Ottoman ironclad Mesudiye
In April 1877, after two years of rising tensions in the Balkans, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. At the onset of the conflict, the Russian navy had twenty-nine ironclads built or building, but nineteen were designed for coastal operations. Thanks to the efforts of the pro-navy Sultan Abdul Aziz (reigned 1861–76), the Ottoman navy had thirteen seagoing ironclads, two coastal ironclads, and seven small river monitors. The fleet included the 9,120-ton Mesudiye, the largest casemate ship ever constructed. Designed by Edward Reed, it had wrought iron belt and casemate armor as thick as twelve inches; its builder, the Thames Iron Works, was completing a sister-ship, the Hamidiye, when hostilities began. Because the Russian Black Sea fleet had just two ironclads (the Novgorod and the Popov), the Turks had a command of the sea in the war zone as great as that enjoyed by the Anglo-French alliance during the Crimean War. This time the Western powers did not intervene, however, considering Turkey strong enough to stand on its own. As Russian armies advanced on land around both sides of the Black Sea, the hopelessly outnumbered Black Sea fleet resorted to the use of torpedoes, making the war the first in which the new technology played a significant role. The Russians requisitioned nineteen fast merchant steamers of 1,000–1,500 tons and modified them for service as tenders for small steam launches, which they armed with spar torpedoes, towed torpedoes, and eventually self-propelled torpedoes.
To support a Russian army advancing into the Balkans, the navy first targeted the Ottoman Danube flotilla, which included two armored corvettes and several small monitors. Mines sowed at the mouth of the river and fire from Russian army field artillery supplemented the mobile torpedo attacks against the flotilla’s warships. On 11 May 1877 Russian army guns sank the 2,540-ton armored corvette Lüft-ü Celil at Iriali. Two weeks later, a steam launch armed with a spar torpedo attacked and sank the 400- ton river monitor Seyfi at Maçin. In the torpedo campaign, Russian attackers and Turkish defenders both improvised their tactics. Russian lieutenants commanding the launches showed great bravery and ingenuity; among them were Stepan Makarov and Zinovy Rozhestvensky, future admirals of the Russo-Japanese War. Most early Russian attacks failed because of the inability of their launches to steam close enough to deliver a spar or towed torpedo to its target. On 10 June four Ottoman ironclads anchored at Sulina used a floating boom to foil an attack, sinking one of six launches deployed from the tender Veliki Kniaz Konstantin. On 23 June, similar anti-torpedo netting again foiled an attack, this time on a Turkish monitor at Nikopol, over 200 miles up the Danube, near the site where the Russian army was preparing to cross the river from Romania into Turkish Bulgaria. Five days later, the bombardment covering the army’s crossing damaged two monitors. The Turks withdrew their flotilla after the Russians captured two monitors on 16 July, leaving just two of seven Ottoman river monitors still in service undamaged. The only other Turkish warship lost in the area, a wooden screw gunboat sunk at the mouth of the Danube in October, fell victim to a Russian mine placed months earlier.
Meanwhile, the Turks fared better on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, where Ferik Hasan’s armored squadron of five casemate corvettes and one battery corvette shelled Sochi on 14 May 1877, before landing forces which secured the city. The war’s only conventional open-sea action followed on 23 July, when the casemate corvette Feth-i Bülend chased but failed to catch the Russian armed merchantman Vesta. During the pursuit both vessels sustained light damage and casualties. After the fighting at the mouth of the Danube died down, the Russian navy reassigned its most successful tender, the Veliki Kniaz Konstantin, to the eastern Black Sea. On the night of 23–4 August four of its launches attacked but failed to sink the casemate ship Asar-i Sevket at Sukkum Kale. On the same night three launches from another tender attacked the battery corvette Asar-i Tevfik at Sochi. One spar torpedo detonated below the ship’s waterline, but it remained afloat and steamed to Batum for repairs. By the time of these attacks the Russians had painted their torpedo launches sea-green, the first known instance of the camouflaging of warships with paint of a color similar to that of the waters in which they operated.
In the late summer of 1877 the Turks abandoned Sochi to an approaching Russian army, using their navy to ferry Muslim refugees down the coast to Batum. By the winter of 1877–78 Russian troops were within striking distance of that city as well, and in attacks on its port the Russian torpedo launches made their first use of self-propelled torpedoes. An unsuccessful attack on the armored frigate Mahmudiye and corvette Asari Tevfik at Batum on 27 December featured the second firing of a self-propelled torpedo in action, after the one by the Shah against the Huáscar seven months earlier. Finally, in another attack on Batum on the night of 25–6 January, the wooden screw gunboat Intikbah became the first warship ever sunk by self-propelled torpedoes, succumbing to torpedoes fired by two Russian launches. The success came with peace talks underway, begun after the Russian army’s victory at Plevna, Bulgaria, on 10 December 1877. The war ended in an armistice on 31 January 1878, under which the Turks surrendered Batum.
Fearing a complete Turkish collapse, Britain deployed a fleet in the eastern Mediterranean which steamed through the Dardanelles on 13 February. Russia responded by marching its Balkan army to San Stefano, six miles from Constantinople, and preparing its navy for a full-fledged Anglo-Russian war. By March 1878 the active Baltic squadron at Sveaborg included the turret ship Petr Veliki, the armored frigates Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, and the casemate ship Kniaz Pozharski. The navy mobilized its monitors and screw gunboats for coast defense, and made arrangements with American and German firms to purchase and fuel a fleet of commerce raiding steamers to operate against British shipping worldwide. Britain countered with a tactic used in future crises, in particular on the eve of the First World War, seizing and purchasing warships under construction in British shipyards for foreign powers, both to increase the strength of the British fleet and to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. These included two 4,870-ton armored rams built by Samuda for the Ottoman navy, which entered service as Belleisle (1878) and Orion (1882); the 9,120-ton Hamidiye, constructed by the Thames Iron Works for the Ottoman navy, which was commissioned as Superb (1880); and the 9,130-ton masted turret ship Independencia, built at Millwall for Brazil, which entered service as Neptune (1881). Diplomatic intervention by other great powers averted war, and during the summer Bismarck hosted the Congress of Berlin, which overturned the harsh Treaty of San Stefano (3 March 1878). Russia kept all of its territorial gains, Bulgaria achieved independence (but in a form much smaller than Russia desired), Austria–Hungary occupied the rebellious Ottoman province of Bosnia–Hercegovina, and to protect its lifeline to India via the Suez Canal, Britain occupied Cyprus. In August 1878, after signing the Treaty of Berlin, Tsar Alexander II demobilized the Russian navy.
The net results of the Russian campaign were meager: torpedoes claimed a small monitor and a wooden screw gunboat, while an armored corvette and another wooden screw gunboat were sunk by other means. Nevertheless, the improvised strategy allowed the bravery, daring, and ingenuity of junior officers to shine through, overcoming the cautiousness that had become traditional for Russian admirals. Their efforts succeeded in keeping a vastly superior Turkish fleet on the defensive, fearful of torpedo attacks. The giant new Mesudiye remained in port throughout the war, and other than the battery frigates Mahmudiye and Osmaniye, used mostly to transport troops, the Turks deployed no ironclads displacing over 3,000 tons. In the 1880s proponents of the Jeune École pointed to the war to support their argument that flotillas of inexpensive torpedo boats would have a paralyzing effect on an enemy battle fleet, and thus were a far more effective deterrent than expensive and vulnerable battle-ships. The leading battleship power was the first to copy the Russian example. Later in 1878 the British navy commissioned the Hecla, a 6,400-ton vessel built as a merchant liner but modified to serve as a torpedo boat carrier and tender.
In contrast to the effect of the Crimean War, Britain’s 1878 intervention to save Constantinople did not bring it greater influence in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, the episode poisoned Anglo-Russian relations for years to come. After taking such a strong stand at the Turkish straits in 1878, for almost two decades the British navy struggled to maintain its ability to do so again, not necessarily to protect the Ottoman empire but to stop a revived Russian Black Sea fleet from breaking out into the eastern Mediterranean, where it could threaten Egypt and the Suez Canal. Britain became even more concerned about the internal situation of Egypt, where the sultan in 1879 sacked Ismail Pasha from his post as hereditary viceroy (khedive) in favor of Ismail’s son Tewfik. The new khedive inherited a tremendous debt, owed mostly to Britain and France, which exercised a de facto joint protectorate over the country to ensure repayment and to safeguard their mutual investment in the Suez Canal. Having already bolstered its position in the region by occupying Cyprus and purchasing the khedive’s share in the Suez Canal Company, Britain played the leading role in preventing Egypt from slipping into chaos when Egyptian army officer Ahmed Arabi (Arabi Pasha) launched a revolt against Tewfik.
Arab massacres of fifty European residents of Alexandria on 11 June 1882 brought warships of all six European powers to the Egyptian port, where they were joined by others from the navies of the United States, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. After the khedive lost control of his own army, the ships provided sanctuary to foreigners evacuating the city, and the British government ordered the commander of its squadron, Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour, to block any Egyptian attempt to strengthen Alexandria’s harbor defenses. Upon receiving evidence of such preparations, on 11 July Seymour moved his ships into position to bombard the fortifications. The attacking force consisted of the masted turret battleships Inflexible and Monarch, six casemate ships, ranging in size from the Superb to the corvette Penelope, and six gunboats. The squadron did not have to contend with mines or torpedo boats, and the Egyptian forces manning the guns of the forts were woefully inexperienced. British landing parties crushed the last opposition ten hours after the operation began. During the height of the action three of the battleships closed to within 400 yards of Fort Meks, but none was seriously damaged. Indeed, the fire of the forts failed to penetrate the armor of any of the attackers, and the squadron suffered casualties of just six killed and twenty-five wounded. In August the navy ferried 15,000 troops to Ismailia, which served as a foothold for a British occupation of Egypt after the French – having just occupied Tunis in 1881 – declined to participate in a joint operation. At Tel-el-Kebir (13 September 1882) General Sir Garnet Wolseley defeated Arabi Pasha, paving the way for the establishment of a formal protectorate.