The Crimean War’s White Sea Theatre, 1854

This article tells about British naval operations in the White Sea in 1854. The Crimean War (1854 – 56) is most remembered for images of the charge of Britain’s Light Brigade at Balaclava, the privations suffered by the ill-equipped besiegers of Sevastopol through a deadly winter and the achievements of Florence Nightingale, all episodes that took place in the Crimea itself. Earlier blogs have however pointed out that lesser-known operations took place in the Baltic and on the Kamchatka peninsula on Russia’s Northern Pacific coast. (Click here to read about the latter).  The least-known operations of all took place however on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the White Sea and in the Kola Inlet. Both these locations were to play roles in both World Wars as landing points for aid sent by the Western Allies to Russia, most notably via the epic Arctic Convoys of WW2. They were also to provide bases for ineffectual British support of White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.

British and Dutch shipping had been accessing Russia for trade by this area since the late sixteenth century – indeed the Dutch navigator Willem Barents (1550 – 1597) had given his name to the sea north of which forms part of the Arctic Ocean.  Arkhangelsk, a major city at the southern end of the White Sea had remained a major trading port ever since.  Murmansk, at the head of the Kola inlet further to the west, also had port facilities, though minor.

When Britain and France entered the war in early 1854 to support the Turks, who had already been fighting the Russians for several months, the decision was taken to send a small Royal Navy squadron to harry Russian presence in these northern waters by attacking shipping and forts. The Russian Navy had no significant presence in the area and weather conditions in winter made it advisable to confine operations to the summer months.

Erasmus Ommanney

The British squadron that was sent was under the overall command of Captain Erasmus Ommanney (1814 – 1904). He had been present at the Battle of Navarino when he was thirteen years old – naval careers began early in those days! He had previous experience in high latitudes as he had been second-in-command of the expedition sent in 1850 to search for Sir John Franklin and his ships Erebus and Terror which had disappeared during an effort to find the North-West Passage. It was Ommanney who discovered “fragments of stores and ragged clothing and the remains of an encampment on Beechey Island ” though no further trace could be found. Ommanney awarded the Arctic Medal for this and he was to spend of his later years in Arctic-related scientific work, for which he was knighted. He rose to the rank of vice-admiral.

Ommanney’s squadron consisted of the 26-gun frigate HMS Eurydice and two near-identical steam sloops, HMS Miranda and HMS Brisk, carrying 15 and 16 guns respectively. The 910-ton, 140-foot Eurydice carried sail only and though she entered service in 1843 she was little different to frigates of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War eras. Her ultimate fate was to be a tragic one (a separate blog will deal with this in the future), but at the time of the White Sea expedition that still lay some three decades in the future. All her guns were truck-mounted 32-pounder muzzle loaders, no different to those in service at Trafalgar.

HMS Miranda (on right) later seen in service in New Zealand waters

Though commissioned only a few years later, the Miranda and the Brisk, though also wooden-hulled, represented major technological advance. Improved versions of HMS Rattler, the first screw-driven warship in Royal Navy service, these two 1,523-ton, 196- foot vessels could make just over 10 knots maximum under steam power. This advantage was however offset by the fact that, like Eurydice, they were still armed only with 32-pounders on the broadside.

The White Sea – thanks to Google Earth

The small force arrived off the north Russian coast in July 1854 and the campaign started by advancing towards the southern end of the White Sea. Here, on a small archipelago called the Solovetsky Islands was something of a curiosity – a Russian fortress that was also a monastery. Much of this massive construction dated from the 16th century and then and in the early 17th century, it had withstood attacks by the Livonian Order (a branch of the Teutonic Knights) and by the Swedes. It is hard at this remove to understand what was to gain by attacking this fortress. (In other blogs I have approvingly quoted Nelson’s dictum that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”).

Even had Ommanney destroyed this fortress-monastery  – in itself an impossibility given the limited forces at his disposal – the strategic value would have been essentially zero. In the event the bombardment lasted two days – 6th and 7th July. It achieved nothing and had the fort been better armed the British ships might have stood a good chance of being destroyed themselves. Two weeks later, on July 23rd, Miranda and Brisk, operating close inshore, bombarded the small town of Novitska.

Solovetsky Fortress-Monastery  in 2009 (courtesy of Wikipedia entry)

From Russian pamphlet showing bombardment of Solovetsky Fortress

The only other significant action was further west, in the Kola inlet. Miranda sailed southwards – that is upriver – towards the settlement of Kola, just south Murmansk. Here steam propulsion was a major advantage since the thirty miles distance to be covered was against a strong current and in waters sometimes so narrow that there was scarcely room to swing the ship.

                 Kola Inlet today

Miranda anchored off Kola on August 23rd and under a flag of truce a demand was made that the fort there, its, garrison and all government property be surrendered.  The crew remained at their stations through the night and when no answer was returned in the morning, the flag of truce was hauled down, and the Miranda, getting within 250 yards of the shore battery, opened a fire of grape and canister. This suppressed opposition enough to allow a landing party of bluejackets and marines to storm ashore. They succeeded in dislodging the enemy from the batteries and in capturing the guns. A hot fire was opened on them from the towers of a nearby monastery but its defenders were also driven out.  Government stores and buildings were set on fire and completely consumed. Miranda then dropped downriver again.

That was the end of the campaign and the squadron returned to Britain. Miranda proceeded thereafter to the Black Sea to support the main Allied effort. Captain Edmund Moubray Lyons (1819 -1855), who had manoeuvred her up the Kola Inlet with considerable skill, died of wounds in June 1855. Miranda herself had an active career thereafter, mainly in Australian and New Zealand waters, and was broken up in 1869. Brisk was to have a similarly active career, most notably including service on the West Africa Anti-Slavery Patrol. She survived to  1870. The Eurydice, by then an anachronism, was to come to a tragic end in 1878 – which will be the subject of a later blog.

And the final verdict on the operations in the White Sea in 1854? It is easy to be critical with the advantage of hindsight, but even so one can only question why lives – both British and Russian – should ever have been squandered in such a pointless exercise. The same applies to the operation in the Northern Pacific. What, in either case, was the strategic value?

Britannia’s Mission

The seventh Dawlish Chronicle was published on November 30th in paperback and Kindle, and is available to subscribers to Kindle Unlimited and Prime at no extra charge

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1883: The slave trade flourishes in the Indian Ocean, a profitable trail of death and misery leading from ravaged African villages to the insatiable markets of Arabia. Britain is committed to its suppression but now there is pressure for more vigorous action . . .

Two Arab sultanates on the East African coast control access to the interior. Britain is reluctant to occupy them but cannot afford to let any other European power do so either. But now the recently-established German Empire is showing interest in colonial expansion . . .

With instructions that can be disowned in case of failure, Captain Nicholas Dawlish must plunge into this imbroglio to defend British interests. He’ll be supported by the crews of his cruiser HMS Leonidas, and a smaller warship. But it’s not going to be so straightforward . . .

Getting his fighting force up a shallow, fever-ridden river to the mission is only the beginning for Dawlish. Atrocities lie ahead, battles on land and in swamp also, and strange alliances must be made.

And the ultimate arbiters may be the guns of HMS Leonidas and those of her counterpart from the Imperial German Navy.

In Britannia’s Mission Nicholas Dawlish faces cunning, greed and limitless cruelty. Success will be elusive . . .  and perhaps impossible.

Click here for an 8-minute video in which Antoine Vanner talks about Britannia’s Mission

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