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Battles in the Baltic Sea

Armed Neutrality
From Hogland to Barezund
Revel and Krasnaya Gorka
Vyborg and Rochensalm

Armed Neutrality

While Russian seamen were waging war against the Turks, the Baltic Fleet was granted a respite. Accustomed to battle and reinforced with additional vessels, the Baltic Fleet had become a formidable force. Beyond territorial waters, however, Russia's vessels were less well-protected. Britain, France and Spain were constantly at war over colonized lands in the New World and used the hostilities as a pretext for raids on neutral merchant ships, Russian in particular. Having lost patience with such incidents, Catherine II, on February 28 1780, signed a special declaration in which she decreed the right of neutral merchant vessels to sail freely and asserted the safety of their cargoes.

Catherine II's Declaration of Armed Neutrality was directed at those nations that were engaged in brigandage and attacks on merchant vessels while at war with one another, namely England, France and Spain. In order to protect sea trade and "to free it from the oppressive restrictions imposed by these combative powers," the Empress "deems it her right to issue the following edict and compel its observance."

First, neutral ships shall travel freely and without restriction from one port to any other and along the coastlines of nations that may be at war. Second, possessions belonging to subjects of these combative powers, while aboard neutral ships, shall not be seized, impeded while in transit nor in any wise be considered the spoils of war, with the exception of goods prohibited by interdict. Third, goods under interdict shall be considered only such as are in the nature of armaments and military provisions.

Fourth, a blockaded port shall be considered only that port, the entry into which is restricted by the dangers posed by the presence or proximity of ships belonging to the combative nations. [A warning to neutral merchant vessels not to trade at such ports.]

Fifth, this Declaration in all its parts shall be observed in courts of law and shall govern the verdicts of such courts as shall have jurisdiction over piracy at sea and the dispensation of plundered goods. The Declaration further asserted the Tsarina's readiness to protect Russian ships with military force. Denmark, Sweden and Holland were among the first nations to support Catherine II's decree. In 1780 three powerful squadrons were ordered to make ready to enforce the Declaration's provisions. Rear Admiral Ivan Borisov took five ships of the line and two frigates into the Mediterranean, Commodore Nikolay Palibin brought five ships of the line and a frigate into the Atlantic, and Rear Admiral Alexander Kruse headed across the North Sea with another five ships of the line and a frigate. Russia enforced the Declaration of Armed Neutrality until 1783 when the Paris Peace Treaty put an end to the war in the Atlantic.

Although the Declaration was enforced for only three years, it was, nonetheless, an original doctrine of major significance. It contributed to the understanding among nations of the inviolability of peaceful merchant vessels, their right to be free from the threat of piracy and harassment, and that wanton disregard of such rights would not be tolerated by Russia and its allies. Enforcement of the Declaration by the Russian Navy confirmed that a powerful naval fleet commanded international respect and that Russia had become a maritime power that was able to support its policies and punish offenders. In effect, the Declaration of Armed Neutrality served to elevate the reputation of the Russian Navy. The Baltic Fleet gradually strengthened. As early as 1777 Admiral Greig had suggested a new table of ship's proportions and the refurbishing of ship armaments. The 54-gun vessels vanished from use, replaced by more powerful ones; 66- and 74-gun vessels with larger-caliber cannon became the base of the fleet. The strength of the Baltic Fleet was additionally reinforced by eight 100-gun, three-decked ships of the line, the first of which was the handsome Rostislav. In the year 1784 the Rostislav's dimensions were impressive-55 meters in length and a displacement of 3,500 tons. The next ships to be built were the Saratov, the Three Saints and the Saint Ioann Chrestitel, which proved their worth against the best-equipped vessels in the British and Swedish fleets.

In 1761 the weaponry of the Russian fleet was updated. More powerful shell-firing guns were installed on the lower decks, and in 1788 effective short-range cannon (carronades) were placed on the quarterdeck and forecastle of larger vessels. New copper sheathing protected ships' hulls and increased their speed. The fleet was regularly provided with officers from the Naval Cadet Corps (Naval Academy), which graduated a hundred such officers annually.

Inasmuch as war against Sweden loomed on the horizon, Russia was well-advised to refurbish its Baltic Fleet. The Swedes were hesitant to concede their dominant position in the Baltic to Russia. Friedrick Chapman, considered one of the foremost shipwrights of his day, was commissioned by Sweden to build 64-gun ships of the line and 40-gun frigates with heavy 24- and 36-pound artillery on the lower-deck batteries. In addition, the Swedish rowing fleet was reinforced by well-armed smaller vessels-hemmems, turums, udems and light, maneuverable gun-boats. The King of Sweden, Gustav III, awaited an excuse to begin hostilities against Russia.

From Hogland to Barezund

In 1788, while Russia waged war with Turkey, the Baltic Sea and St. Petersburg were left virtually undefended. Out of 48 ships of the line, fifteen were being readied by Admiral Greig for departure to the Mediterranean, five new ones were to be stationed in Arkhangelsk, and nineteen other ships needed to be replaced altogether. Taking advantage of this moment of weakness, Sweden prepared to dispatch 26 ships of the line and ten large frigates.

The confident Gustav III did not wait for Greig's squadron to depart for the Mediterranean. In the form of an ultimatum, he ordered Russia to return all Finnish provinces to Sweden and, further, presumptuously demanded that Russia withdraw from the Crimea and forfeit all rights and claims to that peninsula. Incensed, the Russian empress ordered Greig to stay in the Baltic and prepare for war with Sweden. In May of 1788 the Swedish fleet, commanded by the King's brother, General-Admiral Carl, Duke of Sodermanland, left Karlskrone and headed for the Gulf of Finland. It was followed in early summer by Gustav III himself at the head of a squadron that carried landing forces.

The Swedes began with a sudden assault on the fortress at Neushlot on 21 June. Several days later Duke Carl, having captured the Russian picket frigates Hector and Yaroslavets at Revel, sailed into the Gulf of Finland. To repulse this attack, all the operable vessels of Kronstadt gathered together. The crews were quickly strengthened by recruits, and Catherine II commissioned Admiral Greig to head the fleet. On 6 July the opponents met off Hogland Island with forces of approximately equal strength. Greig had seventeen ships of the line and 1,236 cannon in his battle line, while Carl deployed fifteen ships of the line and five frigates with 1,180 guns in all.

The Battle of Hogland began with an attack upon the Swedish General-Admiral's fleet by Greig aboard the 100-gun Rostislav. Following Greig, Rear Admiral Timofey Kozlyaninov on the Vseslav, Captains Andrey Denisov on the Boleslav, Mikhail Borisov on the Mecheslav, John Trevenen on the Rodislav, and Grigory Mulovsky on the Mstislav joined the battle. Shrouded in smoke, Duke Carl's ship retreated. Inspired by this success, the crew of the Rostislav attacked the 70-gun Prince Gustav, commanded by Vice-Admiral Gustav Wachtmeister, and it also surrendered. The Russian seamen fought heroically, but the Swedes skillfully defended themselves. The enemy disabled the 74-gun Vladislav, which lost its steering and was then surrounded by Swedish vessels. The commander of the Vladislav, Commodore Berkh, surrendered to Colonel Chriesternin, the commander of the 62-gun Gustav Adolf. The fighting continued for six hours, and only after dark did the adversaries separate. The battle of Hogland would come to be known as one of the bloodiest conflicts in naval history.

The following morning casualties were counted as the cold northern sun brightened the sky. Russian losses totaled 1,767 officers and crew; the Swedes had lost 1,151 men. The same day, cutting his losses, Duke Carl retreated to Sveaborg with the wind aft. Having hastily patched up his ships, Greig followed in pursuit. On 26 July, near Sveaborg, Greig forced Chriesternin to strand his ship and strike its colors. Approximately 532 Swedish seamen, along with their commander, were captured and the ship Gustav Adolf was burnt within sight of the blockaded enemy.

The battle of Hogland was Greig's last; he died shortly after the conflict and Admiral Chichagov assumed command of the fleet. In the campaign of 1789 Vasily Chichagov combined twenty ships of the line from Revel and Kronstadt with ten Russian vessels which had wintered at Copenhagen. The result was one unified fleet. Having assembled 21 ships of the line and eight large frigates under his flag, Duke Carl decided to intercept Chichagov near Oland Island. Their fleets met on 15 July. The Russians took the defensive position, with the Swedes making some indecisive attacks and firing at long range. Having met with strong resistance, the Swedes soon disengaged themselves from the skirmish.

For three days the fleets maneuvered within sight of each other, but finally the Swedes retreated to Karlskrone. On 22 July off Bornholm Island the vessels of Admiral Chichagov joined Vice-Admiral Kozlyaninov's squadron, which had arrived from Denmark. Soon the combined Russian fleet, including 30 ships of the line and ten frigates, appeared off Karlskrone and blockaded the Swedes.

The Swedish galley fleet of Rear Admiral Ehrensverd also suffered a serious defeat. On 13 August at Rochensalm, it was attacked from both flanks by 86 rowing vessels of Rear Admiral Nassau-Ziegen's Russian squadron. The Swedes had a sizeable defense force, 49 vessels with 686 guns, and were not afraid to hold their position. However, the Russian seamen succeeded in breaking through and forced the enemy to retreat. Ehrensverd abandoned the seaside flank of his land forces, and soon the army retreated from its position on the Kymin River.

On 7 September 1789, a detachment of four ships of the line, two bombardier vessels, five frigates and eight launches commanded by Captain Trevenen attacked two Swedish coastal batteries in the Barezund Channel. Trevenen dispatched landing troops and seized both batteries along with all Swedish weaponry.

Revel and Krasnaya Gorka

Forced to wage war on two fronts, the Russian military command was faced with many difficult decisions. The bulk of Russia's forces were fighting the Ottoman Empire in the south, and consequently the army did not have a large ground force to dispatch to Finland. In place of army troops it was decided that Russian seamen would have to do battle with the Swedish land and sea forces. The campaign of 1789 was marked by the victories of the 22-gun craft Mercury under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Roman Crown. While patrolling the coastline of Bornholm Island on 29 April, the Mercury came upon, attacked and captured the 12-gun Swedish tender Snapupp.

Then, on 21 May in Christians Fjord, the Mercury approached and began firing upon one of the largest of Sweden's frigates, the 40-gun Venus. Taken by surprise and unable to withstand the Mercury's barrage, the captain of the Venus ordered a retreat. However, a sudden calming of the winds and the presence of more Russian ships at the fjord's entrance prevented escape and compelled the Swedes to strike their colors; the Venus and its crew of 302 surrendered to Captain Crown. Having captured two enemy vessels within a period of just three weeks, Crown was awarded the Order of St. George and given command of the captured Swedish frigate. The Venus became part of the Russian fleet and, in accordance with naval tradition, retained its name.

The defeats of 1789 did not dissuade Gustav III. The following spring, having assembled the forces of Sweden's army and fleet, he decided to set sail once more against Saint Petersburg. General-Admiral Duke Carl was sent to eliminate Admiral Chichagov's squadron, which had wintered in the harbor at Revel. The Swedish king himself headed the galley fleet, while General-Admiral Duke Carl approached Revel with 26 ships of the line and large frigates armed with 1,680 cannon. Chichagov, preparing to meet the enemy in the harbor, formed a battle line made up of ten ships of the line and the Venus.

With twice as many ships as the Russians, the Swedes began their attack on 2 May. Duke Carl was certain of victory, but his hopes were short-lived. One after another, the Swedish ships passed in front of the Russian line and were fired upon by Russian gunners. The first five enemy vessels were heavily damaged, and one - the 64-gun Prince Carl - lost its helm and rudder to Russian cannon fire and surrendered. Carl ordered the last six vessels to turn back immediately. During the retreat and consequent panic, two large Swedish warships became grounded on a shoal. The Swedes could not extricate the 60-gun Riksens Stander and set it afire to prevent its falling into enemy hands. In order to dislodge the second ship, the Tapperhet, the vessel's buoyancy had to be increased by throwing 42 of its cannon overboard into the harbor. In all, the Swedes lost 652 seamen in the battle, 520 of whom were captured. Chichagov's losses were eight killed and 27 wounded.

After the defeat at Revel, the Swedish prince still maintained hope for his galley fleet. General-Admiral Carl spent ten days repairing the damaged vessels and, receiving an additional two ships of the line and a frigate, sailed into the eastern Gulf of Finland to support Gustav III's land forces. The king of Sweden was hastening to seize the fortress of Friedrichsham before the main forces of the Russian army approached. On 4 May the Swedes began to storm the fortress; Gustav III ordered 10,000 seamen into combat, supported by 1,600 guns and 110 vessels; 63 rowing craft advanced to defend the fortress, equipped with half as many guns. Captain Mikhail Slizov headed the flotilla with only 2,000 seamen and soldiers under his command.

The Swedes were confident at the battle's beginning, but neither gunfire nor the Swedish attacks themselves broke the resistance of the fortress's defenders. At last the Russian army arrived at Friedrichsham and drove off the enemy landing party. Having sustained great losses, the Swedes retreated to their ships. Upon leaving the unconquered fortress, Gustav III made for Rochensalm, then crossed Vyborg Bay and concentrated his rowing craft in Bjorke Sound; any further action would need to depend upon Swedish ships of the line.

General-Admiral Carl nearly reached the meridian of Krasnaya Gorka, but on 23 May he encountered Vice-Admiral Kruse's Kronstadt squadron. Having repelled the first enemy onslaught, Vice-Admiral Kruse, while aboard the 100-gun Ioann Chrestitel, advanced and began the attack. The commander of the Russian vanguard, Vice-Admiral Yakov Sukhotin on the Dvyenadtsat Apostolov [Twelve Apostles], supported him. The fierce cannon duel brought no success to either side and casualties were heavy for both. Aboard the light frigate Ulla Fersen, Duke Carl was observing the battle from a prudent distance when he received word that Chichagov's squadron was approaching from the west. Although the Swedes still outnumbered the Russian forces, the General-Admiral retreated and, following Gustav III's orders, took shelter in Vyborg Bay.

On 26 May Admiral Chichagov joined Kruse's squadron and took command of Russia's fleet of 27 ships of the line and eighteen frigates. The Swedes were unable to retreat from Vyborg Bay. King Gustav at once realized that all his land and sea forces were in serious jeopardy.

Vyborg and Rochensalm

Gustav III had ensnared himself in a trap of his own making. The Swedish forces in Vyborg Bay numbered 400 vessels, 3,000 guns and 40,000 seamen and soldiers, but only a strong northeast wind would allow them to break through the blockade. Nature was on the side of the Russians. Chichagov's battle fleet, consisting of 21,000 men and 2,718 guns, was reinforced by Slizov's 20 rowing craft and Vice-Admiral Kozlyaninov's eight rowing frigates and 52 rowing craft. Although possessing an advantage in shipboard artillery and three-decked ships, Admiral Chichagov did not risk an assault but instead restricted his efforts to blockading the enemy. Chichagov placed eighteen ships of the line in front of the Swedish fleet, while the bay's western exit was blocked by five ships of the line and a bombardment ship commanded by Rear Admiral Illarion Povalishin. To the east, Major-General Pyotr Lezhnev's four ships of the line and one bombardment vessel guarded the bay. To the northwest, farther away from Povalishin, three frigates commanded by Rear Admiral Pyotr Khanykov joined with two frigates and two craft under the command of Captain Crown. The blockade continued and both sides grew restless; the northern summer nights were light as day, but still Chichagov did not attack. Instead, he awaited Nassau-Ziegen's fleet, due to arrive from Kronstadt. Nassau-Ziegen reached Vyborg Bay on 21 June and attacked the Swedes at Bjorke Sound with the 89 vessels under his command. The Swedish galley fleet retreated, having lost five vessels, when suddenly the wind favorably shifted direction.

On 22 June, as the first rays of sun touched the Swedish sails, Gustav III ordered his ships to weigh anchor. The entire Swedish fleet started toward the western exit, where the most vulnerable Russian vessels, commanded by Povalishin, were positioned. Leading the formation was the 64-gun Dristigheten. The turums, gun-boats and galleys with their landing forces sailed parallel to the ships of the line and large frigates. However, Povalishin was prepared.

The Dristigheten steered between the Russian 74-gun ships Vseslav and Saint Peter. The Russian ships opened fire, but even before the first shot the Swedes had already sustained losses; the 56-gun Finland had run aground and surrendered to the 66-gun Pobedonosets.

The Russian gunfire increased but did not impede the Swedish retreat. Following the Dristigheten, the other Swedish vessels headed out to sea. Povalishin's and Khanykov's detachments remained engaged in an intense battle for more than an hour and a half. Dense smoke surrounded everything and made aiming difficult. The Swedish fleet was badly damaged during its attempts to break the blockade and incurred heavy losses. Under the fire of Povalishin's detachments, the 70-gun Enigheten was rammed by its own fire ship, which the Swedes tried unsuccessfully to destroy. In the ensuing confusion the Enigheten and its fire ship were rammed by the frigate Zemire. All three rammed Swedish vessels caught fire and exploded. Fired upon by Khanykov's frigates, the 62-gun Omheten was hopelessly damaged, forced aground and later surrendered together with a schooner and three galleys. Finally, the 64-gun Hedvig Elisabet Charlotta, having steered off course, ran against rocks and sank. After being forced onto the Passaloda Reef, three more Swedish ships surrendered. One was a 70-gun warship and two were the frigates Upland and Yaroslavets, the last of which was itself a Russian ship that had been captured by the Swedes in an earlier battle.

Chichagov was once again, however, too late pursuing the enemy, having waited two hours from the beginning of the engagement. By this time the vanguard of the Swedish fleet, having reached the open sea, was making for Hogland Island. Only some of the enemy vessels were successfully overtaken and forced to surrender.

The next day, at the walls of Sveaborg, the indefatigable Captain Crown and the Venus captured the 66-gun Retvisan, with the help of the 66-gun Izyaslav.

Swedish losses were heavy, numbering seven ships of the line, 38 minor craft and sixteen transports. Over 6,000 seamen were killed, wounded or captured. On the Russian vessels 117 seamen died and 164 were wounded. The Swedes had lost their last opportunity to defeat Russia at sea and to regain sovereignty over the Baltic. British historians would later call the Battle of Vyborg the Baltic Trafalgar. Gustav III was lucky enough to escape being captured. However, he retained the majority of his galley fleet of 196 vessels and took refuge at Rochensalm. Intoxicated by the victory at Vyborg, Prince Nassau-Ziegen rashly attacked a strong Swedish position from the southwest. The Russians had 141 vessels and approximately 300 more guns than the Swedes. The sea favored the Swedes, however, and the Russian ships were badly damaged. Nassau-Ziegens's rashness had tragic consequences; the damaged vessels could not retreat and were forced ashore by heavy Baltic waves. In one day the Russian rowing fleet lost 64 vessels; 6,500 officers, soldiers and crewmen were taken prisoner, and 863 seamen were killed or wounded. By comparison, the Swedes lost four vessels and 304 officers and men.

Russia's misfortune at Rochensalm affected the terms of the ensuing peace treaty. According to the Verel Peace of 3 August 1790, Russia and Sweden retained their former borders. Gustav III paid with the loss of half of his battle fleet.

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