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.
By the spring of 1713, the galley fleet was ready. At the end of April, only a month after his return from Pomerania, Peter sailed from Kronstadt with a fleet of ninety-three galleys and 110 other large boats carrying between them more than 16,000 soldiers. Apraxin commanded the whole fleet; the Tsar commanded the vanguard. The campaign was an overwhelming success. Using the galleys to leapfrog the troops from one point on the coast to another, the Russian army worked its way steadily westward along the Finnish coast. It was a classic example of amphibious warfare: Whenever the Swedish General Lybecker positioned his force in a strong defensive position, the Russian galleys, hugging the coastline, would slip around behind him, row into a harbor and disembark hundreds or thousands of men, unfatigued by marching, with cannon and supplies.
There was nothing the Swedes could do to stop them and nothing Lybecker could do except retreat.
Early in May, dozens of Russian ships filled with soldiers appreared off Helsingfors [now Helsinki], a prosperous town with an excellent deep-water harbor. Faced with thousands of Russians suddenly arriving from the sea, the defenders could only burn their stores and abandon the town. Peter sailed immediately for the nearby port of Borga, and Lybecker abandoned it as well. Lybecker was never popular in Stockholm and had been the subject of constant complaints, but the Council had not dared remove him, as he had been personally appointed by the King. Now, however, the argument was heard that “It is a question of whether we shall get rid of Lybecker or of Finland.”
By September 1713, the Russian amphibious advance had carried as far as Abo. Lybecker was recalled and replaced by General Karl Armfelt, a native Finn. On October 6, Armfelt’s troops took a stand in a narrow pass near Tammerfors. The Russians attacked, defeated them badly and drove them out of the pass. Thereafter, a small Swedish army remained in Finland to the north of Abo, but all Swedish civilian officials, all official papers and the library of the provincial government were removed to Stockholm. Much of the Finnish population fled across the Gulf of Bothnia and took refuge in the Aland Islands. Thus, in a single summer, without the aid or encumbrance of any foreign ally, Peter had conquered all of southern Finland.
At sea, however, the Swedish fleet remained supreme. In the open water, the Swedish ships-of-the-line could stand off and pound the Russian galleys to pieces with their heavy guns. The galleys’ only chance would be to tempt the bigger ships close inshore and then catch them there when the wind had dropped. This was exactly the fortuitous situation presented to Peter at the Battles of Hango in August 1714.
In preparation for the naval campaign of 1714, Peter had nearly doubled the size of his Baltic fleet. During March alone, sixty new galleys were completed. Three ships-of- the-line purchased in England arrived at Riga, and another built in St. Petersburg anchored at Kronstadt. By May, twenty Russian ships-of-the-line and almost 200 galleys were ready for action.
On June 22, 100 galleys, mostly commanded by Venetians and Greeks had had experience in the Mediterranean, sailed for Finland with Apraxin again in overall command and Peter as rear admiral serving as his deputy. Through the midsummer weeks, the Russian ships cruised off the coast of southern Finland, but did not dare venture beyond the rocky promontory of Cape Hango at the western end of the gulf lest they encounter a formidable Swedish fleet which waited for them on the horizon. This was a major squadron including sixteen ships-of-the-line, five frigates and a number of galleys and smaller vessels under the Swedish commander-in-chief, Admiral Wattrang, whose mission was to bar passage any farther westward in the direction of the Aland Islands and the Swedish coast.
For several weeks, this impasse continued. Wattrang had no intention of fighting a battle inshore, and the Russian galleys, unwilling to submit themselves to Wattrang’s big guns on open water, remained anchored at Tvermine, six miles east of Cape Hango. Finally, on August 4, Wattrang’s ships moved in toward the Russians and then, seeing the vast number of Russian sails, turned back to the open sea. The Russian galleys quickly pursued, hoping to catch at least some of the Swedish ships if the wind should drop. In the maneuvering that followed, most of the Swedish ships managed to withdraw out of reach.
But the following morning what Peter had hoped for finally happened. The wind died, the sea was becalmed, and on the glassy surface lay a division of the Swedish fleet commanded by Admiral Ehrenskjold. The Russians moved quickly to seize the advantage. At dawn, twenty Russian galleys left the protective waters of the coast and rowed outside to seaward of the motionless Swedish vessels. Realizing what was happening, Ehrenskjold’s ships lowered small boats, which under oars tried to tow their ships away. But the power of a few oarsmen in small boats could not match the coordinated strokes of the oarsmen in the Russian galleys. That night, Apraxin’s main force, over sixty galleys, slipped between the Swedes and the coast, moving out to sea between the squadrons of Wattrang and Ehrenskjold. For refuge, Ehrenskjold withdrew up a narrow fjord and formed his ships into a line, head to stern, from one side of the fjord to the other. The following day, with the Swedish squadron isolated, Apraxin was ready to attack. First, he sent an officer on board the Swedish flagship to offer Ehrenskjold honorable terms if he would surrender. The offer was refused, and the battle began.
It was a strange and extraordinary contest between warships of two different kinds, one ancient and one modem. The Swedes had superiority in heavy cannon and skilled seamen, but the Russians had an overwhelming advantage in numbers of ships and men. Their smaller, more maneuverable galleys, decks loaded with infantry, simply charged the Swedish ships en masse, taking what losses they had to from Swedish cannon fire, closing in and boarding the immobile Swedish vessels. Indeed, Apraxin launched his ships less like an admiral than a general sending in waves of infantry or cavalry. At two p. m. on August 6, he sent in the first wave of thirty-five galleys. The Swedes held their fire until the galleys were close, then raked their decks with cannon fire, the galleys to fall back. A second attack by eighty galleys was also repulsed. Then, Apraxin’s combined fleet attacked, ninety-five galleys in all, concentrating on the left side of the head-to-stern line. Russian boarding parties swept over the Swedish vessels; one Swedish vessel capsized from the sheer weight of the men struggling on its deck. Once the Swedish line was broken, the Russians rowed through the gap, swarming along the remainder of the line, attacking from both sides at once and seizing ship after ship of the immobile Swedish line. The battle raged for three hours with heavy casualties on both sides. In the end, the Swedes were overwhelmed, 361 were killed and more than 900 became prisoners. Ehrenskjold himself was captured, along with his flagship, the frigate Elephant, and nine smaller Swedish ships. There is a disagreement as to Peter’s whereabouts during the battle. Some have said that he commanded the first division of Apraxin’s galleys; others, that he watched the action from the shore. Hango was not a classic naval action, but it was Russia’s first victory at sea, and Peter always considered it a personal vindication of his years of effort to build a navy, and a victory equal in importance to Poltava.
Elated, he meant to celebrate in the grandest style. Sending the bulk of the galley fleet westward to occuply the now unprotected Aland Islands, Peter returned with his Swedish prizes to Kronstadt. He remained for several days while Catherine was in childbirth, delivering their daughter Margarita. Then, on September 20, he staged his triumph, leading the captured frigate and six other Swedish ships up into the Neva River while cannon boomed a 150-gun salute. The ships anchored near the Peter and Paul Fortress, and both Russian and Swedish crews came ashore for the victory procession. The parade was led by the
Preobrazhensky Guards and included 200 Swedish officers and seamen, the flag of the captured Admiral and Admiral Ehrenskjold himself, wearing a new suit laced in silver which was a present from the Tsar. Peter appeared in the green uniform of a Russian rear admiral laced with gold. A new triumphal arch had been erected for the occasion, adorned with a Russian eagle seizing an elephant (an allusion to the captured Swedish frigate) and the inscription, “The Russian Eagle catches no flies.” From the arch, victors and vanquished marched to the fortress, where they were greeted by Romodanovsky, seated on a throne in his role as Mock-Tsar and surrounded by the Senate. Romodanvosky summoned the tall Rear Admiral before him and accepted from Peter’s hands a written account of the battle at sea. The account was read aloud, after which the Mock-Tsar and senators questioned Peter on several points. After brief deliberation, they unanimously proclaimed that in consideration of his faithful service, the Rear Admiral was promoted to Vice Admiral, and the crowd broke into cheers of “Health to the Vice Admiral!” Peter’s speech in thanks called his comrades’ attention to the changes wrought in only two decades: “Friends and Companions: Is there any one among you who, twenty years ago, would have dared to conceive our covering the Baltic with ships built with our own hands or living in this town built on soil conquered from our enemies?”
When the ceremony ended, Peter boarded his own sloop and hoisted the flag of vice admiral with his own hands.
That night, Menshikov’s palace was the scene of a huge banquet for Russians and Swedes alike. Peter, rising and turning to his Russian followers, praised Admiral Ehrenskjold. “Here you see a brave and faithful servant of his master who has made himself worthy of the highest reward at his hands and who shall always have my favor as long as he is with me, although he has killed many a brave Russian. I forgive you,” he said directly to Ehrenskjold, “and you may depend on my good will.”
Ehrenskjold thanked the Tsar and replied, “However honorably I may have acted with regard to my master, I did only my duty. I sought death, but did not meet it, and it is no small comfort to me in my misfortune to be a prisoner of Your Majesty and to be used so favorably and with so much distinction by so grat a naval officer and now worthy a vice admiral.” Later, talking to the foreign envoys present, Ehrenskjold declared that the Russians had indeed fought skillfully, and that nothing but his own experience could have convinced him that the Tsar could make good soldiers and sailors out of his Russian subjects.
The victory at Hango cleared not only the Gulf of Finland but the eastern side of the Gulf of Bothnia of Swedish ships. Admiral Wattrang now quit the upper Baltic entirely, being unwilling to risk his big ships against the Russian flotillas to continue their westward advance. In September, a fleet of sixty galleys landed 16,000 men in the Aland Islands. Soon afterward, the larger Russian ships returned to Kronstadt, but Apraxin’s galleys kept working their way up into the Gulf of Bothnia. On September 20, he reached Wasa, and from there he sent nine galleys across the gulf to attack the coast of Sweden, burning the Swedish town of Umean. As some galleys were lost and the winter ice was coming, Apraxin put his fleet in winter quarters, at Abo on the Finnish coast and across the Gulf of Finland at Reval.
The success of the Finnish campaigns spurred Peter to increase his shipbuilding program. Later, near the end of the Tsar’s reign, the Baltic fleet consisted of thirty-four ships-of-the-line (many of them sixty- and eighty-gun vessels), fifteen frigates and 800 galleys and smaller ships, manned by a total of 28,000 Russian seamen. This was a gigantic achievement; to complain that Peter’s fleet was still smaller than Great Britain’s is to overlook the fact that Peter began without a single ship; with no tradition, shipwrights, officers, navigators or seamen. Before the end of Peter’s life, some Russian ships were equal to the best in the British navy and, said an observer, “were more handsomely furnished.” The only weakness that Peter could never overcome was his countrymen’s lack of interest in the sea. Foreign officers- Greeks, Venetians, Danes and Dutchmen-continued to command the ships; the Russian aristocracy still hated the sea and resented the imposition of naval service almost more than any other. In his love of blue waves and salt air, Peter remained unique among Russians.