Engineer Captain Nikolai Saczkowski and the Yenisei

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This article was published in The Mariner’s Mirror under Notes (from page 341) in Volume 103.3 on the 2nd of August 2017.

Engineer Captain Nikolai Saczkowski and the Yenisei

At the start of the First World War the new
minelayer cruiser Yenisei was one of the major
ships in the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet.1
Commanding the ship was Captain First Rank
Prokhorov and in charge of her mechanical
systems was Engineer Captain Second Rank
Nikolai Saczkowski (figure 1).2 Yenisei was the
second ship to carry that name. The first
Yenisei, named after the great river in northern
Siberia, had been accidentally sunk in 1904
whilst laying mines during the siege of Port
Arthur in the Russo-Japanese War.3 In June
1905 the larger replacement of the Amur class,
Yenisei, was laid down in the Baltic Works, St
Petersburg. She was designed to carry some
320 mines and for protection mounted five 4.7-
inch guns and two 3-inch guns. The ship was
launched on the 18 July 1906 and after being
commissioned in November 1909 was based at
Kronstadt (figure 2).

The start of the First World War did not
go well for Russia. In the autumn of 1914 the
Russian army suffered huge casualties in the
battles of Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes,
and at sea the armoured cruiser Pallada was
torpedoed by the Germans with the loss of 600
men. In response Admiral Nikolai von Essen,
the commander-in-chief of the Baltic fleet,
decided on an offensive action using moored
contact naval mines to hamper sorties by the
German navy out of its base at Danzig. On
15 December 1914, the large armoured cruiser
Rurik and another armoured cruiser adapted
for minelaying, Admiral Makarov, laid 120
and 64 mines respectively, while the specialist
minelayer Yenisei laid 240 mines. The mines
were positioned in the Bay of Danzig between

Footnote: 1 This article is based on a paper presented at
the ‘The War at Sea, 1914–1919’ conference, held
at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
in June 2016. The author is the grandson of
Engineer-Captain Saczkowski.
2 Graf, The Russian Navy, 38.
3 Corbett, Naval Operations, 61; Wilson,
Baltic Assignment, 50.

Hela Point and Pillau (Baltiysk).4 This action
ranks as the largest mine-laying operation by
the Baltic Fleet during the war, but the onset of
winter prevented any further operations.5

Two British submarines had entered the
Baltic Sea during the autumn to serve under
the command of von Essen.6 HMS E1 was
commanded by Lt Cdr Noel Laurence, and
HMS E9 by Lt Cdr Max Horton. During
the harsh first winter of the war the Baltic

Footnote: 4 Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 50.
5 Pavlovich, The Fleet in the First World
War, 106.
6 Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 30.

Figure 1: The portrait of Engineer Captain
Saczkowski, wearing the Order of St Stanislaus,
painted by his daughter Tatiana Saczkowska.

Figure 2: The Yenisei at anchor in the naval port of Kronstadt.

Figure 3: The Yenesi anchored off the port of Revel (Tallinn).

Sea froze, making it impossible to undertake
naval operations. The submarines therefore
joined the Yenisei in her winter quarters at
Revel (Tallinn),7 where the British and Russian

Footnote: 7 The spelling Revel is used as this is the

officers socialized during the long winter nights
(figure 3).8 Meanwhile the other ships of the

Footnote 7 cont.: format used in Russian sources, rather than the
Germanic Reval.

Footnote: 8 At the year end both British officers were

Baltic Fleet retired to Kronstadt for the winter
months, their prime responsibility of guarding
the Russian capital having been accomplished.9

Yenisei’s last mission

On 7 May German naval forces occupied the
port of Libau (Liepaja).10 This was Latvia’s
second port after Riga and had the advantage
of being able to be kept ice-free by the use of
icebreakers. Once occupied the Germans linked
the port to Memel by a narrow-gauge railway
allowing the army to be supplied by sea.
The replenished army then began advancing
towards Riga. The German navy meanwhile
was deployed to assist the advancing land
forces, making preparations to sail from Danzig
towards the Gulf of Riga.

Spring came very late to Russia in 1915, but
by late May the ice in the Baltic had receded
northwards, and although the larger ships
were still ice-bound at Kronstadt, Revel was
relatively free of ice, allowing Yenisei and the
two British submarines to venture out. E9 set
out to begin a patrol southwards on the 20
May, but returned on the 29th after Horton
had learnt of the death of Admiral von Essen.11
Meanwhile an offensive action was suggested to
use Yenisei to lay mines off Danzig to hamper
the German capital ships from leaving.

The distance from Revel to Danzig is some
740 km of open water. The German navy
was already carrying out operations in Gulf
of Finland and Yenisei was no match for the
firepower of German battleships and cruisers.
With the main Russian fleet still ice-bound the
only protection available for Yenisei was the
two British submarines.

Footnote 8 cont.: promoted to the rank of commander. Captain
Saczkowski came to know Horton as he was
able to speak English with him when they met
socially.
9 Washburn, The Russian Campaign, 61.
10 Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 65.
11 Admiral von Essen died of pneumonia
on the 20 May after a short illness. Wilson,
Baltic Assignment, 61, 66, General Adjutant
Grigorovitch, (1915) Despatch number 660
from the warship Kretchet, Order from the
Commander of the Baltic Fleet. Original in
author’s possession.

Because of the hazardous nature of the operation
the crew of the Yenisei was advised that
they could not expect to return safely. It was
recognized that this could be a ‘suicide’ mission.
The individual crew members were offered the
opportunity to opt out of the mission, but
recognizing its national importance, the whole
crew volunteered (figure 4). Nevertheless
Engineer-Captain Saczkowski was confident
they would return and, as an act of bravado,
took his tennis racquet with him.

On the evening on 29 May Yenisei and
her submarine escort E1 sailed from Revel,
steaming southwards along the coasts of Estonia
and Latvia. Hugging the coast they remained
undetected, but at Libau the starboard main
motor shaft of E1 fractured and she had to
limp back to Revel to be repaired.12 The Yenisei
continued on her mission reaching the waters
off Danzig on 1 June. Some 300 mines were laid
during the night, from approximately 22:30 to
03:00, effectively sealing the port of Danzig.

Having successfully completed her mission,
the Yenisei began the run back to Revel,
returning through the Irben Straits and across
the Gulf of Riga, before passing through Moon
Sound (Muhu Vain) with its dredged depth of
5 metres off the islands of Dago (Hiiumaa),
Ösel (Saaremaa) and Moon (Muhu). She was
then forced to take the main shipping lane
which passes by the Odensholm lighthouse
on Osmussar island as the passage between
the island and the mainland was shallow and
probably mined at that time.

When rounding the Odensholm lighthouse
Sackowski decided it was an opportune time
to leave his command post in the engine room
and retire to his cabin for a cup of coffee. This
decision saved his life, for what he did not
know was that the German submarine U26 was
lying submerged off the lighthouse waiting for
any ‘passing trade’.

At 10:27 on 4 June U26 fired a torpedo.
Saczkowski was in his cabin when the torpedo
struck the engine room, fatally damaging the
Yenisei, which began to rapidly sink, going down
in 10 minutes.13 He was knocked unconscious
by a blow to his face from a wooden beam, and

Footnote: 12 Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 68.
13 Ibid.

also sustained injuries to his back and shoulders.
His sailor batman manhandled him into one
of the two nearby lifeboats which were being
launched. The boats became overcrowded and
floated below the icy sea with the occupants up
to their chests in water. The remaining sailors
aboard Yenisei had to jump into the water, but
they soon succumbed to the cold.

Captain Prokhorov chose to go down with
his ship, and Midshipman Volbeck stayed with
him. Midshipman Petchakin, in the water,
encouraged the sailors by shouting, ‘Do not
lose heart, children. Our “Okyn” has avenged
us.’ Having accepted their fate they shouted
‘Oora’ (Hurrah) as the crippled ship sank. On
regaining consciousness Saczkowski, as the sole
surviving officer, helped to keep up the spirits
of the crew.14

Having seen the explosion, two Estonian
fishermen, at considerable risk to their own
lives, left the shore to search for survivors.

Footnote: 14 Grigorovitch, General Adjutant (1915) Despatch
number 660 from the warship Kretchet,
Order from the Commander of the Baltic Fleet.

Lieutenant Matycebitch stood up to attract
their attention, but collapsed and died. Having
been in the water for some eighty minutes,
Saczkowski and the eight ratings in his boat
and 11 ratings in the other boat were rescued
by the fishermen.15 Soon after, another living
sailor was plucked from the sea. A total of 297
perished, making it the second greatest loss,
after the Pallada, that the Baltic Fleet suffered
during the entire war.

The next morning Commander Horton,
on patrol in E9, received a radio message that
the Yenisei had been torpedoed. He steered
his submarine to the spot to try to locate and
destroy the German submarine, but U26 had
dived and was able to get away.16

Yenisei still rests on the bottom of the Baltic
Sea at a depth of some 47 metres and remains a
war grave at 59.10N 23.43E. In 1996 divers were

Footnote: 15 Washburn,S. The Russian Campaign, 3.
16 U26 disappeared around 10 Aug. at the
entrance to the Gulf of Finland. She most likely
detonated a mine in a Russian minefield, which
was possibly laid by Yenisei.

Figure 4: The officers and deck hands of Yenisei photographed before their mission. Engineer
Captain Saczkowski is the first officer seated to his right of the wheel, on his right is Captain
Prokhorov.

able to dive on the ship and film her remarkable
state of preservation, helped by the Baltic’s low
salinity and oxygen-poor bottom water.17 The
nautical charts show her now as a ‘blob’, some
19 metres high.

Because of this mission the German capital
and troop ships were greatly delayed in leaving
Danzig and only managed to reach the Gulf of
Riga in August, by which time the Russians had
been able to evacuate the civilians and reinforce
the defences with two army divisions and a small
fleet of warships, including the pre-dreadnought
battleship Slava. The Germans were repelled and
Riga remained in Russian control.18

Engineer Captain Nikolai Saczkowski

After the surviving sailors had been landed on
the Estonian shore, Saczkowski was taken to a
hospital. The first thing he asked about when
recovering was the whereabouts of his tennis
racquet. Vice-Admiral L. B. Kerber, who had
taken over from Admiral von Essen, came to
see him and was able to confirm the success of
the mission. He told Saczkowski that the Tsar
was awarding Captain Prokhorov the Order
of St George (equivalent to the British Victoria
Cross). The admiral then asked where he was
when the torpedo struck. Saczkowski confirmed
that he had left the engine room to have a cup of
coffee in his cabin. He was told that as he was
therefore technically off duty and could not be
awarded that honour. However he was given
the Order of St Stanislaus with swords (figure
5). This was particularly appropriate as he was
of Polish descent and the order historically was
of Polish origin and later adopted by Imperial
Russia. He already held the Third class with
swords of the order, but at least he had his life.

During his stay in hospital, the doctors
suggested that, because of the icy sea, his
heart had swung on its axis and he was given
five years to live. Modern medical knowledge
suggests that in response to the cold water his
heart would have slowed and may even have

Footnote: 17 Tsaari sõjalaev, an Estonian documentary
of the dive can be viewed at https://arhiiv.err.ee/
vaata/tsaari-sojalaev.
18 Root, Battles East, 147; Knox, With the
Russian Army, 292; Wilson, Baltic Assignment,
74–5; Rutherford, The Russian Army, 160.

temporarily stopped whilst he was comatose.19
Remarkably he lived another 41 years.20

Once he had recovered he did not return
to service at sea. He was promoted Engineer-
Captain First Rank and appointed the Plenipotentiary
Director of the Metallurgic Plants in
the south of Russia, basically in charge of the
munitions factories in Ukraine. This was a vital
job to make up for the deficiency in shells and
bullets revealed during the first year of war and
he was able to greatly increase production.

On 18 June 1916 he was present on the depot
ship Dvina, in Revel at the investiture of British
submariners from E8 and E9 with medals of
the Order of St George. His right cheek still
showed the scarring from his Yenisei injury.21

Following the revolution in February
1917 Saczkowski went to report to the naval
headquarters in the Admiralty building, at the
end of the Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg.
When he entered the room he found the Minister
for the Navy standing by the desk with a sailor
lounging in the chair with his feet on the table.
A few months later he fought with the White
Army in southern Russia. In one episode, when
in a town falling to the Red Army, to escape he
had to drop from a bridge on to a hospital train
packed with victims suffering from typhus. He
got beneath a blanket and the soldiers searching
the compartment understandably made little
attempt to search it properly.22

On 7 October 1918, the three parts of the
divided Poland came together to proclaim they
were one independent state.23 A ‘call to arms’
went out to Polish officers scattered around
Eastern Europe. Saczkowski received a delayed
letter when he was in Sebastopol and it then took
two months for him to reach Poland, arriving in

Footnote: 19 Dr Prash Patel, trauma specialist, pers.
comm. (2016).
20 It was not his heart that eventually
failed on 18 Mar. 1956; he died from a brain
haemorrhage.
21 Imperial War Museum photograph
Q64267 portrays him holding the medals before
giving them to Vice-Admiral V. A. Kanin, now
Commander-in-Chief, to pin on to the ratings.
22 The telling of this incident was passed to
me by his daughter.
23 Hastings, Catastrophe, 561.

March 1920.24 He participated in repelling the
Soviet forces trying to retake Poland. He then
took charge of the maintenance of the small
Polish navy in Modlin, before resigning to
construct saw mills in Finland and then finally
move to Belgium.

He settled in Antwerp with his wife and
children until the German Blitzkreig in 1940.
Wanting to fight again at sea, he contacted Max
Horton, now Vice-Admiral Submarines, and

Footnote: 24 Personal files of Polish officers, Wojskowe
Biuro Historyczne, Warsaw. This information
was obtained from the Warsaw archives for the
Director of the Polish Institute and Sikorski
Museum, London, on my behalf.

received a warm reply.25 He sailed across to
England but was considered too old to return to
sea on a British ship. However his engineering
skills were put to war use as a draughtsman–
designer in British armaments factories. He
settled in England, remaining there until his
death in 1956.

GEORGE BAILEY OBE
CHOBHAM, SURREY

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00253359.2017.1340430
© The Society for Nautical Research

Footnote: 25 Letter from Vice-Admiral Max Horton
to Saczkowski dated 29 Feb. 1940. In the
possession of the author.

Figure 5: Medals awarded to Captain Engineer Nikolai Saczkowki. Round the neck: Order of
StStanislaus with swords. On the chest (left to right): 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 Third Class with swords, for valour in the face of
the enemy; Medal 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; Badges: Cross
of Defenders of Port Arthur; 100 years commemoration of the Naval Engineering Academy in
Kronstadt; Naval Academy (Marskoi Inginernol Outchilistche). At the bottom left is one given to
his daughter by a Polish airman during the Second World War.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Captain Klaus Muller,
captain of the schooner Star Clipper, for taking his
ship close to the site where the Yenisei now lies,
and Third Officer Olga Kaminska for helping to
identify Yenisei’s position. I would also like to
thank: Julia Bailey for translating Russian script;
Andrew Breer, for helping to examine the film
of the sunken Yenisei; Christopher Coffin for
proofreading; Andrew Orgill and John Pearce
for access to the Central Library at Sandhurst;
M. Muchketov, Central Naval Museum, St
Petersburg, for his correspondence concerning
Engineer Captain Saczkowski. A special thanks
to Colonel Tarmo Ranisoo, military attaché
at the Estonian embassy in London, for his
assistance with my research.

References

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Cowrie, J. S., Mines, minelayers and
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Crosley, J., The Hidden Threat: The story of
mines and minesweeping by the Royal Navy
in World War I (Barnsley, 2011)
Graf, H., The Russian Navy in War and
Revolution: From 1914 up to 1918
(Honolulu, 2002)
Hastings, M., Catastrophe: Europe goes to war
1914 (London, 2013)
Knox, A., With the Russian Army 1914–1917
(London, 1921)
Pavlovich, N. B., The Fleet in the First World
War: Volume 1: Operations of the Russian
fleet (New Delhi, 1979)
Root, G. I., Battles East: A history of the
Eastern Front of the First World War
(Baltimore, 2007)
Rutherford, W., The Russian Army in World
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Washburn, S., The Russian Campaign: April to
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