I heard many times that the British Empire had an official policy to attack anyone who was close to having a great flotilla able to challenge their sea dominance. I cannot find any sources about who declared this and when, how long it stood, and if it ever was an official policy.

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    You may be confusing the "Two powers policy" with the attack to the Danish fleet during the Napoleoninc wars or the attack to Mers-El-Kebir during WW II (all of them have nice wikipedia pages).
    – SJuan76
    Nov 15, 2015 at 20:36
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    BBC History magazine's article on the sinking of the Bismarck mentioned this notion. Several articles about WWI mentioned the preemptive attack doctrine, but never cited it or attributed it.
    – MCW
    Nov 16, 2015 at 12:37
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    The disgraceful British attacks on Denmark isn't dictated by doctrine - the responsible ministers never attempted to defend it as a matter of policy afaik. They were merely the ill conceived muscle flexing of a naval superpower that had ran out of actual foes after Trafalgar.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 17, 2015 at 4:29

1 Answer 1


I don't know of any such official policy. It would not have made much sense to deliberately and continuously start wars with other "great powers" of the time.

If you take, for example, the 1807 attack on Copenhagen, this was specifically motivated by reports that Napoleon was pressuring the Danes to use their fleet against the British or to give it to France. Napoleon had been engaging in war throughout Europe and had intended an invasion of England.

The British were not set on preemptive attack, they offered a more peaceful alternative that would place the Danish fleet out of Napoleon's reach:

Canning offered Denmark a treaty of alliance and mutual defence, with a convention signed for the return of the fleet after the war, the protection of 21 British warships and a subsidy for how many soldiers Denmark kept standing.

The next day Napoleon demanded Denmark prepare for war against Britain or face French invasion.

Everything points to the attack on Copenhagen being a reaction to a specific threat rather than a specific application of a general policy.

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    Well, reaction to a perceived and fabricated threat. The Danes were no threat and was set to resist France until the treachery drove them into Napoleon's arms. But your point that it was ad hoc and not doctrinal is well made, +1.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 24, 2015 at 16:52
  • The Danes were a threat in that they had a fleet capable of standing up to the British Navy, had it been used before destruction. (Note my use of the word fleet and not navy. The ships were the threat, not so much the people.)
    – CGCampbell
    Nov 24, 2015 at 20:33
  • @CGCampbell It wasn't a threat in any practical sense of the word. The Danish navy could not even defend its capital. Remember, the Danes fought very well against Nelson himself in 1801, so it was certainly not the case that a French crew would suddenly empower a mere 18 ships of the line to challenge British naval hegemony. The Royal Navy had 175 ships of the line and 750 frigates/sloops by 1805.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 24, 2015 at 21:04
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    Note that a very similar thing happened wrt the French fleet when the country capitulated to the Nazis. The Brits ordered all French capital ships to be either interred in friendly ports out of Nazi hands, or destroyed. ("Operation Catapult"). But this was more a tactical consideration that a political position. Technically they didn't have a "right" to do this, but this was a war, and they would have been really stupid to let the Nazis double their fleet this way.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 24, 2015 at 21:06
  • @T.E.D. Also worth noting that the French scuttled their ships when the Germans attempted to take them over.
    – Semaphore
    Nov 24, 2015 at 21:11

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