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.