How the Russian brig “Mercury” defeated Turkish ships and survived its life
The Russian-Turkish war of 1828–1829 was developing successfully for the Russian army and navy. The Ottoman Empire suffered a series of defeats on land, the Turkish fleet was almost completely destroyed in the Battle of Navarino. The surviving ships took refuge under the protection of coastal batteries in the Bosphorus. The blockade of the strait was loose, and they posed a threat to Russian ships on the Black Sea.
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For sentinel service and reconnaissance, ships of the Black Sea Fleet were regularly sent to the Bosphorus Strait. On May 12, 1829, the 44-gun frigate Shtandart, the 20-gun brig Orpheus and the 20-gun brig Mercury entered such a campaign. Two days later, at dawn, the Russian detachment collided with a Turkish squadron of 17 pennants, which included six battleships.
The commander of the frigate, captain-lieutenant Pavel Sakhnovsky, to whom the commanders of both brigs were subordinate, gave the order “to choose a course for everyone, the ship has a preferential course.” This meant that the squad avoided combat with superior forces, each ship acting independently.
“Standard” and “Orpheus” had better speed characteristics than “Mercury”, which began to lag behind. Two Turkish battleships rushed in pursuit of him – the 74-gun Real Bay and the 110-gun Selime under the flag of Kapudan Pasha (commander of the Turkish squadron).
Closer to noon on May 14, the wind almost died down, and the course of the Turkish ships slowed down. The commander of the “Mercury” captain-lieutenant Alexander Kazarsky tried to take advantage of his brig, which had oars in addition to sailing weapons – seven pieces from each side.
But the wind picked up again, and the Turks began to catch up, inexorably reaching the distance of opening fire. Russian officers and sailors, realizing that the battle, the unfavorable outcome of which seemed obvious to them, could not be avoided, decided to fight. And if the situation becomes hopeless, then grapple with one of the enemy ships and blow up the brig. This duty was assigned to the last surviving officer, for him a loaded pistol was placed near the kruyt camera.
The stern flag must not be lowered or lost (torn off by a shot) under any circumstances! The cloth was tightly nailed to the gaff. Another precautionary measure was taken – the signal books and ship’s documents were destroyed.
The Turks did not know about the seriousness of the intentions of the Mercury crew. Before opening fire, they raised the signal to surrender. The Turks were confident that the ultimatum would be accepted: just two days earlier, the Russian frigate Rafail became the prey of the squadron. Surrounded on all sides, he lowered the flag without firing a shot. Ironically, the captured crew was on board one of the battleships, which, without waiting for the white flag, began to bombard the Mercury with cannon balls.
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The battle lasted about three hours, but it did not develop according to Kapudan Pasha’s plan. Lieutenant Commander Kazarsky skillfully maneuvered, not allowing the pursuers to come in from the stern and, turning around, fire a volley with all sides. Longitudinal fire from several dozen cannons would have turned the deck of the brig into a mess, knocking down the masts and tearing off the sails. After that, the ship that had lost its course could be tried to be boarded. However, the Turkish battleships could not take an advantageous position. For most of the battle, they could only use bow guns, which to some extent equalized the forces of the parties.
In turn, the brig fired quickly at the enemy – the Russian gunners aimed at the masts and sails, trying to deprive the Turks of the advantage in speed. It was the only way to win in an unequal fight. The calculation fully justified itself: first, because of the damaged main mast, the Selime stopped pursuing, then it was possible to shoot down the yards on the foremast of the Real Bay, after which it also fell behind.
Here is what the navigator of Real Bey wrote about the battle with Mercury: “It is unheard of and incredible. We could not force him to surrender: he fought, retreating and maneuvering with all the art of an experienced military captain, to the point that, ashamed to say, we stopped the battle, and he continued his way with glory.
The Turkish officer was sure that on the Russian brig, which had been under fierce artillery fire for several hours, at least half of the crew were killed and wounded. In fact, the losses of “Mercury” were not so great: four killed and several wounded. 22 holes were counted in the hull, in addition, the enemy cores in many places tore the sails and rigging.
On the “Standard” and “Orpheus” they did not know about the incredible outcome of the battle and considered the “Mercury” dead. After the cannonade subsided in the distance, the flags were lowered on the ships as a sign of mourning for their comrades, and the corresponding report followed the commander of the squadron. So the brig literally rose from the dead when he unexpectedly joined the squadron. Moreover, the ship was ready to immediately continue combat missions – the crew managed to repair many damages on their own.
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The news of the shame of “Raphael” and the feat of “Mercury” came to the capital almost simultaneously. The reaction of Nicholas I was predictable: those responsible for the surrender of the frigate should be brought to justice. Officers for cowardice were threatened with the death penalty, but the matter was limited to demotion to sailors. The frigate was ordered to be put on fire when it could be captured. According to one version, the Raphael, renamed Fazli-Allah, was destroyed by the squadron of Vice Admiral Pavel Nakhimov in October 1853 in the Battle of Sinop. According to another, the burned Fazli-Allah was among the Turkish ships that captured the Russian frigate.
Be that as it may, Nicholas I read the report with satisfaction: “The will of Your Imperial Majesty has been fulfilled – the frigate Raphael does not exist.”
The crew of “Mercury” was awarded royally. The officers received orders and promotions, the nobles were allowed to supplement the family coats of arms with the image of a pistol, which lay near the kruyt chamber. The sailors were given a double pension for life.
The brig “Mercury” received the highest award – the stern St. George’s flag. The emperor wished that the Russian fleet always had a ship with this heroic name, “so that the memory of the famous merits of the crew of the brig” Mercury “never disappears in the fleet, but, passing from generation to generation for eternity, serves as an example to posterity.”
Until the October Revolution of 1917, the tsar’s will was strictly carried out. Since 1856, after the brig was declared unfit for further service due to dilapidation and dismantled, the name “Memory of Mercury” was alternately worn by a corvette and two cruisers.
In the USSR, they returned to tradition after almost fifty years. In 1968, the small hydrographic vessel “Memory of Mercury” was included in the Black Sea Fleet. In 1995 it was sold to a commercial firm. 16 years later, in October 2021, the Zealous corvette (project 20380) under construction at Severnaya Verf in St. Petersburg was renamed Mercury.
Thus, the history of the ship continues into the 21st century. The successor to the famous brig is designed to combat surface ships, submarines and enemy aircraft, and can operate in the near and far sea zone. It is expected that in 2023 the corvette will be handed over to the Navy. The place of service of the new “Mercury” is the Black Sea Fleet.