Most humiliating military defeat in history

Brig “Mercury” Attacked by Two Turkish Ships – Wikipedia, the painting of Ivan Aivazovsky.

On May 14, 1829, three Russian warships, frigate Standard and brigs Orpheus and Mercury, cruising near the Bosporus Strait, saw on the horizon the Turkish squadron approaching them, considerably exceeding their strength (6 ships of the line, 2 frigates, 2 corvettes). Since there was no need to take the unequal battle, the commander of the Standard captain-lieutenant Sakhnovsky signaled to sail with the highest possible speed towards Sevastopol. However, due to the weak lower wind, Mercury could not get away from the chase and was overtaken by the two largest and fastest Turkish ships of the line: the three-deck 110-gun Selimiye (Turkish First Rate ship of the line ‘Selimiye’ (1797)) under the flag of the Admiral (Kapudan Pasha [Kapudan Pasha – Wikipedia]), and the two-deck 74-gun (Seventy-four (ship) – Wikipedia) Real-Bei under the pennant of the Rear Admiral. Mercury was a Russian navy two masts warship with eighteen 24-pound carronades (Carronade – Wikipedia) for close combat and two long-range 3-pound cannons. (Russian brig Mercury – Wikipedia).

The commander of Mercury captain-lieutenant Alexander Kazarsky (Alexander Kazarsky – Wikipedia) offered to take the fight. In response, Lieutenant Prokofiev suggested, if the brig is deprived of the opportunity to resist, blow him up, clinging to one of the enemy ships. All the officers unanimously accepted this offer. Kazarsky put a loaded pistol in front of the powder storehouse, and the stern flag, so that he did not under any circumstances descend, was nailed to the gaff.

At half past two in the afternoon, the Turks approached the distance of the shot, and their shells began to fall into the sails and rigging of Mercury. All this time, Kazarsky sat on the quarterdeck and did not allow shooting, so as not to waste shells in vain. Seeing the team’s confusion, Kazarsky said to the sailors: “What are you guys? Nothing, let them frighten – they are taking Georgievsky crosses (the highest military award) to all of us”. Then the captain ordered to open the rear ports and himself opened fire from the stern chaser.

The first to attack was Selimiye. Only then Kazarsky announced a battle alarm and Mercury, skilfully evading the first salvo, gave a full starboard volley himself.

A few minutes later, Real-Bei came to the left side of Mercury, and the Russian brig was sandwiched between two enemy ships. Then from Selimiye shouted in Russian: “Surrender, take away the sails!”. In response, the brig shouted “Hurray!” and opened fire from all cannons and rifles. As a result, the Turks had to remove the ready-made boarding teams from the yards. Along with the usual round shots, the Turks used chain(bar) shots (Chain-shot – Wikipedia) and carcasses (Carcass (projectile) – Wikipedia). The crew extinguished three fires. Despite the bombardment, the masts remained unharmed and Mercury retained mobility, continuing to maneuver under the fire and not allowing Turkish ships to execute an onboard volley.

The painting of Nikolay Krasovsky

At the beginning of the sixth hour, thanks to successful shots of gunner Ivan Lisenko, Selimiye’s spar and rigging were damaged, after which his topsails and topgallant sails were hanging. Selimiye was left a little behind and brought to the wind for repairs, but gave a full volley after Mercury that knocked down one of the cannons.

The painting of Michail Tkachenko

About six o’clock, Mercury managed to damage the spar and rigging of Real-Bei. The fallen studdingsails closed the ports of the bow chasers, and the coiling of the topsails deprived the ship of the ability to maneuver. Real-Bei had laid down in a drift.

The painting of Robert Barry (Robert Barry (artist) – Wikipedia).

Mercury, which received very serious damage and lost 10 of 115 crew members (4 killed and 6 wounded), about 17 hours the next day joined the Russian fleet.

Brig “Mercury” after the victory over two Turkish ships meets the Russian fleet. Painting of Ivan Aivazovsky.

The brig received the following damage:
– 22 holes in the case
– 133 holes in the sails
– 16 damage in the spar
– 148 damage in the rigging
– all rowing boats were broken
– one carronade was damaged.

Below is the scheme of the case damage.

The victory of the small brig in battle with two ships of the line seemed so fantastic that some naval specialists refused to believe in it. An English naval historian F. Jane (Fred T. Jane – Wikipedia), for example, said: “It is absolutely impossible to assume such a small ship as Mercury to disable two ships of the line.”

The newspaper “Odessa Herald” wrote about the battle: “This feat is such that there is no other similar in the history of navigation; it is so amazing that you can hardly believe it. The courage, fearlessness and self-sacrifice rendered by the commander and the crew of Mercury are more glorious than the thousand victories of the ordinary.”

The navigator of the Real-Bei in his letter of May 27, 1829, described this battle as follows: “On Tuesday, at dawn, approaching the Bosphorus, we noticed three Russian warships, a frigate and two brigs; we chased after them, but were able to catch up with only one brig at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The ship of the Kapudan Pasha and our ship then opened a strong fire. The case is unheard of and incredible. We could not force him to surrender: he fought, retiring and maneuvering with all the skill of an experienced combat captain, to the point that, ashamed to say, we stopped the battle, and he continued his way with glory. This brig was to lose, no doubt, half of his crew, because once he was from our ship for a pistol shot, and he, of course, would be even more damaged if the Kapudan Pasha did not stop the fire one hour ahead of us. If in the great deeds of the ancients and our times there are feats of courage, then this act must eclipse all of them. With twenty cannons, no more, he fought against two hundred and twenty in full view of the windward enemy fleet.”

For this victory, the brig was awarded the stern St. George flag. Only two warships in the history of the Russian Fleet were given the right of raising the Admiral’s St. George’s stern flag – the ship of the line Azov for courage in achieving victory in the Navarino Battle (Russian ship of the line Azov (1826) – Wikipedia) and brig Mercury. Their merits were so high that no warship received such a reward anymore. However, these flags were inherited by the successor ships named after these ships: “Memory of Azov” and “Memory of Mercury”. In addition, the decree of the emperor ordered to always have in the Black Sea Fleet the brig, built on the drawings of the Mercury.

Captain Kazarsky and lieutenant Prokofiev received the Order of St. George IV class, the remaining officers – the Order of St. Vladimir IV degree, the lower ranks – other awards. Captain-Lieutenant Kazarsky was promoted to captain of rank 2 and appointed as an fligel-adjutant (Flügeladjutant – Wikipedia). All the officers were promoted to the following ranks and were given the right to add to their family coat of arms an image of the Tula (Tula Arms Plant – Wikipedia) pistol, the shot of which was supposed to blow up the powder in a cage-camera in the event that the brig lost the opportunity to resist.

The coat of arms of Kazarsky with the image of brig Mercury and the Tula pistol.

Despite the incredibility of the victory of Mercury, there are several factors that contributed to this victory:

Throughout the battle, the Turkish ships could not occupy positions for an broadside, either thanks to the competent maneuvering of the brig, and because of the short distance, in order to avoid the entry of the cannonballs of one Turkish ship into another. In addition, at close range Turkish ships could hit at the low board of Mercury only with shots from the lower deck. Unable to broadside, the Turkish ships could aim only with eight-ten bow chasers.

At the same time, Mercury’s short carronades were effective in close combat and allowed to shoot at a higher pace due to the relative simplicity of recharging. They had better aiming opportunities and could fire on the spar and rigging of the enemy. In addition, each of the Turkish ships could shoot only one side, while Mercury, having an opponent on both sides, could use all available cannons. Thus, practically during the entire battle, with the exception of two episodes, the ratio of the active cannons was 16-20 for the Turks against 18 for the Russians.

Finally, in a naval Battle of Navarino (Battle of Navarino – Wikipedia) that took place one and a half years earlier, the entire Turkish fleet was destroyed, which significantly weakened the Turkish naval forces and the experienced crew of Mercury collided with a much less experienced Turkish crew.

The defeat of two ships of the line in battle against a small brig is probably the most humiliating military defeat in naval history.

P.S. Regarding this case, I remembered another case, about which I read once, but I do not remember where. At times of Spanish naval domination, two English warships collided with a lonely Spanish. Usually the Spaniards had a numerical advantage, so the English knew perfectly well how to fight one against two and two against three or four, but how to fight two against one was a mystery for them. So they simply let the lone daredevil go, without venturing into battle. I do not know if it’s true or not, but it would have been better for Turks not to contact the brave Mercury.

P.P.S. Vassilis Kikilias wrote: “Isn’t a brig much faster than a ship of the line? Especially a first class one? How come it was caught in the first place?”

Brig is much lower, so if the lower wind is weak, the upper sails of much higher ships of the line much better catch the wind. Also, as it follows from the text, the Turks used the studding sails to enhance their speed.

Something like this. Naturally, the small brig did not have such a sails.

The same thing happened in the famous battle of the HMS Revenge (Battle of Flores (1591) – Wikipedia): due to the weak lower wind, heavy but high Spanish galleons overtook the lighter but lower Revenge. There is another advantage of higher vessels – they can shield the tailwind for the lower ones. In this way, the high overtaking Spanish galleons shielded the wind for the Revenge, and she lost her move.

That is, small sailing ships are not always faster than large ones. Sometimes quite the opposite.

Mike Andrews wrote: “The most staggering statistic is that there were only 10 Russian casualties out of 115 men in three and a half hours of fighting. A frigate was much more lightly built than ships of the line and the small butcher’s bill really is amazing. The Turkish gunnery must have been incredibly inefficient – not that it detracts from the courage of the Russian crew.”

This is an interesting question. First of all, Mercury had an important feature – he was a sailing-rowing vessel and had seven oars from each side for standing rowing. Due to this, the ship had greater maneuverability but lower sailing speed, especially with a weak wind, which allowed Turks to overtake him. The second consequence was a low-profile case. Thus, Mercury was a very difficult target, even without taking into account maneuverability, and given the maneuvering, he was generally difficult to hit.

The painting of navigator Prokofiev who was a participant of the battle. The only painting showing the use of oars by Mercury.

For effective firing, a ship of the line had to be on the traverse of Mercury, and here the problems begin. The overtaking, of course, is easier in a wake, but then the ship turns out too close to the low-profile brig and cannot fire effectively, because the upper decks are simply not involved in the shelling. The guns of the ship of the line are intended for firing at high-profile ships from a distance along a ballistic trajectory with an inclination of the trunk. In the case of a closely located low-profile brig, they must shoot down, and I do not know if they had such an opportunity at all.

Trying to catch up and concurrently create a distance for effective shooting, the battleship risks not catching up with the brig. In addition, the latter can simply turn away, leaving only the projection of the stern for firing, and the battleship will have to catch up with it again.

Thus, the problem is that ships of the line are not designed for catch-up and maneuvering at all. Their task is to take a place in the line and fire on the remote target. This is an issue for frigates and corvettes, but on that day, the height of the masts and the ability to take the wind was decisive, so the ships of the line appeared the fastest.

And now a digression is needed. Three days before, on May 11, the same Turkish squadron captured a 36-gun Russian frigate Rafail. He was less fortunate than Mercury and was surrounded by fifteen Turkish ships. The Russian Maritime Regulations did not provide for surrender, the ship had to fight, which meant the certain death. It is not known for certain what happened on board, but in the end the captain surrendered the ship without a fight. They say that the officers wanted to fight, but the sailors refused, but all this is vague. It is important that the Captain Stroinikov was the previous captain of the Mercury before Kazarsky, that is, he knew Kazarsky well, and on the day of the battle, Stroinikov with the captive crew was aboard the Real-Bei. The same navigator who wrote about this fight wrote the following: “During the battle the commander of the Russian frigate was telling me that the captain of this brig would never surrender, and if he lost all hope, then he blow this brig into the air.”

That is, I believe that initially the Turks believed that they enough just to catch up with Mercury, hoping for his surrender. When it turned out that there will be no surrender, and besides they understood whom they were dealing with, they were trapped. Boarding was the only real solution, but grappling with the crazy fighter, ready to blow himself up, is a too risky pleasure.

So, no boarding, no distance for effective shooting, the skillfully maneuvering low-profile target and his permanent accurate fire with increasing damage to spare and rigging – this is a trap.

This, of course, sounds ridiculous, but it seems that it was Kazarsky who trapped two huge ships of the line and mocked them for three hours.

Yes, it’s possible that the Turkish gunners were not of the best quality, but I’m afraid any other ship of the line in their place could be in the same situation. Statistics of the damage clearly indicates the hard target: more than 300 hits in sails, spare and rigging and only 22 in the hull. That is why the casualties were small. It is difficult to say what was more important, the bad shooting of the Turks or the art of Kazarsky and the courage of the Russians.

This is the immortal story of David and Goliath.