When Cavalry Captured A Fleet Trapped In Ice – A Unique Event In Military History

A painting of the event by Aquarelle de Morel-Fatio.

Fifty miles north of Amsterdam in the depths of the freezing winter of 1795, a fleet lay at anchor. It sat upon the Zuiderzee, a huge, shallow, sheltered anchorage around which the port town of Den Helder clustered.

It was the end of January, and in the port town some swore such a winter had not been seen for many years. There were sailors here who had been to many places and seen many strange and terrible things, and some said loudly that it wasn’t so bad. They told stories in the inns and public houses at night; travellers, locals, soldiers, fishermen, carpenters, chandeliers and merchants. Some told of the Americas, of lush forests, great open plains, mountains and mighty rivers. Men from hunting boats who had ventured into the deep icebound land to the far north told of constant winter, of frozen wastes and cliffs and towers of frozen sea big as clouds.

There were also, of course, many war stories. Men with scars told of battles and shipwrecks, victories and defeats, great leaders and hated enemies. There were stories of heroism and cowardice, of honourable deaths, and of miraculous escapes. There were war stories, and travel stories, but there was also much talk of politics, with varying degrees of authority from different speakers.

That night, it was generally known, a unit of French soldiers was approaching the town. It was only a few days ago that independence had been declared and the leaders of the old Republic ousted. Seven self-governing provinces had declared independence and a loose alliance; Den Helder was now part of the newly declared Batavian Republic.

Public fervour was high, and the arrival of soldiers from the revolutionary new French Republic was broadly welcomed. There was much talk of France, and of all that had been achieved there in recent years. The revolution was real, the monarchies had fled, and battles on sea and on land were being won. A bright future, free of the yoke of old leaders and old politics was being predicted.

The Zuiderzee as it looked in the 18th century - public domain from wikipedia
The Zuiderzee as it looked in the 18th century.

It was almost midnight when the French detachment arrived. They were bundled in every garment they possessed, a great troop of horsemen riding double toward the port. People left the inns and public houses, cheering them on, and pointing out toward the Zuiderzee. There was a fleet anchored there.

The captain of the cavalry dismounted at the water’s edge. The reports were true. In the crisp light of the moon and stars he could see ships anchored in the bay, but he was looking not across the water. He was gazing across a great sheet of grey ice. The Zuiderzee, shallow as it was and fed by fresh water, had frozen over. The fleet in the bay was icebound and utterly trapped.

His commanding officer was brigadier-general De Winter, who had given the captain of the detachment orders to ride fast to Den Helder and discover if any advantage could be gained from the situation. The Captain was to return messages to De Winter who would follow if his presence was required. The Captain had almost two thousand men, a thousand horse and a thousand foot. The cold was incredible, and he found an improbable idea solidifying in his mind.

His commanding officer was brigadier-general De Winter, who had given the captain of the detachment orders to ride in haste to Den Helder and discover if any advantage could be gained from the situation. The Captain was to return messages to De Winter who would follow if his presence was required. The Captain had almost two thousand men, a thousand cavalrymen, each with a footsoldier mounted behind him. He found an improbable idea solidifying in his mind.

He was introduced to an old sailor who had spent the day laboriously examining the thickness of the ice. This man assured the Captain that the Zuiderzee was frozen solid far out onto the water. The fleet of the old Dutch Republic must have been stationary for days, he said, but until yesterday its presence had been hidden from the town by fog and snow. Layers of snowfall had frozen and thickened the ice, which was now many feet deep.

“How many ships?” Asked the Captain.

When he received his answer, he made his decision. This was too good a chance to miss. Messages were dispatched to General De Winter, and the soldiers were given their orders.

They were to wrap the horse’s hooves in cloth, both to muffle the sound of their approach and to minimize the chance of the heavy hooves and steel horseshoes shattering the ice. They were to approach slowly and cautiously, and they were to be silent. They were to listen for the cracking of the ice, and be prepared to make an orderly retreat if required. Onto the ice they crept, horsemen and infantry, silent as the clouds of vapour that streamed from their mouths and noses as they breathed.

There were eighty-five warships and twenty merchant vessels trapped in the ice. The fleet represented most of the naval power of the deposed Dutch Republic, and if the ice held, its capture would be a mighty prize for the French. As they advanced carefully across the ice, their ears strained for the creaking noises which would herald disaster, they became more confident. The ice would hold. They gathered speed. The dark bulk of the nearest ships loomed up out of the night.

Modern view across Zuiderzee - photo by Koosg, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/
Modern view across Zuiderzee. By Koosg – CC BY-SA 3.0

There were a few lights twinkling among the fleet, and the captain stopped his men short before they reached the outlying vessels. As quietly as possible, he sent men on foot in between the soaring wooden sides of the great ships. It took an hour for his men to survey the situation, and to identify the command vessel. This was a great 86 gunner, near to the French position. The captain gave his orders quickly and quietly.

A detachment of horsemen was sent back, with orders to ride the shore of the Zuiderzee and establish exactly how far out the ice extended. Then the Captain dismounted and walked with the great body of his infantry round to the great command ship. They carried ropes and grappling hooks. The captain had his men prime their rifles, and then they threw their ropes high.

The thud of the hooks on the deck woke a watchman, dozing at his post. By the time he had woken enough to raise a cry, the Captain and hundred men had gained the deck. The watchman called out and ran toward the great bell, meaning to raise the alarm, but he slipped on the icy deck. There was a rush of feet, and he found himself staring up at the barrel of a musket.

“Silence!” hissed the soldier. The command ship had been boarded.

When the Admiral was rousted from his bed and presented himself on deck, he knew that there was no hope of resistance. The conversation he had with the young French captain of Horse was courteous. There would be more French troops arriving at first light, and General De Winter would arrive with them. The Captain requested that the Admiral waited until then; De Winter was now the master of the Dutch fleet, and he would give clearer orders. The Admiral had no choice but to give orders that the fleet had been taken and no resistance was to be given.

When De Winter arrived in the morning the whole fleet was secured and explored in the grey morning light. The Captain of Horse was promoted on the spot, and the Admiral and his crews swore allegiance to the French Republic. A great prize had been taken, without a drop of blood spilled or a single shot fired, the only such event ever recorded in military history.

by Barney Higgins @BookBarney