Scots in Russian Naval Service

Samuel Greig, or Samuil Karlovich Greig as he was known in Russia (30 November 1735, Inverkeithing, Fife, Scotland – 15 October 1788, Tallinn, Estonia, Russian Empire) was a Scottish-born Russian admiral who distinguished himself in the Battle of Chesma (1770) and the Battle of Hogland (1788). His son Alexey Greig also made a spectacular career in the Imperial Russian Navy.

Battle of Chesma, by Ivan Aivazovsky

Peter the Great recruited officers and shipbuilders from Britain, the Low Countries and Denmark to help fulfil his ambitions for a Russian navy. For example, shipwrights went to Russia from Davenport. In the early 1700s Peter ousted the Swedes to acquire control over the head of the Gulf of Finland and embarked on the building of the great capital city named after him. The island of Kotlina was fortified to become the naval base of Kronstadt and the growth of the Russian fleet in the Baltic began. By 1713, the year of the indecisive naval battle with Sweden at Högland, Peter had a fleet that included fourteen ships of the line and several frigates. One of his captains was Andrew Simpson, who, in command of the 52-gun St Michael, took part in several brushes with the Swedes in 1714. Other Scots were Thomas Gordon, William Hay and Adam Urquhart. In the autumn of 1718 Gordon was promoted to rear-admiral of the Red (the Russian navy adopted colour names for its squadrons, as did the Royal Navy) and became involved in the disputes that seem often to have broken out among the members of an officer corps drawn from different nations. Probably emboldened by booze, Gordon complained to Peter in 1721 about preference being given to Danish and Dutch officers, to the detriment of the British and their ships. The Russian general-admiral, Feodor Apraxin, let his emperor know that ‘he looked upon Gordon and his associates as men of turbulent dispositions and malevolent principles; that having set their native country in a flame . . . some of them were forced to fly from justice and were now caballing to foment divisions in Russia’. This was a reference to the fact that some of the British were Jacobites. Despite these opinions, Peter, sensing Gordon’s talents, appealed to his officers to live in peace with each other. In the summer of 1722 Lord Duffus arrived in St Petersburg to become superintendent of the shipyard and magazine at an annual salary of 1,000 roubles (around £500). For general officers the pay Peter offered was slightly less than that they received in the Royal Navy (£20 per month against £21 per month) but seamen and warrant officers obtained a higher remuneration from the Russians. Andrew Simpson was dismissed from the service in 1714 for unknown reasons. Adam Urquhart was killed accidentally in the service in 1719 while cutting masts free after his ship, the Portsmouth, had run aground in bad weather on a sandbank 5 leagues from Kronstadt. More Jacobites went over to Russian service in the 1760s.

Two Scots in particular stand out in the annals: John Elphinstone and Samuel Greig. John Elphinston may have been born at Lopness on the island of Sanday, a low, windswept finger of land and rock reaching out towards Scandinavia, and if this is so it was a highly appropriate birthplace for this fighting captain. At the age of seventeen, in 1739, he joined the Royal Navy. By 1760 he had reached the rank of captain. In the following year he captured a French frigate. His combat experience, combined with demonstrated skills in hydrography and combined operations, made him, when he was put on half-pay after the Seven Years War – the normal method adopted by the Admiralty when it had to reduce its manpower – a prime catch for the Russian navy when it launched a recruitment drive. Elphinstone received a commission as a rear-admiral in the Baltic in May 1769. Samuel Greig was born in 1735, the son of a shipowner in Inverkeithing. He went to sea in the merchant service before joining the Royal Navy, where he quickly reached the warrant rank of master’s mate. He was still rated thus in 1762, although he had passed his examinations to be a lieutenant, and he also was attracted to transfer to the Russian navy, where swifter promotion beckoned.

Catherine II was crowned in the Cathedral of the Assumption in the Kremlin in September 1762. As a young Prussian woman, she had come to Russia to marry the heir to the throne, Peter, a grandson of Peter the Great and Catherine I. It was still a land of contrasts, in the view of a French diplomat, ‘two different nations on the same soil . . . simultaneously in the fourteenth and the eighteenth centuries’.9 Catherine II had great plans for her adopted country and, once she had disposed of her estranged husband (he was murdered in the summer of 1762 by officers loyal to her) she set about their implementation. In all she brought thirty British naval officers into her service. One of her ambitions was to continue the policy of Peter the Great to strengthen Russia and gain access to the Black Sea. The land war against Turkey was prosecuted successfully until Crimea was almost within Russia’s grasp, and as part of a broader strategy against the Ottomans the decision was taken to send a Russian fleet from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.

Count Alexei Orlov, a scar-faced man of immense stature who was said to be able to down a bottle of champagne in one, was appointed to command this fleet, although he readily admitted he had little experience of the sea. Samuel Greig, who had already quietly made an impression as a competent and innovative officer and had risen in rank, was placed in command of a division of the fleet under Vice-Admiral Grigory Spiridov, and was taken on as adviser and flag-captain by Orlov. Whereas Greig exercised tact, Elphinstone made no secret of his opinion of the poorly equipped, poorly led fleet, and in essence he had good grounds for his complaints. The first fleet sailed from Kronstadt, while Elphinstone stayed behind to prepare a second of three 66-gun ships and two 32-gun frigates, ‘the fitting out of which was likely to be attended with delay and many difficulties’. Spiridov had gone away with most of the stores and the best officers, and Elphinstone also had to contend with the ‘very tedious’ Russian ‘forms of office’ until Catherine gave him the power to cut through the red tape. Once at sea, Elphinstone had other problems. One ship had to turn back, but she later caught up with the others at Copenhagen, and a frigate sank in the Gulf of Finland. Some officers enjoyed the delights of the Danish capital and neglected their duties to the extent that the fleet sailed on just before winter choked their passage with ice. Stormy weather in the North Sea scattered the ships and drove them into various English ports, and Christmas was upon them before they re-assembled at Portsmouth to effect repairs and recuperate from the rigours of the voyage.

At last, in the spring of 1770, the Russian ships assembled at Livorno. Elphinstone and Spiridov quarrelled vigorously until Greig dropped a word in Orlov’s ear that it might be a good idea to let the fiery rear-admiral go off in command of an independent squadron to hunt on his own. After the capture of Navarino (now Pylos) Elphinstone, sailing in the 84-gunned Syvatoslav, along with the Ne Tron Menya and the Saratov, and the frigates Nadezhda and Afrika, found out that a fleet of Turkish ships was lurking off Nafplio on the east Peloponnese coast and engaged them on 27 May. ‘We bore down upon them with all the sail we could croud, with colours flying, whilst the drums and trumpets animated us to battle.’ The Na Tron Menya and the Saratov put three Turks out of action before a change of wind direction made them vulnerable to galley attack, but then Elphinstone attacked with explosive shells. The Turks withdrew into Nafplio. Although Elphinstone had had to fire on his own ships to encourage the reluctant commanders into the fray, he thought that the ordinary sailors ‘fearless of danger . . . fought at their guns like lions’. On the following day, after another attack ending with a bombardment of the port, he sailed off to rejoin the main fleet.

On 3 July the Russians tracked down the main Turkish fleet to the bay of Çesme, opposite the hilly island of Chios, where some sixteen ships of the line with a large number of smaller vessels were anchored in three lines. At nine on the morning of the 5th Elphinstone went aboard Orlov’s flagship to propose his plan of attack but found to his surprise that everything had been already decided: that the Russians would attack from the south, with Spiridov having the honour of leading the van, followed by Orlov and Greig in the centre, and with Elphinstone’s squadron bringing up the rear. Elphinstone did not like this but Orlov was adamant, and the Orkneyman had grumpily to agree to obey orders, although he made it clear he thought the whole venture ‘too uncertain for him to risque his reputation upon’.

At noon Orlov hoisted the red flag to signal the attack. The Russian ships ranged up and formed their battle line, gliding northwards alongside the enemy. Some of the Russian ships had difficulty in maintaining their position, and left and rejoined the line as the exchange of broadsides thundered across the sea. At one point the Sv. Evstafii, Spiridov’s flagship, was fired on in error by Orlov’s flagship, Trech Ierarchov, and then sailed into a fierce, close-range cannoning with the Turkish battleship Real Mustafa. The Turk’s mainmast fell on the Russian’s deck, and both ships blew up as fire took hold on them. Spiridov had already transferred to another ship before this happened. After over two hours of fighting, the Turkish fleet cut their cables and retreated into the bay to adopt a defensive battle line.

On the following day, the Russians subjected the ships and the shore to a bombardment but it must have been clear that something more effective would be needed to overcome them. Greig now masterminded a devastating blow to the Turks. Shortly after midnight on the 7th, he hoisted his broad pennant aboard the Ratislav to lead the Netromena and the Europa into the jaws of the bay, taking on the guns of the batteries and covering the advance of fireships. The Authentic Narrative, a near contemporary account of the event, says there were three of these, prepared from commandeered Greek boats, but the map in the same book plainly states there were four, two of which did not go in as the Russian officers were ‘dead Drunk’. The largest of the fireships was commanded by Lieutenant Robert Dugdale. As it neared its target at the north end of the Turkish line, Dugdale’s crew deserted him, either because they misunderstood their orders or because they panicked – they ‘jumped into the boat and rowed away as fast as they could . . . whilst [the fireship] was going with all her sails set down the enemy’. Dugdale carried on alone until he was sure his doomed vessel would reach its target, ‘fired a pistol into the train [the gunpowder], stayed to see it take fire, then boldly leaped into the sea and was fortunately taken up by a Greek boat (that was passing among the ships) just as he was sinking with fatigue.’ In his understandable haste, he had fired too soon, and his fireship drifted ashore ‘to little purpose’. In the second fireship, Lieutenant Thomas Mackenzie’s crew stayed with him until the right moment. They abandoned the burning vessel to sail down on the southern end of the Turkish line, where it caused a ‘conflagration, which soon raged with irresistible fury’. In the crowded anchorage the fire spread, provoking the author of the Authentic Narrative to write: ‘A fleet consisting upwards of one hundred sail, almost in one general blaze, presented a picture of distress and horror, dreadfully sublime.’ The damage to the Turkish navy was irrecoverable.

Catherine II heaped honours upon Orlov, although he was honest enough to admit privately that he owed everything to Greig, who was now promoted to rear-admiral. Elphinstone boiled with resentment at being overlooked – he had proposed a combined operation ‘to pass the Dardanelles and burn Constantinople, and should now think myself morally certain of success’, which had been rejected – and in 1771 he left the Russian service to return to the Royal Navy. The discreet Greig kept his thoughts to himself and prospered in Orlov’s good books. In 1775 he became vice-admiral and was placed in command of the Kronstadt base; various honours and decorations also came his way and Catherine dined aboard his flagship after a fleet review. Greig oversaw many improvements to the main Baltic base and the fleet, but, predictably, his use of foreign experts provoked grumbling.

In 1788 other British officers in the Russian service persuaded him to support them in an effort to prevent John Paul Jones being promoted to rear-admiral. Jones had been born a Scot before emigrating to the Americas as a teenager and thereafter making a considerable name for himself in the American navy in the War of Independence, defeating the Royal Navy frigate HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head and at one point threatening to bombard Leith. In 1788 he joined the Russian navy. The ever-tactful Greig changed his mind over opposition to Jones’s promotion, and Jones did become a rear-admiral and served in the Black Sea in June of the same year before he left the service.

War broke out in 1788 with Sweden again and in this conflict Greig played a leading part. His fleet blocked the Swedes in the Gulf of Finland and fought them off Högland on 17 July. The engagement was indecisive, with roughly equal losses on both sides, but the thwarting of the enemy’s ambition to wipe out the Baltic fleet and to descend on St Petersburg determined the strategic outcome was in Russia’s favour. For the rest of the summer and autumn Greig kept the Swedish ships bottled up in Sveaborg, at the entrance to Helsinki harbour, until in early October he fell ill aboard his flagship, the Rotislav, and died. Catherine wept for the loss and gave her rear-admiral a state funeral in Reval (now Tallinn). His son Alexis Samuilovich Greig became an admiral in the Russian navy.


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