Russian Volunteer Fleet

The following collection of posts appeared on MARHST-L in March 2000, and appear by permission.

From Steve McLaughlin (STEVEM@SFPL.LIB.CA.US)

The Volunteer Fleet was formed during the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), when it looked like there might be war with Britain. A group of Russian merchants, mostly from Moscow, agreed to contribute funds toward the purchase of fast steamships that could be converted into commerce raiders in the event of war. Hence the name "Volunteer" fleet. One of the leaders of the movement was K.P. Pobedonostsev, a leading conservative; after the war he used the Volunteer as a political tool against the liberal head of the Russian navy, the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich. Using the theories of a naval officer named N.M. Baranov, Pobedonostsev argued that the expensive fleet of armorclad ships proposed by Konstantin could be replaced by fast, unarmored steamers armed with powerful guns (a la Armstrong in England). Thus for several years the Volunteer Fleet served as a sort of second navy, in competition with the real navy. Its ships were almost always purchased abroad, were often commanded and crewed by naval men, and were used on relatively unprofitable runs to the Far East and Middle East (I believe conveying convicts to Sakhalin was a regular part of the service).

With the death of Emperor Aleksandr II in 1881, and the forced retirment of Konstantin Nikolaevich shortly afterwards, the Volunteer Fleet was placed under the authority of the Naval Ministry. It continued to run subsidized services in peacetime, and in war provided auxiliary cruisers -- Volunteer Fleet ships were used as commerce raiders during the Russo-Japanese War (there's an article on this topic in the _Naval War College Review_), and several Volunteer Fleet ships served as auxiliary cruisers during the First World War.

For a time in the late 19th century the Volunteer Fleet was a great bogeyman in British naval circles, and there was a fair amount of "scare" literature about it; this was at a time when Britain was beginning to worry about her dependence on imports, so a fleet of fast commerce raiders was considered a worrisome proposition.

For the Russian politics of the Volunteer Fleet, see Robert F. Byrnes, _Pobedonostsev: His Life and Times_, and Jacob W. Kipp, "Tsarist Politics and the Naval Ministry, 1876-81: Balanced Fleet or Cruiser Navy?" (_Canadian-American Slavic Studies_, vol. 17, no. 2 (Summer 1983), pp. 151-179). Jane's book on the Imperial Russian Navy discusses the Volunteer Fleet a little from the British perspective, and there was an article some years ago in the _Belgian Shiplover_ with a list of Volunteer Fleet ships.

From Peter Sinfield (sinfield@PCUG.ORG.AU)

The RJASAN (or RIASAN) was a steamer of 3,522 tons which could make about 14 knots. She was captured by EMDEN on the night of 3/4 August, armed with 8 x 4.1-in guns and subsequently commissioned as the auxiliary cruiser CORMORAN at Tsingtao by the crew of the obsolete cruiser CORMORAN (see below). After her capture, the ship had an exciting but very frustrating four months - with coal supplies (and eventually hunger) her constant worry.

Sailing from Tsingtao, CORMORAN joined von Spee's squadron at Majuro (in the Marshalls) on 27 August with two colliers. When the squadron sailed on 30th, CORMORAN was detached (with the auxiliary cruiser PRINZ EITEL FRIEDRICH and the collier MARK) to conduct cruiser warfare in west Australian waters. However, the destruction of German wireless stations in the Pacific made the raiders' coal supply uncertain and, after reaching her intended area of operations, CORMORAN had to turn back to Yap which she reached on 17 September.

She set off again two days later to rendezvous with PRINZ EITEL FREIDRICH and two colliers at Port Grand Duke Alexis (near Madang, on the north coast of New Guinea), from where the two auxiliary cruisers were to conduct cruiser warfare on the *east* coast of Australia. On the same day as CORMORAN arrived at Port Alexis, however, two companies of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) - their transport escorted by the battlecruiser AUSTRALIA and two cruisers - occupied Freidrich Wilhelm Harbour (Madang), just 12 miles away. Indeed, the two cruisers reconnoitred Port Alexis itself, but failed to find the auxiliary cruiser hidden in a narrow winding channel overhung with dense jungle!

CORMORAN escaped under cover of darkness and returned to Yap. There she embarked the garrison and headed back for New Guinea with the intention of using it to raid Madang, but a false alarm within sight of her destination again saw her charting a course for Yap. Off the entrance she sighted the Japanese battleship SATSUMA, quickly changing course for the western Carolines. On a lonely island (Samutrik?), she carried out what repairs she could, while trying to arrange supplies of coal and food. Despite the best efforts of German agents these attempts were in vain, and finally Korvetten-Kapitan Zuckschwerdt made for Guam where the auxiliary cruiser was interned on 14 December.

The captain made himself agreeable to the authorities there, and by the end of October 1916, CORMORAN was in all respects ready to renew her efforts as a commerce raider. However, these plans were betrayed and the internment continued. Perhaps someone else on the list can fill in the details of this period and/or the ship's subsequent fate post-war?

The original CORMORAN was an unprotected cruiser of 1,600 tons, with a speed of about 16 knots and an armament of 8 x 4.1-in guns. In the event of war she and her sister GEIER were to fit out merchant ships as auxiliary cruisers, and were to join the auxiliary ships of ADM von Spee's squadron; however, after her crew was transferred to the "new" CORMORAN (ex-RIASAN), she was laid up at Tsingtao and eventually sunk in the harbour.

Source: Jose, Arthur W. THE ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY 1914-1918. 3rd Ed. (Vol. 9 of the OFFICIAL HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA IN THE WAR OF 1914-18). Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1935.

Further to my earlier post on the RJASTAN/RIASTAN, a quick search of the 'Net indicates that CORMORAN was 335 feet long and was scuttled by its crew in Apra Harbour (Guam) in 1917 while it was interned.

I have no further knowledge than the brief passage in the Official History, which runs:

"Finally, under compulsion of hunger and lack of coal, the CORMORAN made for the port of Guam and was interned there on the 14th of December. Her captain did not lose hope. He made himself consistently agreeable to the United States colony at Guam; his officers "entertained at tea" and gave moonlight picnics; and his band "rendered delightful concerts"; the ship was, if the social columns of various American newspapers may be believed, one of the centres of Guam society. So it happened that at the end of October 1916, the CORMORAN found herself with full bunkers, a large supply of ammunition, and new breech-blocks for all her guns, ready to escape from internment and begin over again as a commerce-raider - when her intentions were unexpectedly betrayed to the United States Government at Washington, and Guam woke up."

One wonders how the coal, ammunition and breech-blocks came to Guam, and how they could be delivered to the ship without the knowledge of the authorities!

It would be interesting to know exactly *when* in 1917 CORMORAN was scuttled (ie, before or after the United States' entry into the war), and subsequently what happened to the crew.

From Paul D Edwards (rmsscotia@ECLIPSE.NET)

CORMORAN was scuttled by her crew at approximately 0800 on 7 April 1917, Guam time. Seven of her crew were lost and were buried in the Agana Naval Cemetary. There is an obelisk marking the site. The remainder of the crew were held on Guam for several weeks as POWs and then transferred to San Francisco by the USAT THOMAS. They were repatriated after the cessation of hostilities.

cf "The Frustrated Raider." Charles Burdick, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, USA, 1979.

In WW2 the Japanese auxiliary, MV TOKAI MARU(EASTERN SEA) was torpedoed by USS SNAPPER & USS FLYING FISH, subsequently sinking on top of and then shifting adjacent to SMS CORMORAN.

From Charles J Swet (cjemsol@JUNO.COM)

The Russian Volunteer Fleet was not limited to civilian cargo/passenger/mail vessels capable of being converted to auxiliary cruisers or used for other, specialized, purposes. Unless, that is, "other, specialized, purposes" is meant to include river cargo/tug service with only one passenger. Lyon's Denny List describes LIEUTENANT MALIGNIN 1893 as a shallow draft river cargo and tug paddle steamer with accommodations for one passenger. She was built for the Yensei Flotilla to support construction of the TransSiberian Railway, and was taken over by the Russian Navy from the Russian Volunteer Fleet whilst building. She steamed from Scotland around Norway to the Yensei river in Siberia via the Arctic Ocean. I have an account of that harrowing delivery voyage.

Last Updated: 10 October, 2000.

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