Saturday, 21 May 2011

Petropavlovsk 1854 - or how not to conduct amphibious operations


Russia had been eyeing the Pacific, and particularly Britain's role in it for a while. General Nikolai Muraviev, the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, in particular was preoccupied with this idea, and was pushing a Russo-American alliance against this threat. He transferred 1000 men and artillery to the Pacific coast, and a third of this went to the tiny village of Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula.

Formerly a whaling station with a garrison of 50, Petropavlovsk how had over 300, as well as stores for the Russian fleet. The men were immediately put to work fortifying the post against naval attack. Unfortunately, the British did not know this.

Petropavlovsk in 1856

The British commander in the Pacific, Rear Admiral Price, had his own worries. The British were pretty sure they knew what the Russian tactics would be - use their frigates to sink shipping and attack isolated bases, especially Australia. It was highly unlikely that they would stand and fight against the larger and more numerous Royal navy, they didn't need to. It being next to impossible to find a single ship in the vastness of the Pacific that left their bases - either American ports on the West coast, clearly impossible to attack, or new bases being developed on the Siberian coast, such as Petropavlovsk.

Consequently, Price gathered together an Anglo-French task force;
HMS President - a 52 gun frigate, and flagship of the Pacific Station
HMS Pique - a 36 gun frigate
HMS Virago a tiny paddle wheel sloop with 6 guns. The Virago was, crucially, the only steam powered ship in the fleet
Forte - 60 guns, the French flag ship
Eurydice - 22 guns
Obligado - 18 guns

A further three vessels were sent elsewhere, the Tricomalee along the Siberian coast and the Amphritite and Artenise to California when Price received new that American privateers were being prepared to assist the Russians.

The fleet sailed first to Hawaii, then independent, as a show of force against any American designs in the area, and then sailed for Siberia, where they arrived on 29th August 1854. They did indeed find the remains of the Russian fleet, three ships already having been lost to bad weather. Of these, only one, the Aurora was a proper warship, of 44 guns, the other, the Dvina, was more a transport, though she had crucially supplied 283 soldiers to the garrison. It was in soldiers and guns, not ships, that the Russians trusted.

The town was situated on the shore of Avatcha bay, and protected from the Pacific by a long narrow peninsula on the west, and a sand bank on the east. Vessels passing between these entered the inner harbour, where the Aurora and Dvina were moored, effectively protected from cannon fire below their water line. The main defences were a 5 gun battery at the tip of the peninsula (battery 1), an 11 gun battery on the opposite shore (battery 2) and a 3 gun battery further along the peninsula (battery 3). Including the ships and other batteries, about 52 guns, and 800 men, compared to 190 guns and about 8,000 men in the Anglo-French ships, at first sight, a fairly easy task. Appearances can be deceptive, and there were deep flaws in the allied fleet.

Firstly, Price was deeply unsuited for the task. Although experiences he had already caused several delays and let opportunities to attack Russian shipping slip by, as well as failing to impose his authority on the dual nationality fleet - admittedly a difficult task. On the day after arrival he shot himself.

HMS Virago

Command now passed to the French commander, Fevrier- Despoint. He now attempted to use the guns of the fleet to silence batteries 1,2 and 3 protecting the harbour. It was then that the 2nd weakness of the fleet became apparent - they effectively only had one ship. In the calm windless conditions the only ship that could actually move was the tiny Virago, everything else was just a gun platform. According the Virago placed the President, Forte and Pique in front of the harbour mouth, to bombard batteries 1 and 2, and then moved over to battery 3, where she landed marines and sailors to capture the guns. This they did, only to be driven away by 200 Russian sailors from the Aurora, under the command of two midshipmen, Miknailov and Fesun. The British re-embarked on the Virago, who gave covering fire from her guns. Breezes in the afternoon allowed the President and Forte to edge nearer to battery 2, and destroy it, but then the fleet withdrew and licked their wounds.

The 2nd assault

There followed 3 days of squabbling amongst the allied officers. Fevrier- Despoint was for withdraw, abandoning the attack, and the senior British officer, Nicholson of the Pique, was reluctant to accept the responsibility of command. Finally however Nicholson was forced to point or that withdraw would damage British and French prestige in the whole Pacific, and Fevrier- Despoint agreed to another attack. This one though would be on the flanks.

The plan was to attack on the western flank, English sailors and marines to pass to the left of Nikolski hill using the road there, and clear the way to the town, whilst simultaneously more marines, assisted by French sailors, climbed the hill on the right. Consequently on 4th September a strange raft of ships steamed slowly along the peninsula. In the middle was, yet again, the Virago, with the Forte on her shore side, landing boats for 700 men on the seaward side, and the President in tow. As they neared the shore batteries opened up damaging the rigging of the President and Forte, but batteries 3 and 7 were silenced, allowing troops to storm ashore.

It was a disaster, there had been no special training or practice for this type of mission, and it was terribly organised. Instead of forming up on the beach and following the road into town, the left hand force split, wit some attacking up Nikolski hill, "amongst tangle and thick brushwood, in which it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. . . . In severe and random firing there is little doubt that many French- men and English met their deaths without Russian interference". Those seamen who did attack down the road ran into battery 6 in the town, firing grapeshot down the gorge, and they were insufficient to carry the position.

On the right the Marines were cut down by Russian troops on the ridge above. Captain Parker of the marines was killed, his subalterns wounded and the men started to fall back, and then rout. The guns of the Forte, Virago and Obligado covered their retreat to the boats, but it was clearly a major defeat. The British had 209 dead or wounded out of 700, the Russians only about 15 out of 300.

Given the casualties, and the approaching winter, the squadron had to withdraw. As they were leaving two sails were sighted on the horizon and the President and virago gave chase, capturing as a token consolation the Anadis, a supply schooner, and the Sitka, a Russian American company bound for Petropavlovsk with army officers and supplies. The fleet sailed for Vancouver.


Next year a far more capable fleet was assembled, including a ship of the line, the Monarch with 84 guns, and two more steam ships, the Encounter and Barracuda were sent down from the China station. The new commander, Rear Admiral Bruce organised supplies in Hawaii and a huge supply, and hospital, depot was organised at Esquimalt in Vancouver for the triumphant return of the fleet. On 30th May 1855 the Anglo-French expeditionary force arrived back at Petropavlovsk in thick fog and took up positions. When they fog cleared two days later they started reconnaissance. There was no one there!

The Russian authorities in distant St Petersburg had decided that Petropavlovsk could not be held against another attack, and so in January the defenders had cut a way through the ice and escaped. Bruce had taken the town without a shot being fired.

Petropavlovsk today

Refighting Petropavlovsk
As a naval game this is probably best played solo, as the Russians cannot manoeuvre. The allies can only manoevre very slowly, or if towed by the Virago. The Aurora and Dvina are broadside on to the harbour entrance, and cannot be holed beneath the waterline due to the intervening ground. The batteries are well dug in.

The 2nd assault has maybe more potential. The Russians are standard infantry like those in the Crimea, the allies British marines and British & French sailors. But there are two points to bear in mind. Firstly, Nikolsky hill is covered in brushwood, severely reducing movement. More importantly, the allies cannot just be allowed to form up and march of the beach, they were not that organised! Maybe divide the left hand force into three parts and for each role a d6, 1-3 attack the town, 4-6 attack Nikolski hill. All over the battlefield the Russians are in good positions and have high moral and leadership, the allies not so much.

I've drawn extensively on the following article,
The Crimean War in the Pacific: British Strategy and Naval Operations by Barry M. Gough. Military Affairs, 37, No. 4 (Dec., 1973), pp. 130-136

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