The Destruction of Kola 1854 – HMS Miranda in the White Sea.
During the Russian War of 1854-56, a major feature of the Anglo-French deployment of global sea-power was the decision to strike at the huge Russian Empire wherever it was susceptible to naval attack. This meant offensive operations at any accessible point – including the remotest corners of the Empire. One of the most remote areas, which surely felt itself far beyond the actual “theatres of war”, was Russia’s Arctic coastline along the White Sea and in the Kola Inlet. It was a region which had been known to western European traders – not least British – since the mid 16th Century but the White Sea was under ice from early October to May, so that the ordinary trading and campaigning seasons were brief.
Now largely forgotten, allied naval exploits in that most inaccessible of regions were highly successful in the limited aims they set. As part of the policy to carry the war to Russia, the Admiralty decided as early as the spring of 1854 to send a small squadron to attack the apparently undefended ports and fishing villages of Russia’s far north, though the blockade of Russia’s Arctic coast was only formally announced on 12th August 1854. The area can hardly be said to have been militarily significant – most of the accessible area was the Lapland region of the Grand Duchy of Finland, technically part of the Russian Empire but hardly central to her military strategy or economic strength. The area was sparsely populated and its economic activity largely dominated by small-scale coastal trade and fishing. But it was nevertheless a potential target and an area where British and French warships could make a mark with relative impunity, if only on the economy of an isolated region. Initially, since the formal blockade was not declared until August, neutral shipping – Danish, Norwegian, German etc. – continued to trade unmolested form some time.
A British Detached Squadron under Captain Erasmus Ommaney of the twenty-six gun sailing frigate HMS Eurydice, with the fifteen-gun Miranda and the steam corvette Brisk set off in June 1854. Miranda was originally destined for the Baltic Fleet in May 1854 but was diverted into the White Sea. Launched at Sheerness in 1851, Miranda was typical of the smaller steam-powered vessels which were to do so well during the Russian War. A screw corvette of 1070 tons, she was well-armed, with ten 32-pounders and four 20-pounders in broadsides and carried a crew of approx. 230. Her commander was Captain Edmund (“Jack”) Lyons, younger son of Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons, second in command of the Mediterranean Fleet and soon to be commander in the Black Sea. This was Jack Lyons’ first independent command and he obviously meant to make it tell.
Given the distance, the remoteness of the area and the notoriously dangerous waters, their orders seem remarkable – they were to sail around Norway and into Arctic regions to enforce a blockade, stopping trade, capturing or destroying any and all Russian and Finnish vessels and attacking Russia’s northernmost ports. It was a dangerous and audacious plan which succeeded spectacularly well in is limited objectives. Joined by two French warships, the flotilla successfully rounded the western coastline of Norway and anchored for a few days off the Norwegian port of Hammerfest, the most northerly town in Europe, before heading into the White Sea. Bad weather frequently hampered the activities of the allied squadron.
One possible major target was the ancient city and major port of Archangel (Arkangelsk) which sheltered part of a division of Russian warships, though they never attempted to leave the shelter of the port and offered no opposition to the movement of the allied warships. The city itself, reconnoitred as one of the first tasks of the squadron, was deemed to be too strongly defended to risk attack and the waters into the Dvina too shallow for the warships to enter. Although some larger towns like Linsli and the Imperial yards at Strombol were known to be well-defended and beyond reach, there was little in the way of local coastal defence around the White Sea, for the fairly obvious reason that the authorities did not anticipate an attack on this coast. Nevertheless, what happened over the next three months was truly staggering – a continuous process of chasing, stopping, searching and usually burning “enemy” merchant vessels and their cargoes, along with shore installations, including stocks of timber, foodstuffs, hay, fish and anything else deemed to be a legitimate target. The British squadron spent much of its time divided, with one or two ships operating almost in a “commerce raider” role and it was quickly reported that “the Russian coast [of the White Sea] is completely at our mercy, except Archangel for the present”. Not surprisingly, the Russian press – and some British publications – expressed outrage at attacks by a naval power on defenceless fishing boats and coastal luggers.
Finding that Archangel and its neighbours were effectively beyond attack, the squadron unsuccessfully attacked the fortified monastery on the Solovetski islands in the Gulf of Onega. After suffering six casualties the ships withdrew and continued their scouring of the White Sea and the Gulf of Onega.
The local Russian, Lapp and Finnish coastal traders and fishermen cannot have felt a close connection with a war against Britain and France – if indeed they knew much about it. They nevertheless took the full brunt of a relentless onslaught. One example was the port of Novitska, shelled and burned to the ground by Brisk and Miranda on 23rd July. The figures seem incredible; over a period of eighty days, Miranda alone “anchored forty-eight times [to land search parties] and while underway boarded 375 ships”. Most of these, mainly local merchant vessels and coastal traders, were beached and burned (along with their cargoes) or destroyed on the shore where they lay, their crews left to make their escape. In a few cases where larger, valuable vessels were captured, the ships and their cargoes were taken intact and sailed as prizes to England. But the allied squadron simply had too few men to scatter them amongst captured prizes and send them to Britain; on the spot destruction was simpler. In the event, huge quantities of stores were destroyed. Any coastal town showing signs of resistance or trying to prevent the destruction of its ships and stores found itself being shelled and immense damage was done. Miranda and her sister ships must have been filled to the gunwales with ammunition!
Since the possibility of an attack on Archangel was abandoned, the squadron turned its attention to the regional centre of Kola, lying thirty miles upriver from the Kola Inlet at the confluence of the Kola and Tuloma Rivers. The 13th Century river port – the oldest town in the region and the capital of Russian Lapland – had been fortified since 1565 and flourished as a base for fishing in the rich Arctic waters and for expeditions into Arctic regions. But it went into decline as Russia began to concentrate on developing its Baltic presence and by the 19th Century, although still an important local trading and political centre, Kola was something of a backwater. It was nevertheless regarded as an attractive and historic town, famous for its monastery and the beautiful Cathedral of the Annunciation (1800-10).
The Royal Navy had been there before; in 1809, when Russia was briefly an ally of Napoleon, two British gunboats had navigated downriver and destroyed two Russian ships lying at anchor, but they had not damaged the town itself. In August 1854, things would be very different. The squadron’s commander, Captain Ommaney of Eurydice, deputed Captain Lyons in Miranda to investigate the town.
One has to admire the great skill with which George Williams, Master of the Miranda, navigated the ship down the tortuous river, especially as the last five miles were uncharted and the river was dangerously narrow in places, but what Lyons then did to Kola surely reflects little credit on him, even if it was the regional centre of an “enemy” territory, and the action was roundly criticised by elements of the British press. The whole campaign was, not surprisingly, equally criticised in the Russian press as a pointless war largely waged against innocent civilians.
On 23rd August 1854, having cautiously brought his ship down river and setting it “within point blank range of the city’s batteries”, Lyons sent Lieut. C. W. Buckley [later Azoff VC] under flag of truce with an astonishing request – nothing less than the surrender of the town and all its government property, its shipping, fort and armaments. A truce was arranged for the Governor to consider the offer but when no answer came by next day – the men on board Miranda being kept “at quarters” all night – Miranda hauled down her flag of truce and opened fire with no further warning. Thus began a day-long bombardment of the town which literally reduced the whole place to rubble without the warship suffering a single casualty. In less than an hour the small docks, the river defences and the gun emplacements were destroyed by red-hot shot, grapeshot and canister. Landing parties of sailors and marines under 1st Lieut. J.F.C. Mackenzie and the Mate, Charles Manthorpe, came ashore under cover of Miranda’s continuing overhead fire and seized the enemy’s guns.
They and the Governor’s house might have been deemed to be fair game, but Miranda’s fire destroyed everything else, since most of the town was made of wood and fires quickly spread. The Cathedral and monastery, private houses, warehouses and shops were all burned down. By 7.30 pm, according to a chilling contemporary account, “Kola was expunged off the list of capitals [and] one tower of the fortified cathedral alone now stands to mark the spot where Kola once stood”.
Lyons maintained that he was receiving fire from Russian defenders and was thus compelled to fire on them but it seems hard on the townspeople and the effect on the region must have been felt for years. In the event, Kola never recovered from the attack and although slowly rebuilt was gradually superseded as a regional centre with the expansion of the nearby city of Murmansk.
Miranda was actually in a perilous situation itself; the ship had frequently grounded during the attack – on one such occasion she was only 250 yards from the town and was in real danger from flying fragments of burning debris, so much so that “her sails, rigging and deck had to be constantly wetted”. After the action, she only made it back up the narrow Kola river with great difficulty – if the river banks had been defended, Miranda would have been in serious trouble – but there was no Russian force to oppose her passage. Local people had, however, removed the navigational buoys set up by the ship’s Master, Williams, who had to re-sound the passage.
After Kola, Miranda and the other ships continued their patrols, capturing and destroying another half a dozen enemy vessels in the Litscha Inlet and Gulf of Motow. But except for the destruction of Kola the year ended with no signal achievement for the allied squadron. The flotilla withdrew with the advancing ice of the winter of 1854 and by late September had returned to home waters. The campaign was renewed, with a slightly different squadron, in 1855, to much the same effect.
But no medals for all this – it is notable that no general medal was awarded for the Russian War of 1854-56. Separate medals were given for the Baltic campaigns of 1854/1855 and, of course for the land campaign in the Crimea and associated naval operations in the Black sea and Sea of Azoff. But those crews who only served in the White Sea in 1854 and/or 1855 received no medal at all for their service in the war. The same is true for those who served only in the Pacific campaigns of 1854 and 1855. Seems unfair…