Mine Warfare: Nineteenth Century

1854 - 1856 - Mining in the Crimean War

'Torpedo mines, if I may use this name given by Fulton to self-acting mines underwater, were among the novelties attempted by the Russians in their defenses about Cronstadt and Sebastopol," wrote Major Richard Delafield of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1860. Major Delafield had been an observer of the Crimean War, during which Russia became the first nation to make systematic use of mines and minefields.

In the 1850s, Russia saw internal disarray in the Ottoman Turk empire as an opportunity to increase its influence in southeastern Europe and Asia. Great Britain and France sided with the Turks, moving their naval forces into the Black Sea, declaring war on Russia in 1854, and initiating the Crimean War. In September of that year, the allies landed troops in Russian Crimea and began a year-long siege of the Russian fortress of Sevastopol. To preclude any breakout of the Russian Baltic Fleet, French and British naval and ground forces also moved into the Baltic to blockade the Gulf of Finland and neutralize the fortified ports Russia's fleet might use.

The Russians found mines to be a useful part of their naval effort in Black and Baltic Seas. Major Delafield noted, "Around and about the Island of Cronstadt (sic) and the anchorages that the allied fleet would probably occupy, as well as the channels of approach, and anchorages abreast of the castles [forts] defending these channels, numerous submerged mines… were placed to explode by the contact of any vessel running against them.“

As Delafield described, Russian forces mined the approaches to Sevastopol in the Black Sea and Kronstadt and Sveaborg (which guarded the approaches to Russian-ruled Helsinki) with a mix of controlled and contact mines. The latter proved to be especially effective, severely damaging several British ships. The impact of a ship against the mine broke a lead-sheathed glass vial, initiating a chemical reaction. In turn, this reaction heated the black powder in the mine until it eventually detonated. All told, these weapons became a key element in Russian defenses, so much so that they built (or at least claimed to have built) the first dedicated minelayer in 1855.

The British learned to counter the Russian mines, at least in small areas, by having small guard boats precede warships in an area where mines might be. The warships also posted bow watches to spot mines ahead of the ship. However, such procedures slowed the tempo of British operations, and left ships vulnerable to other, shore-based defenses. They also did not solve the problem of clearing mines from a wide area, a challenge the allies never mastered.

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