Navarino, 1827 Part II

The Naval Battle of Navarino, Ambroise Louis Garneray

Unlike the Spartans, the Ottomans only had to guard the southern entrance. Almost daily reconnaissance reports meant that Codrington was aware that their fleet numbered just over a hundred ships, forty of which were non-combatant. Letellier had positioned the warships at anchor in order of battle; a horseshoe facing the entrance to the bay with the island of Sphakteria on the right, the tiny island of Chelonisi behind the centre of the crescent and Neokastro at the left. It had taken over three days for the French naval advisors to get the fleet into position and as they were no longer present, matters were left in the less experienced hands of the Ottoman captains. To break the formation would be difficult, and with Ibrahim away the responsibility of taking decisive action, either to withdraw or to embark on an offensive course, possibly for Hydra, would be beyond the safe remit of the admirals. Their only course was to wait.

The exact number and size of the combined Ottoman warships is a matter of some debate, ranging from sixty-five to an effective strength of around thirty-six. According to the anonymous Précis de la Bataille Navale de Navarin (Paris, 1829) compiled from the recollections of the French officers present, the Turco-Egyptian fleet consisted of three 74-gun ships-of-the-line, twenty frigates, thirty-two corvettes, seven brigs or sloops and five fireships, drawn up in three lines, the ships-of-the-line and the more powerful frigates at the front about two cables apart (about 600ft/183m), with the frigates and corvettes in the second line placed so as they could fire between the gaps, reinforced at the rear by a last line of smaller ships. The horseshoe was protected at the flanks by the fireships, three to the right and two to the left. For further protection, the left flank was overlooked by the fortress of Neokastro, while the right flank was within range of a gun battery on Sphakteria. The secretary to the Kapudan Bey, the Ottoman Vice-Admiral, assessed the size of the Turco-Egyptian force differently: two Turkish 84-gun battleships, one 76-gun ship, fifteen 48-gun frigates, eighteen corvettes, and four brigs, supported by the Egyptians’ four double-banked 64-gun frigates, eight corvettes of between 18 and 24 guns, eight brigs, and five fire-vessels; sixty-five vessels in total under sail.

In the absence of Ibrahim, the left wing of the horseshoe was under the command of Moharrem Bey in the French-built 60-gun frigate, Guerrière, renamed Murchid-i-Djihad (Warrior). Heading the line to the fore of Guerrière were the frigates, Hassan Bey’s 64-gun Ibsana (Ihsanya), followed by the 56-gun Souria and two 44-gunners. Behind Guerrière to the north came the two battleships, the 84-gun Ghiuh Rewan, flagship of the Imperial Admiral Tahir Pasha, and the 74-gun Fahti Bahri, which was said to be in poor condition and not well manned, but surprisingly this was the ship chosen to carry the flag of the Kapudan Bey. These were followed by the 64-gun double-decked frigate Leone (Lion), another 74-gunner Burj Zafer, and another double-decked frigate.

Heading the weaker right wing sheltering in the lee of Sphakteria were two 56-gun frigates, one of which was referred to in Western sources as the powerful Beautiful Sultana, followed by two Tunisian frigates, two 56-gun Turkish frigates and a smaller Tunisian frigate. Then came another Turkish frigate, commonly reported to be carrying the flag of Tahir Bey, but as the naval historian Roger Anderson argued it is more likely that Tahir was aboard the battleship Ghiuh Rewan, as he was able to see Codrigton during the encounter that was to follow. It is probable that the flag was mistaken for that of the Padrona Bey, the Vice-Admiral of the squadron. Two more Turkish 54-gun frigates completed the array. In the centre of the crescent sheltering behind Chelonisi were a number of brigs and sloops guarding thirty armed transport vessels.

The weather during the night of 19 October was poor, so any decisive activity by the Allies was on hold until conditions improved, but by morning the clouds had dispersed and Saturday 20 October dawned fine with a light breeze. By 4.00am the crews were already employed in last minute feverish preparation as the squadrons manoeuvred into formation. The British ships were in the vanguard near the bay’s entrance, waiting for the French and Russians to make up ground to join them. The operation took some time. It was 11.35 when the fleet was brought up to number with the addition of some latecomers, the brig Mastiff, the cutter Hind and the frigate Glasgow, which had been sent to hasten the return of the Cambrian and the Constantine from Kalamata. The allied squadrons were made up of twelve British ships (total 456 guns), eight Russian (490 guns) and seven French (352 guns). The British squadron included Codrington’s 84-gun flagship Asia, launched in 1824 and captained by another Napoleonic War veteran Edward Curzon, the 76-gun Genoa (which had been captured from the French) under Walter Bathurst, and the 74-gun Albion under John Acworth Omnanney, supported by the frigates Glasgow, Cambrian (launched in 1797), Dartmouth and the more modern small 28-gun Talbot. In addition, there were the sloops Rose, Mosquito, Brisk and Philomel, with between eighteen and ten guns each, and the Hind. The French were led by Admiral de Rigny’s 60-gun Sirène, the most modern of their ships commissioned in 1823, followed by the 74-gun Scipion, Trident and Breslau, which had all seen action in the Napoleonic Wars, supported by the 44-gun frigate Armide and the schooners Alcyon and Daphné. In the rear came the Russian squadron, which though fewer in number than the British possessed newer ships with more firepower, that included the one year-old 74-gun flagship Asov under Rear-Admiral Heiden, supported by the still-new 74-gun Gangout, Ezekiel and Alexander Nevsky, plus the frigates Constantine, Povernoy, Elena and Castor. With twenty-seven ships in all, whatever the reckoning, the Allies were considerably outnumbered by the Ottoman ships, but what was to their advantage was the superior seamanship of their crews.

Once the fleet had been mustered, it set its sails and led by the Asia made its way toward the bay’s entrance in two lines, with the French to starboard of the British and closest to the town, followed by the Russians to port abreast but slightly behind. They were embarking on a risky strategy, because, with the wind at their backs, retreat would be difficult. At mid-day the crews took one last dinner together and at 1.30 were ordered to prepare for action. Half an hour later the flagship entered the bay to a greeting blank round fired from one of the forts. The ships were passing within easy range of the Turkish gun-batteries and there was every expectation on the British crews’ part that they could soon be on the receiving end of a heavy barrage. As the men were drummed to quarters and the guns hurriedly manned and primed with double-shot, such fears were put to rest when they noticed that most of the Turks appeared unperturbed. They seemed to be happily watching the ships enter in a relaxed attitude, leaning on their guns or sitting on the battlements smoking their pipes. At the same moment, according to Codrington’s friend and apologist, Sir John Gore, a small boat appeared, dispatched from the Guerrière, with a message from Moharrem Bey requesting that the Allied fleet stop its progress. Codrington replied that he came to give the orders not receive them, and proceeded to take the Asia close up to the Guerrière and the Fahti Bahri and dropped anchor. The Asia was followed by the Genoa and Albion, which took up similar positions in line to the north, each within range of a principal enemy warship to starboard, and the Dartmouth took up its planned position covering the fireships nearest to the shore. They were all at anchor within five minutes of the Asia, by 2.15pm. In the meantime, the Turkish messenger had not returned to Moharrem Bey but had made for the shore, where he conferred with a number of chiefs and ran swiftly to a tent. After a short delay a red flag was raised and another blank fired, a signal for a boat to be sent from the Kapudan Bey south to the next in line, the Guerrière, and on to the fireship next to the Dartmouth. Charles McPherson on the Genoa saw events slightly differently. The messenger, an officer, came from the fortress shore, not from Moharrem Bey, and after barely two minutes’ parley aboard the Asia returned to shore, threw down his turban and ran to the fortress gate where he was met and immediately the red flag was waved and a gun fired. The British gunners straight away made ready and awaited the order to fire.

Codrington always insisted that his intentions were not hostile; he had even mustered a marine band on the poop deck of the Asia. In his communication to the Admiralty written the next day he stated:

I gave orders that no guns should be fired unless guns were first fired by the Turks; and those orders were strictly observed. The three English ships were accordingly permitted to pass the batteries and to moor, as they did with great rapidity, without any act of open hostility, although there was evident preparation for it in all the Turkish ships . . .

As he said afterwards, if he had intended to take on the enemy he would not have sailed into the centre of the horseshoe but have gone around to take them from behind. He had made the assumption from previous experience that a show of force would be enough. In addition, the fleet had not fully entered into the bay – the Russians in fact were still outside – when a disastrous event took place that would precipitate the battle. Who was to blame for the spark that caused the bloody encounter that followed became a matter of grave diplomatic concern. Although many logs were kept at the time, much of the evidence relied on reports written after the event. According to Captain Fellows aboard the Dartmouth, whose report was written nearly two months later, he had just taken up position between the fireship and the first frigate when a messenger, presumably the one dispatched from the Kapudan Bey, boarded and apparently began to prepare to set the fireship alight. In response to what he perceived as an immediate threat to the fleet, Captain Fellows sent First Lieutenant Smyth in the Dartmouth’s pinnace (a small rowing boat with a sail) to instruct the Turks to desist and leave the boat or move further away towards the shore, promising if they did so no harm would come to them.

As the pinnace made off Fellows called out to Lieutenant Smyth that ‘no act of hostility’ should be attempted by them ‘on any account’. Despite Smyth’s attempts to indicate that their intentions were peaceful, as the pinnace came alongside the fireship the coxswain was killed by a musket shot. Smyth repeated that they intended no harm, but more shots rang out, killing or wounding other members of the crew, and it could be seen that the fires were already being lit. Captain Fellows then dispatched Lieutenant Fitzroy in the cutter to tow the pinnace to safety. The cutter itself came under heavy musket fire from a boat carrying the Turks from the burning ship, and Fitzroy was killed. In response, Fellows ordered the marines to lay down covering fire for the retreating vessels.

It was now 2.25 and events were escalating rapidly. An Egyptian corvette, inshore, fired two shots, one of which passed over the Dartmouth. The other hit Admiral de Rigny’s Sirène just as it was in the act of laying anchor nearby, at the eastern point of the Ottoman horseshoe. This was perhaps the decisive act; for now, even if it was not the intention of the Turkish or Egyptian commanders to precipitate some form of aggressive action (in fact Tahir Pasha’s orders for the day said that he would ‘never raise the signal for combat, but . . . in case of attack each ship should defend itself individually’) there was no turning back from all-out conflict. In turn Codrington felt that if the Ottomans had intended to take on the allies, they would have waited until all the ships were at anchor, engaged in lengthy discussion throughout the day, and then attack at night with fireships. The way events unfolded instead bore all the hallmarks of an accident or misjudgement, and one with dire consequences. As a result, the battle unfolded with no plan or strategy as a chain reaction, individual ships taking on one another as an act of self-preservation or to aid their comrades. Any sense of how the engagement unfolded had to be reconstructed by the protagonists afterwards.

First, the Dartmouth returned the enemy fire, but initially de Rigny held back from fear of hitting his British ally. Opposite de Rigny was the Egyptian frigate Ibsania. Taking a speaking trumpet, de Rigny hailed the Egyptian saying that if she did not fire he would not, but to no avail. The Ibsania replied immediately by firing on both the Dartmouth and the Sirène. De Rigny now had no choice but to engage, upon which the shore batteries opened up on the Trident, the third of the French ships just entering the harbour. A general mêlée ensued on all sides with the Sirène the main target. The Scipion, the second French ship, had become vulnerable having reduced sail too quickly, and was also soon under fire from the shore as well as from Egyptian frigates on both sides, added to which a fireship quickly attached itself to its bow. As the flames from the fireship, urged on by a strong breeze, spread towards the gun batteries, sailors scorched themselves plunging into the flames in a frantic effort to put them out, or were wounded as the powder kegs went up. To avert disaster, Captain Milius took the drastic action of letting out the anchor-chain holding the ship, and setting the main-sail and top-sail to turn before the wind in an attempt to divert the flames from reaching the forward powder magazine.

The blazing Scipion was impeding the passage of the Trident and Breslau, and although Milius praised the immense bravery of the crew, their salvation came at the hands of a small boat sent out from the Trident that managed to tow the fireship away just as he was attempting his manoeuvre. The small boat, not large enough in itself to complete the task, was aided by the Dartmouth, the Rose and the Philomel, who attached tow-ropes to bring the fireship clear, after which it was destroyed by the French schooners Aleyone and Daphné. That it took so much effort to take care of one fireship was a mark of how dangerous a weapon it could be.

Once it was clear, the Scipion and the Trident made to lend their support to the Sirène, still bludgeoning it out with the Ibsania. After an hour and a half of punishment from the combined French guns the Ibsania, by now a total wreck, exploded into flames, leaving the French to turn their attention to the fort.

Towards the centre of the eastern wing, the Kapudan Bey aboard the Fahti Bahri took the exchange of fire between the Turks and the Dartmouth as his immediate cue to open fire on the Asia, a response not matched by the Guerrière. In fact, despite the battle having begun, Moharrem Bey sent an officer with a message to Codrington saying that he would hold fire and, in reply, Codrington assured him that he would not open fire first. This left the Asia free to divert all his attention onto the Fahti Bahri, which it had little difficulty in destroying. The lack of unanimity of purpose on the part of the Ottoman commanders was something that would cost the Turco-Egyptian fleet dear. After around three-quarters of an hour, Codrington felt obliged to make sure of the Egyptian commander’s continued neutrality. He sent an officer under a flag of truce with a young Greek interpreter, Petros Mikelis, known as Peter Mitchell to his British shipmates, to board the Guerrière. Unfortunately for Mikelis, an enemy officer looking out from a porthole for some reason, who may have recognised him, shot him dead. Codrington’s report leaves the motive in doubt. As he put it, the deed was done ‘with or without his [Moharrem’s] orders, I know not’. Although there were other Greeks employed by the allies, like Petros Mikelis particularly as pilots, he achieved the honour of being the only named Greek who died in the decisive battle for Greek liberty. There were Greeks serving on the Ottoman side too, but these were manacled hand and foot, their nameless bodies washed ashore in the days after the battle. The foolhardy shooting of Mikelis had the unfortunate repercussion of precipitating a general outburst of gunfire that brought the Guerrière into the battle. Codrington, who had until then been wary that with the ships in such close proximity the allies might be in danger of harming one another, saw any further attempt to broker a ceasefire as futile.

To the fore of the Asia, the Genoa had drawn up alongside the Ghiuh Rewan, where Captain Bathurst had followed Codrington’s command to only open fire when fired upon: but to no avail, for now his ship was under a heavy barrage from the Turkish flagship, another ship-of-the-line, and a 60-gun frigate. From the Ghiuh Rewan, the tall Codrington was clearly visible in his Admiral’s uniform, and Tahir Pasha ordered his snipers to target him. They were successful, and he was wounded several times, but they failed to remove him from his position on deck. His son Henry, who was serving with him as a Midshipman, was severely wounded in the leg by a fragment of iron railing and a musket ball; he only just avoided having it amputated. The Asia and the Genoa were outnumbered, and the Genoa in particular took a pounding. It suffered more fatalities than any other allied ship (26), including Captain Bathurst.

Despite their problems, when a fireship approached the Asia’s stern members of the Genoa’s crew manned one of the ship’s boats and dragged it out of the way, and then on their way back they still found time to pick up enemy sailors clinging to the wreckage of their destroyed ships. The men may have shown outstanding bravery, but Codrington was not happy with the conduct of Captain Bathurst or his replacement Captain Dickinson after Bathurst was killed. He complained that the Genoa had been incorrectly anchored, meaning that it presented its broadside guns to its own ships rather than to the enemy, which it could only fire upon successfully from the stern. Codrington’s accusations of misconduct against Captain Dickinson were quashed in a court-marshal two years later.

Of the British ships, the Albion had penetrated furthest into the bay, where it was attacked by a Turkish frigate, which it swiftly dealt with, only to be confronted by the three ships-of-the-line. Luckily for the Albion, the Breslau was near at hand. On his own initiative, Captain de la Bretonnière had taken the Breslau, the fourth French ship, into the centre of the enemy horseshoe, beyond the hard-pressed British ships, to fill the gap between the Albion and the newly arrived Russian flagship, the Azov, which was still manoeuvring into position. Bretonnière’s move was recognized by both his allies as decisive and courageous. The Breslau went on to help destroy the Ghiuh Rewan, three other frigates, and a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, an action acknowledged as playing a vital role in saving the Asov and the Albion from destruction. Together they completely destroyed the three battleships before the Breslau turned its attention to helping the arriving Russian squadron.

The Russians carried out their orders to the letter, taking up their positions with exemplary skill while under fire from the shore battery on Sphakteria and the ships on the Ottoman right flank. The Asov, Heiden’s flagship, was at the apex of the horseshoe near the Breslau and opposite the Tunisian squadron, who at first were reluctant to engage in the fighting. When battle did commence, the Asov found itself taking on five opposing battleships, and as a result suffered more casualties than any other allied ship; twenty-four dead and sixty-seven wounded. With the Breslau on hand to even up the odds, Heiden saw an opportunity to assist the Asia by transferring some of his guns to fire on the Guerrière, with the result that the Guerrière became a blazing wreck under the combined fire of the Russian and British ships. It had only taken twenty minutes for the Egyptian flag-ship to be driven ashore in flames, where Moharrem Bey managed to escape unharmed, before it exploded. As the larger enemy ships were put out of action, the allies became painfully aware of the skilful formation designed by Letellier when the smaller ships of the second line were able to open-up through the gaps in the front line, causing great damage, especially to the flagships of the allied admirals.

The Asov continued to take the fight to the enemy, dismasting a 60-gun ship, which then ran aground and blew up, and sinking two large frigates and a corvette. It was involved with the burning of the double-decked frigate said to be flying the flag of Tahir Pasha: the loss of life was severe, with 500 of its 600 crew being killed or wounded. On the left flank, to the southwest of the Russian ships, the frigates Cambrian, Glasgow and Talbot and the French frigate Armide had been given the task of dealing with the Ottoman right flank and the Sphakteria shore battery. As the Glasgow and Cambrian were late arrivals, the burden fell on the Talbot and Armide until they were supported by the Russian frigates. The smaller ships, Dartmouth, Rose and Brisk, with the French schooners Daphné and Aleyone on the east flank and Philomel and Mosquito on the west, had been given the job of destroying the fireships. They were so successful in carrying out their instructions that no fireship attack succeeded. Despite its size, the cutter Hind took up position with distinction alongside the Asia, right under the guns of the Guerrière, while in the midst of the mayhem on board the Mosquito a young artist named G.P. Reingle painted and illustrated the battle from first-hand observation.

The battle was over by nightfall, around 6.00pm, and throughout the night the sky was illumined by the explosions of the Turkish ships, some fired deliberately as an act of honour, even if there were men still aboard. It was an Ottoman defeat, but none of their ships struck their colours in surrender. The next day, Tahir Pasha boarded the Asia, where he received a tirade from Codrington accusing Ibrahim of a breach of faith and the advice to desist from hostilities or else the remaining ships and the fort would be destroyed. Afterwards it became clear that Tahir was in no way sympathetic towards the Egyptian Pasha and years later, as governor of Aidin, the district in which Smyrna was then situated, Tahir befriended Codrington’s son and expressed to him his warmest admiration of his father. The battle had been such a one-sided affair that it left the Ottomans totally defeated. The allies lost no ships, although several suffered significant damage, and suffered relatively few casualties: 174 killed and 475 wounded (the British 75 and 197, the French 40 and 141 and the Russians 59 and 137). As at the Battle of the Nile, there were wives aboard the British ships. Charles McPherson tells us that nine petty officers’ wives tended the wounded in the ‘cockpit’ (the area in the aft lower deck where the wounded were taken) of the Genoa. On the other hand, the Turco-Egyptian fleet was decimated; sixty ships destroyed with heavy losses, exacerbated by their poor facilities for treating the wounded, many of whom were chained to their posts. The battle was such a mortal blow to Turkish pride that, during the night or the day after, they fatalistically destroyed even those ships not beyond repair. According to Letellier the only fighting ships left afloat the day after were a dismasted frigate, four corvettes, six brigs and four schooners. Codrington estimated that there were 6,000 killed and 4,000 wounded, many of whom were not Turks or Egyptians but impressed Arabs, Greeks, North Africans, Slavs and even some captured British and American sailors.

The battle was fought while the enemy fleet and the larger part of allied ships were at anchor, leaving little room for manoeuvre. This reduced the contest to a slugging match. Only by hauling on the springs attached to the anchors could a ship adjust its position to get out of the line of fire or bring its guns to bear on the enemy. With the ships so close together, the orders given were for the use of double-shot, when two cannon balls were fired from the same gun; less accurate but more destructive at close range. This was sometimes ignored, as the sailors took to throwing everything at the Turks, including grape-shot and canister, even all piled in together. Heiden alone amongst the allied admirals was able to keep his ships together in a compact group, allowing him more control over his command, and with the frigates staying close to their ships-of-the-line they suffered fewer casualties as a result. Codrington had feared there might be animosity between the Russian and French ships, and it is possible that Codrington kept Heiden and de Rigny, who had only recently met, on opposite wings for that reason. There was talk of Russian ships firing on their own side, but with the difficulties of recognition and communication between foreign navies fighting together amid the general confusion it was inevitable that some shots would go astray. Codrington even blamed the Genoa for carelessly firing on the Asia. In no time the smoke from cannon fire and burning ships had become so thick that, despite the noise of battle, he had to resort to bellowing his orders through a loud hailer because his signals could not be seen. Even at close quarters the opposing ships were barely visible and the gunners on the Asia at one point took aim at the masthead of the Fahti Bahri as the only discernible target. In the event each squadron did its duty, and in addition to their superior skill and experience, displayed complete togetherness in their actions, coming to one another’s aid without hesitation. After the battle, there was agreement between the allied leaders that, unlike the enemy, their men had acted as one, eagerly defending one another against the common enemy. The display of naval virtues and the bravery of the men impressed de Rigny so much that when he wrote to his sister afterwards he wondered at the effect of an ‘English squadron and a French squadron side by side firing on the same target – poor target!’ He further went on to say that the victory was due to the plan agreed between the three commanders being well executed. In truth, Navarino was one of the least planned battles. The British admired the Russians’ precision and discipline, arriving as they did late to the action but to considerable effect, like the Prussian General Blücher at Waterloo. For his part Heiden thought the allied squadrons acted in such harmony that it was as though they came from one nation.

Ibrahim Pasha returned to Navarino on the afternoon of 21 October to witness what was left of his fleet, and the Allies remained for a further four days. He still held most of the Peloponnese but he was cut off from his supply routes, and when 13,000 French veterans landed at Navarino in 1828 Mehmed Ali’s enthusiasm for the venture waned. The victory at Navarino signalled the end of the Turkish re-conquest of Greece. The initial reaction within the government circles of Britain, France and Russia was one of delight and Codrington was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath by the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Clarence. But as is often the way with politics, the change of administration that followed the death of Canning in August brought in a new Foreign Secretary, Lord Dudley, and a month after the battle Codrington found he had some questions to answer to the politicians back home in regard to his conduct. At first it was felt that he had overstepped the mark, and then that he had done too little. Codrington was forced to answer his critics in a lengthy report; to explain why he had not remained neutral and then when he stated that the retreating Ibrahim had taken Greek women and children to be sold as slaves in Alexandria, he was castigated for not intervening, even though this would have been against his orders and may have precipitated further hostilities. The next summer, the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, relieved him of his command. Codrington entered parliament himself as member for Devonport, using his position to fight for compensation from the Admiralty for the losses incurred by his men at their own expense. The Admiralty argued that as the nation was not at war, such expenses did not count. Codrington eventually won his case in 1834.

By then Greece, or at least a part of it, was free. Although Navarino did not bring about an immediate capitulation by the Turkish government, it was a turning point in the war, bringing European forces into play on the ground. With the Ottomans’ Albanian and Egyptian mercenaries putting up little resistance to the battle hardened French veterans of Napoleon’s army, Mehmed ordered his son to return home, leaving the Greeks and their allies to push the remaining Turks out of the peninsula. Sultan Mahmud’s provocation of war with Russia in retaliation to Navarino only brought the Tsar’s army across the Danube towards Constantinople and Ottoman capitulation. The 1829 Treaty of Adrianople recognized Greek autonomy, followed in 1830 by the Porte’s acceptance of an independent Greek state in the Protocol of London. The Kingdom of Greece was established in 1832. Ibrahim Pasha, for his part, suffered no lasting damage. He succeeded his father in Egypt and took on the Ottomans, as was always their intention, leading his country to independence.