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British-French Assault on the Finnish Coast

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British-French Assault on the Finnish Coast

During the Crimean War

by

Ulf Fagerlund

During the first half of the 19th century great changes in economic and social conditions took place in Europe. Britain saw massive momentum in industrial development, and industrialization was also beginning in central Europe. Social and political awareness amongst workers created a demand by the middle classes for a greater role in society. Development in France was moving in the same direction. In Britain, the evolving industrialization brought about a social revolution in which financial power gradually moved from the aristocracy to the new industrialists. In 1848, the changes in Western European society resulted in revolution in France and the establishment of Napoleon III as Emperor. The unrest rapidly spread to Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, and into Sweden.

The Eastern part of Europe did not experience similar development. There, the old autocratic form of society was still in the hands of aristocracy and landowners. In Russia, Emperor Nicholas I denounced the liberal movements. He called for the defense of Rus-sia’s territories and transferred large forces to the western borders. The brutal suppression of a revolt in Hungary in 1849 increased the growing unpopularity of the Emperor in Western Europe. At the same time, Russian foreign politics was directed towards expansion on the Balkan peninsula. Thus, tensions foreshadowed an armed conflict in Europe called the Crimean War.

In October 1853, Turkey declared war on Russia and fighting ensued at the eastern end of the Black Sea. A Turkish squadron was sent into the Black Sea to support the forces east of the Sea. Due to bad weather, the squadron put into the bay of Sinope on the northern coast of Turkey. The British-trained commander of the squadron was not confident about the ability of the squadron to sustain bad weather. The Russian naval fleet in the Black Sea was based in Sebastopol in the southern Crimea, only 130 miles away. Ships from the fleet annihilated the Turkish Squadron.

For the first time in naval warfare, explosive shells were used in this battle. The battle represented the beginning of a new era in naval warfare, an era which also introduced the propulsion of ships by steam-powered machinery. The Russian expansion and the strength of the Russian naval fleet were seen as a threat to international security, and Britain and France formed a coalition with Turkey in the war against Russia. The aversion to Russia took expression in enthusiasm for Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey was, at that time, a corrupt, decaying, and alien society.

The most extensive military operations during the war took place on the Crimean peninsula, but there was also a Baltic dimension to the war. Russia’s Baltic fleet, based in Kronstadt, Sveaborg, and Reval (Tallin) in the Gulf of Finland, was known to be bigger than the British Western Squadron. Only a few days sail from the east coast of Britain, it presented a constant threat, underscored by the events in the Crimea. These led to the sailing of a Baltic fleet from Britain in March 1854, before war had been declared with Russia. During 1854 and 1855, allied British and French ships conducted operations partly against fortifications in Finland, and partly against the country’s coastal cities and against commercial shipping. These actions were the only military ones in Finland during a century of peace under Russian rule.

Of fortifications, the most important one was at Sveaborg. Others were at Viborg, Svensksund, Lovisa, Hangö Head, and the extensive fortifications at Bomarsund on Åland, which Russia had been constructing since 1830. The Russian Baltic navy played a passive role. Although its strength was substantial, it had been neglected while Russia’s main attention was focused on its operations on the Crimean peninsula. The allied fleet consequently could operate unopposed.

Landings of smaller army units, which ravaged and harassed port towns, accompanied the blockade of Finland’s coasts by the allied navy. The operations, which were ruthless, served military purposes. Property which could be of importance for the Russian war effort was destroyed; sailing ships, wharfs, lumber, and tar supplies were burned. Finnish merchant shipping suffered seriously. The operations by the Allies destroyed any sympathies that the Finnish population had for the British.

At an Imperial Russian council on December 20, 1855, Czar Alexander II approved the acceptance of peace terms offered by the Allies. The signing of the Treaty of Paris on March 30, 1856, formally ended the Crimean war.

To illustrate the upheaval all these enemy actions caused the Finnish population in coastal communities, a short chronicle reported by the Finnish newspapers at the time, is given below. (Source: "After 1809" published by Bernces Förlag AB, Helsingfors, Malmö, 1981)

From the 1854 press:

March

  • 27th: England & France proclaim war.
  • 28th: Russian troops arrive in the country. The Finnish merchant fleet is in a state of disintegration. A number of Finnish ships are able to return from Copenhagen.

April

  • 8th: Two British frigates appear for the first time outside Sveaborg, after which enemy ships are continuously sighted until the fall.
  • 11th: The first Finnish ship, Alma from Borgå, is visited by the British near Dagerort. All prices rise quickly. Bank of Finland funds are moved to Tavastehus.
  • 19th: The first shots are fired from Gustavsvärn on Sveaborg against a British steamer taking soundings. During the month a number of merchant ships are accosted in Öresund and the Baltic Sea.

May

  • Panic and worries are felt in the Ostrobothnian towns. Part of Viborg’s suburbs are destroyed.
  • 19th: The British ships Hekla and Arrogant are sighted near Ekenäs; the first blood is shed.
  • 22nd: Hangö is bombarded by enemy ships.
  • 30th: Admiral Plumridge harasses Brahestad (Raahe).

June

  • 1st: Plumridge with the flying squadron plunders Uleåborg.
  • 4th: Enemy visitations in Kemi.
  • 8th: Plumridge is in Torneå, which is spared.
  • 18th: 63 enemy sails seen at Porkkala. The enemy destroys a telegraph station in Ingå.
  • 21st: Bomarsund is bombarded.

July

  • 11th: The enemy is at Korsör. Many Finnish seamen are returning from foreign waters.

August

  • 1st: 10,000 Frenchmen are put ashore on Åland.
  • 8th: The operations are started and Bomarsund capitulates the
  • 16th. Some prisoners are brought to Britain, some to France, and are treated well.
  • 22nd: Three enemy ships fire at Runsala.
  • 27th: The Russians blow up Hangö fortifications.

September

  • 1st and 2nd: Bomarsund fortifications are blown up by the enemy, and the land-based troops leave Åland the 4th and the 5th.
  • 15th (approx): Åland is returned to the Finnish authorities.

October

  • The French navy leaves for Kiel and leaves the Baltic Sea at the end of the month. The British ship Napier leaves. A part of the British flying squadron remains outside the Finnish coast until the end of December.
  • 19th: University resumes activity.
  • 21st: The blockade is lifted in the Gulf of Bothnia and in the Gulf of Finland

From the 1855 press:

March

  • A number of public archives and private property is moved from Helsingfors at the end of winter conditions.

May

  • 5th: Helsingfors harbor free of ice.
  • 12th: The first enemy ships are sighted: the Dundas along with three steamers are reconnoitering Helsingfors waters.
  • 26th: The enemy burned three ships near Tvärminne and are challenging vessels.

June

  • 6th: Hangö and its telegraph are fired on.
  • 7th to 9th: Minor battles near Trångsund.
  • 14th: The enemy destroys fort Slava and Kotka.
  • 22nd: The British ship Amfion exchanges fire with Sandhamn’s and Storholmen’s batteries.

July

  • 2nd: Raumo is bombarded.
  • 4th and 5th: Negotiations and enemy landings near Lovisa.
  • 6th: Nystad is under fire.
  • 7th: Svartholm fortress is blown up.
  • 13th: Exchange of fire near Revonsalmi.
  • 21st: Attack against Fredrikshamn.
  • 24th: Raumo is bombarded.
  • 25th and 31st: The enemy burns vessels etc. at Simo and Kemi and are rebuked by the farmers in Kuivaniemi.
  • 26th: The last buildings in Kotka are destroyed.

August

  • The British corvette Firefly near Wasa are taking vessels and export articles; meet resistance; bomb country houses, destroy magazines.
  • 6th: The allied forces are gathering outside Sveaborg.
  • 9th and 10th: The British ship Dundas and the French ship Penaud with 80 vessels bombard Sveaborg and surrounding batteries. Some of the buildings burn. The sound of the cannons can be heard nearly 30 kilometers inland.
  • 11th and 12th: There is panic and evacuation from Helsingfors.
  • 9th and 19th: The enemy is visiting Björneborg’s waters.

September

  • The enemy fires rockets at Gamlakarleby.
  • 18th: British visitation in Nykarleby harbor. About 30 outgoing smaller vessels are accosted in the Vasa archipelago. Sveaborg’s fortifications are being enlarged.

October

  • 20th: Skirmishes take place in Hangö bay by the village of Tektom. Vessels carrying firewood are accosted outside Helsingfors.

November

  • 6th: Enemy visitations at Jakobstad. Vessels are accosted.

December

  • 3rd: The last British cruisers leave Hangö. The blockade is ended, butoccasional cruisers appear in Åland waters



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