Elphinston, John (1722–1785), naval officer in the Russian service, was the son of Captain John Elphinston RN and Anne Williams. He may have been born at Lopness in the Orkney Islands, from where his family, with its history of seafaring, was descended. Elphinston went to sea in 1739 at seventeen and was made lieutenant in July 1745. On 23 October 1750 he married Amelia (d. 1786), daughter of John Warburton.
During the Seven Years' War Elphinston advanced rapidly. He commanded the fireship Salamander in May 1757, and served under Lord Howe in expeditions against St Malo, Cherbourg, and St Cas. Although taken prisoner at St Cas, he was exchanged and then advanced to captain of the frigate Eurus, in which he served under Sir Charles Saunders and took part in the capture of Quebec in 1760. The next year in the Richmond he destroyed the French frigate Félicité near The Hague. The following spring he carried instructions to the West Indies concerning the expedition against Havana. Elphinston played a vital role when he surveyed the Old Bahama passage, a channel previously thought impassable by the British, and so allowed the invasion fleet to surprise the Spanish. He then assisted Admiral Pocock during the successful siege. Recognizing Elphinston's experience in combined operations, Pocock put him in charge of the transports and afterwards rewarded him with command of the Spanish prize Infante. After the peace he commanded the Firme for three years, until he was placed on half pay.
Although he had established himself as a bold officer with exceptional experience in joint operations Elphinston's career had stalled; but the moment was propitious, for Russia was then aggressively recruiting seasoned British combat officers for its war against Turkey. In May 1769 he accepted a commission as a rear-admiral. Elphinston took charge of a pitiful Baltic squadron and was then ordered to join Vice-Admiral Grigory Spiridov, who was already headed for the Mediterranean with a larger force. Count Aleksey Orlov, a royal favourite, who freely admitted his ignorance of naval matters, was named admiral as Russia launched a campaign in Turkey's home waters.
A fiery and forthright combat veteran, Elphinston was shocked by the state of the Russian navy and did not conceal his disdain for it, alienating himself from superiors and subordinates. Though his difficulties began in Kronstadt, they grew worse at Copenhagen, where he was delayed by the misconduct of his officers, which obliged him to make a damaging late season voyage across the North Sea. At Portsmouth most of the ships underwent repairs before they could proceed. The following spring the various elements of the fleet reached Leghorn where Orlov took command. By then Spiridov and Elphinston had become implacable rivals. Heeding the advice of his flag-captain, the ever-politic Commodore Samuel Greig, Orlov separated his two commanders and assigned Elphinston to an independent squadron.
On reaching the eastern Mediterranean the Russians terrorized Turkish ports and captured Navarino. In mid-May Elphinston learned that fourteen Turkish warships with a large number of transport and supply vessels were off Nauplia preparing for an operation to retake Navarino. He set sail immediately and encountered the Turkish fleet on 27 May. According to his own Authentic Narrative his subordinate commanders disobeyed his order to engage and he fired on them to force compliance. The Ne Tron Menya and the Saratov then put three Turkish vessels out of action but found themselves in jeopardy when the wind changed and threatened to expose them to attack from the Turkish galleys. Aboard the Svyatoslav Elphinston closed immediately, firing explosive shells, which caused great confusion. Intimidated, the Turks retreated into Nauplia harbour. In his narrative Elphinston applauded the bravery of the Russian sailors, writing ‘they fought at their guns like lions’. The next morning Elphinston entered the harbour, exchanged fire with the fortress and then withdrew to a safer distance, where his ships anchored and began a long-range bombardment of the Turkish fleet at its anchorage. After several hours he feared that another unfavourable wind might again expose his ships to a galley attack and he withdrew. Finally realizing their numerical superiority, the Turks left Nauplia and Elphinston joined the Russian fleet. Elphinston had shown himself a daring commander but his squadron was too small to gain a victory. None the less, the action at Nauplia panicked and intimidated the Turks on the eve of Chesma, where they made similar blunders that proved fatal.
On 1 July 1769 the Russians learned that the Turkish fleet was anchored between the island of Chios and the Anatolian coast. The nine Russian warships were opposed by fourteen Turkish ships of the line, several frigates and a host of smaller transports and store ships, totalling nearly 200 vessels. At a war council Elphinston and Spiridov disagreed on tactics and vented their hostility for each other. Elphinston argued that a fresh on-shore breeze would permit him to bring the fleet to attack the weathermost enemy ships, where they could anchor with springs on their cables in order to gain a local superiority. He later wrote that
our nine line of battle ships would have been engaged against only five or six of the enemy, and the rest of their numerous fleet would have been rendered useless, as they could neither come to the assistance of those ships engaged nor attempt to get out of the situation they were in without the greatest danger of running ashore. (Elphinston, Authentic Narrative, 56)
Orlov supported Spiridov's argument for a line attack, which he led, but the tactics he employed resembled those advocated by Elphinston.
The Turks were so situated that only five vessels were able to engage the Russian line as it approached. Leading the way in the Evstafi Spiridov took most of the original fire and was quickly disabled, causing the ship to drift alongside the Turkish flagship Real Mustsafa. After fierce hand-to-hand combat both vessels caught fire and the Evstafi's powder magazine blew up. Although he lost his ship and most of his crew, Spiridov escaped. Elphinston engaged as he had at Nauplia; the panicked Turks blundered once more when they cut their cables and fled into the cramped harbour at Chesma.
After hours of wrangling, the Russians attacked again after midnight with fireships and explosive shells. Commodore Greig brought four ships of the line, three frigates, a bomb-ketch, and four fireships into action. Elphinston, commanding the rest of the fleet, sealed off the harbour. At 1.30 a.m. on 7 July incendiary shells from the Grom ignited the topsails of a Turkish battleship, which exploded and then set two more ships afire. Greig then ordered his fireships to attack and unleashed a conflagration that spread throughout the Turkish fleet. Explosion after explosion destroyed eleven men-of-war, six frigates, and forty-six other vessels. Only one Turkish warship and a few galleys avoided the terrible inferno. On the second day the Turks lost 8000–11,000 men, while the Russians lost only thirteen men and sustained no damage of consequence. The victory was total.
Chesma is often described as Russia's greatest naval battle, a ‘Russian Lepanto’, but it did not provide victory, which was won on land four years later. Although he acknowledged that he had done nothing himself, Orlov was showered with honours; and Spiridov, despite the loss of his ship, was rewarded and honoured and retired soon after the peace. The discreet Greig won promotion to rear-admiral, remained attached to Orlov, and prospered in Russian service, while Elphinston complained indignantly of the depreciation of his role in the victory.
After Chesma, Russia enjoyed a naval superiority in the Aegean which it did not exploit. As an expert in combined operations, Elphinston stridently advocated immediate attack on the Dardanelles to win the straits and then to liberate Constantinople. Savouring the Chesma victory, his cautious superiors chose instead to blockade the Dardanelles and Turkish ports and regarded Elphinston as an annoyance. When his ship ran aground at Lemnos they launched an admiralty inquiry, which cleared him of responsibility. None the less, when Britain withdrew its support for the Russian war effort in 1771 Elphinston left Russian service. After his return from Russia he wrote his Authentic Narrative of the Russian Expedition Against the Turks by Sea and Land (published anonymously). The study, described by Anthony Cross as the ‘Elphinstone version’ of the campaign, has been the subject of argument ever since, as nationalistic Russian historians continue to depreciate his contributions at Chesma and British historians accept his narrative uncritically.
Elphinston was reinstated in the British navy and commanded several ships during the American War of Independence, serving first with Joshua Rowley in the West Indies and then with George Rodney in three actions against France. On conclusion of the war Elphinston's career suffered partly as a result of his outspoken support of the North ministry and the conflict with the American revolutionaries.
Captain Elphinston died on 28 April 1785 and was survived by his wife, six sons, and three daughters. The eldest son, Samuel, rose to captain in the Russian navy, married the daughter of Admiral Cruys, and died in 1789. The second, Thomas, became a captain in the Royal Navy and died in 1812. The third, Howard, distinguished himself as Wellington's commander of engineers during the Peninsular War, was made first baronet Elphinstone of Sowerby in 1816, and was promoted major-general.
RICHARD H. WARNER
Sources DNB · M. S. Anderson, ‘Great Britain and the Russo-Turkish war of 1768–74’, EngHR, 69 (1954), 39–58 · A. Cross, ‘The Elphinstones in Catherine the Great's navy’, Mariner's Mirror, 48 (1998), 268–77 · L. G. Beskrovnyi, Russkaia armiia i flot v xviii veke (1958) [the Russ. army and the fleet in the eighteenth century] · K. V. Elphinston, The Elphinstones of Blytheswood and Lopness (1925) · [J. Elphinston], An authentic narrative of the Russian expedition against the Turks by sea and land (1772) · V. F. Golovachev, Chesma (1944) · F. S. Krinitsyn, Chesmenskoe srazhenie (1962) [The battle of Chesma] · E. V. Tarle, Chesmenskii boi i pervaia russkaia ekspeditsiia v Arkhipelag, 1769–1774 (1945) [the battle of Chesma and the first Russ. expedition to the Archipelago] · D. Syrett, The Royal Navy in American waters, 1775–1783 (1989) · D. Syrett, The Royal Navy in European waters during the American revolutionary war (1998) · D. Syrett, ed., The siege and capture of Havana, 1762, Navy RS, 114 (1970) · Osmankaia imperiia: problemy vneshnei otnoshenenii s Rossiei, sbornik statei (1996) [The Ottoman empire: problems of foreign relations with Russia, a collection of articles] · M. S. Anderson, ‘Great Britain and the Russian fleet, 1769–70’, Slavonic and East European Review, 31 (1952–3), 148–63
Archives NA Scot., letter-book, 6D 156/69