Battle of Gangut

Battle of Gangut, Maurice Baquoy

Destroyed ships after the battle.

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.

Peter I was also devoted to the modernization of most aspects of Russian national life. He began with the military, building the Navy essentially from scratch to a force that at his death boasted fully 36 ships-of-the-line, 86 additional significant warships (frigates and galleys), and 280 support vessels. So dedicated was Peter to the Russian Navy that he made chopping down an oak tree a capital offense, and he also punished the collection of forest windfalls, reserving all hardwood for ship-building. He imported hundreds of foreign artisans, engineers, and mercenaries and sent Russian nobles abroad to study.

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.

Battle of Gangut, (July 27/August 7, 1714) (in Swedish, the Battle of Hangö), a naval battle near the Hangö Peninsula between the Russian and Swedish fleets during the Northern War of 1700-21.

In 1714 a Russian galley fleet under the command of Admiral-General F. M. Apraksin (99 galleys and scampavias [small galleys], with an amphibious landing force of 15,000) was sent to the Åbo-Åland reefs (skerries) to effect a landing. However, the Russian flotilla that left Kronstadt on May 9 was forced to stop at Tvärminne because the further route was barred by the Swedish battle fleet (15 battleships and 14 smaller ships) of Vice-admiral Wattrang. In order to bypass the Swedish ships in the southern extremity of the Hangö Peninsula, it was decided to create a portage on the narrow part of the isthmus and to drag the galleys across and into the rear of the main forces of the Swedish fleet. The Swedes sent a detachment under Rear Admiral Ehrensköld (one frigate, six galleys, and three skerry boats) toward one end of the portage and another detachment under Rear Admiral Lillje (eight battleships and three other ships) to Tvärminne in order to attack the Russian flotilla.

Taking advantage of the division of the Swedish forces and of the calm, Peter I decided to break through along the shore. On July 26 the Russian vanguard (35 scampavias) bypassed Hangö Peninsula on oars and blockaded Ehrensköld’s detachment in Rilaks Fiord; on July 27 it was joined by the main forces. On July 27 the vanguard attacked Ehrensköld’s detachment, which surrendered after a stubborn battle. The Swedes lost ten ships with 116 guns; 361 men were killed, 350 wounded, and 237 captured, including Ehrensköld. On July 28 the Swedish fleet withdrew to the Åland Islands. The Gangut battle, which was the first major naval victory of the Russian fleet over a strong enemy, ensured domination over all Finland to the Russian troops. In memory of the victory, a medal was instituted and a monument erected on the shore at Rilaks Fiord.

The following year the Danish fleet blockading Stralsund defeated the Swedish fleet, enabling an allied amphibious force to capture a key offshore position, sealing the fate of the fortress. These operations were supported by a British fleet which had entered the Baltic with the Dutch to protect their commerce against Swedish privateers. The new king of Britain, George I, was also Elector of Hanover, and his continental ambitions gave a new importance to the Baltic. Charles had hoped the privateers would deny Russia any economic benefit from the recently conquered Baltic provinces, but Britain and Holland would not allow the supply of naval stores to be interrupted. In 1716 Danish warships destroyed the Swedish galley fleet in the Sound, crippling Charles XII’s attempt to invade Norway.

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.

In 1719 Russian galleys landed troops to ravage the Stockholm region and, after Charles XII’s death, a Danish amphibious force bombarded and captured the Swedish fleet and base at Marstrand, wiping out Swedish communications for operations in Norway. The same year Britain made peace with Sweden, and tried to remove Russian influence from north Germany in order to re-establish a Baltic balance. The former policy was successful, but the latter proved impossible. Sweden was now too weak and isolated to return to the front rank of European states. However, a British battle fleet and the Swedish galleys were able to restrict Russian naval activity between 1719 and 1721, when the Peace of Nystad ended the war.

The collapse of the Swedish Empire was the result of naval attrition. Sweden simply did not have the naval power to deal with the fleets of Denmark and Russia operating at opposite ends of the Baltic, and so her naval forces, adequate against either, were whittled down in small-scale, largely indecisive actions. These minor defeats culminated in the loss of Stralsund and the ravaging of the Swedish coast. The process was hastened by the loss of vital commercial revenues. Unable to use the sea, Sweden could not move her army to meet the allied attacks.