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The Great War

The Fleet Reborn
The Baltic
The Black Sea

The Fleet Reborn

Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War was a heavy blow to her sea power. After the disastrous battle of Tsushima, Nicholas II attempted to institute sweeping reforms in the Naval Administration. He began by dismissing the Naval Commander-in-Chief, who was his own uncle, General-Admiral Grand Duke Aleksey Aleksandrovich. In his stead, Vice-Admiral Aleksey Birilyov was appointed Naval Minister Plenipotentiary. In 1906 Nicholas II established a Naval Headquarters with Captain Lev Brusilov in command. Subsequently, in 1905-1907, both Birilyov and Admiral Ivan Dikov, who replaced Birilyov shortly thereafter, gave first priority to the restoration of the order and discipline that had degenerated after mass mutinies of sailors.

On 14 June 1905, the crew of the newest battleship, Knyaz Potemkin Tavrichesky, rose in defiance, and the ship's commander, Captain Yevgeny Golikov, was killed. Led by Quartermaster Afanasy Matushenko, the sailors of the Potemkin, together with the crew of torpedo boat N-267, championed revolutionary activities at Odessa. Vice-Admiral Alexander Krieger tried to force the rebels to surrender but failed because of the unreliability of his own crews.

After sailing through the Black Sea, the Potemkin headed for Romania, where her crew abandoned her. The ship was returned to Russia and renamed Panteleymon. The mutiny on the Potemkin was, however, only one of a long succession of rebellious acts. In 1905-1907, the crews of the Black Sea training ship Prut, the cruiser Ochakov, the destroyer Svirepy, the Baltic cruiser Pamyat Azova and the destroyer of the Siberian Flotilla Skory also rose in rebellion. The November uprising of 1905 in Sevastopol, headed by retired naval Lieutenant Pyotr Shmidt, was only suppressed after a fierce battle in the Severnaya Bay.

With the help of army troops and guards loyal to the government of Nicholas II, mutinies both aboard ship and ashore were subdued, though with difficulty. Dozens of seamen were executed by firing squad, and hundreds were sentenced to hard labor. Some naval officers were rewarded for helping to seek out and punish rebellious seamen, while other officers became the victims of revolutionaries. Among those killed were Vice-Admirals Konstantin Kuzmich and Grigory Chukhnin.

The lessons learned at Tsushima resulted in some positive changes in the navy. The draft period for sailors was reduced to five years, the officers corps was renewed by the influx of new officers, and proposals were outlined to increase the fleet's budget. The State Council of Defense and the recently created State Duma were, however, not inclined to allocate funds to restore the navy. The Naval Department delayed building new battleships until 1909, and comprehensive renewal of the fleet's equipment was put off until 1913. According to government plans for 1908-1914, Russia had scheduled the construction of eight battleships, four battle cruisers, ten light cruisers, 53 destroyers and 30 submarines. Two light cruisers and six submarines were intended to augment the Siberian Flotilla, which replaced the Pacific Fleet in the Far East. A special naval committee was established to organize the construction of the large turbine destroyer Novik (1910-1913), which then set the trend for many future innovations in shipbuilding.

The projections and construction of the ships met the very highest requirements. Battleships of the Sevastopol-class, with a displacement of 26,000 tons, had a top speed of 24 knots and were armed with twelve 305 millimeter guns; 356 millimeter guns were designed for battle cruisers of the Ismail-class. The submarines of the Morzh and Bars-classes were designed to maintain a speed of sixteen to eighteen knots, each armed with twelve torpedo launchers.

However, new ships were commissioned only in the second half of 1914, and the majority, only between 1915 and 1917. With outdated equipment, the training of skilled crews, which in the Russian Navy had always been given the very highest priority, acquired even greater importance. Improvements in tactical training and maritime studies were assigned to Admiral Nikolay Essen, successor of the traditions of Lazarev and Butakov. Navigation under a variety of weather conditions, opening skerries and channels, and high level gun and torpedo training were all taught at the school. Great efforts to secure combat readiness were made by Admirals Lev Brusilov, Alexander Liven, Alexander Rusin, Andrey Ederguard, and Genrikh Tsyvinsky.

In the years preceding the war, the Naval Cadets Corps and Naval Engineers' School turned out midshipmen who were then promoted to officers' ranks for service in the Mediterranean. In December 1908, during one such cruise, the seamen of the battleships Slava and Tsessarevitch, the cruisers Bogatyr and Admiral Makarov, and the gunboats Gilyak and Koreyets were the first to assist the Italian town of Messina after it suffered an earthquake. A special medal was designed to commemorate the event.

Eventually the Nikolayevsky Naval War College was granted full independence. Among the classes for officers was a specialized navigation course, and among the training units was the Training Detachment of Underwater Navigation. In 1910 at Sevastopol the Officers' Aviation School was opened for the preparation of maritime aviation. The graduates of the school were instructed in flying the M-5 seaplane, which, after 1915, operated from air-carrying transports - the predecessors of present-day aircraft carriers.

The Baltic

By the outbreak of World War I, the Russian Baltic Fleet, with its four pre-dreadnought battleships, was outmatched in size by the German fleet, which possessed thirteen of the latest dreadnoughts along with other ships. Using mainly minefields and coastal batteries, the Russian Navy was assigned the special task of protecting the Gulf of Finland. Mines were planted on the very eve of the declaration of war, 18 July 1914. Due to the persistence and energy of Admirals Nikolay Essen and Viktor Kanin, a minelaying detachment under the latter's command laid 2,124 mines in only four hours, thus barring the entrance to the Gulf of Finland. However, the German Command concentrated its main forces against the British in the North Sea, restricting itself in the Baltic to occasional operations by its force of cruisers-raids that were, for the most part, unsuccessful.

On the night of 13 August 1914, one of the best German cruisers, Magdeburg, ran aground in the fog on the reefs off Odensholm Island. The Russian sailors from the Pallada and Bogatyr captured the Magdeburg's commander and 56 crewmen. The most valuable items confiscated were signal logs and code tables that were later used for decoding radio transmissions throughout the entire war.

In late September, at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, the German submarine U-26 torpedoed the cruiser Pallada. The explosion detonated the ship's ammunition, and within a few minutes the cruiser disappeared into the water along with all 597 crewmembers. Following the tragedy of the Pallada, Admiral Essen ordered that all ships be escorted by destroyers. Furthermore, he ordered the shifting of operations to the southern area of the Baltic, closer to the German sea lanes. Under Admirals Ludvig Kerber, Viktor Kanin, Captain Alexander Kolchak and others, the detachments of cruisers and torpedo boats laid 1,500 mines in enemy waters. Germany's armored cruiser Friedrich Karl, four mine-sweepers, and fifteen steamships were subsequently destroyed and the cruisers Augsburg and Gazelle seriously damaged.

In the spring of 1915, the commander of the Baltic Fleet, Admiral Essen, died of pneumonia. Vice-Admiral Kanin, who replaced him, expanded the zone of the fleet's operations, strengthened the defenses at Aland and Moonsund Islands, and took control of the Gulf of Riga. The German U-26 sank the mine-layer Yenisei, but three months later she herself struck Russian mines and sank in the Baltic.

Organized by Signal Officer-in-Chief Adrian Nepenin and Commander Ivan Rengarten, radio intelligence proved invaluable to Russian seamen in the Baltic; by using it Rear Admiral Mikhail Bakhirev and his cruiser brigade managed to intercept the German detachment of Commodore Karf on 19 July 1915, as it returned from planting mines off Gotland Island. In the ensuing battle the cruisers Admiral Makarov, Boyan, Bogatyr and Oleg sent the cruiser Augsburg into retreat and forced the damaged mine cruiser Albatross to run aground. Under Captain Alexander Pyshnov, the cruiser Ryurik severely damaged the German cruiser Rhoone, forcing it to withdraw.

In late July 1915, the situation in the Baltic Sea changed radically. The German Command decided to transfer half its fleet to the Baltic to break through to the Gulf of Riga and destroy the Russian ships anchored there. Under the command of Vice-Admiral Eggard Schmidt, numerous mine-sweepers, fifteen German battleships, three battle cruisers eleven cruisers, and 56 destroyers approached the Irben Strait. This German armada was held in the Strait for ten days by the comparatively outdated Russian battleship Slava, under Captain Sergey Vyazemsky. Supported by the armored gunboats Khrabry and Grozyaschy and several destroyers, the Slava repulsed all enemy attempts to break through the minefield. On the night of 4 August, Schmidt sent his newest large destroyers, V-99 and V-100, into the Gulf, where they were met by the destroyer Novik under Captain Mikhail Berens. In the short battle that followed, the Novik damaged both German ships, and V-99 was driven into the minefields, where she struck a mine and sank.

The German dreadnoughts Nassau and Pozen managed to force the Slava aside and enter the Gulf of Riga, where Admiral Schmidt lost the destroyer S-31. Russia's only loss was the gunboat Sivuch, commanded by Captain Pyotr Cherkasov. The Sivuch had fought in the darkness for nearly an hour in an unequal battle with the cruiser Augsburg, two destroyers and the newly-arrived Nassau and Pozen. The heroic vessel fought to the last, then sank under the ensign of St. Andrew. The year closed in the Baltic to the accompaniment of exploding Russian mines, striking the enemy cruisers Bremen, Danzig, Lubek and the destroyers V-191 and S-177.

In May of 1916, the submarine Volk, commanded by Captain Ivan Messer, destroyed three German transports, while, with the destroyers Novik, Pobeditel and Grom, Rear Admiral Alexander Kolchak sank the enemy auxiliary cruiser German in the Norrkoping Gulf. The Germans attempted to attack the Russians at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga in October, but this retaliatory action proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. Of Captain Viting's eleven newest destroyers, seven struck mines and sank.

The Black Sea

Before dawn on 16 October 1914, sudden explosions were heard at the port of Odessa and off the coast of Sevastopol. The Commander-in-Chief of the allied German-Turkish Fleet, Rear Admiral Wilhelm Suschon, decided to surprise the Russian seamen with another attack similar to the one at Port Arthur. At Odessa the Turkish destroyer Gairet fired a torpedo that sank the gunboat Donets, while, off Sevastopol, the battle cruiser Geben forced the sailors of the minelayer Prut to scuttle their vessel. A bold attempt by Captain Vladimir Trubetskoy to stop the Geben with a division of small destroyers failed because the leading destroyer, Lieutenant Pushchin, became seriously damaged at the outstart. The Geben began to shell the Sevastopol but was driven off by shore batteries and the older battleship Georgy Pobedonosets.

The success of this surprise attack by German and Turkish forces was largely due to new restrictions imposed by the military-political leadership on the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Andrey Ebergard. The Black Sea Fleet was superior in strength, but the large and fast Geben proved to be an important advantage to the German-Turkish Command.

The primary mission of the Black Sea Fleet was to blockade the Bosporus and Zongulak, a region that produced coal for fuelling ships. From October 1914 to February 1915, Admiral Ebergard made ten voyages to the Anatolian coast with a total squadron of five battleships, cruisers and torpedo boats. Having planted mines on the approaches to the Bosporus, the Russian sailors sank fourteen Turkish steamships and over 50 sailing vessels. On 5 November 1914, Admiral Suschon once again tried to take the Black Sea Fleet by surprise, but this time the German attempt failed. Under Captain Valery Galanin, the flag battleship Evstafy hit the Geben with the first salvo and forced her to retreat.

After a failed attempt to cross the Dardanelles in early 1915, the English and French landed a large force on the Galliopoli Peninsula. This would have allowed the Russian troops to land in the Bosporus and radically alter the outcome of the war with Turkey. However, the Russian landing did not take place because of poor cooperation between the allies and the weakness of the Russian High Command, which did not effectively coordinate the actions of its army and navy.

Only three times, in the spring of 1915, did the Black Sea Fleet bombard fortifications in the Bosporus from the battleships Tri Svyatitelya, Panteleymon and Rostislav. On its March voyage to the Bosporus, the seaplane carrier Emperor Nicholas I saw its first military action, while aircraft carriers patrolled the coast and shelled enemy batteries.

In retaliation for the bombardment of the Bosporus, Suschon decided to fire upon Odessa, but the cruiser Madzhidie was blown up and sunk by Russian mines. The Geben was also damaged by a mine and consequently rendered temporarily inoperable.

On 27 June 1915, the submersible mine-layer Crab, commanded by Senior-Lieutenant Lev Fenshow, planted 58 mines off the Bosporus. Later, in July 1916, the officer in charge, Captain Vyacheslav Klochkovsky, directed the Crab's mine laying expeditions in the mouth of the Strait. For his success in these operations, Klochkovsky was awarded the golden sword of St. George.

In August 1915, during the Battle of Kefken, the submarine Nerpa, together with the destroyers Pronzitelny and Bystry, under Captain Trubetskoy, attacked a Turkish convoy consisting of the cruiser Gamidie, two destroyers and four transports. All enemy transports were sunk, while the escort ships barely escaped.

In the campaign of 1916 the submarine Tulen, under Senior-Lieutenant Mikhail Kititsin, distinguished herself when she destroyed and captured six steamships, three launches and 21 sailing vessels. In September 1916, Kititsin attacked the heavily armed German transport Rodosto, forced it to surrender and towed it to Sevastopol. In September 1915, Admiral Ebergard hoisted his flag on the Empress Maria, the fleet's newest dreadnought, for its first campaign against the Turks; the powerful ship was fully capable of competing single-handedly against the Geben. On 24 January 1916, the Empress Maria appeared at the head of the fleet off Zongulak, but remained in a screened position since the main blow was delivered by eleven seaplanes from two seaplane carriers. Lying at the pier, the Turkish steamship Irmingard was sunk during the bombardment.

In the summer of 1916, energetic Vice-Admiral Alexander Kolchak took command of the Black Sea Fleet. Under his leadership, exit from the Bosporus was almost completely blocked by Russian mines. Constantinople remained without coal, and passage out of the Strait became difficult for all German cruisers and submarines. Under Admiral Kolchak's command, the naval approaches to Varna were also mined. In October the cruiser Pamyat Mercuria, under the flag of Rear Admiral Kazimir Porembsky, and the destroyer Pronzitelny destroyed the supply of oil left in Constantsa by the retreating Rumanians.

However, the Black Sea Fleet also suffered significant losses. The destroyers Lieutenant Pushchin and Zhivuchy struck enemy mines and sank. Especially devastating was the loss of the Empress Maria at Sevastopol after an onboard explosion on 7 October 1916.


Russian sailors not only fought in the Baltic and Black Seas but also in the Mediterranean and Pacific. By 1914, together with Allied ships, the Siberian cruisers Askold and Zhemchug had already begun escorting transports and pursuing German raiders. The campaign ended badly for the Zhemchug. After hoisting the British ensign and mounting a false funnel, the German cruiser Emden, took the Zhemchug unawares and sank her at the port of Penang. The Zhemchug's Commander Ivan Cherkasov was reprimanded and demoted for his carelessness.

The fate of the Askold proved more fortunate. In late 1914 she was already fighting in the Mediterranean, and in December, commanded by Captain Sergey Ivanov, the Askold captured the German transport Haifa and destroyed two Turkish steamships. During the next year the Askold joined the newly formed Allied British-French fleet to fight in the Dardanelles. In 1915, the cruiser sailed approximately 17,000 miles. In late 1916, after repairs at Toulon, the Askold joined the Arctic Flotilla.

This flotilla emerged from the detachment formed in September 1914 to defend the port area of Arkhangelsk. A new port, Romanov-on-Murman, was constructed on the shore of the Gulf of Kola and became the terminus of the railway that extended into the polar region. Thus, a convenient and secure communication link was established between Russia and the Allies. The recently formed Arctic Flotilla aimed to ensure the protection of this vital searoute and included ships from the Pacific Fleet: the Chesma, which had been purchased from Japan, and the cruiser Varyag [Viking]. The Siberian Fleet contributed the minelayer Ussury and six destroyers. Afterwards, Vice-Admiral Ludvig Kerber was appointed Commander-in-Chief over the northern fleet. The first Russian naval success in the far North was on 20 October 1916. The destroyer Grozovoy, under Lieutenant Korneyev, sank the German submarine U-56 in a battle in the Barents Sea.

By early 1917, the Russian fleet was again a formidable force and included 558 combat ships, a number of launches, and over 500 auxiliary transport vessels. In construction were fifteen battleships, fourteen cruisers and 269 naval planes. The personnel of the Fleet totaled 168 thousand officers and men.

However, the political crisis in February 1917, immediately affected the Navy's efficiency. In February 1917, Emperor Nicholas II abdicated and the Provisional Government came to power. At Helsinki and Kronstadt, the largest Baltic ports, sailors began to riot. Dozens of admirals and officers were killed, including the Commander of the Baltic Fleet, Vice-Admiral Adrian Nepenin, and the Chief Officer of the Port of Kronstadt, Admiral Robert Viren. The effectiveness of the Baltic Fleet fell sharply. Germany took advantage of the political turmoil in Russia and began a series of attacks aimed at the weakest link in Russia's fleet, its submarines. Within a short time six had been destroyed, including the Bars, Lvitsa, Gepard and Yedinorog.

In late September Germany undertook a large-scale landing operation on the Moon Sound Islands. Vice-Admiral Eggard Schmidt arrived with more than 300 vessels carrying 25,000 assault troops. The Commander of the Baltic Fleet, Rear Admiral Alexander Razvozov, could call up only two battleships, three cruisers, three gunboats and 21 destroyers under Vice-Admiral Mikhail Bakhirev. Nonetheless, the smaller Russian force mounted strong resistance to the German squadron. Unlike the army, the navy remained loyal to the increasingly embattled Russian government.

In Kassar Bay the Eleventh Destroyer Division of Commander Georgy Pilsudsky distinguished itself in battle. Fighting alongside the gunboat Khrabry, the destroyers Pobeditel, Zabiyaka, Konstantin and Grom resisted an attack by thirteen German destroyers and the battleship Kaiser. The Grom was lost in the fight, but while under enemy fire, the Khrabry, managed to break through to the burning Grom and save her crew. Lieutenant Anatoly Waksmouth was the last to leave the deck of the Grom. At Kassar Bay Russians damaged six German destroyers while three others-B-98, B-111 and S-64- struck mines and were damaged.

In an unequal fight at Kuivaste the 4-gun battleship Slava, under Captain Vladimir Antonov, fought the German dreadnoughts Koenig and Kroneprinz, each armed with ten 12-inch guns. The Slava had to be scuttled because of the damage it incurred during the battle. However, the enemy could not intercept the Russian ships retreating from the Gulf of Riga, and the Battle of Moon Sound ended.

The Battle of Moon Sound was the last fought by the Russian fleet under the ensign of St. Andrew. The Black Sea Fleet of Vice-Admiral Kolchak maintained its morale and continued to blockade the enemy's coast until the summer of 1917, when revolutionary upheavals reached the Black Sea.

In Petrograd, on 25 October 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts seized power. The new government brought the war to a close, and, in December 1917, an armistice was signed with Germany. By the Decree of the Council of People's Commissars, 29 January 1918, the Russian Fleet was declared dissolved and the creation of the Workers' and Peasants' Red Fleet was proclaimed.

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