Nicholas Saczkowski and the Great War

E23 of Collected Articles

Engineer-Captain First Rank Nicholas Saczkowski, Port Arthur, the Yenisei, munitions and the Civil War

A life as a warrior as written by his grandson, Dr George Bailey

Nicholas, of Polish ancestry, was born on 7 December 1878 in Honkaniemi north of St. Petersburg where his family had settled after leaving Poland. He entered the Naval Engineering Academy at Kronstadt, in 1898 to train as an engineer. Graduating in 1902 as an officer in the Russian Imperial Navy he was assigned to the Pacific Fleet stationed at Vladivostok. Aged 23 years, whilst serving there he had a three-year contract marriage with a Japanese young woman of good birth. The main long-term requirement was that any child born of the marriage would be brought up in Russia. There was no issue, whereas one of his fellow officers did have issue and his child was brought up in Russia. Those who love the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’ will realize that Giacomo Puccini drew on the contract marriage for his creative inspiration, but all ‘husbands’ were not like the American Lieutenant Pinkerton !

In 1904, aged 25 years, with the rank of Engineer Mechanic-Lieutenant he was serving in the First Pacific Squadron on the pre-dreadnought battleship Poltava (11,685t, 115m x 21m x 8.61m) as the gunnery officer when the Japanese launched their torpedo boat attack on the Russian ships at anchor in the harbour under the fortress of Port Arthur. This attack on 8 February 1904, like the plane attack on the United States Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbour in 1942, was carried out without the Japanese having declared war. As with Pearl Harbour, the Russian ships were sunk or disabled. Two days later, the Amur-class minelayer Yenisei (size 3010t, 91.4m x 12.5m x 4.4m) was laying a defensive minefield when one broke loose and began floating towards the ship. Manoeuvring to avoid it, the Yenisei accidentally entered the minefield, struck another mine and sank.

The Japanese launched land attacks on the Russian forces, including the navy personnel, within the fortress. Attacks in waves of infantrymen were hurled against the defenders but were driven off by machine-guns, magazine rifles and shrapnel fire. Nicholas suggested that the some of the ten 47mm and twenty-eight 37mm guns on the Poltava were no longer of use on board the ship but would be invaluable within the fortress. They were dismantled and hauled up the cliffs by ropes pulled by sailors, to be mounted within the fortress. A photograph in the Central Navy Museum, St. Petersburg, in the room with the small boat built by Peter the Great, shows this haulage being done. The ship was sunk in the harbour during December 1904 but was later raised by the Japanese and renamed the Tango.

The fighting was intense, leading to four Russian admirals retreating into a cavern to escape the bombardments. The Japanese taking enormous casualties including the son of General Baron Nogi Maresuke, the commander of the Japanese Third Army. His body was exchanged for the long-delayed mail. Gradually over the months they were able to capture parts of the fortress. Starvation set in for the Russians; some horsemeat as well as cats and dogs, sold as lamb by Chinese merchants, were available but no fresh vegetables. Scurvy and dysentery were rampant. Though supplies of ammunition shells remained, the wounded no longer could be treated with bandages and medicines. Nicholas himself had been wounded in the leg.

On 2 January 1905 the defenders surrendered and became prisoners of war. Taken to a camp in Nagasaki, their conditions were harsh though not was appalling as for British Commonwealth and American forces in the Second World War. One day, a senior Japanese officer visited the camp and Nicholas recognized him as a fellow chess player in St. Petersburg before the Russo-Japanese War. The officer asked Nicholas if there was anything he could do to help make life more acceptable. He replied that the prisoners were without of fresh vegetables. They were then provided with land and were able to grow the vegetables.

Paroled not to fight the Japanese again, he was allowed to leave for Russia. Nicholas was given 12 months leave, promotion of three ranks and the medal the Cross of Defenders of Port Arthur. Returning to the Baltic Fleet he was aboard the cruiser Pamiat Azova near Reval (the modern day Tallinn) when the sailors on board mutinied in 1906. Some officers were killed and thrown overboard. However because they liked him and he was known to be teetotal, instead they held him down in a chair and forced alcohol (probably vodka) down his throat. ‘The battleship Potemkin’ is the film by Eisenstein which supposedly shows what happened at Odessa in the Black Sea during the First Russian Revolution which began in June1905.

He also married and had a son Cyril. Then he found that his wife had been committing adultery with his best friend. His father Joseph, the President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Russia, had noted his ill-health and told him to inform his wife that if he died Joseph would perform an autopsy on him. She confessed to the affair but to save the wife he adored the disgrace of a public scandal Nicholas took upon himself the procuring of evidence that he had been the one committing adultery. Sadly, his son no longer answered his letters after 1939, this was during the time of the Stalinist purges. People known to be in communication with those who had escaped to the West were in peril, many if not killed instantly were sent to the gulag prison work camps in Siberia – where life was often short especially during the harsh winters.

After the divorce, something snapped in Nicholas and with his great charm he had relationships. But as he said to his daughter he never bedded an unmarried woman. After a suitable interview he met and married Marya Chestoff in 1913, though not pretty but from a wealthy and noble family, her father being a leading architect living and practising at 76 Ligovsky Prospect, St. Petersburg. She had been resigned to becoming an old maid but the marriage gave her two children, Nicholas born in 1914 and Tatiana in 1917. Though he was not always faithful he did remain with her as a conscientious husband until he died in England in 1956.

By the start of the Great War aged just 35 Nicholas was an Engineer-Captain Second Rank, and in charge of the mechanical systems of the new and larger mine-laying cruiser Yenisei (3,200t, 98.9m x 4.0m x 4.4m) stationed in Kronstadt, the naval port of St. Petersburg. Unlike the British Navy, the Russian Imperial Navy’s capital ships had two captains in command, the navigating officer and the mechanical officer. Perhaps this was a recognition of the weakness in the Russian forces during the Napoleonic Wars when the lack of engineering skills meant that there was a need to begin training specialist engineers and accord them high status.

On 15 December 1914 the Yenisei was in one of two groups of cruisers which laid a total of 424 mines in the Bay of Danzig between Hela Point and Pillau (the modern day Baltiysk). During the first winter of the Great War the harsh cold froze the Baltic Sea. Fighting on the Eastern Front had died down after the battles of Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes drove the Russian forces out of eastern Prussia. Once the snow melted and the mud dried out the German armies began to advance into Poland and into Courland. On May 7, because of confusion over Russian orders, the German naval forces were able to occupy the port of Libau (the modern day Liepaja). This port, Latvia’s second port after Riga, was an advanced base for lighter warships but not battleships and cruisers. The port also had the great advantage that it was able to be kept ice-free during the winter by the use of icebreakers. For the Germans it had the potential to take in supplies to replenish their land forces advancing against Riga, the major city of Latvia, one of the Russian-controlled Baltic States. The Russian commanders recognized the strategic importance of the port and planned how to neutralize its importance to the German forces.

Because the Baltic Sea is relatively shallow, mines were the principal weapon either used offensively or defensively by the Russian Imperial Navy. It is an irony of military history that the Turks had bought such mines from the Russians before the Great War. When they realized the British and French Navies were in the process of entering the Dardanelles to dominate their capital city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), they laid a defensive line of mines close to the entrance to the Straits in addition to the defensive lines already laid in the Narrows. The two Navies sent in their pre-Dreadnought battleships but three, the French Bouvet, the British Ocean and possibly the British Irresistable hit the mines and sunk or were scuttled with great loss of life. The attempt to force a passage through the Narrows was abandoned.

On 25 April 1915 British soldiers were landed at Helles, Australian and New Zealand forces were landed at Anzac Cove and French land units landed at Kum Kale on the south side of the Dardanelles. The agony of Gallipoli began.

The irony is that if the Turks had been forced to surrender, Allied supplies would have been sent to the Black Sea to assist the Russian armies short of rifles and shells. The loss of or damage to at least three battleships (the British Inflexible limped to safety) to the Russian-made mines condemned the Russian Armies to having to make do against the vast quantity of munitions enjoyed by the German armies. The sheer tenacity of the Russian soldiers during the first two summers of the Great War gave time for Russian factories to begin producing the munitions needed in what was becoming a long-scale war.

In the Baltic, by late May of 1915, the ice had receded northwards, so the Russian warships in Kronstadt could again be active. Though the sea does not have the salinity of the Atlantic Ocean, nevertheless it still freezes at a few degrees below zero Centigrade. To hinder supplies being landed through Libau, the naval headquarters decided to again sow mines in the Bay of Danzig, Pillau being 122 miles south of Libau.

Because of the hazardous nature of the night operation, the crew of the Yenisei was told that they could not expect to return safely. The whole crew volunteered, a sign of the strong patriotism in Russia that time. Nicholas was confident they would return and took with him his tennis racquet. In the attempt to avoid detection by German forces, the ship would travel alone hugging the coasts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It was expected that the British submarines E1 (commanded by Noel Laurence) and E9 (commanded by Max Horton) would provide some protection against German submarines. Unfortunately the starboard main motor shaft of E1 fractured and the submarine had to put in to Riga to be repaired, which took until late July. Nicholas already knew Max Horton as he was able to speak English with him when they met in the winter naval bases. Their friendship subsequently became his reason for coming to England in 1940.

The Yenisei successfully laid some 300 mines thereby sealing the port of Danzig. Having completed the mission, the ship began the run back to Kronstadt, hugging the Latvian coast and sailing through Moon Sound (modern day Muhu Vain) with its dredged depth of 5 metres off the islands of Dago (modern day Hiiumaa), Osel (modern day Saaremaa) and Moon (modern day Muhu). Then she was forced to take the shipping lane which passes outside the Odensholm lighthouse on Osmussar island. This is the main shipping channel from the northern Baltic into the Gulf of Finland, the passage between the island and the main land being shallow (and probably mined at that time). Unfortunately the German submarine U.26 was patrolling on station there, on the look out for any passing Russian warship.

Nicholas had been on duty during the mission and decided to go to his cabin for a cup of coffee, leaving his post in command of the engine room. He was in his cabin when the torpedo fired from the U.26 struck the engine room, fatally damaging the ship which began to sink rapidly, going down in 10 minutes. Nicholas was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head, sustaining injuries to his back and shoulders. A sailor pulled him into one of the two lifeboats which had been launched. They were overcrowded and floating below the icy sea, the occupants being up to their chests in water. The other sailors still alive had to jump into the water but rapidly succumbed to the cold. Captain First Rank Prokoroll chose to go down in the ship whilst the sailors, having accepted their fate, shouted ‘Oora’ as the crippled ship was sinking. After 80 minutes some Estonian fishermen were seen nearby and the officer in the other boat stood up to attract their attention (only heads and not boats could be seen), collapsed and died. The fishermen rescued Nicholas and the 9 ratings from their boat and the other ratings from the second boat. 270 died in total.

Max Horton received a radio message that the Yenesei had been torpedoed and took his submarine to the spot to try to destroy the German U-boat the next morning. But U.26 dived and was able to get away. Yenisei still rests on the bottom of the Baltic at a depth of some 46 metres and remains a War Grave at 59.10N 23.43E.

When Nicholas was landed on the mainland the first thing he asked about was the fate of his tennis racquet. By then, it was at the bottom of the sea. Later Vice-Admiral Kerber, temporary Commander-in-Chief of the Baltic Fleet since 20 May 1915 on the sudden death, following a short illness, of Admiral von Essen came to see him. He was able to confirm the success of the mission. He told Nicholas that the Tsar was investing Captain Prokoroll with the Order of St. George 1st Class (equivalent to the British Victoria Cross). As the other Captain Nicholas was asked where he was when the torpedo struck. He said he had gone from the engine room to his cabin to have a cup of coffee. He was told that as he was technically off duty he could not be awarded the same honour but was invested with the Order of St. Stanislaus 1st Class with swords. This was appropriate for him as he was of Polish descent and the Order historically was of Polish origin later adopted by Imperial Russia. He already held the 3rd Class with swords of the Order. But at least he had his future life.

During his stay in hospital, the doctors suggested that his heart had swung on its axis. Modern medical knowledge suggests that in response to the cold water it would have slowed and even may have temporarily stopped whilst he was comatose. Remarkably he lived another 41 years, eventually succumbing to cerebral bleeding on 18 March 1956.

Upon recovery he did not return to serving on a ship. Instead, as Engineer-Captain First Rank, he was appointed the Plenipotenary Director of the Metallurgic Plants in the South of Russia, basically in charge of the munitions factories in the Ukraine. A vital job to make up for the deficits in shells and bullets revealed in the first year of war. A future President of the USSR mentioned that he had worked in one of the factories and perhaps he met Nicholas. Once dining in St. Petersburg he noticed Rasputin dining with others in the next booth – the notorious ‘Mad Monk’ which did so much damage to the status of the Tsar and his family.

Two years later the first revolution swept away the Tsar and his autocratic rule. Nicholas went to report to the naval headquarters in the Admiralty building, at the end of the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg. When he entered he found the Minister for the Navy standing by the desk with a Bolchevick sailor lounging in the chair with his feet on the table. A few months later he fought with the Whites in southern Russia. In one episode, when in a town falling to the Red Army, he had to drop from a bridge on to a train packed with victims suffering from the typhus disease. He got beneath a blanket and the soldiers searching the compartment understandably made little attempt to properly search it.

Once the civil war was over he with his family went to Poland where he was involved in the liberation of the country from the Soviet yoke. He took charge of the mechanical maintenance of the small Polish navy in Modlin, before resigning to construct saw mills in Finland and move to Antwerp in Belgium where he settled with his wife and children until the German Blitzkreig in 1940. His daughter’s story tells of the years from May 1940 in the book ‘Women in War’ edited by Celia Lee and Paul Strong, published by Pen and Sword in 2012.

Further information on Joseph Satchkowski

With his wife he lived on an estate in Honkaniemi, close to the railway line between St. Petersburg and Helsinki. Walking from the station on returning from the capital city one evening he fell into a snow-drift. Suffering hypothermia, he was found dead the next day.

He was strick with his sons Nicholas and Boris and used to beat them when they were naughty. They howled and howled. Then one day they decided to not slip even a whimper when being punished. Successfully achieved, their father was so astonished that beating them no longer had any effect he never beat them again !

Honkaniemi was the site of the tank battle between the Finnish forces and the Red Army in the Winter War of 1940.

Additional information on General Baron Nogi Maresuke and his son

Nogi’s second son Yasonori was serving as a Second Lieutenant in his father’s Third Army at the siege. Yasonuri fell down a slope and died during the battle for Hill 203 on 30 November 1904. Against some 30,000 Russian defenders the Third Army sustained 58,000 casualties out of its 90,000 troops. Nogi wished to commit samurai suicide to atone for the high number of casualties but was forbidden to do so by the Emperor Meigi. The Emperor died in 1912, and after the funeral Nogi and his wife committed suicide to expiate the guilt he felt for losing so many soldiers during the Siege of Port Arthur.

The honours of Engineer-Captain Saczkowski

Round the Neck: Order of St. Stanislaus 1st Class with swords. Bar: left to right

On the Chest: Order of St. Vladimir 3rd Class with swords, for valour in the face of the enemy.
Order of St. Anne 3rd Class, for valour and distinguished service in the military.
Order of St. Stanislaus 3rd Class with swords, for valour in the face of the enemy.
Cross of Defenders of Port Arthur.
Commemorative medal for the 100th anniversary of the Patriotic War 1812.
Commemorative medal for the 300 years of the reign of the Romanov family.
Commemorative medal for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Gangut, between Peter the Great and Charles X11 of Sweden in 1714.

Badges: Cross of Defenders of Port Arthur.
100 years commemoration of the Naval Engineering Academy in Kronstadt.
Naval Academy (Marskoi Inginernol Outchilistche).

GB/gnab: 3 August 2013