In the Sea of Azoff
A naval campaign against Russia, 1855
To many British people, “the Russian War” of 1854-56 is remembered, if at all, as simply “the Crimean War” and is at least familiar for the “Charge of the Light Brigade” or the work of Florence Nightingale. However, we have lost sight of the fact that “the Crimean War” was, for Britain, only a small part of a much wider war. The British army’s presence on the Crimean peninsula was really as an ally supporting French land forces and both were fighting alongside Turkish armies striving to defend the Ottoman Empire against Russian encroachments.
As far as the British authorities were concerned, the war against Russia would be primarily a naval affair – as befitted a great sea power – and as a result Britain waged a series of naval campaigns around the world, striking at any point where the great Russian Empire was vulnerable to attack. Elements of the French imperial navy served alongside the Royal Navy, but very much in a subservient role. The result in 1854 and 1855 was a series of naval operations in the Pacific and to the far north in the White Sea, two major naval campaigns in the Baltic in 1854 and 1855, operations around the coast of the Black Sea (apart from the routine movement by sea of troops and supplies) and, most significantly, a highly successful campaign in the Sea of Azoff (or Azov) in the summer and autumn of 1855. These naval operations have been largely forgotten in the face of the land campaign in the Crimea.
The Sea of Azoff lies to the north east of the Black Sea and is connected to it only by the narrow Straits of Kertch and Yenikale. Extending for about 90 miles north to south and 190 east to west, it is notoriously one of the shallowest seas on earth, the water only a few feet deep in most places, but it was nevertheless an important supply line for Russian forces, allowing the passage of men, materiel and supplies from other parts of the Russian Empire to the forces in the Caucasus and Crimea. All around the sea were fishing villages, farms, small ship yards and ports whose supplies of food and goods, especially fish, hay, grain, tar and timber, were of great importance to the Russian war effort. Its most important port was Rostov, but coastal towns like Azov, Taganrog, Mariaupol, Gheisk, Genitichi and Berdiansk were also locally significant as ports and producers of foodstuffs.
While the land campaign “before Sebastopol” was being waged in the winter of 1854 and the summer of 1855, early consideration was given to an attack on the ports of the Sea of Azoff. However, not until May 1855, when the siege of Sebastopol seemed to settling into something of a stalemate, was a serious expedition launched into the Sea. A large-scale Anglo-French naval force was ordered into the Straits of Kertch, carrying French and British troops intended to seize the major towns of Kertch and Yenikale, which they quickly and easily did; the Russians offered hardly any resistance and chose instead to destroy their fortifications and retreat inland.
The large warship fleet and its landing parties having secured the access point to the Sea, it was now time to unleash the squadron which was to operate within its shores throughout the summer of 1855. Because the Sea of Azoff is so shallow – especially around its actual coastline – no major British warships could operate within its limits. Therefore, a powerful squadron of smaller screw and paddle-steamers, “gunboats” requiring less depth of water, was sent into the Sea. This “flying squadron” initially comprised the Miranda, Vesuvius, Stromboli, Medina, Ardent, Arrow, Beagle, Lynx, Snake, Swallow, Viper, Wrangler and Curlew, with five French steamers in support. Their commander was the dynamic Captain Edmund Mowbray Lyons – the son of the commander of the British fleet in the Black Sea – and already well-known for his exploits in HMS Miranda around Kola in the White Sea. Because these were smaller warships with small crews, many of their commanders were young men, often no more than Lieutenants, anxious to make a name for themselves and given considerable opportunity to show their powers of initiative and command. It was cynically said of them that they were perhaps rather too anxious to get their names “mentioned” in dispatches and earn their promotion!
Between May and November 1855, these allied warships, sometimes in ones and twos and sometimes acting together in larger groups, simply wrought havoc along the coasts of the Sea of Azoff. They quickly halted all seaborne trade and fishing within the Sea, stopping and seizing any Russian vessels running between the coastal towns. In just three days of patrolling – the very first days of the allied invasion of the Sea – Lyons’ ships destroyed over two hundred enemy vessels, ninety on 29th May alone. The small Russian warship squadron at Kertch fled into the Sea, where it was scuttled and the Russian “Azov Squadron” never ventured to sea to challenge what then happened. All along the coast the major towns were “visited” – some of them repeatedly over the summer months – and anything deemed to be a worthy target lying along the shore was attacked and (usually) destroyed.
The raids took on a familiar format – a ship’s cutter would be sent under flag of truce to the target town and request that all government property be destroyed or handed over. When the request was refused (as it usually was) the warships shelled the local target (where they could get close enough, such was the shallow depth and danger of sandbanks), then landing parties of sailors and marines were sent ashore in the ships’ boats and a large-scale destruction of property began. It was always emphasised that Russian government property was the target and that private property would not be destroyed – but inevitably the distinction between the two was not often very clear. In some instances, and repeatedly, stores of grain, hay and fish, fishing boats, tackle and shipyards lying for miles along the coast were burned. In one action, supplies of hay extending for four miles along the shore were burned by one landing party.
Sometimes the enemy fought back – as at Genitchi on 29th May and at Gheisk, near the eastern end of the sea on the 3rd November. In the latter, leaving the Vesuvius, Weser, Curlew and Ardent standing offshore, Osborn entered the bay with Recruit, Boxer, Cracker and Clinker and some of the other ships’ boats and in quick time he burned stacks of newly-harvested corn, hay and fuel; in this, as on other occasions the ships fired “carcasses” – incendiary shells – into corn ricks lying near the shore and stretching for a distance of miles around Vodina and Glofira. The quantities were immense and as they were guarded by Cossacks and infantry the burning did not take place without a fight. A new entrenchment, designed to defend the town, was also shelled during the operations. Remarkably enough, allied casualties were negligible – no British or French sailors or marines were killed in any of the actions and few were wounded.
In terms of the ships themselves, the most serious (and embarrassing) loss to the allied squadron, and not the result of enemy action, came on 23rd July when HMS Jasper ran aground on unmarked rocks. The ship, under Lt. J. S. Hudson, had been detached to cruise off the Don and when relieved proceeded to join HMS Swallow to investigate the Krivaia or “Crooked Spit”. When day broke, the Russian defenders on the Crooked Spit had the considerable surprise of seeing a British warship lying stranded on the rocks before them and were not slow to open fire. Commander F. A. B. Crauford, coming up in Swallow, advised Hudson to lighten the ship, including throwing overboard his guns and ammunition and anything else which could be moved. But nothing worked and Hudson had the dubious pleasure of ordering the crew to abandon Jasper and then firing his own ship, having stripped her of whatever could be carried away. Later, British vessels returned to the wreck and removed some of her gear and one 68 pounder gun. She was then blown up with powder casks.
But even Commander Osborn had to admit to the Admiralty in October 1855 – “I despair of being able to convey to you any idea of the extraordinary quantity of corn, rye, hay, wood and other supplies, so necessary for the existence of the Russian armies both in the Caucasus and in the Crimea, which it has been our good fortune to destroy. That these vast stores should have been collected here so close to the sea while we were in the neighbourhood is only to be accounted for by their supposing that they could not be reached by us” and that “there do not appear to be any stores of corn, hay or provisions left within reach of our vessels”. This did not stop his squadron destroying “enormous quantities of grain and forage… extending over two miles along the coast near Gheisk” on 5th and 6th November – among the last actions of the Azoff squadron. As winter drew in and the sea began to freeze over in November, the British and French ships were withdrawn and rejoined their respective fleets at Balaklava or Kamiesch.
When it came to awarding medals for service in “the Russian War” of 1854-56, some participants fared better than others, since a “general” medal for the war was not authorised.
Those who served in the naval campaigns in the Baltic in 1854 and/or 1855 received the Baltic Medal – the vast majority going to Royal Naval and Royal Marine forces. A medal was awarded for service in the Crimea, with attractive clasps, which took the form of oak-leaves, for those who were present in the major land battles at the Alma, Inkermann or Balaklava in 1854 and for the general siege operations before Sebastopol. Naval personnel could receive the medal with “Sebastopol” clasp if they served in the various naval bombardments or ashore in the naval brigades or with naval siege batteries and a few also earned the Balaklava and Inkermann clasps. Those sailors and marines who served in the Black Sea but who were not in action at or “before” Sebastopol could receive the Crimean War medal without clasp and all those who received the British Crimea medal (but not the Baltic) were given the Turkish Crimea Medal, as a reward from an ally. However, those men who only took part in the extensive naval operations in the White Sea or the Pacific in 1854 and 1855 received no medals at all.
Men who served in the operations in the Sea of Azoff were rewarded by what is effectively the only distinctive naval award for the “Crimean War” – the clasp Azoff worn on the Crimea medal. It is important to note that service in the initial capture of the Straits of Kertch and operations against local towns did not qualify for the clasp – so that there are no examples to purely land forces; only Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel actually operating within the Sea received the clasp.
The Azoff clasp has always been rather scarce on the market, with only around 2,000 issued. Unfortunately, since naval medals at that time were generally issued unnamed (e.g. the contemporary Baltic awards), it is really necessary for the collector who wants a “definite” Azoff participant to look for the medal with another named award to the same recipient – perhaps a Long Service and Good Conduct medal or an officially-named campaign medal, such as that for Pegu in 1852. Finding one of these medals to a traceable Azoff campaigner opens up a very interesting field of research – small ships, constant action and the most continuously successful series of operations in the entire Russian War!