Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Second Battle of Copenhagen 1807

Unlike the Battle of Copenhagen of 1801, which is famously remembered for Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson holding his telescope to his blind eye to miss Admiral Sir Hyde Parker's signal to withdraw, the Second Battle of Copenhagen (1807) saw the British Fleet blockade Copenhagen to capture the Danish-Norwegian Fleet anchored in port.

This post - comes after reading Sharpe's Prey by Bernard Cornwell, it is the fifth novel in the series. Following the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon lost not only the French Navy, but also the Spanish Navy, forcing him to delay his plans to invade the British Isles. The only country with a navy large enough to challenge that of the British, was Denmark-Norway. Denmark-Norway had the largest merchant fleet in Europe, as a result had the second largest navy to protect that fleet.  In July of 1807, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Tsar Alexander I of Russia, where Russia secretly agreed that Napoleon could invade the neutral state of Denmark-Norway and seize the Danish Fleet and use it to invade the British Isles.

British intelligence agencies had learned of the secrete between Napoleon and Alexander, and send political aids to Copenhagen to try and persuade the Crown Prince to loan the Danish Fleet to Britain to keep it safe from Napoleon. The Crown Prince refused as he believed Denmark neutrality would protect it from Napoleon's wrath.

The British believing that the Baltic Sea was of strategic importance for both defence and trade, assembled a force of 25,000 troops and 22 Battle and Bomb Ships set sail for Copenhagen. 8 other Battle and Bomb ships would sail and arrive later.

A small British force landed south of Copenhagen, commanded by General Sir Arthur Wellesley, defeated a larger force of Danish Regulars and Militia at the Battle of Koge, which allowed the British to establish Mortar pits on Danish soil. With the city surrounded, the British sent a request to General Ernest Peymann, who was in command of Copenhagen's defence force to surrender the Danish fleet or suffer the consequences. Peymann and others around him had prepared the city to endure a long British Siege, stockpiling food and supplies. Peymann believed that the British who were not barbarians like Napoleon, would never bombard the city, especially because they knew women and children were still in the city.

When the Danes refused to surrender the fleet, on September 2nd, the British opened up their mortar teams from both the ground and the sea.  The British also used Congreve Rockets during their bombardment, which were specifically used as incendiaries, causing major fires in the city. Some 5,000 bombs and rockets fell on Copenhagen the first night. During the day, the Danes went about their business as if the British siege was not taking place. Following a clean up, and burying their dead, things went on like normal. For the next two nights the British resumed bombing, but using less and less bombs and rockets, which led Peymann to believe the British were running low on munitions, and would have to wait for replenishment from Britain, so he refused to hand over the Danish fleet.

The Crown Prince, and the mass of the Danish-Norwegian Army was in the South of Denmark preparing to defend against a French invasion. Defending against an invasion for the same purpose, to protect the Danish Fleet.  The Crown Prince, fearing a worse wrath of the British fleet, and perhaps a Breach attempt of Copenhagen's walls by General Wellesley, send word to burn the Danish fleet, so that it could not fall into the hands of either Britain or France.

Shelling of Copenhagen Sept 4th 1807

On the night of September 5th, the British released a fire-storm of more than 7,000 bombs and rockets on Copenhagen, targeting a new section of the city. Perhaps it was because of the confusion of that night, the Prince's order to burn the Danish Fleet was never followed, and the Danes sued for peace. Close to 200 civilians were killed and close to 800 were injured. Much of the city was burned, and would take a generation to rebuild.

The British captured 24 Battle Ships, 17 Frigates, 11 Brigs, and 3 Gunships. Because they were not handed over, but captured during a 'war' the British treasury paid out small fortunes in Prize money for capturing enemy vessels. In doing so, it ensured that Napoleon could not invade Britain, but forced Denmark to ally itself with France.

The British left Copenhagen in October 21st 1807, but would become more involved in the war against Napoleon, which would last until 1814.

Perhaps it is because the British Navy bombarded a largely civilian population, or perhaps it is because they basically stole a neutral countries fleet to protect itself, the Second Battle of Copenhagen is largely forgotten - well today it is remembered.

For a great Historical Fiction perspective on it - read Sharpe's Prey.

Remembering History - The Second Battle of Copenhagen 1807