17 October 1917: Battle in Moon Sound II

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In the meantime, Kronprinz had opened fire on Graschdanin. At almost the same instant as the first hit on Slava, two projectiles also struck Graschdanin. One hit on the stern and holed the upper deck before detonating underneath and demolishing several cabins. Splinters pierced the next deck and the battery deck. The resulting fire produced thick, dark poisonous smoke but the fire was quickly extinguished. The second shell struck the upper belt armour beneath the middle 6-inch turret at an acute angle and consequently only dented the plate before detonating. A large number of splinters holed the hull and damaged two dynamo engines and several steam pipes.

The Russian ships initially continued to fire on the 3 MSHF, before changing target to the German battleships. As the range decreased, the armoured cruiser Bayan also opened fire with her three 8-inch guns. Then, at around 1030hrs, Vice Admiral Bakhirev gave the VI Div TBD and XI Div TBD orders to retire to the north, to make way for the battleships. Subsequently the order was given ‘MSRZ [Naval Forces of the Riga Gulf], withdraw’. Slava and Graschdanin now made their way to the north towards the dredged channel and passed out of range of the German battleships, the shortest range having been 16,500 meters. Accordingly, König transferred her fire to Bayan. Vice Admiral Bakhirev had decided Bayan would go last and in the meantime would offer herself as a decoy. Salvo after salvo, eight in rapid succession, now crashed around the Russian cruiser, whilst Captain 1st Rank Timirev used his engines and rudder to twist and turn his ship to evade destruction. He wrote:

I shall never forget the next 15 minutes, conscious that the slightest malfunction of the engines or steering gear would make us an easy target, and one hit could send us to the bottom, it was difficult to preserve the coolness duty demanded. I was supported during this trial but the hero was M K Bakhirev, who maintained complete calmness on the bridge, not interfering at all with management, and only casting a sympathetic glance and smile as I played the mad ‘game’ on the engine telegraph. At last Graschdanin had disappeared towards Schildau Island and Bakhirev ordered me in a low voice: ‘withdraw!’

With the last salvo from König a projectile struck the Russian cruiser. The 30.5cm shell struck to starboard near the bridge and penetrated the deck near the forward 8-inch turret, then penetrated the armoured deck and entered the cable compartment. The shell then exploded and set fire to much combustible material: rope, canvas, hemp and the like. The fire gave off a large volume of thick, suffocating, acrid smoke, which hindered visibility ahead from the bridge. The explosion also destroyed a bulkhead and wrecked the capstan room and some provisions, tore eight ribs and the internal plating of the double bottom and displaced several plates of the upper armoured belt. The proximity of the fire to the 6- and 8-inch magazines meant these had to be flooded and the draught forward increased to 26 feet. With the flooding and water entering through splinter holes around 1,000 tonnes of water entered the ship. The fire burned for around twenty-four hours before finally being extinguished. Two men were killed instantly, three died later of their wounds, and three men were wounded.

The Russian ships had lain under a continuous and well-directed heavy German fire. The salvoes of four or five projectiles lay close to the Russian ships and Graschdanin counted no less than twenty very close straddles, which caused enormously powerful vibrations through the hull, and loosened several armoured plates.

As the Russian ships passed abeam Schildau Island, the German battleships ceased fire on them and transferred their aim to the batteries at Woi and Werder.

However, at this moment six German floatplanes appeared and dropped around forty bombs, mostly on the smaller ships. The combined air and sea attack on the Russian forces must have been extremely daunting for the defenders, especially the minelayers with their highly-explosive cargoes, but nevertheless Slava succeeded in shooting down one of the seaplanes.

The casualties aboard Slava remain unknown, as does her expenditure of ammunition, whilst Graschdanin suffered five wounded, one of whom later died, and expended around fifty 12-inch high explosive shells and 114 6-inch shells. Vice Admiral Bakhirev later commended the commander of Graschdanin, Captain 1st Rank Rudenski, for the excellent handling and performance of his ship.

Previously Vice Admiral Bakhirev had ordered that mines be laid in the Kuiwast roads, but at 1120hrs Kontre Admiral Stark informed him that the V Division Torpedoboat-Destroyers had still not yet taken on mines. Therefore this plan was abandoned.

The hapless Slava, for so long a thorn in the side of the Germans in the Riga Gulf, was now mortally wounded. Unluckily, five out of the seven 30.5cm projectile hits had been below the water line and her 2.5 metre increase in draught made the passage through the dredged channel impossible. Captain 1st Rank Antonov therefore requested the admiral’s permission to save his crew and scuttle the ship. As Bayan passed close to Slava, orders were given for her to be scuttled across the entrance of the dredged channel after Bayan and Graschdanin had passed. At this time some panic-stricken voices could be heard from aboard Slava.

At 1115hrs Bayan and Graschdanin entered the dredged channel. To render assistance for manoeuvring in the narrow channel, the commander of Graschdanin requested the tug Chernomorski 2 and the guard vessel Laski to stand by the bow and stern of his ship. Captain 1st Rank Timirev refused the assistance of a tug for Bayan.

Vice Admiral Bakhirev ordered ‘torpedoboats render assistance to the stricken ship’ and the torpedoboat-destroyers Sil’Nyi, Voiskovoi, Donskoi-Kazak and Storozhevoi, the tug Moskito and a minesweeper were dispatched towards the stricken battleship. However, some degree of panic broke out aboard Slava. She was proceeding at low speed and Captain Antonov gave orders to stop, to allow the other vessels to enter the dredged channel. However, the engine room did not respond to the engine telegraph and it was found that the engine room had been abandoned on the orders of the Sailors’ Committee. Engineer Mazurenko took some men to the engine room to respond to the commands from the bridge, but they could not stop Slava from being beached on a shoal to the southeast of the dredged channel, instead of in the channel itself.

The artillery officer, Starchi Leitenant Rybaltovski, reported: ‘During the battle all crew strived to conduct themselves ideally, but in part some of the young put on life belts and panicked – shouting until they numbered about 100 men’.

The first of the torpedoboats came alongside and the commander ordered the crew to transfer across to them, after transferring the wounded first. There was increasing panic as Slava’s crew feared the imminent detonation of the battleship’s magazines. Michman Kovshov wrote: ‘When the torpedoboat-destroyer Donskoi-Kazak approached, many sailors wanted to jump down the gap, but the watch-chief of the torpedoboat, Michman Gedle, threatened them with a pistol, and ordered the transfer of the wounded first’.

The last to leave the ship was Captain Antonov. He found time in his report to excuse the behaviour of his crew: ‘The behaviour of all officers and men during the time of the battle was above all praise, and only after the ship went aground, and in consequence of the order from me to blow up the ship being misunderstood, did part of the crew, the exceptionally young, panic’. After a final inspection Antonov boarded the torpedoboat Storozhevoi and she pulled away. Shortly afterwards, at 1158hrs, the Bickford fuses that had been lit detonated charges which exploded the aft 12-inch magazine. There was an enormous detonation followed by others and a huge explosion cloud climbed towards the heavens, which was visible to the I FdT and Leutnant zur See Ruge in the Kassar Wiek, some 25 kilometres distant.

To complete the destruction, the VI Division chief, Captain 1st Rank Ekimov, ordered Moskvityanin and Amurets to approach Slava and torpedo her. On Moskvityanin two torpedoes were launched, one of which struck between the funnels but did not explode, the other ran in circles. Two torpedoes from Amurets hit but likewise failed to explode. Turkmenets now launched two torpedoes and whilst one failed to detonate the other struck the starboard hull side near the forward funnel and exploded. Of the six torpedoes fired, only one had functioned properly, which vindicated Vice Admiral Bakhirev’s poor opinion of materiel in the post-revolutionary navy. Fires continued aboard Slava throughout the night.

After the passage of the last Russian sea forces to the north, the steamers Glagol and Pokoj were scuttled in the dredged channel. Glagol was sunk in the southern part of the channel with nine 4-inch shells from the torpedoboat-destroyer Zabaikalets. Pokoj was scuttled near the first buoy by shots from Turkmenets and Zabaikalets.

Whilst the Russian sea forces were covering their retreat the Germans continued to advance, and at 1046hrs the Werder battery opened fire on the German battleships. The König returned the fire and after a short time the Russian battery ceased fire. Apart from some disciplined crew, the gun teams were fleeing without restraint. Battery No 33 had been abandoned. Soon after, flames could be seen coming from the signal station and other buildings and further detonations showed that the area was being abandoned.

At 1109hrs the two German battleships anchored with short chains abeam Selglaid, whilst 300 metres ahead the 3 MSHF investigated Fass Bank. The battleships were now taken under fire by Battery No 32 at Woi, but in contrast to the Russian battleships and the 10-inch battery at Woi, the 6-inch guns fired poorly and soon ceased. König returned the fire between 1115hrs and 1135hrs.

Of the five 10-inch pieces of Battery No 36 at Woi on Moon Island, three were mounted on a wooden base and could not fire to seawards, but could fire on the stone dam. The other two guns were mounted on concrete foundations and were behind wooden parapets, and could fire a salvo every 1½ to 2 minutes. When the German torpedoboats and battleships approached, many of the gun crews lost heart and almost all fled. When the Russian forces retired past Schildau, the guns were demolished and the crews that remained went to Kuiwast pier, to be evacuated to the continent.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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