LITTLE SHIPS, BIG WAR I

The Bombardment of Sveborg, 9 August (1855)

The Battle of Suomenlinna (also known as the Battle of Viapori or the Bombardment of Sweaborg) was fought on 9–11 August 1855 between Russian defenders and a joint British/French fleet during the Åland War. It was a part of the Crimean War.

Gunboat Operations During the Crimean War, 1854–5

In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia used the excuse of a brawl between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox monks in Bethlehem to proclaim himself the guardian of the Ottoman Empire’s fourteen million Orthodox Christians. What he really wanted was Russian access to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, and he was quite prepared to set about the virtual dismemberment of Turkey to achieve this. In his new-found capacity as religious champion, therefore, he demanded a number of concessions from the Sultan, knowing full well that their nature was such that no self-respecting sovereign could possibly grant them. Having, as anticipated, been rebuffed, in July he sent his troops to occupy Turkish provinces in Romania.

Unfortunately, he encountered unexpected opposition. France, now ruled by Napoleon III, regarded herself as the traditional protector of Roman Catholic interests in the Holy Land and was not prepared to have these ridden over by Russia. Simultaneously, Great Britain disliked the idea of the naval balance in the Mediterranean being disturbed by the intrusion of a Russian fleet. The despatch of British and French warships to Constantinople stiffened the Sultan’s resolve and on 4 November he declared war on Russia.

On land, the Turks did unexpectedly well, but on 30 November the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron in Sinope harbour. In January 1854 the Anglo-French fleet entered the Black Sea to protect the Turkish coastline and on 28 March the Allies declared war on Russia. At this juncture the Tsar’s adventure turned sour, for the following month Austria, with Prussian support, threatened to intervene unless he withdrew his troops from the Balkans. Reluctantly, he complied, but wrecked the ensuing peace talks by insisting on his right to pursue his bullying quarrel with Turkey. The Allies therefore decided to land an expeditionary force in the Crimea with the object of capturing and destroying the heavily fortified Russian naval base of Sevastopol.

The mismanagement of the British part of the land campaign, the blunderings of elderly or incompetent generals, the superlative courage of the troops and their terrible sufferings during the first winter of the war have all been so thoroughly covered elsewhere that there is no need to enlarge upon them here. Suffice it to say that while siege works were opened against the city and naval facilities of Sevastopol, lying on the southern side of a deep inlet, the term siege was not entirely appropriate as the inlet’s northern shore remained in Russian hands. Consequently, reinforcements and supplies continued to pour across the harbour by a bridge of boats while, to make matters yet more difficult for the Allies, a large Russian field army hovered in the Crimea’s hinterland.

The naval operations of what became known as the Crimean War were conducted in the Black Sea and the Baltic, with peripheral operations in the White Sea and the Far East. In some respects the Royal Navy was unprepared for a major war. Some of the admirals were as elderly and infirm of purpose as the generals, and so low were manning levels that ships of the Baltic Fleet were unable to complete their crews months after the war had begun. In the Black Sea, naval bombardment of Sevastopol’s coastal forts produced inconclusive results. In the Baltic the Russians declined to come out and fight, and ice put an early end to operations. Thus, beyond imposing a blockade on an essentially self-sufficient land power and disrupting such seaborne trade as it possessed, the naval operations of 1854 ended on a thoroughly unsatisfactory note.

The nub of the problem was that the line-of-battle ships, inhibited by large areas of shallow water in both the Black Sea and the Baltic, simply could not get close enough to do the enemy any real damage. What was needed were small, shallow-draught steam-propelled vessels with enough hitting power to hurt. As luck would have it, the Admiralty had already initiated a modest construction programme, intending to replace its sailing gun-brigs, the smallest ocean-going warships, with little screw steamers, and six such vessels, the Arrow class, were already in service. Recognising that these would be able to get within effective range of the Russian defences, the Admiralty also agreed that large numbers of such craft would be less vulnerable to return fire than larger ships. It was therefore decided to build four classes of what were called Crimean gunboats. The government, stung into action by press criticism of its handling of the war, willingly consented to a large construction programme; in fact, no less than 156 warships of this type were ordered, although some were completed too late to take part in the war and others, built hastily from green wood, were allowed to rot in an unfinished state.

The Crimean gunboats had a flat-bottomed hull and were powered by 20, 40 or 60 hp steam engines driving a single screw, giving a speed of between six and eight knots. The three gaff-rigged masts were stepped in tabernacles on the upper deck, through which protruded a tall, thin funnel. Armament consisted of two or three 68-pounder guns on slides, centrally mounted so that they could be moved over iron traversing rings to fire over either side. Later classes were armed with 32-pounder guns, also on slides, and 24-pounder howitzers on conventional trucks. Below decks, two-thirds of the available space was taken up by the engine, boiler, coal bunkers, water tanks, ration lockers and magazines. Fortunately, because of the simple sail plan and limited armament, only 35 men were required to handle the vessel. The men lived forward of the engine room and the two officers in a small space aft. Usually, a gunboat was a lieutenant’s command but such was the rate of expansion during the war that some were commanded by masters, i.e. senior warrant officers.

The Baltic Fleet which returned to its station under Rear Admiral the Hon. Richard Dundas in May 1855 was very different from that which had gone out the previous year in that it consisted entirely of steam-driven vessels and contained numerous small craft suited to operations in cramped or shallow waters. These included seventeen mortar vessels and the gunboats Gleaner, Pelter, Pincher, Ruby, Badger, Snapper, Biter, Dapper, Jackdaw, Magpie, Redwing, Skylark, Snap, Starling, Stork, Swinger, Thistle, Weazel and Lark. The nature of their operations, however, continued much as before. The Russian Navy remained safe behind its massive defences in Kronstadt harbour, which, it was discovered, had been further protected with moored contact mines. In other respects, the Allied effort produced only the occupation of several islands, the elimination of a few batteries and the capture of some small vessels which had risked the blockade. Dundas and his French colleague, Rear Admiral Penaud, both came under pressure from home to produce more tangible results, but as an attack on Kronstadt was out of the question, their difficulty lay in choosing a suitable objective. Some officers were for bombarding the prosperous city of Helsingfors (Helsinki), the destruction of which would have a profound effect on public opinion in Russia. This idea was rejected in favour of a bombardment of the neighbouring fortress of Sveaborg, which was built on several interconnected islands including Vargon, Gustafsvaard, East Svarto, West Svarto and Lilla Svarto.The fortifications were of modern design, were fully manned and mounted over 800 guns. Channels to the north and south of the islands were blocked by two ships of the line, moored broadside on.

On the morning of 9 August the British and French mortar vessels formed a line approximately 3300 yards from the fortifications, opening fire at 07:00. The gunboats Stork and Snapper, armed with the new Lancaster guns, circling to the right of the line, concentrated their fire on the Russian warship blocking the southern channel. To their left Starling, Thistle, Pelter, Biter and Badger circled as they fired at the western batteries, while to their left the rest of the defences were engaged by circles containing Vulture, Snap, Gleaner, Dapper and Redwing. To the north, two more gunboats, Magpie and Weazel, exchanged fire with a detached battery on the island of Stora Rantan, covering the channel in which the second Russian warship was moored. The course of the action is described by Admiral Dundas in his despatch.

A rapid fire of shot and shells was kept up from the fortress for the first few hours upon the gunboats, and the ranges of the heavy batteries extended completely beyond the mortar vessels; but the continued motion of the gunboats, and the able manner in which they were conducted by the officers who commanded them, enabled them to return the fire with great spirit, and almost with impunity throughout the day. About ten o’clock in the forenoon fires began first to be observed in the different buildings, and a heavy explosion took place on the island of Vargon, which was followed by a second about an hour afterwards on the island of Gustafsvaard, inflicting much damage upon the defences of the enemy, and tending greatly to slacken the fire from that direction. The advantage of the rapidity with which the fire from the mortars had been directed was apparent in the continued fresh conflagrations which spread extensively on the island of Vargon.

When the gunboats were recalled at sunset the fleet’s boats took over, firing rockets which spread the blaze from Vargon to East Svarto. Dundas continues:

At daylight on the morning of the 10th, the position of several mortar vessels had been advanced within easier range, and the gunboats were again directed to engage. The three-decked ship which had been moored by the enemy to block and defend the channel between Gustafsvaard and Bakholmen, had been withdrawn during the night to a more secure position; but the fire from the batteries was increased, and the engagement was renewed with activity on both sides. Fires continued to burn without intermission within the fortress, and about noon a column of smoke, heavier and darker than any which had yet been observed, gave signs that the shells had reached combustible materials in the direction of the arsenal.

The bombardment continued for much of the night. A spy later reported that the dockyard had been wrecked, all government stores destroyed, the powder magazines blown up, 23 vessels burned and a further 18 seriously damaged, and 2000 men killed. This may well be an exaggeration of the true position although it was clear that extensive damage had been done. It is possible that the attack would have continued, but by the morning of the 11th the British mortars had been shot out to the extent that some had even split. As replacements would not reach the Baltic before the onset of winter, the mortar vessels were therefore sent home a month before the rest of the fleet. The gunboats, on the other hand, had proved themselves equal to the task for which they had been built, to the extent that Allied casualties amounted to just one man killed and several wounded. Nevertheless, it was to be with the Black Sea Fleet that their true potential was demonstrated.

The Black Sea Fleet, commanded by Vice Admiral James Dundas, was less troubled by winter than that commanded by his namesake in the Baltic, and in view of the stand-off at Sevastopol consideration had been given to ejecting the enemy by means of an indirect approach rather than head-on attack. Russian roads were primitive, difficult to use in winter and almost impossible during the rasputitsa, the spring thaw which turned them into mud wallows. Consequently, it was much easier for the Russians to supply their troops in the Crimea by means of water transport, using rivers and the Sea of Azov.

Disrupting this traffic had not been possible the previous year because the Allied navies lacked suitable warships capable of penetrating the shallow waters of the Azov. By the spring of 1855, however, this defect had been remedied, although before operations against the Russian supply line could commence it was necessary to secure control of the Straits of Kerch, which provided the only entrance to this otherwise landlocked sea. This was accomplished on 24 May by an Allied amphibious operation involving heavy and light squadrons plus landing forces consisting of 7000 French, 5000 Turkish and 3500 British troops as well as a Sardinian contingent. On both sides of the straits the enemy abandoned their positions with barely a token resistance, blew up their fortifications, abandoned about 100 guns, destroyed stores, provisions and ammunition, and burned such warships as were unable to make good their escape. In simply handing the Allies the keys of the Sea of Azov the Russians made their most critical mistake of the war.

The British light squadron, commanded by Captain Edmund Lyons, included several paddle-driven warships and the new screw gunboats Wrangler, Viper, Lynx, Arrow, Snake and Beagle. Even while operations were in progress to secure the straits, Lieutenant Henry McKillop, commanding the Snake, spotted a Russian warship of comparable size attempting to escape northwards. Ignoring the enemy fortifications, he promptly gave chase. No sooner had the two ships begun exchanging shots than two more Russian warships emerged to support their comrade, leaving Snake simultaneously engaged with three opponents. The gunboat, however, was extremely handy, and the Russians, no doubt expecting her to engage with conventionally mounted broadside guns, found themselves receiving fire from unexpected directions as the centrally mounted armament was heaved round to bear on each of them in turn. Several of their shots passed clean through Snake, fortunately without causing casualties or touching a vital area. On the other hand, taking a hit from one of the gunboat’s 68-pounder shells was a serious matter for a small warship, leaving the Russians horrified that their apparently puny opponent could hit quite so hard. They had probably had enough by the time the six-gun paddler Recruit, followed by others, came thrashing her way towards the engagement, for they deliberately ran themselves aground and later set fire to their ships. The action took place within view of the Allied fleet, the French in particular being generous with their praise. McKillop was promoted commander as soon as he had completed his necessary period of sea time, with seniority from the date of his exploit.