Red Sailors, Part Two

The story began in Part One.

In 1906, Britain launched the battleship Dreadnought: bigger, faster and far more powerful than any previous heavy warship. Suddenly every battleship afloat had been rendered obsolete. Russian naval leaders saw this development as a blessing for their gutted fleet. Amid heavy opposition in the new Duma (Parliament), four dreadnoughts were ordered for the Baltic Fleet. Another set of four similar ships for the Black Sea Fleet followed after Turkey ordered two battleships from British shipyards.

The new Russian battleships were based on a poor Italian design made worse by Russian improvements. They may have brought Russia international prestige, but their deep draught made them nearly useless in the shallow Baltic. The vast amounts spent on then would look almost criminal a few years later when Russian soldiers marched into battle without rifles or ammunition.

The four dreadnoughts and two older ships completed after the Russo-Japanese War, Andrei Pervosvanny and Imperator Pavel I, were greatly modified as result of war experience. Unarmored areas had suffered terribly at the battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima so the new ships were completely armored - without portholes or scuttles in the sides. In the days before air conditioning, this meant that the hot, unventilated crew quarters stank miserably and life aboard ship was highly unsanitary.

The dreadnoughts, designed from the keel up with complete armor in mind, had some ventilation through the decks. But the two older ships quickly gained a reputation as the “convict ships” and “Sailors’ Sakhalin” because of poor living conditions.

Imperator Pavel I, the Sailors’ Sakhalin.

The 1912 program included many modern types of warship. The Novik-class destroyers were easily the most powerful in the world, and several dozen were begun for the Baltic Fleet, Hard-won experience in the Russo-Japanese War created a sharp focus on mine warfare, with several older ships dedicated to mine warfare training and new mine schools set up on land. Light cruisers of 7,000 tons, a type copied by other nations after World War One, were also ordered, along with two fast minelaying cruisers. The Russians also designed the world's first minelaying submarine.

Russian shipyards were unable to handle all the work so the minelaying cruisers were ordered in Germany. Still incomplete when war broke out in 1914, they were seized by the Germans and the High Seas Fleet found them very useful. Russian factories also proved unable to build the sophisticated turbines for the new Navarln-class battle cruisers, and the machinery was ordered in Germany. Incredibly, work continued on the ships after war broke out and crews were organized - for ships that could never see service as long as Russia was at war with Germany.

After the outbreak of war, the Baltic Fleet started an aggressive series of minelaying operations. Cruiser raids were launched against the ore route leading from the Swedish iron mines at the far northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia to German ports, and Russian ships clashed several times with German cruisers. Once the dreadnoughts became fully operational they made just one sortie into the Baltic, steaming to a point just north of the Swedish island of Gotland to cover a mining operation. No enemy ships were encountered but the battleships never again ventured so far from port. Some cruisers and one or two of the older battleships usually patrolled Moon Sound after the German advance into Courland.

The fleet commander, Admiral Nicholas von Essen, was an aggressive, energetic officer and his destroyer flotilla commander, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, was also very capable. But the fleet was made subject to Army command, greatly hampering its effectiveness.

The Germans used mostly older battleships and armored cruisers in the Baltic. On 26 August 1914 one of the few modern German ships assigned to the theater, the light cruiser Magdeburg, ran aground on the island of Odensholm. Russian sailors captured the wreck and found the German naval codebook aboard, and divers checking the possibility of salvaging the ship for Russian service found another copy on the body of a drowned German petty officer, confirming its authenticity. The capture was probably the top intelligence coup of the war and helped all the Allied fleets anticipate German naval movements throughout the war.

Russian leadership in the Baltic was sorely lacking after Essen died, probably from nervous exhaustion, in early 1915. Essen had used the dreadnought Sevastopol as his flagship, a practice common in other fleets of the time. His successor, Admiral V.A. Kanin, a career desk officer, decided he needed better quarters and a larger staff and had the liner Krechet fitted out as a special command ship. As the war dragged on, sailors grew to resent the admiral's pleasure barge and the fleet staff became isolated from the serving sailors and officers.

Ships in the Gulf of Finland are normally iced in for five months of the year. Russia controlled an ice-free port at Libau in western Lithuania and invested considerable sums in building a naval base there, but the Germans overran Libau very early in the war. In the frozen harbors at Helsinki, Reval and Kronstadt, Russian officers insisted on endless cleaning details, busywork and mindless drills. Discontent grew with each passing winter. Sailors were forbidden to eat in restaurants, and Kronstadt's city park sported the sign "Dogs and sailors forbidden."

The Black Sea Fleet was far more active, attempting to counter the German battle cruiser Goeben. The only Turkish coal source was at Zonguldak on the Black Sea coast, and Constantinople - location of almost all of Turkey's war industry - relied on coastal shipping traffic to bring this coal to the capital, there being no railroad. The Russians launched numerous attacks against this coastal traffic, sinking many small sailing ships and even conducting successful amphibious operations on the Caucasian front. Perhaps more importantly, Turkish troops and supplies couldn't take the coastal route to reinforce their Caucasian armies, and the Russians had great success in this theater. Several battles between Goeben and the Black Sea Fleet’s battleships had little result.

The Arctic squadron assisted in covering Allied convoys bearing military materiel to Murmansk and Archangel, but could not be reinforced from the Black Sea or the Baltic. A Russian mission to Japan ln search of modern warships yielded only the return of several vessels captured in 1905.

The first sign of unrest in the fleet came in October 1915, when a mutiny broke out aboard the dreadnought Gangut over food. The crew had just finished coaling the ship - backbreaking work in the best of conditions - and expected the traditional meat dinner afterwards. When it wasn't forthcoming, they protested so furiously that the first officer ordered the offending gruel tossed overboard into HeIsinki harbor.

The result was a thorough hunt for revolutionaries by agents of the Okhrana, the Tsarist secret police, and a newly-formed Bolshevik organization was quickly broken. A second attempt the next year was broken up just as easily. No fleet-wide organization would exist until the fleet commander authorized one in April 1917.

A new fleet commander, Admiral Adrian Nepenin, took over in September 1916. He made few friends when he announced almost immediately that had he been in command he would have ended the Gangut mutiny by torpedoing the battleship.

Despite the legendary loyalty of Nagorny the sailor, the Tsarevitch's bodyguard/nurse, the Tsar was not very popular among the fleet. Even so, the Baltic Fleet had little role in the February Revolution. Most officers were apolitical, and while sailors provided a few small detachments of foot soldiers no leaders came from the fleet.

While revolution gripped Petrograd, the cruiser Aurora, one of the survivors of Tsushima, lay in the city's Franco-Russian shipyard undergoing rebuilding and modernization. Her crew, working alongside shipyard workers, had become thoroughly radicalized. When the cruiser's captain and first officer attempted to rig machine guns to fire on the workers, the sailors mutinied and together with the workers murdered both men.

The Kronstadt sailors mutinied as soon as word of the revolution arrived. The unrest started with the mine warfare school and quickly spread to other training detachments. The commander of the base, Admiral Robert Viren, was bayonetted in the main square by several sailors from disciplinary battalions. As he died, a berserk woman, possibly his wife or daughter, came storming out of his home with a rifle and managed to kill two of the sailors before she was given the same treatment. Meanwhile, about two dozen other senior officers were also murdered.

Nepenin was one of the commanders who asked the Tsar to abdicate and he was the first military leader to acknowledge the Provisional Government's authority. The ships frozen in at Helsinki harbor were quiet at first, but their crews soon became angry over Nepenin's delay in announcing the Tsar’s abdication.

On 3 March a mutiny broke out on the battleship Andrei Pervosvanny. Several officers, including the squadron commander, were killed. The crew of her sister ship Imperator Pavel I, led by newly-arrived Bolshevik agitator Nikolai Khovrin, quickly joined in. Sailors rushed about the ice, urging the crews of other ships to join the mutiny and overwhelming the crews and officers of smaller vessels. About 40 officers and 12 petty officers were killed, mostly on the small ships. A revolutionary committee set up on Petropavlovsk urged moderation.

Pavel I and Andrei Pervosvanny locked in the ice at Helsinki.

On the harbor ice a mass meeting of sailors tried to sing the Marseillaise, but broke up when the mutineers realized that no one knew the words. Nepenin met with delegates from the ship committees, who demanded the right to smoke ln the street and to wear galoshes. The admiral acquiesced, and then resigned his command. A sailor shot and killed him soon afterwards.

The fleet units at Reval and other bases entered the revolutionary era peacefully. These were smaller, more active ships like cruisers, destroyers and submarines. Officers and men on these ships shared the same conditions and dangers. The Helsinki and Kronstadt units were the least active in the fleet.

The story continues in Part Three.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold can swim but is not a revolutionary.