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The Shelling of Copenhagen

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In the Baltic in 1801, a young Vice Admiral named Horatio Nelson famously placed a telescope to his blind eye and completely neglected to make one of the most-often-misquoted utterances in British naval history: I see no ships  — what he actually said was I really do not see the signal. Feigning ignorance, he led a British fleet to battle and victory against a large and heavily armed Danish fleet. Due to Nelson's decision to press the attack against the Danes, the First Battle of Copenhagen became a proud part of British maritime folklore, yet more proof that Britannia did indeed rule the waves.

The Second Battle of Copenhagen carries no such romantic glory. For three days in September, 1807, the British Army and Navy shelled the largely civilian population of the Danish capital into submission. By the time the beleaguered Danes sued for peace, over 2,000 civilians lay dead; the Danish capital smouldered, the Danish fleet was captured and the Danish people wept. But what led the British to attack, encircle and bombard the city and harbour of Copenhagen?

Europe, 1807

During the early years of the 19th Century, all eyes in Europe were on one man who was variously described as a charismatic leader, a ruthlessly brilliant general and a megalomaniacal dictator. That man was the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and he had the monarchs of Europe trembling in their boots. By September, 1807, Napoleon's French army had smashed the Holy Roman Empire by destroying the Austrian army at Austerlitz, defeated the Prussians in a little under three weeks and signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Russia, effectively isolating Great Britain.

With Portugal her sole remaining ally on a French-dominated continent, Great Britain had only her earlier success at Trafalgar for comfort. Lord Nelson's famous victory had decimated the French and Spanish fleets, leaving Napoleon's armies unable to cross the English Channel. However, Tilsit had placed the Baltic Sea firmly in French hands, leaving the large fleet of neutral Denmark within Napoleon's reach. Terrified of Napoleon, and facing what they perceived to be the real danger of France coming into possession of a large, battle-ready fleet of warships, the British Government took two precautions. Firstly, British diplomats put together a proposal: an alliance between Denmark and Britain which would see Britain defend Denmark from the French, so long as the Danes handed over their fleet until after the war. Secondly, over 50 ships and 25,000 troops sailed towards the Baltic with the intention of securing the Danish fleet — and with it the security of the British Isles.

The Danish Government remained resolutely neutral. On 15 August, Great Britain demanded that the Danish Fleet be turned over. Again, the Danes refused the increasingly forceful British demands.

The Battle at Sea

Out in the Baltic, 21 ships of the line, nine frigates and 37 men-o-war commanded by Admiral James Gambier had passed the main Danish defence, the Castle Cronenborg on 3 August. With no formal declaration of war yet made, and wishing to remain resolutely neutral, this formidable bastion of Danish defence fired its batteries in a salute to the British fleet that would soon bring so much devastation and pain to the people of Copenhagen. Unopposed and unresisted, the British fleet took positions around the Danish capital. Once more, the Danes were approached by a still neutral power that was offering itself as an ally. The ultimatum was final: lay down your weapons and hand over the fleet. Once more, the Danes refused the British demands.

The Battle on Land

Following the Danish refusal, British soldiers were landed on Zealand on 16 August. Commanded by a young general who had made his name in India, Sir Arthur Wellesley1, British troops moved on the Danish town of Køge, south of Copenhagen. The landing party consisted of 30,000 men, 3,000 horses and a contingent of artillery including guns, howitzers, mortars and rockets. Unfortunately for the Danes, the majority of the Danish Army was stationed in Holstein2 to guard against possible French attack. The defence of Copenhagen was to be undertaken by lightly-trained men from the Zealand, Lolland-Falsterske and Mønske militias, combined with the slightly better trained and equipped men of the Danish naval militia.

On 29 August, the professional British Army attacked and comprehensively defeated the Danish volunteers in a battle that would never be spoken of in the same awed tones as Wellesley's victories at Assaye, Salamanca or Waterloo. With nothing remaining between the army and Copenhagen, Wellesley pushed on to surround the landward side of the city.

The Shelling of Copenhagen

With the Crown Prince in command of the Danish army in Holstein, the defence of Copenhagen fell to a 72-year-old general, Ernst Henrik Peymann. With only 13,000 poorly-trained and badly-equipped men at his disposal, Peymann had no option but to hide behind the city's walls.

Rather than send British troops into a dangerous and time-consuming siege, the British command decided to shell the city into submission. Wellesley’s batteries of land-based artillery and Gambier's floating batteries opened fire on 2 September, 1807. 5,000 rounds were fired into the city on the first night of the shelling, crashing indiscriminately into militia barracks, city defences and civilian homes.

The British unleashed their new weapon, the Congreve Rocket. This had been copied from the Mysorean Rocket artillery used against them by the armies of Tipoo Sultan in the Mysore Wars, and consisted of a strong iron tube with a conical nose, packed with gunpowder. These new weapons of mass destruction hammered Copenhagen, starting fires that the defending militias were hard-pressed to keep under control.

2,000 rounds hammered Copenhagen on the night of 3 September, with 7,000 more dropping into the city on 4 September. The noise, smoke and destruction caused by the shelling, combined with the raging fires, tore the heart out of the Danish defence, and the shocked and awed Peymann was forced to sue for peace. On 7 September, disobeying orders to burn the ships in Copenhagen harbour, Peymann handed the city and the fleet to the British. 5,000 Danish soldiers, civilians and militiamen lay dead — the butcher's bill for King George only ran to 42.


On 21 October, 1807, the British Fleet left Copenhagen accompanied by 19 ships of the line, 15 frigates, 23 gunboats and the contents of the Danish naval stores*. Denmark, stripped of her navy, entered into an alliance with Napoleon. However, the threat to the British mainland had been neutralised, and Britain was free to pursue the war against France without the worry of invasion. Napoleon would finally be defeated at Waterloo, and the Pax Europa would reign for a hundred years.

Since 1807, the shelling of civilians to force an issue has become commonplace. From Coventry and Dresden in the 1940s, to modern-day Gaza, the true legacy of the Battle of Copenhagen has continued unabated to this day.

1Some years later, in Spain, he'd win himself the title of Lord Wellington.2Now part of Northern Germany.

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