Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy in the early 1700s. The main fleet operated in the Baltic Sea with a squadron on the Sea of Azov which expanded later that century to become the Black Sea Fleet. During the Crimean War the sailors and guns of the Black Sea Fleet played a distinguished role in the defence of Sebastopol. However, the Baltic Fleet was reduced to passivity having proved itself incapable of breaking the Anglo-French blockade. When the empire expanded eastwards a Pacific Squadron was established with its base at Vladivostok. The remilitarization of the Black Sea at roughly the same time led to a further period of expansion but due to limited resources, the Baltic Fleet was somewhat overlooked. However, pressure from France following the 1894 treaty led to an increase in the strength of the Baltic Fleet to counter the growing naval power of Germany. As a result French companies received ship-building orders as Russian heavy industry did not have the capacity to build complete, modern warships.
The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for the Russian Navy that lost virtually all of the Pacific Squadron as well as much of the Baltic Fleet which sailed to its doom at the battle of Tsushima. With severely limited resources the navy was faced with the dilemma of, “we must know what we want” in terms of ship types and whether it should concentrate on the Pacific Ocean, the Baltic or Black seas.
Although there had been a Navy Minister for decades his role was that of junior partner in the War Ministry where the army was regarded as the more important service. Strategically the navy’s role was to support the army.
In 1906 a Naval General Staff was established under the new State Defence Committee but was almost immediately at loggerheads with the Navy Minister Admiral A. A. Birilov who regarded the new body as an upstart creation of little value. Both the Navy Ministry and the Naval General Staff produced plans for modernisation and reform, but neither was acceptable on the grounds of cost. Furthermore the army and the Council of State Defence objected, complaining that they exceeded the Navy’s defensive role. As the arguments and politicking dragged on the Tsar intervened. Nicholas II, in common with his cousins George V and Wilhelm II, liked ships and wished to expand Russia’s overseas influence by the possession of a strong, modern navy. However, the Third Duma (1907–12) preferred to invest the money that was available in the army. Consequently the annual naval estimates became a matter of prolonged debate.
A series of emergency grants provided for the replacement of several ships lost at Tsushima and as money from increased state revenues and French loans filled the treasury and Turkey began to expand its fleet in the Black Sea, it was decided to increase the size of the fleet both there and in the Baltic. While a considerable proportion of this money was invested in capital projects such as shipyards, dry docks and improved port facilities, a large ship building programme was also approved. With the appointment of a new Navy Minister who was more receptive to reform, Admiral I. K. Grigorovich, in 1911 the Duma began to look more favourably on the naval estimates. On 6 July 1912 the Tsar signed a £42,000,000 expansion plan. The problem was that many of the ships laid down under this programme were not scheduled for completion for some time. Furthermore they were highly dependent on foreign expertise and equipment, and the overseas contracts were not placed with Russia’s likely allies. As with heavy artillery procurement orders were made with German companies as well as those of Britain and France.
At the outbreak of war two Russian cruisers, paid for and on the point of completion in German yards, were commissioned into the German navy. According to the 1914 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, four Dreadnoughts and two cruisers were also under construction for the Baltic Fleet, as were three Dreadnoughts and nine cruisers for the Black Sea Fleet. These new capital ships were to be complemented by thirty-six new destroyers and a large number of submarines and auxiliary vessels. The majority of these ships were due for completion within the next few years. By 1914 Russian naval expenditure only lagged behind that of Britain and the USA having overtaken Germany and other potential enemies. Indeed Russia and Britain were on the point of signing a naval agreement when the war broke out. But the Russian Navy was not to be committed offensively during the war years and the majority of its operations were defensive.
As noted in Plan 19 both fleets were subordinated to Stavka. The HQ of the Black Sea Fleet was at Sebastopol, the headquarters of the Baltic fleet at Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland, having major bases at Kronstadt and Riga. The Navy Ministry at Petrograd acted as a clearing house for orders from Stavka.
As the Pacific Squadron took virtually no part in the war it is mainly the operations of the Baltic and Black sea fleets that concern us here and as little or no co-ordination was possible each will be dealt with individually.
Baltic Sea Fleet
At the outbreak of war the Baltic Fleet put a carefully planned defensive mining programme into operation. Russian mines were reputedly the best and most effective used by any navy in the war. The objective of this was to prevent the movement of German naval units against the capital or the flank of NW Front. The officer in charge of mining was Captain A. V. Kolchak who was to advance swiftly to the rank of Admiral. The major achievement of the Baltic Fleet during 1914 was the capture of a set of German naval code books from the Magdeburg during August thus enabling Allied intelligence officers to monitor German movements.
For the next two years the Baltic Fleet’s major units were preserved in anticipation of a decisive fleet action. The burden of offensive operations was undertaken by the eleven submarines of the Baltic Fleet and a small number of British submarines that reached Russia via the Arctic or by running the gauntlet of German patrols at the mouth of the Baltic. Although the submariners of both navies did sterling work against coastal traders plying the Baltic, the bulk of the Russian fleet remained in harbour. Such passivity had a dire effect on the officers and men leaving them prey to apathy and politicisation. Protected by the increasingly complex web of minefields the sailors’ discipline eroded slowly. Cruises were limited due to the lack of British anthracite coal stocks which were in short supply (although interestingly enough, thousands of tons of coal had in fact been stockpiled at Archangel and Murmansk but were instead being used to ballast ships returning to their home ports after delivering munitions to Russia). The sailors’ dockside work was also inhibited by the blanket of ice that built up on the harbours and the ship building programme was held up because many of the vessels under construction were designed only to take German-made turbines. The overall result of all these problems was a number of crews with little or nothing to do.
When the army’s rifle shortage became critical in 1915 the navy exchanged its Russian rifles for the Japanese Arisaka to ease ammunition supply problems. Japan also salvaged ships from the Russo-Japanese War, which were re-commissioned by the Russians and a Separate Baltic Detachment was formed but it did not manage to return to the Baltic.
The first outbreak of trouble occurred on the cruiser Rossiia in Helsingfors during September 1915. The sailors protested about poor food, overly harsh discipline and “German officers”. Rumours of the treachery of the “German officers” had been growing since the loss of the cruiser Pallada when on patrol duties in November 1914, though the fact that it went down with all hands did not enter into the gossip mongers’ tales.
The navy seems to have had a greater proportion of officers with German sounding names than the army and being a smaller service they were more noticeable. Indeed the commander of the Baltic Fleet in 1915 was Admiral N. O. von Essen who apparently considered “russifying” his name during this period. Although the ringleaders aboard the Rossiia were arrested it did not prevent further problems in November 1915 when part of the crew of the battleship Gangoot rioted beyond their officers’ control over poor food. More worrying for senior commanders was the refusal of neighbouring vessel’s crews to train their guns on the mutineers. Finally the threat of a submarine putting torpedoes into the Gangoot put a stop to the mutiny. A series of arrests were made resulting in those men being assigned to disciplinary battalions. Disciplinary battalions, usually 200 men at a time, were often sent to NW Front until Twelfth Army complained that they more trouble than they were worth. Subsequently the disciplinary battalions were detained at the naval bases where they became progressively more difficult to control.
As 1916 wore on morale declined still further. Whenever ships changed commanders or officers transferred and attempts were made to tighten discipline where it was perceived to be too lax the men reacted with dumb insolence or worked at a snail’s pace. That November Grigorovich expressed his concerns to the Tsar during an interview at Stavka. However, Nicholas refused to discuss internal security matters nor did he respond to written reports on similar matters. The situation was summed up in a report from the commander of the Kronstadt base to the navy’s representative at Stavka. “Yesterday I visited the cruiser Diana…I felt as if I were on board an enemy ship.… In the wardroom the officers openly said that the sailors were completely revolutionaries.… So it is everywhere in Kronstadt.”
In November 1916 the Russian defences claimed their greatest victory. A force of eleven German destroyers became entangled in minefields while hunting coastal traffic and within forty-eight hours seven were lost and one severely damaged. There was no Russian shipping in the area as they had intercepted radio transmissions and stayed away.
Boredom and lack of activity were not the only reasons for the men’s increased disillusionment with the war and the regime. Service in the navy demanded a different sort of recruit to those of the army. The literacy rate amongst sailors was approaching seventy-five per cent, (in the army it was less than thirty per cent) a higher standard of proficiency with technology was vital as were teamwork and initiative, all qualities which fostered a more highly skilled and integrated body of men. The close proximity to urban, industrial centres inevitably led them to be exposed to extreme political viewpoints and the discussion of conditions ashore. Consequently when the revolution came in March 1917 the sailors of the Baltic Fleet were ready and willing to participate.
The Black Sea Fleet
The Black Sea Fleet (Admiral A. A. Eberhardt) followed a more aggressive policy, mounting operations against the Bosporus on 28 March 1915 and again the next month in support of the Gallipolli expedition. By way of drawing the Turks attention to the Black Sea coastline pretence was made of reconnoitring the shore for possible landing sites as had been agreed with the Western Allies. The Anatolian coastline slowly came to be dominated by the Russians which forced the Turks to rely more and more on the slower overland route to supply men and munitions for their Caucasian Front. When Bulgaria entered the war several raids were made against coastal shipping but the presence of German submarines limited such operations. However, it was in support of the right flank of the Caucasian Front that the Black Sea Fleet made its strongest contribution.
In August 1916 Kolchak was appointed commander of the Black Sea Fleet. In November the Black Sea Fleet suffered its greatest loss, the newly completed battleship Emperatritsa Mariia which blew up in Sebastopol harbour with over 400 casualties. For the remainder of the war the Black Sea virtually became a Russian lake and increasing use was made of the navy to ferry and escort supplies to the army. The reasons noted for the decline of the Baltic Fleet were much less pronounced amongst the Black Sea sailors. The simple fact that the men were more or less continually involved in an active war and were not subject to urban influences to the same extent as in the Baltic saved the Black Sea Fleet from the worst excesses of the March Revolution. Kolchak took many of his ships to sea when the situation in Petrograd became serious and only returned to harbour when the Tsar had abdicated. Thus, when dozens of officers of all ranks in the Baltic Fleet were being murdered by their men the Black Sea Fleet remained comparatively quiet.
The navy and the revolutions
The speed with which the Baltic Fleet’s sailors responded to the March events in Petrograd points to a sense of unity of purpose, although not necessarily a carefully tailored uprising guided by a single mind. When the revolution began the sailors supported it from the outset and were prepared to shoot any who stood in their way. This included their officers, although many were also killed as retribution for past behaviour. On 16 March Admiral A. I. Nepenin, commanding the Baltic Fleet, informed the Provisional Government, “The Baltic Fleet as a military force no longer exists.” As far as he could see his ice bound ships had raised red flags.
In both fleets committees were established with powers similar to those in the army. The difference between the fleets was Baltic Fleet’s greater degree of militancy and involvement with the affairs of Petrograd. During the July Days Baltic Fleet sailors were heavily involved but the actions subsequently launched to contain radicalism seem to have achieved little but the further alienation of the men. Despite this the sailors supported Kerensky during the Kornilov affair but by the end of September the Provisional Government exercised very little authority over them.
This rare German film shows the World War I assault known as Operation Albion. This was the German land and naval operation in September–October 1917 to invade and occupy the West Estonian Archipelago, then part of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia, Russian Republic. The land campaign opened with landings at the Tagalaht, Saaremaa on 11 October 1917, after extensive naval activity to clear mines and subdue coastal artillery batteries. The Germans secured the island by 16 October. The Russian Army evacuated Muhu on 18 October. After two failed attempts, the Germans managed to land on Hiiumaa on the 19th and captured the island on the following day. The Russian Baltic Fleet had to withdraw from the Suur Strait after major losses (see Battle of Moon Sound). The Germans claimed 20,000 prisoners and 100 guns captured during the Operation Albion from 12 October.
However, when the Germans launched Operation Albion Kerensky sent an inspirational message to the sailors, which elicited the reply, “We will fulfil our duty… [but] not by order of some kind of pitiful Russian Bonaparte.… Long live the world revolution.”
The squadron in Moon Sound had been on station for over a month and knew the waters well. Although outnumbered the Russians inflicted considerable damage on the German capital ships but were unable to reach the transports. The British submarines were not called into action but from their commander’s diary the commander of the Baltic Fleet (Admiral A. V. Razvozov), “expected to give battle with his big ships as the enemy try and force the outer minefields.” The Germans ventured no further for the rest of the war. The ships of the Baltic Fleet had fought their last action and within a month the cruiser Aurora was to provide support for the Bolshevik coup. Ownership of the Black Sea Fleet passed to the Ukrainian Rada and Ukrainian sailors were transferred from the Baltic Fleet late in 1917.