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The capture of the Island of Als
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by Stuart Penhall
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As soon as the armistice in the war of 1864 ended at noon on Sunday, 26th June all the Prussian batteries immediately opened fire (1) on the proposed crossing points in preparation for their attack against the island of Als on June 29th.

Preussisk skildring af kampen ved Mysunde
Sentries by Als Sund

The army corps charged with this operation (2) was under the commands of General Herwarth (Prince Frédéric Charles having become general in chief). The force was composed of: 24 battalions - 19,200, 8 squadrons - 1,200 and 14 batteries (three Horse) - 2,600 making a total of 23,000 men (full order of battle for both sides is found here - coming).

In support was a strong reserve including 50 heavy and light calibre guns distributed along the length of the coast, which were intended to silence the fire of the Danish batteries established at Arnkil, Rønhave, etc. (3)

General Steinmann who had been charged with the defence of the island, had six regiments of infantry two squadrons of dragoons and, three light and three medium field batteries under his command, in all about 10.000 men. In addition, there were some 64 heavier guns distributed along the length of Als Sund.

The island of Als
The island of Als

With an army Corps of 10.000 men and a secure refuge in the nearby peninsula of Kegnæs (4), it was hoped that the enemy could be made to pay dearly for any attempt to cross the Sound. However this possibility was to some extent voided by the danger posed by the necessity of spreading the available forces thinly along the coast.

A situation, which usually proved fatal to the forces, involved. Making matters worse was the fact that many of the troops lacked experience and training. (5)

To reduce these risks as much as possible, some regiments were sent to Nordborg and Hardeskøj (6). Unfortunately this had the opposite effect of putting them at even greater risk of being trapped. This deficient distribution explains why such a great number of Danes were taken prisoner.

The orders were given for the crossing of the Als Sound to begin at 2am on Wednesday 29th June. At midnight, the troops were gathered for the assault; without packs and wearing the fieldmutz instead of a helmet. The Commander-in-Chief had selected the narrow straight of East Schnabeck as the place to cross that enabled the Storeskov woods to be used to mask preparations from the Danes. Several demonstrations were also to be made along the coast from Sandberg, in front of the small bay of Kjär-Westermark, to the point where the Sound broadened as it emerged into the gulf of Augustenborg. The assault force consisted of (7):

  • Manstein's division, composed of the Röder and Göben brigades, Jagers, a regiment of Ziethcn hussars and four batteries.
  • Winzingerode's division, composed of the Schmid and Canstein brigades (8).
    Manstein's troops would lead the attack supported by Winzingerode.
Als sund
Als sund

At 2 am the boats were launched, the men embarked and what would be one of the only amphibious assaults of the late 19th Century began. The Danes were caught completely by surprise. They had received no intelligence of the attack (9) and their guards failed to notice what was happening until the Prussians were almost upon them. Upon seeing the Prussians the sentries retired spreading the alarm as they went. The batteries from Als immediately opened fire but were soon overwhelmed.

The crossing was well under way (10) when the valiant Rolf Krake (11) appeared. She had come at full steam through a hail of heavy projectiles, into the middle of Sound, in order to sink the boats and shell the enemy positions.

In an effort to protect the Rolf Krake's bridge as much as possible it had been reinforced by two rows of sand bags (12). At first this protection was successful but the hail of shells was so fierce that in less a quarter of hour all the bags were torn to pieces.

Rolf Krake by Als sund
Rolf Krake by Als sund

This and other damage (13) forced the monitor to withdraw and seek shelter behind a tongue of land leaving the Prussians to resume their crossing (14). With all threat of intervention gone the crossing now began in earnest from six different points from Schnabeck to Sandberg (refer map).

After arriving on the shore the troops advanced into the woods which fringe the coast without meeting any real resistance. As they advanced toward the south the Prussians easily drove back the few defenders who opposed them.

Now that both shores of the Sound were under their control the Prussians moved men and equipment across without interference enabling them to assemble twelve battalions of Manstein's Division on the Danish shore in five and a half hours. These troops quickly moved south with the focus of this movement on the left in the hope of cutting off the retreat of the troops scattered on the Island.

The Danes, surprised by this sudden attack, experienced great difficulty in assembling their forces. Lacking any plan or direction, they marched toward the firing in small detachments and were repulsed everywhere with loss. A regiment of unsupported infantry (15) valiantly attacked the advancing Prussians but, finding them strongly established in the village of Kjær, were forced to retire after suffering some losses.

In the meantime, General Steinmann, who had succeeded in assembling the available troops, hurriedly marched toward the firing and met the aforementioned regiment which was retiring in good order.

He rallied it and along with his own column launch a new attack, but had no more success than before. With the Prussians constantly receiving reinforcements and confusion among his own troops he decided it was necessary to order a fighting retreat. This was conducted in good order with the Danes defending every inch of ground until they reached the area between Ulkebøl and Vollerup.

Here Steinmann, seeing that the retreat of the detachments spread out in the island was threatened by the advance of the Prussian left wing, halted the retreat and turned on the advancing Prussians in order to give these datachments time to escape.

He launched his columns in a vigorous counter attack and for half an hour held his position against overwhelming numbers. Having achieved his goal, and seeing his own left in danger of being overwhelmed and his line of retreat threatened, he resolved to withdraw towards Hørup and from there to the isthmus of Kekenis taking with him a large number of his wounded.

The Prussians immediately began spreading over the whole island troubling the Danish retirement with shelling which inflicted heavy losses on the retreating troops. Winzingerode's division, which had been advancing on the left, received the order to modify his movement in order to cut off the retirement to the troops retreating on Nordborg, Augustenborg, etc while the main column continued advancing toward Horüp.

Meanwhile Goeben's brigade (Manstein division), on the right wing, seized the so-called windmill height, close to Sonderborg, and then the city itself. Here a regiment of Danish infantry was surprised and made prisoner. However a large number who refused to surrender succeeded in carving a way out at the point of the bayonet and rejoined the column of General Steinmann; who continued a slow fighting retreat in good order, preceded by his artillery, munition, baggage and wounded. Towards noon, this column cleared the isthmus of Kekenaes.

Outposts were established in order to observe the enemy while the majority of troops were kept under arms, in the expectation of an attack. Embarkation of everything salvaged from disaster; materials, horses, etc., etc. was begun immediately. This was achieved without Prussian interference. It is not until 1st July that the Prussians crossed the gulf in some boats which they had taken from Høruphav.

The small Danish flotilla, being already embarked, immediately set sail. It was a sad spectacle; the energetic defenders kept a bitter silence as they watched the last shred of the duchy, which they had valiantly defended and which a centuries-old possession made them love like their homeland, vanish over the horizon. The embarked troops arrived at Funen on the evening of the same day.

The Danes losses included 216 dead, 462 wounded, 1878 prisoners and 536 missing. The Prussians suffered 372 casualties including seven missing. They seized thirty pieces of artillery and several flags (16).

Some month Latter the Prussian Monitor published a royal decree declaring that commemorative monuments would be constructed on the field of battle of Düppel and on the beach of Als "in order to perpetuate through all times the memory of this glorious war. "

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(1) The Prussian firing was not meant as a preparation but was done to provoke the Danish batteries to return the fire thus revealing their positions. Perceiving the Prussian intent the Danes did not return the fire.
(2) General Moltke would have preferred to have invaded Als and Fyn (Funen) simultaneously but the Austrians were afraid of English intervention.
(3) The artillery was also intended to deal with the Danish navy especially the Rolf Krake
(4) To cover the area north of Als (Mels Peninsula) the 6th Regiment was posted opposite Ballegaard.
(5) There was also a severe shortage of officers.
(6) The distribution of the troops was primarily to defend the coast as the risk of being trapped was dealt with by preparing two eastern harbours in the north of the island as points of disembarkment. Tis proved adequate as when the invasion came the troops were successfully embarked.
(7) Some Austrian engineers with pontoons and boats participated in the invasion of Als.
(8) A full order of battle is found here (coming).
(9) The Danish Headquarters believed that the Prussians would make bridges to cross Als Sund. This belief should never have developed as Danish spies had informed headquarters of the assembling of boats and pontoons. However the situation was further complicated by the fact that, earlier in the campaign (April 1st-3rd), the Prussians had planned to invade Als from Hardeshøj which inclined the Danes to believe that there would be some activity from that quarter.
(10) Nine battalions had already made the crossing.
(11) The Iron clad monitor, the Rolf Krake, had become a legend in Denmark due to her exploits during the defence of the Dybbol positions.
(12) On the previous occasions when the Rolf Krake had seen action she had been forced to withdraw due to the damage inflicted by the Prussian guns to the bridge and other exposed parts of the ship.
(13) The commander of the Rolf Krake did not break off the engagement just because of damage. He had concluded that as the firing was moving south that the invasion had succeeded. Based on this observation he moved on to his next task, picking up stragglers. This failure of judgement resulted in him being court marshalled. He was, however, acquitted.
(14) Before the Rolf Krake retired she succeeded in sinking a number of the boats.
(15) The Danish field artillery failed to play any role in the day's fighting.
(16)These flags were not true standards but rather small flags used for marking assembly points. The Prussians captured a large number of these at Duppel which were also represented as standards.

Further notes
- The original Prussian plan for invading Als after the armistice was in fact at Ballegaard - Hardeshøj. But due to visible Danish movements near Hardeshoj and Danish naval forces in the waters prior to 29 June forced the Prussian to chose Arnkil at Alssund. Before that the Prussians had made a display near Storskov at Sottrup by moving around with pontoons and boats clearly visible to the Danes on Als. This was done to divert the Danish attention from the Ballegaard-Hardeshoj operation! This meant that the ruse was used as the main operation!

The boats - 42 in all, were during the night 28-29 June, moved along the coast from Ballegaard to Snogbak Hage. Here they picked up landing-troops for Arnkil. En-route the boats were fired upon by Prussian Hussars who had not been told of the boats. This nearly revealed the invasion to the Danes
- A floating bridge consisting of 32 pontoons was constructed on the Sound at Sonderborg. Work began at 4am on June 30th and was finished by 11am. The length of the bridge was 126 metres. This enabled the passage of the cavalry, artillery and some ambulances.

Further Reading
Crouse, F. Invasion du Danemark en 1864, Paris 1865 (the article is based on a English translation of a section of this work)
Special thanks to Ole Andersen of Sonderborg who provided a great deal of extra information, which is mostly incorporated in the foot notes.

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