Russia History Romanov War Battle of Hangö (1714)

Battle of Hangö (1714)

On 24 July 1714, Peter the Great joined the Russian naval forces anchored under the command of Admiral Fyodor Apraxin at the village of Tvärminne in the Finnish skerries, six miles east of Cape Hangö (Swedish: Hangö udd; Finnish: Hankoniemi). Although the Russians had large forces – ninety-nine galleys and half-galleys with a landing force of 15,000 men – their artillery was inferior (less than two hundred guns, mostly of small calibres). The gulf had only one narrow exit to the sea, where a large Swedish fleet of thirty-eight ships with 1,197 guns, not counting mortars, was waiting on the horizon.

Fearing being shut up in the gulf, Peter and Apraxin decided to secretly split the Russian fleet and move several dozen light galleys to nearby Riilahti Bay, passing through the narrowest part of Hangö Peninsula – “only 1,170 Russian fathoms ... so that the enemy could not follow.” If successful, this would give them access to the sea, as all exits from Riilahti Bay were free. Their plan, however, was thwarted by the local Finnish population: “Sunday 25 July ... Four peasants appeared on board the vessel during the daytime watch with the news that the enemy was intending to transfer its galleys through the crossing at Tvärminne ... to this end, the enemy has been lighting forest fires for some time.”

The Russians had been setting fire to the forest on the peninsula since the beginning of July, much to the anger of the indigenous Finnish population. The aim was to decrease visibility on the sea; the wind was blowing in the direction of the Swedes and carried the smoke out to sea. Admiral Gustaf Wattrang of Sweden noted the effect in his naval journal: “Tuesday 6 July. Wind all day north-north-east and more eastern with thick smoke. Due to large fires lit on the land by the enemy, we are constantly engulfed by ashes and smoke ... Thursday 8 July. Wind north-east with thick smoke from the shore.”

The constant smokescreens meant that the Swedes could not make out what the Russians were doing. Peter and Apraxin, however, had overlooked the effect on the local inhabitants, who regarded the Russians as occupiers and the Swedes as protectors. The Finns therefore informed the Swedes of the Russian movements.

The Swedes decided to dispatch two squadrons. A large force under the command of Vice Admiral Erik Johan Lillie was sent to block the exit to the Gulf of Tvärminne. A smaller squadron commanded by the Swedish watch-at-night Nils Ehrenschiöld was dispatched to cut off the exit to Riilahti Bay. The Russians were trapped and their only chance of escape was to attempt to blast their way through the Swedish positions.

Admiral Wattrang’s journal entry for Monday 26 July reports “complete calm.” The Swedish fleet was completely paralysed and this was exploited by the Russian galleys. Avoiding shallow water, the large Swedish vessels were anchored quite far off shore. But the Russian galleys had shallow draughts and were able to row along the shoreline, out of reach of the Swedish artillery. The first group of twenty Russian galleys began to make its way along the shore in single file. Realising what was happening, the Swedes lowered small boats into the water, attempting to tow their ships under oar and fire on the Russian galleys, thus blocking their path. The Swedish oarsmen, however, were not able to draw their ships close enough.

Seeing that the plan had worked, Peter ordered another fifteen Russian vessels to follow suite. Within sight of the Swedish forces, the vanguard of thirty-five galleys under Peter’s command avoided the trap, skirted Cape Hangö and escaped from the Swedes. It was now the turn of the main body of Russian ships. Still hoping to block their exit, Admiral Wattrang decided to bring the Swedish forces together. He signalled to Vice Admiral Lillie to return and to assume a flotilla formation: “Owing to the calm, however, he was unable to approach ... There was no wind the whole night, and he could not even come close.”

The Russians had gained the upper hand. They had retained complete mobility and with their advantage in numbers could now threaten the separated and immobile Swedes: “Tuesday 27 July. Dead calm and fog. We again saw a large number of galleys, numbering about sixty, near the shoreline. They attempted to go along the shore past our ships ... as a dead calm again held sway ... even though our ships came quite close to them and fired our cannons at them, this mass of galleys also managed to get past us. Only one galley was raked with fire and fell to us ... This calm continued all day.”

The Russians made good use of the opportunity of escape, even though this meant running the gauntlet of the Swedish cannons and passing perilously close to the shoreline: “With God’s help, only one galley ran aground and was taken by the enemy. All other ships and men escaped without harm, even though the entire enemy fleet fired at us with such intensity that one captain had his leg shot off.”

By midday on 27 July, the entire Russian fleet had assembled to the west of the peninsula. Ehrenschiöld’s small squadron, however, lay ahead in battle formation. As long as Ehrenschiöld remained in Riilahti Bay, Peter and Apraxin had no freedom of manoeuvre in the Finnish skerries. Arranging their vanguard of galleys in battle formation, the Russians cut off Ehrenschiöld’s exit to the sea and sent the Swedes an offer of surrender.

Bearing in mind the Russian superiority in ships and men, this offer to surrender made sense. Ehrenschiöld had one frigate, six galleys, two skerry boats and 940 men with 116 guns against 95 Russian galleys and almost 15,000 men with 190 guns. With a favourable wind, Ehrenschiöld could still hope to force his way through the mass of Russian galleys on his flagship. In conditions of dead calm, however, there was no hope of doing so. An immobilised Russian gallery – not run aground or knocked out of action – had found itself in a similar situation a few hours earlier and had wisely decided to surrender to the Swedes. Ehrenschiöld refused the Russian offer and battle commenced.

Admiral Wattrang recorded: “After luncheon, heavy firing was heard from the shore.” This was Peter the Great and General Adam Veyde attacking Ehrenschiöld’s squadron with an advance force of thirty galleys, five thousand men and sixty guns: “The attack began after two o’clock in the afternoon and continued for two hours. Although we had incomparably inferior artillery and the Swedes fought bitterly, we took their galleys, one by one, followed by the frigate. They defended themselves valiantly ... during boarding, the cannon fire was so fierce that several soldiers were blown to pieces by the enemy cannons, not only from the ball and grapeshot, but also from the powder.” In order to take the Swedish vessels, the Russian boarders had to throw themselves directly into the line of Swedish cannon fire. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, with a total of one thousand men killed and injured. Almost six hundred Swedes were taken prisoner.

The capture of the Swedish squadron gave Peter I and Apraxin complete freedom of manoeuvre. When the first wind sprung up, Wattrang’s fleet abandoned Finland and retreated west to defend the Swedish skerries. Apraxin’s fleet concentrated its attention on Finland; taking several galleys as a convoy, Peter led the Swedish prisoners in triumph back to St Petersburg.

The squadron that Peter the Great led from Cape Hangö back to St Petersburg fell into a heavy storm, before it reached Kotlin island in the Gulf of Finland. The storm raged for two days and nights (31 August/1 September 1714) and the ships suffered serious damage. A wave crashed against Peter’s ship with such force that the bowsprit was broken. During the night, the despairing crew prepared to cut down the masts. But the tsar was convinced that land was near and that there was nothing to fear.

To convince his fellow crewmen, Peter ordered a launch to be lowered into the sea. Although the horrified sailors begged the tsar not to risk certain death, he got into the boat with some other oarsmen, took the helm and rowed through two miles of choppy sea in pitch darkness. Reaching one of the Birch Islands, Peter and the other sailors lit a fire, so that those at sea could see that land was close. A couple of days later, battered but without losses, the squadron arrived at Kronslot on Kotlin island, where Prince Alexander Menshikov and other officials were waiting with congratulations.

On 9 September 1714, Peter the Great and General Adam Veyde led the squadron of Russian and captured Swedish ships up the River Neva. To the incessant din of artillery salutes from the ships and the Admiralty and Peter and Paul Fortress, the Swedish vessels and their convoy of Russian galleys approached the wharf at Trinity Square. The Russian guards regiments and their commanders jumped ashore and marched in ceremony through triumphal gates, leading the injured Nils Ehrenschiöld and the other captured officers of the Swedish Royal Navy.

After the victory parade, Peter I and General Veyde were received at the nearby Senate building, which had gathered in session in their honour. After making a ceremonial report of their naval victory to Prince Fyodor Romodanovsky, head of the Senate, the two men were decorated. Peter was promoted to the rank of vice admiral, while General Veyde was awarded the Order of St Andrew.

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