Grand Duke Alexander of Russia
Grand Duke Alexander of Russia
Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch (1866-1934 ) - Admiral . (1861-1931).
Grand Duke Alexander was born on April 1, 1866 in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), and died in 1934 in the United States. His birth was reported to the commandant of the Tiflis fortress so as the commander would fire the traditional 101 rounds of ordnance; the CO instead suspecting an April Fool's joke, declined the honour. Eventually however, the saluting guns were fired to welcome a new Prince of the blood.
Alexander's father, the Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevitch (1832-1909) was then the general in charge of the Russian artillery and military to his bones. For many years he was the Governor of the Caucasus, a vast area with its mixture of over 20 ethnic groups that was ( and it is now ) a constant headache of the Russian Empire. His mother, Princess of Baden (1839-1891) acquired the title of Grand Duchess Olga Fedorovna upon her marriage.
According to the Imperial law passed by Peter the Great all male descendants of the Romanoff family were obliged to pursue a military career - the matter was not one of choice for the young Grand Duke.
His childhood did not differ a lot from a life of an ordinary soldier - regular army drills and exercises, strict teachers, bread instead of cakes. At the age of 11 his artillery skills were enough to handle a gun in a major battle. He and his brothers (he had three) scarcely saw their parents who seemed to be always busy with their court engagements -- his early years were a very frustrating experience and built a gap in their later family relations. His decision to join the Russian Navy was very unwillingly accepted by his father, for after the defeat in the Crimea War (1854-1855) the Navy was not the best opportunity to make a rapid and excellent career. But his vivid and imaginative young soul was fascinated by the sea and exotic countries. At the end of his life in his memoirs he wrote that only the years spent at sea and with his wife Xenia (a younger sister of Czar Nicholas II) made his life worth living.
His naval career started in 1885 when Grand Duke Alexander received his first officer rank. Though he was never a commander-in-chief of any major naval units his contribution to the development of the Russian naval forces is similar to Admiral Tirpiz and Fisher.
He was assigned as a junior officer on board the cruiser "Rynda" and made his first cruise round the world, showing the Russian flag in Brazil, Egypt, Japan, and Hong-Kong. In addition to his own duties on board he had to act as representative of the Russian Imperial court. The cold official formalities and etiquette which his blood compelled him to follow were always his heavy burden, whether it was in St. Petersburg or in Tokyo.
In 1893 he sailed with the cruiser "Dmitry Donskoy" bound to the USA to take part in the celebrations of 400th anniversary of America's discovery. He initiated the first Russian naval journal World Fleets and became a devoted advocate of the national maritime strength. In 1895, he developed a programme of reinforcing the Russian naval fleet at the Far East and soon came up with a new concept of an all-gun-ship - a concept which was shelved by the Admiralty but realized later in Britain in the famous Dreadnought class of ships. Using his own money he collected books on naval history and established a library open to naval officers and scientists. Within 20 years it contained the best in the world collection of books, rarities and manuscripts but everything burned to ashes in 1918 when his palace in St. Petersburg was set on fire by drunk soldiers.
In 1901 he was assigned a position as Captain of the battleship Rostislav of the Black Sea Fleet and in 1903 he became a junior flag-officer. At the same time he held the position of the chief executive of the Merchant Fleet and Ports and developed new merchant shipping lines, training centres and improved the Russian fuel supply infrastructure.
With the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in January 1904 he set up and commanded Russian auxiliary cruiser squadrons deployed in the Red Sea and Atlantic on privateering missions. Their operation started successfully capturing several cargo ships loaded with military contraband bound for Japan but in a few months the cruisers had to be called back due to British political pressure.
Russia's defeat in the Russo-Japanese War resulted in a loss of all (with a few exceptions) capital warships deployed in the area and a need to reconsider Russian naval policy and to draw lessons. Grand Duke Alexander established a private fund and collected donations to restore the naval power by building new types of ships according to a revised naval programme. In 1905 he assumed command of a new destroyer division built by the raised money, which will be the most efficient fighting force in WWI. He was involved in development of a new battleship class Petropavlovsk completed just before and during WWI - the major fighting force on sea. Additionally, his talent and bright mind allowed him to adapt technical progress for the military made him a key figure in the development of the Russian air force. In 1909 he set up the first aviation school in Sebastopol and arranged the supply of Blerio airplanes and expertise to Russia.
Soon Russia was able to produce its own aircraft. By August 1st 1914, Russia had 244 combat airplanes against 232 of Germany ( France had 138, Britain - 56, Austria-Hungary - 30 planes respectively) and was the only country to have bombers.
With the outbreak of WWI he was the commander of the air force of the Southern front and in 1915 became its Commander-in-Chief. It should be mentioned that during the war the significance of the air force was often underestimated, its task was mainly focused on reconnaissance and correction of artillery fire.
Upon the abdication of Nicholas II in March 1917 Grand Duke Alexander was dismissed from all his offices. In November 1917 he was arrested and placed with his family under house arrest in his Crimea estate Ai-Todor. He was not aware that his death was already authorized by the Bolsheviks (his brothers Nikholay, Sergey and Georgy were shot in 1918 in St. Petersburg). He escaped death only because of squabbles among numerous political groupings in Crimea and later, through presence of German troops. Upon surrender of Germany the British authorities arranged evacuation of the Ai-Todor prisoners. December 24, 1918 was the last day he saw Russia as he sailed to France on board HMS Foresight. In Paris he tried desperately to convince the former Allies to give more support to restore peace and order in Russia but failed to find understanding. As an emigrant he concentrates on archeology and carries out a number of very successful excavations. In 1928 he moved to the United States, where he died in 1934, of a heart attack.
Sources: Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch - Reminiscences New York, 1932