Bombardment of Copenhagen 1807: Necessary or Needless?

Feb 2019
854
Serbia
In 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars the British were beginning to face the problems of the Continental System and Napoleon's naval build up. 2 nations in Europe, Denmark and Portugal were neutral at the time but had sizeable navies. The British were afraid that Napoleon would take control of these navies and use them for his planned invasion of Britain. To prevent Napoleon from seizing the Danish fleet the British sent a squadron to take Copenhagen and seize the Danish fleet.

The attack relied on the encirclement of the island of Zeeland, since the Danish shore defenses were improved since 1801 a direct attack from the sea would be difficult, so a small force was landed on Zeeland while the navy bombed Copenhagen. The consequences were the destruction of a third of Copenhagen with several hundred civilian deaths as well as the surrender of the Danish fleet.

While the British captured the Danish fleet they opened up a new front in the Baltic, a region vital to British trade of hemp and other shipbuilding goods. The bombardment was seen as immoral by the British and other nations alike and as a simply unnecessary adventure that did more harm than good and damaged Britain's reputation.

Was the attack prudent and necessary to prevent Napoleon's fleet from growing in strength or did it just give Britain one more enemy to worry about and did more harm than good? What do you think.
 

Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
16,210
Welsh Marches
"The bombardment was seen as immoral by the Brtisih and other nations alike." Actually there was divided opinion in Britain, it was attacked by members of the opposition, but Canning defended it very ably in parliament, and the censure motion was supported by hardly more than 60 MPs. The British has reasonable grounds to think that the Danish fleet might be used against them and offered reasonable terms to the Danes, promising the return of the fleet after the war and a protective alliance. I don't know enough about the operational details (and indeed the conventions of war at the time) to know whether the bombardment was necessary to the operation or a normal act of war. (Does it somehow seem worse because it was done from the sea rather than by a land army?)
 
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Feb 2019
854
Serbia
Actually there was divided opinion in Britain, it was attacked by members of the opposition, but Canning defended it very ably in parliament, and the censure motion was supported by hardly more than 60 MPs.
This is true, however I wouldn't call Canning's defence ''able'', at least after the expedition ended. Before the expedition the British cabinet received exaggerated reports that painted Denmark as much more threatening than it really was. Many of the Danish ships were under equipped and not really in a position to present any meaningful threat to the British mainland at the time, nevertheless the fleet was there and Napoleon could seize it. After the fleet was captured the reality of its state was discovered and described in Gambier's dispatches the government was left in a bit of a stun. Many newspapers and MPs, as well as King George himself were disgusted at the aftermath of the expedition.

We may never know if the British would've kept the promise of returning the Danish fleet, however I would imagine that the Danes would not take their word so quickly due the hostilities and the earlier attck on Copenhagen in 1801.

When challenged at the morality and legality of the expedition Cannign apparently reacted:

With a northern confederacy formed against us, we should have had to contend with fears at home as well as with the enmity of all Europe (for we must not disguise the fact from ourselves – we are hated throughout Europe and that hate must be cured by fear).
Source: In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815 page 284 (May vary depending on the edition.)

Note that Canning never actually brought about concrete proof after the expedition that Denmark itself was intending to attack.

Before the expedition Canning convinced the cabinet and parliament to go through with the plan, the opposition was minor, however it came about after the expedition ended and the situation was concluded.
 

Linschoten

Ad Honoris
Aug 2010
16,210
Welsh Marches
This is true, however I wouldn't call Canning's defence ''able'', at least after the expedition ended. Before the expedition the British cabinet received exaggerated reports that painted Denmark as much more threatening than it really was. Many of the Danish ships were under equipped and not really in a position to present any meaningful threat to the British mainland at the time, nevertheless the fleet was there and Napoleon could seize it. After the fleet was captured the reality of its state was discovered and described in Gambier's dispatches the government was left in a bit of a stun. Many newspapers and MPs, as well as King George himself were disgusted at the aftermath of the expedition.

We may never know if the British would've kept the promise of returning the Danish fleet, however I would imagine that the Danes would not take their word so quickly due the hostilities and the earlier attck on Copenhagen in 1801.

When challenged at the morality and legality of the expedition Cannign apparently reacted:



Source: In Nelson's Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars 1803-1815 page 284 (May vary depending on the edition.)

Note that Canning never actually brought about concrete proof after the expedition that Denmark itself was intending to attack.

Before the expedition Canning convinced the cabinet and parliament to go through with the plan, the opposition was minor, however it came about after the expedition ended and the situation was concluded.
I can't pretend to know much about this (just school memories from long ago), so thank you for the information. If a convention was signed, I think the Danes could have had good expectation that their ships would be returned to them. Was there any claim that the Danes were actually intending to attack, rather than that they might be pressured into doing so? I have always felt uncomfortable about this episode, largely on the perhaps unsatisfactory ground that Denamrk doesn't seem a natural enemy to Brtain, but was this anything unusually nasty by the standards of a war that brought suffering and often devastation to just about every part of Europe that armies passed through? Somehow I do think that it is bombardment by a fleet (rather than an attack by an army) that makes it seem so nasty.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,741
Capturing the fleet is one thing – whether necessary or not, it was clearly useful.

The contentious bit is if setting fire to Copenhagen in the process was strictly speaking necessary for the British...