” usually had main batteries with somewhat higher gunport freeboard – for example, the Danish frigates seized by the British at Copenhagen in 1807 had gunport freeboards which ranged between 6 feet and 7 feet, 8 inches, while fully loaded in British sea service, i.e., gunport freeboards which were typically greater than the 6 feet which Steen Bille characterizes as “unprecedented” for NORGE.

11. Parenthetically, what impressed the imagination of the British captors of Hohlenberg’s ships-of-the-line were these ships’ hull forms, and these ships’ excellent seakeeping qualities which resulted therefrom. It’s not known what the British opinion was of the DANMARK’s qualities, while in British service.

12. While Steen Bille is correct in his observation that a warship’s fighting power is the ultimate criterion by which a warship should be judged, the aesthetics of his ship is never far from a sailor’s mind. In this regard, although of all of his battleship designs, Hohlenberg’s CHRISTIAN VII has received the greatest world renown because of the powerful impression her design made upon her British captors, and although CHRISTIAN VII was the more powerful warship, judging from a comparison of NORGE’s and CHRISTIAN VII’s original Danish design plans, NORGE was probably the more handsome ship.