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Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Russian Navy in WWI


The Russian Navy in WWI

The Baltic

by Stephen Thomas

The invasion force left port on 5th April, 22 transports carrying 2 brigades of troops. They had a close escort of destroyers and cruisers and three seaplane carriers provided aerial reconnaissance to scout the transit area for enemy ships and U-boats. Further off, two Task Forces, each consisting of a modern battleship and fast destroyers, provided support. There was no real threat though; the sole German battlecruiser was not prepared to challenge the superior modern battleships. The unopposed landing on the Turkish coast led to the capture of a small but valuable port. All in all, it was a skillfully managed operation, with specially designed landing barges, clearly marked beaches, anti submarine patrols and nets.

Encouraged by this success, further landings took place, culminating with the landing of 34,000 troops next to the major Turkish port in the area. With their main defences turned, the Turkish army fell back, giving up this vital port.

No, it’s not some hypothetical British success at Gallipoli. It’s a description of the activities of one of the most underrated navies of World War One – the Russian. Far from the popular image of incompetence and inferiority the Russian navy in both the Baltic and the Black Sea was competent, well led, aggressive and one of the most active navies of the war.

The Baltic



The Baltic was a rather more complex naval front than is generally appreciated. There were major geographical considerations that affected activities for both sides and oddly enough, both sides felt they were the inferior force! Overall, the German navy was vastly superior to the Russian but they regarded the North Sea as the key naval front. As a result, the Baltic had a very low priority and German naval forces there were actually quite weak. They could however quickly transfer ships from the North Sea if they needed to. Thus while the Russians had a small local superiority they knew if they ever became a major threat the Germans could bring in major reinforcements.

The Russians in particular operated under a number of constraints. The major fear, given the German ability to deploy major naval forces in the Baltic, was of an invasion that would threaten St Petersburg, Russia's capital. The position of Sweden had to be considered, as there was a serious concern that Sweden might side with Germany and the Russians could never risk provoking them. As a result, Swedish territorial waters were a safe haven for German transports. The short range of their ships meant they were limited to short raids or minelaying operations close to Germany or Sweden and it was not practical to set up any kind of standing patrol or blockade. Finally, the defeat at Tsushima had been a shattering blow and the Tsar was not prepared to risk another such loss.

As a result, the Russian strategy was primarily defensive. Accordingly, they built up a network of protective minefields in the Gulf of Finland which were supplemented by shore batteries. The intention was to fight a form of trench warfare from behind the minefields.


At the start of the war, the Germans mined parts of the Kattegat. Concerned over their neutrality the Danes and Swedes mined other sections. Fairly soon the channels became virtually impassable for Allied surface ships, although the British were able to slip a few submarines into the Baltic.

The Russian commander, Admiral Nikolai Essen[1], did his best to pursue an aggressive policy. At first, this consisted primarily of minelaying. As fears of Swedish involvement lessened, he was given more freedom. This enabled him to send out raiders and minelayers further into the Baltic. In October 1914, the destroyers were laying minefields off Memel.

Given the relatively low number of ships available, neither side had a capacity to exercise long term control. Missions were short term revolving around minelaying, convoy raids, and shore bombardment. Such clashes that did occur came about during these missions and were minor affairs with only a few cruisers and destroyers involved on each side. Generally, damage was light but overall the Russians got the better of these encounters.

The Germans did bring some of their big ships into the Baltic for specific operations. First in May 1915 to support an advance through Courland. Then in August 1915 they sent eleven dreadnoughts into the Gulf of Riga. It took several days to clear the minefields covering the entrance to the Gulf and this bought about a brief clash between the Posen and Nassau against the Russian pre-dreadnought Slava. Eventually they pushed through into the Gulf. With poor weather and repeated Russian minelaying the Germans were compelled to withdraw. As they did so, one of the British submarines torpedoed and damaged the Moltke. Overall, the operation achieved little and risked too much.

Initially the Russian forces were commanded by Admiral Essen, possibly one of the best naval commanders of the war, but he died in 1915. His successor Admiral Kanin was competent but lacked his drive and aggression and was replaced in 1916 by the more energetic, Admiral Nepenin.


Given the limitations on surface vessels both sides, particularly the Russians, used mines both as a defensive and offensive weapon. Both sides had a number of minelayers and destroyers sunk or damaged by mines. Overall, it was the Germans who suffered the most as they also lost the armoured cruiser Friederich Carl in a minefield off Pillau in November 1914 and in December 1915 the light cruiser Bremen was sunk off Windau. A further three German cruisers were damaged during the war.
armoured cruiser SMS Friederich Carl

Worst of all was a disastrous German destroyer attempt to raid Russian transports in the Gulf of Finland in November 1916. A force of eleven destroyers ran into a minefield off a Baltic Port and two were sunk initially. The raid continued and the destroyers carried out a shore bombardment. On their way back they ran into the minefields again and a further five destroyers were lost. It's a measure of the low profile of the Baltic front that this loss of seven modern destroyers is virtually unknown.

Submarine warfare

At the start of the war, the Russians had 11 submarines in operation. Subsequently another 23 were completed but many arrived too late to be of any use. This didn't matter much as they were all of inferior designs and achieved little. These were augmented by several British submarines, which although dogged by torpedo failures, tended to be more successful.

The British managed to get two E class submarines through the Kattegat in October 1914. The whole affair was somewhat amateurish; they didn't even bother to tell the Russians the submarines were being sent! Four more made the difficult journey in autumn 1915. One was sunk but the other three slipped through. In July 1916, the British also sent four small C class submarines to Archangel. From there they were shipped on barges by canal to the Baltic arriving in September. When eventually put into service they were too old and small to be of much use but their presence alone caused the Germans problems.

The latter half of 1915 was the submarines high point. In October 1915, the British E8 torpedoed the cruiser Prinz Adalbert off Libau, the magazines blew up, and virtually all her crew were lost. Next month E19 torpedoed the light cruiser Undine in the western Baltic. In addition, fourteen merchant ships sunk enroute from Sweden to Germany but generally, these were nothing more than small coastal cargo vessels.
cruiser SMS Prinz Adalbert


The effect though was significant and interestingly the Germans reacted in much the same way the British did to the submarine threat. Shipping was suspended and they had to send destroyers from the High Seas Fleet to provide extra escorts. Escorts were sent out on useless anti submarine patrols and it created a general feeling of helplessness. Some naval staff suggested sailing the merchant shipping in convoys but this was resisted as being too difficult. It was Sweden which took the lead and she started running her own ships in convoys to help protect their neutrality. With this example, the Germans switched to running convoys as well. Largely as a result of these measures the submarines successes dropped noticeably thereafter.

The Germans did deploy some U-boats in the area but their main focus was on the North Atlantic. Their only real success came in October 1914. While patrolling the mouth of the Gulf of Riga the Russian armoured cruiser Pallada was torpedoed by U26. Her magazines blew up and she sank with 597 crewmembers[2].
armoured cruiser Pallada
SMS U-26

By mid 1916, the Russian surface ships were conducting a number of raids on German shipping coming from Sweden. This was hampered by the fact that the merchant ships could spend most of the trip in Swedish waters; as a result, these raids only sank a few small transports.

Things quickly started to fall apart in March 1917 as the revolution took hold. Nepenin never got a chance to achieve much as he became an early casualty, being murdered in March. Morale amongst the Russian sailors collapsed and most of the fleet became virtually useless. Fortunately, the German naval activity generally remained at a low level. The North Sea and submarine warfare were still their main focus

Operation Albion

The steady collapse of the Russian army did however bring about the biggest single naval action of the Baltic war. The fall of Riga in September gave a real incentive to open up the Gulf of Riga to shipping. To do this it was first necessary to capture the islands at the mouth of the Gulf. Thus in October 1917 the Germans launched Operation Albion to capture the islands. Part of the motivation was also to give the increasingly restive fleet something to do and eleven battleships were detached to support the landings.

Knowing the strategic importance of the islands, they were well defended by the Russians with a large garrison, minefields, and shore batteries. The waters were extremely hazardous with tricky currents, narrow channels and numerous shallows. As a result, a number of small German ships and one of the battleships ran aground during the operation.

The minefields covering the north of Osel Island presented a problem and the Germans found it difficult to clear these. While moving in to bombard the shore batteries two battleships, Bayern and Grosser Kurfurst, were damaged by mines, the former quite badly. Despite this, they carried out their bombardment but were both withdrawn afterwards.

SMS Grosser Kurfurst
Grosser Kurfurst & Zepplin during Operation Albion 1917

The initial landings on 12th at Tagga Bay met little resistance and the main forces were quickly bought in. To cut the islands off the Germans also needed to control the approaches from the Gulf of Finland and areas such as Moon Sound. German light ships tried to force their way through the shallow Soela Sound between Dago and Osel Islands into Moon Sound. Given the difficult waters and poor visibility, this was not easy. Over the next few days, there were a series of skirmishes between destroyers and torpedo boats. The Russians bought up the predreadnought's Slava and Grazhdanin plus some cruisers to drive the Germans out but were unable to do so completely.

At the same time in the south German minesweepers spent several days clearing a passage through the Irben Straits. Once again, several battleships were needed to suppress the Russian shore battery covering the minefields. After three days, they broke through into the Gulf. As part of the move to clear the Russian ships out of Moon Sound these forces now attempted, on the 17th to clear the channel north from the Gulf into Moon Sound.

The minesweepers had to work forwards under fire from the Slava. The minesweepers were supported by Koenig and Kronprinz and these two dreadnoughts should easily have been able to defeat the Slava. Much to the Germans surprise, the old Slava's guns outranged those of the modern battleships. Working under long range fire the minesweepers pushed forward clearing a channel. Eventually the German battleships managed to move into range and scored several hits on the Slava.[3] On fire and listing she drew too much water to withdraw north through the dredged channel and was scuttled in an attempt to block the channel.

Faced with further minefields the Germans decided not to push further and clear the southern channel. By this stage, they had achieved their objective. On land, the demoralised Russian defence crumpled with hardly a fight, most being evacuated. By the 20th all, the islands were occupied.

Overall, it had been a great strategic success. The loss of the islands put considerable pressure on the Russians, opening up a large section of the coast to invasion. The losses weren't over though, as the operation ended the battleship Markgraf was damaged by a mine on its way back to port

The war winds down

After Operation Albion naval operations virtually ceased. The Russians still had their defensive positions and the Germans had no reason to take much action in the Baltic. Little happened until the Russian surrender in March 1918. After that, the only activity was a pointless German exercise to occupy strategic points in the Gulf of Finland during April 1918.


Overall, the Russians only had a marginal superiority. A passive, defensive role could have allowed the Germans to dominate the area. Instead, the Russians engaged in an aggressive campaign that caused the Germans considerable inconvenience. Such a policy went against the conservative strategy of Stavka. It was the old case of one individual can make all the difference. Essen was determined to take the war to the enemy and in doing so; he dictated the course of naval events rather than being a passive player responding to the German moves.

The Germans in contrast were so focused on the North Sea that they don't seem to have paid much attention to the Baltic. They kept the High Seas Fleet in port, achieving little while the Russians played in their backyard. Operation Albion demonstrated their potential for major landings. Conducted in 1915 or 1916 it could have been a major blow for the Russians.

[1] Boris Shalagin has undertaken the noble mission of writing a biography of Admiral Nikolai Essen whose name is closely associated with the Baltic Fleet that will mark its 300th anniversary in 2003. Back in 1990 Shalagin started with an essay on the prominent admiral. [1] (B.A. Shalagin, "Sobiratel Balflota," Morskoi sbornik, No. 12, 1990.) Six years later he completed a volume about Admiral Essen's life and military service. [2] (B.A. Shalagin, Vziat more v svoi ruki, Nizhnii Novgorod, 1996.)

[2] Following the tragedy of the Pallada, Admiral Essen ordered that all ships be escorted by destroyers. Furthermore, he ordered the shifting of operations to the southern area of the Baltic, closer to the German sea lanes. Under Admirals Ludvig Kerber, Viktor Kanin, Captain Alexander Kolchak and others, the detachments of cruisers and torpedo boats laid 1,500 mines in enemy waters. Germany's armoured cruiser Friedrich Karl, four mine-sweepers, and fifteen steamships were subsequently destroyed and the cruisers Augsburg and Gazelle seriously damaged. (

[3] The German dreadnoughts Nassau and Pozen managed to force the Slava aside and enter the Gulf of Riga, where Admiral Schmidt lost the destroyer S-31. Russia's only loss was the gunboat Sivuch, commanded by Captain Pyotr Cherkasov. The Sivuch had fought in the darkness for nearly an hour in an unequal battle with the cruiser Augsburg, two destroyers and the newly-arrived Nassau and Pozen. The heroic vessel fought to the last, then sank under the ensign of St. Andrew. The year closed in the Baltic to the accompaniment of exploding Russian mines, striking the enemy cruisers Bremen, Danzig, Lubek and the destroyers V-191 and S-177. (

The Black Sea


Ironically, the Black Sea tends to be dismissed as a backwater, whereas it was one of the most active naval fronts of the war. It was one of the few areas where one naval power did dominate the area and was able to exploit that control.

With the aura, surrounding the German battlecruiser Goeben there is often an assumption that she dominated the Black Sea. It is quite remarkable to read some of the inaccurate summaries of activities in the Black Sea by authors who should know better. The Goeben certainly was important but the reality was that it was the Russians who had the upper hand.

War begins

Turkish entry into the war is a complex topic and often misunderstood. Despite all the myths and dramas the main factor was that they decided to back the ‘winners’, particularly when they saw their traditional enemy Russia beaten in the opening battles. It was actually the German led Turkish navy that opened hostilities, with a surprise attack on the Russians on 29th October, nearly three months after the main war started.

A series of operations were launched against the Russian ports. There was minelaying at key points, including the main Russian naval base at Sevastapol. Breslau, two old Turkish cruisers and some destroyers attacked Russian shipping at various ports and shelled harbour installations. The main attack came with a dawn bombardment by Goeben on the harbour at Sevastapol. The intention was presumably to draw the Russian fleet out into the minefields. Instead, she took three hits from Russian shore batteries and had to beat off an aggressive attack from Russian torpedo boats. When the Russians did sail out later, in the day, they used safe, alternative channels but the Goeben had already left.

As a surprise attack, it achieved little of real value. A few transports, a gunboat, and a minelayer were sunk and there was damage to some shore installations. The biggest factor was political, as it was the final act in Turkey’s entry into the war.

The Russian response

In the early stages Stavka were worried about Turkish landing around Odessa and raids on shipping. This was fairly unrealistic but did mean there was pressure on the Russian commander Admiral Ebergard to act in a defensive manner. This was shortsighted, as the Russian predreadnoughts were only effective if concentrated. By themselves, 'defending' different harbours, they would have been easy targets for Goeben. Stavka seemed unable to understand this concept and continually complained about the failure to defend the coast. Ebergard realised the better option was to put the pressure on the Turks and his aim was to blockade the Bosphorus and cut Turkish sea communications.

The Russians did not have the resources for a permanent blockade of the Turkish coast. The pre-dreadnought's had a limited range, only being able to remain at sea for around four days. Even in the Black Sea, it would take them a day to get to the Turkish coast which meant only two days on blockade duty. What Ebergard wanted was to set up a blockade using minefields at key points. There was plenty of scope to cut the seaborne communications but at this stage, however the Russians only had a few light ships that had the speed to act as raiders and evade the Goeben and Breslau.

To implement this policy Ebergard sailed on 4th November 1914 with the five predreadnoughts and supporting ships to conduct operations off the Bosphorus. They laid mines in the entrance but this first attempt was not successful. They then sailed along the coast, carried out bombardment raids against Turkish facilities and sank three loaded transports.

The Battle of Cape Sarych

Any hopes that the German Admiral Souchon had of an easy victory by the Goeben over the grossly inferior predreadnoughts were quickly shattered in the first naval clash. On the 17th November, Ebergard was out again, shelling the port of Trebizond. Goeben sailed, hoping to pick off isolated Russian ships as they were returning to the Crimea. Instead, on the 18th, she encountered all five predreadnoughts off Cape Sarych. Visibility was poor and when the Russian flagship Evstafi, leading the Russian line, finally spotted the Goeben, they were only 8,000 yards apart. None of the following ships could spot the target and finally Evstafi opened fire on her own. While some of the others opened fire in due course, they were well off target.
SMS Geoben/Turkish Yavuz Sultan Selim

It came down to a brief skirmish between the Goeben and the Evstafi. The Goeben was hit at least once, probably from Evstafis first salvo. This hit knocked out a port secondary gun and started an ammunition fire, which caused a magazine to be flooded. German accounts are rather vague as to the exact damage or losses but it does appear to have been of concern. After a brief action, Goeben altered course away and went to full speed. Again, German accounts are somewhat evasive, they imply that she lost sight of the Russians and was unable to find them again. It appears more likely that they were taken aback by the accurate Russian fire and avoided further combat. Evstafi took four hits but was not seriously damaged

Russia on the offensive

In December, the Russians launched operations against both the Bosphorus and Zonguldalk. Extensive minelaying took place off the former and they attempted to block the harbour of Zonguldalk with four old ships on 24th December. Things went wrong, one ship broke down, and the others became separated. Breslau was out at sea and learning of the raid, she intercepted the Russians. Two of the block ships were sunk and the others scuttled.

Goeben had led a lucky life so far but that was about to change. She was also out at sea and returning to the Bosphorus on 26th December, she hit two of the new mines. Damage was considerable and she spent three months undergoing repairs. A situation not helped by the absence of a suitable dry dock. To overcome this, engineers were sent from Germany. They built coffer dams around the damaged areas and then filled in the leaks with concrete. These held until permanent repairs were done after the war.

In March 1915, a Russian squadron set off to raid the north Turkish coast. Several merchant ships were sunk and various towns bombarded. This was quite a significant period as for the first time the Russians had one of their new submarines available and this was able to operate off the Bosphorus. More interestingly, it also saw two seaplane carriers in action. While relatively ineffectual as attack aircraft, the seaplanes provided a useful reconnaissance capacity. The Russians used seaplane carriers increasingly from then on. Not bad for one of the most underrated navies of the war!

In retaliation, the Germans and Turks launched a major raid on Russian shipping in April. It backfired as the old cruiser Medjidieh hit a mine off Odessa and was sunk. The Russians actually managed to salvage her and put her back into service in October as the Prut. Goeben raided the Crimean coast but achieved little and had to retreat before the combined Russian predreadnoughts.

At this stage, the British and French launched their operation against Gallipoli. Stavka felt there was little they could do to support this due to Russia’s limited naval capacity. In addition, they were not prepared to find any troops to carry out a simultaneous landing near the Bosphorus. Even so, throughout April and May 1915 the Russians raided the area around the Bosphorus in support of the Allied landings at Gallipoli.

Goeben came out again on 9th May to try to pick off isolated ships and nearly did so, on the 10th when attempting to catch two predreadnoughts, two seaplane carriers and some light ships engaged in bombardment operations. Fortunately, she was spotted by a screening cruiser and the Russians started to concentrate on their other two predreadnoughts. For a period, the latter faced the Goeben by themselves, giving the Goeben the upper hand. German gunnery however did not live up to its reputation; amazingly, she failed to score a single hit on the Russian ships, despite ideal conditions. With considerable skill, Ebergard managed to combine his four predreadnoughts. Goeben took two hits, possibly four, before fleeing.

Russia’s motley collection of predreadnought’s had already shown themselves prepared to face up Goeben and now were to be reinforced. In October the first of the eagerly awaited modern battleships came into service, followed three months later by the second. Each was a match for the Goeben, well armored and with heavier firepower. The latter's only advantage was her superior speed, which gave her the opportunity to avoid combat. The Russians were able to form a battle group around each of these ships and a third based on the predreadnoughts.

The shipping war

Sea transport in the Black Sea was important for the Turks due to the lack of road or rail links along the coast. Normal commercial shipping was extensive and sea transport was essential for moving troops and supplies to the Caucasus front. In particular, the port of Zonguldalk on the Black Sea coast supplied most of the coal for Constantinople. There was no major alternative, as at this stage, the survival of Serbia made it difficult to rail large amounts of material from Germany or Austria.

The Russians devoted much effort to raiding shipping along these routes. Such raids had a considerable impact on Turkey’s ability to wage war. There was little they could do about this as the Turkish navy was quite unsuited for escort duties. The only viable escorts were Goeben and Breslau. This created a difficult dilemma for the Germans as with such limited resources they could not afford to take risks. An illustration of this is the situation in July 1915. Breslau had hit a mine while going out to escort a convoy and was out of action for months. This left only Goeben, an old Turkish cruiser Hamidieh, and some torpedo boats to act as escorts.

To carry out the raids the Russians had started with four large, fast destroyers and now more were starting to enter service. These were able to raid along the coast with relative ease. Steadily the Turkish merchant fleet was worn away and the loss of coal in particular was a major blow to the Turkish economy. In a vicious circle, the Goeben had to restrict its operations due to coal shortages.

Convoy raiding was not entirely one sided. While Goeben and Breslau may have been under major handicaps occasionally, they were sent out on shipping raids or bombardments of Russian ports. Such operations however tended to be inconsequential affairs that achieved little except act as a moral boost.

Some relief came with the arrival in June 1915 of a few German U boats. Their presence had a significant effect on Russian operations. There were some transport losses which caused great concern. More significantly, it compelled the Russians to exercise excessive caution and cut back on operations by the predreadnoughts. It was the poor response to the U boats that contributed to Ebergards dismissal in July 1916. This was no help for the Turks as his replacement was the highly competent and even more aggressive Admiral Kolchak.

Kolchak launched a major minelaying campaign, which severely restricted the U boats access to the Black Seas. In time, they were lost through mines and accidents and the Russians activities were able to proceed unhindered. Generally, the U boats had bad luck and the Russian shipping losses were relatively minor compared to those the British suffered but as always, the psychological impact was far greater.

Again things were not entirely one sided as the Russian submarines were having a similar effect. Goeben narrowly avoided being torpedoed in November 1915. That incident made Souchon even more reluctant to risk her unless it was vital. An attitude which caused some tension between him and the Turkish leadership.

Russian convoy raids continued and were supplemented by a bombing raid on Zonguldalk. This was launched from a force of seaplane carriers on 6th Feb 1916 and managed to sink a large collier. The coal crisis and the effect on moral became so critical that Goeben spent more and more time devoted to acting as a convoy escort. On 8th January 1916, she set off after two destroyers which had sunk a collier. It must have been something of a shock to run into one of the new Russian dreadnoughts, the Imperatritsa Ekaterina (see above). For such a new ship, her gunnery was surprisingly good and she achieved a straddle at a range of 20,000 yards. Unable to challenge the far more powerful Russian ship, the Goeben fled undamaged.

By now, the Russians were actually running out of targets, having sunk most of the available ships. The Turks were compelled to start using small sailing craft. A network of spotting stations enabled these craft to head for sheltered harbours if Russian ships were spotted. While this helped, the raiders still sank large numbers. In many cases, the boats were run into shallow water at the first sign of trouble and sunk by their captains. Later they could be recovered.

The Turks also resorted to the few fast ships that could make the run between ports overnight. Eventually they were partially saved by the fall of Serbia, which enabled coal to be shipped in from Germany. From March 1916, Germany was forced to send a train load of coal every day to Constantinople but even this was inadequate.

Russian dominance

In the first half of 1916, the major focus for the Russian navy was supporting army operations on the Caucasus front. The Russians now had sufficient forces that they could deploy a sizeable force just to support land operations. While they had no major port in the area, they were able to build up Batum as a base for small ships.

In January 1916, the Rostislav and some light ships bombarded Turkish positions and eventually forced them to pull back several times. In a combined operation, they were covered by one of the battle groups and there were also destroyer raids between Trebizond and Batum.

For all the talk about the potential of amphibious operations during the war, it is ironic that the Russian achievements get so little attention. The Russians had a type of small coastal merchant vessel operating in the shallow waters of the Sea of Azoz which were readily adaptable to become an excellent landing ship. To complement these they also built a number of landing barges.

Using these new resources, they were able to use these to land a force of 2,100 men behind the Turkish lines in March 1916. Again, Rostislav and light ships provided gunfire support. The operation forced the Turks to pull back. Following up the Russians conducted another landing further down the coast and seized the small port of Rize. This was a well organised operation involving 22 transports. There was proper beach control, clearly marked channels swept for mines, aerial reconnaissance from the seaplane carriers, anti submarine patrols and anti submarine nets. Offshore there were screening forces, including two battle groups. Later 8,200 of these troops re-embarked and were shipped further down the coast.

It should be stressed that neither of these operations encountered much opposition, nevertheless they were well conducted and a fine example of the Russians ability to exploit naval superiority and mobility.

It is a measure of the desperate situation of the Turks, that the Goeben and Breslau were now pressed into service to act as fast transports to ship reinforcements to Trebizond. Later they did try some raids against Russian shipping but always had to be on their guard against the superior forces screening them. On one cruise in April 1916, Breslau delivered troops and munitions to Trebizond. She then set off on a raid, carrying out a bombardment and sinking two small transports. Then she ran into the Imperatritsa Ekaterina and her escorts. At a range of 18,000 yards, the battleship opened fire, achieving a straddle on her third salvo. Zig zagging at high speed Breslau managed to get out of range with only minor splinter damage.

During April, the Russians were able to use Rize to ship in major reinforcements from Novorossisk. The pressure was sufficient to force the Turks to abandon Trebizond. Russian troops seized the town and in May two, divisions were shipped there in a well managed operation.

Things start to go wrong

After mid 1916 a series of outside events influenced actions in the Black Sea. As a result, the Russians were not able to exploit the very substantial opportunities that their dominance had opened up. The first event was the entry of Rumania into the war on the Allies side in August 1916. Russian naval units were diverted to supporting them by raiding the Bulgarian coast and providing gunfire support to Rumanian land forces.

They suffered a major setback in October 1916 with the loss of Imperatritsa Maria. She was moored in Sevastopol when an explosion in the forward magazine wrecked her and she was scuttled at her mooring to prevent further explosions. There were the inevitable claims of sabotage but it was probably an accident. Although a bitter blow it did not seriously change the Russian dominance, merely reduced their capability. Another ship was being built and they made great efforts to ensure the safe arrival of all the turbines which had been shipped from Britain to Archangel, across Russia to the Sea of Azov and then across the Black Sea to the ship yard at Nikolaiev. Despite this, the third new battleship was only completed in 1917 after the Russian collapse.

The Russians were gearing up for a series of major amphibious operations in 1917. The strategic situation was not good however and the plans had to be scrapped, as the troops were needed elsewhere. The first Russian revolution in March 1917 bought little change initially and the fleet continued to operate, albeit at a lower level.

Operations against the Turkish coast continued. Mine laying and raiding continued to take a heavy toll on their shipping and coal shortages became a major problem again. In an attempt to relieve the problem, more German submarines arrived. These proved of little value, with two being lost to mines and the other two simply vanishing. For this, they only managed to sink four Russian transports.

In April 1917, the Russians carried out mine laying and a series of bombing attacks around Sinope in Rumania. The latter were launched from an expanded fleet of seaplane carriers. These should not be rated too highly, they were too weak to do much damage, and more harm was done through escorting destroyers conducting shore bombardment. Even so, they demonstrated the willingness of the navy to adopt new techniques.

The last clash between German and Russian forces came June 1917. The Breslau was sent to lay mines off the Danube. She was intercepted by Svobodnaya Rossiya but managed to flee to safety. Breslau had a narrow escape as even at that stage, the Russians were still aggressive and their gunnery was good.

The war winds down

After June, however the morale and discipline started to collapse. It is a measure of the leadership of Ebergard and Kolchak that the sailors were among the last to give way to the revolution and the fleet stayed semi active while most other areas were falling apart. As a result, the Russian fleet continued to dominate the Black Sea. They still conducted some minor operations up until November. Goeben and Breslau could still only venture out for the occasional raid. To an extent, they were limited by the lack of decent coal.

The tragedy was that the final Russian collapse came just in time to save the Turks. The economy was crumbling under the pressure of the blockade and a series of defeats on land.

From late 1917, the Germans steadily occupied Russia and by May 1918, they had entered Sevastopol. The best of the Russian ships fled to other ports and the Germans were left with some of the older ships including two worn out predreadnoughts. The situation was fluid with changing and differing attitudes from all parties.

Eventually in June 1918 after great pressure from the Germans, some of the newer Russian ships, including the Volya, were sailed back to Sevastopol. The rest were scuttled, including the Svobodnaya Rossiya and most of their modern destroyers. The Germans never had the chance to use the captured ships; apart from anything else, they didn't have the crews to man them. It was the end of naval activity and little happened for the rest of the war.


Given the constraints on them, particularly the negative, defensive approach of Stavka, it would have been easy to adopt a defensive posture. This could have allowed Goeben to dominate the area. The Germans had a brilliant leader in Souchon but he simply lacked the resources to do much. Fortunately, for the Russians they had leaders who were his match. The key, as so often, was determined, aggressive leadership. Ebergard and Kolchak were prepared to seize the initiative but not be reckless.

Overall, the Russian navy performed well in one of the most active naval fronts of the war. The destroyers conducted a relentless and devastating campaign of raiding. Their achievements were limited more by the lack of targets than resources. This was backed up by an aggressive mine laying program. It was the Turkish shipping that was crippled and the Goeben that was forced to respond to the Russian initiative.


A Naval History of World War I, P G Halpern, University College London, London, 1994. Originally published by United States Naval Institute

North of Gallipoli, G Nekrasov, East European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, New York, 1992

Decline & Fall of the Ottoman Empire, A. Palmer

John Murray (Publishers) Ltd, London, 1993

History of the First World War, various authors

BPC Publishing Ltd, London for Purnell, 1966?

All the Worlds Fighting Ships, R Gardiner, Volumes 1860-1905 and 1905-1922, Conway Maritime Press

Action off Cape Sarych, Steve McLaughlin

Biographies of Russian Naval Leaders, Steve McLaughlin

Unpublished articles

The Ship that Changed the World, D van der Vat

Baltic Assignment, Michael Wilson



  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.