What was the Battle of Oliwa (1627)?

Introduction

The Battle of Oliwa, also known as the Battle of Oliva, or the Battle of Gdańsk Roadstead, was a naval battle that took place on 28 November 1627 slightly north of the port of Danzig off the coast of the village of Oliva, during the Polish-Swedish War.

It was the largest naval engagement ever fought by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth Navy, and resulted in the defeat of a Swedish squadron led by Niels Stiernsköld that was conducting a blockade on the harbour of Danzig.

The Poles sailed out of the Danzig harbour and engaged the Swedish squadron, capturing the Swedish flagship and sinking another Swedish warship.

Background

The Swedes had a long tradition of seamanship and maintained a strong navy, and were able to land troops from the Swedish mainland at will along the southern Baltic shore. They were also able to blockade Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s ports, the most important of which was Danzig, maintaining a stranglehold on Polish-Lithuanian trade. On 28 November, a small, newly formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fleet, using purchased German ships and foreign (mainly Dutch) sailors, emerged from Danzig to engage the Swedish blockading squadron. The admiral of the Polish fleet at the time was Wilhelm Appelmann, but due to illness he could not take part in the battle and the royal commissioners appointed a new admiral of the Polish fleet before the battle. Arend Dickmann was made Admiral of the fleet, while Jan Storch was made commander of the Polish marines, and Herman Witte was made Vice admiral. These three commanders formed a council of war in which they jointly developed a battle plan and decided on the attack. The galleon Ritter Sankt Georg was made the Polish-Lithuanian flagship.

The Battle

The Polish-Lithuanian fleet outnumbered the blockading Swedish squadron: the two Polish-Lithuanian squadrons numbered ten ships in all, but most were of small size, and only four Polish-Lithuanian ships were at full combat strength. The Polish-Lithuanian ships were commanded by Admiral Arend Dickmann in the Ritter Sankt Georg. The Swedish squadron numbered six vessels, under Admiral Nils Stiernsköld in his flagship, Tigern. The Polish-Lithuanian ships had a larger complement of marines on board than the Swedish ships, and this in large part determined the tactics employed in the battle.

The Polish-Lithuanian fleet anchored off the Danzig roadstead, while the Swedish squadron sailed southwards from the Hel Peninsula. The Polish-Lithuanian squadrons weighed anchor and suddenly rushed towards the Swedish squadron, much to the surprise of the Swedes.

The battle split into two main encounters. The Polish-Lithuanian flagship Ritter Sankt Georg, supported by the Meerweib, engaged the Swedish flagship Tigern. More Polish-Lithuanian ships came alongside the Tigern, and Polish–Lithuanian marines boarded, overwhelmed the Swedes and captured the vessel. Meanwhile, the Polish-Lithuanian vice-admiral’s ship, the galleon Meerman, attacked the larger Swedish galleon Solen. The captain of the Solen, a Scotsman named Alexander Forath who was serving as Vice-admiral of the fleet, seeing that his ship was about to be captured detonated the powder magazine and blew his ship up rather than allowing it to be captured. The four surviving Swedish ships, realising their situation, quickly headed towards the open sea and managed to escape pursuit. Both admirals were killed in the battle.

After the conclusion of the battle, Arend Dickmann (known to the Polish as the Polish Nelson) died from a cannon shot which smashed his legs, which was probably fired from the retreating Swedish ships, while the Swedish admiral Nils Stiernsköld soon died of injuries sustained during the fighting. Both admirals were buried with the highest honours in the St. Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk.

Aftermath and Legacy

The after action report on the battle for Sigismund III Vasa was prepared by Wolfgang von der Oelsnitz from the Royal Ship Commission, who also presented the king with the captured Swedish flags and the personal sword of Nils Stiernsköld. James Murray was dismissed from duty after the conclusion of the battle after allegations of cowardice surfaced from the other captains of the Polish-Lithuanian fleet over the refusal of Murray to pursue the fleeing Swedish ships.

The immediate effect of the battle was the temporary removal of the Swedish blockade of Danzig. The court of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth used the victory to the maximum advantage in their propaganda. A popular Polish saying states that on that day “the sun went down at noon”, referring to the destruction of one of the Swedish ships, the Solen. Gustavus received the news of this battle with some mark of impatience, and apparently little awareness of the difference between naval and land operations – he could not help expressing his surprise that a “city of merchants” (referring to the city of Danzig) should be able to dispute the sea with professional navy.

Commemoration

  • The Battle of Oliwa was commemorated in 1990 on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, by an inscription on one of the boards that states “OLIWA 28 XI 1627”.
  • In Gdańsk, there are streets named after the battle and Arend Dickmann himself, in recognition of his naval victory.
  • A monument was constructed in Oliwa, celebrating the battle.
  • There was also a monument to the battle in Gdynia, but it was destroyed in 1939 by the Germans, after they captured Gdynia during the German invasion of Poland.
  • On 28 November, 1918, on the anniversary of the Battle of Oliwa, the Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski ordered the creation of the Polish Navy.
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