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Henry Norton Sulivan on the Baltic campaign of the Russian War of 1854-1856 (9/10)


BOMBARDMENT OF SWEABORG.

Reference has been made to the French chiefs desire to destroy Helsingfors. The saving of this town afforded Captain Sulivan more gratification than the destruction of Sweaborg, in both of which he was mainly instrumental.

'Merlin,' Sweaborg, August 2nd, 1855.

They have thrown up batteries all round the town on all sides, and so it becomes a fortified town, as some of these batteries have already fired on our gun-boats. The people have long expected an attack, and have been moving out with their property. My own view would be to send in a flag-of-truce and promise not to injure the city, provided the city batteries did not fire at us.

Friday, 3rd, 10 p.m. - We have been sounding and laying down buoys all day, and have had a strong blow, which it is fortunate occurred before the fleet came, or it must have delayed all proceedings. The Russians are working away tremendously at new batteries, but all in places where they cannot interfere with our plans, except a new one commenced to-day, which will be four hundred yards nearer than any other guns to the stations intended for the mortar-boats. I wish some of the steamers were here, as we might try throwing shell to stop the working by day. I hope we shall have finished before they are ready. This weather must delay us some days.

They must know we are going to attack here, for I see by the Standard that one of the royal dukes is here. When I think of the prolonged horrors at Sevastopol, and the destruction and loss that may be caused here even in a city, I cannot but wish that our Government had agreed to Lord John's views and accepted the terms proposed. We may go on for years, and after all get no better terms; we should have gained all the objects we went to war for, as Sevastopol and the fleet had nothing to do with the origin of the war. Now the door of peace seems closed, for if we destroy Sevastopol and every ship, it will only make the Russians more determined to hold out. While all produce can be exported and all goods imported through Prussia, we cannot make the people feel the effects of war by a blockade.


'Merlin,' Sweaborg, August 2nd, 1855.

I am going to try to-night to find out whether they have any 'infernals' in the place where I want to place the mortar-boats. I do not mean to risk getting them up to a boat, as in the night one could not see how to handle them; but I mean to creep about four fathoms under the surface, and, if we catch anything, run a long line to an island and haul whatever it is on shore, keeping well out of the way. If any should be hooked, by dragging them on shore among the stones they will soon explode when they touch the bottom. I also mean to creep inside where I think they may be with a light creeper along the bottom, and try to hook up any of the electric wires that we hear they have connecting them with the shore. It would be great fun to hook them up and cut them, and then trace the 'infernals' outward by the cut wires; they could not then explode; and fancy their astonishment on shore afterwards when they, tried to explode them, and wondered why their electric battery would not act!

Oh, how I wish all this horrid work had been stopped by peace! To see this beautiful place, fine buildings, churches, etc.; to see us to-day with our church flags up, and the enemy's also, both professing to serve the same Master - a Master of peace; and to see them toiling all day raising works to defend these buildings, and we striving to reduce them to a heap of ruins! It is very sad; and though never had a nation greater cause for war, a fearful responsibility will rest on any who prolong that war a moment longer than is necessary to accomplish the objects for which we entered into it. Had we never sent that expedition to Sevastopol, we should have had peace now; and had we confined ourselves to removing the enemy from Turkish ground, and then merely blockading closely, we should have saved nearly all the blood and sickness and half the expense, while there would have been no point of honour or heroic defence to raise the national spirit of the Russian people. The war would have been more unpopular with them, and peace would not leave the feelings of hostility against us now implanted, in the minds of the Russian people. And oh, what misery would have been saved to thousands of families in all four countries! I cannot but feel we are all now going on with the war because we do not know how to give it up, with our armies unsuccessful at Sevastopol, and that for all other purposes we could gain the objects for which we went to war. The fact of Russia consenting to place Turkey under the united guarantee of all the European powers for her integrity; in addition to yielding the other three points, should, I think, have sufficed, and would have sufficed, had we known how to get over the Sevastopol difficulty, while the hopes of saving Sevastopol perhaps induced Russia to yield what she did.

The following is an outline of the plan of attack on Sweaborg:-

Sixteen British mortar-boats (with sixteen 12-inch mortars);
Five French mortar-boats (with ten 13-inch mortars);
Four French mortars (10 inch) on islets,-
to open fire at 2.30 a.m. at a range of three thousand three hundred yards from the forts. The mortar-boats (anchored in a segment of a circle) to be supported by four covering frigates anchored outside them. British and French gunboats to circle inside the mortar-boats, using their guns against the forts, and drawing the Russian fire away from the mortar-boats. Three ships were ordered by the admiral to attack the Russian fort to the eastward.

Before the fleet crossed over to Sweaborg, Captain Sulivan and his officers were engaged for three days and nights finding places for the vessels clear of the numerous rocks, making an accurate plan of the position, ranges, etc, and at night creeping with grapnels as close as possible in front of the fortress for the reported electric wires of the infernal machines, but without finding any.

On the fourth day the fleet came over, and, after piloting the ships in, Sulivan gave a copy of the plan to the British and French admirals. Under the circumstances, he of course supposed that he would be allowed to carry out his own plans, under the admiral's command, as any failure would have been attributed to him; but, to his surprise, the admiral told him that two officers would have the command, both senior to him - he himself was to have no command at all. He was so astonished at this that he had not the firmness to say, as any officer in his position ought to say, "If I am not allowed to carry out my plan, I cannot be responsible for its success," especially as the very person who had argued that the scheme could not succeed was now to have the control of the operations. But Sulivan was so hurt and surprised that he made no reply, and immediately left the flag-ship and returned to the Merlin. He had intended, directly the plan was approved of by the two admirals, to prick it through a number of sheets, as he had done at Obligado, and so provide a copy of the plan and programme to every officer in command of a ship. But he was now unable to interfere with the directions to be given to the junior officers.

He had not long returned to his ship, when he saw the gun-boats bringing in the mortar-vessels, and he was hailed by Captain Seymour, "Sulivan, the captain in command told me to bring you the mortar-boats, and that you would place them." Now Sulivan's plan was to anchor the mortar-vessels exactly six hundred yards outside their right positions of three thousand three hundred yards from the forts, so that they might be out of reach of the enemy's shot until the action was to commence. After dusk, kedge-anchors were to be laid out in the direction of the fortresses, with four hawsers of two hundred yards each, in all eight hundred yards. Then just before opening fire from the mortars, the crews were to haul in three hawser-lengths, or six hundred yards, the vessels thus lying with one hawser out at exactly the proper range of three thousand three hundred yards. This was all explained on the plan which the admiral had given to the officer in command. The exact positions and the hawsers were marked in red, and the distance "six hundred" yards between the outer and the inner positions.

After anchoring all the mortar-vessels himself in a curved line three thousand nine hundred yards from the batteries, and the four covering frigates three hundred yards farther, Sulivan returned to his vessel, and found the admiral and captain in command awaiting him on board her. It was a beautiful, calm, clear day, and the batteries therefore looked closer than they really were. The captain declared that the mortar-vessels had been anchored closer than he had agreed to, that they were now within range of the enemy, and that even the frigates were. He urged the admiral to move them all farther out. Sulivan assured him that, if his scale was correct, which he did not doubt, the mortar-vessels were three hundred and the frigates six hundred yards out of range of the batteries, and that if the frigates were moved farther out they would not be so well able to protect the mortar-vessels at night or supply them with fresh ammunition, etc. Notwithstanding his remonstrances, the admiral ordered him to move all the frigates farther out. Sulivan thereupon ventured to do what was akin to the action of Nelson when he put his blind eye to the telescope. He took three of his own officers with him, put one on board each frigate, instructing them to weigh anchor, turn the ship's head off a little, and drop anchor again without moving the ship her own, length! He himself went on board Euryalus, and went through the same farce with her, knowing how important it was to keep the frigates close.

No doubt this manoeuvre will be recorded in the logs of those ships, but it will not be explained therein why ships, just before anchored among sunken rocks, where safe places were not easily found, weighed and anchored again in the same place.

On Sulivan's return to the Merlin, the officer in command said to the admiral, "Now, sir, make him move out the mortar-vessels." This Sulivan could not stand; so he said, "Admiral Dundas, they are now at the distance you decided on, and three hundred yards farther out than I think right; and if you make me move them any farther, I cannot be answerable for the success of the plan." The admiral replied, "They shall stay where they are."

Late at night, when he was again with the admiral, the latter urged Sulivan, as he had not been in bed for three nights, to go to his ship and get a little sleep before daylight - about 2 a.m. - when all would be ready for opening fire. He went to Merlin about midnight and lay down, but was too anxious to sleep, fearing things might not go right, so about half-past one he went in his boat to take a look round. He found boats laying out the hawsers, some having been already laid out; but seeing one boat going to drop the kedge much too close to the vessels, he asked how many lengths of hawser were out - they told him two. This was half the proper number, or four hundred instead of eight hundred yards, as shown in the plans, by which means the mortar-vessels would be hauled in two hundred yards only instead of six hundred, thus leaving them four hundred yards farther off than was intended. At such a distance the attack could not possibly succeed, as the mortars would be out of range of the arsenal and all the most important objects of attack. What a painful position for a junior officer to be placed in! Neither of the senior officers in command were on the spot. If he allowed the action to go on, it would be sure to fail most ridiculously when daylight came, and there was not sufficient time to procure the double quantity of hawsers and get them laid out by daylight. If the action were postponed a day, the beautiful calm weather might be lost; and if it came on to blow, which was a likely event after two or three calm days, the only opportunity for the season might be lost, and in that case he would have all the blame thrown on him if he interfered without authority. Further, he would be running the serious risk of opposing the orders of his superiors. I have often heard my father lay down the maxim that no man is worth his salt who is not prepared to take great responsibility upon himself if the occasion require it. Here was such an one, and he hesitated but for a moment in taking a responsibility which probably no junior officer has ever before done - that of his own accord postponing a general engagement. He felt that anything would be better than a ridiculous failure, through keeping our vessels out of range of their objects, in order that the vessels themselves might be out of range of the enemy's guns. So he ordered all the officers employed under the seniors - who were quite willing to act as he directed - to weigh the anchors laid out and leave the mortar-vessels in their old safe positions, and go back themselves to their ships, giving up the work for that day. How such a mistake occurred it is difficult to say. Sulivan then went to the flag-ship, awakened the admiral, told him what he had done, and received his entire approval.

The next day the right number of hawsers were seen coiled ready in every vessel. Sulivan remained until nearly midnight with Admiral Dundas, who then urged him to get a little sleep, saying, "You may be quite satisfied now that everything is rightly arranged, and will be ready by daylight." Sulivan went to his ship, and, lying down outside his bed, fell fast asleep, till he was awakened by some one shaking him, and he found the officer in command with a light, who said, "Can you tell us what we are to do about hauling in." Sulivan said, "What time is it?" "Past one." By the time he had got into his boat and to the nearest mortar-vessel it was half-past one, and day was breaking. Every vessel should have been hauled in by that time, as the hawsers were all properly laid out; but Sulivan found some hauling in, others waiting for boats to help them, and the crews of eight out of the fifteen mortal-vessels asleep and doing nothing, because they had received no orders! Captain Sulivan thought this showed such a want of common understanding of a simple plan, and such unfitness in the officer commanding, that, hearing some of his officers remarking on it, he begged them all not to mention it to any one. He was more anxious that it should not be mentioned, because the officer alluded to was personally as gallant and good a man as any in the fleet. He had before, as a junior, done work he was ordered to do at Bomarsund well and gallantly; and during the attack at Sweaborg, wherever vessels were more exposed to fire than others, or in moving closer in brought on themselves the special attention of the enemy's gunners, there he was sure to be seen. His only fault was not understanding the principle on which the attack was founded, and not having the necessary qualifications for more important command.

When the fleet was at Spithead the following year, Captain Sulivan's officers said that it was nonsense keeping them to their promise not to mention what had occurred, because it was openly spoken of in the fleet. He then ascertained that the officer in command had gone to one of the ships under his orders, and asked if they knew what they were to do about hauling in. The answer was, they did not, but perhaps Captain-----, the second in command, knew. The first lieutenant of the ship was sent to Captain ----- to ask if he did, and brought back the answer, "I don't know anything about it, and I don't believe any one does but Captain Sulivan"; and then the commanding officer told the lieutenant to take him to Merlin. Having been in the cabin when Sulivan was called, the lieutenant knew what had occurred and told it to others. It is necessary to mention these things to show what great difficulties Captain Sulivan had to contend with in getting his plan of attack carried out successfully.

Captain Sulivan left on record the following observations:-

The experience gained at Sweaborg should be a lesson to any officer who, having proposed a plan of attack, finds it is to be adopted. No delicacy to others, or hesitation in being firm with his superior officer, should prevent his insisting that he should be allowed to conduct the proceedings he was responsible for.

I feel confident that if an attempt on Cronstadt had been made in the same manner, and before an enemy well supplied with an active force afloat, we should have been defeated. For there the difficulties and obstacles were so great, and the contest would have been so severe, that nothing but the greatest care in the arrangement for and management in conducting the attack could have given us a hope of success.

That others were of the same opinion as myself on these points is shown by the following facts:-

A captain of a ship in the Baltic fleet, much senior to me, during the winter, when preparations for the attack on Cronstadt the following season were being made, urged me strongly to insist on being put in the position of captain of the fleet, if my plan was to be carried out, on the ground that, if I had to contend there with such difficulties as I had at Sweaborg, nothing could save us from defeat, and that I ought not to have anything to do with it unless I were given a position that would ensure my being able to conduct the operations under the admiral only. But though I was very anxious on the subject, I could not bring myself to ask for a higher position at the expense of another, and I explained to my adviser that I was trying to guard against failure by getting certain officers, in whom I had great confidence, both senior and junior to me, placed in positions which would enable them to aid me materially in carrying out the plan, and that with their aid and the admiral's support, which I might now expect, I would trust to all going right.

We must now revert to the journals.

Sweaborg, August 11th, 1855.

Thank God with me for a bloodless victory - on our side at least bloodless, but I fear not so to the enemy. Sweaborg is in ruins after two days' bombardment, and not a scratch on our side. My letters will have told you I thought we might destroy it without losing a life, but it is a special Providence apparently that preserved our people in the little vessels amid showers of shot falling among them, and I have to be thankful that I am again spared through much danger. You can fancy the delight it gave the admiral and all, and not the least me, for my credit and the soundness of my views were at stake. All has far exceeded my expectations, for hardly a building is left except as blackened walls, and such fires are seldom seen. It is almost enough to excite my pride to hear what all are saying about my work; but I really planned all, placed the vessels, selected the spots to shell, and was allowed really to do anything I wished, and the admiral speaks most feelingly and warmly of what thanks are due to me. He told one captain who congratulated him, 'It is all due to Sulivan.' I cannot describe to you my feelings - not, I assure you, those of pride; for when all was finished at last, and I went below, having just been told what the admiral said, the conflicting feelings of gratitude and pleasure were such that, when I went on my knees to offer thanks to that God who still so wonderfully aids me above my deserts and in spite of my neglect of Him, I could only burst into tears. I never felt so weak or so little inclined to any feelings of pride.

I have hardly a moment in which to write, and have had but seven hours' sleep in the past four days and nights, and yet I am better in health than before.


'Merlin,' Off Sweaborg in flames,
Friday, August 10th, 1855.

I must try to write you a hurried account of the last few days. On Tuesday and Wednesday I was hard at work night and day, either sounding or creeping for 'infernals' at night, and making the plan complete, discussing it with the admiral, and placing vessels by day. In the evening the captains having the control of each portion of the gun- and mortar-boats, and all the lieutenants, etc., commanding, were called in in batches by the admiral, who gave them their orders, which I explained on the plan as carefully as possible, till they had got their lessons perfect. ... Being anxious about all going right, I went down the line at 1.30 a.m., and to my horror found only one or two moving in, and others with their crews all asleep: they said they had no orders to haul in; yet the day was actually breaking. By the time I had gone to every one, roused them into activity, and got the officers who were sent from the frigates to hurry their parties (I actually found that no order had been given clearly how far they were to haul in), and explained to all how much of the hawsers they must haul in to get to their stations, it was quite daylight; but the enemy did not seem to notice our change of position, and we could not commence firing, because the French mortar-vessels were not ready; so in the meantime I went back and explained all to the admiral, and he and captain of fleet came in Merlin, and we ran down the whole line. The gun-boats were to circle round inside the mortar-vessels, always in motion; but it was necessary to explain to the lieutenants the dangers close to them, all under water, but all buoyed.

You will see the place was pretty thickly strewed with rocks and islands, but there was a part where I could place all the mortar-vessels in an arc, equidistant from the fortresses of Swarto and Vargon Islands, which were the great object of attack, the shaded parts being thickly covered with fine buildings, of which I dare say Illustrated will give you an idea - the shores of course lined with batteries of all kinds, and heavy earth-works in front of the masonry ones.

Of course everything depended on our knowing accurately the distance from the mortar-vessels. If we put them too close, they would be unable to stand the heavy fire that would be poured upon them; if at all too far off, they would not throw shell into the buildings; and I fixed (with the admiral's approval) on three thousand three hundred yards off the batteries (only exposed to long-range guns and heavy mortars), which would put them three thousand nine hundred yards from the buildings in the centre. I can hardly describe to you my anxiety lest I should in any way have mistaken this, because every one would have thrown the blame on me - very justly. While waiting for the French, we ran down all the line in Merlin, the batteries on shore taking no notice of us. There were four divisions, each requiring a slight difference in range, as each had a part of the buildings to direct their fire to, as a centre. I carefully fixed the position of each division in Merlin; and with the captains of marine artillery on board (my old Parana friend Laurence being one), and the admiral present, I gave each his range and pointed out the object. We then went back near the flag-ship, and lay waiting till the French were ready at seven o'clock. I cannot describe to you my anxiety; for though I had only two hours' sleep the two previous nights (last night I had four, so that I have had six hours in the last seventy-two), I could not go to sleep, but was fancying how all would be thrown out if I had made any mistake. You know how I can fancy things sometimes! At last up went the signal, off went Captain Wemyss's mortar (each division trying one shell for the range). After an anxious thirty seconds, a little cloud of smoke with some fragments of a roof, just in the right position, took a weight off my mind; and when two, three, and four all went in well also, each showing its little cloud of smoke over some devoted building in the right spot, I believe I showed my delight in some rather extravagant and unusual capers on the paddle-box! About this I need not say more than that no change whatever had to be made in the charge or in the range.

Sweaborg

Well, after a little spell, batteries from all directions on shore sent shot and shell out in return, but so many fell short that it was soon reduced to a few guns of long range, and two or three uncomfortably heavy long-range mortars, which sent shot and shell well out to the line if they wished to. But soon our gun-boats went in and began firing at shorter ranges, and this made the fire from the shore little or nothing for the mortar-vessels, and they steadily went on, causing little clouds and occasionally more smoke, which soon began to show itself in good columns of smoke, and fires were established in several places.

About ten we could see we were evidently successful, and that total destruction was only a question of time. At ten a magazine blew up, bringing rounds of cheers from the crews of the large ships swarming on every top and yard like bees. Still went on smoke and fire, followed by flames through roofs and windows. We were running up and down along the line, with the admiral on board, occasionally being able to swear we were under fire by a stray shot dropping near us, and one shell of the big mortar (named 'Whistling Dick', after his Sevastopol brother) bursting a little over us, throwing the fragments on both sides of us, but not one touched us anywhere. One of my greatest pleasures, next to the feeling that I had proved to be right in my ideas about the effect of shelling in this way, was to see the changed visage of the admiral: instead of the anxious, thoughtful face of past weeks - anxious to do all he could, doubtful if any success to warrant the risk could be gained - he was looking bright and cheerful, and expressing surprise at the result. At twelve another small magazine exploded, bringing more cheers; but at 12.15 a tremendous column of smoke, mixed with fragments of all kinds, masses of timber, etc., showed we had found out a large one; but no sooner was the astonishment over and the cheers roaring in different directions, than up went another column and more fragments, and again another and another, with only intervals of seconds, till at least twenty explosions had followed the first in quick succession. Occasionally towards the end a longer interval would make us think it was over, when again masses of building would fly up in all directions, but all near one spot. At last it reached a larger new earthen battery on the top of Gustaff Island, and away went one side of it, guns and all, leaving, instead of bright-green turf, a heap of stones and rubbish. I think it was all on the inner slope of Gustaff, where I have written m. Now nothing is to be seen about there but bare space; and even on the next island, Vargon, the buildings on the point nearest to it are a heap of ruins. I think such an extraordinary explosion never occurred before. There might have been greater single ones. The fort I was under at Bomarsund, from the account of those who saw both, was a more tremendous explosion than the first; but a succession of at least twenty - some say thirty - is the extraordinary part. I think they must have had the magazine formed in cells or compartments of masonry, and that these went in succession, each blowing up its next-door neighbour by smashing the intervening wall, which might have caused the second or two's interval between each.

The gun-boats gradually worked nearer the shore, and sent plenty of shot and shell in, but, except smashing the batteries and houses, did little damage; it was the plumping, heavy mortar-shell that did the work, and the gun-boats played a good part by taking the attention of the enemy's guns off the mortar-boats. Shot dropped round them, shell burst over them, but they escaped wonderfully, being so small and in constant motion. They were handled very well, though two or three times I had some trouble with stupid ones, who would forget all about the shallow ground they were to avoid. The admiral had declared he would not recommend one of them who did not attend strictly to the directions on that head. Once I recalled one and pointed out that he was in dangerous ground, and again showed him the places he must keep in. Not long after one got on shore in the very place, and it took three gun-boats a long time to get him off. Fortunately for the lieutenant, I did not see it was the same I had recalled, for the admiral was on board us, and if I had known it I should most certainly have pointed it out to him, for this was my duty. The officers would not tell me, knowing I would do so; it would have lost him his promotion to a certainty.

In the evening the fires were very fine; all the buildings on Vargon were in flames, shooting through roofs and windows in streams. The fine centre building, many stories high, with ornamental turret, with the telegraph and flagstaff on it, and the flag flying, escaped for some time, but at last a stream of flame poured up round the posts and trellis-work of the turret, and staff and all soon fell, and soon after the fire poured through the windows, and then ran on through the large range of buildings extending from the central one. But it was evident that the mortar practice was so true that, instead of spreading round the two islands, it was just destroying the ranges of buildings fired at; so I advised the admiral to move in four of the more distant mortar-vessels four hundred yards nearer during the night, so as to reach Swarto. The mortars were failing, so that they dared not increase the charge. This was ordered; and as the admiral had urged me to get some rest in the night, instead of going-myself to place them, we had the lieutenant in charge of all the mortar-vessels on board, and pointed out the spots they were to go to on the chart, and sent him to the captain of that division to explain it. Having had one hour's sleep each of the two previous nights, I went to bed at eleven, and had four hours' sleep, when I was called, as the signal was made to fire. When I got on deck, the mortar-boats were firing and the gun-boats going in, but not one of my four distant ones were in position. I found that it had been necessary to fill up their shell in the night, and that they could not be got ready before daylight; but Vansittart was working very hard to bring them in, and had just got one in when I got there. The enemy had evidently plucked up spirit, for they were firing from every direction, and shot and shell were going farther than the first day. They had evidently been increasing the elevation in the night. Even in the Merlin, though I left her a little farther out, while I was placing the mortar-boats, shot went over her; and as we were doubling our line of mortar-boats in that spot, which was sure to bring more fire, as they would be thicker, I was annoyed to see that several gun-boats had left their proper station at the east end, and had crowded into the space for two, just inside my inner mortar-vessels, so that it brought such a cluster together that nearly all the guns were firing at it. Shots were dropping in all directions, splashing the water against the vessels' sides, and occasionally, though very rarely, one going into a gun-boat. In one of the mortar-boats I was standing talking to the captain of the fleet, my gig close alongside, when one of the large mortar-shells plumped down close to us, about two or three feet from the side we were standing against, and close to my gig's stern, and the next moment I saw a large shot strike near one of the outer mortar-boats. As that gun-boat's ground was Stewart's (of Dragon), and I found he with me disliked the others coming, these drawing fire on his two, I told him to send all the others away to the eastward, their proper station, where they could draw the fire off the mortar-boats instead of on to them, and immediately the heavy fire on that part stopped and the others got their share. Hewlett (Captain of the Edinburgh) had two gun-boats with Lancaster guns, specially trying all the first day to hit the three-decker; but though he struck her a few times, she seemed not much hurt. It made them remove her in the night, which was an advantage, for she had one of the longest range, very heavy guns firing from her gangway port.

I am sorry to say the admiral let two 'blocks' (Hastings and Cornwallis) and Amphion engage a small fort to the eastward, where they happened to be stationed, about six miles off; and though they did it some damage and upset a gun, yet it was soon replaced, and one 'block' and Amphion were struck many times in the hull, and Amphion's main-yard shot in two, so that they hauled out. Providentially no man was killed, but eleven in the Cornwallis and three in Amphion were wounded, and all for nothing. It could have done no good had they knocked the fort to pieces. They told me that soon after they went out the fort was as perfect as ever. It may be of use to show the folly of putting ships against such batteries. We destroyed a large place, without a man being hurt, in spite of the numerous batteries to protect it. They met loss and damage in trying to silence one small battery. It was the only part of the play I had nothing to do with, for the admiral did not tell me they were going to do it till after the vessels had started, and then I told him it could do no good, and only risk damage and loss.

We soon got our four vessels in, and two French mortar-vessels were also closer, and I hoped we should reach all Swarto; but the mortars were beginning to show such signs of danger of bursting from cracks in the chambers: one had burst in two pieces, one going overboard, the other in the forecastle, without hurting a man, and the cracks in others were being filled up by the engineer with tin and zinc to keep the powder out of them, so that we had to use smaller charges. Robert's slung mortars were the first to go, from their slings breaking; but the chambers suffered less, and the engineers refitted the slings, and they were again got into play. The French mortars, of a new construction, stood well, even with twenty-two pounds of powder, ours going bad with only eighteen pounds; but theirs did not range as far as ours - they were twelve inch, ours thirteen. In consequence of the mortars failing, we did not reach the northern part of Swarto; so that while we had plenty of damage and destruction and roaring fires all day, the large white house on the east of Swarto, and the large buildings near the church in the west, seemed to escape us. In fact, our fire reached up to a certain point, and we could not get it beyond: had the mortars stood, we could have ensured every spot going.

I ought to have stated that in my orginal plan, printed by the Admiralty, I had proposed placing mortars on all the rocky islets in addition to those in the vessels; and therefore the French sent a land-service mortar-battery of four mortars, which, though on a rock closer than intended (as they were only ten-inch mortars), did good service without the loss of a man. Our Government did not send any land-service mortars.

I have tried to show by the shaded parts the extent of the destruction by our fire. The front of Vargon had few buildings, only lines of forts. Two escaped burning, but were much hit by the gun-boats. The very black parts show the large masses of buildings destroyed. The mortars not so close were completing the destruction of the portions of Vargon, and soon a tremendous fire commenced raging on the north part of Vargon, where I have marked docks, etc. (the dense black smoke and flames of which raging up in the air showed it was caused by tar-pitch or some such combustible). It evidently spread rapidly, and soon we saw it extending to the extreme west point of Vargon, swallowing up lines of sheds, etc. Not long after the large range of sheds on the west point of Swarto, called gun-boat sheds, caught fire, and the fires were far more extensive and brilliant than the first day (I forgot to say that in the night the rocket-boats went in and threw hundreds of rockets in). The first day it was chiefly the grand public buildings and houses, but to-day they were evidently stores or combustible matter of some sort, with more wooden buildings. A very extensive and high building, near the gun-boat sheds, was in flame this evening, and at last a brilliant fire coming out of the hollow between the islands, just in the spot of the arsenal, showed that it had been fired. The space between the islands was one dense mass of fire by night-time, showing the lines of the large buildings on Vargon clearly, as the fire was shining through their empty window openings. The dense fire prevented our seeing what damage was being done to my friends the white house and the building near the church, which I had given as special mars to the sergeants of marine artillery, but when I could get a glimpse of them they seemed uninjured. The fact was, we could not range to them, from having to reduce the charge of powder in our mortars; but the white house as a mark was just the thing to drop the shell on the arsenal.

During the day I assure you I got plenty of compliments on the result of the attack, from admirals downwards, but I was also to endure a severe trial and mortification when taking the admirals on board to go our evening rounds with them along the line. I had just started, fortunately with a boat in tow, which obliged us to go less than half-speed, as a little breeze made a sea that threw water into her. We were just entering one end of the line, and were close to a mortar-vessel, when, to my astonishment, we ran bang on shore on a rock with only six feet, on which poor Merlin's fore-foot and some feet of keel were fixed so firmly that two heavy steamers, with anchors laid out and full speed in addition, could not start us. Fancy my feelings! There was a rock I knew well a little inside, but this one had escaped us in all our soundings and running to and fro, there being seven fathoms close to it. We must have shaved it often before, and often at full speed. Had not the boat prevented our going fast, we should have torn her old weak bows out, and she would have sunk there. As it was, she has torn off nearly three feet in depth of her fore-foot, and pieces of keel are all sticking out several feet long. I had bargained for a. few hours' good sleep that night, and yet had to work all through it, trying to get off. I feared when daylight broke they would point all their guns at our group. At 3 a.m. Captain Wemyss came to me to say that two more mortars had burst, but had hurt no one, and that the others were complaining so much that he feared to go on, so I advised him to stop all till he told the admiral. And there really ended our attack, for it was decided not to fire them any more. We ought to have had a duplicate set to replace them. However, there was little left to do. The line on the north side of Swarto being untouched, that would have been a good place to shell; also the small island of West Swarto, with three good buildings on it, which had only been shelled by gun-boats. A fourth mortar burst immediately after.

[Private.] Sunday, 12th. - I will continue the journal tomorrow. We have had a quiet Sunday, and we go to Nargen to-morrow. Some have tried to induce the chief to make an attempt on Helsingfors; but it is very different. We should have to go half the distance from the batteries we were at Sweaborg, and then, with no good mortars, would have to depend principally on our rockets for burning the town, and the only part that we could reach would be the poorer part of dwelling-houses; so that, for our own sakes, I could not advise it, as a repulse there would undo much of our success here. But on far higher motives I have always opposed it. I think it far more honourable to us as a Christian nation to spare the city of private property, while we destroy the fortress and arsenal. Should we not think so of a French general if he could burn the dockyard, etc., at Portsmouth (and of course there the town would have to take its chance), but who went away without destroying Cowes and Ryde? If cities and towns are to be destroyed when a fleet can reach them, why not every city or town on shore that an invading army marches into? I look upon Cronstadt, Sevastopol, and places like that - Brest and Toulon even - as government arsenals, and the towns as part of them, which must take their chance with the arsenals; but I hope we shall never set an example of destroying coast towns, or war will become more barbarous than it was fifty years since. They fully expect us to bombard Helsingfors, for the inhabitants have fled; only soldiers are to be seen, and ladders are placed against the buildings, as in Sweaborg, for putting fires out. I may be wrong; but if we had new mortars out, and every means at our disposal, I would advise the admiral the same, though I would undertake to destroy it with the means we have here, if I thought it right.

But I must not run on. We had a nice quiet forenoon, and I think I never saw the crew more impressed with the service. I did not omit adding thanksgiving for the great mercies we have received. I was glad to find that the admiral would not write his despatches to-day, as he could do so to-morrow, but as we were to sail early to-morrow he wished me before we went to take him to two islands in the extreme east and west positions, where we could see most of the destruction, in order that he might be sure what to state in his despatch. He was obliged to go this afternoon, but he took a little steamer instead of Merlin. We had a good view, and he was much surprised at the complete destruction of everything that came within the range of our shells; not a roof of any kind left over the whole space - utter destruction. As I know what I write will not be mentioned beyond those who read this, I will venture to tell you the gratifying way the admiral spoke to me to-day when alone in his cabin. I asked him if he had any objection to my writing him a few lines to recommend my officers, and especially the first lieutenant (Hewett), for the assistance they have given me. He said, ' Sulivan, I will do anything I can for the Merlin's officers, for I owe you a debt of gratitude that I cannot repay,' and he became quite overcome and went out into the stern gallery. After a little, though he could hardly speak - neither could I - he said, 'You may depend I will specially recommend Mr. Creyke - you need not write about him; but I must tell you that there is not an officer in the fleet but must feel that we owe this success chiefly to you.' I am sure you will all acquit me of egotism because I mention this, but it was the most gratifying moment of my public service. I tried to thank him, but could not say much, and we parted with a warmer pressure of hands than often takes place between a senior and a junior. Is it not very noble of him to show such utter neglect of wanting to take the credit of it, even that justly belongs to him, who had all the anxiety and responsibility of it? One of the most gratifying rewards I receive is the general expression, from Admiral Seymour down to the youngest officers, of congratulations to me on the success, and all captains, senior and junior, showing such feelings of interest in my favour, without the envy or jealousy that some might be expected to feel. It makes me condemn myself, and wonder how I have been spared, protected, and assisted, when I have been so little thankful for previous temporal mercies, and have even been discontented with my lot in some respects. I am very sorry Otter was not here. I asked the admiral at Cronstadt to have Firefly here before we began, to help us in the surveying work, wishing Otter and his first lieutenant might not lose the chance. He promised me he would. At Nargen I reminded him of it, but he said he had heard from the senior officer of the Bothnia squadron of so many of the ships getting on shore that he could not take Firefly from him, as a surveying-vessel was so needed there; and I think he was right, but I am very sorry for them.


Nargen, Tuesday, 14th.

I will try to continue from Friday evening. We were tugging at Merlin with Cossack and Geyser, fast to her, but had to lighten her by throwing coals overboard. I thought the three ships would draw all the Russians' fire on us at daylight; but as our mortars were done up and we were not firing, they seemed unwilling to commence against us, which saved us annoyance from shot and shell, as we were just within the limit of their longest ranges. While clearing, at noon I got a gun-boat from the admiral, and went to the east side of the place as far as I could to look through the islands. The arsenal fire was still raging, and the ruin over the back part of Swarto, as well as Vargon, was complete. The devastation caused by the grand explosion was terrible on Gustafsvard, but my friend the white house had only one shell-mark, and a house beyond it was uninjured; the long house west of it was burnt out at its south end, showing the extreme limit of destruction in that part. In the evening I went in my boat with Creyke to a nice place for looking between the islands from the westward, an island off Helsingfors, with a high rock, but only two thousand yards from all the Helsingfors batteries. On all the batteries men sat quietly looking at us, officers watching us with spy-glasses, but they did not fire. From there we saw that within the limits I have shown dark the destruction is so complete that not even a portion of a house is left, all a blackened, shattered ruin, but the windmill and two wooden houses on the eastern front, which seem to have been charmed. Between the large black building on the west end of Swarto and the church just outside our range, a little cluster of wooden houses stands quite uninjured, affording a striking contrast to the blackened ruins. The space between that black building and the long storehouses in the middle of Swarto is covered with the ruin of smaller stone houses, apparently dwellings.

Our mortars having all broken down or become dangerous to fire, the thing was over at 2 p.m. Merlin hove off, and I am glad to say only grass and false keel have suffered. The second night the rockets went in beautifully in all directions, the boats going closer in; these were fired at with shot and shell, but no one hurt, except by two accidents. A stupid lieutenant in Vulture's boat had two rockets lying uncovered under the thwart when firing another. He was warned of the danger, but neglected it. The rocket was fired, and the back-fire fired the rocket in the boat, which went through her bows, wounding seven men. In Luckraft's boat a rocket burst in the tube - an accident sometimes occurring - and, breaking the tube, wounded four or five men; but to the last, by the enemy's fire, not a man was hurt, thus bearing out fully the hopes expressed in my last letter to you that we should have success without losing a man's life.

Yesterday all sailed for this place, Merlin remaining with Locust to take up all the buoys and say 'good-bye'!

We have just got the mail. All the papers seem to have articles complaining of our doing nothing. I hope they will be satisfied. I wonder if they know that the vessel with the shell only reached us three days before we commenced operations? Surely we did not lose much time, as it has turned out that the delay was to our advantage, the longer nights helping us. The four fine days ended yesterday, and to-day we have dirty weather, the glass falling much, though everything seems to have favoured us, except the rotten mortars. It is a disgrace to our iron-founders that one old mortar of the last war stood three hundred and fifty rounds, while all the others, quite new, were unfit for use, or burst after two hundred to two hundred and fifty. I hope the Government will have a good row with the contractors. The iron is said to be bad. There is much in this that I should on no account like to be read, except by the immediate elder members, because children will talk; and on no account must anything relating to personal matters, the admiral or other officers, go beyond those.

A major of Indian engineers says that eleven days' bombardment at Mooltan did nothing like the damage, and when he left Sevastopol not long since it was not nearly so much damaged.

The following note shows why the fleet could not destroy the forts as well as the arsenal:-

With all the buildings in flames, the batteries were not at all weakened, and the men were in them, free from all the fire, as there were open parades between the mass of buildings and the fortifications. Besides, the flanking batteries in other parts sufficiently protected the front of the main fortress from any attack.

The following is an extract from the Sweaborg despatch of Admiral Dundas. Seldom, perhaps, has a junior officer been so strongly commended:-

'Duke of Wellington,' before Sweaborg,
August 13th, 1855.

Sir, - The intricate nature of the ground, from rocks a-wash and reefs under water, rendered it difficult to select positions for the mortar-vessels at proper range. In completing the arrangements for this purpose, I have derived the greatest advantage from the abilities of Captain Sulivan of H.M.S. Merlin. . . .

Late on the evening of the 10th inst, H.M.S. Merlin, under the command of Captain Sulivan, struck upon an unknown rock, on ground which he had himself repeatedly examined, while conducting me along the line of the mortar-vessels. No blame whatever can attach to this officer on the occasion, and I gladly avail myself of the opportunity which is thus afforded me of calling the especial attention of their lordships to the unwearied activity of this valuable officer. It is to the singular ability and zeal with which his arduous duties have been performed that much of the success of the operations of the fleet may be attributed, and I trust that I may be permitted on this occasion to recommend to the especial notice of their lordships the services of Commander R.B. Creyke, of that ship, whose conduct has been most favourably reported.

I have, etc, R.S. Dundas,
Rear-admiral and Commander-in-chief.

The Secretary of the Admiralty.

The importance of the action is well shown in Admiral Penaud's despatch. I have only a translation of it:-

'Tourville,' off Sweaborg, August 11th, 1855.

Monsieur le Ministre, - I am happy to announce to you, Monsieur le Ministre, that this operation succeeded perfectly; it was not only a simple cannonade which the squadrons have made against Sweaborg, it was a real bombardment, the important results of which have exceeded my utmost hopes.

Every one had only one object - to rival each other in zeal, and cause the enemy the greatest possible mischief; and the success of a vessel of one of the two nations was applauded by the other with the same cries of enthusiasm as if it had been gained by its own flag. Doubtless, Monsieur le Ministre, the bombardment of Sweaborg will exercise considerable influence on the Russian people, who have not acquired the conviction that their fortified places and their arsenals are not completely sheltered from the attacks of the allied navies, which may and must hope to be able to deal destruction on the enemy's coast without suffering any very considerable injury themselves.

I am, etc.,
Penaud. (From "History of the War with Russia" (W. Tyrrell).)

The following letter to Captain Sulivan from Major Wemyss, the marine artillery officer in charge of the mortars at Sweaborg, may be of interest:-

Portsmouth, January 7th, 1857.

I thank you for your hearty congratulations. I had been looking out a long time to see some reward conferred on you for your valuable services, both in suggestion and execution in the Baltic. Well do I recollect your anxiety that an expedition should be sent to bombard Sweaborg, and your great activity and clearness of judgment in making the arrangements and dispositions for carrying out the affair.

It has escaped the notice of many people that I had in the Baltic not only to organise a new service with a long-forgotten weapon, and answer for its effects in action being destructive at a great distance, but also that I departed from the old custom of slow firing. ... I had to undergo criticism, until subsequent experiments proved that it was the bad mortars, and not the bad usage of them, that brought us to so crippled a state. But the responsibility of departing from long-established precedent was a heavy one. Vertical fire from the sea has now been greatly developed, and will be made great use of by the power that commands the sea in a future war. May that power still be our own country ! ...

I agree with you perfectly that mortars should be expended at bombardments like any other stores, but ours were infamously bad. ...

If it is unpleasant to stand over a bursting shell, how much more so is it to have to serve a mortar which is likely to burst the next round! I think our men in the Baltic behaved splendidly in making no difficulty when three mortars had burst, and the remainder were so unsound.

Note.- A French naval officer has drawn conclusions from the operations in the Baltic and Black Seas which support Captain Sulivan's views as to the value of vertical fire, described in a later chapter: "C'est à des feux courbes, partant d'une flottille de bombardes et combinés avec les puissants feux de brèche des batteries flottantes, que nous semble appartenir l'avenir des attaques maritimes. C'est par l'emploi persévérant du tir vertical ... que la marine pourra ... agir ... contre les places de l'ennemi. ... Cette nouvelle tactique navale. ... La destruction opérée a Sweaborg par une trentaine de mortiers marins ... à Odessa, Sébastopol ... confirment ces prévisions sur 1'avenir réservé aux feux courbes de la marine. La flottille française lança sur Sweaborg 4,150 projectiles, dont 2,828 bombes. Un auteur anglais évalue à 3,099 bombes la quantité de feux courbes lancés par les 16 bombardes britanniques. ... Les cinques bombardes françaises, spécialement construites pour cette destination, et plus solidement installées, en armaient chacun deux (mortiers). La flottille anglaise aurait lancé, en outre, 11,200 boulets ou obus" ("Attaques et bombardements maritimes, Obligado, Bomarsund, Sweaborg," etc., Lieut. M. Richild Grivel, 1857).


Source: Henry Norton Sulivan: "The Life and Letters of Admiral Sir B.J. Sulivan K.C.B.", John Murray, 1896, 318 - 343.
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