Hooray! To the Russian fleet … Now I say to myself: why wasn’t I at least a midshipman at Corfu”.
A. V. Suvorov
220 years ago, in March 1799, Russian sailors under the command of Admiral Fyodor Ushakov captured the French strategic fortress of Corfu in the Mediterranean Sea. The victory was won during the Mediterranean campaign of the Black Sea squadron in 1798 - 1799.
At the end of the 18th century, the political life of Europe was full of important events. The French bourgeois revolution became one of them and caused a whole chain of new major events. At first, the monarchies surrounding France tried to stifle the revolution and restore royal power. France then began “exporting revolution,” which soon morphed into ordinary imperial, predatory expansion. France, having achieved serious success in transforming society and the army, created its continental empire.
France made the first aggressive campaigns in the Mediterranean region. In 1796 - 1797 French troops under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Austrians and their Italian allies, and conquered Northern Italy. In May 1797, the French captured the Ionian Islands belonging to Venice (Corfu, Zante, Kefalonia, St. Maurus, Cerigo and others), located off the western coast of Greece. The Ionian Islands were of strategic importance, as they allowed them to control the Adriatic Sea, to exert influence on the western part of the Balkans and the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. In 1798, the French took control of the Papal States in Central Italy and proclaimed the Roman Republic. In northern Europe, the French took control of Holland - under the name of the Batavian Republic.
In May 1798, Napoleon began a new campaign of conquest - the Egyptian one. Napoleon planned to capture Egypt, build the Suez Canal and go further to India. In June 1798, the French captured Malta and landed in Egypt in early July. The British fleet made a number of mistakes and was unable to intercept the French army at sea. In August, British ships under the command of Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of Aboukir. This significantly worsened the supply and position of the French in Egypt. However, the French still held a strategic position in the Mediterranean - Malta and the Ionian Islands.
Paul the First stopped Russia's participation in the war with France (First anti-French coalition). He wanted to completely revise the policy of his mother Catherine II. However, the capture of Malta by the French was perceived in the Russian capital as an open challenge. Russian Emperor Pavel Petrovich was the Grand Master of the Order of Malta. Malta was formally under Russian protectorate. In addition, shortly after the invasion of the French army into Egypt and Napoleon's attempts to occupy Palestine and Syria, Porte's request for help in the fight against Bonaparte followed. Constantinople feared that Napoleon's invasion could cause the collapse of the empire.
In December 1798, Russia entered into a preliminary agreement with England to restore the anti-French alliance. On December 23, 1798 (January 3, 1799), Russia and Turkey signed an agreement, according to which the ports and Turkish straits were open to the Russian fleet. Traditional enemies - Russians and Ottomans, became allies against the French. Even before the conclusion of an official alliance, it was decided that Russia would send the Black Sea Fleet to the Mediterranean.
In St. Petersburg, it was decided to send a squadron of the Black Sea Fleet to the Mediterranean Sea. When this plan arose in the capital, the Black Sea squadron under the command of Vice Admiral F. F. Ushakov was on the march. For about four months, the ships sailed the waters of the Black Sea, only occasionally entering Sevastopol. In early August 1798, Ushakov's squadron made another stop at the main base of the fleet. Immediately, Ushakov was given the order of the emperor: to go on cruise to the Dardanelles region and, at the request of the Port, together with the Turkish fleet, to fight against the French. They were given only a few days to prepare for the campaign. That is, the high command approached the campaign irresponsibly, it was ill-prepared. The ships and crews were not prepared for a long voyage, from one voyage they were almost immediately thrown into a new one. Hope was the high fighting qualities of Ushakov, his officers and sailors.
At dawn on August 12, 1798, the Black Sea squadron of 6 battleships, 7 frigates and 3 messenger ships went to sea. There was a landing on the ships - 1700 grenadiers of the Black Sea naval battalions. The sea was very rough, the ships started to leak, so two battleships had to be returned to Sevastopol for repair.
In Constantinople, Ushakov held talks with representatives of the Port. The British ambassador also took part in the negotiations to coordinate the actions of the allied squadrons in the Mediterranean. As a result, it was decided that the Russian squadron would go to the western coast of the Balkan Peninsula, where its main task would be to liberate the Ionian Islands from the French. For joint actions with the Russians, a squadron was allocated from the Turkish fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Kadyr-bey (consisting of 4 battleships, 6 frigates, 4 corvettes and 14 gunboats), which was subordinate to Ushakov. "Ushak-pasha", as the Turkish sailors called the Russian admiral Fyodor Fedorovich Ushakov, in Turkey they were feared and respected. He repeatedly beat the Turkish fleet at sea, despite its numerical superiority. Kadyr-bey, on behalf of the Sultan, was ordered to "honor our admiral as a teacher." Constantinople undertook to supply the Russian squadron with everything it needed. Local Turkish authorities were ordered to comply with the requirements of the Russian admiral.
At the Dardanelles, the Black Sea squadron linked up with the Turkish fleet. From the composition of the united fleet, Ushakov allocated 4 frigates and 10 gunboats under the general command of Captain 1st Rank A. A. Sorokin, this detachment was sent to Alexandria for a blockade of French troops. Thus, assistance was provided to the allied British fleet under the command of Nelson.
On September 20, 1798, Ushakov's ships headed from the Dardanelles to the Ionian Islands. The liberation of the Ionian Islands began from the island of Cerigo. The French garrison took refuge in the Kapsali fortress. On September 30, Ushakov suggested that the French surrender the fortress. The French refused to surrender. On October 1, artillery shelling of the fortress began. After a while, the French garrison laid down their arms. It is worth noting that the arrival of the Russian squadron and the beginning of the liberation of the Ionian Islands from the French invaders caused great enthusiasm among the local population. The French were hated for robbery and violence. Therefore, the Greeks began to help the Russian sailors with all their might. The Russians were seen as defenders against the French and Turks.
Two weeks after the liberation of the island of Cerigo, the Russian squadron approached the island of Zante. The French commandant, Colonel Lucas, took steps to defend the island. He built batteries on the coast to prevent the landing of troops. Local residents warned the Russians about this. Two frigates under the command of I. Shostok approached the shore to suppress enemy guns. The Russian ships came within grapeshot range and silenced the enemy batteries. Troops were landed on the shore. He, together with local militias, blocked the fortress. Colonel Lucas capitulated. At the same time, the Russians had to protect the prisoners from the revenge of local residents who hated the invaders.
At the island of Zante, Admiral Ushakov divided his forces into three detachments: 1) four ships under the flag of Captain 2nd Rank D. N. Sinyavin went to the island of St. Moors; 2) six ships under the command of Captain 1st Rank I. A. Selivachev headed towards Corfu; 3) five ships under the command of Captain 1st Rank I. S. Poskochin - to Kefalonia. The liberation of the island of Kefalonia took place without a fight. The French garrison fled to the mountains, where he was captured by the locals. Russian trophies were 50 guns, 65 barrels of gunpowder, over 2,500 cannonballs and bombs.
On the island of St. Moors French Colonel Miolet refused to surrender. An amphibious detachment with artillery landed on the shore from Senyavin's ships. The shelling of the fortress began, which lasted 10 days. However, it did not come to the assault, the French, after the bombing and the arrival of Ushakov's ships, went to negotiations. On November 5, the French laid down their arms. Russian trophies were 80 guns, over 800 guns, 10 thousand cannonballs and bombs, 160 pounds of gunpowder, etc. After the seizure of the island of St. Moors Ushakov went to Corfu to attack the strongest French fortress in the Ionian Islands.
Admiral Ushakov's squadron in the Bosphorus. Artist M. Ivanov
The first to arrive at Corfu was Selivachev's detachment. On October 24 (November 4), 1798, Russian ships sailed to Corfu. This fortress was considered one of the most powerful in Europe. Located on the eastern coast of the island, the fortress consisted of a whole complex of strong fortifications. The citadel (old fortress) was located in its eastern part. The citadel was separated from the city by a moat. From the side of the sea, the citadel was protected by a high coast, in addition, on all sides the stronghold was surrounded by a double high rampart, and along the entire length of the rampart there were stone bastions. This fortress began to be built by the Byzantines, then the Venetians were completing it. The city was defended by the New Fortress. It was started by the Venetians and perfected by French engineers. The fortress consisted of casemates carved into the rocks, which were connected by underground galleries. Two rows of walls that were interconnected by a complex system of passages and corridors.
On the west side, the city was defended by three forts: Fort Abraham, Fort San Roque and Fort Salvador. They defended the city from the land side. More than 600 guns were in service with the fortifications of Corfu. From the sea, the city was defended by the fortifications of the island of Vido, located at the distance of an artillery shot from the island of Corfu. Vido was the forward outpost of the main fortress and was also well fortified. There were five artillery batteries on the island. In addition, the French had ships. The water area between Corfu and Vido was a harbor for French ships. There were two battleships - the 74-gun Generos and the 54-gun Leander, the 32-gun corvette LaBryune, the Freemar bombardment ship, and the Expedition brig. A total of 9 pennants, which had more than 200 guns.
The French garrison, headed by General Chabot and Commissioner General Dubois, numbered more than 3 thousand soldiers, it could be supported by 1 thousand sailors from ships. On the island of Vido, under the command of General Pivron, there were 500 people.
Arriving at Corfu, Selivachev's detachment (3 battleships, 3 frigates and several small ships) began a blockade of the enemy fortress. Three ships took up position at the North Strait, the rest - at the South Strait. Lieutenant-Commander Shostak was sent to the French command as an envoy, who suggested that the enemy surrender the naval fortress without a fight. The French military council rejected this proposal.
The French made an attempt to conduct reconnaissance in force and test the strength and resilience of the Russian detachment. The Zheneros ship left the harbor on October 27 and began to approach the Russian ship Zakhari and Elizabeth. Approaching the distance of an artillery shot, the French opened fire. The Russian ship responded immediately. The French did not accept the proposed battle and immediately retreated. In the same period, attempts by several French ships to break into the fortress failed: an 18-gun brig and 3 transports were captured by Russian ships.
On October 31, 1798, Selivachev's detachment was reinforced by one Russian battleship ("Holy Trinity"), 2 Turkish frigates and a corvette. On November 9, the main forces of Ushakov reached Corfu, and a few days later Senyavin's detachment (3 battleships and 3 frigates) arrived. Distributing forces to carry the naval blockade, Ushakov conducted reconnaissance of the island. Reconnaissance and information from local Greeks showed that the French occupied only fortifications, there was no enemy in the local villages. The Russian admiral decided to immediately land the landing force.
Russian ships approached the port of Gouvi, which was located a few kilometers from Corfu. There was a village with an old shipyard here, but the French destroyed it along with all the forest supplies. Nevertheless, here Russian sailors began to equip a basing point where ships could be repaired.
In order to prevent the French from replenishing food supplies by plundering the surrounding villages, the Russians, with the help of local residents, began to build artillery batteries and earthworks near the fortress. On the north bank, a battery was set up on the hill of Mont Oliveto. From the Northern Battery it was convenient to fire at the enemy's forward forts. For the construction of the battery, an assault force was landed under the command of Captain Kikin. In three days the work was completed and on November 15 the battery opened fire on the French fortress.
The siege of Corfu by land and sea lasted over three months. The French, counting on the impregnable bastions of the fortress, large reserves, hoped that the Russians would not withstand a long siege and would leave Corfu. The French troops tried to wear down the enemy, keep them in constant tension, so they constantly made artillery shelling and sorties. This required the Russian troops to be constantly ready to repel the attack. "The French garrison in Corfu," wrote Admiral Ushakov, "is active and vigilant."
The brunt of the siege of the enemy fortress was borne by Russian sailors and soldiers. Assistance from the Turks was limited. The Turkish command did not want to risk their ships, so they tried to refrain from military clashes. Ushakov himself wrote about this: "I shore them like a red egg, and I do not let them into danger … and they themselves are not hunters for that." At the same time, the Turks happily plundered the already defeated French, they were ready to cut them out, if not for the Russians.
On the night of January 26, 1799, the battleship Generos (painting the sails black) together with the brig, following Napoleon's instructions, broke through the naval blockade and left for Ancona. The Russian patrol ship noticed the enemy and gave a signal about it. Two Russian frigates fired at the enemy, but in the dark their shots did not reach the target. Ushakov gave a signal to Kadyr-bey to go in pursuit of the enemy, but the Turkish flagship remained in place. As a result, the French left successfully.
The siege of Corfu wore out the forces of the French garrison. However, the Russians also had a very hard time. There was nothing to storm the enemy with. Ushakov wrote that there are no examples in history when the fleet was at such a distance without any supplies and at such an extreme. The Russian squadron near Corfu was far removed from its bases, and was deprived of literally everything that people and ships needed. The Turkish authorities were in no hurry to fulfill their obligations to supply Ushakov's ships. The Turks did not provide ground troops for the siege of the fortress. The same situation was with artillery and ammunition. There were no land siege artillery, guns, howitzers, mortars, ammunition, there were not even bullets for rifles. The lack of ammunition led to the silence of the Russian ships and batteries erected on land. They shot only at the most extreme case.
The real disaster was in the field of supplying the expedition with food. For months the sailors were literally starving, since no provisions came either from Russia or from Turkey. Ushakov wrote to the Russian ambassador in Constantinople that they were feeding on the last crumbs. In December 1798, a transport with food arrived from Russia to Corfu, but the long-awaited corned beef turned out to be rotten.
There was no normal supply. The sailors did not receive salaries, uniforms, money for uniforms, and were practically naked, without shoes. When the squadron received the long-awaited money, they turned out to be useless, since they were sent in paper notes. Nobody accepted that kind of money, even at a greatly reduced price.
Petersburg did not at all imagine the gravity of the position of the Russian squadron near Corfu. At the same time, they tried to "steer" Ushakov's ships, not imagining the real military-strategic situation in the region. Ships from the Russian squadron were constantly sent to various places - now to Ragusa, then to Brindisi, Otranto, Calabria, etc. This made it difficult to concentrate all forces for the capture of Corfu. At the same time, the success of the Russians in the Ionian Islands worried our British "partners" very much. They themselves wanted to establish themselves in this region. When the Russians began the siege of Corfu, the British began to demand that Ushakov allocate ships to Alexandria, Crete and Messina in order to weaken the Russian forces. The British tried to get the Russians to fail the siege of Corfu, and then they themselves could capture this strategic point.
The assault on the fortress of Corfu. From a painting by artist A. Samsonov