Russian Navy

Battles in the Black Sea

The Black Sea Fleet
From Thedonisi to Kerch
Tendra and Kaliakria

The Black Sea Fleet

Early one May morning in 1771 the ensign of Vice-Admiral Alexey Senyavin was hoisted over the 16-gun ship of the line Khotin lying in harbor at Taganrog. The southern spring promised more difficult fighting between the Turks and Russia's reinforced Azov flotilla. The flotilla was thoroughly prepared with 400 guns and over 3,000 crewmen aboard nineteen ships. The vessels had been constructed under the direct supervision of Admiral Senyavin, and ten of them incorporated important new military features. Each of the ten special craft was armed with fourteen to sixteen of the most powerful cannon of the day; each had been designed for sailing with lighter draught in the water. This latter improvement enabled Russian warships to sail equally well along the River Don, in the shallow Sea of Azov, and on the open sea.

In early summer this formidable flotilla caught the Turkish fleet off guard, causing the Turkish ships to leave the Kerch Strait without firing a shot. The Russian army was able to reach the Crimea, suffering no losses. On 5 August Captain First-rank Yakov Sukhotin set sail with four Russian vessels for their first voyage across the Black Sea.

In May-June of 1773 the light-draught vessels of Sukhotin successfully attacked Turkish transport vessels three times. Russian seamen burnt nine transport ships and took one of them captive. The Turks were now unable to re-supply their garrisons by sea. On 23 June the vessels Koron and Taganrog, under Commander Johann Heinrich Kingsbergen, encountered two enemy ships of the line, a frigate and a shebeka off Balaklava, near the southern Crimean coast. The Turks possessed more firepower than the Russians: 164 guns against 32. Nevertheless, Captain Kingsbergen attacked the enemy in a fight which lasted for six hours. During the battle the Turks attempted to board the Russian ships; their attacks were repulsed, and the Turks hastily retreated. Thirty were killed or wounded among the crews of the Taganrog and Koron.

On 23 August, two months later, Captain Kingsbergen's unit, consisting of three ships of the line, a frigate and two smaller vessels, routed an eighteen-pendant Turkish squadron near the fortress of Sudjuk Kale. In early September Vice-Admiral Senyavin, joining Kingsbergen's flotilla, appeared off Sudjuk Kale and, without a fight, forced the Turks, who had only five ships of the line, to retreat to the coast of Anatolia.

The following year the Turks, having assembled their forces to break through to the Sea of Azov, were confronted by Senyavin's flotilla. Numerical superiority in vessels and guns did not help the Turkish seamen, and after heavy defeats on land and sea the Turks surrendered. On 10 July the war ended with the signing of the Kuchuk-Kaynardji Peace Treaty. The Turks gave up the towns of Taganrog, Kerch and Enikale, as well as the coast between the Dnieper and Bug Rivers and the fortress at Kinburn. The Crimea and Kuban were declared independent of Turkey, and Russian cargo vessels could now sail freely in the Black Sea with the right to pass through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was obliged to pay Russia a war indemnity of 4.5 million rubles. Russia could not have defeated the Ottoman Empire without its navy. Her fleet had blockaded the sea routes from Constantinople to the ports of the Mediterranean and defended the Azov and Crimean coasts. The Russian government now understood the importance of maintaining a strong navy. In December of 1775 Catherine II ordered the construction of twenty additional ships of the line in the Dnieper Firth. The project made no progress, however, until the energetic General-Governor of Novorossiysk, Prince Grigory Potemkin, took charge. In 1778 he founded Herson, a new port town on the Dnieper. The building of the port and ships was overseen by General-Zechmeister Ivan Gannibal and shipwright Ivan Afanasyev. Already by the end of that year seven large ships and four prams were under construction. In 1779 construction began on the St. Catherine.

In 1783, after the Crimea had been annexed by Russia, Fedot Klokachev's squadron was the first to winter in the Akhtiar Bight. The officers were sufficiently pleased with the location, and in May it was decided to build a port and a town on the shores of the bight. Thus the city of Sevastopol was founded.

Prince Potemkin commissioned Rear-Admiral Tomas Mekenzi to build up the new port, and Sevastopol soon became the principal Russian naval base on the Black Sea. Barracks and a marine depot were erected on the shores of the bay along with storehouses and a shipyard for the repair and construction of ships. In effect, both the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its home port were founded simultaneously.

Within two years the Black Sea Admiralty Department was established and put under the command of Prince Potemkin. That same year, the Black Sea Fleet was authorized to have twelve ships of the line, twenty frigates and a 13,500 man complement.

By creating and utilizing the Black Sea Fleet, Empress Catherine II effectively joined the Crimean Peninsula to Russia along with most of the coastal territory surrounding the Black Sea. The Black Sea Fleet developed quickly and, through its victories, returned to Russia the trade route "from the Vikings to the Greeks," the waterways that, from earliest times, had belonged to Russia.


In 1787 a new Russian-Turkish War broke out before the young Black Sea Fleet could reach full strength. Count Potemkin could only mobilize five ships of the line and fourteen frigates against 29 Turkish ships of the line and 39 frigates. Although the commander later ordered frigates to be classified as ships of the line, in actuality the Russian force remained at a disadvantage.

Hope for reinforcements from the Baltic Fleet was quickly dashed. As in 1769, as Catherine was preparing to dispatch fifteen ships from the Baltic to join the fight in the Mediterranean. The Swedes suddenly attacked, and this ended all possibility of aid to the Black Sea since these northern-based warships could not leave the capital unprotected. The first campaign of the Black Sea Fleet in the autumn of 1787 was disastrous. A ferocious storm scattered the fleet. The frigate Crimea sank with all aboard, and the 66-gun Maria Magdalena drifted into the Bosporus, where she became easy prey for enemy ships. Potemkin reported to the Empress: "God punishes, not the Turks!" Due only to the courage and skill of the crew, the surviving vessels were able to return to Sevastopol.

While the Russians were struggling with the elements, the Turks concentrated 42 vessels in the Dnieper Firth, where the army of Potemkin was on the offensive. The only sea-borne opposition to the enemy was the Liman flotilla of Rear Admiral Nikolay Mordvinov. However, Mordvinov was not quick enough to attack the Turkish fleet, and the enemy had sufficient time to move 5,000 troops onto the Kinburn spit. Defending the fortress of Kinburn, the troops of General-in-Chief Count Alexander Suvorov, rejoined the battle. Suvorov's troops were supported by only one ship, the Desna, commanded by the Midshipman Juliano Lombard. Suvorov's military skill and the bravery of the Russians led to a Turkish defeat on 1 October 1787.

Two days later Commander Alexander Veryovkin fought the entire Turkish fleet at Ochakov for two hours with his floating battery. Recovering from the daring attack, the Turks made an attempt to seize Veryovkin's ship, and nature once again favored the Turks. Heavy waves sank Veryovkin's ship, and he and his crew were taken prisoner. With the arrival of an unusually severe winter, action in the Liman Firth ceased. The following year the rowing squadron came under the command of Prince Karl Nassau-Ziegen and the supporting army remained under Suvorov. Prince Potemkin dismissed Mordvinov, and the sailing squadron in the firth was commissioned to the hero of the Archipelago Expedition, Brigadier Panaiothos Alexiano and to Rear-Admiral Jones. John Paul Jones, a Scot by birth, was the most celebrated naval hero of the American Revolutionary War. At the conclusion of the war between the United States and England Jones had moved to Paris, where he received an invitation from Catherine II to become a rear admiral in the Russian fleet. Unfortunately, Jones and Nassau-Ziegen were envious of each other's successes, a situation which adversely affected the merits of these naval leaders in subsequent battles.

Kapudan Pasha Hassan brought 98 pennants to Ochakov. On 18 May the formidable Turkish squadron entered the firth. The Turks intended to destroy the Russian vessels, seize the fortress of Kinburn and repulse Potemkin's attack on Ochakov. Captain Second-rank Reingold Saken was the first to meet the Turks, and his large boat was quickly surrounded by enemy galleys. The Turks had already begun to celebrate victory when suddenly an explosion rocked the waters. Captain Saken's ship had exploded, killing him and inflicting heavy damage on the enemy.

On 7 June the Russians stymied an attack on Ochakov. In response Hassan Pasha sent six more ships of the line into the shallow firth. The decisive battle for Ochakov took place on 17-18 June 1788. Fifty-eight Russian vessels with 400 guns and 5,500 men attacked the Turks, who had twice that force both in men and guns. In Jones's squadron there were only one big frigate and one large warship, the 66-gun Vladimir. Hassan Pasha immediately deployed ten ships of the line.

The battle continued all day. Through skilful maneuvering, Russians managed to set fire to the Turkish flagship. The Turks were forced to retreat, abandoning their burning flagship to the mercy of fate. Recalling the lessons of Chesma, Hassan Pasha tried to lead his ships out of the firth under cover of darkness. However, Suvorov had prepared for such a possible outcome, and a Russian battery, camouflaged on the Kinburn spit, awaited the enemy. The waters of the firth were lit up by the flashes of shots as the Russian rowing flotilla attacked. The Turks lost five frigates and three ships of the line, one of them seized by the Russian fleet as a prize of the battle. Two thousand seamen of the Ottoman Empire perished and 1,673 were taken prisoner. The Russian fleet lost 85 seamen and its floating battery.

Supported in his role as first flag-officer of the flotilla by Field-Marshal Potemkin, Prince Nassau-Ziegen attributed the success of the naval campaign against the Turks to himself and belittled the valor and energy displayed by Admiral Jones and Brigadier Alexiano. The news of the battle that reached St. Petersburg was colored by Nassau-Ziegen's personal jealousies.

From Thedonisi to Kerch

Hassan Pasha was lucky to escape from the firth with the remainder of his flotilla. While Nassau's squadron was demolishing the last of the nine Turkish ships that remained near Ochakov, a reinforced enemy flagship was lying at anchor off Tendra Island. The ship's presence was detected by the fleet of Rear Admiral Count Mark Voynovich, sent from Sevastopol on 18 June to help Nassau and Jones.

The opposing fleets met on 29 June-the Russian fleet armed with 552 cannon and the Turks, with 1,120. For three days they maneuvered in sight of each other, gradually heading toward the estuary of the Danube and farther away from Ochakov. At last, on 3 July near Thedonisi Island, the Kapudan Pasha ordered his fleet to engage the Russians. An experienced commander, Hassan Pasha knew the weak points of the Russian fleet and directed his main offensive, six ships of the line, at the Russian vanguard, containing the 40-gun frigates Berislav and Strela [Arrow]. The frigates held out under the heavy fire but Voynovich, intimidated by the massive Turkish forces, did not assist his vanguard. A critical moment developed because the Turkish forces were now in a position to disrupt the line of the Russian fleet, a maneuver which would inevitably defeat a Russian squadron.

The Turks were about to send word of their victory to the sultan when vanguard commander Commodore Fyodor Ushakov began a counterattack. From the bow of the Saint Paul Ushakov opened fire on Hassan's vessel. The maneuver was a success. Not only was the Turkish flagship disabled, but four warships were badly damaged. Led by the Kapudan Pasha, the entire Turkish fleet retreated. Owing to the skill and bravery of Ushakov, the Russian fleet succeeded in winning the victory of Thedonisi and distracting the enemy from Ochakov for nearly a week. Though Voynovich abandoned an attempt to chase the Kapudan Pasha, and the latter returned to the firth, the Turkish seamen were unable to defend the fortress at Ochakov. On 6 December 1788, the Russian army took Ochakov by storm. In his report on the victory Admiral Voynovich attempted to give less credit to Ushakov. Prince Potemkin resolved the resulting hostility between the two officers, promoting Ushakov in early 1789 to commander of the Sevastopol squadron. After further heroism Commodore Ushakov would be promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.

In reality, the successes of the Russian army very often depended upon the assistance of the fleet. The naval forces, for example, waged an unceasing campaign against Turkish transport ships-the Turks' chief means for supplying their land forces. Among the most damaging attacks upon the Turkish supply ships was made by the young Lieutenant-Commander Dmitry Senyavin. With a small squadron of four vessels, Senyavin destroyed nine enemy transport ships and took two captive. In the campaign of 1789 both the Turks and the Russians avoided decisive battles. Russian seamen made good use of the year; they combined Ushakov's forces, the firth squadron, and reinforcements from Taganrog, and stationed them all at Sevastopol.

In the spring of the next year Rear Admiral Ushakov, aboard the Alexander Nevsky, rounded the eastern coast of the Black Sea accompanied by a small squadron. During the campaign Russia managed to destroy or capture fifteen Turkish merchant vessels as well as shell the fortresses of Samsun and Anapa.

Meanwhile, the Turkish fleet came under the command of a new Kapudan Pasha, Hussein, who dreamt of nothing but Turkish victory. The Sultan had great confidence in him, and in late June the ambitious Kapudan Pasha appeared near the Crimean coast, bound for Kerch. Ushakov and his fleet set out in search of enemy vessels, and the battle grew nearer. The fleets met on 8 July 1790 off the Kerch Strait. The Turks had ten ships of the line and eight frigates. Admiral Ushakov, accustomed to being outnumbered, could advance only sixteen lower-rated ships and frigates. The Turks also outnumbered the Russians in weaponry, 1,100 cannon to 836.

Sailing with a favorable wind, Hussein was the first to launch an attack. Turkish vessels quickly approached the Russian vanguard. At that time Ushakov deliberately led six weak frigates out of his attack line, forming them into a reserve corps. The rest of the vessels closed in, and the battle line of the Russian force was then able to withstand that of the Turks.

The cannonade continued for three hours. The ships drew closer and closer together. True to form, Ushakov, on board his 80-gun ship Rozhdestvo Khristovo [Christmas], attacked Hussein's flagship. Hussein could not withstand the assault and withdrew. In an hour the rest of the Turkish ships followed the Kapudan Pasha in a disorderly retreat. Ushakov himself led the chase after the retreating Turks, and it was only the approaching darkness that ended the chase and prevented Hussein's capture. The Turks narrowly avoided utter defeat, while moonlight illuminated the remnants of the battle: Russia's Black Sea Fleet lost 97 men, sank one Turkish cruiser and seriously damaged several other vessels. Despite his own determination and the confidence of his sultan, Hussein had failed to reach the Crimean coast.

Tendra and Kaliakria

Hussein Pasha did not grieve long over his losses in the Kerch Strait. In August of the same year, having received reinforcements and several new ships of the line, he positioned his fleet between Tendra Island and the Hadgy Bay. At that location there were no fewer than 1,360 guns and 12,500 men aboard 14 ships of the line and eight frigates. In addition, 23 minor craft were attached to the Turkish force.

Ushakov could not long allow the Turks to maintain control over such a strategic position. On 25 August he left Sevastopol with ten ships of the line and one bomb-vessel escorted by twenty minor craft. In all, the Russian squadron numbered a little over 6,500 men, less than half the size of the Turkish force.

On 28 August the Russian seamen reached their destination. Even before all his ships could be arranged for battle, Ushakov began his pursuit of the enemy. Taken by surprise, Hussein Pasha was forced to turn and defend his rear. The battle had begun. Ushakov managed to keep the advantage of sailing with the wind and, having closed the battle line, attacked with all the force of his combined fleet. The Russians and Turks met with no more than a hundred meters between them. The Russians immediately aimed and opened fire on the Turkish vessels. Three frigates from Ushakov's reserve corps barred the enemy flagship's route when she attempted to tack downwind. Ushakov dislodged Hussein's flagship from the line, and the Turks took flight.

Ushakov pursued them throughout the next day, arranging his ships according to their ability to keep pace with the fleeing enemy so that the fastest vessels rushed ahead. Over-taking the 74-gun ship of Admiral Said-bey, the Rozhdestvo Khristovo cut down all three masts of the Turkish ship with a fore-and-aft salvo. The damage had been done: the Turkish vessel caught fire at once and exploded. Meanwhile, under the command of Commodore Golenkin, the 66-gun Maria Magdalena, together with three other vessels, forced the Turkish Meleki Bahri to surrender. The battle was over. Turkish losses totaled two ships of the line, three minor vessels, and 1,400 seamen killed or wounded. In addition, 733 were captured, among them one admiral and four commanders.

After suffering this defeat, Hussein was compelled to withdraw the remaining Turkish forces to Constantinople, and Russia quickly reasserted its control of the Black Sea. Communication was resumed between Sevastopol and the Liman Firth. Now the Liman rowing flotilla could obtain reinforcements and operate without Turkish hindrance. Under the command of Rear-Admiral Iosef de Ribas, the flotilla moved to the Danube and would later assist Suvorov's troops during the seizure of Izmail.

The commander himself was also rewarded. For taking Tendra, Ushakov was decorated with the Order of Saint George. In the next year, 1791, the Turkish sultan ordered his Algerian, Tunisian and Tripolitanian squadrons into the Black Sea. The Turks at once sought to avenge the defeat at Tendra and support the Ottoman troops in Rumelia and on the Caucasian coast. They assembled 60 pendants, including eighteen ships of the line and seventeen frigates. The total number of guns was over two thousand; the complement consisted of 20,000 men. Lacking confidence in their ability to win a war at sea, the Turks invited British instructors to train their crews. Finally, after exercises and preparations, the armada left the Bosporus.

Repeating the surprise tactic he had employed at Tendra, and without deploying his forces in the usual battle formation, Ushakov, with sixteen ships of the line and two frigates, approached the Turkish fleet on 31 July. The Turks were lying at anchor off the Cape of Kaliakria when the Russian fleet took them by surprise. The Russian ships, coming up into the wind, set a course between the shore and the Turkish fleet and from there began their attack. By this skilful maneuver, Ushakov kept the Turkish ships away from shore, separating them from a significant portion of the forces that were on land celebrating the festival of Bai Rham. Algerian Admiral Seit-Ali nevertheless took the initiative to oppose the giaours [infidels]. In response Ushakov placed himself at the head of the battle line and, from close range, fired at the Algerian admiral's ship. The heavy cannonballs of the Rozhdestvo Khristovo crushed the masts, boarding ladders and stern moldings of the Turkish vessel. In the excitement the Turks took flight without raising anchor: they hacked off their cables, abandoned their anchors and hoisted sail. Pursued by Ushakov, Seit-Ali attempted to hide behind his own battle line. The Russian commander's attack was supported by the Alexander Nevsky, the Ioann Predtecha and the Fyodor Stratilat. Within an hour the battle was over, and the opponent had taken flight. Darkness and wind once more saved the Turks from complete disaster.

The next day, however, cruisers sent by Ushakov destroyed five smaller Turkish vessels and several transports carrying provisions for the army. Victory allowed Russia to dictate its own conditions during the peace negotiations. The Yassi Peace Treaty of 29 December 1791 gave Russia control over the Crimea and the northern Black Sea coast from the Dniester to the Kuban. Russia had once more strengthened its position in the south.

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

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