Wednesday, 25 November 2020

The Battle of Copenhagen 1801 - Ole Feldbaek


I visited Copenhagen a couple of times as a child, one of the benefits of having a father working for a Danish company that allowed me to get an early acquaintance with the country and an affection for it with very happy memories of childhood visits to Legoland and a memory of a beautiful capital city  close to the sea and with its fascinating waterfront and harbour area, with as I remember lots of tall ships near the quay.

With my reading focussed on my current Napoleonic ship project, I have been keen to look at subjects across the broad period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the Battle of Copenhagen was very much on the curriculum of schoolboy history studies in my era and a campaign I was much interested in looking at again.

The life and times of Horatio Nelson were very much required learning and the legends associated with his meteoric rise to fame with one of those immortal legends recounting his 'turning a blind eye' when choosing to ignore the signal from his superior to break off the action at Copenhagen by putting the telescope to his blind eye and announcing to his quarterdeck that he could see no signal, thus maintaining his own 'Engage More Closely' and giving his authority to his captains to carry on and win the battle.   

This legendary act of insubordination has created the term 'to turn a blind eye' into 'British-English' parlance, and believe me that seems a strange phrase to use for a native speaker of the Queen's English, to describe a wilful act of ignoring the rules when circumstances would seem to dictate that option as the most appropriate course of action.

The two books on my reading list, considering the struggle with Denmark in the early 19th century, were this one and Gareth Glover's more recent offering that considers the 1801 and the 1807 battles, with the appearance of a certain Sir Arthur Wellesley involved in operations ashore that demolished the Danish fleet, pushing Denmark further into the camp of Napoleon's allies and seeing the asymmetrical gunboat war that followed, and given I have now read Professor Feldbaek's account, Gareth Glover's is my next on the list.

I reviewed a presentation given by Gareth Glover at Crusade 2018 about his then, yet to be published tome, and so am looking forward to finally getting around to reading it.

Of course I am only too aware that my knowledge of the Battle of Copenhagen and the history associated with it is very much from a predominantly British perspective and I am always keen to get a view from the other side of the hill to better understand why things happened the way they did.

Thus this account by a Danish historian accessing not only Danish sources and archives, but also British, French, Russian, Swedish and Prussian ones as well, made this my first choice giving as it does a fascinating insight into the that perspective, their plans and preparations and hope for support from the allies that encouraged them into the front row of the Revolutionary war between Britain and France, published as it was originally in Danish but appearing in English specifically for the bicentennial commemoration of the battle in 2001.

The circumstances that caused Britain to send a fleet of eighteen ships of the line including two first rates, five frigates, seven bomb ships and two fireships to Copenhagen to enforce their diplomatic exchanges can be summarised as all part of what happens when a smaller nation occupying access to strategically vital supplies of war materials finds itself caught up in the affairs of much larger nations and alliances in an age when gunboat diplomacy and the leverage of the big battalions underpinned European politics.

Danish convoys were under strict orders not to stop and allow searches, a policy adopted under Crown Prince Frederick's assumption of Danish foreign policy in 1797, leading to several clashes on the routes into the Mediterranean with British cruizers. This came to a head on 25th July 1800 when Danish Commander Krabbe of the 40-gun, 18-pounder frigate Freya clashed with British frigates in the Channel when he refused to stop his convoy and opened fire when a boarding boat was lowered, leading to Krabbe striking after a half hour exchange of fire with British frigates, Nemesis 38-guns, Terpsichore 32-guns and Arrow 30-guns.

The vital access to strategic war materials in the case of Copenhagen was its controlling position in The Sound separating Denmark from Sweden and access to the Baltic Sea, which from a Royal Navy and British perspective meant access to its principle source of supplies of fir trees for masts and yards together with pitch and tar that were vital raw materials for keeping a fleet the size of Britain's at sea and in fighting shape, something a premier naval power could not allow any interruption to in the existential war it was fighting against Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France.

British determination to maintain access to its key trading ports and the materials it needed whilst restricting access to those of its enemies often caused it to put other maritime nations needs behind that of its own and thus the merchant traders from the Baltic states including Denmark, Sweden, Russia and to a lesser extent Prussia found their merchantmen challenged on the high seas when suspected of running materials through to Britain's enemies, often with the prospect of making huge dividends given the risks they ran of having ship and cargo confiscated by British naval authorities. 

This was not a new situation and had caused much tension and struggle during the latter stages of the American War of Independence when British interests looked threatened by the prospect of a Baltic League of Armed Neutrality, led by Russia under Catherine the Great, seemingly keen to resist British naval policing of its merchants, suspected by the British of aiding French, Spanish and American forces with their activities, whilst also threatening British access to its key naval materials of war.

The Danes during this former conflict and the early stages of the next developed their diplomatic stance of 'Defensive Neutrality' which saw them adopt a policy of convoys escorted by Danish warships demonstrating their resolve to sail the seas and to challenge any British attempts to search at gunpoint for fear of driving the Danes into an alliance with France and Spain.

Andreas Peter Bernstorff, 1739 -1797, the Danish Foreign Minister
and principle architect of Denmark's 'Defensive Neutrality' policy.

The Danish policy worked well in the American War as the Royal Navy was already too overstretched to go looking for yet another enemy naval force, but with the outbreak of war with France in 1793, it seemed unlikely that Britain would allow similar arrangements to continue particularly as the tempo of the war gathered pace, forcing neutrals to emphasise their position to stay neutral and seeing Denmark sign a Convention of Neutrality with Sweden in 1794 to restate both countries common will to remain that way.

However with the Danish government issuing ships papers which it knew would be used to camouflage foreign ships and cargoes and to appoint unknown skippers as lieutenants to the Danish navy and allowing them to continue their passage under a Danish flag of convenience, only ramped up the tension with Britain as the war at sea reached a crucial turning point in 1797, a year that saw the British victories over the Spanish and the Dutch at Cape St Vincent and Camperdown but also the death of the Danish foreign minister, Andreas Peter Bernstorff, who had created and managed the Danish defensive neutrality policy up to that point, well aware of the unsustainability of it and the growing threat of either France of Britain imposing its will militarily.

King Frederick VI - Christoph Wilhelm Wohlien
Seen here in 1809 as King of Denmark. It was as Crown Prince and Regent that Frederick
took command of political events and foreign policy with the death of A.P. Bernstorff in 1797

As so often in these critical moments of political instability, with the steady hand of a political master gone, on to the stage steps one of lesser ability though sadly unaware of his limitations, which I think neatly sums up the power shift that occurred in Denmark as leadership settled on Crown Prince Frederick effectively Regent up until the death of mad King Christian VII in Denmark's absolute monarchy.

The description given of the role Frederick played in Danish politics from this point forward reminded me very much of Otto von Bismarck's careful management of Prussian diplomatic ties with Russia during the late 19th century, ensuring the rise of a united Germany under a Prussian king whilst dealing with opponents in the west; only to see his diplomacy replaced by that of Kaiser Wilhelm who managed to take that Germany to a two front war by breaking ties with Russia and the Anglo-French at the same time, completely undermining the careful approach of previous years.

The Danish change of leadership marked just as a dramatic change of direction in policy from one of a distinctly defensive neutrality approach to that of offensive neutrality and the return to convoys where Danish officers were, with force if necessary, to refuse any demand for stopping and search.

This stance was all very well while Britain was on the defence at sea and ejected from the Mediterranean, one of the primary trading areas for Danish merchants, and with French privateers prowling the main trade routes, but when that situation changed in August 1798 with Nelson's victory at the Nile, the time was fast approaching when Britain would seek to assert her new dominance at sea and seek to curb trade with her enemies with a strict stop and search policy; and a few months after the victory at Aboukir that's exactly what happened as a Swedish convoy was stopped on its way along the English Channel.

Other clashes with Danish warships escorting merchantmen followed in 1798 and 1799, culminating in an exchange of fire between the Danish frigate Freya and three British frigates in the Channel on the 25th July 1800 after the former had refused to stop and allow a search after being hailed.

Tsar Paul I of Russia

With a situation fast moving towards open conflict between Britain and Denmark, the situation became more inflamed with the Danish Envoy to the Court of St Petersburg confirming Denmark's intent to pursue it Offensive Neutrality policy by fitting out six ships of the line, two 80's two 74's and two 64's and inviting the Russian Tsar Paul I to assume the lead of the League of Armed Neutrality bringing together the combined forces of Russia, fifteen ships of the line and five frigates, Sweden, seven ships of the line and three frigates and Denmark, adding further ships to bring its contribution to eight ships of the line and two frigates, plus Prussia, cajoled by Russia to join and thus assuring support to one another should any of them become involved in conflict on land or sea. 

Of course the Russian Tsar, no friend of Britain, was very happy with the idea of having a forward line of defence offered to him with the navies of Sweden and Denmark as possible buffers to any attempted projection of power into the Baltic by the Royal Navy, and for Denmark, the Russians offered a guarantor of their independence from interference by both Britain and France together with an alliance with Sweden that would hopefully deter any moves by them on the Danish territory of Norway. However to the British government, this escalation of their dispute with Denmark now seemed to threaten their access to vital strategic supplies and without a stepping back from this stance seemed likely to provoke a pre-emptive strike by Britain before the threat of a Baltic Combined Fleet became a reality.

Thus Ole Feldbaek, neatly sets the scene in his book, charting this progressive ratcheting up of political tension with desperate diplomatic feelers being put out to, in some cases, avert a confrontation, and in others to assure support in the situation that conflict was inevitable; this together with a glorious depiction of the characters, great and minor, involved in the unfolding tragedy of the British attack on the defences of Copenhagen on 2nd April 1801. 

The Battle of Copenhagen, 2nd April 1801 - Nicholas Pocock
British bomb ships lob shells towards the Danish defences as Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson's squadron exchanges broadsides with a mix of Danish blockships and gun platforms, covering the approaches to Copenhagen's inner docks.

I mentioned at the start that I was keen to read this book primarily to get a better understanding of the Danish perspective to the battle and to the principle Danish characters involved in it and to my mind the author has done a grand job stitching together the historical account with portraits of those individuals.

I really came away with an impression of the near desperation in Danish circles to make a good show of defending their city from the very serious threat posed by the British fleet whilst constantly looking for and hoping to receive support from their new Baltic allies, until the realisation hits, as the author points out, that the Baltic League of Armed Neutrality was neither a league, armed or neutral in the face of a direct assault by a major naval power such as Britain; with all the participants former enemies or competitors to at least one or more of their new allies and with others not at all neutral in the struggle between France and Britain and none of them capable of contesting the naval might of Britain should it come to a full on naval war in the Baltic.

However the patriotic zeal displayed by the likes of Lieutenant Michael Bille on the Danish block ship Provestenen and the young seventeen year old Sub-Lieutenant Peter Willemoes promoted to command Fleet Battery No.1 seemed to show all that was wrong with a system of government when those who fought to defend their homes and families had no say in the running of their state that had caused them to find themselves in such a hopeless situation, forced to give of their best for their men and country.  

The description of the Danish defence and British naval preparations before and during the action was fast paced and an engrossing read as the Danish blockships and gun platforms made things very difficult for the veteran British naval crews operating in shallows that were unmarked and in need of careful sounding whilst under fire or the threat of it and sailing carefully to anchor in the right spot, as ordered, to give battle.

In the end, as the Danes expected, the quality and expertise of the British seamen overcame many of the problems they faced and Nelson's leadership shines through with his careful calculation on the number of ships he needed to take into the narrow King's Deep Channel to overcome the Danish defences in detail, and even changing his plan of attack during the approach to combat when it became obvious that some of his ships would not be in action due to their grounding on the shallows of the Middle Ground Shoal.

As well as running the battle, Nelson stands out equally for his management of his timid incompetent commander, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, sixty-one years old and guilty of delaying the whole operation despite the need for speed to be able to deal with the Danes and Swedes if necessary before the Russian Baltic fleet would be free of the winter ice, by dallying in the Wrestler's Arms in Yarmouth with his new eighteen year old wife, the new Lady Parker, who was planning to hold a ball, only postponed after the First Sea Lord, Lord St Vincent got news of the delay and fired off a broadside message by overnight courier ordering the idle commander to weigh anchor at dawn the next day.

Vice Admiral of the Blue, Sir Hyde Parker, a political appointment
seen as a 'safe pair of hands', was probably past his best by the time of the 
mission to Copenhagen and fortunately Nelson more than made up for his
inadequacies in command and leadership, and at least Hyde Parker had the sense 
to back his subordinate.

Nelson not only had the foresight to recommend the approach to Copenhagen, the plan of attack, how long he expected to take to overcome the defences, but also when lost ships due to grounding and stiffer resistance than anticipated put the schedule behind, had the wit to ignore his commander to break off just as the battle was turning in his favour, but also to send a message to the Danes pointing out the futility of further resistance and the extra loss of life their men would suffer as he set fire to captured ships and platforms if they refused to come to terms.

With no hope of relief forthcoming from other members of the league and with their defences defeated opening up a potential bombardment of the naval yard and inner city area, the Danes conceded to Nelson's demands for them to cease further resistance, thus allowing the British to neutralise the naval force that threatened their access to the Baltic.

Nelson's Squadron sails into the King's Deep at Copenhagen - Nicholas Pocock et al (National Maritime Museum)
British losses amounted to 254 dead and 689 wounded compared to the Danes who suffered 367 killed and 635 wounded of whom another 100 would die in the days after the battle in addition to the 1,799 men taken prisoner aboard the captured platforms and block ships, 12 out of the 18 having surrendered and taken as prizes.

Several days of negotiations followed with an armistice that effectively forced the Danes to leave the league, which was only made more compelling with the assassination of Tsar Paul in a court coup on the 23rd March 1801 replaced by his twenty-three year old son Alexander who took a much more positive stance towards Britain and a much more anti-French one, negating any hopes of the Baltic League reasserting itself and changing the political realities in the region.

This book really adds to the British sources on the campaign with the emphasis it brings to the Danish perspective and their experiences of fighting the Royal Navy; equally the detail around the negotiations and diplomatic manoeuvres carried out before, around and after the fighting add to the picture of why this conflict occurred the way it did, with neither side willing or able to compromise on their demands forcing the decision to be taken militarily. 

The Battle of Copenhagen consists of 235 pages alongside the author's and translator's preface together with five maps, a list of references, bibliography and an index and has the following chapters;

1. One grey morning in March
2. Denmark and high politics
    The blessings of neutrality
    Offensive policy
    The Freya affair
3. Dress rehearsal for war
    The League of Armed Neutrality
    Britain strikes
    The iron grip of major politics
4. Britain attacks
    Strategy and tactics
    Operation Copenhagen
    Destination Denmark
    The Sound or the Belt?
    The cannon of Kronborg
5. Copenhagen's fortifications
    The calm before the storm
    The Defence Plan
    Race against time
    The plan and the despair
    The defence line forms up
6. Dramatis personae
    The manning of the defences
    In the Copenhagen Roads
    Denmark's allies
7. The Battle of Copenhagen - Prologue
    The last three days
    Nelson's plan
    Nelson's improvisation
8. The Battle of Copenhagen - Act I
    The first shots
    The collapse of the middle sector
9. The Battle of Copenhagen - Act II
    The northern flank
    The southern flank
The Battle of Copenhagen - Act III
    Nelson's emmisary
    The capitulation
    Winners and losers
The Battle of Copenhagen - Epilogue
    The threat of bombardment
    The diplomat and the admirals
    The armistice
    The lost war
    Curtain down 

In addition there are twenty-one black and white pictures of portraits and items associated with the battle.

My copy is a paperback edition from Pen and Sword with a recommended retail price of £14.99 but at the time of writing I see used hardback copies available for under £5 and paperback editions at just over £8 making this a very affordable and informative addition to any age of sail naval book collection.

Next up: I'm 'All at Sea' with conversions added to the collection with a look at 64's, 80's, gunboats and small brigs, plus Steve and I have been having fun in the desert playing Columbia's 'Rommel in the Desert' on Vassal.