The Theater War (Swedish: Teaterkriget), alias Cowberry War (Norwegian: Tyttebærkrigen, Danish: Tyttebærkrigen), was a brief war between Denmark–Norway and Sweden, starting on 24 September 1788, formally lasting until 9 July 1789. Although the decision to launch the attack was taken in Denmark, the majority of the attacking soldiers were Norwegians from the Danish-Norwegian army.
The attack was directed towards the area known as Bohuslän in Sweden, and was supposed to be a diversion to support Russia who were allies of Denmark–Norway. Russia had in turn been attacked by Sweden (Gustav III's Russian War). Denmark–Norway had to honor their alliance with them, which they had signed in 1773.
When Gustav III of Sweden on his own initiative, and unconstitutionally, attacked Russia in 1788 and thereby started the Russo-Swedish War of 1788–90 Denmark found itself in an awkward position. In a treaty signed with Russia in 1773, Denmark–Norway committed itself to assist with 12,000 men, six ships of the line and three frigates in the case Russia were to be attacked. Soon after the Swedish attack, the Russians demanded that Denmark–Norway keep its promise, and Denmark–Norway was forced to join the war. When Gustav III received news of this, he exclaimed "I am saved!".
Considering that the attack on Russia was Gustav's own initiative, that many Swedish officers and the king's opponents were strongly against the war (see Anjala conspiracy), and that the war was not being fought very successfully, this exclamation might seem strange. However, Gustav III the astute politician saw this as a golden opportunity to turn the Swedish opinion in his favour. He left the battlefront in Finland and proceeded to Stockholm and then Dalarna where he managed to incite several free corps to participate in the defense against the Danes and Norwegians. Despite strong popular support, Sweden had only 10,000 men that had to be divided between Skåne, Jämtland and Bohuslän.
The Danish–Norwegian attack
The first Danish force of about 8,000-10,000 men under the command of prince Carl of Hessen attacked Bohuslän from Norway on September 24 and advanced quickly toward Vänersborg meeting feeble Swedish resistance. Colonel Johan Werner Tranefelt must ensconce himself in Kvistrum north of Uddevalla with his 700 men but was defeated on September 29 by a much larger Danish–Norwegian force led by major-general Johann Friedrich von und zu Mansbach. In a week the Danish–Norwegians took Uddevalla, Vänersborg, and Åmål and on October 6 they demanded the surrender of Gothenburg.
The invading troops met little resistance, and occupied Uddevalla, Vänersborg and Åmål within a week, but were later stopped at Gothenburg. Out of 10,000 soldiers, the Norwegians lost only 8 in the ensuing confrontations.
The defense of Gothenburg
By this time, Gustav III himself had arrived in the city and took resolute action; he dismissed the passive lieutenant-general Anders Rudolf Du Rietz and replaced him with lieutenant-general Johan Sparre af Söfdeborg. The defenses of Gothenburg were quickly strengthened. In addition, the British ambassador to Copenhagen Sir Hugh Elliot arrived in Gothenburg and brokered a short armistice with the Danish–Norwegian commander on October 9. Delaying and stalling tactics prolonged the armistice in stages to May, 1789.
Faced with the armistice, threats of a joint attack on Holstein from both Great Britain and Prussia, and an ever more strongly defended Gothenburg, the Danish–Norwegian troops marched off on November 12, 1788 toward Norway, and Gustav III could use this as an excuse to call it a victory. This was convenient for Sweden since the fighting on the Finnish front was very much still in progress.
The success could have turned into a debâcle when it was revealed that a lieutenant Benzelstjärna with the king's approval had planned to burn the seven Russian ships in the Copenhagen harbor. Through the revelation the plans were never carried out.
The attacking Danish–Norwegian force only lost eight men through acts of war. The almost frivolous Swedish and Norwegian names for the conflict do not reflect the real suffering caused by it: the Danish–Norwegian army lost 1,500-3,000 men to hunger, disease, poor sanitary conditions, and exposure to continual autumn rainfall. On the 12th of November, the Norwegian division retreated back to Norway.
On July 9, 1789, before the threat of a combined might of Britain and Prussia, Denmark agreed to cease active engagement in the conflict. A statement of neutrality was issued by Denmark, not a formal peace treaty.
The name of the war
The Swedish term "Theater War" reflects the view in later times that the war in practice was a theatrical spectacle rather than a "real" martial conflict.
In Norwegian, the war is known as Tyttebærkrigen after the Norwegian word for the mountain cranberry, in remembrance of how the Norwegian troops, denied assistance by the local population, had to live off the land in berry season.
- Georg Apenes, Tyttebærkrigen: det norske felttog i Sverige 1788, 1988.