Since the total blockade maintained in 1854 was to be resumed, the 1855 campaign season began with the dispatch of an ‘advanced squadron’ under Captain Rundle Watson (in Imperieuse) on 20 March, which reached the Baltic in mid-April and formally declared a renewed blockade on the 17th. At much the same time, most of the larger warships of Dundas’ fleet were passing through the Kattegat, heading for anchorage at Kiel, where they concentrated on 13 April. Most of the fleet remained there for nearly a month, waiting for the last of the solid winter ice to recede, but Dundas finally left Kiel on 2–3 May with twenty ships, joining the advanced squadron at Gothland on the 7th. Whilst the main fleet then proceeded to Nargen Island, opposite Reval, which became Dundas’ advanced base, smaller squadrons were deployed as in 1854 to range around the Baltic – to reconnoitre Sveaborg, Riga, Kronstadt, the Åland Islands and Hängo Head, to blockade the Gulfs of Riga and Finland and the coast of Courland and to intercept enemy trading vessels. Although the fleet at Nargen was in easy reach of Reval, any thought of an attack on the town was quickly abandoned, given that its defences had been massively strengthened over the winter. The truth is that the Russians had used the winter very well, not only to strengthen or fortify many of their previously undefended smaller ports but to deploy large forces of infantry, guns and cavalry at strategic points along the Baltic shores to fend off possible allied landings. Allied landing parties were to find a much warmer reception in 1855 than they had in 1854.
The French squadron under Rear Admiral Andre Penaud joined on 1 June when Dundas was reconnoitring Russia’s great Baltic base at Kronstadt, which was clearly the most important potential target of allied efforts in 1855. Dundas had over thirty vessels off Kronstadt in June and repeated reconnaissance picked out at least twenty-eight Russian warships at anchor in the harbour. But they showed no signs of coming out to give battle and the allies, despite long discussions on the possibility and method of an attack, really saw no hope of success with a naval assault. Similarly, Dundas himself, having personally reconnoitred Kronstadt in Merlin, reached the conclusion that ‘no serious attack appears to me to be practicable with the means at my disposal’. As at Reval, Sveaborg and other Baltic ports, the tranquility of winter had allowed a significant strengthening of the port’s defences and outer approaches, which included submarine piles and the novel deployment of two sorts of underwater mines (or ‘infernal machines’) which were a largely unknown and much-feared weapon. If Kronstadt had been considered unassailable in 1854, it was equally so in 1855. A completely different sort of naval force was required even to consider the attempt – one with a mass of small gun and mortar vessels and with a significant landing force. As a result of the experiences in the Baltic in 1855 (see below), ‘The Great Armament’ of 1855–6 set out to rectify this need and eventually produced the necessary type of vessels in large numbers, but in the campaign season of 1855 they were simply not available. The case was quickly closed: however closely Kronstadt might be ‘watched’ over the rest of the season, it could not be attacked by sea in 1855.
Bombardment of Sveaborg.
At 7.00am on the 9th the bombardment began, employing the moored mortar boats, a French sandbag battery on a rocky outcrop and the gunboats. The gunboat flotilla, wheeling round in large circles to bring their few heavy guns to bear, was under the command of Commodore Hon. F.T. Pelham. The gunboats and sandbag battery fired nearly horizontally against the forts, whilst the 12-inch and 13-inch mortars fired at a high elevation, over the other ships, so that their shells, about thirty an hour, dropped into the interior of the defences or between them and Helsingfors, to destroy magazines, ships stores and buildings. The largest island and seat of the governor, East Svarto, was somewhat sheltered by Vargon but could nevertheless be hit by highangled dropping fire. Some of the larger warships cruised to the east and west, to distract the attention of troops and batteries visible on shore.
This heavy bombardment was returned with great resolution by the defenders but before long the whole line of defences was being pounded by thickly falling shells and shot and hit by falling fragments of buildings, roofs and burning timbers. Dundas recorded that about 10.00 o’clock in the forenoon, fires began to be observed in the different buildings and a heavy explosion took place on the Island of Sargon [Vargon], which was followed by a second an hour later. A third and far more important explosion occurred about noon on the Island of Gustavsvard, inflicting much damage upon the defences of the enemy and tending to greatly slacken the fire from that direction . . . [there were] continued fresh conflagrations which spread extensively on the Island of Sargon.
In the campaign season of 1854, Admiral Napier had on several occasions considered an attack on Sveaborg (and perhaps on Helsingfors) and had the islands reconnoitred and ‘watched’. But, to the consternation of many of his younger subordinates, he refused to be drawn into what he regarded as a futile attack; he did not believe his firepower great enough to reduce the forts, he did not have mortar or gun vessels that could do serious damage and he had no land forces to operate ashore if the forts fell. His brief from Sir James Graham at the Admiralty was, after all, very clear – he was not to endanger his fleet on desperate enterprises against fixed defences. In the campaign season of 1855, the situation was somewhat different. Since the Admiralty had at least learned something from the omissions of 1854, the new Baltic Fleet under Admiral Dundas was better equipped to take on some of the fortifications that had been beyond Napier’s capacity in 1854. In particular, he had powerful gunboats and a number of mortar vessels capable of heavy bombardment with some hope of doing damage. The allied attack on Sveaborg in 1855 was to be the largest purely naval operation in the Baltic but the allied fleet did not, however, carry anything in the form of significant land forces to serve ashore, so any attack could never be more than a demonstration of allied naval might. It could do whatever damage it liked at long range, but it could not seize or permanently hold the forts or operate on shore from them. The Russians, for their part, clearly believed that although no attack on Sveaborg had been made in 1854, there was every likelihood that a new, more powerful fleet would make an attempt in 1855.
Leaving Admiral Sir Robert Baynes with a squadron to blockade Kronstadt, Admiral Dundas assembled at Nargen a fleet of 22 steamers, 16 gunboats and 16 mortar vessels, carrying an armament of the largest ordnance used in naval warfare up to that time. They were joined by a French contingent under Rear Admiral Penaud in Tourville. Once extra supplies of ammunition had been received from England, the admirals agreed their plans and steamed from Nargen for Sveaborg, where they brought their vessels into battle array on 8 August. In his dispatches Dundas stated that by erecting batteries on every advantageous position (including the shore around Helsingfors, which was heavily defended) the Russians had so commanded all the approaches to the harbour that he abandoned any intention of making a general attack, limiting his operations to a naval bombardment of the islands and the destruction of any fortresses and arsenals that could be reached by mortar shells and gunfire. The plan for the bombardment was largely adopted from that written in 1854 by Captain B.J. Sulivan of Lightning; he now commanded the larger Merlin but in the event was not allowed to exercise overall command of the attack and was in fact angered by suggested changes to his plan. It was difficult to find suitable positions for the long line of 16 British and 5 French mortar vessels amid the rocks and islets, but ultimately these boats, towed to into position by steamers, were ranged in a curved line facing the island defences at a range of 3,300 yards and 4 lighter mortars were placed on the islet of Otterhall. The larger warships – Magicienne, Vulture, Euryalus and Dragon – were 400 yards behind them ranged in line. Operating in front of all of these, closer to the actual defences at a range of about 2,500 yards, were the French and British gunboats. The rest of the allied fleet lay at anchor further to the rear of the battle lines between the islets of Skogsholm and Skogskar.
As night arrived, the gunboats withdrew and the fleet’s smaller boats, armed with rockets, took over, firing into the forts throughout the night so that the interior of Sveaborg’s defences was engulfed in a spectacular sheet of flame, filling the air with masses of smoke. Early in the morning of 10 August, some adjustments having been made in the line of mortar boats, the full-scale bombardment recommenced. Once again, columns of smoke and flashes of flame lit up the sky and the depots on East Svarto were soon seen to be in flames. Again, the firing continued all day so that, as Admiral Penaud recorded in his dispatch to the French government, Sveaborg looked like ‘a vast fiery furnace’ so numerous were the fires and explosions of magazines, storehouses, barracks and other buildings. As before, the attack was continued through the night by rocket boats. It was clear by dawn the next day that just about everything – short of a landing and occupation – that could be achieved by naval firepower had been done.
In Helsingfors, the local population, many of whom had crowded onto high points to watch the action, now prepared to flee the city, certain that an allied landing would follow. But as the ships could not penetrate further into the intricate channels between the islands, the allies brought operations to a close and no further action ensued. The attack had used, it was estimated, over 100 tons of gunpowder and 5,000 tons of iron shot and shell in 48 hours. Nevertheless, the actual seaward defences of the forts and batteries seemed comparatively undamaged and the admirals could only point to the destruction of property within the interior as proof of the success of their operations. Considering that the mortars and guns fired at an average distance of more than 2 miles from their targets, it was no great surprise that the stone forts were so little damaged.
One unusual feature of this action was that the larger ships were virtually spectators, since the admirals did not want to risk them in close action; their crews, agog with excitement at the sight of the burning forts, could only envy those in the mortar boats and gunboats and could do nothing but run up the rigging to get a view and shout and cheer whenever a good shot from the gunboats struck the forts or a shell from the mortar boats burst within the defences. Some of the larger ships – the Cornwallis, Hastings, Amphion, Arrogant, Cossack and Cruiser – did manage to put some shots into the forts, especially one at Sandhamn, 6 miles from the main action but the smaller boats did most of the work. The bombardment of Sveaborg was yet another example of the value of heavily armed, lighter-draught, manoeuvrable ships rather than the old line-of-battle heavyweights.
When the great effect of the gun and mortar boats was made public in England, Sir Charles Napier wrote to the newspapers, demanding as an act of justice that his operations in 1854 should be judged in the light of the action of 1855: this seemed no more than fair, seeing that he had neither gunboats nor mortar boats and could not have done what Dundas was able to do. The letter he had written to the Admiralty on the 12 June 1854 – over a year before Dundas’ attack – is worthy of notice:
The only successful manner of attacking Sveaborg that I can see . . . is by fitting out a great number of gun-boats carrying one gun with a long range, and placing them west of Sveaborg and south of Helsingfors; every shell from them would tell somewhere, and perhaps not five per cent. from the enemy would take effect; back them by the fleet to relieve the men, and in the course of the summer Sveaborg would be reduced to ashes, and Helsingfors also, if it was thought proper.
A French report, printed in the Moniteur, stated that during the 2 days’ bombardment of Sveaborg, the allied fleet destroyed 2 powder magazines, 2 shell magazines, a flax and rope storehouse, 2 granaries filled with corn and flour, a pitch manufactory, a medicine store, the house and office of the governor general and 17 private houses. Besides this, a 3-decker and 18 other Russian vessels were more or less damaged by shot and shell, whilst 2,000 Russians were killed or wounded. Not surprisingly, the Russian papers produced rather different statistics and their accounts of the damage, related in various European newspapers and in official Russian reports, naturally varied enormously; some reported immense damage and loss of life, whilst others belittled the ‘insignificant’ damage and long-term effects of the allied action and claimed serious loss in the enemy fleet. One dispatch, published in the Invalide Russe, claimed that the allied fleet numbered no less than 80 vessels of various kinds and that their marines had been prevented from landing on the island of Drumso; that the excellent fire of the defenders’ artillery caused great damage and loss to the gunboats that came within range; that 1 battery sent such a volley against 2 screw steamers, as to compel them to retreat, 1 towing the other; that although the fire of the allies was tremendous, resulting from 21,000 projectiles thrown during 2 days, and although many conflagrations and explosions occurred, the damage done to the main fortresses and to the batteries in general was insignificant and, finally, that the loss of men was by no means severe, comprising 65 killed and 201 wounded. In the end, it has to be assumed that no accurate picture of the damage done or casualties sustained by the defenders could really be established.
Remarkably – and again largely because of the range – there was little damage to the allied vessels and few casualties. The gunboats had steamed round slowly in a wide circle, firing first their bow gun, then their midship gun and reloading both whilst completing the rest of their circuit; the Russian gunners simply could not take accurate aim at such continually moving targets and hardly a ship was hit. The mortar vessels, which were moored and thus more or less stationary, suffered rather more damage but much of this was simply from the sheer rate of their own fire which severely damaged the new mortars; several burst36 after firing literally dozens of rounds and many others were temporarily put out of use by overheating or the risk of fracture. But remarkably not a single sailor was killed throughout the allied fleet during two days of continuous firing, though several suffered minor wounds and burns or injury from the premature bursting of rockets.
The flotilla of steam gunboats, nicknamed the ‘Mosquito Squadron’, really did demonstrate its power and worth here for the first time in a significant action. The result was spectacular. The Admiralty became so convinced that these small, light boats represented the future of naval operations against fixed land targets that they immediately embarked on the mass construction of gun and mortar vessels. In a radical building programme over the winter of 1855 – really nothing less a than the rapid construction of a massive new fleet in what became known as ‘The Great Armament’ – over 200 new gunboats, 11 armoured floating batteries and 100 mortar vessels and rafts were laid down to be ready for use in 1856. A huge strain was placed on Thames-side construction yards (for example, at Blackwall where many of the Dapper class were laid down), so that on the whole private tenders were taken for the basic building of the ships whilst the official or royal dockyards were employed for finishing – equipping them with engines and armament. New steam battleships were also prepared (for example, Conqueror). The ultimate target of all this activity would no doubt have been the mighty defences of Kronstadt itself, but as the war ended before the new fleets could be deployed in 1856, they were never tested. Only a ‘flying squadron’ of steam frigates and two new battleships, Caesar and Majestic, reached the Baltic for what would have been the campaign season of 1856. In fact, the end of the Russian war saw a rapid return to pre-war Anglo-French tensions and naval rivalry which required, from Britain’s point of view, the construction of larger steam battleships and frigates, rather than a host of small gunboats.