The Forgotten Debacle: Dänholmen Island, Swedish Pomerania August 1807
By: Stefan Spett
Place: Swedish Pomerania, particularly the little island of outside Stralsund.
Contestants: French - Allied army commanded by Marshal Brune and a Swedish army commanded by King Gustaf IV Adolph.
While la Grande Armée was away in East Prussia, King Gustaf had assembled a force in Swedish Pomerania. Besides his own army, there were Prussians under the command of Blücher and a British force consisting mainly of Hannoverian troops. The army quickly fell apart when the Prussians had to leave because of Tilsit and the British were needed for the attack on Copenhagen.
The Swedes were first blockaded in the fortress of Stralsund. North of Stralsund lies on the large island of Rügen, separated from the mainland by a narrow and shallow sound. It was also unfortified and the Swedes did not sufficient forces to defend the town and island at the same time. Stralsund was hastily evacuated on August 20. However the little island of Dänholmen just east of Stralsund remained occupied. Normally it was a flank guard for the harbour of Stralsund but was now transformed to the outpost of the Swedish Army.
The Island of Dänholmen
Dänholmen Island is about half a square kilometer large, fairly round, flat and mostly treeless. In its center there were a guesthouse and on the eastern side a good pier. Earlier, there had been a 200 meters long bridge connecting the island to the suburb of Franken, because the ferry to Rügen landed at Dänholmen.
The fortifications were not impressive. On the northern side was a small star-shaped fort called the Big Fort. It had a peacetime garrison of one man from the invalid-corps. The other entrenchments were small field works on the southern and western beaches and a low wall along the eastern beach. The state of the fortifications was miserable. The wall toward the Franken-suburb was merely a two feet high turf wall ! There no palisades or any kind of abatis. The artillery was worthy of respect: in the Big Fort were six 24 and 18 pounders and on the island four 3 pounder field guns.
On August 20, the garrison consisted of artillerists from all four Swedish artillery regiments, a detachment of the amalgamated German battalion, the jäger division of the Dal Battalion, and some soldiers from the same battalion needed for the guns. Four gun sloops covered Dänholmen from the water.
21 August : Marshal Brune sent an emissary to the island demanding it be evacuated. King Gustaf refused but ordered the commandant, Palmstierna to make a counter-offer to neutralise the island! During the negotiations, the Swedes questioned the oarsman that rowed the French emissary to the island and he stated that few troops has entered the town.
22 August : A German soldier, No37 Rix, deserts and swims from the island while the guard was making a report. There was concern that Rix would expose the sad state of the walls, but that can hardly have been much of a secret.
The morale among the German soldiers was low indeed. No65 Volbedenck said that after this operation he intended to leave the service of 'such a bastardly nation'. Unsymphatetic ears heard it and he was arrested. There was also a rumour that German soldiers secretly supporting the French intended to fire at the Gunners and spike the guns in the event of a French landing.
In the evening activity started in the Stralsund fortress. One ball hit the island, some charges were heard and priming powder were seen to burn. Obviously the French was checking the Swedish fortress artillery that had been left in place. Some of the guns loaded and some were spiked. The French tried to blow out the spikes and made certain the others were not loaded. In response, the Swedish commandant, Palmstierna, moved 2 24- and 2 18-pounders to a new battery and made some trial shots.
23 August : Someone, probably Brune or Pino made a very bad command-decision. At half past two in the morning the guards observed two large and a smaller raft advancing north along the coast. The first was towed and all was poled along. Some soldiers was even seen to push the rafts while wading! Palmstierna sent 3 of the 3-pounders to the beach and the gun sloops also joined in. When hit by grapeshot, the rafts was abandoned and started drifting towards Dänholmen. A small boat manned by one officer and 4 men tried to save a raft but when fired on and taking two casualties they decided to quit. When two of the rafts came close to the beach Swedish soldiers waded out and captured the rafts and 5 barefoot pontonniers from the 1st Italian Pontonnier Company. They stated many had been hit by the initial cannonade. During this skirmish, Subofficer Klingius was mortally wounded and jäger No48 Bergsman slightly so by intense long range musketfire from the coast. The third raft floated ashore on Dänholmen by itself.
A gun duel started. At first Dänholmen was only bombarded by two howitzers, but the bombardment increased as the day continued and one the sloops was hit and two men in the neighbouring sloop were wounded by splinters! Other balls intended for the sloops bounce way beyond and hit two civilian ships anchored kilometers away.
The bombardment of Dänholmen was concentrated on the buildings of the Big Fort. In his daily report, Palmstierna wrote that during the writing of the report several cannonballs has passed through the walls! All later reports were written with a dull pencil... Palmstierna had obviously found a safer but badly equipped command post! Despite the intense bombardment only one horse is killed. A worker with five small children was shot through the thigh. Gunner No25 Elfström was run over by his own gun and Gunner No21 Linberg was lightly wounded.
The heavy Swedish guns fired 64 24-pound balls, 146 18-pound balls, and 27 18-pound grapeshots. The fieldpieces fired 24 balls and 84 grapeshots.
During the night reinforcements arrived. According to Palmstierna, 206 men from seven battalions arrived but careful study reveals at least a further 58 from three more battalions also arrived, making a total of 264 men. (The Swedish Army had strange habit of scattering it´s forces in as many small detachments as possible. The previous Spring, a grenadier was found hung in a forest a few kilometers away and the order to the battalion supplying the burial detail specifies the party be four men, one from each company.)
24 August: Two hundred men of the German battalion and three sick left the island. During the night ominous wood-chopping and boat-dragging noises could be heard. On the walls artillery was assembled and all the heavy guns, light guns, howitzers and mortars prepared for the attack. (The light guns had blue gun-carriages and were perhaps of Bavarian origin.)
Palmstierna was understandably nervous and asked for instructions for a possible capitulation.
At 11 a.m. bombardment started from several batteries. The Swedes returned fire but the Allies were lucky and hit the magazine. It was almost empty, so the fort was not seriously damaged. Several Gunners was wounded, some roofs blown off and a 18-pounder lost a trunnion and a wheel. Other casualties was a wheel on a 3-pounder carriage.
At 5:30 p.m. the Swedish guns fell silent followed two hours later by the Allies. Despite the intensity of the fire, only 6 Gunners had been wounded. One of reasons was that the reinforcements did not leave the safe eastern beach after disembarking. About 200 shots remained for the guns but few of them 24-pounders. After dark the wounded departed and 1000 pounds of gunpowder arrived but paper for cartridges was lacking . . . not an uncommon problem.
Palmstierna ordered several new fieldworks to be built: a traverse meant to cover the fire from a battery in Franken; a covered way from the guesthouse to the Big Fort and foxholes for the jägers (which is interesting because I not aware of foxhole any earlier then the Crimean war.)
25 August: At the beginning of the assault the Swedish forces was deployed in the following locations:
In the ditch of Big Fort: 50 Germans under Lieutenant v.Buggenhagen
Closing silently were the following French forces:
General de Brigade Fririon
The night was very dark and the weather was quite hard. At half past midnight, the patrol boat and several guards heard suspicious noises. The guard boat did not open fire, perhaps because of damp, and needed half an hour to reach the pier in order to report. They were meet by fleeing soldiers. The post who heard and later saw the French sounded the alarm but obviously the French was very close before they were observed because Corporal Fermer sent to report was killed outside the Big Fort a few hundred meters away. The French explained later to Palmstierna that the wind and current helped them approach Dänholmen stealthily and seemingly in tight formation.
There are 49 Swedish reports of debacle on Dänholmen. Palmstierna's report is the longest, and was written the following year. It is self-serving and a complete whitewash. The others are statements from a court-martial conducted the week after the debacle. I will show the differences as the story unravels.
Palmstierna: Wrote he received the news from Lieutenant Adlerbjelke and ordered the alarm-drumroll.
Others: The Gunner No65 Segerström states that he woke Palmstiernawhen German soldiers on the wall announced the arrival of the French. Palmstierna sent Lieutenamt Adlerbjelke to investigate and in the next moment the French swarmed into the Fort and take everybody prisoner.
Palmstierna: Three heavy pieces could bear on the French. They were able to discharge three shots each before the French jumped into the water and were under the guns.
Others: Witnesses mention 2 or three shots: a Gunner tells that two shots were fired from his gun and the French entered the Fort while the third was being loaded. Other Gunners got off one shot and then the gun went unserviceable. Only one Gunner believed three shots was fired from his piece.
The Fall of the Big Fort
Palmstierna: When fired on, the French jumped into the water and they waded ashore screaming. Palmstierna sent Captain v.Böhnen to fetch the troops on the eastern beach. The Germans in the ditch dropped their muskets, some gave up immediately while others climbed into the Fort. The Swedish working parties picked up their muskets but they were wet. Palmstierna gave the command to fire but no one was very interested. Some asked for mercy and others ran east. Only five men stayed around Palmstierna. The French easily jumped into the Fort and started bayonetting the Gunners and everybody was taken prisoner. The only one who did anything constructive was Subofficer Blankenfjeld who spiked a gun before he was bayonetted.
Others: Five soldiers present in the Fort witnessed what happen. Four of them immediately left the Fort in search of their detachment on the eastern beach, and none of them could recollect any order to stand and fight. But they remembered an order to return to their detachments in case of alarm. Obviously they obeyed the order they liked the most. The fifth witness was No59 Tiehrsson from the German battalion. He reported that he climbed into the fort then the attack started and started shooting. When the French stormed in, he retreated and tried to find his detachment. Failing that he fired two more shots and surrendered.
(Note: The fortifications was absolutely useless. There were no obstructions of any kind on Dänholmen. Among the equipment left in Stralsund a kilometer away at the evacuation were 1,048 old pikes usable as chevaux de frise and another 12,248 caltrophs. The caltrophs could have spread along the beach safe from the bombardment and obstructed an advance in the dark.)
The Rout: Eastern Beach
Palmstierna: The field pieces advanced towards the Big Fort and opened fire on the French. The French quickly enveloped the guns and those gunners not shot, surrendered.
Others: 2 3-pounders advanced towards the Big Fort and opened fire. The French fired back from all directions and the artillery took flight. The piece on beachguard approached but was chased to the pier where all pieces, including the dismounted ones, were taken.
Palmstierna: The 10 detachements (259 men ) on the eastern beach received orders from v.Böhnen to counterattack. Because of darkness, confusion, and lack of commanders, little was done and most surrendered quickly. Lieutenant.v.Knorring with 12 men of the Skaraborg Battaliont. advanced bravely and fought until six of them were shot.
Others: No1130 Tysk was one the brave twelve. v.Knorring gave the order to advance. They had hardly left the beach when they were fired on from above. The dozen emptied their muskets ran off. Tysk ran out in the water, waded along the beach and hid under the pier. Corporal No392 Ek of Elfsborgs Battalion retreated from the Big Fort and reached his detachment. Captain v.Böhnen ordered 2 men of this troop to make a reconnaissance. They immediately returned followed by the French. The Skaraborg detachment formed a jäger line and advanced taking 5 prisoner. The prisoners' friends arrived shortly and reversed the situation.
According to several witnesses, about 200 men deployed on the beach and surrendered immediately when fired upon. Many took flight in search of boat on the arrival of those fleeing from the Big Fort.
The Rout: Southern Part
Palmstierna: The fieldguard in the traverse and jäger-chain sent patrols to the Big Fort. When they saw that was lost, the troops moved towards the eastern beach, where they met along troops under v.Böhnen who had personally taken two prisonesr. Soon after they were all taken prisoner.Ensign Paqualin with some Dal Jägers advanced north from their quarters and made contact with the French. When outflanked they waded out in the water hoping to be picked up. The French fired on them and forced them to surrendered. Captain v.Lilljeström with a 100 German advanced to the Big Fort, were fired upon and Lieutenant v.Schvingen was wounded. Some soldiers started calling out that they wanted to surrender, while others shouted that Swedish soldiers had fired and ran towards the fort to surrender.
Others: According to No105 Grip the fieldguard in the traverse started retreating but when they met the French, the commander, Ensign Berger gave the sauve qui peut and everyone scattered. V.Lilljeström's troop fired and reloaded their muskets. When they advanced towards the big Fort they were enveloped, fired a salvo and surrendered. Three witnesses agree and none mention reaching the big Fort. Subofficer Elfström (Dal Battalion) was sleeping in the Dal bivouac when the attack came. He, Lieutenant Paqualin, and Ensign Törnebladh mustered three small teams and advanced. After a short combat Elfström had to flee. On his way east he passed v.Lilljeström's troop but did not join it. Paqualin advanced along the western beach and did not make contact. When they retreated the French followed and they were chased into the water and taken prisoner. Ensign Törnebladh advanced towards the big Fort, was defeated and also chased into the water. The two groups not already mentioned stayed in place unsure of what was going on and what to do about it. They were taken prisoner after emptying their muskets at the approaching French. The different units must have been running hither and thither in the darkness and some of the enveloping French ought to have been friendlies firing indiscriminately.
Where's the Exit?
On reaching the pier the patrol boat was charged by the fleeing, five men from all over Dänholmen squeezed in and the boat departed for Alte-Fähr on Rügen, nearly sinking on the way.
Seven were saved by swimming away and picked up by the sloops' jolly boats. The loss report for the Finska Artillery Regiment states that No16 Grönlund left the island naked and indeed he was one of the swimmers. One of the jolly boats approached the pier and picked up five men hiding under it. Two others took boards from the pier and rafted away. At least one man drowned, for two days later the sloops found the corpse of a German drummer. It seems that he was the only German that tried to leave the island.
The Gun Sloops
After having been away from their assigned posts when the landing took place, the sloops made the best of the situation, fired on the French, picked up escapees and captured several boats and rafts drifting unattended. The elán of the storming party had obviously been commendable. In the morning the sloops fired on and missed a small convoy leaving Dänholmen. It was just as well as it was the prisoner transport. A further gun sloop division joined the combat and some sloops came close enough to use their swivel-guns.
The Swedish losses were:
French losses were: 15 killed and 26 wounded.
Smith, Digby. Napoleonic Wars Data Book London : Greenhill Books; 1998.
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