MIGHTY HISTORY

The military origin of 'turning a blind eye' to something

There's something to be said for aggressively pursuing the job you want. For British Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson, that opportunity came at the Battle of Copenhagen when the famous admiral disobeyed the orders of a less-famous, less successful one in the funniest way possible.


Lord Nelson was arguably England's most famous military mind, and without a doubt, one of its most famous admirals. By the time the British engaged the Danes at Copenhagen, Nelson had been commanding ships for more than 20 years and had been in command as an Admiral for nearly as long. But Nelson wasn't in overall command of the British at Copenhagen. That honor fell to Britain's Sir Hyde Parker, but Sir Hyde wasn't as aggressive as Lord Nelson, certainly not aggressive enough for Nelson's taste.

Until the Battle of Copenhagen, Parker was considered a very good commander, commanding Royal Navy ships for some 40 years in fights from Jamaica to Gibraltar. But Hyde was more of an administrator than a battlefield leader, sticking close to the rules of naval combat. This wasn't a problem for anyone until 1801, when he ordered the Royal Navy at Copenhagen to disengage.

Nelson wasn't having it.

Unlike Parker, Nelson was known to flaunt the doctrine of naval warfare at the time. He is famous for saying, "forget the maneuvers, just go straight at them." Nelson was aggressive without being careless and had a sixth sense for the way a battle was flowing. From his ship closer to the fight, he could tell that the attack needed to be pressed. Parker was further away from the fighting, in a ship too heavy for the shallower water closer to Copenhagen. So when he was ready to disengage – as doctrine would have him do – he raised the flag signal.

Nelson is said to have put his telescope up to his blind eye, turned in the direction of Parker's flagship, and allegedly said:

"I have a right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal."

Nelson knew the battle would go his way, and even though some of his ships did obey the disengage order, most of the frigates did not. The battle began to turn heavily in favor of the British, with most of the Danish ships' guns too heavily damaged to return fire. Denmark would be forced into an alliance with the British against Napoleonic France and received protection from Russia. For his actions, Nelson was made a viscount, and Parker was recalled to England, where he was stripped of his Baltic Sea command.