Thursday, 16 September 2021

The Two Battles of Copenhagen 1801 and 1807, Britain & Denmark in the Napoleonic Wars - Gareth Glover


Well it's only taken me four years to get there, but I've finally got around to reading Gareth Glover's (GG) 'The Two Battles of Copenhagen', this after attending his presentation back in 2018 at Crusade in Penarth announcing the publication of his then new book by Pen & Sword (see link below for my 2018 show report).

JJ's Wargames - Crusade 2018

Before reading Gareth's book I wanted to first read, Danish historian, Ole Feldbaek's 2001 account of the First Battle of Copenhagen that he published in time for the bicentenary of the battle best remembered perhaps as one of Lord Nelson's famous victories, but very much giving a Danish perspective and as GG makes reference to this work in his own account I was glad that I read them both in that order, thus able to recall the various comments in the former book that are referred to and I would definitely recommend interested students of this battle to do the same.

If you have not seen my review of 'The Battle of Copenhagen 1801' by Ole Feldbaek from last year, then follow the link below.

JJ's Wargames - The Battle of Copenhagen 1801

So with my continuity announcement complete, on with my review which to my mind picks up very much from my previous read, but very much coming from a British perspective and from a former Royal Naval officer who has sailing experience in the Baltic, bringing a practical knowledge that relates to the accounts from the time and GG's book is written very much in the tone that I think the two battles were and are seen from a British perspective, as ones that it would have been much better had they not occurred, with absolutely no sense of satisfaction at the death and destruction wrought, or in the neutralising of the Danish fleet.

The first chapter entitled 'Walking the Tightrope of Neutrality' neatly lays out the diplomatic and military situation that influenced Danish strategy at the end of the Great Northern War in 1721, which saw Denmark and Sweden with their power and influence irrevocably reduced to second rate behind that of Prussia and Russia, the two dominant powers in the Baltic region; and with Denmark having to balance her stance between defending her possessions such as Norway against the acquisitive gaze of her old enemy Sweden and the tension on her southern European mainland borders with her possession of the north German state of Holstein.

With Prussia not being a naval power of any consequence, control and influence in the Baltic was a constant source of intrigue and squabbling between the three other Baltic states, really only put to one side when threatened by outside influence, as Denmark, Sweden and Russia tried to work for the common good whilst desperately trying to overlook the severe lack of trust between all of them which inevitably caused a breakdown in the attempts at alliances, termed 'leagues' and a return to rancour and occasionally war.

A Danish merchantman passes a Spanish Pink - Antione Roux
Danish overseas possessions in the 18th century supported a growing and successful merchant fleet trading in high value goods, never viewed as a serious mercantile threat by Britain 

Added to this local diplomatic minefield, Denmark also had her overseas interests to manage with islands in the West Indies (St Thomas, St John and St Croix) purchased from France in 1733, trading posts on the Gold Coast of West Africa (Fort Frederiksburg, purchased from Sweden, Ossu Castle and Frederiksburg) together with trading posts set up in the Indian subcontinent (Trankebar in Tamil Nadu and Frederiksnagore, north of Calcutta) that supported a growing merchant fleet trading in particularly high value goods, much to the irritation of British merchants, but allowing Danish merchant houses and the government to enrich themselves through the eighteenth century, gaining a grudging forbearance from British competition.

Denmark's strategically important position astride the entrance to the Baltic via The Sound made the precarious tightrope of neutrality even more so if Britain should perceive a threat to her naval dominance.

As far as the Baltic was concerned, Denmark's position, at its entrance from the North Sea, gave her a strategically important position to exert control on traffic, in and out, and although Britain had traditionally shown little interest in the area as long as its merchant fleet retained free access, this became a more serious issue as the indigenous supply of wood in Britain, for ship building, diminished as demand started to soar and a greater reliance was placed on overseas imports, including other naval store items such as hemp and pitch, the best sources of which came from Norway and Sweden for wood and Russia and Poland for the great masts together with hemp and pitch.

Tensions grew further with the Seven Years War that saw Sweden and Denmark favour Britain's arch-enemy France, counterbalanced with a fifty-year trade agreement between Britain and Russia from 1734, that is until Russia and Britain found themselves on opposing sides, but with the mutually beneficial trade of wool for ships stores seemingly preventing a cold war turning hot.

However the tension with Sweden and Denmark saw the first flowering of so called 'armed neutrality' as the two nations came together out of fear for their merchantmen being stopped on the high seas by British men of war by sending a large combined squadron into the North Sea to protect their merchants and in turn send a very strong message to Britain.

Andreas Peter Bernstorff, Danish Foreign Minister 1784-1797

The growing issue that would fester and become a casas belli was that the British were becoming increasingly aware of 'neutral' ships being used by their enemies to circumvent their naval blockades designed to starve their enemies into submission and destroy their commerce. 

The Danes however saw nothing wrong with this subterfuge, which became an increasingly lucrative trading opportunity and armed response in defence of such trade only served to ramp up tensions still further, with the implied threat to Denmark's legitimate trade network by a massive British naval supremacy that could clearly overwhelm any of the individual navies in the Baltic.

Thus in GG's first chapter the road to war becomes clearly mapped out with both sides looking to find ways of either 'turning a blind eye' in the case of Britain, already with her hands full fighting other major European naval foes and desperate to maintain her supply route to stores for her navy and the Danes keen to take advantage of an opportunity and assert their sovereignty whilst avoiding going so far that Britain would feel compelled to take action against them.

The crisis would reach 'fever-pitch' in 1797 with the death of Danish statesman and foreign minister Peter Bernstorff, who had consistently managed to restrain the 'hawks' in the Danish government led by the Crown-Prince and Regent, Frederick, later King Frederick VI and consistently refused the use of escorted Danish convoys which he rightly believed would provoke the British, but with the appointment of his nephew, Christian Bernstorff on his death that year, the Crown Prince's demands were met and escorted convoys were commenced, putting them on, as one Danish historian has described, 'a collision course with the world's most powerful navy'.

Danish frigate Freya 40-guns under Captain Peter Krabbe and a convoy of six merchantmen intercepted off Ostend by a British squadron of five warships led by the 28-gun frigate Nemesis under Captain Thomas Baker

On the 25th July 1800 the Danish frigate Freya under Captain Peter Krabbe and a convoy of six merchants were intercepted off Ostend by a squadron of five British warships led by the frigate Nemesis under Captain Thomas Baker, with the former under strict instructions not to stop if instructed to for inspection by the British.

Firing commenced and after a half hour exchange of broadsides the Freya struck having lost two dead and five wounded with the British having four killed and several wounded and the convoy was taken to the Downs anchorage off Deal.

The Freya and her convoy were later restored to the Danes, but in response the Emperor of Russia, Czar Paul used the incident as a pretext for renewing the 'league of armed neutrality' between the Baltic states of Denmark, Sweden and Russia thus setting off the series of events that would see a British fleet off Copenhagen the following year under orders to neutralise the Danish fleet and assert British freedom of navigation into the Baltic.

The book then recounts the lead up to and the actual Battle of Copenhagen with GG looking at the difficulties of rapidly putting together an expedition to Copenhagen that ideally would have had a large army component to allow Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker the flexibility of a joint naval and army operation to complete his mission; indeed First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord St Vincent advocated landing 10,000 troops to attack and destroy the Danish naval base with the view that a bombardment from a few bomb vessels was unlikely to break Danish resolve, but it seems the government could not muster or support such an operation, an error that would become all too obvious as events would prove.

The complexities of the naval aspects of the operation are well considered as GG explains the issues that had to be overcome in terms of navigation in shallow waters, with the draft of ships over 74-guns making navigation problematic in seas that were also very often becalmed or with light winds, that left large sailing warships vulnerable to attack from swarms of Danish gunboats; to the need for the Admiralty to find 'Baltic specialists', having not operated with a British fleet in the area for over seventy-five years, which prompted the appointment of Parker because of his recent experience planning an expedition there in 1790 during the last crisis to occur.

The choice of the cautious, solid and dependable Hyde-Parker also prompted the appointment of his subordinate and a 'fighting admiral', Vice-Admiral Nelson fresh from his successes at Cape St Vincent in 1797 and the Nile in 1798.

The Battle of Copenhagen seen from the Danish city, April 2nd 1801 - C.A. Lorentzen
The battle can be seen raging in the King's Deep before the entrance to Copenhagen 

Finally the operation was working to a very strict timetable to allow the British to force the Danes into compliance with British terms, before the Russians or Swedes could come to their aid, with the fleet assembling off Yarmouth in late February 1801, and the plan to take advantage of ice free seas in mid-March whilst leaving the Russian fleet still frozen in its more easterly anchorages.

In the consideration of the planning of the attack GG exposes the significant weak point in it, in that the lack of a significant landing force exposed the weakness of the navy, unable to accurately or significantly damage the naval base, or strong enough to sail into its harbour and engage, close up, its shore batteries and fortifications, with the implications of limited options to manoeuvre and with the only real hope of neutralising the Danish fleet by its coming out to meet the Royal Navy in an open water sea battle, something very unlikely.

It is here that GG disagrees with Ole Feldbaek's assertion that the orders were to destroy or remove the entire Danish fleet and its stores, with the 1801 expedition nothing like on the scale of the later 1807 one, which did indeed have those orders and with the 1801 expedition being much more limited in scope to removing the Danes from the League of Armed Neutrality either by negotiation or by force, fair means or foul, thus allowing the British fleet safe passage into the Baltic without having a sizable enemy fleet in its rear, and I must say I find his assessment very compelling.

Nelson's letter to the Crown Prince that opened the negotiated end to the First Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.
‘…Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark when no longer resisting but if the firing is continued on the part of Denmark Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire all the floating batteries he has taken, without having the honour of sparing the brave Danes who have defended them ….’

From this point the book, having set up the reasons for war and the plan of action, takes the plot forward through the actions leading up to the first battle of Copenhagen, and its eventual climax having seen the British fleet demolish the line of floating batteries and old dismasted Danish ships moored among them, not without a significant casualty bill themselves, but clearly masters of the King's Deep; and throughout GG's narrative, the driving force force and determination to overcome of Nelson's will, shines through in distinct contrast to the frustratingly uncertain and inconstant Hyde-Parker and the Danes looking to delay and put off every demand made on them, in sheer desperation that a Swedish or Russian relief force would appear over the horizon.

As GG goes on to explain, the victory achieved by Nelson in 1801, was incomplete and indecisive and the British fleet only just got away with it in that the Danes lost their reserve fleet but were left with an operational fleet and the final negotiations were still in play as the news arrived of the death of Czar Paul that completely removed the pressure on the Danes to continue the struggle or for the British to assert their naval dominance further into the Baltic, heralding a period of five years of relative harmony.

The final result was effectively a 'technical knockout' for the British, with as Ole Feldbaek stating in his assessment that the League of Armed Neutrality had failed because it was neither armed or neutral, and as GG states clearly, explains why the British government felt compelled to send a much larger force only six years later.

The whole situation in Europe was to change dramatically with the rise of the Emperor of the French, Napoleon Bonaparte, crowned by the Pope in 1804 and his speedy demolishing of all the crowned heads of Europe who opposed his expansion of the French borders, eventually seeing him astride the River Tilsit negotiating his ongoing relationship with the Russian Empire and leaving Britain standing alone in opposition.

Emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander agree the Treaty of Tilsit on the 7th July 1807

Yet again Denmark found herself in a very difficult corner caught between the struggle of Britain and Napoleonic France and with her neutrality hard pressed as she sought desperately not to give the former any reason for a return visit but as a consequence defying Napoleon's demand that she close the port of Husum in Schleswig to British packet boats connecting Britain to the European postal system that allowed the transit of illicit trade deals, communication with British agents and reports on French operations.

On this occasion however Denmark and the King found themselves more sympathetic to Britain, having a very clear dislike of French dominance and with the correspondence of the Danish Prime Minister, Christian Bernstorff to his envoys abroad betraying his dislike and rejoicing in news of any French reverses, and with the Crown-Prince, in a letter to his brother-in-law, Duke Frederick Christian of Augustenburg, declaring that if Napoleon insisted on Denmark closing her ports to Britain, that she would regard Britain as her natural ally.

But it was over the detention of neutral shipping that tensions between Denmark and Britain would again rise dramatically with 35 Danish merchants taken in 1805, with all but three later released by the Prize Court, 150 in 1806 and a further 31 in the early months of 1807 and very few released, but with the Danes protesting vehemently, their continued practice of selling false papers and concealing prohibited cargoes severely undermined their case with the British authorities.

Interestingly it was an innocuous report to George Canning the British Prime Minister in early June 1807 from Lord Pembroke, the new British Ambassador to Vienna that would start the crisis that would cause the British to finally react, when he wrote about his journey to his new posting and described his landing at Memel to proceed to Copenhagen before the land journey to Austria, and having taken a tour of the Danish shipyards and defences, reporting that they were fully prepared and as many as twenty Danish warships were 'fit to go to sea with all their stores &c named and numbered'

Later evidence would suggest that what he actually saw was Danish ships 'mothballed' with all their stores ready to be embarked in quayside warehouses and in fact Danish records show that in the first six months of 1807 only three ships of the line, two frigates and three brigs had been fitted for sea service; talk about history repeating itself with my mind immediately recalling the Iraq conflict in 2003 and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's 'Dodgy Dossier', justifying another, perhaps less justifiable, invasion by British forces.

Copenhagen under British bombardment on the night of the 4-5th September 1807 seen from Christianhaven

However the ball was rolling and in an existential war such as Britain faced against Napoleon in 1807 , the supposed threat that the French Emperor could potentially lay his hands on twenty Danish warships to enable him to once again threaten Britain with invasion was enough to put plans into operation to neutralise that threat once and for all, with yet more historical similarities springing to mind as another British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was understandably forced to order a similar neutralising of the French fleet in 1940 at Mirs-el-Kebir, with the threat of a German acquisition.

As attributed to Mark Twain, 'History never repeats itself, but it sure does rhyme!'

With the set up for war outlined GG then takes the story forward with the second Battle of Copenhagen, which more than made up for the deficit of the former operation and conducted with breath-taking speed as the British cabinet discussed options for sending the fleet (later confirmed as 21 ships of the line and 71 smaller naval vessels) on the 10th of July 1807 to its arrival off Copenhagen by the 15th August and with a force of 18,000 troops landed on the 16th August at the small fishing village of Vedbaek, some twelve miles north of Copenhagen.

The demand issued to the Danish authorities explained that France's increased influence on mainland Europe now meant that Denmark's ancient policy of neutrality could no longer be maintained. Therefore the British were determined to remove the Danish fleet to a place of safety, well beyond the reach of Napoleon, and promised the fleet would be returned in the same condition as soon as a general peace was agreed.

William Fadden's Map of the British Positions during the Siege of Copenhagen 23rd August - 6th September 1807

Speed was of the essence in such an operation and with equally breath-taking secrecy, leaving the Danes totally unprepared or unaware of the operation, practically until British troops started landing, with the race on to force a capitulation to British demands before a French force could be mustered under the guise of providing relief of the Danish capital, and with the usual practice of Danish delay and obfuscation the use of indiscriminate bombardment of civilian property to force a capitulation by the Danish military.

A section of a contemporary map showing Kioge south of Copenhegen

The Danes quite naturally fought back as best they could with attacks on British siege batteries by Danish gunboats working close into shore and a force of 7,000 militia (North and South Landvaern and 150 cavalry) assembled at Kioge on the 23rd August, roundly defeated by Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley and the British reserve, with some 1500 militiamen made prisoner.

However despite their best efforts the Danes was forced to capitulate and the necessary articles were signed at 2am on the 7th September, with the British pledging to evacuate Copenhagen and the whole of Zealand within six weeks.

GG states the damage to Copenhagen was immense, with official Danish reports listing some 305 dwellings and one church having been completely destroyed and thousands more receiving some damage, with Rifleman Green quoted after, being shocked by the destruction;

'I was astonished to see the havoc our bombardment had made. Whole streets lay in ruins; churches burnt down; and we had work to get through the streets to the dock-yard, and to go on board, our road being blocked up with bricks, stones, tiles and timber.'

The British troops were indeed appalled by the destruction caused, reflected in their horror of the destruction as described by Captain Leach;

'Callous and insensible must he have been who could have walked through the streets and witnessed the horrors occasioned by the bombardment, and the misery inflicted on thousands of the unoffending inhabitants, without bitterly regretting that our government should have considered it necessary to adopt such rigorous methods.'

The Danish fleet was removed and partially built vessels destroyed in situ, with any salvageable timbers also taken causing an economic collapse in the country leaving Britain with a strengthened hand in the Baltic, with the anger of Russia short lived and reversed with Napoleon's march on Moscow five years later. 

The Gunboat War of 1808-09 saw Denmark wage war on British and Allied convoys in and out of the Baltic using a large and powerful fleet of inshore gunboats supported by sea-going privateers.

The Danes reacted by allying themselves to the fortunes of the French Emperor and clung on to his favour even when events suggested that the time was right for changing sides and joining Sweden and the other European allies in resisting and later destroying the Imperial Napoleonic project; engaging in the Gunboat War of 1808 to 1809 as she replaced her ocean going fleet with a large one of inshore gunboats, backed up by sea-going privateers designed to attack and harass British and allied merchant convoys into and out of the Baltic, and a serious threat to even the largest and most powerful ships in the right conditions.

The Danish threat forced the British to maintain a large fleet in the Baltic during the summer months resorting to convoy tactics that were not completely fool-proof but keeping losses at an insignificant level with as an example 2,210 merchantmen escorted in and out of the Baltic between June and November 1809 without a single loss to enemy action.

Denmark would be the very last of Napoleon's allies to abandon his cause in 1814, signing a peace treaty with Sweden and Britain on the 14th January at Kiel.

In his overview, GG describes the tragedy that;

'. . . pitted two like-minded, independent thinking, feisty and determined peoples, who are both at their best when their backs appear to be against the wall and who recognise these similar traits within each other . . . and few Britons celebrated or enjoyed the victories they gained at Copenhagen.'

'Perhaps these two episodes can best be described as unfortunate family squabbles, that are now best understood for what they were - necessary evils - and forgiven . . . Britons and Danes are kindred spirits and long may it remain so.'

The Two Battles of Copenhagen 1801 and 1807 is 277 pages and consists of the following:

List of Plates (24 Colour pictures of artwork, places and items relating to the battle in the centre of the book).
List of Maps:
Fadden's Map of the Great Belt dated 1807
Map of the Sound dated 1812
Area around Copenhagen from Franz Reilly Map of 1796 (simplified)
Plan of Copenhagen as it looked in 1800
The Attack on Copenhagen, April 2nd 1801
Contemporary map of Copenhagen in 1807, the dark area in the north-western corner representing the area destroyed by fire.
Heligoland and the North German Coast - section of the Thompson Map.


1. Walking the Tightrope of Neutrality
2. The Drums Beat 'To Arms'
3. The British Mobilisation
4. Parker Delays
5. Denmark Prepares
6. The Die is Cast
7. The Battle of Copenhagen
8. Battle Continues
9. Winning the Peace
10. Five Years of Relative Harmony
11. Rapid Escalation
12. The Cabinet Deliberates
13. The Fleet Forms
14. The Fleet Arrives in the Sound
15. Danish Preparations
16. British Troops Land
17.The Battle of Kioge
18. The Bombardment
19. The Aftermath
20. Danish Losses Further Afield
21. The Gunboat War, 1808-1809
22. The Swedish Question
23. The Final Years

Visiting the Scenes Today
Appendices Relevant to the Battle of Copenhagen 1801
Appendices Relevant to the Siege of Copenhagen 1807

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and Gareth Glover has an easy-to-follow style of prose that I found developed the story in a logical flow that made picking the book up each time a pleasure to read.

As well as the history the later sections provide some really useful information for those interested in visiting the scene themselves and as someone likely to do so in the next few years I can see this book coming along for the trip.

The Two Battles of Copenhagen by Gareth Glover is published by Pen & Sword books and retails at £25.00 in hardcover but can be obtained at the time of writing anywhere from between £6 for a used copy to £18 for a new one.

Other sources relating to this review:


  1. Thanks for doing this - very timely.
    My own mini fleet is Danish, being half Danish myself it seemed a welcome departure from the obvious combatants! I even have a relative called Krabbe, I'll have to ask if Peter Krabbe was an ancestor? Time is always short but I might pick these up for holiday reading next year.
    Very best wishes,

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Excellent, timing is everything and I have earmarked a visit to the Danish naval museum when I get the opportunity that I see has an excellent model of the harbour installations from the time, plus a few of the other key sites mentioned in the book, Carolyn permitting!

      I too am thinking of a Danish squadron, but the Dutch are next on the list as soon Warlord come out with their next additions to the range.

      All the best

    2. Unfortunately, the Danish Naval Museum appears to be "Permanently Closed"?

  2. Fascinating post - thank you. I've just booked a long weekend in Copenhagen next month so I shall read this as background.

    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Thank you and Ooh I’m dead jealous, I haven’t visited Copenhagen since I was a kid, and I have Carolyn enthused about it as a holiday venue, but it will likely be after our big holiday planned to the Antipodes, possibly next year with Australia planning to open up their borders.

      Have a great time and the book has plenty of suggestions for interesting places to visit.