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Russian Sailing Fleet in the XIXth Century: Introduction

Based on the articles by
V.N. KRASNOV, candidate of naval science, captain,
E.A. SHITIKOV, candidate of technical science, laureate of the Government award, Vice-Admiral

Clipper the Plastun Clipper the Plastun (1879) Since 1892 – cruiser Second rank

An anti-French coalition joined also by Turkey broke up in 1800. Moreover, Turkey even started to nurture a plan of concluding a military alliance with Napoleon. In this respect, Russia had no other way but to further fortify her positions on the Black and Mediterranean Seas. As a consequence, the strategic importance of the Republic of Ionian Islands founded by F.F. Ushakov increased. It was to become the center for providing assistance to the national-liberation movement of the Balkan people and the base for the Russian naval and military operations at the Mediterranean theatre of war.

Admiral F.F. Ushakov Admiral F.F. Ushakov

In September 1805, a squadron consisting of 5 battleships and a frigate left Kronstadt to sail to the Archipelago. It was headed by Vice-Admiral D.N. Senyavin who was appointed Chief Commander of the Russian naval and land forces at the Mediterranean Sea. In January 1806, the squadron reached Corfu where another two Baltic squadrons together with an infantry division had been waiting for them.

Admiral D.N. Senyavin Admiral D.N. Senyavin

However, after a terrible defeat of the Russo-Austrian army near Austerlitz in November 1805, facing the threat of Napoleon’s invading Russia, Alexander I ordered to retrieve all Russian troops from the Mediterranean Sea and leave only small number of them on the Corfu Island. It happened so that the tsar’s decree failed to come on time and was not received until March 1806 when Senyavin had already started a full-scale offensive operation against the French in the Adriatic Sea and had even managed to achieve some success by that time. Soon afterwards, the tsar annulled his decree on retreat from the Mediterranean and, consequently, the second Archipelago expedition, undertaken by the Russian Fleet, continued. Despite the absence of regular war supplies and stable, reliable communication with Russia, the Russian Mediterranean squadrons, being put in the conditions of constant and abrupt changes in the military-political situation of that time, yet managed to prevent Napoleon from taking the Balkan Peninsula.

During the military operations against the Turks, D.N. Senyavin’s troops were able to win a string of brilliant victories. Especially impressive and effective for the Russian seamen were the battles at Dardanelles and Athos. During the latter one which took place on 19 June 1807, the Turks lost one third of their ships, some 1000 men killed and wounded; more than 700 soldiers yielded themselves prisoners. What is amazing about that battle is that not a single Russian ship was lost there.

The defeat at sea was the key factor that made Turkey sign an armistice with Russia. From 1805 to 1818 Russia had been constantly involved in waging wars, mainly, on land. In the course of the Patriotic War of 1812 as well as foreign campaigns of 1813-1814, the fleet was not largely engaged. Its activity was limited to troops transportation, some operations on the sea-side flanks and blocking, together with the British, the coastline of Holland and France.

Between 1803-1813 and 1825-1827, two wars with Persia took place. The Russian troops’ actions in Eastern Caucasus were supported by the Caspian flotilla which was based in Astrakhan. The Persian troops, which invaded the territory of Taly-Shinskoye and Karabachos khanates, suffered a defeat. According to the Peace Treaty of 1828, Russia got in her possession the following territories: Erivanskoye and Nakhichevanskoye khanates as well as part of the Caspian coastline up to the Astara River. Russia was granted the right to base her war vessels in the Caspian Sea.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the fleet was headed by Admiral P.V. Chichagov who, unlike his father – a talented admiral V.Y. Chichagov, could not boast of keen intellect thinking the fleet was “burdensome luxury for the state”. Under his successors admirals I.I. Traverse and von Muller, the fleet fell into compete decay. Following the Turkish refusal to grant Greece its autonomy in 1827, Russia, England and France decided to conduct a joint naval demonstration nearby the Turkish shores. A squadron consisting of 4 battleships, 4 frigates, 1 corvette and 4 brigs was sent from the Baltic Sea to the Archipelago. Rear-Admiral L.P. Geiden was in command of that squadron. Having joined the British squadron of Vice-Admiral E. Condrington and the French one at the Zante Island, the ships reached the Navarino Bay. On 8 (20) October 1827, a battle against the allied Turkish-Egyptian fleet under the command of Muharrembey took place. The Russian-British-French squadron had 26 ships with 1298 guns while the Turks and Egyptians had 66 ships with 2224 guns. The Russian battleships were right in the center of the battle. It is owing to their courageous and decisive actions that the main part of the enemy fleet was destroyed. Most distinguished in the Battle of Navarino was the Azov under the command of Captain M.P. Lazarev which was the first to be awarded with the Ensign of St. George. The British and the French displayed unsurpassed naval skills and fortitude in that battle as well. In the end of that 4-hour battle the whole Turkish-Egyptian fleet was totally destroyed; 7 000 men died. The crushing defeat in the Battle of Navarino significantly weakened the Turkish naval might and military dominance; however, it did not solve the issue of Greece’s independence. The Greeks’ struggle went on.

Another Russian-Turkish war broke out in April 1828. In began with the Russian offensive operations on two directions: the Balkan Peninsula and Erzurum. The Black Sea Fleet was engaged to support the land forces in taking the enemy fortresses. As a result of the month-long siege of Anapa supported by defensive fire from the Black Sea squadron which was headed then by Vice-Admiral A.S. Greig, the fortress garrison capitulated. The same fate overtook the fortress Varna where the Russians took more than 9000 prisoners and some 300 pieces of ordnance and ammunition. In February 1829, the fortress Syzopol fell.

Advancing on the Balkans, the Russian Army took Adriapol and started to threat Constantinople. The Black Sea Fleet landed 5 landing troops on the enemy shores. Towards the end of August 1829, the Russians reached the Aegean Sea shores where the Baltic squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral L.P. Geiden had been operating. Military defeats suffered by Turkey eventually made it conclude a Peace Treaty in accordance with which Russia got the Danube estuary with all its islands as well as the Black Sea eastern shore. On top of that, Turkey confirmed Georgia, Imeretia, Mingrelia and Guria becoming constituents of Russia. Greece was granted its autonomy.

In spite of the fact that the era of steam fleet had already begun, the sailing ships construction in Russia did not stop. New sailing battleships, the prototype of which was the 84-gun ship Silistria which proved to be reliable in long voyages, were commissioned to the Black Sea Fleet.

The first Russian screw frigate Archimedes of 1848 The first Russian screw frigate Archimedes of 1848

Especially intensive replenishment of ships was seen under Admiral M.P. Lazarev who was appointed Chief Commander of the Black Sea Fleet and ports. Ships started being armed with more sophisticated 68-pound bomb-guns.

For the first time in Russia, the 120-gun battleship the Twelve Apostles (Nikolayev) and the Russia (Petersburg) were built and commissioned. They were one of the most powerful and high-speed sailing vessels of that time.

Submarine designed by K.A. Schilder (1834) Submarine designed by K.A. Schilder (1834)

At the Petersburg Alexandrovsky Shipyards, following the project by General-engineer K.A. Schilder, a metal submarine equipped with an original optical tube (the prototype of modern periscope) was constructed.

At the outbreak of the Crimean War of 1853-1855, the Black Sea Fleet had 14 battleships, 6 frigates, 4 corvettes, 12 brigs, 7 steam-frigates built at foreign shipyards and dozens of other ships and vessels. By the beginning of the war, the Baltic Sea Fleet could boast of 29 battleships, 14 frigates, 2 corvettes, 6 brigs, 9 steam-frigates and more than 100 small sailing and oar-propelled vessels.


Admiral P.S. Nakhimov Admiral P.S. Nakhimov

The crushing defeat of the Turkish squadron in the Battle of Sinope inflicted by the Black Sea squadron under the skillful command of Vice-Admiral P.S. Nakhimov who held the flag on the battleship Empress Maria and the heroic defence of Sebastopol have gone down in the history of the Russian Fleet as both the finest and the most tragic events.

84-gun battleship Empress Maria 84-gun battleship Empress Maria

In the last large-scale battle of the sailing fleet era, the Turks lost 7 frigates, 3 corvettes, 1 steamship and 4 transports. Out of 4500 sailors that formed the Turkish squadron 3000 men died. A large number of Turkish seamen were taken prisoners including the squadron commander Admiral Osman-pasha. The squadron headed by Nakhimov did not lose a single ship; 37 men died and 229 were wounded.

Despite all success achieved by Russia, our country suffered a defeat in the Crimean War. The British-French fleet, which had entered the Black Sea as the main Turkish ally, consisted, mainly, of steamships, and the Russian sailing fleet was not able to repulse the attacks of such a powerful enemy who eventually succeeded in taking Sebastopol, Yevpatoria, Kerch and Kinburn.

In that war Russia suffered insignificant territorial losses. The cities taken by the allies were returned to Russia’s possession. However, the fate of the Russian Fleet turned to be bitter. In accordance with the Peace Treaty of Paris of 18 March 1856, Russia was not allowed to have her naval bases in the Black Sea. As a result, the southern part of the country appeared to be defenseless in case of enemy attacks from the seaside (those humiliating clauses of the above-mentioned treaty were rejected by Russia as late as 1971 which was confirmed at the London Conference). Yet the fleet managed to survive.

Frigate Duke of Edinburgh
(1877) Frigate Duke of Edinburgh (1877)

In 1863-1864 Russia undertook a military campaign to help the Northern states of the USA which were involved in the Civil War with the confederates which were protecting the interests of the slave-holding South. For this very purpose, in the summer of 1863, two squadrons of the Russian Fleet, the Atlantic and the Pacific, were sent to the American shores. The first one, which embarked from Kronshtadt to New York under the command of Rear-Admiral S.S. Lesovsky, consisted of 3 frigates, 2 corvettes and 1 clipper. The second squadron that included 4 corvettes and 2 clippers headed for San-Francisco under the command of Rear-Admiral A.A. Popov. The process of squadron equipment and transfer was carried out in strict confidence, and the cruise was not noticed by the British-French coalition.

S.S. Lesovsky
S.S. Lesovsky

In September, both squadrons reached the American shores. They received a hearty welcome in the northern states. During nine months, the ships entered different American ports; they sailed the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico; visited Cuba and Honduras, Jamaica and the Bermuda Islands, Honolulu and Sitku. The Russian squadron’s visiting America contributed not only to the victory of the Northern states but also to the strengthening of the USA international positions and further enhancement of the Russian-American relationships. “The Imperial Russian Ensign is becoming closely interwoven with the star-spangled banner”- would appear here and there in all American newspapers. The threat of England and France declaring war on Russia because of the “Polish issue” was over. In July-August 1864, the squadrons headed by S.S. Lesovsky and A.A. Popov returned to Russia.

Alexander II highly praised the Russian Fleet’s success in America, and in his rescript, ignoring the international community’ opinion, called Poland a country “which is ruled by sedition, ridden by prejudices and is under a pernicious influence of foreign instigators”. The Russia’s prestige, greatly disturbed by the Polish rebellion, was immediately enhanced. The American expedition undertaken by the Russian squadrons set a classical example of how the country’s naval might could contribute to the cause of peaceful solution of burning international issues.