Monday, May 11, 2015

Battle of Svenskund, 9 July 1790

A naval scene from the Battle of Krasnaya Gorka, near Kronstadt.

Overwhelming Swedish naval victory of the Russo-Swedish War (1788–1790). In 1788 King Gustav III of Sweden took advantage of the Russian preoccupation with war against Turkey and attempted to recover parts of eastern Finland. Over the next three years the Swedes won some local victories, but the Russians scratch-built a large fleet of warships that slowly turned the naval conflict in their favor. This fact was underscored at Vyborg on 2 June 1790, when Gustav was badly defeated by the Russians under Prince Nassau-Siegen. Both sides then built up their remaining forces in the vicinity of Svenskund Fjord for a final encounter.

The battered Swedish fleet was heavily reinforced and strongly posted at the mouth of the fjord. Gustav had at his disposal an imposing armada consisting of 5 frigates, 18 galleys, 153 2-cannon, and 54 single-cannon gunboats. The whole mounted in excess of 1,200 cannon. Despite their obsolete appearance in being driven by both sails and oars, the relatively heavily armed Swedish gunboats were well-suited for maneuvering in the cramped waters of the fjord.

The Russian fleet opposing Gustav consisted of 30 frigates and smaller sailing vessels, 23 galleys, 77 gunboats, and 3 floating batteries, a total of 141 ships of varying description and 1,500 guns. Prince Nassau-Siegen, unfortunately, followed up his earlier victory at Vyborg in a leisurely fashion when a sudden lunge might have crushed the disorganized Swedes. He dallied until the 9 July anniversary of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne. That morning he confidently sent his fleet into the fjord in four great waves, anticipating an easy victory.

Gustav deployed his forces judiciously, placing his largest vessels directly across the fjord’s entrance with numerous well-armed gunboats on either flank. The first Russian division hit the Swedish right flank hard and was making progress in driving it back when the wind came up and unsettled the Russian formation. The Swedes then counterattacked, forcing their opponents to scatter. The Russian left wing was also unsuccessful and was likewise driven off. As the main Russian force moved in against the Swedish center, numerous Swedish gunboats and galleys took up positions on either flank and commenced an effective enfilade (gunfire directed from a flanking position along the length of an enemy battle line) for several hours. With his ships sinking or grounding fast around him, Prince Nassau-Siegen ordered a retreat while the Swedes counterattacked across the line. At daybreak the following day the Swedes resumed their advance, and the Russians fled in confusion. For the loss of 4 small ships, 181 men killed, and 123 wounded, Gustav sank or captured 35 Russian vessels of every description and inflicted an estimated 7,000 casualties.

Svenskund was the last engagement of the Russo-Swedish War and a boost to Swedish morale. Moreover, it helped secure a favorable peace for Gustav because the Russians were content to concentrate their efforts against Turkey.

Anderson, Roger C. Naval Wars in the Baltic, 1522–1850. London: Francis Edwards, 1969.
Lyon, David. Sea Battles in Close Up: The Age of Nelson. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

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