The Battle of Alvøen was a sea battle of the Gunboat War between Denmark-Norway and the United Kingdom. It was fought on 16 May 1808 in Vatlestraumen, outside Bergen in Norway, between the British frigate HMS Tartar and a Norwegian force consisting of four kanonjolles and one kanonsjalupps (collectively known as gunboats).
The British Royal Navy was then blockading the coast of Norway, causing major difficulties since the country was then dependent on Danish imports of grain and other foodstuffs. Having lost their fleet in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807, Denmark-Norway was unable to afford the time or money to rebuild their high-seas fleet of corvettes, frigates and ships of the line and so had been forced to construct small vessels or gunboats for coastal defence.
The British frigate was underway to Bergen harbour in search of a Dutch privateer named Gelderland, known by the British to be seeking shelter in the harbour during repairs. On the evening on 15 May, a message was received at Bergenhus Fortress stating that a British frigate had been sighted, and was probably heading towards Bergen. After the frigate had been sighted at Alvøen, near Bergen, on 16 May, the five vessels making up the entire Norwegian sea force in the Bergen region were ordered to row out and engage the enemy. The frigate lay becalmed outside Alvøen, and in thick fog. The Norwegian vessels took up a position between Alvøen and the frigate, and opened fire. The battle lasted about one hour, during which the British lost 12 men, including Post Captain Bettesworth, commander of the frigate. Norwegian losses were five men and several wounded.
The years from 1807 until 1814 were hard times for Norway. They fell during the Napoleonic Wars, which raged from 1800–1815, and which the united kingdoms of Norway and Denmark entered in 1807. After "the theft of the fleet" in 1807, when the entire Danish-Norwegian fleet was confiscated and sailed to Britain after the British victory at Copenhagen, Denmark-Norway moved from 'armed neutrality' to fighting against Britain. The British fleet blockaded the Skagerrak and cruised along the Norwegian coast, capturing merchant vessels as prizes and attacking coastal convoys. The Norwegian population depended on the import of grain from other countries, particularly Denmark, but supplies dried up as the British navy captured the merchant vessels carrying them. The Henrik Ibsen poem "Terje Vigen" occurs during this period and describes a poor pilot's risky journey from the south of Norway to Denmark to buy grain in order to feed his wife and child. He is captured near the coast of Norway on his way back from Denmark, and sent to prison in England.
With the loss of the high seas fleet, and the blockade of the Norwegian coast, the two countries were left to design and build a coastal defence system. As funds were lacking to construct even smaller vessels in sufficient numbers, people were urged to give money and valuables to raise funds for the construction of gunboats:
You all know the state of our Country. A deceitful enemy has robbed us of our defence, the Danish Fleet. The country is exposed to attacks from the sea. The government is working hard on a solution, and every honourable citizen and subject should work towards the common goal: National defence and the independence of our country [of Denmark-Norway] and to the construction of gunboats, contributing trees from the forest, gold, silver and money. We should not sit back idle, insensitive and indifferent - we are our country's sons and our king's citizens, and we should not make ourselves unworthy to bear the name of noble Norwegian men, because we did not participate in the struggle for the defence of our country.
Lacking a proper navy and without larger vessels in sufficient numbers, Denmark-Norway clearly needed a defensive strategy. What naval powers the country still had could only hope to prevent British warships from attacking Norwegian trading vessels, and this was what they attempted to do. The coastal trade was extremely important to prevent starvation - fish from northern Norway were traded for grain from areas south of Norway, especially Denmark. Naval forces of small gunboats were placed at strategic positions along the coast, with the naval commander in chief ordering each one out as and when enemy activity was reported in their operating area.
Another important factor was the privateers, civil ships granted letters of marque by the Danish government legally allowing them to engage and seize enemy vessels along the country's coast and retaining 99% of these vessels' value so long as 1% of it was then given to the government. Norwegian privateers operated as far as Scotland, and merchants began to demand better protection from the Royal Navy. As a result, the Royal Navy sent even more warships to the Norwegian coast, trying to prevent the privateers from ever reaching the open sea and any trading ships from entering Norwegian waters.
In May 1808, a Dutch frigate named Gelderland entered Bergen harbour seeking a sheltered spot to conduct repairs. Several privateers were also present in the harbour. The Royal Navy received intelligence about the Dutch frigate, and sent the frigates Tartar, Adriane and the corvette Cygnet from Leith in Scotland on 10 May, with orders to intercept the frigate and report on its movements. On 7 May, Gelderland had left Bergen; at least that is what local fishermen told Post Captain George Edmund Byron Bettesworth when Tartar entered the area of Stolmen west of Bergen on 15 May.
Some sources claim that Tartar was flying Dutch colours upon entering Norwegian waters on 15 May, and was therefore unsuspected, since the Netherlands were then an ally of Denmark-Norway against Britain. Norwegian fishermen and pilots sailed out in small boats to welcome the vessel and to offer their assistance as pilots - the Dutch flag might have fooled them into thinking the Tartar was the Gelderland returning. The pilots would have rushed to the vessel since the first there would get the job of piloting that vessel but, upon arrival, the pilots and fishermen were taken prisoner and forced to guide the vessel in through the narrow fjords leading to Bergen. They were tried by the Norwegian authorities after the battle and a transcript of their interrogation tells of what happened next:
The defendant and the three previously mentioned Men, plus Rasmus Andersen Øvre Waage and Johannes Johannesen Søre Aarland: altogether six Men, then went out to the frigate in a small boat. -When they had come a brief distance from Shore, they sighted the pilots Jacob Jacobsen Nedre Waage and Ole Johannesen Øvre Waage or Stolmevaagen, plus the fishermen Ole Hansen Nedre Waage, Johannes Anderssen Nedre Waage, Lars Nielsen Øvre Waage and Lars Olsen Stolmevogen, also pulling for the frigate, which they boarded at about 10 am Sunday, though the defendant and his crew arrived first, although the other men tried to reach the frigate first; when they came aboard, the defendant was shown to the Captain's quarters alone, whom, via a mere seaman who spoke Norwegian, asked the defendant if he could pilot the ship into Bergen, to which the defendant answered Yes! But he also asked where the ship came from, to which the translator answered that the ship came from Dover. The seaman convinced the defendant that the ship was French, and as the defendant does not know where Dover is, he assumed what was presented to him by the translator was true.
The Chief thereafter showed the defendant a large stock of golden money lying on a plate, and told the defendant that he would be given this money by the Chief if he could take the frigate to Bergen. -The defendant answered that he would claim no more than what the King's regulations allowed him, and then asked the ship's Draught, whereupon he received an answer. - The Chief then took the money away, and the defendant did not receive any of it.— National Archives in Bergen, copy of court documents printed during interviews of the Norwegian pilots and fishermen conducted during 1808 and 1809: Sorenskrivaren i Sunnhordland I.A. 46, tingbok 1807-1812, fol. 86b-89b. The text is translated from old Norwegian (Danish).
Tartar sailed into what is now Marstein fyr (holmen Marsteinen). To the south, at Sotra, near Kleppe (Kleppholmen), was an optical telegraph station, part of the telegraph system along the coast. This station observed the frigate, still flying a Dutch flag and not thought to be a threat, and the station's head (carrying the signal book) and his assistant rowed out to the frigate, but were both taken prisoner, thus breaking Bergen's chain of signal stations and putting an important part of the city's defences out of action.
The Norwegians on board were eventually designated as prisoners and mostly held below decks on the Tartar, with only one or two of them kept on deck to guide the frigate into Bergen. The Tartar anchored off Bjorøyhamn on the evening of 15 May, where she was observed by inhabitants of Alvøen, and sent out four light boats to reconnoitre further in towards Bergen, find out which vessels were lying in its harbour and (last but not least) "bring out the shipping" (i.e. tempt or tow the shipping to sail out from the port and thus pass the Tartar).