The Russian Navy in WWI – the Baltic.
The Black Sea
Before dawn on 16 October 1914, sudden explosions were heard at the port of Odessa and off the coast of Sevastopol. The Commander-in-Chief of the allied German-Turkish Fleet, Rear Admiral Wilhelm Suschon, decided to surprise the Russian seamen with another attack similar to the one at Port Arthur. At Odessa the Turkish destroyer Gairet fired a torpedo that sank the gunboat Donets, while, off Sevastopol, the battle cruiser Geben forced the sailors of the minelayer Prut to scuttle their vessel. A bold attempt by Captain Vladimir Trubetskoy to stop the Geben with a division of small destroyers failed because the leading destroyer, Lieutenant Pushchin, became seriously damaged at the outstart. The Geben began to shell the Sevastopol but was driven off by shore batteries and the older battleship Georgy Pobedonosets.
The success of this surprise attack by German and Turkish forces was largely due to new restrictions imposed by the military-political leadership on the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Andrey Ebergard. The Black Sea Fleet was superior in strength, but the large and fast Geben proved to be an important advantage to the German-Turkish Command.
The primary mission of the Black Sea Fleet was to blockade the Bosporus and Zongulak, a region that produced coal for fuelling ships. From October 1914 to February 1915, Admiral Ebergard made ten voyages to the Anatolian coast with a total squadron of five battleships, cruisers and torpedo boats. Having planted mines on the approaches to the Bosporus, the Russian sailors sank fourteen Turkish steamships and over 50 sailing vessels. On 5 November 1914, Admiral Suschon once again tried to take the Black Sea Fleet by surprise, but this time the German attempt failed. Under Captain Valery Galanin, the flag battleship Evstafy hit the Geben with the first salvo and forced her to retreat.
After a failed attempt to cross the Dardanelles in early 1915, the English and French landed a large force on the Galliopoli Peninsula. This would have allowed the Russian troops to land in the Bosporus and radically alter the outcome of the war with Turkey. However, the Russian landing did not take place because of poor cooperation between the allies and the weakness of the Russian High Command, which did not effectively coordinate the actions of its army and navy.
Only three times, in the spring of 1915, did the Black Sea Fleet bombard fortifications in the Bosporus from the battleships Tri Svyatitelya, Panteleymon and Rostislav. On its March voyage to the Bosporus, the seaplane carrier Emperor Nicholas I saw its first military action, while aircraft carriers patrolled the coast and shelled enemy batteries.
In retaliation for the bombardment of the Bosporus, Suschon decided to fire upon Odessa, but the cruiser Madzhidie was blown up and sunk by Russian mines. The Geben was also damaged by a mine and consequently rendered temporarily inoperable.
On 27 June 1915, the submersible mine-layer Crab, commanded by Senior-Lieutenant Lev Fenshow, planted 58 mines off the Bosporus. Later, in July 1916, the officer in charge, Captain Vyacheslav Klochkovsky, directed the Crab’s mine laying expeditions in the mouth of the Strait. For his success in these operations, Klochkovsky was awarded the golden sword of St. George.
In August 1915, during the Battle of Kefken, the submarine Nerpa, together with the destroyers Pronzitelny and Bystry, under Captain Trubetskoy, attacked a Turkish convoy consisting of the cruiser Gamidie, two destroyers and four transports. All enemy transports were sunk, while the escort ships barely escaped.
In the campaign of 1916 the submarine Tulen, under Senior-Lieutenant Mikhail Kititsin, distinguished herself when she destroyed and captured six steamships, three launches and 21 sailing vessels. In September 1916, Kititsin attacked the heavily armed German transport Rodosto, forced it to surrender and towed it to Sevastopol. In September 1915, Admiral Ebergard hoisted his flag on the Empress Maria, the fleet’s newest dreadnought, for its first campaign against the Turks; the powerful ship was fully capable of competing single-handedly against the Geben. On 24 January 1916, the Empress Maria appeared at the head of the fleet off Zongulak, but remained in a screened position since the main blow was delivered by eleven seaplanes from two seaplane carriers. Lying at the pier, the Turkish steamship Irmingard was sunk during the bombardment.
In the summer of 1916, energetic Vice-Admiral Alexander Kolchak took command of the Black Sea Fleet. Under his leadership, exit from the Bosporus was almost completely blocked by Russian mines. Constantinople remained without coal, and passage out of the Strait became difficult for all German cruisers and submarines. Under Admiral Kolchak’s command, the naval approaches to Varna were also mined. In October the cruiser Pamyat Mercuria, under the flag of Rear Admiral Kazimir Porembsky, and the destroyer Pronzitelny destroyed the supply of oil left in Constantsa by the retreating Rumanians.
However, the Black Sea Fleet also suffered significant losses. The destroyers Lieutenant Pushchin and Zhivuchy struck enemy mines and sank. Especially devastating was the loss of the Empress Maria at Sevastopol after an onboard explosion on 7 October 1916.
Russian sailors not only fought in the Baltic and Black Seas but also in the Mediterranean and Pacific. By 1914, together with Allied ships, the Siberian cruisers Askold and Zhemchug had already begun escorting transports and pursuing German raiders. The campaign ended badly for the Zhemchug. After hoisting the British ensign and mounting a false funnel, the German cruiser Emden, took the Zhemchug unawares and sank her at the port of Penang. The Zhemchug’s Commander Ivan Cherkasov was reprimanded and demoted for his carelessness.
The fate of the Askold proved more fortunate. In late 1914 she was already fighting in the Mediterranean, and in December, commanded by Captain Sergey Ivanov, the Askold captured the German transport Haifa and destroyed two Turkish steamships. During the next year the Askold joined the newly formed Allied British-French fleet to fight in the Dardanelles. In 1915, the cruiser sailed approximately 17,000 miles. In late 1916, after repairs at Toulon, the Askold joined the Arctic Flotilla.
This flotilla emerged from the detachment formed in September 1914 to defend the port area of Arkhangelsk. A new port, Romanov-on-Murman, was constructed on the shore of the Gulf of Kola and became the terminus of the railway that extended into the polar region. Thus, a convenient and secure communication link was established between Russia and the Allies. The recently formed Arctic Flotilla aimed to ensure the protection of this vital searoute and included ships from the Pacific Fleet: the Chesma, which had been purchased from Japan, and the cruiser Varyag [Viking]. The Siberian Fleet contributed the minelayer Ussury and six destroyers. Afterwards, Vice-Admiral Ludvig Kerber was appointed Commander-in-Chief over the northern fleet. The first Russian naval success in the far North was on 20 October 1916. The destroyer Grozovoy, under Lieutenant Korneyev, sank the German submarine U-56 in a battle in the Barents Sea.
By early 1917, the Russian fleet was again a formidable force and included 558 combat ships, a number of launches, and over 500 auxiliary transport vessels. In construction were fifteen battleships, fourteen cruisers and 269 naval planes. The personnel of the Fleet totaled 168 thousand officers and men.
However, the political crisis in February 1917, immediately affected the Navy’s efficiency. In February 1917, Emperor Nicholas II abdicated and the Provisional Government came to power. At Helsinki and Kronstadt, the largest Baltic ports, sailors began to riot. Dozens of admirals and officers were killed, including the Commander of the Baltic Fleet, Vice-Admiral Adrian Nepenin, and the Chief Officer of the Port of Kronstadt, Admiral Robert Viren. The effectiveness of the Baltic Fleet fell sharply. Germany took advantage of the political turmoil in Russia and began a series of attacks aimed at the weakest link in Russia’s fleet, its submarines. Within a short time six had been destroyed, including the Bars, Lvitsa, Gepard and Yedinorog.
In late September Germany undertook a large-scale landing operation on the Moon Sound Islands. Vice-Admiral Eggard Schmidt arrived with more than 300 vessels carrying 25,000 assault troops. The Commander of the Baltic Fleet, Rear Admiral Alexander Razvozov, could call up only two battleships, three cruisers, three gunboats and 21 destroyers under Vice-Admiral Mikhail Bakhirev. Nonetheless, the smaller Russian force mounted strong resistance to the German squadron. Unlike the army, the navy remained loyal to the increasingly embattled Russian government.
In Kassar Bay the Eleventh Destroyer Division of Commander Georgy Pilsudsky distinguished itself in battle. Fighting alongside the gunboat Khrabry, the destroyers Pobeditel, Zabiyaka, Konstantin and Grom resisted an attack by thirteen German destroyers and the battleship Kaiser. The Grom was lost in the fight, but while under enemy fire, the Khrabry, managed to break through to the burning Grom and save her crew. Lieutenant Anatoly Waksmouth was the last to leave the deck of the Grom. At Kassar Bay Russians damaged six German destroyers while three others-B-98, B-111 and S-64- struck mines and were damaged.
In an unequal fight at Kuivaste the 4-gun battleship Slava, under Captain Vladimir Antonov, fought the German dreadnoughts Koenig and Kroneprinz, each armed with ten 12-inch guns. The Slava had to be scuttled because of the damage it incurred during the battle. However, the enemy could not intercept the Russian ships retreating from the Gulf of Riga, and the Battle of Moon Sound ended.
The Battle of Moon Sound was the last fought by the Russian fleet under the ensign of St. Andrew. The Black Sea Fleet of Vice-Admiral Kolchak maintained its morale and continued to blockade the enemy’s coast until the summer of 1917, when revolutionary upheavals reached the Black Sea.
In Petrograd, on 25 October 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik cohorts seized power. The new government brought the war to a close, and, in December 1917, an armistice was signed with Germany. By the Decree of the Council of People’s Commissars, 29 January 1918, the Russian Fleet was declared dissolved and the creation of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Fleet was proclaimed.