The Baltic bastion boxed in by Britain’s bullying and Bonaparte’s belligerence

The redcoats’ firebombing of Copenhagen 204 years ago was the climax of a dirty war – it left 2,000 citizens dead and destroyed 30 percent of the buildings

The terms ‘pre-emptive attack’ and ‘state sponsored terrorism’ have become synonymous with the ongoing wars in the Middle East.

America justified its invasion of Iraq in 2003 on the basis of eliminating any threats before they became active, and nations such as Iran have been consistently accused of using terror to support their political viewpoints.

While debate rages over the effectiveness and involvement of nations attempting to do both, it is easy to forget that these policies have been used for centuries, with Copenhagen becoming one of the first modern European cities to suffer the consequences.

The only bad decision is indecision
The year was 1807 and the Napoleonic Wars raged on the land and seas of most of western Europe. Threatened by French land forces moving from the south and the British Navy encircling their territory, Denmark played an unsuccessful hand at remaining neutral, hedging their bets, perhaps, on what was far from a certain outcome.

By refusing to adhere to either side’s demands, Denmark had effectively become untrustworthy to both, a situation compounded by Denmark’s strategic geographical location.

Following Prussia’s defeat in 1806, British commanders became increasingly wary of a French attack on Denmark. By controlling the country and their navy, the French could prevent the British from vital trade in the Baltic and from assisting their allies Sweden and Russia.

There was also concern that the Danish Navy could be used to assist a French attack on Norway and then Scotland and Ireland.

Pre-emptive aggression
Following rumours of an alliance between Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia, the British House of Commons debated the merits of a pre-emptive strike on Denmark.

It was agreed that to allow Denmark to fall into French hands was unacceptable and preparations for an attack soon began. 

It is worth noting that Britain’s decision to move was based on less than solid intelligence. New evidence has shown that Napoleon had deliberately spread false rumours, which were designed to fall into British hands, alluding to an attack on Ireland.

Although Britain’s move against Denmark was as much about preventing the country’s navy from falling into French hands, there is little doubt that suggestions Denmark might assist in an invasion of Ireland played its part in Britain’s decision to act.

Between rock and anvil
In a matter of weeks, a sizeable British fleet and a detachment of marines were drawn up ready for the attack on Denmark. 

Learning of Britain’s intentions, Napoleon ordered the Danes to prepare to attack Britain, threatening an invasion of Holstein should they refuse.

Caught between the rock and the anvil, Denmark attempted to negotiate, refusing the key British demand to surrender their fleet.

As the British fleet approached Copenhagen, British marines engaged a poorly equipped force of Danish militia in Køge, easily overwhelming them.

Completing their encirclement of the city, the marines were ordered to prevent any resupply. After it became clear the Danes were not prepared to meet British demands, the commander of the British fleet, Admiral Gambier, ordered the fleet to open fire.

Fire-starters
From 2-5 September 1807, the British Navy relentlessly bombarded the city of Copenhagen. If the leadership refused to heed their calls, then the citizenry would suffer until they changed their minds.

As well as traditional naval artillery, the British guns included mortar rounds and Congreve rockets – the latter a new weapon specifically designed to start fires.

More than 2,000 citizens were killed in the bombings and over 30 percent of Copenhagen was destroyed. The Church of our Lady (Vor Frue Kirke) was nearly burned to the ground and other buildings, including the University of Copenhagen, were severely damaged.

The Round Tower (Rundetårn) was threatened by fire and only saved by the timely intervention of Danish soldiers housed in the nearby Holmen Naval Base.

Britain below the belt and under the carpet
When it became clear that the entire city was under threat, the Danish leadership sued for peace, allowing the British to capture almost the entire Danish Navy.

While the British military was thrilled with the results, the political opposition within Britain was up in arms, arguing that the national character of Britain had been irrevocably stained.

While the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars is well known, the actions of the British in terrorising Copenhagen in 1807 have largely been swept under the carpet.

There’s little doubt that the pre-emptive strike on Denmark’s Navy achieved its goal of preventing its use by the French; however, as with any war, the question of whether the ends justify the means remains.




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