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The Great Northern War

From Narva to Poltava
Vyborg and Gangut
In the Baltic
The legacy of Peter I

From Narva to Poltava

The enmity that had existed between Russia and Sweden since the time of the Vikings and the princes of Novgorod intensified during the reign of Peter I and culminated in the twenty-year long Great Northern War. Russia had no ships on the Baltic and was struggling to gain entrance into this key sea link with Europe. With a fleet of 39 ships of the line, Sweden dominated the Baltic and, under King Charles XII, fought to maintain its supremacy against what the Swedes considered the encroachments of Tsar Peter's forces.

In 1700 the exhausted army of Peter I was routed at Narva. Driven back from Swedish-held territory, Peter I was only briefly disappointed and quickly resumed the planning of fresh military campaigns. When Charles XII, meanwhile encouraged by his successes, sent an invading army into Poland, Peter I and his advisors were convinced that a Swedish naval attack was imminent.

In May 1701 a Swedish force of seven ships, armed with a total of 127 cannon, left Sweden and proceeded toward the White Sea. Under the command of Commodore Karl Lewe, the flotilla had orders to occupy and destroy the port of Arkhangelsk, thus preventing Peter from receiving shipments of supplies or armaments from Europe through Russia's single seaport. The ships reached the estuary of the Severnaya Dvina by the end of June. Lewe dispatched three ships to make a reconnaissance of the area and to impress into service local helmsmen who were competent to guide the Swedish ships. Late one night two of the local pilots taken captive, Ivan Sedunov and Dmitry Popov, risked their lives and infuriated the Swedes by deliberately directing two of the Swedish vessels into shallow waters. The ships went aground in a shoal quite close to the Russian-held fortress of Novodvinsk. Since there is very little darkness in the far North during the month of June the enemy ships were at once sighted and fired upon by the garrison of Novodvinsk. When the captain of one of the Swedish vessels was hit and mortally wounded during the consequent cannonade, seamen from the two grounded vessels scurried aboard the single still seaworthy Swedish vessel. The Mjohunden and the Falken, with thirteen guns between them, thus fell into Russian hands.

The victory at the Dvina estuary saved Arkhangelsk; its port continued to be Russia's sole link to northern Europe by sea. Lewe, despondent over his loss, returned to Sweden.

In 1702 the Russian fleet celebrated yet another victory. Russian soldiers in lodyas attacked superior-armed Swedish squadrons on Lakes Chudskoye and Ladoga and took total possession of Lake Ladoga. Encouraged by his successes, Field Marshal Boris Sheremetev launched new offensives, taking the fortresses of Oreshek and Kanzi. On the night of 7 May Captain Pyotr Mikhailov and Lieutenant Alexander Menshikov (in reality Tsar Peter I and his close friend and advisor Alexander Menshikov) successfully attacked and captured the Swedish snow Astrild and the galliot Gedan, which had entered the mouth of the Neva River.

Following the battle, all participating officers and soldiers were awarded medals bearing the inscription: "The unprecedented has happened". The first Russian military order was thereupon created, the Order of St. Andrew the Summoned, and Peter I and Menshikov became its first recipients.


The 28-gun frigate "Shtandart" (1703)

An important date in Russian history is 16 May 1703, the day on which Peter I decreed the founding of the Saint Petersburg fortress on Zayachy [Hare] Island at the mouth of the Neva. In order further to protect the sea approaches to the new fortress, Fort Kronshlot was also erected off Kotlin Island in the Gulf of Finland. In the winter of the following year on the left bank of the Neva, almost opposite Zayachy Island, a new admiralty was founded, that is, a shipyard for constructing vessels destined to constitute the new Baltic fleet.

The Russian Navy was largely successful throughout the Northern War. In 1704 Narva was retaken, and the batteries of Kronstadt repelled a Swedish attempt to approach Saint Petersburg from the sea. In the summer of the following year the Russian fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Kornely Kruys, became engaged in a battle off Kotlin Island against a Swedish squadron under Admiral Anckarstjerna. The battle lasted several days on the open sea, and, although the odds greatly favored the Swedes, the Russian line was supported by the batteries at Kronstadt and Kotlin. The Swedes attempted to return the Russians fire and land troops, but both efforts ended in failure. Having suffered casualties of 114 wounded and 560 killed and captured, the remaining Swedish force retreated.

In the frigid autumn of 1706 the Russian army marched on Vyborg. During the campaign Guards-Sergeant Mikhail Shchepotyev commanded a group of five boats which encountered the Swedish 4-gun ship Esper in the night fog. Under cover of darkness the Russians rushed aboard the enemy ship and, after brutal hand-to-hand combat, took control of the boat and fended off another Swedish ship which came to aid the Esper. In spite of the small victories of Russian soldiers and officers, Vyborg remained in Swedish hands.

For the next two years the Swedes displayed no noticeable activity in the Baltic. The war's outcome was being decided far from sea in the struggle between the armies of Peter I and Charles XII, and in 1709 the first phase of the Northern War ended with Russia's victory at Poltava.

Vyborg and Gangut

Charles XII had now to demonstrate his skill at withstanding a formidable Russian assault. The Swedish king recovered from the heavy defeat at Poltava and advanced 41 ships of the line into the Baltic. But Russia had powerful allies: once again Danish vessels came to aid the Russian forces. With the assistance of Russia's allies Peter managed to concentrate his forces in the North.

The Russians marched to Vyborg under the command of General-Admiral Fyodor Apraksin. It was early spring, and the army moved across an ice-field from Kotlin Island. Soon afterwards, when the ice had mostly melted away, the army was followed by the fleet of Vice-Admiral Kruys, which escorted numerous transports laden with siege artillery and military supplies. In the lead snow, the Lizetta, was Peter I, who, as Pyotr Mikhailov, had ascended to the rank of Rear Admiral following the battle of Poltava. On 9 May the transports approached Vyborg, and the unloading of guns, provisions and ammunition was hurriedly begun in order not to meet with Swedish ships on the return voyage. This operation was successfully completed, and, after the Kruys squadron had left for Kronstadt, the Russians began to bombard Vyborg. The bombardment lasted until 12 June, when the Swedish garrison surrendered. Less than a month later the Russian troops celebrated a new impressive success: Field Marshal Sheremetev captured Riga. After Riga his army forced the surrender of Dinamunde, Pernau, and Revelother important strongholds on the Baltic coast.

On 4 October 1710, in a heated battle in the Kjoge Bay, ships of the Danish fleet forced Swedish war vessels into a shoal. Although the Danes themselves lost a vessel, the Swedes were compelled to abandon and set ablaze two of their own grounded warships, the 86-gun Tre Kroner and the 80-gun Prinsessa Ulrika. Receiving news of the Danish victory at Kjoge, Peter saw that friendly relations with such northern allies as the maritime Kingdom of Denmark would continue to play a meaningful role in Russia's future.


The 54-gun warship "Poltava" (1703)

In 1710 Russia's first three 50-gun ships were launched from the shipyards of New Ladoga and Olonets. This was an important event, since, following the Prut Treaty and the elimination of the Azov fleet, the center of Russian naval activity had now shifted to the coast of the Baltic Sea. Within two years the 54-gun ship Poltava, was launched from the Admiralty. She was followed by the even larger Saint Catherine, Shlisselburg, Narva and Ingermanland.

In 1715 in Saint Petersburg, the Sea-Guards Maritime Academy (Naval Academy) was established, replacing the Nautical School which had opened fourteen years earlier in Moscow.

The first segment of the Baltic fleet met with Tsar Peter's approval. It was comprised of 27 ships of the line (the largest warships), six frigates, and six snows. A hundred galleys, indispensable in skirmishes, were also included, and their usefulness was proven in 17121713 by the victory of a galley fleet under Rear Admiral Ivan Batsis in Finnish waters.

The army of Peter I was, for the most part, successful. Assured by his accomplishments, Peter resolved to capture Finland and the Aland Archipelago in order to attack Sweden. In MayJune of 1714 General-Admiral Apraksin moved his entire galley fleet, consisting of 99 scampavias (small galleys), to Helsingfors. He was accompanied by the fleet of Rear Admiral Pyotr Mikhailov, which included nine ships of the line and five frigates. Off Helsingfors the two Russian fleets separated. Peter headed toward Revel with the larger force, while Apraksin made for Abo (modern Turku). Near Gangut Peninsula, however, the Swedish squadron of Admiral Gustav Wattrang blocked Apraksin's ships.

The Russian fleet had been considerably reinforced by ships at Revel, but when an epidemic of plague broke out among his seamen, Peter could not risk a decisive battle with the forces of Admiral Wattrang. Apraksin's galley fleet had to break through to Gangut on its own.


Russian galley (1703)

Peter made for Tvarminne, where Apraksin's galleys were concentrated, on the eastern coast of the peninsula. Upon his arrival the Tsar ordered a portage of several scampavias across the narrow Isthmus of Gangut in order to confuse the enemy. Upon learning of the Russian portage, Wattrang decided to send out a small unit under the command of Schoutbynacht Nils Ehrenskold. At the same time the Swedish admiral divided his main forces. A detachment of eight ships of the line and two cruisers under Vice-Admiral Lillie set out for Tvarminne to attack the Russian galleys. Almost complete calm slowed the progress of the Swedish fleet, and Peter was quick to take advantage. On the sunny morning of 26 July the vanguard of the Russian galley fleet passed by Wattrang's ships still lying off the coast and blocked Ehrenskold's unit in the skerries west of Gangut. Wattrang then towed his ships farther from the coast and joined Lillie.

However, the Swedish admiral could not aid Ehrenskolds unit, which had taken a defensive position at the end of Rilaks Fjord. The Russian ships rushed to the attack. Ehrenskold had the advantage in artillery but was inferior in strength. In the course of the battle all the Swedish ships were captured. The 18-gun Elephant, six galleys and two skerry boats became trophies of the Russian fleet. Rear Admiral Ehrenskold was himself taken prisoner.

In the Baltic

After the victory of Gangut the Russian fleet, which now enjoyed free rein in the western skerries of Finland, reached Abo and occupied the Aland Islands. This greatly lifted morale and considerably stiffened the fighting spirit of the Russian troops. Gangut was given the name "Poltava at Sea" and its anniversary (July 27) became a celebrated tradition in the Russian Navy.

The year 1715 was marked by new Russian victories in the Northern War. The unit of Captain Pyotr Bredal, three frigates and a snow captured three Swedish ships during a desperate fight in the open sea. In response, the Swedes attempted to engage the Russian ships at Revel, but failed. New victories nearly always meant new allies. Thus, England and Holland, interested in sea borne trade with Russia, sent a large convoy of merchant vessels and an escort squadron to the Baltic. Exploiting his success and the favorable position it gave him, Peter next decided to organize an allied Russian-Danish landing at Sconia, a southern province of Sweden.

In the summer of 1716 the Russian fleet, now concentrated off the Danish coast, was joined by Danish, British and Dutch ships. The allied armada was under the command of Peter I, who hoisted his ensign on the stellar ship of the Russian fleet, the 64-gun Ingermanland. The Russian force included frigates, small cruisers and eighteen ships of the line.

The allied armada set sail for Bronholm. Fearing that engagement with such a strong fleet would prove unsuccessful, the Swedes blockaded themselves in Karlskrona. Although final victory was at hand, considerable discord prevented the allies from bringing their mission to a successful conclusion. The summer of 1716 was not blessed by victory: the landing operation in Sweden did not take place, and the Northern War continued.

Moreover, Charles XII died in December 1718, putting an end to the peace negotiations which had already begun. England, now anxious over the obvious strengthening of Russia's position in the Baltic, took up the side of the Swedes and volunteered to defend their interests with the backing of the English fleet.

It was difficult to stop the Russian forces which, by this time, were firmly established in the Baltic. The Russian fleet had become so powerful that it could now challenge the Swedish fleet on the open sea. In May 1719 Captain Naum Sinyavin left Revel with a group of six ships of the line and a snow to intercept a Swedish unit. On 24 May, the adversaries met not far from Osel Island. Sinyavin, aboard the 52-gun Portsmouth, supported by Captain Konon Zotov on the Devonshire, resolutely attacked the flagship of Swedish Commodore Wrangel. In the fierce fight that ensued, the Portsmouth, despite the loss of sails, managed to hit the 34-gun Swedish frigate Karlskrona Vapen with a fore-and-aft salvo, forcing her to surrender. When the Swedish flagship, the 52-gun ship of the line Wachtmeister, attempted to escape from the Russians, Captain Iakov Shapizo commanding the Raphail and Lieutenant-Commander John Delyap of the Hyagudiil were sent in pursuit. The bloody ensuing fight continued until the Russians overcame the Swedish flagship and forced her to strike her colors. Aboard the captured ships were approximately 110 killed and wounded. Sinyavin's feat went down in history, and the battle of Osel Island became the first victory of the Russian fleet on the open sea.

Sinyavin was himself promoted to the rank of Captain-Commodore.

The following year the Swedes attempted to strengthen their position in the waters of the Aland Archipelago. However, the attempt resulted in defeat for Sweden. At the end of July 1720 near Grengam Island the galley fleet of General Mikhail Golitsyn engaged the detachment of Vice-Admiral Eric Sjoblad. Sixty-one Russian galleys and twenty-nine island boats set out against a Swedish ship of the line, four frigates and several smaller craft. Yielding to the enemy's superior artillery power, Golitsin's fleet retreated to the skerries. The Swedes started in pursuit of the Russian vessels, but Golitsyn, a shrewd and experienced officer, enticed the enemy into a disadvantageous position and seized his opportunity. The granite coastal boulders, in effect, came to Golitsyn's aid; two Swedish frigates were run against them, seized and boarded. The Swedes realized their mistake and began to retreat, but it was already too late. The Russian galleys chased the Swedish vessels and in a savage fight succeeded in defeating two more frigates. An attempt was made to overtake the flagship of the Swedish force, and Admiral Sjoblad himself was fortunate to escape on the damaged 52-gun Pommern.

The Battle of Grengam in the skerries became an important page in the history of the Russian fleet. The Swedish 34-gun frigate Stor Phoenix, the 30-gun Vainqueur, the 22-gun Kiskin and the 18-gun Danska Orn were all taken captive. The Russian forces suffered losses of 285, while the Swedes recorded 510 casualties.

In 1721, the final year of the Great Northern War, Russian galleys ravaged towns along the coast of Sweden in a series of raids. It was now clear that the Kingdom of Sweden was no longer the dominant power in the Baltic Sea, a position the Swedes had enjoyed since the days of the Vikings.

The Legacy of Peter I

The successes of the Russian army and fleet persuaded the Swedes to bargain for peace. According to the terms of the Nistadt Peace Treaty, signed 30 August 1721, Russia was given possession of Ingermanland, Estland, Lifland and Karelia, along with the towns of Vyborg and Keksholm and all the islands in the Gulf of Finland, together with the Moon Sound Archipelago. In addition, Russia was acknowledged to be the most powerful state in the Baltic and not without due cause. The Russian fleet now included forty-four combat units; ships of the line, the main striking force, numbered twenty-nine, and it is recorded that six of them were three-decked. The fleet was armed with 2,128 cannon, and the number of seamen and officers totaled 16,121. Moreover, the Maritime Academy continued to produce well-trained cadets. By comparison, the Swedish fleet came out of the Northern War with only twenty-one ships of the line.

The services of Peter I in battle were invaluable, but no less important was his role in such noncombatant endeavors as fleet organization. In 1718 the Admiralty Collegium, headed by the General-Admiral, was established in St. Petersburg to control the fleet. In 1720 the more complete Navy Regulations replaced the briefly-used, ten-year old Combat Instructions and Articles Pertaining to the Russian Fleet, compiled by Admiral Kruys. The new manual was written by one of the heroes of the Osel Island battle, Captain Zotov, and was personally edited by Peter I. The creation of the coastguard in 1722 was governed by the Regulations on Controlling Admiralties and Shipyards. The classification of ships was outlined in The Table of Ship Proportions, the appearance of which dates from 1724. Between 1724 and 1771 over ninety ships of the line and frigates were built for the Baltic fleet in compliance with the Table. Peter's Table of Ranks (1722) codified promotion and the gradation of officers; among them the ranks of non-commissioned lieutenant, lieutenant, lieutenant-commander, captain second rank (commander), captain first rank (captain), captain commodore, rear admiral, vice-admiral, admiral and general-admiral were determined. With only minor modifications, these ranks remained in effect until 1917. They were reinstated and used again between 1935 and 1940 as military grades.

As his fleet insignia Peter I designated a flag emblazoned with the azure blue oblique cross of Saint Andrew. First hoisted over Peter's mock flotilla in 1692, the flag became famous during the Northern War. According to an entry in the first volume of Peter's Navy Regulations: "Russian combat ships shall never strike their colors, pendants and topsails, under penalty of death."

On 11 August 1723, the Baltic Fleet, lying in formation off Kotlin Island, fired an imperial salvo to honor its illustrious precursor, the first little boat of Peter Ithe one he had sailed in during his boyhood in his "Amusement flotilla." The botik [little boat] had been transported from Moscow to Saint Petersburg amid great pomp and honors in order to play a special role in the Kotlin ceremonies. The crew of the botik consisted of the highest ranks of Russia's naval command: among them Admiral Pyotr Mikhailov, General-Admiral Apraksin, Vice-Admiral Prince Menshikov, and Rear Admiral Sinyavin, all of whom were honored for setting an example of selfless service to their native land. The same year on Kotlin Island the Kronstadt Fortress was founded and became the key fortress of Russia's Baltic Fleet.

The last military undertaking of Peter I was the Persian campaign of 1722-1723, and he ordered the construction of 274 additional vessels to transport his numerous forces. The new fleet carried 22,000 troops down the Volga to Astrakhan in mid-summer with General-Admiral Apraksin commanding the ships and their cargoes. On 18 June the flotilla entered the Caspian Sea, and on 23 June Russian troops captured the fortress of Derbent without firing a single cannon. Following this victory, Lieutenant-Commander Fyodor Soymonov and his troops took possession of the town of Resht, which likewise offered no resistance. The might of the Russian fleet in the Caspian Sea was viewed with great alarm by Russia's neighbors. However, extremely stormy weather soon began to hinder the Russian fleet, thus preventing further victories.

In the following year, during the first two months of the summer, the Russian fleet participated in General-Major Mikhail Matyushkin's expedition against the Persian-held fortress of Baku. For four days the enemy was bombarded from sea and land; at length, much weakened by the incessant attack of the Russian naval force, the garrison surrendered.

The Persian campaign resulted in a peace treaty which gave Russia the towns of Derbent and Baku along with their surrounding territories and three bordering Persian provinces. For the first time in many years, Russian merchants could now benefit from the Volga-Caspian trade route and travel it without danger.

Beyond question, farsighted Peter I fostered in Russia's military a special respect for naval tradition and all fields related to ships and shipbuilding. Now Emperor Peter I, he ordered the renewal of shipbuilding in Tavrov and decreed the creation of a new shipyard in Bryansk. He intended to build yet another fleet and move it down the Don and Dnieper Rivers and into the Black Sea. However, sudden death relegated the Tsar's plans to the whims and ambitions of his successors.

The above materials are by kind permission of publishing house "Alexander PRINT"