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FROM THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA’S PACIFIC FLEET

TWO QUESTIONS

 

From the history of fleet

      Although the battle ofAugust 1854 in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski ended in the defeat of the combinedAnglo-French squadron, that was not the end. To begin with, the Britishand French did not want to resign to the disgrace of defeat in what theyregard an obvious victory. For that reason, both Britain and France deemedit necessary to repeat the assault on Petropavlovsk with even more superiorforces than in summer 1854. Secondly, strange as it may seem, the defenders’victory proved useless to Russia, and the sacrifices involved useless.
      And instead of consolidating the success and strengthening the defense of Petropavlovsk by boostingit with men, warships and ammunition, Russia’s rulers decide to leave Petropavlovsk.Major-General Zavoiko received instructions from governor-general Muraviov-Amurskyto withdraw all ships and troops from Kamchatka as quickly as possibletill spring 1855, i.e. till the time of the assumed second assault by theBritish and French on Petropavlovsk.
      Both the warships andgarrison promptly fulfilled the Governor’s instructions, and the secondreinforced allied squadron that arrived in Kamchatka found no Russian warshipsor troops there. The British and French landing force simply burned anddestroyed something and left, getting nothing for their pains, as it were.Everything seemed to be cooking well for Russia, and for Britain and France,too, for that matter. Yet, at least two cardinal questions arise. First,why was it that the Russians, who had triumphantly defeated the enemy,then suddenly left the soil they shed with their own blood? Secondly, whydid the British and French, who first in August 1854 sought to occupy Petropavlovsk,on their second arrival in Avacha Bay failed to do so, albeit nothing preventedthem?
      Relevant sources and archives lack convincing well-argumented answers to these questions. Strangely enough, all relevant information is highly cursory; affording no plausible answers whatsoever.
       Yet, one way oranother, on March 3, 1855 Rear-Admiral Zavoiko received an order from N.N. Muraviov-Amursky, governor-general of Eastern Siberia, to evacuate theport of Petropavlovsk.
      How was the order worded?Before citing it, it should be noted that prior to giving that order thegovernor was in a very bad mood. He hesitated whether to withdraw the vesselsfrom Petropavlovsk or not, since such decisions should be taken by thegovernment, by the Emperor himself. Muraviov-Amursky sent a messenger,Lieutenant-Captain Dmitri Maksutov, to St. Petersburg, but for some reasonhe simply would not return when he was the man who had to deliver the Emperor’sorder to Irkutsk.
      Meanwhile, time was inexorably running. Leaving fewer and fewer days for thought and decision. Why isthe Emperor stalling? What is he waiting for? Is it that he does not believein the capability of Zavoiko and that of Russian sailors and soldiers todefend Kamchatka? Nobody knew. And then Muraviov-Amursky finally makeshis own decision and addresses the following order to Rear-Admiral Zavoiko:“Being aware of that our squadron in Kamchatka cannot be reinforced nextyear, too, and that consequently the port of Petropavlovsk will remainwithout any reliable communication with the estuary of the Amur or Ayan,and also seeing from the information I have that the enemy squadron thatoperated this year (1854. Author’s note) is reinforced even by battleships,I admit the necessity of transferring from the port of Petropavlovsk allmilitary equipment naval personnel and command, both military and civilian,from the port of Petropavlovsk to the post of Nikolaevsk, to the estuaryof the Amur.”
      By March 1855, when Zavoiko had received Muraviov-Amurski’s order, the following vessels were lying in the port of Petropavlovsk: the frigate “Aurora”, the corvette “Olivutsa”.The transports “Dvina”, “Baikal” and “Irtysh”, and the boats “Kodiak” andNo.1. They had to be prepared for the passage, be equipped with cannonsdismantled from land positions, and loaded with enormous quantities ofdiverse equipment.
       In explaining thosetasks to the citizenry of Petropavlovsk, V. S. Zavoiko in his order, writtenin execution of the above instruction by Muraviov-Amurski, emphasized:“The overall success of our enterprise would depend on rapid preparationof the vessels for navigation. The allies (British and French, author’snote) are definitely determined to attack Petropavlovsk with forces greatlyexceeding all our forces, and hence the best thing to do would be to sailnot later than April 1, so as to reach our new destination as quickly aspossible. Hence, I humbly ask commanders to suggest to their crews allthe importance of successful performance of work involved in arming andpreparing their vessels”.
      All work in evacuatingthe port involved highly difficult conditions, i.e. intense snowfalls andstorms. The sailors loaded heavy canons manually. A specially formed sailordetachment sawed and broke in ice a fairway to permit vessels to sail toclear water.
      Now that everything iscomplete, in April 1855 the vessels started to leave Petropavlovsk harborone after another. They first passed into De Castri Bay, since the TartarStrait was still ice-bound. When the last Russian vessels were leavingPetropavlovsk, the British-French twelve-ship squadron armed with a totalof 420 canons and hidden by dense fog was already on the remote approachesto Avacha Bay.
      However, in Petropavlovskitself, where the enemy landing force had freely landed on May 18, 1855,they found no Russian military presence; nor did they see any Russian vessels.Feeling that they had been fooled, the invaders in desperation burnt huts,set fire to the empty Treasury building, barracks, public bath, bakery,provision store, and naval pharmacy. They also demolished former batteryfortifications. Then the British and French left Kamchatka and began chasingRussian vessels. One unit from the enemy squadron, consisting of Britishfrigates, a brig and a steamship, discovered on May 20 Russian vesselsin De Castri. But the unit commander hesitated to attack them and askedfor support. When reinforcements arrived, the Russian ships had alreadyleft for the post at Nikolaevsk. The British and French again rushed insearch of the Russians, but lacking sufficient geographic knowledge neverfound them.
      In 1855, The London Timeswrote that by its passage from Petropavlovsk to De Castri and then fromDe Castri the Russian squadron under Admiral Zavoiko had smeared the UnionJack with two dark sports that no ocean waters can ever wash off.
      That is how things stoodafter the defense of Petropavlovsk. Yet they fail to answer the two questionsposed in the beginning of this block from the history of Russia’s Pacific Navy. To some extent the instructions of Muraviov-Amurski are clear andjustified, but only to some extent. As for the British and French, themotives of their behavior are still covered by the veil of history datingback to 150 years ago. Both in the first and second assault on Petropavlovsk,their principal objective was to seize Kamchatka. So why didn’t they dothat when Britain and France continued fighting Russia till 1856?

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.

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