The Black Sea Fleet


Early one May morning in 1771 the ensign of Vice-Admiral Alexey Senyavin was hoisted over the 16-gun ship of the line Khotin lying in harbour at Taganrog. The southern spring promised more difficult fighting between the Turks and Russia's reinforced Azov flotilla. The flotilla was thoroughly prepared with 400 guns and over 3,000 crewmen aboard nineteen ships. The vessels had been constructed under the direct supervision of Admiral Senyavin, and ten of them incorporated important new military features. Each of the ten special craft was armed with fourteen to sixteen of the most powerful cannon of the day; each had been designed for sailing with lighter draught in the water. This latter improvement enabled Russian warships to sail equally well along the River Don, in the shallow Sea of Azov, and on the open sea.

In early summer this formidable flotilla caught the Turkish fleet off guard, causing the Turkish ships to leave the Kerch Strait without firing a shot. The Russian army was able to reach the Crimea, suffering no losses. On 5 August Captain First-rank Yakov Sukhotin set sail with four Russian vessels for their first voyage across the Black Sea.

In May-June of 1773 the light-draught vessels of Sukhotin successfully attacked Turkish transport vessels three times. Russian seamen burnt nine transport ships and took one of them captive. The Turks were now unable to re-supply their garrisons by sea. On 23 June the vessels Koron and Taganrog, under Commander Johann Heinrich Kingsbergen, encountered two enemy ships of the line, a frigate and a shebeka off Balaklava, near the southern Crimean coast. The Turks possessed more firepower than the Russians: 164 guns against 32. Nevertheless, Captain Kingsbergen attacked the enemy in a fight which lasted for six hours. During the battle the Turks attempted to board the Russian ships; their attacks were repulsed, and the Turks hastily retreated. Thirty were killed or wounded among the crews of the Taganrog and Koron.

On 23 August, two months later, Captain Kingsbergen's unit, consisting of three ships of the line, a frigate and two smaller vessels, routed an eighteen-pendant Turkish squadron near the fortress of Sudjuk Kale. In early September Vice-Admiral Senyavin, joining Kingsbergen's flotilla, appeared off Sudjuk Kale and, without a fight, forced the Turks, who had only five ships of the line, to retreat to the coast of Anatolia.

The following year the Turks, having assembled their forces to break through to the Sea of Azov, were confronted by Senyavin's flotilla. Numerical superiority in vessels and guns did not help the Turkish seamen, and after heavy defeats on land and sea the Turks surrendered. On 10 July the war ended with the signing of the Kuchuk-Kaynardji Peace Treaty. The Turks gave up the towns of Taganrog, Kerch and Enikale, as well as the coast between the Dnieper and Bug Rivers and the fortress at Kinburn. The Crimea and Kuban were declared independent of Turkey, and Russian cargo vessels could now sail freely in the Black Sea with the right to pass through the Bosporus into the Mediterranean. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was obliged to pay Russia a war indemnity of 4.5 million roubles. Russia could not have defeated the Ottoman Empire without its navy. Her fleet had blockaded the sea routes from Constantinople to the ports of the Mediterranean and defended the Azov and Crimean coasts. The Russian government now understood the importance of maintaining a strong navy. In December of 1775 Catherine II ordered the construction of twenty additional ships of the line in the Dnieper Firth. The project made no progress, however, until the energetic General-Governor of Novorossisk, Prince Grigory Potemkin, took charge. In 1778 he founded Herson, a new port town on the Dnieper. The building of the port and ships was overseen by General-Zechmeister Ivan Gannibal and shipwright Ivan Afanasyev. Already by the end of that year seven large ships and four prams were under construction. In 1779 construction began on the St. Catherine.

In 1783, after the Crimea had been annexed by Russia, Fedot Klokachev's squadron was the first to winter in the Akhtiar Bight. The officers were sufficiently pleased with the location, and in May it was decided to build a port and a town on the shores of the bight. Thus the city of Sevastopol was founded.

Prince Potemkin commissioned Rear-Admiral Tomas Mekenzi to build up the new port, and Sevastopol soon became the principal Russian naval base on the Black Sea. Barracks and a marine depot were erected on the shores of the bay along with storehouses and a shipyard for the repair and construction of ships. In effect, both the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its home port were founded simultaneously.

Within two years the Black Sea Admiralty Department was established and put under the command of Prince Potemkin. That same year, the Black Sea Fleet was authorized to have twelve ships of the line, twenty frigates and a 13,500 man complement.

By creating and utilizing the Black Sea Fleet, Empress Catherine II effectively joined the Crimean Peninsula to Russia along with most of the coastal territory surrounding the Black Sea. The Black Sea Fleet developed quickly and, through its victories, returned to Russia the trade route "from the Vikings to the Greeks," the waterways that, from earliest times, had belonged to Russia.