Throughout the Centuries
Sweden has a strong and proud naval history. In particular the Nordic Viking conquests between 800 and 1066 AD were in no small part the result of the Swedes’ impressive shipbuilding know-how. But it is less well-known that these skills have remained at the forefront of the Swedish repertoire until the present day. Let’s explore Sweden’s long and fruitful maritime history; where its modern era began, how it came about, and what remains of it all.
The (Second) Beginnings of a Naval Tradition
Following Sweden’s break from the Kalmar Union in 1522, where one royal family ruled over much of Scandinavia and beyond, Sweden began to equip itself with naval defences as Gustav I purchased ships from the Lübeck region of northern Germany.
The naval developments that have stood the test of time though, were those built just over 300 years ago, following the end of the Scanian War in 1679 between a Denmark-Norway union, Brandenburg and Sweden. By this time there had been ongoing antagonism between Sweden and Denmark throughout the previous century, with the Swedish navy not very frequently being on the winning side of the many battles at sea. As a result, Karl XI decreed the construction of a naval base in the Southeast of Sweden, in the town aptly named after him: ‘Karlskrona’ (‘Karl’s Crown’ in English). It is situated on the eastern edge of Blekinge’s archipelago.
The King’s Crown
Today, Blekinge County’s capital, Karlskrona, is home to 67,000 inhabitants and is Sweden’s only remaining baroque town; built in the florid vein of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Palace of Versailles. Though its economy today relies largely on IT, telecom, and tourism (welcoming nearly 200,000 visitors yearly pre-Covid), for its first four hundred years it was predominantly a naval and fishing town.
As a testament to its history, the city arguably boasts the best-preserved and most complete naval port of all the surviving European naval cities. Its good condition is owed to Sweden’s long-standing pacifist stance on military matters. In fact, Sweden has not formally declared war since 1814 and has not fought on its own soil since 1809. And the port has not been affected by the few wars and battles that have occurred since its foundation and continues to operate as a naval base to this day.
The Biggest Threat Posed?
The closest to combat Karlskrona has seen was on the 27th of October 1981, when the Soviet Whiskey-Class submarine S-363 ran aground 10km from its port – an event now colloquially known as “whiskey on the rocks”. Swedish naval forces reacted to the breach of sovereignty by sending an unarmed naval officer aboard the boat to meet the captain and demand an explanation. The captain initially claimed that simultaneous failures of navigational equipment had caused the boat to get lost (even though the boat had already somehow navigated through a treacherous series of rocks, straits, and islands to get so close to the naval base). At the time, there was some sense of panic throughout the country and worries of an escalation of conflict between Sweden and the Soviet Union were aroused. Ultimately, though, Swedes kept a cool head and Karlskrona fortunately continues to its centuries-old tradition of being unscarred by any naval actions it was once built for.
Stepping Back in Time
Karlskrona’s history remains proudly on display in many artefacts and still-in-use naval architecture. The naval museum or ‘marinmuseum’, as it is named locally, includes the interactive HMS Neptun, a submarine built during the Cold War era and in good enough condition to be in use today. The museum allows visitors to climb aboard and witness how life would have been for the workers and inhabitants during its time at sea. It has re-creations in many rooms of the typical conditions during its use, as well as information about the engines and oxygen production machines on display. Beyond this, the museum displays the figureheads from historic naval ships dating back as far as Viking times and boasts the so-called ‘cargo tunnel’, a transparent tunnel that leads to the seafloor. From this point, visitors can witness what is believed to be the wreckage of the warship Prince Karl, built-in 1684.
The Town’s Many Fortresses
Although the city’s baroque style is celebrated for its uniqueness and beauty, the truly striking buildings are those built with -unsurprisingly- a naval purpose in mind. Kungholdms fort, built only a few hundred metres from the western coast of the island Tjurkö in 1680, for example, exhibits the true virtuosity of Sweden’s maritime engineering, with an impressive man-made circular harbour that is still in use by Sweden’s navy today. Due to its ongoing status as a naval base, though, visitors are only allowed on the island when accompanied by a tour guide.
The two adjacent fortresses, known locally as ‘Godnatt’ (good night) and ‘Godmorgon’ (good morning), built only a year apart in the mid-1800s, are also sights to behold with their grand, metre-thick walls and oriental design. They are named after an old folk tale about their respective islands. The story professes that two skippers who were in love with the same woman, at the same time one morning, set off from Karlskrona. While one of their ships went aground and he called for help from the other, the only response he received was “good morning”. The sinking skipper, though, survived to witness the other skipper, on his return from sea, running aground and calling for help at a nearby rock, to which he replied, “good night”.
Explorations by Chance
Clearly then, this city has much to offer in the way of maritime history. So much so that many disused naval turrets and infrastructure can be found, without signage, or any demarcation, merely by chance. Karlskrona is the ideal city for anyone who wishes to immerse themselves in naval history, old and new. It remains entirely unique in its showcasing of European maritime tradition.
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