What was the Battle of Sinop (1853)?


The Battle of Sinop, or the Battle of Sinope, was a naval battle that took place on 30 November 1853 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire at Sinop, a sea port along the southern shore of the Black Sea. It was a precursor to the Crimean War (1854-1856). During the battle a squadron of Imperial Russian warships led by Russian Admiral Paul Nakhimov struck and defeated a squadron of Ottoman ships anchored in the harbour. The Ottoman forces were led by Vice Admiral Osman Pasha.

The battle is noted for proving the superiority of the shell gun against wooden hulls and shots fired from smooth bores. Nearly 3,000 Turks were killed when Nakhimov’s forces shelled the town of Sinop after sinking the Turkish ships. It is commemorated in Russia as a Day of Military Honour.

The battle was a contributing factor to bringing France and Britain into the conflict. Lieutenant Commander William M. Pitt of the United States Naval War College has written that the battle is only one of two recorded incidents in history where the tactical strategy of interposition has failed (the other is the Battle of Navarino, 1827).


On 04 October 1853, around 2 months before the battle, in response the Russian occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia (then part of the Ottoman Danube), the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. By the early 1850s the Ottoman Empire was deeply in debt and relied exclusively on British and French loans as a means of support. As a result, Ottoman leaders had no choice but to agree to drastic reductions in both army and navy force levels. Tsar Nicholas I saw the reductions as an opportunity to press Russian claims in the Trans-Caucasus and along the Danube River. In July 1853 Russian forces occupied several Ottoman principalities and forts along the Danube. Mediation of the disputes broke down, and Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid I responded with a declaration of war. Fearing Russian expansion, the United Kingdom and France issued a concurrent ultimatum: Russia was to fight only defensively. As long as Russia stayed on the defensive the Anglo-French would remain neutral, but if Russia acted “aggressively” the western powers reserved the right to get involved.

Hostilities began officially on 4 October, with a principal theatre in Europe and another in the Caucasus. Sultan Abdulmecid ordered an immediate offensive to drive back the Russians and demonstrate Ottoman might before Ottoman finances totally collapsed. The offensive along the Danube met with mixed success, but the Ottoman land attack into the Russian Caucasus was relatively successful. By the end of October, the Russian Caucasus Corps was in danger of being surrounded.

Despite the Ottoman declaration of war, the naval aspect was mostly uneventful until November, when the Vice Admiral Osman Pasha was forced to dock at Sinop during a storm on the Black Sea. To support the attack and properly supply his forces before significant snowfall, Sultan Abdulmecid ordered a squadron of frigates, steamers and transports to establish a supply corridor to the Ottoman army in Georgia. Osman Pasha, himself aboard the 60-gun Avni Illah, had been sailing with seven frigates, two corvettes and several transports to resupply the Turkish land forces.

Unable to interdict the convoy, Russian naval elements remained in Sevastopol. Abdulmecid ordered a second convoy commanded by Osman Pasha, but by this time it was late November and the fleet was forced to seek winter quarters. It ended up at Sinop, joining the frigate Kaid Zafer which had been part of an earlier patrol, and was joined by the steam frigate Taif from a smaller squadron. The Ottomans had wanted to send ships of the line to Sinop, but the British ambassador in Constantinople, Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe, had objected to this plan, and only frigates were sent.

Initial Ottoman activity in the Black Sea had been allowed to proceed unhindered, but as the situation of the Russian Caucasus Corps deteriorated, St. Petersburg was forced to act. Adm. Pavel Nakhimov was ordered to muster the Russian navy and interdict the Ottomans. From 01 to 23 November Russian squadrons were dispatched into the Black Sea to establish control. Two Ottoman steamers, the Medzhir Tadzhiret and the Pervaz Bahri, were captured by the Russians in short engagements. Russia was able to establish operational control of the sea lanes but storms forced Nakhimov to send back most of his force for repair. Left with only a frigate, a steamer and three ships of the line, Nakhimov continued the search for Osman and the convoy. On 23 November his flag was sighted returning and then entering the harbour at Sinop. Nakhimov immediately deployed his ships into a blockade and sent his only frigate to retrieve as many reinforcements as could be found.

On 30 November Vice Adm. Fyodor Novosiliski rallied six more ships to Nakhimov, completing the blockade force in a loose semi-circle. Additional steamers were expected, but Nakhimov decided to act before the Ottomans could be reinforced by additional ships. Osman for his part had been well aware of the Russian presence since 23 November, but felt his ships were safe in harbour. Sinop had substantial harbour defences and forts with interlocking fields of fire and ample cannon. Osman did little to break the weak Russian blockade, even allowing many of his crews to disembark.

The Battle

Three Russian second-class ships of the line (84 cannons each) led by Adm. Nakhimov arrived at Sinop on 23 November to discover the Turkish fleet in the harbour under the defence of the on-shore fortifications strengthened by cannons. Five Russian ships under command of Vice Adm. Fyodor Novosilsky (including three 120-cannon first-class ships of the line) joined Nakhimov on 28 November.

Admiral Nakhimov decided with his officers that they would attack the Ottoman fleet sheltered at Sinop. Strengthened by the squadron of Vice Adm. Fyodor, Nakhimov consolidated over 700 cannon in six ships of the line, two frigates and three armed steamers. The Ottoman forces included seven frigates, three corvettes and two armed steamers. The Russians planned to deploy their ships in two columns that would advance to within close range of the enemy vessels before dropping anchor and opening fire. Under Nakhimov’s command, the 84-gun ship Imperatritsa Maria was the first to engage when she fired on the 44-gun Ottoman flagship Auni Allah.

On 30 November the Russian squadron entered the harbour from the northwest in a triangular formation. Nakhimov manoeuvred his fleet so that the Ottoman vessels were between the Russian ships and Sinop’s harbour defences, shielding his own force and exposing the Ottomans to potential friendly fire. Nakhimov spaced his battleships evenly in two lines, covering the entire harbour with interlocking fields of fire. Russian gunners began to score hits on all the Ottoman targets. The shells fired by Russian guns immediately set Ottoman ships on fire. Panic-stricken sailors found firefighting efforts difficult amidst continued fire and almost constant shrapnel. After about 30 minutes of combat the Ottoman frigate was shot full of holes and ran aground when her cable was cut. Imperatritsa Maria then attacked the 44-gun frigate Fazli Allah, which caught fire and grounded. Meanwhile, the other Russian ships engaged the Nizamie and Damiad, which were grounded. The Ottoman frigate Navek Bakhri exploded and sank along with the corvette Guli Sephid.

Only one Ottoman vessel, the 12-gun paddle frigate Taif, managed to escape the battle while all the others were either sunk or purposely run ashore to prevent sinking. She fled to Istanbul and arrived on 02 December, informing the Ottoman government of the defeat at Sinop. Once the enemy fleet was destroyed the Russians engaged Ottoman shore batteries and destroyed them. During the fighting 37 Russians were killed and 229 were wounded, at least three of the ships of the line were damaged. Ottoman forces lost about 3,000 men killed, 150 were taken prisoner and their leader Osman Pasha was captured.

Aftermath and Legacy

When telegraph reports of the battle reached Russian authorities in St. Petersburg, the reaction was jubilant. The untested and widely hated Russian navy had proved victorious and the recent expenditure in its development seemed warranted. Several balls were held to celebrate the victory and a state-funded parade was held. The affair was rather grand, and included dancers, bands, parading troops who had not taken part in the battle and criminals dressed up in Ottoman uniforms. Military advisors saw the battle as a turning point and pushed for shell-firing guns to be installed on all Russian ships.

The reaction in the Ottoman capital of Constantinople ranged from concern to total panic. Russia had annihilated a vital convoy and now had operational control over the Black Sea. The destruction of the harbour defences opened the door to Russian invasion and suddenly the entire Samsun and Trabzon Coast was now at risk. Moreover, the Russian violation of the British/French mandate for the war meant that the actions of Russia could no longer be predicted and Russia might not be fighting with one hand tied behind its back. Subsequent policy was directed toward the Anglo-French and the comprehensive military agreement that Istanbul had been trying to avoid.

The attack was treated by external powers as unjustified and caused a wave of anti-Russian sentiment in western Europe. Much of the British press presented the attack as the “Massacre of Sinope”. The attack strengthened the pro-war factions in Britain and France, and provided them with the justification for a war to curb Russian bellicosity. Lord Palmerston temporarily resigned over the affair. By March 1854, however, war hawks in the National Government won out and Sinop was seen as a just cause for war, although ultimately the real motivation was to curb Russian expansion in accordance with a balance of power strategy. During the Crimean War which followed, all Russian ships of the line and frigates involved in this battle were lost at Sevastopol.

Importance to Naval Warfare

Sinop was presented by the media as not so much a battle but an ambush, but its results were nonetheless important to the practice of 19th-century warfare and the evolution of naval doctrine. Prior to Sinop the standard naval armament were smooth-bores that fired cannonballs, shot, shrapnel or other projectiles. Paixhans guns or regional equivalents were slowly being integrated into navies, but only the French, Russian and American navies had made a comprehensive effort. These batteries represented a clear evolution in naval technology that broke through the final ceiling of the Age of Sail. Unlike previous smooth-bore ordnance, Paixhans guns fired explosive shells and not mere metal projectiles. The shells themselves did both kinetic and explosive damage, causing fires. In addition, the new guns were heavier, could engage at a greater range, and possessed far greater penetrating power.

However, until 1853 no navy had made comprehensive use of shell-firing guns in a live combat environment. Indeed, many experts disparaged the new weapons and the larger ships required to carry them as too heavy for naval warfare. The results of Sinop were clear and showed that the new weapons were effective. As a result, an arms race ensued with participant nations desperately looking for ways to up-gun existing ships and incorporate the shell-firing guns into new vessels.


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