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The Crimean War

On the Eve of War
To the North and East

On the Eve of War

Emperor Nicholas I paid considerable attention to the fleet and became personally involved in its development. Ascending the throne, in December of 1825, as the rebellious Decembrists were gathering in Senate Square, he was particularly disconcerted that among them were many valued members of the navy. In fact, two of the most outstanding officers of the fleet, Nikolay Bestuzhev and Konstantin Torson, had played leading roles in secret reform societies. Consequently, after suppressing the Decembrists, Nicholas I laid particular emphasis upon the training of new officers, while insisting upon their loyalty to the throne. During his reign, the Emperor visited the Naval Cadet Corps 97 times-more than any other ruler of Russia.

Admiral Ivan Kruzenstern, director of the Naval College from 1827 to 1842, did much for the improvement of that institution. At Kruzenstern's urging, an officers' class was formed to elevate students' skills to the highest achievable level. This class was the direct predecessor of the Naval War College. After approving the new crew assignments and roster, Nicholas I ordered the expansion of the Russian fleet to 27 ships of the line in the Baltic and fifteen in the Black Sea.

By the first half of the nineteenth century, Russian sailing ships were among the best constructed in the world. On the Black Sea the three-decked Dvyenadtsat Apostolov was armed with cannon that fired mammoth 68-pound cannonballs; on the Baltic the 120-gun Rossiya was capable of firing 3,000 pounds of cannonballs in a single volley. However, a new phase of maritime engineering was beginning, and the completion of the first Russian steamer in 1815 harbingered the end of the era of sailing vessels. In the 1820's the armed steamers Izhora, Meteor and others were already deployed in the Baltic and Black seas. Engineering continued to advance, and within a decade were launched the larger war steamers Hercules and Bogatyr [Hero].

In 1842 the Ministry of the Navy established the Steamship Committee and appointed Admiral Pyotr Rikord to direct it. The Baltic Fleet was supplied with four steamer frigates, and, in 1849, the first 23-gun screw-propeller frigate was built and christened the Archimede. However, the pace of modernization began to lose momentum. Headed by Admiral Alexander Menshikov, the Naval Administration delayed construction of the new State shipbuilding plants at Kronstadt and Nikolayev. As a result, the fleet's vessels were not replaced rapidly enough by propeller-driven steamers. Moreover, the Russian Navy now faced another dilemma. Britain possessed the most skilled experts in the new field of nautical engineering, but diplomatic relations between St. Petersburg and London were quickly deteriorating. Nevertheless, Russia decided to enlist the aid of British shipbuilders and placed a work order in 1851. However, in 1854, with the outbreak of the Crimean War, the British government commandeered the already finished engines destined to power Russian vessels and thereby strengthened England's Royal Navy at Russia's expense.

Meanwhile, the Black Sea Fleet demonstrated once again that it needed to be kept strong and constantly ready for war. In 1833 Egyptian commander Pasha Mohammed Ali encroached on the territory of Turkish Sultan Mahmud II. When Russia agreed to an alliance with the Sultan, Egypt threatened to seize the Turkish capital. Russia's Black Sea Fleet landed 10,000 troops on the coast of the Bosporus and by May of 1833 nine ships of the line, four frigates, a corvette, a brig, two bombardment ships, the armed steamer Gromonosets [Thunderer] and four transports had been assembled under the flag of Vice-Admiral Mikhail Lazarev. The substantial Russian force both prevented Egypt's French allies from entering the Sea of Marmara and persuaded the Pasha of Egypt to begin negotiations with the Turkish Sultan.

Thus, owing to the might of the Russian Navy, the Unkjar-Iskelesia Treaty was signed in 1833, and gave the Russian Navy access to the Dardanelles-the passage into the Mediterranean that had been closed to Russia since 1806.

In 1836, with a special detachment of ships, the Abkhazian Expedition was organized to patrol the Caucasian coast. During the long Caucasus War that followed, Russian seamen struggled against military smuggling and the slave trade, transported troops and equipment, and protected coastal lines of communication. At various times the detachment was under the command of Admirals Mikhail Stanyukovich, Pavel Yuryev, Yegor Koltovsky, Pavel Nakhimov, Fyodor Yuryev and Nikolay Metlin, all of whom were graduates of Lazarev's Marine Academy. Admiral Lazarev was himself in charge of strategic operations during the Caucasus War. In the spring of 1838 the Black Sea Fleet transported infantry and a marine battalion to the Subasha and Shapsuga rivers and the following year brought 6600 troops to the Subasha delta. Together, these landings secured the coastal area and enabled Russia to build fortifications along the Black Sea.

From 1848 to 1850 the Baltic Fleet undertook a major campaign in Danish waters. Siding with Denmark in its struggle against Prussia, Russia directly intervened. The mere appearance of the combined forces of two divisions, numbering eighteen ships of the line and six frigates, decided the outcome of the conflict. A truce was concluded, and, on 29 November 1850, a convention was signed in Olmuts, reaffirming Denmark's sovereignty over its territories.


By 1853 Russia had more naval personnel than any other nation in the world; only Britain possessed more ships. The countries of Western Europe accorded due respect to the Russian Navy but envied it as well. British diplomats were especially zealous in pursuing an anti-Russian policy. The London Treaty of 1840, for example, banned Russia's Black Sea Fleet from the Bosporus. Britain and its allies further sought to undermine Russia's position by heightening tensions in the Near East.

British provocations were unintentionally furthered by the short-sighted policy of Nicholas I, who, unfortunately, attempted to resolve Russia's conflict with Turkey solely by force of arms. The Tsar and his advisors underestimated the strength of the Ottoman Empire, which was supported by both British and French forces. In the spring of 1853, in accordance with the Emperor's orders, Admiral Menshikov broke off negotiations with Turkey. In early summer Russian forces entered Moldavia and Wallachia, and, on the Danube, on 11 October, the Turks opened fire on the steamers Prut and Ordinarets [Orderly], and eight Russian gunboats. Eight days later Nicholas I declared war on Turkey.

One of Lazarev's legacies to the Russian Navy was a plan for the invasion of the Bosporus that foresaw and precluded the involvement of England and France and, therefore, could have brought the war to a swift conclusion. Vice-Admiral Vladimir Kornilov saw the merits of the plan and supported it. On the other hand, Admiral Menshikov was opposed, and, since he held the Emperor's favor, Lazarev's plan for a timely invasion was never realized.

Following Lazarev's death, the Black Sea Fleet was placed under the command of the aged Admiral Moriz Berkh, but, because of the rigorous training program established by Chief of the Naval Staff Vice-Admiral Kornilov, Russia's sailors were well-prepared.

The Black Sea Fleet fought tirelessly from the first days of the war. On 20 October 1853, the steamer Kolkhida ran aground near the Turkish-held fortress of St. Nicholas on the Caucasian coast. Enemy fire pounded the ship, mortally wounding the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander Konstantin Kuzminsky; however, the Russian sailors refused to surrender and succeeded in escaping to the open sea. On 4 November the steamer-frigate Bessarabia captured the Turkish armed steamer Medzhari Tedzharet without firing a single shot. The following day, Admiral Kornilov commanded the Vladimir in a firefight against the 10-gun steamer Pervaz Bakhri. The Vladimir accepted the surrender of the Turkish vessel after the Turks had suffered 58 casualties. On 9 November, near Pitsunda, the 44-gun frigate Flora suffered no losses when it repulsed the attack of three Turkish steamer frigates.

The Turkish Command meanwhile ordered the cruiser squadron of Vice-Admiral Osman Pasha to the Caucasus coast to support Turkey's ground forces. A raging storm arose, and the Turks were forced to take shelter at the Sinop Bight, where they were detected by the squadron of Vice-Admiral Pavel Nakhimov. After deliberating with his officers, Nakhimov decided he must attack the Turkish fleet. Strengthened by the squadron of Rear-Admiral Fyodor Novosilsky, Nakhimov had amassed a total of 710 cannon under his command. On 17 November he met with Novosilsky and the commanders of the other ships in his fleet and explained his plan of attack and its objectives. At the conclusion of their meeting, Nakhimov wrote the following to his officers: "I grant you the authority to act according to your own best judgment, but I enjoin each to do his duty." Nakhimov attacked with six ships of the line and two frigates on 18 November. The Turkish squadron, in its routine crescent formation, numbered seven frigates, three corvettes and two steamers.

Nakhimov's plan called for deploying the Russian ships in two columns, casting anchor and attacking with artillery at short range. Under Nakhimov's command, the 84-gun ship Imperatritsa Maria [Empress Maria] was the first to drop anchor opposite the 44-gun flag frigate Auni Allah. Within half an hour the Turkish frigate was riddled with holes, and, when the Turks cut their anchor cables, their ship ran aground. In the next half hour the Imperatritsa Maria disabled and set fire to the 44-gun Fazli Allah. The 120-gun ship of Rear Admiral Fyodor Novosilsky damaged the Turkish vessels Damiad and Nizamie. The rest of the Russian ships were no less successful: the Turkish frigate Navek Bakhri exploded, covering the coast with wreckage, and the corvette Guli Sephid was also destroyed. The only enemy vessel that managed to break through the Russian line was the 20-gun steamer-frigate Taiph, which fled and brought news of the defeat to Constantinople. In the Battle of Sinop, 266 Russian officers and crewmen perished. The Turks suffered more than 3,000 casualties, and the wounded Osman Pasha was taken prisoner.

Vice-Admiral Nakhimov was awarded the Order of Saint George for his role in the victory. Nevertheless, the Crimean War was only beginning. On 23 December 1853, the combined British-French fleet arrived in the Black Sea to defend the Turkish coast. In mid-May of 1854, Great Britain and France declared war on Russia.


British and French armed forces disembarked at Varna, supported by the newly-organized Allied Fleet: nineteen ships of the line, consisting of fifteen sailing vessels and four steam-powered ships of the line as well as numerous steam-frigates. Nicholas I and Admiral Menshikov refused even to consider advancing against such a powerful enemy on the open sea. Thus the Black Sea Fleet was concentrated at Sevastopol under Vice-Admiral Kornilov. Admiral Menshikov, responsible for defending the Crimea, did not foresee an Allied invasion and prepared neither Sevastopol nor the region as a whole for such a possibility. Both Menshikov and the Emperor were convinced that, after the Russian withdrawal from the Danube, the British and French would agree to peace negotiations. This miscalculation was to have serious repercussions.

On 10 April 1854, Allied vessels appeared near Odessa, and the town immediately came under fire. On 30 April the 16-gun British steamer frigate Tiger went aground in a fog near Odessa. After being bombarded by Russian artillery, the Tiger surrendered and 226 sailors were taken prisoner.

In early September the entire Allied fleet, consisting of 89 combat vessels and 300 transports, sailed up the Crimean coast and landed an army of 62,000 troops at Evpatoria. After routing Menshikov's comparatively small force at the Battle of Alma, the Allies marched on Sevastopol. The prospects for Sevastopol were bleak because the city had neither ground forces nor an adequate garrison to protect its port. Therefore, Vice-Admiral Kornilov argued that Sevastopol must be defended by engaging the approaching enemy on the open sea.

The Russian forces could, at the very least, cut the English and French ships off from their supply lines. However, Admiral Menshikov and the majority of the commanders disagreed with Kornilov and determined that the better tactic was to secure and defend the town and its port as best as possible.

Menshikov ordered that part of the fleet be sacrificed and sunk at the entrance to the North Bight and their crews and guns be used ashore for the defense of the fortress. Menshikov himself left Sevastopol with the surviving regiments, having ordered Kornilov and the other admirals to fortify the town's defenses. On 5 October the enemy approached Sevastopol but were forced back by Russian troops. On the same day fourteen French, two British and two Turkish ships of the line, armed with a total of 1300 cannon, drew near the fortress and attacked its seaside forts, protected by 275 cannon. After a six-hour struggle, the Russians gained the upper hand, and the Allied fleet retreated after suffering 350 casualties. Bombardment of the fortress continued for several days, claiming the life of Vice-Admiral Kornilov among other defenders.

From October 1854 to March 1855, the British and French continued to besiege and bombard the town, making periodic attempts to invade the fortress. The defenders answered with counterattacks at night. Admiral Nakhimov, who had by this time become a national hero, rallied the city's defenders. He was not alone in his heroism. Lieutenants Lev Batyanov, Nikolay Birulev, Nikolay Astapov and Pyotr Zavalishin also earned distinction for their efforts.

At times nature itself aided the defenders of Sevastopol. In October 1854, a Turkish ship of the line and a frigate were wrecked in a storm off the coast of Rumeli. On 2 November a ferocious hurricane sank the 100-gun French ship of the line Henri IV as well as more than a dozen other vessels and large steamer-transports. However, after the hurricane abated, nothing prevented the Allies from resupplying their forces. The Russian army was, on the other hand, unable to break through the Allied troops surrounding the fortress. Failure followed success, and, shortly after their victory at Balaklava, the Russians lost the Battle of Inkerman. During the night of 13 February 1855, three more ships of the line and two frigates were purposely sunk by the Russians at the entrance to the North Bight. In late March the bombardment of Sevastopol increased in intensity, accompanied by attacks on the fortifications. On 27 August the Allied forces began to storm the town.

The Russian sailors continued to hold their positions, but their ranks were growing steadily thinner. On 7 March Rear Admiral Vladimir Istomin was killed on Malakhov Hill, and on 28 June Admiral Nakhimov was mortally wounded. The once prosperous town was in ruins. On 28 August, after the loss of Malakhov Hill, the remaining Russian officers decided to abandon Sevastopol. On the night of 29 August the defenders crossed over a pontoon bridge on the northern side of the bight. As they left, they blew up the town's batteries and powder-magazines so that the supplies in the fortress could not be used by the enemy. In addition, all remaining vessels of the Black Sea Fleet were sunk in the inner harbor.

Russian losses were very high. The entire Black Sea Fleet was annihilated; three admirals, 106 officers and 3,777 sailors were killed; nearly 14,000 seamen and officers were wounded. In spite of the catastrophic defeat at Sevastopol, the meritorious effort to defend the fortress is regarded by historians as one of the most distinguished moments in Russia's military history. Fifty-eight of the naval officers who had defended the fortress were awarded the Order of St. George and seventeen fleet equipages received the St. George banner bearing the inscription, "For standing fast at Sevastopol from 13 September 1854 to 27 August 1855."

To the North and East

The Crimean War was the first in the history of Russia in which battles took place simultaneously on all the seas and oceans adjacent to the Empire. The Tsar's various fleets entered the war at different levels of preparedness; the Baltic Fleet had, for example, been totally unprepared. The first and second divisions, seventeen ships of the line, six frigates and twenty armed steamers had been ice-bound at Kronstadt. The third division, consisting of eight ships of the line, a frigate and three steamers, was wintering at Sveaborg. The small gunboats of the rowing fleet were protecting Vyborg, Rochensalm, Riga and the Abo Skerries.

On 16 March 1854, the British fleet, under Vice-Admiral Napier, cast anchor in the Kiel Bight. After receiving fresh reinforcements, Napier approached Gangut with nineteen ships of the line and 26 steamers. The blockade of Russian ports and coasts began. In May, the Russian Admiralty resolved not to send the Baltic Fleet to attack the British fleet before the arrival of the French. There were several sound reasons for this decision: first, the superior quality of the enemy forces, especially their thirteen screw-propeller ships of the line, and, second, the fact that a successful engagement would be impossible without combining the Kronstadt and Sveaborg squadrons. Finally, the Baltic Fleet had no united command. General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich had insufficient experience, and the Sveaborg division refused to acknowledge the authority of the aged Admiral Rikord, who commanded the first and second divisions from the 110-gun ship Emperor Peter I.

On the first day of summer the British forces joined the French, who had nine ships of the line, six frigates and nine steamers. The Allies, however, did not possess a sizeable landing force, and Napier and French Vice-Admiral Parseval-Deshen rejected the idea of attacking the Russian fortresses in the Baltic.

In late June, however, the Allies decided to storm the small unfinished fortress of Bomarsund on the Aland Islands; 120,000 shells were fired and an entire army division took part in the attack. Bomarsund fell to the enemy. Other such attacks were not so successful, and the poorly planned attempts to take Gange, Ekenes, Gamle-Karlebo and Abo were repulsed.

The next year Rear Admirals Dandas and Peno replaced the more timid Allied naval commanders. In early June 1855, they brought more than 100 ships to Kronstadt, including twenty screw-driven ships of the line and four screw frigates. The disparity between Allied and Russian vessels was now even more obvious; to battle the fleet of Dandas and Peno, the Baltic sailors had only one screw-propeller frigate, the Polkan. Although they were bolstered by an additional sixteen mortar floating batteries and sixteen screw-propeller gunboats, the Allies still refused to attack Kronstadt. The fortress's recently refurbished, batteries posed a threat to the French and British. Part of the Russian resistance was also credited to the deployment of newly created blockade mines. Although these early mines were primitive in design and their explosive force was too weak to penetrate the thick hull of an enemy ship, that is, their charge was insufficient to cause sinking, they had a psychological effect, and during a reconnaissance mission, four allied steamers suffered mine damage. Dandas and Peno restricted themselves to the bombardment of Sveaborg.

More than 1,000 enemy guns tested the strength of the fortress for two days. Despite the shelling, the sailors of the 120-gun ship Russia, led by Captain Viktor Poplonsky, defended the entrance to the harbor. The Allies fired over twenty thousand shells but were unable to defeat the Russian batteries. In the North, the British and French were unable to obtain a single significant victory in either the Arctic Ocean or the White Sea. Nor did they attempt to attack Arkhangelsk, having been driven off by defensive firing from Solovetsk Monastery.

By the time hostilities began in the Pacific, Captain Gennady Nevelskoy had secured the estuary of the Amur and the coast of the Far East. Meanwhile, the naval port at Petropavlovsk, a main objective of Allied attacks, was defended by only 1,016 troops, including the crews of the 44-gun frigate Aurora and the 10-gun transport Dvina. In August 1854 a British-French squadron, composed of three frigates, a corvette, a brig and a steamship, entered Petropavlovsk's Avachinsk Bay. The garrison of Major-General Vasily Zavoyko fought in earnest from the coastal batteries, while the frigate Aurora blocked all enemy attempts to enter the harbor. After the bombardment, on 24 August, the British-French fleet decided to attack. A large force of ground troops landed and enemy artillery commenced, but the defenders did not waver. The landing troops were driven back to the sea.

The successes of the Russians in the Baltic did not substantially affect the course of the war; its outcome was decided far to the south, in the Crimea. Unopposed in the Black Sea after the fall of Sevastopol, the Allies took Kerch in 1855, raided the Russian coast, and forced Kinburn to surrender. Ascending the throne after Nicholas I's death, Alexander II began peace negotiations. A treaty was concluded in Paris on 18 March 1856, stripping Russia of its fleet and coastal fortifications on the Black Sea. In exchange for Kars, the Allies returned the devastated port city of Sevastopol to Russia.

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