POSITIONS AT KRONSTADT, 1855 A major British fleet was sent to the Baltic Sea during the Crimean War, but the outclassed Russians, based at Kronstadt off St Petersburg, refused to engage in battle. As a result, the British were able to engage coastal targets, notably Sveaborg, the fort that guarded the approach to Helsinki, although not to inflict decisive damage. The Russians mobilized large number of steam-powered gunboats with heavy pivot guns to defend Kronstadt. It was to be attacked by British naval aircraft during the Russian Civil War. The map shows the positions at Kronstadt on 1 June 1855.
The blockade of all the Russian ports in the Gulfs of Livonia, Finland and Bothnia had been formally effected by Sir Charles Napier before the French arrived and was officially notified in the London Gazette on 16 June. Napier had delayed his advance up the Gulf of Finland partly to await the arrival of the French contingent and partly because of major difficulties placed in his way – not the least of which were the dense fogs lasting days on end and the Russian removal of the channel buoys, beacons and lights which had served as landmarks along dangerous coastlines.
With the French acting in concert, Napier took up a position in Baro Sound just within the entrance to the Gulf of Finland, about 12 miles from Sveaborg and 15 from Reval. By the end of June there was a combined fleet of no less than 51 warships, comprising 28 ships-of-the-line, 5 first-class frigates and 18 steamers anchored in the sound; such a fleet, carrying about 2,700 large-calibre guns and 30,000 seamen and marines, had never been seen in the Baltic.
Apart from a ‘simple’ blockade of the outlets of the Baltic north of Denmark, to cripple Russia’s import and export trade and to prevent the Russian Baltic Fleet from operating against the British and French coasts, there were several obvious targets for Anglo-French naval attacks – if the right forces had been available. Any number of towns, ports and coastal fortifications could have been hit – Viborg, Abo, Pernau, Nystad and others were open to attack and some indeed were ‘visited’ in 1854 and 1855. But the main focuses of serious operations were easily identified – Reval, Sveaborg, Kronstadt and Bomarsund. Reval on the coast of what was then Courland and Sveaborg (once known as ‘the Gibraltar of the north’) both served as ‘flank defences’ to the approaches to Kronstadt and were home to ships of the Russian Baltic Fleet. There were hopes that they could be ‘neutralised’ by direct attack and no doubt public opinion in Britain expected news of an early assault on at least some of these enemy bases. In fact, three major targets, Reval, Sveaborg and Kronstadt, though frequently reconnoitred and ‘watched’, were protected by such formidable defences that Napier in the end simply could not contemplate a serious attack on any one of them with the fleet under his command, lacking the sort of mortar and gunboats he would need for coastal operations and almost entirely without adequate military force to follow up any successful naval attack.
Nevertheless, some major action had at least to be considered. During the last week in June the allied commanders decided on an advance in strength into the Gulf of Finland towards Kronstadt. A massively fortified island that constituted the main defence of St Petersburg and its approaches, Kronstadt was the main base of the Russian Baltic Fleet. This famous stronghold – island, town, harbour and fortress – lies in the Bay of Constadt, 31 miles from St Petersburg and was surrounded by a series of heavily fortified outcrops and islets apart from those defences actually sited on the island itself. Kronstadt was not only the main station of the Baltic Fleet but was also the outer harbour of St Petersburg and all vessels en route to the capital were searched here, their cargoes sealed and trans-shipment made to vessels intending to ascend the Neva. Kronstadt had three harbours – an outer one for warships, an inner one for merchant shipping and a large dockyard for fitting and repairing vessels. The town looked more like a military depot and arsenal than a commercial port, dominated by buildings and fortifications belonging to the Imperial navy. A range of fortresses, such as Fort Alexander and Fort Constantine, dominated the southern side of the island, whilst the northern side was equally defended by forts and redoubts, in addition to six or seven batteries on the mole. These works were begun by Peter the Great but had been constantly added to and strengthened over succeeding generations. Not only were the town and harbour defended by massive granite batteries, but every islet and passage was equally covered so that any enemy vessel attempting to sail up to St Petersburg from the north or south of the island would have to pass within range of at least two arrays of batteries. Furthermore, the 6 miles between the island and the mainland were so broken up by inlets, shoals and mud banks that the navigable channels were narrow and any approach difficult. The Russians had converted some of the small islets into strong gun positions and had even built forts on piles driven into the mud, defending the approaches from all directions. It was believed that up to 1,500 large-calibre guns, besides those carried on the Russian fleet, protected the island ands its seaways.
When the fleet was within 10 miles of the island, three small paddle-frigates, Lightning, Bulldog and Magicienne, were sent ahead to sound and reconnoitre more closely, and especially to search for any mines (‘infernal machines’) or submarine explosives, which reports (correctly) claimed the Russians had planted in the approaches. Following at a short distance to offer protection were three larger warships, Imperieuse, Arrogant and Desperate. No ‘infernal machines’ were encountered on this occasion but the reconnoitring vessels approached Kronstadt near enough to see its formidable array of granite batteries and pick out the large fleet sheltered within the harbour. The Baltic Fleet’s Surveying Officer, Captain Bartholomew James Sulivan in the lightly armed survey vessel Lightning, had orders from the hydrographer Sir Francis Beaufort ‘to assist with the important operations of the Baltic Fleet by making such skilful and rapid reconnaissance as well as by occasional hydrographic surveys wherever it may be considered necessary’, and – interestingly – to make everything ‘more or less subservient to the great object of improving our charts’. He reported that Kronstadt was too well protected to risk attacking without, as Sulivan said, the use of a significant number of mortar vessels, which Napier’s fleet did not possess. He counted no less than 17 ‘sail-of- the-line’ warships ‘moored outside the basin’, with 3 smaller vessels and 6 steamers nearby and a host of other armed ships around the island.
Although the main element of the Russian fleet within the harbour caused no problems and made no attempt to sally out and offer battle, it was simply not possible for allied ships to approach near enough to carry out a thorough examination, let alone actually try to force a passage. Napier and his subordinates rapidly agreed that to take on Kronstadt or attempt to bypass its defences was quite beyond their powers – no matter what uninformed opinion in the British press might claim, already growing critical of the lack of a major victory. Admiral Napier, as the man on the spot and responsible to the nation for the safety of his fleet, wisely declined to take on Kronstadt and the Admiralty concurred in his decision.
After an examination of the area the allied fleet returned to Baro Sound early in July 1854, remaining at anchor for some days whilst the commanders discussed the probabilities for and against the success of any great enterprise. Whilst they worried over the possibility of attacks against major targets like Kronstadt or Sveaborg, detached squadrons continued to carry out the rest of Napier’s brief in the Gulfs of Finland, Riga and Bothnia – to ‘watch’ enemy ports in case Russian warships emerged to offer battle, to stop, search and if necessary seize enemy merchant ships breaching the blockade and, where possible, to harass enemy positions ashore.
If Kronstadt, Sveaborg and Reval were deemed to be beyond reach, attention had to fall on the capture of Bomarsund on the Åland Islands as at least a potentially achievable goal and one suggested in Napier’s original orders. In contrast to the other three Russian bases, Bomarsund, a fortress complex guarding an impressive potential harbour, was vulnerable; as it was still under construction it was likely to be incomplete and undermanned and did not have any element of the Russian fleet nearby to support its defence.
There was huge and publicly expressed disappointment in Britain that if Sveaborg and Kronstadt had proved to be too formidable, the allies could have taken or bombarded Riga or Reval or Abo. On the other hand, some commentators argued that the advantages resulting from the campaign should not be ignored. Many contended that the force placed at Napier’s disposal was both too strong and too weak – too strong to tempt the Russian fleet to emerge and risk an open engagement but too weak to capture or destroy Kronstadt or Sveaborg. During the campaign, Napier felt he was hampered by contradictions in the Admiralty’s instructions and especially by the attitude of the First Lord, Sir James Graham. In fact some of the Naval Lords seemed to react more to adverse coverage in the British press than to Napier’s assessments on the spot and relations between them deteriorated badly. Not one to mince words or submit to what he felt to be unwonted criticism, Napier sealed his professional fate by frequently adopting what was called a ‘disrespectful’ tone in some of his dispatches, which the Admiralty disliked. On his return in December 1854, ‘where disappointment was loudly expressed at the small results of the naval campaign’, he was ordered to haul down his flag, told that his command was terminated and placed on half-pay. It is noticeable that none of Napier’s flag officers of the 1854 campaign was allowed to return to the Baltic in 1855, the new fleet being given to Admiral the Hon. Richard Saunders Dundas, then the Second Sea Lord.
The Admiralty attempted to make Napier a scapegoat for what British public and press opinion perceived to be the failure of the campaign but it is interesting that although there were many who had criticised and carped at Napier’s actions, some of the leading officers of the Baltic Fleet maintained that his strategy had been wise and that the faults lay with the Admiralty themselves. In the end, though lacking any major dramatic action apart from the capture of Bomarsund, Napier had achieved something. His ships had effectively neutralised (though not destroyed) the Imperial Baltic Fleet, preventing the deployment of additional warships outside the Baltic and perhaps even to the Black Sea. He had maintained through all weathers a successful blockade which had disrupted Russian trade, fishing and supply routes and had demonstrated the allies’ ability to attack at will targets like ports, shipyards and stores and the corresponding inability of the Russians to defend their own coastlines. In addition, Russian land forces in their thousands had been held along the Baltic shores in anticipation of allied landings and were thus prevented from reinforcing the Russian Army in the Crimea or elsewhere. Also, Napier’s constant emphasis on training had welded the fleet’s personnel into a much more competent force for the coming campaign and not a single ship had been lost. One result of all this was that even Sir James Graham, who really had become Sir Charles Napier’s enemy, recognised that new types of warship were needed for the planned Baltic campaign of 1855. In October 1854, a programme of construction was put into action which would produce five new blockships and no less than twenty new gunboats. These would enable Napier’s successor, Admiral Richard Dundas, to contemplate an attack on the fortresses of the Baltic in 1855 with some hope of success.
The perceived failure of the allied expedition to the Baltic in 1854 – if indeed it was actually a failure – led to acrimony in Britain and the removal of its commander, Admiral Sir Charles Napier. But it did at least force their Lordships at the Admiralty to reconsider the aims and needs of the naval force for the campaign season of 1855. It was becoming clear that the old sailing ‘wooden walls’ and even the larger screw warships, powerful as they were, were not the right sort of vessel for the coasts and waters of the Baltic or for the operations being planned there. Attacks on harbours and strongly defended installations required a more manoeuvrable but powerfully armed fleet which could deliver overwhelming firepower against static land targets, not just enemy warships. Consideration would also have to be given to the carrying of sizeable land forces for possible operations ashore.
The Admiralty announced in February 1855 that no sailing warships of any kind would be sent to the Baltic in the new season, experience having shown that ‘the mixture of screw and sailing ships was not conducive to the interests of the service’; the new Baltic Fleet would consist only of steamers, twenty of which would be ready for service within two months. In particular, it was expected that in 1855 there would be a greater degree of planning and concerted action than seemed to be the case in 1854. A correspondent in the United Service Gazette wrote: ‘The general subject of complaint last year in the Baltic was that no plan of operation appeared to have been determined upon. From Kiel the fleet went to Kioge. They went up the Gulf of Finland and came down again – they buzzed about everywhere without fixing anywhere and they did not take Bomarsund until it was nearly time to conclude the campaign.’ The writer went on to urge attacks on the fortresses of the Baltic since ‘the most complete plans and drawings of the chief Russian fortresses are in the possession of our government’. It seems that the Emperor Napoleon III was equally anxious that some degree of proper planning should go into the new campaign – he understood that the French navy would play second fiddle to the British, but nevertheless thought that Britain’s reputation had suffered (‘terribly shaken by the nullity of our campaign in the Baltic last year’) and urged that thorough planning must be in place. Interestingly, the French reduced their Baltic contingent in 1855, perhaps in view of the strength of the British fleet and considering that their greatest efforts were needed in the Crimea.
The result in Britain at least was the creation of a new Baltic Fleet for 1855. There were to be over 100 vessels comprising only steam-powered ships, both screw and paddle, many of them smaller, faster vessels of shallower draught capable of operating in the waters of estuaries and rivers. But, in stark contrast to that which had set off so hopefully a year before, the impressive new fleet that sailed from Spithead on 4 April 1855 did so without any great show or pageantry; it left simply as a fighting force with a job to do and with no ceremony or public celebration. It was a powerful fleet:
The Baltic Fleet this year is in all respects much stronger than the last; it has more steam power, more guns, a new class of gun-boats and floating batteries, adapted for creeks and shoals and – what more than anything else marks a resolution to do something – a new commander . . . We certainly had wished that after last year’s experience we should have less of such floating castles as the Duke of Wellington and the Royal George and rather more of the gun-boats and other small craft on which we must mainly rely in our offensive operations
The ‘new commander’ was Rear Admiral Richard Saunders Dundas.