Bellerophon In Northern Waters

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Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815, an 1817 painting by John James Chalon. Bellerophon is at the centre of the picture, surrounded by crowds of people in small boats who have come to see Napoleon.

hanko

Hango 1902

Early in the year 1809 the Bellerophon returned to Yarmouth for repairs and revictualling preparatory to going to the Baltic to join the fleet of Sir James Saumarez—which she proceeded to do on the 27th March.

The political situation at that time existing in the Baltic was very dangerous and it requires some explanation.

In September 1808 the Tsar had met Napoleon at Erfurt and both Emperors had reaffirmed their previous declarations at Tilsit. France promised not to make a peace until Russia had obtained Finland from Sweden, and Moldavia and Wallachia from Turkey. The Tsar had already declared war on Sweden the previous February on the pretext of her refusing to shut her ports to British trade and refusing to join with Russia and Denmark and close the Baltic to British ships. Denmark and Prussia followed suit with a declaration of war on Sweden, and the Swedes sent an appeal to Britain for help. The Government sent a force of sixty-two sail to the Baltic under the command of Sir James Saumarez. This was followed by an an army of 10,000 men under Sir John Moore, this army was never in action as Moore and the mad king of Sweden, Gustavus IV, could not agree on the way it should be used. Moore was arrested by the king, but made his escape disguised as a peasant and returned to the British ships. The army was then sent back to Britain and from there on to the Peninsula.

Britain’s interest in the Baltic stemmed mainly from the fact that it was the source of most of her naval supplies. Once that route was cut off, she would undergo serious difficulties in refitting her fleets. The year 1809 opened with the Russians already in possession of Finland and preparing to invade Sweden. It was decided by the government of Sweden that the safest course lay in forcing the abdication of their king Gustavus IV on account of his insanity, and then trying to steer a course of neutrality. It was realized in London that the Swedes needed Britain as much as Britain needed the Swedes, and that if by any chance the Swedes were forced into a declaration of war it would behove the British Government to treat them with great leniency.

Eventually the Swedes were forced into a declaration of war and instructions were sent from London to Sir James Saumarez that the rights of Sweden were to be scrupulously respected. The contrast was often noticed in Sweden that the country suffered worse treatment from its Russian and Danish allies than it suffered from its enemy Britain. It was mainly due to the tact and judgment of Sir James Saumarez that when the break between Napoleon and the Tsar finally came, both Sweden and Russia ended up on the same side as Britain against Napoleon.

This was the position when Captain Warren arrived with the Bellerophon in the spring of 1809. Rear-Admiral Gardner had not accompanied the ship to the Baltic and had transferred his flag to the Blake (74), commanded by Sir Edward Codrington, a Trafalgar veteran. In this ship he was to see service during the disastrous Walcheren Expedition of that year. Just after the arrival of the Bellerophon, the British seized the island of Anholt from the Danes, which had been used by Danish privateers, and forthwith used it for their own ends.

The first action for the Bellerophon came in June 1809 when she was cruising off the coast of Russian-occupied Finland accompanied by the Minotaur (74). The Bellerophon was detached off Hango, and at sunset on the 19th discovered an armed lugger and two other vessels at anchor in the coastal waters of the numerous islands. There appeared no sign of life on the vessels or on shore and it was decided to send the ship’s boats with a party of volunteers to cut them out. This was done and the three vessels were soon taken possession of, when it was noticed that they were completely dominated by four Russian batteries. Next a number of Russian gunboats were spotted, which had not been visible from the Bellerophon. Lieutenant Pilch, who was in charge of the cutting-out operation, realized that it would be impossible to bring away the three captured vessels under fire of the batteries and gunboats, and it was decided to set them on fire. This done, the order was given to row to the island and to storm the battery which would most harass their retreat—not an easy task, for the battery was manned by 103 men armed with muskets and bayonets. Under a fierce but inaccurate fire the Bellerophon’s men scrambled ashore and rushed on the battery, and after a short hand-to-hand combat forced the Russians to quit. The Russians were then driven into their own boats, the guns of the battery spiked, and the magazine blown up. Under fire from batteries on other islands the British then re-embarked in their own boats and returned to their ship, which had been unable to manoeuvre to give them covering fire because of the shallowness of the water. The operation had been completed very efficiently and at the small cost of only five wounded, and it gained the ship a mention in the dispatches of Sir James Saumarez to the Admiralty.

On the 7th July the ship was in action again when a British squadron composed of the Implacable (74), Captain Thomas Byam-Martin; Bellerophon (74); Melpomene (38), Captain Peter Parker; and Prometheus (18), Captain Thomas Forrest; was once again cruising off the coast of Finland. A Russian flotilla of gunboats and merchant vessels was spotted at anchor under Porcola Point. Martin thought that such a display was insulting to British sea power and determined to try and cut them out or destroy them. The Russians were very strongly placed with their flanks covered by rocks, which narrowed the field of approach to them and enabled the Russians to concentrate their fire. Nevertheless it was decided to make the attempt that night, and for the leader of the enterprise Martin chose Lieutenant Joseph Hawkey of the Implacable. He was to have a force of 270 officers and men manning seventeen boats, and the operation was to start at 9 p.m.

At the appointed hour the men filed down into the boats and began the long approach to the moored vessels. They were soon spotted and the boats were subject to a heavy fire; no reply was made by the British until they were alongside the Russian ships, when they swarmed aboard with a great cheer. The first of the gun-boats was soon carried and the British pushed on to the second, when Lieutenant Hawkey was hit and collapsed dying. Lieutenant Charles Allen of the Bellerophon took charge of the operation and the British continued to fight their way down the line of Russian gunboats. In the end six of the boats were taken, one sunk and one managed to get away, and all the the twelve vessels composing the merchant convoy were also taken. They were found to be carrying ammunition and other materials for the Russian army in Finland. The ships were brought out to the British squadron, and another smart piece of work by the Royal Navy was completed. Casualties had once again been amazingly light, for the losses were only seventeen killed and thirty-four wounded.

The Bellerophon was to remain with the Baltic fleet for another three months before she once again sailed for Britain. The ship anchored in Yarmouth Roads on the 22nd November, and was immediately taken in hand for repairs, which included replacing the running rigging. The whole job was a lengthy process, for the log does not continue with the narration of each day’s events until 23rd August of the following year, when the ship is reported at anchor in the Downs.

 

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