UCL News


Napoleon duped the British over Copenhagen

13 April 2007

A UCL (University College London) academic has found evidence that Napoleon successfully duped the British by planting false intelligence.

The rumour - that France was mobilising its navy to conqueror Ireland - was a major catalyst for the first terror bombardment on a European capital and its civilians.

Dr Thomas Munch-Petersen, of the UCL Department of Scandinavian Studies, uncovered the evidence that deliberately misleading reports played a significant role in the British attack on Copenhagen during extensive archival research. The finding is published today by Sutton Publishing, during the bicentenary year of the bombardment of Copenhagen, in the book 'Defying Napoleon'.

The research shows that false reports from British spies started life as rumour spread by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. One report from a British agent landed on the then foreign secretary's desk and was an important factor leading to the British terror bombardment in Copenhagen in 1807. The attack set out to force the surrender of the Danish navy by instilling terror in the capital's civilians.

Dr Munch-Petersen, author of the book, said: "I first realised that false intelligence was at play in the British attack when sifting through Napoleon's letters. I came across one of his letters that explicitly asked his naval minister to create the impression that he was mobilising the navy to go into Ireland - and to spread the rumour widely. Although the letters have been in the public domain since the nineteenth century, the connection has never been made."

The attack itself is a historic landmark - it is the first deployment of terror tactics on civilians to cause a country's surrender and acts as a prime example of a pre-emptive attack. This is also the first example of rockets being used in Europe.

Dr Munch-Petersen said: "The attack's largely been forgotten, and even brushed under the carpet by the British. I think it's important that we put it back on the map again. It has definite relevance to readers today and people will see the parallels with the intelligence that led Britain to war in Iraq. That too was a pre-emptive attack that was founded on shaky intelligence and the credulity of politicians."

On 29 April 1807, Napoleon wrote an instruction to his naval minister, Denis Decrès, instructing him to undertake preparations at Brest which would give the impression that an expedition to Ireland was planned and to spread the rumour amongst the exiled Irish Republicans, of the French plan to take the island from English rule.

The report of the British agent, General Danican, to the British foreign secretary, George Canning, was just as Napoleon had planned. It said that Napoleon's navy was planning a two-pronged advance on Ireland - one of them involving the Danish navy. First, a French fleet was to leave from Brest, Brittany, to take Southern Ireland. The second step was to seize the Danish navy and, with its help, attack Northern Ireland.

The British mobilised their troops in a matter of weeks. The British navy landed in Copenhagen on 16 August 1807 with the intent of taking the Danish navy by force. Batteries were set up around the city and for three nights the city was subjected to British artillery fire as well as mortar and rocket destruction. The rockets, called 'Congreve rockets', named after their inventor William Congreve, were described by a British soldier as "fiery serpents in the sky".

The book also clears up a long-standing academic question in the study of the Napoleonic wars: who overheard and leaked the report that Napoleon and Alexander the First of Russia were making a deal to become allies?

The meeting between the two emperors took place on a raft in the Neman river at the Russian town, Tilsit, now known as Sovetsk. It was the most significant deal in Napoleonic history and reinforced French domination in Europe. Most academic theories have held that a British spy overheard the interview. In his book, the UCL academic reveals a new contender and proves that it was, in fact, this disgruntled Russian general, Prince Vassili Troubetzkoi, who leaked the plot between the two nations.

The evidence was pieced together by Dr Munch-Petersen from letters in the Canning papers in Leeds and from archives in Paris and Stockholm.

In one of the letters to Canning the French informant, Count D'Antraigues, wrote on 21 July 1807: "Napoleon ... has proposed a maritime league of this country [i.e. Russia] against England and the unification of the Russian squadrons with those of Sweden and Denmark, being certain, he says, of the forces of Spain and Portugal in order to attack England at close quarters (corps à corps)."

It provided the British with confirmation that their decision to attack Copenhagen was right.

Notes for Editors

1.      For more information, please contact Dr Munch-Petersen on e-mail t.munch-petersen@ucl.ac.uk
2.      Alternatively, please contact Alex Brew in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile: +44 (0)7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: a.brew@ucl.ac.uk
3.      'Defying Napoleon - How Britain bombarded Copenhagen and seized the Danish fleet in 1807' is published by Sutton Publishing on 13 April. This press release is embargoed to 13 April at 00:01 BST. Journalists can obtain copies of the book by contacting the publisher, Yvette Cowles at Sutton Publishing, on 01453 732 433 and ycowles@haynes-sutton.co.uk
4.      Selected images from the book can be obtained from the UCL Media Relations Office.