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Latter Half of the 19th Century

The Ironclads
War with Turkey
The Fleet on the Open Sea
The Pacific Fleet

The Ironclads

The Crimean War persuaded all maritime powers that sailing ships must be converted to steam power for a nation to secure its waters. By the end of the war Russia found itself almost defenseless at sea. The Black Sea Fleet had been destroyed; in 1856, the Baltic area was guarded by a single screw-propellered ship of the line, the Vyborg. The English had 30 ships with screw propellers and the French, eighteen. The Russian fleet required new ships with technological advancements in nautical design, new commanders, and newer, better methods for attracting and training promising officers.

General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, a younger brother of Emperor Alexander II, directed the restoration of the fleet. In 1855, having placed the Russian Navy and Naval Department under his command, Konstantin Nikolayevich started reforms to reduce the staffs of the central administrations and coastal units. For this the Grand Duke enlisted the administrative skills of young seamen such as Andrey Popov, Ivan Shestakov, Grigory Butakov, Ivan Likhachev, Voin Rimsky-Korsakov and Stepan Lesovsky, all of whom later became celebrated admirals.

Following the Crimean War, the Baltic Fleet was rebuilt, but no more sailing ships were added. The new Baltic Fleet consisted of eighteen ships of the line and ten frigates, all steam powered and with screw propellers. To compensate for the lack of a Black Sea Fleet, it was decided that a Mediterranean squadron should be created. At the same time, in order to defend the Far East, the Siberian Flotilla and the Pacific squadron were formed. The Pacific squadron was composed of corvettes and clippers sent from the Baltic Fleet. In 1860, a post was founded at Vladivostok on the coast of Golden Horn Bay in the Harbor of Peter the Great, replacing Nikolayevsk-on-the-Amur as Russia's principal Pacific port.

The Russian squadrons familiarized themselves with the Far Eastern waters, and crews gained the invaluable experience of long voyages. The demonstration of naval strength also made life easier for Russian diplomats. Thus, in 1860-1861, Rear Admiral Likhachev's Pacific squadron of ten steam-cruisers appeared so overwhelming that, without firing a single shot, China signed the Aigun and Peking Agreements.

In 1863, Great Britain, using an insurrection in Poland as her pretext, again decided to put together an anti-Russian alliance. Russia responded by defending the Gulf of Finland and also dispatching cruisers. The Atlantic squadron of Rear Admiral Lesovsky, including the screw-frigates Alexander Nevsky, Oslyabya, Peresvet, the corvettes Vityaz and Varyag and the clipper Almaz, arrived in New York. At approximately the same time, Popov's squadron of propeller corvettes Bogatyr, Kalevala, Rynda and the clippers Abrek and Gaydamak gathered at ports on the west coast of the United States. This American "expedition" enabled the Russian fleet to achieve two objectives. Firstly, Great Britain did not continue its naval struggle with Russia because the British perceived a very real threat at sea. Second, by their presence, Russian seamen were able to support the United States in its struggle with the Confederacy.

In 1861, Russia ordered its first armored iron ship from Great Britain. The floating armored battery Pervenets was intended for the defense of Russia's northern capital. In two years a whole series of armored ships were built in Saint Petersburg, including two floating armored batteries, ten monitors and one two-turret gunboat. The construction of these larger vessels was already in progress when, between 1866 and 1871, Russia launched several turret-frigates, including the Admiral Lazarev and Admiral Spiridov, and turret-boats like the Rusalka [Mermaid]. In 1864, the first Russian sea-going armored ship Sevastopol, with a displacement of 6,145 tons, was launched in the Finnish Gulf at Kronstadt; it was followed by the Petropavlovsk and Knyaz Pozharsky. Russia consistently proved that its shipbuilding was equal to that of any nation in the world. In 1872, under the direction of Rear Admiral Popov, Russia produced the world's largest and most powerful turret battleship Pyotr Veliky [Peter the Great], with a displacement of 10,105 tons and, in 1873, the world's first armored cruiser, the 5,300 ton frigate General-Admiral.

By the late 1870's, the military power of the Russian fleet was ranked third in the world. In 1871, Russia rejected the terms of the Paris Treaty and began rebuilding its Black Sea Fleet. Russian officers and seamen, who had gained experience during expeditions in the 1860's and 70's, returned to the Black Sea Fleet to demonstrate the success of their training and their high level of combat skills. Under the guidance of Admirals Likhachev and later Butakov, the advanced School of Marine and Tactical Training was founded for instructing the armored squadron of the Baltic Fleet. Rear Admiral Rimsky-Korsakov reformed the Naval Cadets Corps, and in 1877 the Nikolayevsky Naval War College became Russia's leading institution for the training of officers' ranks. The abrogation, in 1863, of corporal punishment and the transition, in 1874, to compulsory seven-year military service for lower ranks also corresponded to this era of reforms.

The Artillery and Mine Training Detachments prepared highly qualified experts. Due to the efforts of Rear Admiral Konstantin Pilkin, mine laying was seriously studied as a tactical discipline. This would soon prove useful in the war against Turkey.

War With Turkey

In 1877, Russia engaged in another war with Turkey. By that time the Turkish fleet was a sizeable force, consisting of 22 ironclad vessels of various types, eight steam frigates and sloops, various other gunboats and armed steamships. In addition, 57 transports could be used to carry 35 thousand assault troops to areas of combat. For operations on the Danube, Turkey outfitted Hussein Pasha's flotilla of 46 ships with 77 guns. The main Turkish naval forces in the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea were combined into one fleet of ironclad vessels and put under the command of an Englishman named Hobart Pasha, who was employed in the service of the Turkish sultan. Russia had an insignificant force in the Black Sea. Vice-Admiral Nikolay Arkas had two popovkas - rounded, ironclad vessels for coastal defense - four screw corvettes, a naval yacht, seven steamers and fourteen minor vessels. Russia planned to send a strong squadron of ironclads from the Baltic Fleet into the Mediterranean, but information was received indicating that, once again, Great Britain was prepared to support Turkey. Russia rejected not only the dispatching of the squadron but also recalled ships from the Mediterranean squadron to the Baltic.

The entire weight of the war rested on the army. The fleet was assigned only modest tasks, according to its capabilities. The fleet's main responsibility was to transport Russian troops across the Danube while protecting its Black Sea ports using mines.

Fourteen steam launches with supply boats, a reserve of 750 mines and 1,500 crewmen were required for the operation. Formally, they were under the command of the 27-year old son of the Emperor and commander of the Guards' Company, Rear Admiral Grand Duke Aleksey Alexandrovich. In fact, however, his direct subordinates, Captains Modest Novikov, Ivan Rogula, and Vladimir Schmidt, commanded the operation.

To prevent the Turks from interfering, soldiers were ferried across the Danube, Russian seamen laid anchored mines and fired at the enemy from coastal batteries. On 29 April 1877, one such battery peppered the Turkish turret corvette Lutfi-Dzhelil with gunfire until it exploded and sank.

The next blow to the Turkish flotilla was dealt by torpedo boats. On the night of 12 May, Lieutenants Fyodor Dubasov and Alexander Shestakov sank the monitor Seifi using pole mines.

Russian torpedo boats attacked Turkish vessels day and night. On 8 June, while laying mines from the Shutka [Joke], Lieutenant Nikolay Skrydlov laid siege to enemy steamers in broad daylight and forced the enemy to withdraw.

Three days later Russian torpedo boats fought against the Turkish armored boat Podgoritsa in a daring attack. By 15 June, the Russian Navy had achieved its principal goal: the main body of the Russian Army had crossed the Danube safely.

The struggle with the Turks on the river continued, however. Russian seamen lured the gunboat Sunna into a mine field, where it exploded and sank. The next day two more enemy ironclad vessels were damaged by cannon fire. Russian seamen now shared equal credit for the army's success and, in early 1877, after a series of victories, found themselves at Adrianopol close to the Turkish capital.

In the Black Sea, the forces of the Russian Navy centered upon the defense of Odessa, Ochakov, Sevastopol, Balaklava and Kerch. A mere eight fast steamers were used to disrupt the enemy's lines. The steamer Vesta, under Lieutenant-Commander Nikolay Baranov, withstood a five-hour battle against the large armored ship Fetkhi Bulend on 11 July 1877. In this heavy engagement every fourth member of the Russian steamer's crew was either killed or wounded; the Vesta nevertheless managed to inflict damage on the enemy ship and escape pursuit. Contemporaries compared the victory of the Vesta with the feat of the legendary Mercury.

The successes of the steamship Grand Duke Konstantin, under Lieutenant Stepan Makarov, have also been recorded in the annals of marine history. An officer of great talent, energy and intellect, Makarov constantly searched for and studied the newest and most advanced military methods. Accordingly, he became Russia's first officer to command a steamer with four torpedo boats. Makarov's idea was to lower the boats into the water near an enemy port and attack docked enemy vessels with mines during the dark of night. Makarov tried to launch the first such attack at Batumi in the spring of 1877, but the attempt failed because of a defective vane mine. Makarov consequently took two large torpedo boats and raided Sulin in late May. This time the operation was a success; Lieutenants Vladimir Rozhdestvensky and Leonid Pushchin severely damaged the armored Idzhalaie with their mines.

In Batumi, in December of the same year, Makarov used torpedoes called "self-propelled Whitehead mines," but again his first attempt failed, and the torpedoes did not hit the ironclad. However, on 14 January 1878, a torpedo attack was successful for the first time. Torpedo volleys launched from the Konstantin, as well as from the Chesma and Sinop, commanded by Lieutenants Izmail Zatsarenny and Otton Shcheshinsky, hit and sank the Turkish steamer Intibakh. Deterred by the torpedo attacks, the Turks began to limit their activities in the Black Sea.

The Fleet On the Open Sea

A peace treaty between Russia and Turkey was signed at San Stephano on 19 February 1878. The Osman Empire acknowledged the independence of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and the southern part of Bessarabia, while the fortresses of Kars, Ardagan, Batum and Bayazet were relinquished to Russia. Although these conditions were acceptable to Turkey, they were not recognized by Britain, which dispatched a large squadron to the Sea of Marmara.

In Saint Petersburg, urgent measures were taken to arm the Baltic Fleet, and Vice-Admiral Andrey Popov assumed responsibility for the organization of the maritime defense of the Bosporus. To divert the attention of British forces, Russia dispatched a second expedition to America with Lieutenant-Commander Leonid Semechkin in command. This time Russian seamen arrived in America aboard a merchant steamer. Cruisers were purchased and armed in the United States.

In order to strengthen Russia's cruiser forces quickly, patriots collected money to create the "voluntary fleet," and a fund of two million rubles was amassed. Three fast steamers were bought in Germany and assigned to the Baltic Fleet in the summer of 1878. Under the same pressing conditions a hundred small craft of a new class, namely, torpedo boats, were also built. They weighed, on the average, 23 tons, maintained a speed of twelve knots, and were armed with torpedo launchers and quick-firing cannon.

However, all these measures did not provide absolute protection of the Bosporus. Owing to the might of its fleet, Britain had meanwhile enlisted the support of other European powers. As a result, Russia was outmaneuvered at the Berlin Congress of 1878, had to return the Bayazet Fortress and accept a sizeable reduction of the territory of free Bulgaria. For the most part, this outcome was a consequence of Russia's inefficient Black Sea Fleet. It was well understood in the Russian Admiralty that the restoration of the Black Sea Fleet and the strengthening of the Baltic Fleet were of primary importance. The new Emperor, Alexander III, who had ascended the throne after the assassination of his father, Alexander II, asserted that new ships built for Russia's navy would have to be capable of engaging enemy vessels on the open sea; therefore, he approved a new shipbuilding program, according to which sixteen battleships as well as four large and two small cruisers were to be constructed for the Baltic, while eight battleships along with two small cruisers and nineteen torpedo boats were to be built for the Black Sea Fleet.

The Emperor's brother, Grand Duke Aleksey Alexandrovich, replaced Grand Duke Konstantin as head of the Naval Department, and, although he lacked the necessary training for such a responsible post, he did not hinder his experienced assistants Admiral Ivan Shestakov (until 1888) and (after 1888) Admiral Nikolay Chikhachev. Results were soon evident, especially since the annual allocation for the fleet had doubled and now exceeded 50 million rubles. In 1888, the first two battleships of the Black Sea Fleet, Catherine II and Chesma, completed their testing period and trial runs and were ready to join the fleet. During the campaign of 1897 the Black Sea Fleet consisted of six battleships (squadron ironclads), a cruiser, six sea-going gunboats, three torpedo gunboats and 22 torpedo boats.

Between 1887 and 1896, eleven battleships were launched from the shipyards of Saint Petersburg. With an 11,500 ton displacement, the Petropavlovsk, Poltava and Sevastopol were remarkable for their size. The ocean-going armored cruisers Pamyat Azova, Admiral Nakhimov and Ryurik were built in 1895 in the same shipyards. The Ryurik, with a displacement of 11,600 tons, was the largest cruiser in the world. In terms of sheer combat power the Russian fleet closed the gap between itself and the British and French navies during the last ten years of the nineteenth century.

In 1880, Russian seamen participated in General Mikhail Skobelev's Akhal Tekin Campaign. Commander Makarov commanded the naval forces and supplied Russian troops in the Caspian Sea with provisions and ammunition. The strengthening of the Russian fleet played an important role in the rapprochement between France and Russia. The French sailed to Kronstadt, and, in 1893, the Mediterranean squadron, under the flag of Rear Admiral Fyodor Avelan, returned the gesture with a visit to Toulon.

In 1893, the four first-rated cruisers of the Atlantic squadron, under Rear Admiral Nikolay Kaznakov, represented Russia at the sea parade in New York-in celebration of the Chicago World's Fair and the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage. In 1895 Rear Admiral Nikolay Skrydlov took the battleship Emperor Alexander II, the first-rated cruiser Ryurik and the armored gunboat Grozyashchy to take part in the ceremonial opening of the Kiel Canal. From 1896 to 1898, the powerful Mediterranean squadron, under the flag of Rear Admiral Pavel Andreyev, participated in international maneuvers off the island of Crete during the Christian anti-Turkish rebellion and the Greco-Turkish War. With the might of the Russian fleet, the Russian Navy was able to defend the Greeks and gain significant political success. In December 1898, Prince George of Greece, a relative of the imperial Romanov family, became High Commissioner of Crete.

The Pacific Fleet

The Pacific squadron safeguarded the security of Russia's eastern coastline as well as the political and military interests of Russia in the Far East. In 1880, relations with China deteriorated because of a frontier dispute at Kuldzha. The whole squadron of thirteen cruisers was concentrated in the Far East under the flag of Vice-Admiral Lesovsky and included, for the first time, the armored frigates Minin and Knyaz Pozharsky. The warning was successful, and the conflict was settled peacefully.

The Afghan Crisis of 1885 again demanded the strengthening of the Pacific squadron, this time because of possible war with Britain. Russia's newest ships were sent to the Far East and their movements were put under surveillance by a British squadron that included the Sea Lady and the Agamemnon. This latter British ship sailed so closely behind the Russian flagship Vladimir Monomakh that, on one occasion, at the Japanese port of Nagasaki, the Vladimir Monomakh signaled the Agamemnon to maintain proper distance. The British ship failed to acknowledge the signal and moved perilously close to the Vladimir Monomakh. In response, the Commander of the Russian squadron, Rear Admiral Fyodor Crown, sounded a general alarm, aimed the cruiser's guns and demanded that the overzealous Agamemnon clear the seaway so that the Vladimir Monomakh could sail ahead without the threat of being rammed.

In 1887, soon after Admiral Shestakov's arrival in the Far East, Crown's rank as Pacific squadron commander was advanced to senior flag-officer (vice-admiral). Disbursements for the port at Vladivostok increased, and the construction of a dry dock for the largest battleships soon began. From 1887 to 1888 the corvette Vityaz joined the squadron and sailed under Captain Stepan Makarov, whose work in hydrology and oceanography received world-wide recognition.

In the middle of the last decade of the nineteenth century, the situation in the Far East was further aggravated. Japan was amassing storehouses of weaponry and striving to gain a foothold on the Asian mainland. In its brief war of 1894-1895 against China, the Japanese won a decisive victory and demanded a number of territories from the Chinese Empire, especially that part of the Liaotung Peninsula that included the coastal fortress of Port Arthur. Through diplomatic channels Russia, France and Germany protested the expansion of Japan, but Russia was the only nation willing to support its opposition militarily.

Upon receiving orders from Saint Petersburg, Makarov's ships rushed from the Mediterranean toward Japan to strengthen the Pacific squadron. By early May 1895, the combined squadrons under Vice-Admiral Tyrtov were concentrated together in the Chify Harbour near Port Arthur.

The power of the Russian fleet made a significant impression on the Japanese, who renounced territorial claims on the continent. However, the Mikado's government, now acutely aware of Russia's potential as an adversary, immediately started to make preparations for war, ordering the construction of a fleet of battleships at European shipyards.

Between 1897 and 1898, threatened by the Japanese, Emperor Nicholas II approved plans to create a third naval force, the Pacific Fleet.

An unprecedented program of shipbuilding was supported by emergency allocations for the needs of the Russian navy in the Far East, and Russia's naval budget soon exceeded 100 million rubles a year. Three ocean-going battleships similar to the Peresvet and five battleships patterned after the Borodino were built in Saint Petersburg. The ironclad Borodino itself was launched in 1901 at the New Admiralty Shipyard. To accelerate the pace of construction, other orders were placed abroad.

In 1898, part of the Liaotung (Kwantung) Peninsula, along with the fortress of Port Arthur, was leased to Russia by China for a period of 25 years. Port Arthur became the main base for the Pacific squadron. In 1900-1901, Russia, in alliance with Great Britain, Germany, France and Japan, participated in a war against China. The war arose as a consequence of China's desire to remove foreign influences that the Chinese considered responsible for the degeneration of its Celestial Empire.

In June 1900, the ocean-going ships Koreyets, Bobr and Gilyak distinguished themselves in a difficult battle against the Chinese forts in the Taku Harbour. Despite heavy Chinese shelling, which caused fires and casualties aboard their ships, Russian officers and hands used extremely well-aimed return fire to support the Allied infantry as they took the forts by storm.

Admiral Yevgeny Alekseyev, appointed Emperor's deputy in the Far East in 1903, was now in command of the Army and the Fleet. After the victorious operations in China, Russian troops remained in Manchuria. This gave Russia's less responsible military ministers the opportunity to order military infiltration into Korea-officially for "economic" reasons. Russia's actions were opposed by Japan, which, having entered an alliance with Britain, resolved to wage war against Russia. The Japanese Combined Squadrons prepared to cruise to the Yellow Sea and launch a surprise attack on the Russians.

The Emperor and his advisors proved to be poorly directed and acted irresponsibly. The decision to prepare Port Arthur and Vladivostok for war was made ten days before the start of the conflict, and, of the twenty battleships completed, only seven, were dispatched, to the Far East. The remaining ships of Russia's navy remained in the Baltic and Black Seas.

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