Wednesday, June 10, 2015

18th Century Russian Naval Power

When he made his country a Baltic power, Peter the Great had largely founded the first Russian navy with English and Dutch assistance. This navy fell into neglect after his death, until it was revived by Catherine II for her Turkish and Swedish wars. A large proportion of its officers were still of foreign extraction, but the Russians were by this date building more of their own ships, often under the supervision of foreign technicians. Of the British contingent of officers Sir Charles Knowles, John Elphinston and Samuel Greig were the most distinguished. On the conclusion of the American war, many half-pay officers entered the Russian service, though when it was proposed to employ Paul Jones as their commander in the Baltic they threatened to resign rather than serve under a man whom they regarded as a renegade; Jones was consequently employed for a short time in the Black Sea. Samuel Bentham, originally a colonel in the Russian army and later Inspector General of the Royal Navy, played an important part in fitting out a galley fleet against the Turks in the Crimea, and in 1787 a gun foundry was established near Lake Ladoga where British engineers introduced the carronade and other new forms of artillery.

In 1769 Russian ships first appeared in the Mediterranean, where the fleet was commanded by Admiral Orlov, though it was Greig's conduct of the fireships which defeated the Turks at Tchesma. By the outbreak of the second Turkish war in 1787 Russia had acquired bases in the Crimea, so that a Black Sea fleet, first under Voinovitch and then under Ushakov, was now a possibility. This fleet increased from seven to twenty-one of the line in four years. The larger Baltic fleet of fifty-four of the line (though only a quarter of these were in commission) was used at the same date for the war against Sweden. Its commander, Greig, was killed in the only outstanding victory at Hogland, the success at Viborg in 1790 being due rather to the inefficiency of the enemy than the energy of Tchitchagov, the new commander-in-chief. At the conclusion of the war Russia became the dominant Baltic power, and therefore the chief threat to the supply of vital naval stores to the West in the event of an Armed Neutrality.

There was a rapid increase in the size of the Baltic navies between 1780 and 1790—the Danish fleet increasing from 14 to 40, the Swedish from 15 to 27 and the Russian from 22 to over 50—on account of the alarms aroused by the Armed Neutrality and by the Spanish (or Nootka Sound) and Russian crises. Nevertheless, on 17 February 1792 the situation was such that Pitt could advise a reduction of the naval estimates on the ground that 'unquestionably there never was a time in the history of this country when, from the situation in Europe, we might more reasonably expect fifteen years of peace than we may at the present time'.

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