The Imperial Russian destroyer Pogranichnik.
Imperial Russian battleship Slava after modernization. 1916-1917
The onset of the First World War found him on the flagship Pogranichnik, where Kolchak oversaw the laying of extensive coastal defensive minefields and commanded the naval forces in the Gulf of Riga. Commanding Admiral Essen was not satisfied to remain on the defensive and ordered Kolchak to prepare a scheme for attacking the approaches of the German naval bases. During the autumn and winter of 1914–1915, Russian destroyers and cruisers started a series of dangerous night operations, laying mines at the approaches to Kiel and Danzig. Kolchak, feeling that the man responsible for planning operations should also take part in their execution, was always on board those ships which carried out the operations and at times took direct command of the destroyer flotillas.
He was promoted to vice-admiral in August 1916, the youngest man at that rank, and was made commander of the Black Sea Fleet, replacing Admiral Eberhart. Kolchak’s primary mission was to support General Yudenich in his operations against the Ottoman Empire. He also was tasked with countering the U-boat threat and to plan the invasion of the Bosphorus (never carried out). Kolchak’s fleet was successful at sinking Turkish colliers. Because there was no railroad linking the coal mines of eastern Turkey with Constantinople, the Russian fleet’s attacks on these Turkish coal ships caused the Ottoman government much hardship.
In 1916, in a model combined Army-Navy assault, the Russian Black Sea fleet aided the Russian army’s capture of the Ottoman city of Trebizond (modern Trabzon).
One notable disaster took place under Kolchak’s watch: the dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariya exploded in port at Sevastopol on 7 October 1916. A careful investigation failed to determine whether the cause of the disaster was accident or sabotage.
Rossia served as the flagship of the 2nd Cruiser Brigade of the Baltic Fleet during World War I. She was modified to serve as a fast minelayer with a capacity of one hundred naval mines before the war. In January 1915 she laid a minefield in company with Oleg and Bogatyr between Kiel and the Mecklenburg coast that damaged the German light cruisers SMS Augsburg and SMS Gazelle. She was reconstructed beginning in October 1915 at Kronstadt to increase her armament. Her forecastle deck was removed as well as the fore and aft six-inch guns. They were replaced by two eight-inch guns mounted on the centerline forward and another pair was mounted on the quarterdeck. These additions increased her broadside to six eight-inch, but only seven six-inch guns.
During the First World War Kolchak was one of the Baltic Fleet’s most active officers. Admiral N.O. von Essen often delegated the planning and command of difficult offensive mine-laying operations to him, and Kolchak gained considerable expertise in these missions. D.N. FEDOTOV, who was a lieutenant on the armored cruiser Rossiia when Kolchak was quartered aboard her in the latter part of 1914, described Kolchak as a “great favorite with the younger officers, he was not averse to chatting with us in the evenings and would come to the Wardroom for a smoke or a drink whenever he had a minute to spare.”
While aboard Rossiia in the winter of 1914/1915, Kolchak planned and took part in a minelaying expedition deep into German waters. On the evening of 30 December 1914/12 January 1915 the cruisers Oleg, Bogatyr’, Riurik and Rossiia (flying the flag of Admiral V.A. KANIN, commander of the mine forces) steamed out of Ute. While Oleg and Bogatyr’ laid two minefields west as Bornholm, Rossiia went even further west, laying 98 mines north of Rugen Island. As Rossiia proceeded toward her destination, she picked up radio signals from nearby German warships; Kanin and the ship’s captain, POGURSKII, considered turning back, but Kolchak, roused from a nap, curtly said “I see no reason to make any change in plan. We must proceed to the appointed place.” The minefield was laid without incident. The German cruiser Gazelle was later damaged when she struck a mine in this field, and two freighters were lost there.
When Rear Admiral P.L. TRUKHACHEV fell ill in September 1915, Kolchak took temporary command of the Baltic Fleet’s Mine (i.e., Destroyer) Division, a post he held until Trukhachev’s recovery in late November. He was simultaneously commander of naval forces in the Gulf of Riga. By this time Kolchak was a rear admiral, and on 5 January 1916 (N.S.?) he was appointed commander of the Mine Division, often flying his flag in the large destroyer Novik.
Since the second half of September 1914, the Baltic Fleet has started an active mine productions in enemy waters, which has been isolated detachment destroyers special purpose – “General Kondratenko”, “border guard”, “Siberian shooter” and “Hunter”. “Novik” was assigned to the squad leader. Minelaying were in the south-western and southern parts of the Baltic Sea, which had great significance for Germany. The fact that the Nile bay with adjacent areas during the First World War was the site of the combat training of all Kaiser fleet and a violation in this place sailing ships combat capability significantly undermined. Here, in the south-western part of the Baltic Sea, maritime routes converged German transports, and on the security of the work of many ways dependent on steel and weapons factories.
Minelaying special detachment covered, as a rule, the second division of destroyers. But “Novik” often acted independently of its operation does not provide additional strength. The hope was stealth action and high speed craft. Course and speed were chosen so that the destroyer, following offshore, managed to lay mines during the dark time of day and in the morning to return to its shores.
Considering that the material base of the Russian fleet is weak and it can not present any particular risk, the Germans did not keep constant reconnaissance and surveillance in the most important areas for them. This facilitated our sailors minelaying in enemy waters. As a result, November 5, 1914, 12 days after mining, exploded and sank armored cruiser “Friedrich Karl”. For the German command it was a complete surprise; the enemy has decided that the cruiser submarine torpedoed because they do not even admit the thought of Russian mine productions in these waters.
SMS Friedrich Carl served with the fleet from her commissioning on 12 December 1903. She was assigned to I Subdivision of the Cruiser Division of the Active Fleet. Along with the light cruisers Frauenlob, Arcona, and Hamburg, Friedrich Carl’s subdivision was attached to the I Squadron of the Active Fleet. Friedrich Carl was the flagship of Rear Admiral Schmidt, the commander of the Cruiser Division. A second subdivision, composed of an armored cruiser and three light cruisers was attached to the II Squadron. On 20 September 1906, Franz von Hipper took command of the ship. Under his leadership, the gunners aboard Friedrich Carl won the Kaiser’s Prize for best shooting in the fleet in 1907. Hipper remained in the position until March 1908.
Friedrich Carl served with the fleet until 1 March 1909, when she was withdrawn for use as a torpedo training ship. She served in this capacity until the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, when she was again placed in active service with the cruiser division in the Baltic Sea. In October 1914, Friedrich Carl was the first German warship to carry seaplanes. The ship carried two planes provisionally and had no permanent modifications made to support them. She was made the flagship of Rear Admiral Behring, the commander of the German cruiser squadron in the Baltic Sea. The squadron was based in Neufahrwasser in Danzig. The German naval command was aware that British submarines were operating in the Baltic Sea, and so ordered Behring to attack the Russian port at Libau to prevent it from being used as a British submarine base.
The Russian Navy, however, had begun a campaign of mine-warfare in the Baltic. Russian destroyers laid a series of minefields off Memel, Pillau, and other German ports in October 1914. The Russian operations went completely undetected by the German navy. During this period, Friedrich Carl used her seaplanes in operations against the port in Libau. Behring was ordered to begin the attack on Libau in November; poor weather conditions delayed the operation until the 16th. Early on the 17th, Friedrich Carl was steaming some 30 nmi (56 km; 35 mi) off Memel when she struck two Russian mines. The ship was kept afloat for several hours, which allowed the crew to be evacuated safely. The operation went ahead as scheduled and blockships were sunk at the entrance to Libau. After the crew was removed, Friedrich Carl was abandoned; she capsized and sank at around 06:30. Only seven men were killed in the attack.
The sinking of Friedrich Carl is portrayed in the Russian movie Admiral, where Russian admiral Alexander Kolchak tricks the ship into a Russian minefield.
Kolchak was promoted to vice admiral in June 1916 — the youngest officer of that rank in the Imperial Navy — and appointed to command the Black Sea Fleet, replacing Admiral A.A. EBERGARD, who had lost the confidence of Stavka. Kolchak was given two main tasks by the high command: defeat the U-boats and, as the tsar himself informed him, plan an amphibious assault on the Bosporus.
One of Kolchak’s first tasks as fleet commander was the organization a new fleet staff; the animosity between Admiral Ebergard’s staff and Stavka was seriously affecting the communications between the two. One of the most prominent members of the new staff was Captain M.I. SMIRNOV, who had worked with Kolchak in the Baltic. In November and December Kolchak also made some changes in the commanders of the various units of the fleet; he was particularly dissatisfied with Rear Admiral M.P. SABLIN’s leadership of the Black Sea Fleet’s destroyers. Kolchak replaced Sablin with Admiral Prince V.V. TRUBETSKOI. (Kolchak’s dislike of Sablin was no passing matter; in the fall of 1919, when White General A.I. Denikin’s Navy Minister, Admiral GERASIMOV, proposed Sablin for the post of fleet commander, Kolchak rejected him, and Admiral D.V. NENIUKOV was appointed instead.)
Of the two tasks assigned him by Stavka — defeating the U- boats and an amphibious assault on the Bosporus — Kolchak accomplished the first brilliantly; an aggressive mine-laying campaign outside the U-boat bases at the Bosporus and at Varna in Bulgaria soon led to the loss of three U-boats (and perhaps a fourth as well; one boat simply disappeared, perhaps the victim of mines). By the end of 1916 the Germans had abandoned Varna as a submarine base, and U-boat activities in the Black Sea had become almost negligible.
Kolchak’s second task, the landing at the Bosporus, was postponed by the entry of Rumania into the war on 14/27 August 1916; the rapid collapse of the Rumanian army forced the Russians to commit the troops intended for the Bosporus operation to the shoring-up of the Rumanian front.
There were other set-backs. On 7/20 October 1916 the dreadnought Imperatritsa Mariia suffered a magazine explosion while anchored in Sevastopol’ harbor. Soon after the explosion, Kolchak came aboard the ship, and although he left it to the ship’s officers to manage the damage control operations, he made sure everything possible was being done to save the ship. As the ship continued to sink, Kolchak gave the order to abandon ship, thus sparing the senior ship’s officer, Commander GORODYSSKII, the onus of this sad duty.
While serving in the Baltic Fleet, Kolchak had become aware of the potential of naval aviation, and during his tenure with the Black Sea Fleet he continued and intensified Admiral Ebergard’s tactics of using his seaplane carriers for raids along the enemy’s coasts; the seaplanes carried out bombing missions and also spotted for ships bombarding enemy positions.
Baltic Sea, Pillau Region. German waters. 1916. A Russian ship is dropping mines into the water. The commander says that the mines should be at least seven meters from the surface. The commodore is Alexander Vasilievich Kolchak. The two top officers are called up to the bridge. Straight ahead of them is a much larger German ship Friedrich Karl. All of a sudden the ship opens fire on them. A shell hits the pipes in the engine rooms which stops the propellers. Now they are a sitting duck for the Germans.
All hands are ordered to their battle stations. A shell lands and the explosion throws Kolchak against the wall, stunning him. He watches as the men manning their guns are killed. Kolchak rushes to the largest gun, has it loaded, aims it and fires. He gets a bull’s eye with a hit on the running tower.
The sailors in the steam room repair the pipes and now the propellers work again. Kolchak gives the order to head for Pillau. Someone objects: “But that’s our minefield!” Kolchak give the order for all the officers to assemble. He explains to them that there is a whole German squadron behind the Friedrich Karl. There is no escape for them but to lure the German ships onto their mines. The entire crew gathers to pray for their own safety.
Into the mine field they go. They narrowly avoid hitting many mines. Then they run up against one straight ahead of them. The engines are stopped and then reversed to get away from the mine. The German ship keeps closing in on them until suddenly it hits a mine. It sinks relatively fast.
The Rear Admiral receives a new assignment which he carries out quickly He tells Nikolai Alexandrovich to tell headquarters that the mining operation is finished. They are heading back home.
A radio message comes in from Prince Melikov. The army men in the trenches by the shore are taking a real plastering from German artillery.
Ragostem Cape, Gulf of Riga, 1916. The army commander receives a message from Kolchak: “I arrived with the Glory [Slava].” A sailor hooks the ship’s wires to the communications center by the shore. The men are ordered to their battles stations and they start firing on the German artillery. The army officer guides the ship’s artillery to improve the accuracy of the ship’s shells. As the shots start hurting the Germans, they turn their guns on the ship. They knock out the communications center connection, but a sailor reconnects it. They adjust fire again and continue damaging the Germans. On the ground the situation turns in the favor of the Russians and the Russian commander gives the command to attack the German positions.
Battle of the Gulf of Riga
Slava was built by the Baltic Works at Saint Petersburg. She was laid down on 1 November 1902, launched on 29 August 1903, and completed in October 1905, too late to participate in the Russo-Japanese War. Together with the battleship Tsesarevich, she helped to suppress the Sveaborg Rebellion in 1906. Slava was assigned to a training squadron for new officers fresh from the Naval College that was formed after the Rebellion as part of the post-Tsushima naval reforms. On one of her training cruises to the Mediterranean, her crewmen rescued survivors during the 1908 Messina earthquake and the ship took casualties to Naples for medical care. She had a serious boiler accident in August 1910 and was towed by Tsesarevich to Gibraltar for temporary repairs before sailing to Toulon for repairs that required nearly a year to complete. Upon her return to Kronstadt she was relieved of her training assignment and transferred to the Baltic Fleet.
The Baltic Fleet only had four pre-dreadnoughts in service, as the Second Brigade of Battleships, when World War I began, although the four dreadnoughts of the Gangut class were almost finished. After they were completed and could defend the mouth of the Gulf of Finland, Slava sailed through the Irbe Strait on 31 July 1915 to assist Russian forces defending the Gulf of Riga. More specifically she was to support the Imperial Russian Army with her guns and to defend the gulf against German naval forces.
Barely a week later, on 8 August, the Germans began to sweep the mines defending the Irbe Strait, and Slava, accompanied by the gunboats Khrabry and Groziashchii, sortied to fire on the minesweepers. The German pre-dreadnoughts Elsass and Braunschweig attempted to drive the Russians off, but Slava remained in position despite sustaining splinter damage from near misses. She did not open fire, as her captain did not want to reveal the fact that she was out-ranged by the German battleships. The Germans were not prepared for the number of mines laid by the Russians and withdrew to reconsider their plans.
They tried again on 16 August, this time with the dreadnoughts Nassau and Posen defending the minesweepers. Slava flooded her side compartments to give herself a 3° list which increased her maximum range to about 18,000 yards (16,459 m). She did not engage the German battleships, but only fired on the minesweepers and any German ships such as the armored cruiser Prinz Adalbert when they approached the other Russian ships. When the Germans returned the next day Slava was hit three times by 283-millimeter (11.1 in) shells in quick succession. The first hit penetrated her upper belt armor and exploded in a coal bunker; the second hit penetrated her upper deck, hit the supporting tube of the aft port side six-inch turret and started a fire in the ammunition hoist which caused the magazine to be flooded. The third shell passed through a pair of the ship’s boats, but exploded in the water off to one side. These hits did not seriously damage Slava and she remained in place until ordered to retreat. The Germans entered the Gulf the next day, but they were forced to withdraw shortly afterward when the British submarine HMS E1 torpedoed the battlecruiser Moltke on 19 August and the Russian coastal artillery that still commanded the Irbe Strait made it very risky to enter the Gulf of Riga.
The German withdrawal allowed Slava, after repairs, to switch to her other task and support the army with gunfire. During one of these missions, as she was bombarding German positions near Tukums on 25 September 1915, she was hit in the conning tower while at anchor, killing her captain and five others. McLaughlin attributes the hit to German field artillery, but Nekrasov quotes German accounts that attribute it to a 10-kilogram (22 lb) bomb dropped by one of a pair of German seaplanes. Slava remained in position and resumed her bombardment. She continued to support the Army until the water in the Gulf of Riga threatened to freeze over at which time she retired to the port of Kuivastu to winter over. While still in port she was hit by three light bombs dropped by a seaplane on 12 April 1916; these did little material damage, but killed seven sailors. On 2 July she resumed her support of the army with a bombardment of advancing German troops despite sustaining one hit by an 8-inch (203 mm) shell on her waterline armor that caused no damage. She repeated these missions a number of times in July and August. These annoyed the Germans enough that they attempted to sink Slava with a coordinated ambush by the submarine UB-31 and low-flying torpedo bombers as she responded to a feint by German cruisers on 12 September, but all their torpedoes missed. This was the first attack by torpedo bombers against a moving battleship.