“Forget the war as a passing cloud” - The Battle of Svensksund and Sweden's greatest Naval Victory

10 July 1790, During the climax of the Russo-Swedish War, the Battle of Svensksund ended with a nearly complete Swedish victory in one of the largest naval engagements ever fought.

“Different Kinds of Arms are required in a Battle by Land, but many more in an Action by Sea, and also Machines and Engines like those used in the Attack or Defence of Places. What can be more terrible than a Sea Fight, in which both Fire and Water both unite for the Destruction of the Combatants” (Flavius Vegetius: “De Re Militari”)

Johan Tietrich Schoultz (1754 - 1807): "Slaget vid Svensksund" (The Battle of Svensksund, 1791)

, the Age of Enlightenment grew somewhat strange blossoms. King Gustav III of Sweden, for example, once decided with scientific zeal to prove to the world how harmful beverages like tea and coffee were. A pair of criminal twins, sentenced to death anyway, were given liberal doses of said hot potables every day, one several cups of tea, the other the same amount of coffee while the monarch and his staff of naturalists and medicos impatiently waited who of the two would peg out first. The twins survived the treatment and both lived to a ripe old age, much to Gustav’s dismay. But the enlightened despot wasn’t one for corporeal punishment, torture and death sentences anyway. He abolished them, by and large, promoted the arts, wrote plays himself and was caught between two stools, that of the party harkening back to the constitution he abolished by coup d’etat, in 1772 and the Hattarna, the “hats”, named after the tricornes worn by nobles and officers who demanded a more aggressive Sweden, ruled by their faction with all the aristo privileges, naturally. To keep them quiet after quelling a mutiny in 1789 and hide some effects of a depression in his otherwise quite successful new national economic policy, the monarch decided to start the 18th century’s last Cabinet War. In contrast to the incredibly savage religious wars of the 17th and the national wars of the 19th century about to bloodily dawn on Europe, Cabinet Wars, named after the war cabinet absolute rulers of the age gathered around them in case of conflict, were waged with limited, manageable military goals usually for minor territorial gains and with minor suffering of non combatants. At least in theory. King Gustav, however, enlightened as he was, looked for a proper casus belli to pick a fight with his neighbour, his cousin Catherine the Great, Empress of all the Russians, who was obligingly occupied with fighting the Turks who tried to recapture the Crimea and other former Black Sea possessions lost 30 years before. Dressed up in Russian uniforms made by tailors of the Royal Swedish Opera, founded by Gustav himself, Swedish soldiers staged an attack on their own outpost of Puumala on the Russian border on 27 June 1788 and Sweden went to war.

Swedish warships of the örlogsflottan and the skärgårdsflottan are fitted out in Stockholm on the eve of war, by Louis Jean Desprez (1743 - 1804)

True to the doctrine of the Cabinet Wars, Gustav’s plan was, by and large, to defeat the Russian regiments stationed along the border in Finland, gain the upper hand at sea, land troops near St Petersburg and force Catherine to sign a favourable peace and return Russian territorial gains from wars fought earlier in the century. And while Denmark, Russia’s ally, entered the conflict and brought Sweden into the same dilemma of having to fight a war on two fronts just as Russia, the conflict on land went so-so for Sweden, nine major battles were fought in Finland, some won, some lost without going anywhere, mostly, but worse things happened at sea. Several naval engagements ended indecisive over the course of the war, the Swedish high seas fleet finally found itself bottled up in Vyborg Bay, about a hundred miles northwest of St Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland, cut off and blockaded by a considerably larger Russian squadron under Admiral Chichagov. Trying to run the “Viborgska gatloppet”, the Viborg gauntlet, through the skerries and into the broadsides of the 29 Russian ships of the line, the Swedes suffered a major battering on 4 July 1790. Gustav had lost one fourth of his battle fleet and drew Chichagov’s squadron towards Helsinki in pursuit. And there, the other part of the Swedish Navy lay in wait, the so-called Archipelago Fleet. The coastline of the northern and eastern Baltic shores is famously dotted with small rocky islands, sometimes forming downright archipelagos, geological formations with waterways impossible for large-drafted ships to navigate. Thus, during the course of the 18th century, both the Swedes and the Russians developed fleet arms consisting of shallow draft gunboats, galleys, known as udemas and pojamas, and Baltic oddities, such as broadside-armed, rowable ships the size of a small frigate, inspired by Mediterranean xebecs. These skärgårdsfregatter, "archipelago frigates", turumas and the over 100’ long hemmemas were ideally suited to move oar-powered through the channels of the archipelagos with far too less offing for a large sailing ship and take to the open seas of the Baltic as well. Along with being ideally suited for close inshore work and joined operations with the army. A week after the Swedish disaster of Vyborg, the Russian archipelago fleet closed in towards Helsinki and the Swedish fortress of Sveaborg where the örlogsflottan, the high seas navy, sheltered for repairs. At Svensksund, some 80 miles east of Helsinki, Gustav and his skärgårdsflottan made their stand. At eight o’clock on 9 July 1790, the Russian admiral Nassau-Siegen’s flagship “Sviataia Ekaterina” signalled “general advance” into the Svensksund. One of the greatest naval battles in history had begun.

Ivan Aivazovsky: "Russian Victory at Viborg" (around 1880)

With several hundred vessels involved on both sides, from the Swedish 5 skärgårdsfregatter and 9 Russian rowing frigates to small gunboats, carrying more than 2,000 often considerably large calibre cannon and 25,000 fighting men, the engagement in the sound resembled the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 far more than contemporary naval battles fought on the high seas. There were no fancy manoeuvres involved, no battle lines to speak of, just brutal close combat, boarding and firing into each other at point-blank range. In the afternoon, the Swedes managed to engulf the Russian vessels from all sides, around sunset Nassau-Siegen signalled to break off the engagement, few were able to or wanted to heed the call, fighting continued all through the night and ended when the Swedes had rounded up what was left off the Russian coastal fleet on the following morning. It was an unprecedented disaster for Russia. By and large, their entire coastal fleet was destroyed with hardly any Swedish losses to speak off and there was nothing left to prevent a well-planned Swedish amphibious assault on St Petersburg. That was a bit too much and Catherine of Russia initiated peace negotiations. Gustav was all too ready to comply and four weeks after the Battle of Svensksund, the Treaty of Värälä was signed and the Russo-Swedish War was over. “Forget the war as a passing cloud”, Gustav poetically wrote to his cousin and the status quo ante bellum was re-established while Europe prepared to fight revolutionary France in the War of the First Coalition and a new era in the history of the world was about to begin, as Goethe mentioned after the Battle of Valmy two years later. King Gustav III, a figurehead of the old world order, wouldn’t live to see it, though. He was assassinated in March 1792 during a fancy dress ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, dramatically at midnight by black masked conspirators.

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