Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: Stealing a Fleet from Neutral Denmark

The first overt steps toward the six years of war in Portugal and Spain against Napoleonic France took place at Copenhagen, Denmark. Between August 16th and September 5th 1807. During these 3 weeks the British landed, assaulted and took the garrison at Copenhagen and then left with the Danish fleet.

At Home

Months before, on St. Patrick's day, March 17th, 1807 Britain's government was concerned with domestic problems. In an attempt to ease the Catholic unrest, they introduced a bill to allow Catholics and dissidents to hold office. George III intervened, quashed the attempt and wanted a guarantee that they would not introduce any similar bill. The ministry refused and resigned on March 25.

George III then asked the 3rd Duke of Portland to form a government. This is the government that would prosecute the next stage of the wars against France and Napoleon. It was a Tory ministry with Castlereagh at the War office, and George Canning as Foreign Secretary.

Elsewhere in Europe

In Europe Russia and France again faced off seeking to add to their empires. On June 14th Napoleon Bonaparte routed Russia at Friedland which led to a meeting to settle terms at Tilsit. The two Emperors, Napoleon and Alexander I, proceeded to divide the European Continent between them. This was the final piece that set the stage for overt moves by Britain and France toward there meeting in Portugal and Spain.

Previous steps were the devastating defeat of the French navies at Trafalgar by Admiral Nelson, the closing of Continental ports in 1806 by France against British ships and goods, and the blockades of those same ports by the British.

The secret articles in the Treaty of Tilsit and Napoleon's plans to capture the neutral fleets of Denmark and Portugal were soon discovered by Canning. The fear that the fleets would be used to enable an invasion of Britain prompted the Government to take quick and audacious action. They "offered" to take the Danish fleet to British ports and hold it there until the situation with Napoleon was settled. Denmark was informed that they could accept the offer, or Britain would take the fleet by Force.

Britain in Denmark

The convoy sailed from Britain on July 31 with the final destination and mission still known only to Government and chief officers of the Navy and Army. The force landed on August 16. They invested a siege of Copenhagen by 26th of August, 1807 and were primarily opposed by local militia since the regular army was guarding the borders against Napoleon. One attempt to relieve the siege was made by the Danes which was met by a brigade commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley who was soon to play a major part in the wars against France.

His brigade saw action on 27th of August 1807 when the Danish regulars were stopped at Kioge southeast of Copenhagen, with the loss of only 127 British. In their bombardment of the city and garrison the Navy employed the rockets invented by Congreve for the second time. They brightened the sky with traces like snakes.

The garrison at Copenhagen surrendered September 7th. The British spent the next 4 weeks outfitting the fleet and removed it to English harbors by the end of October 1807.

The opportunity to augment the French fleet was thus missed. Napoleon soon arrived in Denmark with an army which included among them several thousand troops from allied Spain. With this army he occupied Denmark having missed an opportunity to acquire their fleet, but succeeding in his second objective to deny the Danish ports to the British.

Contemporary caricature poking fun at Napoleon's lack of a fleet

Napoleon was to next move on Portugal intending to acquire her fleet and close the remaining Continental ports to Britain. To this end, France declared war on Portugal October 30th.

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