Warships v. War Horses: the unbelievable battle of Den Helder

“Who would win in a fight?” If you’ve ever heard this question, you know it’s always followed by two similar, but fundamentally different, choices. Batman or Superman. The Enterprise or a Star Destroyer. Warships or Cavalry?

In a conventional war, militaries try to bring an appropriate amount of troops, supplies, and weapons to, at the very minimum, equal the power of their enemy. If one army had a castle, the other brought siege weapons; If one had tanks, the other brought tank busting weapons; and if one had planes, the other brought anti-aircraft guns.

But what do you do if you’re a naval fleet and your enemy attacks you … on horseback?

You’re probably asking yourself how a cavalry unit, comprised of horse-mounted warriors armed with small arms and swords, would even go about attacking warships which are, of course, at sea. And, if you’re the captain of one of these ships, the threat of landlocked soldiers is most likely not a top concern.

Unfortunately, for Capt. Hermanus Reintjes, commander of the Dutch fleet during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1795, the horsemen of the French army were not an enemy they’d only watch on a distant shore.

Throughout history, guerrilla or asymmetric warfare tactics were used when a military force found itself not only unequal but also vastly different from their enemy, forcing it to use unconventional tactics and strategies in order to maintain the odds for victory. Or, in the case of the French cavalry, they could be used to wage an unthinkable battle.

In the fall of 1794, the French military entered the Netherlands in an attempt to capture the Dutch Republic, making its way to, and entering, Amsterdam on January 19, 1795. Under the command of General Jean-Charles Pichegru, the French forces intended to remain in the Dutch capital throughout the winter. However, when the general received word that the Dutch fleet was anchored off the coast of Den Helder, a town at the tip of the North Holland peninsula, he seized the opportunity to take this infamously odd offensive.

That winter had been extraordinarily cold and the waters of the Zuiderzee, the shallow bay in which the Dutch fleet was anchored, froze over. Pichegru ordered General of Brigade Jan Willem de Winter to lead a squadron of cavalry soldiers to Den Helder to investigate. When he arrived on the morning of January 23rd, he found the fleet, comprising of 14 warships and multiple merchant ships, stuck in the ice.

Under the cover of night as the unsuspecting Dutch sailors slept, and using fabric on the horse’s hooves to muffle the sounds, the cavalry launched its surprise attack. The French forces managed to capture all 14 warships, along with 850 cannons, without either side suffering a casualty. This unusual offensive also marked the end of the French’s conquest of the Netherlands and one of the few (but surprisingly not the only) times in history when a cavalry unit captured an enemy fleet.

De Winter would go on to serve as vice admiral of the captured fleet, but wouldn’t find success. During the Battle of Camperdown, a major naval battle between De Winter’s Dutch fleet and the British navy in 1797, De Winter would lose 11 ships while the British didn’t lose any.


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