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Campaigns in the 18th Century

The Ocean Expeditions
From Danzig to Kolberg
The Black Sea Dilemma
Chesma and Patras


The Ocean Expeditions

Peter I bequeathed the Russian fleet to his successors, but, from Catherine I to Peter III, none of Russia's rulers shared Peter the Great's love of the sea. In the decades that followed his death in 1725, it seemed inconceivable to Peter's successors that a display of warships was the best way to demonstrate Russia's potency and world stature. Nor was it deemed prudent to maintain, for no immediate purpose, Peter's fleet of thirty ships of the line and hundreds of complementary vessels; the cost of keeping such a force afloat would only further deplete the State coffers. Even more unthinkable was implementing Peter's plan to increase the size of the fleet, to realize his vision of creating a vast sea armada.

The Northern War, which lasted twenty-one years, had already served to exhaust Russia's resources and treasury. Accordingly, a period of retrenchment on fleet expenditures followed the death of Peter and was accompanied by a marked reduction in the construction of new vessels and in the numbers of seamen and officers. The Nautical School and Maritime Academy that Peter had founded did, however, continue to thrive. Their students and graduates preserved and enhanced the traditions of Russian seafaring both during Peter's reign and that of his successors. From 1716 to 1719 Russians sailed in a large Pomor-type lodya from Okhotsk to Kamchatka, the territory which had been explored by Vladimir Atlasov at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1720 graduates of the Maritime Academy, navigator-geodesist Ivan Yevreinov and Fyodor Luzhin, explored and mapped fourteen islands of the Kuril Ridge. The information they brought back became the basis for the well-known expedition of Captain-Commodore Vitus Bering. In the icy winter of 1724 Bering reached Kamchatka by land and in spring set sail, on the vessels built there, "along the land which leads to the North... to look for the site where this land has converged with America..."

The main object of the Russian seafarers was to find a passage from Russia to India and China across the Arctic Ocean. In 1728-1729 Bering sailed across the northern Pacific in the Saint Gavriil. Numbed by cold and piercing wind, the Saint Gavriil and its crew passed through the strait between Asia and America. Thus, this route was discovered for the second time. The final descriptions of the discovery were compiled after navigators Ivan Fyodorov and Mikhail Gvozdev charted the route of their 1732 exploration. The strait itself and the sea to the south of it were named in honor of Captain Bering. Bering's expedition discovered and explored the sea route between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk via the first Kuril Channel. Bering painstakingly recorded for future generations of mapmakers the southeast and southwest coasts of the Kamchatka Peninsula and, possibly of greatest importance, proved once and for all the nonexistence of the legendary lands that were thought to lie to the east and south of Kamchatka.

During his first Kamchatka expedition Bering could not, however, find the route to China and India. Therefore, in 1733 the government of Empress Anna decided to organize an unprecedented exploration of the northern coasts of Siberia and the Far East. Bering and a member of the Saint Gavriil expedition Alexey Chirikov set sail from Kamchatka. The other detachments were left to seek out the route to Japan along the Kuril Islands and explore the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The general leadership of the expedition was entrusted to the Admiralty Collegium.

The vessels set out on their expeditions and began a sequence of amazing discoveries. In 1736-1737 the detachment under Lieutenant Stepan Malygin rounded Jamal Peninsula and reached the estuary of the Ob River. At the same time, the detachment under Lieutenant Dmitry Ovtsin, sent farther eastward, sailed from the Ob estuary to the Yenisei and mapped the coast of the Gydansk Peninsula. Lieutenants Vasily Pronchishchev and Hariton Laptev explored the coast of Taimyr Peninsula and the estuary of the Lena. The navigator of that detachment, Semyon Cheluskin, discovered and described the northern tip of the Asian continent. Finally, Pyotr Lasinius and Dmitry Laptev sailed along the Siberian shore from the estuary of the Lena to the Kolyma. Due to its grand scale and daring, this voyage came to be called the Great North Expedition. Many geographic areas and bodies of water were named to honor the eighteenth century Russian officers who first explored them: the Straits of Malygin and Ovtsin, the Pronchishchev Coast, Cape Cheluskin and the Laptev Sea.

In early summer of 1741 two packet-boats, the Saint Peter and the Saint Paul, left the calm harbor of Petropavlovsk [Peter and Paul], which had been discovered during the first Kamchatka expedition, and, under the command of Bering and Chirikov, the ships reached the North American continent. Unfortunately, the second Kamchatka expedition was Bering's last. Returning from the coast of Alaska his Saint Peter wintered near one of the Komandorskiye Islands. On that island, later named Bering Island, the prominent seafarer fell ill and died. However, as a result of his second Kamchatka expedition, the northwest coast of America was explored as well as the Aleutian and Komandorskiye Islands.

In 1738-1742 the vessels of Captain Martin Spanberg were the first to reach the northeastern coasts of Sakhalin and Japan. The information gathered during his expedition helped in compiling the eastern portion of the General Map of the Russian Empire, drawn up in 1745.

From Danzig to Kolberg

While Russian seafarers had been discovering new lands, Russia's seamen had been asserting the power of Russian ships of the line in the Baltic. In 1734 the fleet assisted Russian land forces in the siege of Danzig, where a claimant to the Polish throne, Stanislav Leshchinsky, supported by King Louis XV of France, had been in hiding. In opposition to the French, Russian Empress Anna ordered that August III be made King of Poland. The French delayed arming their fleet and were able to dispatch only three ships of the line and two frigates. In May of 1734 a total of eighteen hundred French soldiers disembarked near Danzig while their ships lay at anchor nearby, awaiting reinforcements.

The Russian fleet left Kronstadt on May 15 under Admiral Thomas Gordon, who had his flag on the 100-gun ship Peter I and II. For reconnaissance the admiral sent out the 32-gun frigates Russia and Mitau. Ten days later the frigate Mitau, commanded by Captain Pyotr Defremery, was taken unawares by the French 60-gun Fleuron and 46-gun Gloire. At the insistence of the French, Captain Defremery came on board the Fleuron and was then arrested. The Russian frigate Mitau, left without its captain, was seized. Admiral Gordon, meanwhile, arrived at Danzig with the fleet on 1 June. Having failed to repulse the reinforcements, the French surrendered on 13 June. Leshchinsky escaped from Danzig, the town was occupied by Russian troops and the French gave up their frigate the Brilliant. The dispute over the Polish throne ended in favor of August III.

The Swedes had not forgotten their defeat in the Northern War, and for twenty years had awaited an opportunity for revenge. At last, in 1741 the Swedish government acted, albeit unwisely. They managed to send only twelve ships of the line to the Gulf of Finland, while the Russian fleet had armed fourteen out of 27 ships of the line. In 1741 no sea engagement occurred. The Russian ships were anchored off shore, and the Swedes never attacked. The Russian army had acted decisively. Supported by the galley fleet, the land forces inflicted a heavy defeat upon the enemy at Vilmanstrand.

In August 1742 the land forces of General Field Marshal Pyotr Lassy, advancing along the Finnish coast, compelled Helsingfors Fortress (modern-day Helsinki) and its Swedish garrison of 17,000 to surrender. The left flank of Lassy's army was sup-ported by 44 galleys and a landing force of 10,000 men. To screen the galleys, a flotilla under Vice-Admiral Zakhary Mishukov was sent from Kronstadt. Mishukov approached the Swedish fleet of Vice-Admiral Sjostjerna, which, having earlier retreated from the Aspo skerries to Gangut Peninsula, had opened the way to the Russian galleys. Both commanders, each with fourteen ships of the line, showed determination to fight but passed clear of each other without firing a single cannon. The Russian ships headed for Revel and the Swedes, for Karlskrone. Although no shots were fired, losses were nevertheless incurred when the 32-gun Russian frigate Hector and the Swedish 54-gun ship of the line Oland were wrecked in a fierce storm.

The campaign of 1743 began in May with a battle between the two prams (armed ships for use in shallow water) and seven galleys of Russian Captain Ivan Kaysarov against the one pram and eighteen galleys of Swedish Vice-Admiral Falkengren. The stubborn fight off Korpostrem Island lasted three hours, after which the Swedes retreated to the Aland Islands, where the galley fleet of General Field Marshal Lassy, 133 vessels with a landing force, was awaiting the Swedish invasion.

To block the way to the Russian galleys, the Swedes advanced sixteen ships of the line under Admiral von Utfahl. Off Gangut they were met by Russia's Baltic fleet, sent from Kronstadt, under Admiral Nikolay Golovin, who commanded fifteen ships of the line. Golovin was sailing on board the Saint Peter. On 6 June the two formidable forces were ready for battle. It was foggy and the sea was calm. Golovin fired several guns, and the Swedes responded. The range was long, and the cannonballs fell into the water, not striking their intended targets. Golovin never actually attacked the Swedes, but his maneuvers diverted von Utfahl from Gangut. Lassy's galleys were no longer obstructed, and on 15 June he reached the Aland Islands and received a communication asking for peace. The Abo Peace Treaty was signed soon thereafter and, according to its terms, Russia not only retained its former territories, but also gained a part of Finland up to the Kymin River.

By the beginning of the Seven Years War (1756-1762), the government of Empress Elizabeth had, to some extent, succeeded in strengthening the Russian fleet. However, her fleet commander's strategies proved unsuccessful. While the enemy did not resist, fleet commander Admiral Mishukov did well. However, in August 1760, during a landing at the Prussian fortress of Kolberg, the fleet lost 22 guns, and 600 men were taken prisoner, due to an unwise decision on his part.

The following year Vice-Admiral Andrey Polyansky brought nineteen ships of the line and 7,000 landing troops to Kolberg. On land Polyansky was supported by commander Major-General Pyotr Rumyantsev. On 6 December the Prussians surrendered to Rumyantsev. The Russian command captured 30 banners, 146 guns and nearly 3,000 enemy prisoners.

The Black Sea Dilemma

In the early summer of 1736 Russian land and sea forces captured the Turkish-held fortress of Azov. The Russian fleet was under the command of Admiral Pyotr Bredal, a veteran of the fleet of Peter I. Admiral Bredal's ships encircled the fortress, already under siege by Russian troops. Six prams (floating batteries) blocked the estuary of the Don, and the remaining vessels commenced an attack that continued for ten days. During the relentless bombardment more than eight thousand cannonballs were fired at the fortress. On 19 June Azov surrendered.

Azov was the Don flotilla's only victory in the war. During the next two years Admiral Bredal ordered hundreds of vessels into the Sea of Azov, but they were no match for the more heavily armed Turkish fleet. On 14 June 1737, Seaman First Class Afanasy Patrushev, in only a small ship, engaged a Turkish furkat and repulsed its attack. On 10 July the commander of the unfortunate frigate Mitau, Captain Defremery, regained his reputation and won honor for his heroism. Greatly outnumbered by Turkish forces, he ordered the grounding of his ship in the coastal shallows. He then commanded the crew to hasten ashore. After the enemy rushed aboard, Captain Defremery ignited a trail of powder he had sprinkled leading from the powder barrels in the hold of the ship and made good his escape with no time to spare.

In 1738 the Turks managed to blockade the Russians near Genichesk. The Russian forces burned their own vessels and reached Azov by land. Their ultimate aim was, however, the occupation of Constantinople. In order to realize that goal, it was decided, in January 1737, that 355 deeper, but smaller vessels, more suitable for sailing on the Black Sea, be constructed at the Bryansk shipyard. At the same time, good fortune also eluded the Bryansk (Dnieper) flotilla, which supported the army of General Field Marshal Burkhard Minikh during the Ochakov offensive.

Low water detained the flotilla on the Dnieper. Receiving no support, Minikh took Ochakov by storm on his own. In desperate assaults the Turks continued attempts to retake the fortress. The large boats and brigantines of the flotilla, together with the troops, successfully repulsed them, but the battle rendered the vessels unfit for further action on the Black Sea.

Misfortune continued to pursue the Russian seamen. In 1738 plague broke out among the seamen, decimating officers and sailors alike. The commander of the flotilla Vice-Admiral Naum Sinyavin and his successor Rear Admiral Vasily Dmitriev-Mamonov were among the victims. The epidemic continued into the next year. Russia finally lost so many seamen to the plague that the navy was forced to admit defeat and surrender.

In accordance with the Peace Treaty of 1739 Russia returned the destroyed towns of Ochakov and Kinburn to the Ottoman Empire but gained Azov and the territories between the Bug and Dnieper Rivers, though without the right to erect fortifications or enter the Black Sea.

The ambitious Catherine II, even in the years preceding her reign, studied statesmanship and the requirements of a sovereign power. After becoming empress in 1762, she demonstrated, through decrees relating to naval affairs, that she intended to continue the maritime policies of Peter I and that, for her, he was the exemplary seaman. During the first years of her reign she restored much of the former grandeur of the Russian fleet. New regular posts were added to the staff of the Baltic fleet. To provide for a possible large-scale war, the Tsarina authorized an increase in the strength of the fleet up to 40 ships of the line, nine frigates, eight bomb-vessels and prams, and 150 galleys. In 1765 the new Regulations on Controlling Admiralties and Fleets replaced those of Peter I's time, and in 1777 regulations were adopted on the improvement of ship armaments. Admiral Alexey Nagayev developed new accurate national navigational charts.

An expedition by Captain Pyotr Krenitsin and Captain-Commodore Vasily Chichagov explored the Aleutian Islands and the Arctic Ocean, reaching the previously inaccessible latitude of 80 degrees 30 minutes. In 1764-1765 the frigate Nadezhda [Hope] ventured into the Mediterranean Sea. Catherine II appointed her son Paul General-Admiral of the fleet, a move that compromised the institute established by Peter the Great. Since 1770 the fleet had been under the command of President of the Admiralty Collegium Count Ivan Chernyshov. Throughout the 60s-80s of the eighteenth century, many foreign commanders also appeared in positions throughout the fleet: Englishmen Samuel Greig and John Trevenen, Greek Panaiothos Alexiano, and Dalmatian Mark Voinovich. Many Russian seamen received their training in foreign fleets. Another of the Empress's most dependable means of resolving problems relating to the Russian Navy was her reliance upon a trio of advisors known as her "Eagles" - Alexey Orlov, Grigory Orlov [Orlov derives from the Russian word oryol meaning "eagle"] and Grigory Potemkin-Tavrichesky, who was also the founder of the Black Sea fleet.

Considering Catherine II's preparations, the new Russian-Turkish War of 1768-1774 did not take the Russian fleet by surprise. As soon as the Ottoman Empire presented an ultimatum, Catherine II confirmed the decrees reestablishing the Azov flotilla, the base of the future Black Sea fleet, and sent squadrons from that fleet into the Mediterranean.

Chesma and Patras

In November 1769 for the first time in history, a Russian warship entered the waters of the Mediterranean. It was the 66-gun Yevstafy, sailing under the command flag of Admiral Grigory Spiridov. The Greeks had been fighting against their Turkish conquerors; Spiridov's squadron arrived to lend assistance, followed by a squadron headed by Rear Admiral John Elfinston.

After landing in the Greek province of Moreia, the Russians surrounded the Turkish fortress of Koron, and on 10 April 1770 took Navarino, capturing 45 guns. In May, Elfinston, with three ships of the line and two frigates, twice attacked the Turkish fleet of Kapudan-Pasha Hassan-bey. The Turkish forces were three times superior in number, but the constant assaults of the Russians forced them to retreat to the Aegean Sea. Count Alexey Orlov, who was at that time General-in-Chief of all the armies, was named by Catherine II Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet. He immediately combined the Spiridov and Elfinston squadrons, and began a search for the enemy. On 23 June 1770 he sighted the Turks lying at anchor in the Chios Strait. The enemy had 73 vessels, among them sixteen ships of the line and six frigates formed in two lines. The Russians could advance only nine ships of the line and three frigates; the Turks boasted twice as many guns. In counsel with his advisors, Count Orlov convened a Council of War. On the afternoon of 24 June the Russian fleet began to fire upon the Turkish center and vanguard. The Russians were led by Spiridov on the Yevstafy, with Elfinston on the 80-gun Svyatoslav bringing up the rear of the column. Orlov's flag was flying on the 66-gun ship Three Hierarchs in the center of Commodore Samuel Greig's formation.

The Turks opened fire on the Yevstafy. The Russian ship returned their fire and extensively damaged the 80-gun Real-Mustafa, which was commanded by the Turkish admiral. The Russians boarded the enemy ship, but at that moment the burning mast of the Real-Mustafa fell on the Yevstafy and ignited its powder supply. With a terrific roar both ships exploded and sank. Admiral Spiridov, nonetheless, succeeded in escaping the conflagration, and managed to transfer his flag onto the Tri Svyatitelya [Three Saints]. The rest of the Russian fleet continued the attack. The Turks, now in retreat, cut their anchor cables and hid in the narrow Chesma Bight.

Shortly after the battle the Russians decided to attack the enemy on the night of 26 June. Commodore Greig's unit, consisting of four ships of the line, two frigates, one bombardment ship, Grom and four fire ships, entered the Chesma Bight. At approximately midnight the Europe, commanded by Captain Klokachev, opened fire on the Turks. He was supported by Greig on the Rostislav and by other ships of the line and frigates. Within an hour and a half the water in the bight was illuminated by the light of the first burning Turkish ship. Greig sent out bombardment ships and branders to attack the enemy. One of the branders was commanded by Lieutenant Ilyin, who set fire to his brander and then rammed it into one of the larger Turkish war-ships. The brander was tightly hooked onto the Turkish vessel with grapnels; the enemy ship caught fire and then its powder ignited. It exploded with such force that neighboring Turkish vessels started to ignite, and soon the entire Turkish fleet was aflame. The Russians captured the 60-gun ship Rhodos and five galleys; by 9 a. m. the Turkish fleet had ceased to exist.

The Battle of Chesma was the decisive naval victory over the Ottoman Empire. Not counting the ships themselves, the Turks lost eleven thousand seamen. Russian losses totaled 534 seamen, the majority of whom perished aboard the Yevstafy.

For the victory at Chesma several seamen were awarded the Order of Saint George, created by decree of Catherine II on 26 November 1769: Captains Klokachev and Khmetevsky, Lieutenant-Commander Perepechin (of the Grom) and Lieutenant Ilyin. The Russian fleet now commanded the Aegean Sea, blocking all sea borne supply routes to the capital of the Ottoman Empire and raiding Turkish seaside fortresses. In November of 1771 the landing troops aboard Russian vessels set fire to an admiralty and two enemy ships of the line in Mitilen. In all, twenty ships of the line, based in the port of Aousa on Paros Island, were sent to the Mediterranean.

In July 1773, a detachment under Captain Ivan Kozhukhov, consisting of five frigates and fourteen smaller ships, landed troops at the fortress of Beirut. Russian forces besieged the town for over two months, capturing the fortress, two smaller galleys and 41 cannon and exacting a tribute of thirty thousand piasters. Since Beirut had traditionally helped fund the military efforts of the Turkish Sultan, his situation was now considerably weaker.

The battle for Patras and its capture was one of the most important Russian victories in the Mediterranean. On 28 October 1772, the unit of Captain Mikhail Konyaev, comprising two ships of the line and two frigates, destroyed eight Turkish frigates and eight shebekas defending the fortresses of Patras and Lepanto.

The triumphs of the Russian fleet in the Mediterranean Sea served to exalt Russia's stature among European nations. The growing respect accorded Russia was also a psychological incentive that Russia needed to defeat the indefatigable, and seemingly omnipotent, Turks. The prowess of Russia's ships demonstrated that Catherine the Great's efforts were not in vain and that, by continuing the maritime policies laid down by Peter I, she saw in Russia's maritime potential the glory and majesty of the Russian State.

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