On August 18, 1854 the defenders of Petropavlovsk spent a sleepless night.
The enemy was preparing to attack the city and port. The British and French
ships had their lights on. The decks of enemy frigates were visible inthe
spyglass. Movement was perceptible on quarterdecks, and landing boatswere
being lowered from booms. Time and again, illuminating shells andblue lights
pierced the dark of the moonless light. Bright yellow spotswere moving about
the dark bay surface. Those were enemy boats moving fromship to ship. It
looked like they were fathoming depths to feel their way,as it were, to Mt.
Day was breaking. Thoughsunrise
was still pending, the sky in the east had already brightened.On the “Aurora”,
the bells rang four. Several minutes later, Major-GeneralV. S. Zavoiko received
a report that the enemy vessels were raising anchorand connecting towing
ropes to the steamship “Virago”. Evidently, on awindless morning
sailboats could not take the necessary positions independently.The “Virago”
was making complicated maneuvers, towing each of the threefrigates to the
needed spot. Now they had turned their starboards to theport.
“Time to go about business”, Zavoiko told
the sailors.“The work will be real hot. Bit we won’t surrender
the flag! We’ll useup all our gunpowder, burn our vessels, but won’t
give up the flag! Incase of a landing, we’ll make a bayonet assault.
That’s where we’ll beon top. We’ll defend with honor the
name of Russia and show how Russianspreserve the nation’s honor! Right?”.
“Ri—ight”, echoed the men.
The enemy cannonshit
the shore. The ships volley fired. Eighty (!) Anglo-French mortar andbombing
cannons volleyed at eight Russian coastal guns. The Russian batteriesand
the city were bombarded for several hours through August 18 and 19.The enemy
apparently reckoned that with their triple advantage in cannonsand personnel,
they would gain an easy victory. But nothing of the kindhappened. The Petropavlovsk
defenders responded very accurately: severalbombs exploded on “Virago’s”
deck to damage its foremast and funnel, andon the “President”
during the duel they had to urgently secure the damagedmainmast guys; dents
appeared in enemy frigate sides. All that compelledthe British and French
to hastily retreat to open sea both on August 18and 19.
On August 20 at8.00
A.M. the enemy warships commanded by Rear-Admiral De Point (Rear-AdmiralD.
Price had died on August 19, according to one version having committedsuicide)
took positions behind Mt. Signalnaya. Soon they opened intensefire on the
first and fourth batteries of the defenders. The Russian sailorsnonchalantly
fired back to inflict losses on the enemy with their accuratesalvos. Yet,
the attackers continued to intensify their assault. The firstRussian battery
was virtually buried by enemy bombs, and most of its cannonswere put out
Under the coverof frigates,
fifteen French rowing boats were coming closer and closerto the shore. Officers
stood in two boats leading the group. Ready to fulfiltheir command at any
time, French sailors sat tense with carbines glitteringbetween their knees.
One after the other, the boats slipped to spots safefrom fire from the first
battery, whose situation was becoming hopeless.But the Russian sailors abandoned
the battery only when all its five cannonswere damaged. On orders from Zavoiko,
the ship gunners had joined BatteryNo.4.
Having carried over thefire
to that battery, the enemy ships intensified it to start landing aparty on
shore. Soon the French reached the positions of the first batteryto instantly
hoist the Tricolor.
Hardly had the French
flag start waving over the battery left by its defenders, Lieutenant-Captain
Isylmetiev, the “Aurora” commander, received the following signal
fromZavoiko: “The battery had fallen. Open fire!” And the cannons
of the “Aurora”and “Dvina” began bombarding the enemy
landing. Hiding from the Russianfire, the Frenchmen dug in. But then, slipping
over the green slopes andaiming at the enemy on the go, Russian sailors and
local residents dashedto their positions. The attack and the desire to inflict
a defeat on theenemy in hand-to-hand combat were so intense that the Russians
formed onesingle mass that frightened the enemy by their uncontrollable assault.
In an ensuing bayonet fight, the battery was retaken, and the French landing
party rolled back to the waterline, dropping their arms in panic and falling
head over heels to jump back into their hastily departing boats.
Later one of theparticipants
in the battle wrote: “Despite our small number, despite thefact that
the enemy was at least four times stronger than our combinedparties, he began
to retreat running at such speed that before we arrivedto the occupied battery,
the entire landing party was already in the boats”.Subsequent attempts
by the British and French to land a force to the southof battery No.3 that
day were also repulsed. Then the enemy vessels concentratedtheir fire on
battery No.2 with eleven cannons at its disposal coveringthe entrance into
Petropavlovsk harbor. For ten hours, Russian cnnoneerswaged an unequal battle
against the enemy frigates, and eighty enemy cannonsfailed to silence the
coastal battery. Once an enemy vessel approachedthe battery, precise salvoes
by Russian artillerymen would hit it. Withdawn of dark on August 20, the
cannonade ceased, and the defenders successfullyrepulsed the first assault
by the enemy.
Then for three days theBritish
and French warships stood anchored out of reach of the Russiancannons, patching
up their numerous dents in sides and decks, repairingtheir tackle and restoring
their masts. Early in the morning of August24, 1854, they decided to undertake
a new assault on Petropavlovsk. Oncethe fog had vanished, the enemy squadron
began moving. The “Virago” tookin tow the admirals’ frigates,
the British “President” and the French “LaForte”.
Having separated from the squadron, H.M.S. “Pike” approached
therocky slope of Mt. Signalyana and stopped as if deciding whether to turn
to the left, to the isthmus, or to attack the Cemetery battery again. After
the enemy had slightly stalled, it became clear to the defenders that heintends
to attack Petropavlovsk from the north.
The enemy frigates approached
the coast and stopped at about four cable’s lengths away. Then all
the“President’s” port guns fired to be followed by a deafening
salvo fromthe “La Forte”. Lieutenant Alexander Maksutov’s
battery instantly responded,and of its five cannons left a trace on the “President”.
One of the salvoesdamaged the guys, knocked off the gaff and ripped off the
flag. Soon theFrench frigate was also hit several times.
Under a hail ofheavy
bombs and cannon balls, the Russian artillerymen fight with exceptionalcourage.
But the forces were much too unequal. Maksutov’s battery heldout for
over ninety minutes, and when only one gun was still active Maksutovsank
a big enemy launch with a landing party on board. At that moment,he was thrown
five feet away, and his right arm was torn off to the elbow.For a split second,
Maksutov regained conscience, only to lose it subsequentlyforever.
Continuing to bombardthe coast,
the enemy threw into battle the main forces of the landing party. Six
hundred men landed near battery No.5 to the north of Mt. Nikolskaya.
They divided into three groups: two moved towards Mt. Nikolskaya, and one
along the northern road to Petropavlovsk. Two hundred and fifty more enemy
troops that later joined with the group advancing from the north landedat
They were closingin
on Petropavlovsk and thought they would soon topple the Russians. Thatis
when battery No.6 began hailing shrapnel fire on the enemy soldiersand sailors,
who retreated towards the main forces of the enemy landingparty. SoonMt.
Nikolskaya dominating the city and port was in enemy hands.Bullets fired
by the landing party from the isthmus whistled over the “Aurora”
and “Dvina”. Petropavlovsk faced the threat of an enemy
At that criticalmoment,
Major-General Zavoiko dispatched several detachments in the endangereddirections.
The culminating point of the entire battle, of the entire defenseof Petropavlovsk,
was a bayonet attack by Russian infantrymen and sailorsfrom the “Aurora”
and “Dvina” against the Anglo-French landing party. Undera hail
of enemy bullets, 300 city defenders rushed against 850 enemy troops.A mighty
Russian hurrah resounded, and hot hand-to-hand fighting ensued.Bodies intermingled
and bayonets gnashed. The Russians from the “Aurora”in light
sailcloth shirts advanced intrepidly, as if not threatened byenemy bullets
And the enemy couldnot
withstand the onslaught. The British and French wavered and fledhead
over heels to their boats hastened by fear. Thjey rushed to theirboats and,
rowing with all their might, left for their frigates.
Enemy losses throughout the defense of Petropavlovsk
numbered 450 men, including 273 dead. The city and port defenders lost32
killed and 64 wounded. Among the captured trophies were the banner ofthe
British marines, arms and … handcuffs designed for never-taken Russian
prisoners. In early 1855, the British “United Service Magazine”
wrote thatjust one Russian frigate and several batteries proved invincible
in theface of the combined naval might of Britain and France, and the
world’stwo greatest powers were overpowered and defeated by a small
On August 27, 1854, the defeated Anglo-French
squadron left Avacha Bay to disappear beyond the horizon.
A.V. BORODIN, Leading Editor, Institute of History,Archeology
and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, F. E. Branch,Russian Academy
of Sciences, Colonel (Retired),Pacific Fleet veteran.