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Karlskrona shipyard the greatest investment of swedens era as a great power

Karlskrona shipyard - the greatest investment of Sweden's era as a great power

9 min read

The production of Saab Kockums’ ships and submarines takes place at the Karlskrona shipyard. Here there is a tradition of developing solutions for maritime security that goes back more than 300 years. Karlskrona was established as the headquarters of the Swedish fleet at the end of the 17th century and was the largest and most expensive investment of the period. Since 1998, the naval city of Karlskrona has been included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites along with Versailles, Venice and the Great Wall of China.

In the mid-1600s the Swedish Empire expanded significantly into the Baltic Sea region and after the Peace of Roskilde in 1658, Skåne, Blekinge and Halland became part of Sweden. It was strategically important for the Swedes to erect various fortifications in the newly gained regions in order to ensure control. In 1679 Carl XI of Sweden decided to erect a naval base in the Blekinge archipelago and the following year the new city of Karlskrona was formally established.

This was the origin of the greatest demonstration of strength during its period as a great power – an enormous relocation of ships, supplies, workshops, facilities, not to mention several thousand people from different parts of Sweden, to the sparsely populated rocky islets.

In 1681 and 1682 more than a thousand sailors were relocated from Finland to Kalmar and Karlskrona and during the 1680s the relocation of additional crews and relatives of the sailors continued. It is calculated that 3,000 people from Finland alone were relocated to Blekinge in this way.

The construction of the Karlskrona base and its associated shipyard was started entirely from scratch, initially on Hästö and Vämo, and then on Trossö and Lindholmen. Many of the workers also came from Finland, for example carpenters from Ostrobothnia. But joiners and other craftsmen also came from Stockholm and the shipyard in Skeppsholmen.


The first ship

Very soon large-scale shipbuilding began on Trossö. From 1686 to 1690 two ships, Karlskrona and Lejonet, and a yacht, Victoria, were launched. A major part of the shipyard’s work also involved repairs to the existing Swedish fleet, which had suffered major damage in the war with Denmark.

A major construction frenzy also began in the shipyard area. During the 1690s two slipways, forges, painters’, joiners’ and sculptors’ workshops, sailmakers’ yards, artillery sheds, a 300-metre long ropewalk and a gatehouse were constructed.

The largest vessel constructed during the Swedish Caroline era (1654-1718) was the prestigious ship Konung Karl, which was launched on 6 October 1694. It was the greatest event so far in the history of the shipyard and was celebrated with a gun salute. Twelve 24-pound guns were fired from both Sverige and Göta to celebrate the event.

The sculptor Henrik Schütz was commissioned to decorate the new flagship. The large figurehead represented the king himself, Carl XI, on horseback. Konung Karl had a crew of 700 sailors and 150 soldiers and carried 108 guns. It was the most powerful ship that had ever set sail in the Swedish fleet. But this true flagship was only in service for three naval expeditions and was not used as much as had been expected. In 1771 it was cut up, 77 years after it had been launched.

Karlskrona shipyard the greatest investment of swedens era as a great power

A low point after the major war

After the death of Carl XII and the end of the Great Northern War, the Karlskrona shipyard experienced a downturn. There were even discussions as to whether to relocate the shipyard and naval base to Stockholm. But financial and organisational realities were against it.

The position in Karlskrona was presented in bleak terms by Admiral Claes Sparre in a report to Frederick I in spring 1724. Only the newest ship Drottning Ulrica Eleonora was seaworthy – it would take at least ten years to repair the rest of the fleet. According to a Riksdag decision no new ships were to be built in Karlskrona until further notice – they would have to content themselves with repairs and maintenance. It was only in 1728 that the construction of replacement ships started in earnest.

Activities moved back and forth in the next few decades. A large number of ships were built in Karlskrona, but operations were put on the back burner at times. It was only in the early 1770s, when Gustav III became king, that there was a reform of the business. The shipyard was then given a clear company structure with a shipyard manager and a clear mission. In future the Karlskrona shipyard would be the main supplier of large warships to the Swedish fleet.

The Swedish fleet of the line was by then extremely outdated. Out of 22 ships of the line that were in service in 1772, six originated from the Swedish Caroline era with the Göta from 1686 being the oldest. The ships had a characteristic flat bottom and could not operate in deeper waters. They also had a poorer ability to sail close to the wind. However, towards the end of the 1740s Sweden had started to build ships of the line according to French principles. They were sharper and deeper than before and with a better ability to sail to windward.

The heyday under Chapman

The Karlskrona shipyard was facing a new and glorious chapter in its history. It was Gustav III of Sweden who pushed through a series of decisions in 1780-81 that radically changed the organisation and composition of the fleet of the line. Now Fredrik Henrik af Chapman was appointed manager of the shipyard and a major construction programme got under way.

Chapman had an unusual background for his time. His parents had moved from England to Gothenburg, where he was born in 1721. He had a background of theoretical and practical studies in Sweden and abroad and had become a ship designer and shipbuilder, but also a scientist. He published his observations on shipbuilding in books which came out in several different languages and Chapman became an international authority on the subject. His breadth and expertise was unequalled.

There was bustling activity in Karlskrona under Chapman’s management. In the period from 1782 to 1785 alone, no less than ten ships of the line and as many frigates and a number of small ships of various kinds were completed. Everything was constructed from Chapman’s own drawings and was under his personal control. It is usually said that Chapman was the first person in the world who put ships into series production.

He was also a pioneer when it came to determining the mathematical relationships for the ship’s characteristics such as the rigging, displacement, loading capacity, centre of gravity, stability and flow resistance. Experiments were conducted in a 100-metre pool which he had constructed at his residence Skärva outside Karlskrona, where he tested different types of hulls on scale models of ships. This methodology anticipated the way in which attempts are made in the modern age to chart the hydrodynamic properties of ships, or how the characteristics of airfoil sections and aircraft are tested in wind tunnels.

Karlskrona shipyard the greatest investment of swedens era as a great power
Vice Admiral and shipbuilder Fredrik Henrik of Chapman. He was born in Gothenburg in 1721 and died in Karlskrona in 1808. During Chapman's leadership a lively activity was held in Karlskrona. It is usually said that Chapman was the first in the world to ship ships in series production. State Maritime Museums.

Chapman retired from the shipyard in 1793, but continued with drawings of ships and was active at his desk until just a few days before his death in 1808. His last major work: “A theoretical essay to determine the proper size and form of ships of the line, as well as of frigates and smaller armed vessels” came off the press as late as 1806. However, he was best known for his collection of prints Architectura Navalis Mercatoria (1768).

Steam and iron hulls gave birth to new competition

The specialisation of the Karlskrona shipyard in sailing ships resulted in more and more serious competition from industrial workshop-based shipyards from the mid-1880s. Steam had made inroads into shipping.

In Denmark and Norway the tradition-bound naval yards rapidly adapted to constructing ships with iron hulls. But it did not happen initially in Karlskrona. Instead it was a private mechanical workshop, Motala Verkstad, which from around 1840 had started to develop the new skills required by the Swedish fleet. Other private shipyards also started to appear which moved from timber to iron and steel. One example is the Kockums shipyard in Malmö, which was established in 1870.

The Karlskrona yard appeared to be completely left behind and partially abandoned by the politicians. But modernisation finally got under way in accordance with plans drawn up by the workshop manager G W Svensson in 1871. When the modernisation had finally been completed at the end of the 1870s, discussions on the renovation of the shipyard had been going on for more than ten years. One explanation for this was that the operations were totally dependent on political decisions.

New start in Karlskrona

In the 1890s, construction really got off the ground with the series production of torpedo boats. New mechanical workshops were constructed along with the long stone-built fitting-out quay. In addition, the Oscar II dock was built in the period from 1899 to 1903.

The Karlskrona shipyard was now no longer a dominant supplier of warships to the Swedish fleet and the increased competition had necessitated more finely honed skills. The shipyard now had to adapt its technology and expertise to what customers wanted.

This became particularly evident during the first half of the 1900s, which were characterised by dramatic changes in the rest of the world. Refurbishment, a world war, disarmament, further reburbishment and another world war resulted in constantly changing conditions for operations at the Karlskrona yard. However, its core task remained the repair and maintenance of the ships in the Swedish fleet. New construction had to come second. But here too the Karlskrona yard played a not insignificant role – 14 out of a total of 30 new Swedish submarines were built here in the period from 1910 to 1945.

The shipyard becomes a limited-liability company

Until the start of the 1960s the Karlskrona yard belonged to the Swedish Navy and was known as the Marinverkstäder (Marine workshops). In 1961 the business was divided up and shipyard operations were split off into a state-owned company with the name Karlskronavarvet AB. From the early 1970s this company became part of Statsföretag AB. However, the business continued to focus mainly on the maintenance and construction of military ships.

In 1989 Karlskronavarvet AB merged with Kockums AB in Malmö. The new company became known under the name of Kockums. Construction was centralised in Karlskrona in 1996, thus ensuring the continuation of a more than 300-year era in the city that was created for shipping and maritime security. Today surface and underwater vessels with stealth capabilities are designed and built at the Karlskrona yard for the Swedish Navy.