The 19-th century was the century of the rising nations and their right for self determination. Modern Romania formed, as a state, in January 1859, when Moldovia and Wallachia elected the same Ruling Principle, Alexandru Ioan Cuza, taking advantage of a defeated Russian Empire (Crimeean War) and of a more and more weaker Ottoman Empire. But the newly born country, Romania, was still a vassal of the Ottoman Empire, though the ties were not that tight and powerful anymore.
The new Ruling Principle, besides other reforms, paid a lot of attention to the newly born country’s military, including its small navy, essentially a river fleet. Soon after that moment, in October 1860 it has been decided to unite the two flotillas, the Moldovian and the Wallachian one, thus forming the Danube Fleet Corps, whose first commander was Colonel Steriade, the former commander of the Moldavian fleet, his captain, Petrescu, being the former commander of the Wallachian fleet.
As normal, attention was paid to the training of crews and, in October 1861 French instructors were brought in. Efforts have been made to send young Romanian officers to specialization in France, some of the first officers to benefit from these scholarships being Nicolae Dumitrescu Maican and Ion Murgescu.
1864 also recorded a series of premieres, the introduction of the first steam ship in the service of the Danube Fleet Corps – “Romania”, but also the establishment of a repair and naval construction workshop that constituted the base of the later fleet arsenal. Also, the law of January 10, 1864, decided to grant loans for shipbuilding, a law on which the ship “Ştefan cel Mare” built in Austria arrived in the young Romanian fleet.
In 1865, the term of seaman was first introduced in the military fleet, replacing that of the soldier.
“Rândunica” (English: “Swallow”) – the first torpedo boat of Romania
In 1874, a torpedo boat was ordered in England (built by Yarrow, Poplar Docks, London, according to sources), which would cost the country’s treasury the significant sum of 8000 lei. The ship arrived in 1875, being armed with two spar torpedoes, Thornycroft system. It was commissioned into the Romanian fleet under the name of “Swallow” (Romanian: “Rândunica”).
The boat was 15 m long, had a beam of 5 m and the draft was 0.75 m. The displacement was 9 tons, being propelled by a very modern steam engine at that time, a 36 hp machine propelling the ship with a speed of 9 knots. The main inconvenience of this steam machine was its height. On the other hand, it seems that the machine had a fast-reverse system that allowed it once detonated the torpedoed to detach itself from the enemy ship and retreat to a safe distance from the sinking ship. It also had a quick-action steam bilge pump.
The boat was open, no deck. It is possible that during the Romania’s War of Independence, it was attempted to protect the crew from the effects of the torpedo attack and the enemy small arms fire by installing sand-filled bags, but there is no certainty in this regard.
Its main armament consisted of two spar torpedoes, placed at the bow, on both sides of the ship. The spar was about 5 to 6 m long. Therefore, in the case of an attack, the “Randunica” had to approach its opponent at a distance equal to the length of the spar and hit it. At the end of the spar there was the torpedo or mine, that was being shot through two wires, stretched along the spar. A third thread secured the spar in the attack position.
One of the most known attacks in which spar torpedoes were used was the famous attack of the Hunley submarine on February 17, 1864 against USS “Housatonic”. So was the case of the successful attack on the night of 27-28 October 1864 by Lieutenant Cushing who managed to sink the confederate ship, “CSS Albemarle “.
The increasingly tensed situation from the south of the Danube (the uprisings of the Serbs and the Bulgarians in 1875-1876) led the Romanian government to increase the funds allocated to the fleet that benefited from the measures taken by Nicolae Dumitrescu Maican and Ion Murgescu for a better organization and training of crews such as the training voyage of the “Fulgerul” (English: “Lightning”) gunboat held on October 12-17, 1875.
The War of Independence took the small Romanian fleet in full development process, but not the Turkish fleet. Neither the Russian fleet was in the best shape yet after the Crimean War, the Treaty of Paris (1856) preventing it from owning a significant fleet on the Black Sea.
By the time the war began, the Turks had a superior fleet on the Danube consisting of 330-tonne river monitors – the “Feth-ut-Islam” class, which was supplemented by bringing two other gunboats from Sulina to Macin, “Lufti Gelil” and “Duba-Seifi.”
Located on Macin, one side channel of the Danube, was “Feht-ut-Islam”, a 330-toned monitor, with a length of 31.5 m, a beam of 7.6 m and a draft of 1.95 m. It was protected by a 76 mm-thick composite (steel and wood) armor that narrowed to the bow and aft, where it reached 51 mm. Its deck was protected by 9.5 mm thick steel plates laid on an oak bed of 28 cm in thickness. The ship was propelled by two 80 hp steam machines, each spinning a four-blade propeller, which provided a speed of 8 Knots in dead water.
“Feth-ut-Islam” class ships seemed to be armed with two heavy 160 mm Armstrong guns and, following an upgrading in 1871, six (possibly six-barreled quick cannons) 76 mm Armstrong guns.
“Duba-Seifi” was a bigger variant of “Feth-ut-Islam” built at Istanbul Teysan Navy Arsenal. The ship had a length of 49.3 m, a beam of 9.4 m, a draft of 1.6 m and a displacement of 404 tons. Its armor was between 52 and 75 mm with a maximum of 105 mm at the turret. It was armed with two 150 mm guns and two lightweight, perhaps quick and multi-barreled light rifle guns, but the information about these ships is approximate. The ship had a speed of 6 knots, most likely in dead water.
As Russia, stopped in its advance by the Ottoman Empire, asked Romania for help, the Romanian government made available to it the four Romanian military ships: “Romania”, “Ştefan cel Mare”, “Fulgerul” and “Rândunica”. They were crewed with Russian officers and sailors, except for the Romanian mechanics and pilots who could not easily be replaced. By a Carol I, Romania’s Ruling Principle, High Decree of 10 May 1877, Major Ion Murgescu, the former commander of the Romanian flotilla, was attached to the commandment of the Russian fleet.
On the night of 12 to 13 May 1877, there was a first Russian-Romanian common mission on the Danube, where there were anchored the Turkish river monitor, “Duba-Seifi” and “Feth-ut-Islam”, as well as the “Kiligi-Ali” ship.
“Randunica”, whose name was changed by the Russians to “Tsarevici”, under the command of Russian Lieutenant Dubasoff, “Xenia”, commanded by Lieutenant Sestacoff, “Dzigit” commanded by midshipman Persine and “Tsarevna”, by Ball midshipman have participated. The Russian torpedo boats had arrived by train from the Baltic Sea, joining the four Romanian ships.
A good connoisseur of the Danube, Major Ion Murgescu is co-opted in the crew of “Rândunica”, together with the Romanian mechanic and the pilot of the ship and will significantly contribute to the drawing up of the attack plan and the operation. “Feth-ut-Islam”, “Duba-Seifi” and “Kiligi-Ali” were anchored on Macin channel.
Lieuitenant Dubasoff ordered the torpedo boats to sail in line along the shore, reducing the machines for not making noise, increasing it during the attack. The night of 25 to 26 May 1877 was bright, though thin clouds enveloped the moon. The machines were making noise, but the frogs were so powerful that it stifled it. The monitors appeared on the horizon. “Duba-Seifi” in the middle of Danube’s arm, “Kiligi-Ali” to his left and, shortly before, to the shore, “Feth-ut-Islam”.
That night, “Rândunica” successfully attacked and sunk “Duba-Seifi”. This naval victory in such a short time since Romania’s involvement in the war had led to the lifting of the morale of the new allies. In fact, Major Murgescu was decorated, as his rapid reactions saved “Rândunica” from the debris of the sinking “Duba-Seifi”.
According to some reliable sources, it appears that the wreck of “Duba-Seifi” lay on the bank of the Măcin arm until 1986 when, in the spirit of those times, it was dynamite for the expansion of the channel.
For our young fleet, the War of Independence was a valuable battle experience, of which many lessons were learned, even though we fought under the leadership of the Russians. Let’s not forget that it has not been 20 years since the establishing of Romania, a very short, insufficient time to create a truly capable naval military.
From this perspective it is explicable the reinforcement of Romanian ships with Russian officers and sailors, much more experienced than ours.
The consequence of this successful torpedo attack was that Ottoman monitors began to retreat whenever such a torpedo boat appeared in the area. The technology of the spar torpedo was a new, modern and unconventional, “Rândunica” being a very cheap ship compared to the Ottoman ship that fell victim to it. I remind you, the Romanian ship had cost only 8,000 lei, by comparison, any of the Ottoman monitors had cost each hundreds of thousands lei.
Basically, the Romanian military navy and its Russian ally have led a guerilla war with the Ottoman military navy, superior in all respects. They have done so by resorting to new technologies and old tactics, sanctioning every mistake of the Ottomans, as was the case of the “Lufti Gelil” sinking by the Russian artillery in Braila or the “Podgorita” sinking by Romanian sailors heavy guns, sailors under the command of Major Dumitrescu Maican.
I noticed that most of the English speaking websites considers this victory as a Russian victory, which is true only in part, as the ship and part of its crew were Romanians.
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