A Brief History
On September 2, 1807, the British Royal Navy and Army bombarded the port city of Copenhagen, Denmark, using fire bombs and phosphorus incendiary rockets in order to prevent neutral Denmark from deciding to align with Napoleonic France and turn over the use of its war fleet to the French and their allies. This preemptive attack against a neutral country not at war with Britain is not an isolated event, but a calculated preemptive attack Britain has demonstrated the willingness to engage in over the course of history.
Emperor of the French, Napoleon I, had taken control of most of continental Europe and imposed his idea of a united Europe, one he called “The Continental System” upon the land. In response to a British blockade of French ports since 1806, Napoleon made his Berlin Decree in November of 1806, announcing a blockade of trade with Britain by European countries, thus intending to isolate the British from the robust international trading among European countries. Denmark meanwhile, had declared their neutrality, but Napoleon feared British pressure on the Danes would soon result in Denmark declaring an alignment with the British against Napoleon, including the commitment of the Danish fleet to fight with the British against the French and their allies. The attack against neutral Denmark had further repercussions, initiating a war between Britain and Russia, called the Anglo-Russian War of 1807, a maritime conflict inspired by the Russians having made peace with France via the Treaty of Tilsit. (Do you follow the convoluted international relationships yet?)
The Battle of Copenhagen resulted in an overwhelming British victory, with the British suffering only 42 deaths and 145 wounded, along with 24 missing. The Danes suffered 3000 casualties, surrendered their entire fleet, and had about a thousand civilians killed or wounded. Over 1000 Danish buildings were burned by the British incendiary attacks, and the bombardment continued for the next 3 days, with the Danes finally surrendering the city and their fleet on September 7, 1807. The British had amassed a 50 ship fleet and 25,000 ground troops to provide the attack on Copenhagen, while the Danes had only about 10,000 sailors and soldiers in defense. As the British applied heavy diplomatic pressure on Denmark to swear allegiance to the British, Napoleon also threatened the Danes with invasion should they refuse to join with France against the British. The Danes were in a perilous situation either way, without the strength of their own to ensure their own neutrality. Britain treated Danish recalcitrance as if it were a declaration of war, and initiated war at sea without the benefit of declaring hostilities, capturing a major Danish warship enroute to Norway.
The state of war between Denmark (and their ally, Norway) and the British (and their Swedish allies) continued until the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. Other instances of the British coldly violating the neutrality of another nation in a preemptive attack included the invasion of Iceland in 1940, with Operation Fork carried out to prevent a possible German invasion of the little, but strategically located island. Also in 1940, the British Operation Wilfred and Plan R 4 was carried out, a preemptive invasion of Norway in anticipation of the Germans invading that beautiful country. (The author has been to Norway and found the country to be stunningly beautiful. And the people were nice, too.) Apparently 1940 was a desperate year for the survival of Britain and technicalities such as neutrality could not be expected to stand in the way of national survival. Also in 1940, even before the French had surrendered to the Germans, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was already contemplating the destruction of the French fleet to keep it out of the hands of the Germans if the French did not immediately sail for safe haven in Britain. Once the French surrendered, the British demanded the French Navy sail for Britain. Instead, a considerable portion of the French fleet ended up at Mers-el-Kebir near Oran, Algeria, a French colonial possession. France was by now officially a neutral country, and their fleet was not intended to be used against Britain or turned over to the Germans, but the British could not take the chance of a French change of heart. Thus, a British attack on the French fleet in Algeria was mounted, with 3 capital ships quickly sunk and about 1300 French seamen killed, forever souring the relations between the Royal Navy and the French Navy.
Many times in history nations have mounted preemptive attacks against countries they believed would soon attack or somehow provide assistance to the enemies of the first country. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was declared to be such an attack, with President George W. Bush declaring (the Bush Doctrine) that the enemies of the US could legitimately be attacked first if deemed to be a threat. The 1967 Arab-Israeli War known as the 6 Day War was initiated by a preemptive Israeli attack against its Arab neighbors that Israel believed to be preparing for war. Even the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, by the Japanese against the United States can be construed to be a preemptive attack against the virtual certainty of a coming war between those 2 nations. Do countries have an inherent right to attack neutral nations or nations with which they are not at war with, in order to prevent an expected future attack or negative development in the security of their country? Obviously, the subject is debatable, and we encourage our readers to offer their opinions on the subject.
Question for students (and subscribers): Were the British justified in attacking Copenhagen? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Davies, Norman. No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945. Viking Adult, 2007.
Holmes, Richard. The Napoleonic Wars. Andre Deutsch Ltd, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a painting by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853) of the bombardment of Copenhagen on the night between the 3rd and 4th of September 1807, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.