Russia and Sweden’s Struggle for Supremacy: 1705–90


A Russian Galley of 1719 Campaign: these big beasts were 40m (130ft) in length, 7m (23ft) abreast and 1.5m (5ft) deep, and included 25 pairs of oars, 2-4 guns, 90 crew and 200 soldiers. They could make five knots by oar.


Swedish Gunboat: The Udemaa was a revolutionary design, with the guns stored amidships when moving. In battle, these could be rolled and placed into the fire position, combining the function of gunboat and galley.

With its brackish waters, indented shoreline and lack of tides, the Baltic is more of a vast inland lake than a real ocean, making for difficult sailing and navigation conditions. A semi-Arctic climate imposes yet further restrictions upon sailing fleets and their use. It took all the iron will and determination of Tsar Peter the Great to found the Russian Navy in 1705 with the naval base at Kronstadt, on the Gulf of Finland. To outflank Swedish defences in Finland, Peter built a powerful galley fleet to combine with his new Europeanized army in amphibious operations.

Galleys were cheap and easy to mass produce, could easily be manned by sailors and did not require experienced naval officers to command them. Furthermore in the Baltic, like the Mediterranean Sea, the winds were often fickle and the oar was often superior to the sail. The Petrine galley measured 40m (130ft) in length, 7m (23ft) in width, had a shallow draft of only 1.5m (5ft) and was equipped with 2-4 heavy guns and 18 lighter mounted guns. With a crew of 90 sailors and 200 troops manning 24 pairs of oars, the galley could make a speed of five knots, weather and sea permitting. The hold had enough room for 30 horses, although the crew had to sleep on shore during the night.The effort expended on the galley fleet was vindicated when the Russians defeated a Swedish fleet at Gangut (Hangö Head) in August 1714, paving the way for an outright Russian occupation of Finland.

Less than five years later, Peter gathered a massive galley fleet in the Åland archipelago. His aim was to capture the Swedish capital of Stockholm. The Swedish sailing fleet would be unable to pursue the shallow-drafted galleys and would be immobilized by the lack of wind power. Numbering almost 270 vessels, including 40 ships of the line and 123 galleys, the Russian fleet set sail in late July 1719 with 26,000 troops on board.The aim was to land near Stockholm with one corps while the rest of the fleet laid waste to the long easterly Swedish coastline. The coastal raids ravaged the towns and settlements, leaving thousands of Swedes without homes. However, the great fear for the Swedes was that the capital could be reached via the narrow and shallow Stäket Sound.To prevent this, the Swedes placed a floating artillery pråm (battery deck) at the northern exit of the Staket Sound and three heavily armed galleys in the middle passage.At the eastern entry to Staket, where the Russians were expected, the Swedes built defensive works mounted by stakes and a gun battery, and manned by 500 troops. On 13 August 1719, 7000 Russian troops landed as expected at Staket but were halted and driven back by a stout Swedish defence. This may have saved Stockholm, but the Russians captured the Baltic provinces with their ports at Riga, Reval, Pernau and Viborg, in addition to Kronstadt.

The Decline of the Baltic Fleet

When Peter died in 1725, Russia had a fleet numbering 34 ships of the line, 9 frigates, hundreds of galleys, sloops, gunboats and some 25,000 experienced men, and was the strongest naval power in the Baltic. Under the next six rulers, the Baltic Fleet was allowed to deteriorate to the point where it was weaker than the Danish Navy, despite Russia’s status as a European Great Power. Compared to the army, the Baltic Fleet played a very minor role during the Seven Years War – where it was, ironically, Sweden and Russia who allied against Frederick’s Prussia. This war showed that the key role for navies in the Baltic was not maritime at all but amphibious; coastal flotillas needed to cooperate closely with the army and, in turn, both services needed to collaborate closely with the navy. If that coordination could be perfected, amphibious operations could be of great value. In the Baltic, the navies were operating close to the coastlines and under the direct operational controls of the admiralties in the capitals. This stifled initiative and independence in the naval officers, even admirals, to the detriment of the operational efficiency and combat potential of the Baltic navies. The Russians and Swedes, in their coming war, would show a fatal obsession with linear battle formations and theoretical operational procedures at a time when the British and French navies were revolutionizing naval warfare in the west. Russian and Swedish naval officers lacked combat experience, self-confidence and professional esprit de corps when compared to their Western counterparts.

Sweden had a few inherent advantages that were to give her the edge in naval warfare against Russia. After 1721, Sweden became a maritime trading nation in her own right with a considerable merchant fleet that could provide a useful pool of experienced sailors in time of war. Furthermore, Sweden, unlike her Russian foe, never allowed her sailing ships to deteriorate – even at the nadir of Sweden’s military misfortunes in the 1740s, the building and repair of battleships were maintained. Having been at the receiving end of an attack by Russian galleys in 1719, the Swedes also built up a respectable flotilla of galleys based at the naval fortress of Sveaborg in Finland and at Stockholm. The Swedish Admiralty at Karlskrona was also turning out a larger number of professionally trained naval cadets and encouraging their cadets, as well as their officers, to join the Western navies for experience.

The Russian Navy staged a remarkable recovery under the rule of Catherine II, who sought to establish Russian hegemony over the Black Sea. Although she had no practical knowledge or hands-on experience of naval matters like Peter I, Catherine had a sound grasp of strategy and was just as ruthless in pursuing her aim of expanding Russia to the west and south. The full extent of Russia’s naval recovery and new-found power was demonstrated in 1769-1770, when a fleet was sent, with some British assistance, to the Mediterranean. The expedition was a great success since the Russian Fleet managed to defeat and sink most of the superior Turkish Navy in a single battle at Chesme on 8 July 1770. There were rich pickings for Russia in the south, but the real danger lay in the northwest with Russia’s old enemy, Sweden.

Skärgårdsflottan: Sweden’s Secret Weapon

One of Catherine’s few and most damaging mistakes was to allow her talented and ruthless cousin, Gustavus III, to take absolute power in Sweden in August 1772. He was to prove a formidable enemy, both to Russia and to her ally, Denmark-Norway. The king worked hard to rebuild the Swedish Navy in order to assist the new coastal fleet to take Zealand and force Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden. With Norway in his grasp, the king hoped to expand Sweden’s maritime trade and power yet further.

The building of a skärgårdsflotta, or coastal fleet, had been underway since the disastrous 1741-43 war against Russia – when the lack of just such a fleet had enabled Russia to take Finland a second time. While the Karlskrona Admiralty wanted large ships of the line, the government back in Stockholm pushed for a strong coastal fleet. This fleet was to be under the command of the Army, with majors in charge of ships. Rejecting the Mediterranean-style galley, the Swedes sought something that could combine sails and oars with a large number of guns. The typical galley was poorly armed, weak in structure and used too many sailors and oarsmen. Sweden, with Finland, had barely 2 million inhabitants, which severely limited the pool of manpower for the coastal fleet. Luckily, the Swedes had an outstanding ship designer and architect in Fredrik Henrik af Chapman – the son of an immigrant British naval engineer. Chapman designed a special ‘coastal frigate’ (skärgårdsfregatt) that could sail or be rowed underway but which had the same number of guns as a frigate. It was far superior to the galley in most aspects and would wreak havoc on the Russian galleys at Svensksund. It was most vulnerable while underway – when it could not fire its guns – but it had huge potential.

Chapman, now Chief Naval Engineer, designed three types of coastal frigates of varying size and artillery strength. The smallest Pojama-class galley was least interesting from a design point of view. The Udema-class galley was designed such that its guns were stowed away amidships on the gundeck while the vessel was underway and rolled into place only when it was prepared for battle. The other two lighter classes, Turuma and Hemmema, were more conventional ‘coastal frigates’ without the stowing capacity.

With the King’s enthusiastic backing, these new ships were mass produced with amazing speed and cost efficiency. All of the new coastal ships combined a low silhouette with high firepower for such small vessels, good manoeuvrability, and fairly good sailing performance, offering relatively high speeds when propelled by oars. In battle, they could be used for supporting fire or landing troops. Their only drawback was the need for a naval escort when underway, their low radius of action and dependence on transport ships for supplies. With 14 benches for oars, the galley had a crew of 48-60 men, not counting troops. It was armed with several 181b (8kg) and 24 (11kg) guns. Thanks to another of Chapman’s ingenious innovations, these guns had an unobstructed field of fire since the upper parts of the stern and helm was detachable. In this, Chapman was about two centuries ahead of his time.

The Baltic 1721–90

Russian Baltic Galley of 1720

When the Great Northern War ended in 1721, Russia had emerged as a major regional naval power. British and Danish naval forces cruised to counter the Russian sailing fleet, which was protected by new fortifications of Kronstadt on the island of Kotlin (1723). However, the general poverty of maritime resources, particularly seamen, made the development of Russian naval power very difficult and after the death of Peter I in 1725, the political support for the navy became extremely inconsistent. For the Baltic powers, moving armies and supplies through the shallow coastal waters was as important as defending the deep-water routes. Navies had to be balanced between the battleships, cruisers and inshore oared and sailing ships. Russian ships assisted in the siege of Danzig in 1734 and in the Russo-Swedish war which broke out in July 1741 their galley fleet was important. The Swedes underestimated Russian resistance in Finland and accepted a truce in the wake of the coup that brought the Tsarina Elizabeth to the throne. Hostilities resumed early in February 1742. A Russian galley fleet transported troops under General Keith westwards to attack Swedish positions at Åland. The Russian sailing fleet managed to lure the Swedes away from their position off Hango Head, which enabled more galleys to pass with reinforcements for Keith’s army. The Swedes were in disarray, but a peace was arranged before significant damage was done. Although active in the Seven Years War, the Russian sailing fleet really began to cause concern in the Baltic after 1780, when Catherine II began a major expansion of her fleet to assist her ambitions against Turkey.

Sweden faced a number of difficulties. There had been a growing divergence of priorities between the Swedish officer corps with its battleship base at Karlskrona aimed at Danish naval power and the government and army in Stockholm, who saw the amphibious Russian threat as the greater danger. Money was short and the navy had little interest in a coastal galley war. A 1722 plan by the College of Admiralty to build a galley fleet to counter the Russians was diluted by financial weakness. The battleships were high-quality vessels, but ageing and small. The lack of understanding between the navy and the army became apparent in the disastrous war against Russia of 1741–3. The galley fleet was reformed and in 1756 it was taken away from the navy and placed under army command. Its officer corps developed separately from the navy. In the same year a naval academy was established at Karlskrona. During the Seven Years War, the Swedes and Russians put pressure on the small Prussian flotilla in the Baltic. The main fear was the appearance of a British squadron in the Baltic to support the Prussians. While the Swedes and Russians operated together, their joint forces seldom exceeded 22 line against a non-existent Prussian battlefleet. The Swedish galley fleet performed well enough in 1759 against Prussian forces established at Stettin. A small action on 10 September ended in Swedish victory which consolidated Swedish communications between the homeland and the islands off the coast of Pomerania. In 1760 a Russian fleet of 21 line covered an attack on Kolberg that failed. Kolberg finally fell to the Russians in December 1761, but without much support from the fleet. Seapower against Prussia had not been particularly significant, but it remained critical to Sweden and Denmark in the defence of their homelands and interests in Pomerania and Holstein respectively. Despite cooperation against Prussia, suspicion of Russia remained a key part of Baltic diplomacy.

After the coup, which established Gustavus III with increased royal powers in 1772, the Swedish navy developed in line with Gustavus’ foreign policy ambitions. Gustavus’ direction was unclear–Russia or Denmark could be his target. The navy was important to either, but the officers of the galley fleet had been important supporters of Gustavus’ coup. New rules and organization were established in 1773. A royal inspection in 1775 led to the College of Admiralty moving from Karlskrona to Stockholm in 1776, to be closer to the court. The officer corps was reformed to make professional competence more significant in promotion. In 1781 the famous ship constructor, Fredric Henrick af Chapman (1721–1808), was appointed Director of Naval Construction at Karlskrona. Chapman had extensive theoretical knowledge of engineering sciences and since the 1760s had been designing and building vessels for inshore operations. In 1780 he was co-author of the plan approved by Gustavus for a new sailing fleet of battleships and frigates. Under his supervision, Karlskrona became one of the most extensive and modern yards in Europe.

The impact of Gustavus’ reforms are still a matter of debate, but by the summer of 1788 Gustavus was ready to attack Russia. While an army advanced through Finland and another, with the archipelago flotilla, was to move along the coast into the Gulf of Finland, a third army with the sailing fleet was to attack Kronstadt and land the army at Orainenbaum to advance on St Petersburg. The Russian fleet of 17 line under Admiral Greig met the Swedes, also with 17 line, off Suursaari island (Battle of Hogland) on 17 July. The battle was fought in line and after seven hours, the Swedes broke away in the darkness. Greig had done enough to avert the Swedish landing. Over the winter, Russian building of gunboats for its archipelago flotilla outstripped the Swedes. An action off Öland on 25 July 1789 between two evenly matched battlefleets was again indecisive, but the archipelago flotillas met in a decisive action just one month later on 24 August (Battle of Svensksund). Vice Admiral Nassau-Siegen decisively defeated the Swedish inshore flotilla. Swedish attempts to revive the plan of attack against Kronstadt in 1790 foundered in an indecisive attack on Tallinn in May, and a further attack on Russian battleships failed. Gustavus’ mistakes allowed the Russian sailing fleet to blockade his sailing and archipelago fleets in Vibourg Bay. On 3 July the Swedish sailing ships broke out and Gustavus was able to take the inshore fleet to Svenskrund. An impetuous attack on the Swedes on 8 July ended in disaster for the Russians. The peace treaty restored the boundaries to the status quo ante bellum. Both sides had shown that seapower–exercised by a combined force of battleships, cruisers and inshore craft–were critical to the projection of land power in the eastern Baltic, but both had also shown that their defensive capabilities far outweighed their offensive power. Russia remained a powerful force in the eastern Baltic, but not so powerful as to pose a vital threat to the interests of the other powers in the region. While the coasts of the Baltic remained open to traffic, and Russia remained prepared to trade its vital naval stores, it was in no one’s interest to become bogged down in a war that was so well suited to defence.

Russian Galleys

Early 18th century Russian Baltic Galley

Galleys, which were supposed to have been eclipsed by the sailing warship in the early seventeenth century, were an important component of the fleets of Sweden and Russia during the eighteenth century.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the main function of the Swedish navy was to protect the lines of communication to the army in Germany. For this it needed a battlefleet to defend the lighter vessels against Danish attack and smaller vessels for inshore work. In the 1680s the main Swedish battlefleet base was developed at Karlskrona to challenge the Danes in the southwest Baltic, away from the shallow waters off the ports of the southeastern Baltic coast. When Russia became a threat in the eastern Baltic after 1703, Sweden was initially unprepared for landing and supply operations within the shallow and convoluted archipelago of the Gulf of Finland and it took a while to expand the galley fleet. The galley and, much later, the gunboat became essential elements in the Russo-Swedish wars of 1741–3 and 1788–90. In both the Levant and Baltic, seapower was essential for the projection of military power to any distance and it rested on the effective combination of forces that could dominate deep water and shallow coastal areas.

The Mediterranean and the Baltic saw large fleets of warships attempting to blockade ports during the period, but the confined and shallow Baltic waters made the interception of coastal traffic very difficult. The first great Russian naval victory over the Swedish fleet, the Battle of Hangö Head on 6 August 1714, was won by a galley fleet making use of the coastal shallows to outmanoeuvre the Swedish sailing fleet.

Russia came from a very different political tradition. Peter the Great’s borrowings from the West are well known, and the great Petrine reorganization of the central administration of the state, 1717–20, owed a great deal to Swedish and German precedent. The central Admiralty College was based on the Swedish model. This might have created problems if Peter had tried to impose an alien culture further down the administrative ladder, but recent research suggests that the Muscovite state was able to create a significant maritime power using more traditional administrative and financial methods. Peter enthusiastically imported galley and shipbuilding technology from Venice, Holland and England, but was wise enough to recognize that the administration of his fleet relied upon traditional noble and merchant relationships. The main problem that Peter faced was that his commitment to the navy was hardly shared by any other interest in the state. Almost as soon as he died in 1725 the fleet began to atrophy.

Jean Meyer has suggested that a major reason for the survival of the galley in the Mediterranean was the absolute dearth of seamen. Soldiers, convicts, slaves or free landsmen could serve at the oars with little or no maritime experience. In the Baltic, Russia found that galleys were useful in the shallow and difficult waters off Finland, and they were also extremely sparing in the use of seamen. Russia only got experience for its seamen very slowly. Some trained under foreign officers in the Russian navy. A very few were sent abroad to serve in the ships of other powers, such as the 30 that Peter I sent to English ships in 1706, but these men were destined to become officers. As late as 1738, it was even suggested that thousands of Russian seamen might serve on British warships if war with Spain should break out in order to gain some experience. It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that Russia seemed able to train its own seamen for deep-water warfare.