Sevastopol Wars by Maj.Gen. Melvin; a review with Great War interest

E28 of Collected Articles

‘Sevastopol’s Wars’ by Maj.Gen. Mungo Melvin

A review, published December 2017, in the Royal Engineers Journal, Vol 131 No 3, page 167.

I welcome the insight that a retired senior Army Officer can bring to understanding the history of an important region of the European continent. The Crimea, protruding into the Black Sea, has long had a major strategic role for Russia. Containing the northward push of the Ottoman empire with its Muslim theocracy: providing access through the Bosphorus into the Mediterranean Sea and hence the oceans: threatening expansion into the British-held Indian sub-continent.

In its 752 pages the book covers the subject in depth. In this review I aim to identify the main historical features Melvin describes. The book is divided into four major parts.

‘Early Sevastopol’ relates its complex history from the colonisation by the Greeks before the time of Christ to the campaigns of Peter the Great around the turn of the 1700s. His leadership meant that Russia, a vast country landlocked by geography and climate, now sought to gain access into the Black Sea and beyond, mirroring his founding of St. Petersburg. Whereas its port of Kronstadt was held fast by ice for some six months of the year the Black Sea offered warmth. It took Prince Potemkin later in the century to persuade Empress Catherine II (the Great) to look south towards creating a warm-water port. Militarily seizing the Crimea gave the opportunity to develop a harbour around a superb natural inlet. Hence Sevastopol was built as the hub of Russian maritime power in the Black Sea. The author records how her economic resources coupled with the energetic drive of a Scotsman created an impressive port with major ship maintenance facilities and land fortifications.

In ‘The Eastern War’, the author explains the 1850s tensions between the Ottoman and the Russian empires. When the two conflicted, a sea battle at Sinope gave the British and French Governments an excuse to protect their interests in the Mediterranean. They allied with the Turks. In 1854 a combined sea and land operation was initiated by the European powers to seize Sevastopol with its port and, thereby destroy the Black Sea Fleet. Landing in north Crimea, they fought the battle of the Alma. The Russian forces were driven from the battlefield, retreating towards the city. The author then explains why the Allies were unable to capitalise on their victory giving time for Russian improvements to the defences of Sevastopol. Warfare of artillery bombardment and counter-bombardment then ensued. A counter-attack, to be mounted against the dispersed Entente encampments developed into the battle of Balaklava, infamous for the charge of the British Light Brigade. The Russians had limited success but a bad defeat a fortnight later at Inkerman. The severe winter weather reduced the campaign to a siege. The author covers well the technologies of siegecraft. He reveals the reality that British logistical and organisational structures, including care for the wounded, were poorly handled. The exception was the laying of 11 kilometres of railway track enabling the materials to be brought forward from Balaklava to the trenches. Largely unknown to modern British historians, the French land forces by early summer of 1855 numbered four times the British. Poor command lost the Russians the battle of the Chernaya river to the French. Eventually, continuing pressure enabled the Allies to capture southern Sevastopol. However the Russian had skilfully constructed a floating bridge across the inlet to the north shore. Their forces conducted an orderly withdrawal, blowing up much of what remained undamaged.

Following the demolition of Upton’s five splendid dry docks and the fortifications, the Treaty of Paris was signed in March 1856. Sevastopol was denied its Black Sea Fleet and naval infrastructure.

Part three ‘City of Revolution’ shows American participation in clearing the harbour of seventy-four scuttled ships. Gradually the city and harbour were reconstructed and new ships entered the fleet. The author then covers the build-up in social pressures which lead to the Crimea sharing with other parts of western Russia the1905 unrest, including the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin (made famous by the Eisenstein film). Once the First World War broke out, German and Turkish ships inflicted damage on the Russian areas of the north Black Sea. During the next three years military defeats elsewhere caused Russia to fall into chaos, the author advising his readers to learn more from others about the 1917 revolutions.

Taking advantage of the chaos, German troops were able in May 1918 to seize Sevastopol. Part of the Black Sea Fleet escaped to Novorossiysk. After the Armistice, the ships of the Entente ships replaced those of the Germans. In April 1919, the Allies left, leaving Sevastopol to the Red Army. They in turn two months later were replaced by White forces. Eventually the Red Army was able to focus on the Crimea and won control in November 1920, after the successful evacuation of their opponents.

In Part Four ‘Modern War’ the author covers events to modern times. Those left behind in the city suffered the Red Terror, many thousands were massacred – a fate experienced elsewhere in Russia during the next twenty years. However significant enhancements were made to the infrastructure of the city and port. Efforts were also made to recreate a Black Sea Fleet.

Melvin has already drawn on World War Two for his major work, ‘Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General’. In 1941, the Germans again attacked the Crimea, but von Manstein’s Eleventh Army experienced tough opposition. Some nine months passed until July 1942 when the Nazi forces captured the Russian soldiers left behind when the Soviet commanders were spirited away. Von Manstein was promoted Field-Marshal by Hitler. Sevastopol remained under Nazi control until May 1944, the city being ‘cleaned up’ after the destruction, however mass deportations reduced the Slav population but not the Tatars. After Kursk (July 1943) the Crimea and its German Seventeenth Army became isolated from the Ukrainian battlefields. Gradually the Soviet forces gained Crimean territory during the winter. Between April and May 1944 the Germans retreated into the city. From there they were driven into the Chersonese peninsula. After evacuation, some 15,000 were left to become prisoners of war. As the price of victory Stalin made sure that the Tatars and Muslims were expelled from the Crimea.

The author continues his narrative beyond the ending of the Second World War. He explains how, under Khrushchev, the Crimea was ceded to the Ukraine in 1954. This created continuing dissention in the area since so many inhabitants were descended from Russians and saw themselves as Russian. After the period of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990 and a feeling of national humiliation, a new strong leader exploited the internal political strife in the Ukraine to take Crimea back into the Russian fold in 2014. Vladimir Putin gambled successfully on the West and the rest of the world to grumble, impose sanctions but not to oppose force with force.

Melvin skilfully articulates the current political positions as affecting the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. He recognises the pride the Russians have in being in charge of the city, the port and the Black Sea Fleet. As usual, in that country, the people welcome a strong leader and they now have one in President Putin. The author draws attention to modern strategic analvsis encompassed within the term ‘multi-dimensional war’ to achieve political goals. The Epilogue brings this monumental work to a fitting conclusion.

Credit is due to the cartographer, Barbara Taylor, for her well drawn maps. But one flaw is the setting of the maps and photographs into three blocks. This creates difficult in cross-referencing the maps to the descriptions given of the battles and campaigns. Placing them closer to the events being described would have helped. Topographical diagrams and photographs showing how the lie of the land affected the decision(or not)-making of the commanding officers would have been useful. A comment heard of a reader at the RE Conference on Fortifications at Chatham (20 October 2017) was about the quality of the paper. It is unfortunate if, for a high-class book, not a railway station block-buster, the paper use to print the text is unworthy of the overall quality. In future years, ‘Sevastopol’s Wars’ will be placed in many military, university and general libraries; hopefully its readership will not find the pages deteriorating. I detected no typing errors, showing excellence in the proof reading reflecting credit on Melvin’s daughter.

The author has made the historical development of the Crimea readable, informative and factual. His asides colour the text as appropriate, drawing upon his real military experience. For readers wishing to gain a deeper understanding of what motivates the Russian Bear, ‘Sevastopol’s Wars’ gives a sound start.

For the reviewer personally, the chronology of events, recorded from page 635, covering over two thousand years, explains why his own maternal family crest records events beginning with the Huns in the 4th century, becoming Tatars living in the southern Ukraine (around the later Odessa) which features three major rivers, before fighting with the Poles and Lithuanians at Grunwald in 1410 (the defeat of the Teutonic knights). The family eventually settled in Poland, now part of Belarus. For this reviewer the book is more than a history text for academics, it confirms family history. Both his grandfather Nicholas and his brother Boris, as Russian naval officers, spent time in Sevastopol serving in the Black Sea Fleet.