Friday, July 24, 2015

The Fleet on the Open Sea

Russian cruiser Rurik (1892)

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 organisation of the maritime defence 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 roubles 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 Niko-lay Chikhachev. Results were soon evident, especially since the annual allocation for the fleet had doubled and now exceeded 50 million roubles. 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 armoured 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 armoured 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 maneuvres 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.

War with Turkey

Novgorod‍ '​s arrival in Sevastopol, 1873

 Vice-Admiral Nikolay Arkas

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 defence-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 armoured 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 centred upon the defence 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 armoured 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 Ma-karov, have also been recorded in the annals of marine history. An officer of great talent, energy and intellect, Ma-karov 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 armoured 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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

After Peter Part I

Russian Guards of the 18th Century. #6 is an Izmailovskii Guards grenadier.

Peter’s death in 1725 left no son to take the throne. His son Aleksei Petrovich by his first wife was nothing at all like what Peter wanted in a son, i.e., nothing at all like Peter himself. Aleksei was passive, bookish, and uninterested in state affairs: in Peter’s view not tsar material. In 1716 Aleksei offered to give up all right to the throne. Peter, furious, summoned Aleksei to a personal confrontation, whereupon Aleksei fled to Austria. Brought back to Russia by Peter’s agents, Aleksei was arrested, charged with conspiracy, tortured, and died under questioning in 1718, leaving behind a small son, Peter Alekseevich. With his second wife, Catherine, Peter fathered a number of sons, none of whom survived to adulthood. After the death of Aleksei Petrovich, Peter made incomplete preparations for the succession. In 1722 he declared it was the choice of the tsar, not a matter of genealogy, but did not name an heir. In 1724, he proclaimed his second wife, Catherine, Empress of Russia. While this strengthened Catherine’s claim to power, Peter never specifically named her as heir. Peter’s rejection of his son Aleksei as lacking manly virtues meant, ironically, that Russia was ruled by women and children for all but six months of the next 81 years.

When Peter died, Catherine easily took the throne. She enjoyed the support and affection of the politically vital guards regiments, which she had accompanied on a number of campaigns with Peter. Peter’s associate Menshikov backed her as well. As Tsar Catherine I, she had no interest in ruling, and Menshikov took over government as head of the Supreme Privy Council, a small group of Peter’s inner circle. Catherine and Menshikov cultivated the guards regiments while cutting taxes and army expenditures to reduce the unsustainable burden Peter’s military machine had placed on Russia.

Catherine outlived Peter by only two years, and her death in 1727 raised the issue of succession once again. Peter and Catherine had two surviving daughters, but Menshikov engineered the succession of Aleksei’s son Peter, grandson of Peter the Great, as Tsar Peter II. Menshikov overreached by engaging Peter to his own daughter, bringing Peter into his household, and one by one eliminating his rivals on the Supreme Privy Council. Menshikov’s bald grasp for power and astounding corruption alienated a growing proportion of the high nobility, who managed to turn Peter II against Menshikov. He was exiled to Siberia and died in 1729. Peter II did not live much longer, dying of smallpox in 1730. Neither Catherine I nor Peter II had much impact on Russian military history. Their chief contribution was a negative one: reducing Peter the Great’s military burden by discharging large numbers of officers and soldiers and allowing the navy to lapse into disrepair. Russia’s expansionist wars of the 1730s ended the army’s decay, but the navy continued its decline for most of the eighteenth century.

After the death of Peter II, no obvious candidates for tsar remained. The Supreme Privy Council’s choice was Anna Ivanovna, widow of the Duke of Courland and daughter of Peter the Great’s handicapped brother, Ivan V. Her chief attraction was her political weakness as a woman and widow, and the Council made its offer conditional. To receive the crown, Anna agreed to cede to the Supreme Privy Council the right to make war and peace, promulgate new taxes, create new generals, and control the guards regiments. The conditions, had she abided by them, would have gutted the autocratic power of the Russian tsar and created an oligarchy under the Supreme Privy Council. The prospect of domination by the oligarchs of the Council was terrifying to the rest of the Russian nobility, and they communicated to Anna their opposition to the conditions. As niece to Peter the Great, she enjoyed a natural following among the guards regiments, which she carefully groomed upon her return to Moscow in February 1730. With her political support in place, she publicly tore up the conditions the Privy Council had imposed, dissolved the Council, and proclaimed full restoration of her autocratic powers. Though the guards regiments played a key role in her triumph, she nonetheless balanced their power by creating a third guards regiment, the Izmailovskii Guards.