The battle of Gangut (also known as Hangö or Bengstörfjärd) was a significant Russian naval victory during the Great Northern War, won by the Russian galley fleet. Over the previous decade Peter the Great had conquered most of Sweden’s Baltic provinces and begin the construction of St. Petersburg. He had also begun to construct a deep water sailing fleet. In May 1714 both the sailing fleet and the galley fleet had sailed into the Gulf of Finland. The sailing fleet had then sailed south to Reval, while the galley fleet had gone to Helsingfors.
From Helsingfors the galley fleet, under the command of F. M. Apraksin, moved west along the Finnish coast towards Åbo, then an important base for the Russian army in Finland.
A Swedish fleet, commanded by Admiral Wattrang, had also entered the Gulf of Finland in May. He had sixteen battleships and a number of smaller ships, including galleys. On 10 July the Swedish fleet was off the Hangö peninsula on the Finnish coast when the Russian galley fleet approached from the east. Faced with the superior firepower of the Swedish fleet Apraksin withdrew east to Tvärminne, at the south east corner of the peninsula. From there he called for help from the Tsar.
Peter was not ready to risk a full scale battle with his new fleet. Instead he left the bulk of the fleet at Reval and travelled to Tvärminne, arriving on 31 July. Once there he decided move his galleys across the narrow isthmus at the base of the peninsula. The attempt failed – one galley did reach the west coast of the peninsula, but a second was destroyed and the effort was abandoned.
News of the Russian plan had reached the Swedes. Wattrang dispatched a small squadron under Schoutbynacht Ehrensköld to attack any Russian galleys that successfully crossed the isthmus. He reached Bengstörfjärd, the intended Russian destination, on 4 August.
On the same day Wattrang made an attempt to attack the Russian galleys at Tvärminne. As part of the Swedish fleet moved inshore, twenty of the Russian galleys made an attempt to slip past the Swedes. This failed, but the next morning the wind fell, virtually immobilising the Swedish sailing ships. During the day 34 Russian galleys sailed around the outside of the Swedish fleet. Wattrang responded by moving his fleet further away from the shore, expecting the Russians to attempt the same manoeuvre again. Instead, between 5 and 7 a.m. on the morning of 6 August, the bulk of the Russian fleet, some sixty galleys, slipped between the Swedes and the shore.
Ehrensköld was now in real danger. He had one 18 gun pram (a shallow drafted flat bottomed boat ideal for use in the shallow waters of the Baltic), six galleys and two smaller boats. On the morning of 5 August, realising that the Russians were no longer attempting to cross over the peninsula, Ehrensköld attempted to report back to Wattrang. To his shock he was intercepted by a force of at least thirty Russian galleys and was forced to return to his squadron.
Once back with the squadron Ehrensköld prepared for battle. He took up position in the narrow channel of Bengstörfjärd. The Elefant, his pram, was in the centre of the line, with three galleys on each side and the two boats at the bow and stern of the Elefant. Peter the Great and Apraksin had no choice but to order a frontal assault.
His first attack came at around 2 p.m. on 6 August. This involved the 35 galleys of his first division, and was beaten off by the Swedes. He made a second attack with his second and third divisions, 80 galleys, but this too was defeated. Finally, Apraksin launched an attack with all 95 surviving galleys. This time he attacked the galleys on the Swedish flank. The galleys were gradually overwhelmed, surrounded and boarded. The Elefant was soon isolated. Surrounded, she was boarded from all sides and her crew overwhelmed. By five in the evening the battle was over.
Their victory at Gangut allowed the Russian galley fleet to support the Russian army in Finland. The Swedish mainland also suffered a series of Russian raids over the next few years. Although the Swedish battle fleet was still intact, it was withdrawn from the Gulf of Finland in the aftermath of the defeat at Gangut.