‘Fifteen Sunken Ships’

Novorossiysk, Summer 1919 © IWM (Q 75904)

I left you last week on board the Huntscastle in the harbour of Novorossisk, or Novorossiysk as it is spelled these days. Hopefully you haven’t been too seasick. Before we dropped anchor..

…we saw about fifteen sunken ships which the Bolshies sunk before they retreated inland.


Though this seems like a simple enough piece of information to investigate as soon as I tried to figure out when this retreat happened it became apparent that I needed to look briefly into what led to the Russian Civil War-distinct from the Russian Revolution-which my granddad was intervening in before we can disembark. Though I hear you all groan I console myself with the thought that these long, arduous periods of waiting interspersed with brief flashes of action mirrors what the soldiers experience of war…you wee troopers you!


Battle of Orel, October 1919. Painting Giuseppe Rava.

So it seems the Bolshies, or the Red Army, had retreated from Novorossiysk at some point. But  the opposing White Army-on whose side the British were weighing in-under their overall leader General Anton Ivanovich Deniken were already themselves in retreat and coming south. They had reached Orel some 200 miles south of Moscow in October 1919 assuming that victory was within their grasp but the tables turned very quickly when the Don Cossacks switched sides and the Whites were beaten back by the Red Army under Stalin also in October of 1919, (Gottfried, p.116)(Wright, p.418). By December of 1919, Novorossiysk, a port which already had over seen the arrival of support for the Whites in terms of ammunition, tanks, aircraft and so forth (Wright, p.393-394), would already be becoming the exit point for refugees fleeing the Bolshies and the White Army.


Russia 1919. Click to embiggen! Denikin (and in the end Wrangel) was in charge of the White Army in the south. Orel was as far as he would get. He would retreat back down the railway line along which most of the action  takes place with some on the rivers Volga and Don. My granddads’ travels would be within the yellow circle. For context you can see here that the other fronts. For the British the Northern Forces at Archangel and Murmansk were the largest area of operations and the ones in my experience most mentioned in the history of the time. Other fronts were Siberia, Eastern Baltic, Turkestan and Caspian as well as South Russia and Crimea. Kolchak refers to Admiral Kolchak. Image:Map of Civil War Russia is from Prof. Alan Kimball, University of Oregon. Available at https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/russian_revolution/thecivilwar3

So the first question is when were these fifteen ships sunk?For that we have to reverse engines…


The February Revolution occurred in 1917 when there was a spontaneous popular uprising in Petrograd provoked by the hardships of war and the corruption of Imperial rule. The Provisional Government, which were supported by the monied class, was put in place with the intention of creating a democracy while workers councils, or soviets, sprang across Russia up to represent the workers rights in the new regime (Curtis, 1998).

This upheaval was fairly universal. We have touched on the Dublin Lock Out of 1913 when employers black-listed workers who struck for better conditions. Many of these workers were forced to join the British Army as a result. Then there was the Easter Rising of 1916 in which my granddads’ young brother Walter was shot, dying from his wound some months later (Duffy, 2015). In light of this, it is interesting to note that neither my granddad nor his father, my great-grandfather, who had been a dredging master on the Dublin Docks until his death in 1916 from an accident, nor any of the family, who lived in the heart of the Dublin Docks area, held socialist views. Or at least they are not recorded.

Bolshevism was not popular in certain circles, monied ones undoubtedly but perhaps in poorer families too. Maybe for a family that had lost its main bread-winner prematurely, the connection to the docks and to the dockers was not strong. On top of that the Scotts were blow-ins from Scotland. They would not have felt that rooted in the East Wall. They had no extended family in Dublin. For my great-grandmother, Annie Scott, who found work to support her family with Royal Liver Assurance (Duffy, 2015), it would surely have been counter-productive to become involved in socialist activities. So while her son, my granddad, like those who had joined in 1914, more than likely joined for the extra pay offered to those taking part in the British Intervention in Russia he was probably happy enough to fight the Bolsheviks too. Or as he calls them:the Bolshies..

Note:There were soviets in Ireland between 1919 and 1923, including one in Waterford where I now live. I have written a little about the Waterford Soviet here and you can also check out Robert Nielsen’s post on his blog Whistling in the Wind here.

The soviets that sprang up in Russia in 1917 provided fertile ground for the radical socialists to agitate and The Provisional Government was overthrown in October 1917 by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin. Lenin had been assisted by the Germans in returning to Russia with the intention of interrupting Russia’s involvement in the Great War. In December 1917, Lenin, along with Leon Trotsky- who would be named the new nations’ Commissar of War- began negotiations with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria) and on March 3rd 1918 in Brest-Litovsk, then the headquarters of the German Army, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed. The terms of the treaty were harsh as the Germans were still on the offensive, forcing Russia to cede a huge amount of territory to stop this incursion. Many Russians disagreed with the terms and the treaty would play a large part in provoking the Russian civil war. (Curtis, p.55-57) (Cavendish, 2008).

Are you still with me?

The Black Sea Fleet, a part of the Imperial Russian Navy, had been making successful incursions against Turkey, allies of Germany, at the time of the treaty. While the fleets’ main base was on the Crimean peninsula at Sevastapol, Novorossiysks’ protected harbour was also important. Brest-Litovsk demanded that the ships of the Black Sea Fleet be handed over to the Germans. To avoid this, the ships were moved from Sevastopol to Novorossiysk (SteelNavy.com, 2011) where the Bolsheviks scuttled much of the fleet in June 1918 (Sputnik News, 2017)(Graham, 2016).

So while this entry in my granddad’s account gives the impression that the Bolshevik retreat was recent, it happened eighteen months earlier and pertained to World War One rather than the Civil War. There may have been a desire on the Hunstcastle to believe the enemy were on the run but the truth was darker for the British Expeditionary Force and more so for the White Russians. Those eleven ships had been sunk to buy time for the Bolsheviks to find their feet. By 1919 had begun to coalesce into a fighting force which, though smaller than the White Army, was more organised (which, as will become apparent, wouldn’t have been difficult). So the Bolshies were already routing the White Army and their allies. Novorossiysk would see the brunt of that rout..

A little bit about the ships…

Records I have found so far show eleven and not fifteen ships were scuttled:one Dreadnought, four Fidonisy Class destroyers, two large Destroyers, two Destroyers (regular-sized I assume) and two Torpedo Boats. The Dreadnought, Svobodnaya Rossiya was sunk by the Kerch as was the Fidonisi. In fact it is said that the Kerch sunk more tonnage than any other destroyer from any country in World War 1 (SteelNavy.com). Unfortunately, because of this scuttling, a lot of that tonnage was her own fleet. She was then sunk by their own crew.


Svobodnaya Rossiya in her previous incarnation as Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya 1911-1918 in dry dock in Sevastopol. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_battleship_Imperatritsa_Ekaterina_Velikaya#/media/File:ImperatritsaEkaterinaVelikaya1911-1918Sevastopol.jpg

Dreadnoughts Svobodnaya Rossiya, 19/06, torpedoed by the Kerch.

Large DestroyerPronzitelny 17/06, Gromky

3DF-Fidonisy Class Destroyer Fidonisi 18/06, Gadzhibei 18/06, Kaliakyria, 18/06, Kerch, 19/06

DestroyerLt. Shestakov, Kap. Lt. Baranov

Torpedo Boats Smetlivy, Stremitelny.


An illustration of the Kerch from a model making site. Available at SteelNavy.com.

The dates vary a little from source to source but they were all scuttled around June 16th-19th 1918 in Tsemes Bay at Novorossiysk. One source out of many claims these ships were scuttled at Sevastopol but this is incorrect as the ships had left Sevastopol to escape the Germans who were advancing on it (SteelNavy.com, 2011)(Watson, 2016).

Bespokoynyy01 derserky class destoryer

Bespokoiny a Derzy or Bespokoiny-class destroyer a similar ship to the Pronzitelny. Succeeded by the Fidonisy class destroyer.

What to me what was fairly astonishing is that there attempts later to raise these ships, some successful, mostly for scrap or for their engines but the Kaliakyria, the only one of all these ships to see active service again, was raised and repaired in 1925 (by this point my granddad had already survived a second Civil War, this time an Irish one). She was renamed the Dzerzhinski only sinking again when she struck a mine in May of 1942 off Sevastopol with the loss of all 260 on board (SteelNavy.com). My granddad was by that time a Garda in Wexford filling his days retrieving bodies of sailors and airmen along the Irish coast.

Still, on further thought it sounds like these ships were visible above water if the bad weather report is anything to go by. Presumably they were sunk in shallow water so raising them would be a possibility. The bay ranges from depths of 21 to 27 metres (Wikipedia).


Fidonisi. A Fidonisi-class destroyer, sister ship to the Kerch and victim of the Kerch. Available at http://www.steelnavy.com/CombrigKerchWWIDD.htm [accessed 1/12/2017].

Anyway. It is fairly certain that it is these ships, the pride of the Black Sea Fleet, that my granddad is referring to in December 1919. ‘About fifteen’ was a close estimate from a soldier on the ground (or even on the water) and especially in an account after the fact when to exaggerate is often big attraction. Mind you, he did have two days to count them and as exaggeration and embroidery, as we have seen and will see, were not a part of my granddad’s literary armory it is possible there were smaller boats along with the larger ones recorded or some were so broken up it was hard to tell if they were one or two or more.

Note:I have just come across an account of the scuttling in Tolstoy’s Ordeal Trilogy. It is in Vol 2:1918 but I will publish the account here in a separate post.


While this may seem a long way around the houses, especially when you are all seasick, I think a potted history was necessary at this point and these ships provided the anchor for it (ahem). We will be investigating some of these elements further as we proceed inland.


Novorossiysk 1889:so near and yet so far..From Travels Across Russia: 1889
J. Guthrie Watson’s ‘A Journey Across Russia’ Album available at https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/watsons-russia.html [accessed 1/12/2017]

If you are still with me, you may wonder why you are still on board, why, if the climate of Novorossiysk is described as Mediterranean, the sea is rough and you are vomiting and freezing in your bunks. Well for about 46 days a year between November and March, Novorossiysk, though usually sheltered, is subjected to North easterly winds from the Caucasus Mountains called the Bora which lasts from 1 to 3 days, making the bay unnavigable and causing a steep drop in temperature (Grinevetsky, et al., p.560-571). It is the Bora that you hear howling outside and which is keeping the Huntscastle from mooring  in this chilly December ..

But the wind will die soon and I will land you in Novorossiysk very shortly. But first I want you to know what you are getting into….

Tomorrow Novorossisyk:Then & Now (and as a treat, some bandits).

References & Further Reading

Cavendish, R., (2008),The Treaty of Brest-Livostok in History Today, Vol. 58, March 3rd, [online], available at http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/treaty-brest-litovsk [accessed 30/11/2017].

Curtis, G., E., ed.,(1998), Russia:A Country Study, Area Handbooks, Washington:Library of Congress.

D’Arcy, C., (2015), Red flag – An Irishman’s Diary on the Irish Soviets, Monday, May 4th, [online], available at https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/red-flag-an-irishman-s-diary-on-the-irish-soviets-1.2197308 [accessed 30/11/2017].

Duffy, J., (2015), Children of the Rising, Dublin:Hachette.

Gottfried, T., (2001), The Road to Communism, Twenty-First Century Books.

Grunevetsky et al., (2014), Black Sea Encyclopedia, London:Springer

McLaughlin, S., (2003). Russian & Soviet Battleships. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

Nielsen, R. (2012), Irish Soviets 1919-23, [online], available at https://whistlinginthewind.org/2012/10/08/irish-soviets-1919-23/ [accessed 30/11/2017].

Sputnik News, (2017), 234 Years of Naval Glory, and Counting: Russian Black Sea Fleet Marks Birthday https://sputniknews.com/russia/201705131053583690-russian-black-sea-fleet-history-of-heroism/ [accessed 30/11/2017].

SteelNavy.com, (2011), Russian Black Sea Destroyer Kerch, MOdel 1:700, [online], available at http://www.steelnavy.com/CombrigKerchWWIDD.htm [accessed 30/11/2017].

Watson, G., (2016), World War 1 at Sea:From Tsar to Commissar:Russian Naval Organisation and Warships 1914-1922,  on Naval-History.net, [online], available at http://www.naval-history.net/xGW-RussianNavy1914-1918.htm#8 [accessed 30/11/2017].

Wright,D., (2017), Churchills Secret War with Lenin:British & Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, Solihull:Helion & Company.


5 responses to “‘Fifteen Sunken Ships’

  1. Fekkin’ ell you had the wee trooper thinking it’s Sunday and I’m supposed to be going out! Excellent info on the Russian Revolution and sinking ships etc. I get what you mean about the long periods of inactivity, it sounds like he saw more ‘action’ back home than he did in the war!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hah!Sorry…it was going to be a Sunday post but I felt bad leaving you all on shipboard for another week so thought I had better do two!Glad you like the info…as I said to April any feedback or input is brilliant…I think most of us see more action at home…war (and being an extra in a movie oddly enough) seems to be mostly about waiting…though I could be corrected there not having been to war.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I find the whole Russian Revolution/Civil War thing very confusing, not that you haven’t done a good job of explaining it. You have, but there are just so many different factions that it’s almost impossible to keep up with them. To say nothing of people switching sides like the Cossacks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well thats good to hear April…not that its confusing but my explanation is some way clear…probably because I am writing as I am learning….I fear if I knew the whole lot Id give up in despair!What I am trying to do is burrow along my granddads path and shine a little light there…though of course everything is connected and its difficult not to include an overview…thanks for the comment…any and all feedback and information welcome!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: ALEXEI TOLSTOY~The Scuttling of the Black Sea Fleet at Novorossiisk 1918 | From Buckinghamshire to South Russia & Return Journey·

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