Europe has produced its share of mighty empires down through the ages, and when you run the list of them through your head, the one that probably doesn’t spring first to mind is Sweden. But during the 16th and 17th centuries, Sweden indeed achieved great-power status and oversaw a Northern European empire that rendered the Baltic Sea—as geostrategically vital then as it is today—a virtual Swedish lake. By controlling the Baltic, Sweden had a chokehold on the fortunes of all the nations along its rim.
Resistance to such dominance was eventually inevitable. And when a coalition of kingdoms united against Sweden in the Great Northern War of 1700–1721, they thought their prospects looked pretty good—because the new Swedish king, Charles XII, was a mere stripling of a lad, all of 14 years old.
The boy-king proceeded to quickly disavow them of their overconfidence. In a series of remarkable campaigns, Charles displayed a flare for audacious, ingenious strategy and tactics. He thwarted an attack from the Danes by laying siege to Copenhagen and forcing them to the negotiating table. He humiliated a far larger Russian army at Narva. He repulsed the forces of Saxony at Riga. With each stunning victory, the wunderkind left the coalition forces arrayed against him in fearful awe.
But the heady wine of such success was too strong for the adolescent monarch, engendering in him a false sense of invincibility and unerring genius. And Charles XII morphed from someone reminiscent of Alexander the Great during his legendary winning streak to someone more akin to Adolf Hitler from June 1941 on, spoiled by early success and convinced of his own brilliance, proceeding to make one fatal blunder after another, obsessed to the point of self-destruction with that tantalizing target that would lay many a would-be conqueror low: Russia.
After Sweden’s crushing defeat by the Russians at the Battle of Poltava in 1709, it was all over but the shouting for the Swedish Empire, though the war would drag on. In Russia’s leadership, the bold King Charles XII had met his match: Tsar Peter I—Peter the Great. Peter realized his imperial ambitions for Russia required that it be not just a land power, but a sea power as well.
And therein lay Russia’s perpetual problem: access to a warm-water port. Peter the Great’s attempt to build a Black Sea Fleet came crashing down ignominiously in the face of Turkish naval superiority in 1710. With Black Sea hopes dashed, Russia was left with another option for warm-water access to the open ocean: the Baltic. There was, of course, the little matter of Sweden standing in the way.
Peter had made bold moves in that direction: carving out—from ostensible Swedish territory—the coastal location for what would become St. Petersburg, expanding outward to wrest control of more of the surrounding coastline, building up a fleet. The vessels were ungainly in design, made from less-than-ideal wood, with subpar cannon manned by crews inferior in their gunnery—but a fleet nonetheless. Peter the Great was many things, one of them being a naval visionary. He was the father of the Russian Navy, founder of the Russian Naval School—the tsar who worked himself through the ranks to truly acquire the skills and honestly attain the rank of rear admiral. And he had a valuable mentor in the form of Count Fyodor Apraksin, Russia’s first admiral (and a general of renown before that). Together, these two would sail forth with their newly minted Baltic Fleet and trounce the Swedish at the decisive Battle of Gangut, aka the Battle of Hangö, on 17 August 1714 (27 July by the Gregorian calendar).
The Swedish fleet under Rear Admiral Nils Ehrenskjold had them bottled up in the Gulf of Finland, and the Russians were determined to break through. Ehrenskjold, greatly outnumbered by the 100-galley Russian fleet, made use of the narrow channel to array his ships broadside to the foe. So while the Russians had the advantage in numbers, the Swedish had the advantage in position—one that cramped the efforts of the enemy ships.
Twice the Russian galleys charged, only to be repulsed by the Swedish line. On the third attack, they focused on the flanks and broke through, overpowering Ehrenskjold’s flanking galleys, boarding them in such overwhelming numbers that one of them sank under the sheer weight. By now, Ehrenskjold was wounded and his flagship was on fire. He surrendered as the Russians swooped in from all sides.
“Peter took tremendous pleasure and pride in this victory, which he considered equal in importance to Poltava,” noted biographer Ian Grey. At the great Battle of Poltava, Peter “had defeated Sweden’s army; now, he had defeated her navy. His dearest ambition had always been to make Russia a sea power.” With the Battle of Gangut, “he realized this ambition.”
To this day, Russia’s Navy Day, a national holiday marked by parades and fanfare, takes place on the last Sunday in July in honor of the battle. And traditionally, the Imperial Russian Navy always made it a point to have one ship in service named the Gangut, a name worthy of memory—for it was the first major victory of the Russian Navy.
R. W. Daly, Russian Military and Naval Doctrine, 700 B.C. –1917 (n.d., History Department, U.S. Naval Academy, courtesy Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Academy), vol. 1, sec. 8, 6–18.
Robert I. Frost, The Northern Wars: War, State, and Society in Northeastern Europe, 1558–1721 (Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000), 304–20.
Ian Grey, Peter the Great: Emperor of All Russia (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1960), 326–34.
Donald W. Mitchell, A History of Russian and Soviet Sea Power (New York: Macmillan, 1974), 16–41.