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The Historian's Corner

The Battle of the Perekop Isthmus

The only recorded battle where a land force won a naval battle was when French cavalry stormed into Holland in 1794 and caught the Dutch fleet, frozen in the harbor. The cavalry dispatched the hapless vessels easily, but it really wasn't much of a fight. In fact, it was nothing like the battle that took place over seven hundred years previous in what is now the Perekop Isthmus, at the northern end of the Crimean Peninsula. In that battle, as yet officially unnamed, but recently discovered by Zzzptm historical researchers, a naval force scored a resounding victory on land against vastly superior numbers.

The ancient Greek colony of Chersonesus (near modern-day Sevastopol) was a bustling trade center in its day, but after the fall of Rome it had fallen in stature to become a rural backwater of the Byzantine Empire. Over the years, various emperors attempted to revive Chersonesus as a trade center and northern outpost of the empire, so it never fell into ruin.

As an outpost, it served as a forward intelligence-gathering point and outer bastion for the Greek empire, often bearing the shock of the first wave of actions initiated by Goths or Bulgars. By 1050, a new enemy loomed on the horizon: the Cumans.

The Cumans were an East Turkic tribe also known as the Polovtsi. They were aggressively warring through southern Russia and Wallachia, and had turned their attentions on the Crimea. At first, the Byzantine governor tried to bribe them into not attacking, but he soon received reports from his spies that the Cumans were using the tribute to prepare for battle against the city.

The governor immediately dispatched messengers to retrieve his fleet, which had been raiding along the coast of the Sea of Azov. They were to return to Chersonesus at once, to prepare for a potential water-borne defense. Once the fleet was contacted and gathered, the admiral, one Nicholas of Rhodes, ordered the fleet southward, through the Straits of Kerch. Awaiting him was a massive armada under Cuman leadership, and he could not hope to defeat them in such a restricted body of water. Escaping battle with his faster ships, he elected to take a different route home.

The Ithsmus of Perekop is a flat, barren area, perfect for a naval maneuver known as a portage, or overland transport of naval vessels. This maneuver often resulted in a tremendous element of surprise, such as it did when Octavian brought his fleet across the Isthmus of Corinth for the Battle of Actium or when Sultan Mehmet II circumvented the Byzantine sea-wall with his portage across Galata in his successful siege of Constantinople in 1453.

Admiral Nicholas ordered his fleet across the Perekop, not expecting any opposition along the way. Contrary to his plans, the Cuman hordes were making their way across the isthmus as well.

The Byzantines were the first to gain intelligence of the coming battle, on account they kept sailors posted at the top of the masts. Reacting quickly, Nicholas ordered that everyone set about moving earth to help support the ships, to keep them from falling over. The sailors worked at a furious pace and were able to properly support the fleet on earthenworks. He then ordered all his men back into their vessels and prepare to repel boarders. The experienced sailors were heavily armed, but almost hopelessly outnumbered by the Cumans. Fortunately, they had one element the Cumans were as yet unfamiliar with, which would prove decisive in the coming battle.

The Cumans advanced to within a bowshot of the fleet and let loose a volley of arrows. Following that, they charged pell-mell at the grounded ships. They met with fierce resistance from the sailors and their secret weapon: Greek Fire. The Cuman arrows had little effect against the sailors, who had anticipated the volley, but the salvoes of Greek Fire terrorized the advancing raiders.

The exact composition of Greek Fire was such a closely-held military secret, we do not know today what exactly went into it. It is suspected to be very much like napalm, a petroleum-based incendiary agent that spreads when it comes into contact with water. The Cumans had never seen it before, and many perished and were routed under the spreading blaze of that stuff. What few Cumans reached the Greek ships were cut down by the ready defenders. Any who escaped the carnage on the boats received more fire on their backs. The chronicle of the battle reports,

As the sun rose past the noonday zenith, the barbarians surged all around us. We poured fire on them and they screamed terribly. The stench of death and burns sickened us, but we fought on just as they did. As the day drew to a close, the barbarians' spirits were broken and they ran from the field. We slept on our decks that night, our swords in hand. The Cumans were not to be trusted to keep their fighting to the daylight hours.

Nicholas knew the Cumans would attack as soon as he began moving his ships again, but that he could hold out a while longer if they attacked again while the ships were stationary. He dispatched a sailor to head south to Chersonesus to request aid, but he never arrived: Cuman patrols likely captured and killed him.

The Cumans did not attack Nicholas again, but Nicholas could not hold out indefinitely. He decided to risk moving his ships by night, to steal a march on the barbarians. His plan worked largely due to the general disorganization of the Cumans. At daybreak, the Cumans decided to let the Byzantine fleet get away, not desiring to risk another round of Greek Fire.

Nicholas returned his fleet to Chersonesus intact. When the Cuman leaders learned of this, they called off their Crimean campaign for that year. They did not attack again until after the fleet was recalled to deal against the encroaching Turks. After that, the Byzantines lost Chersonesus to the Cumans. The valiant land victory of the Chersonesus squadron was forgotten to all in the ensuing dark ages. Had it not been recorded for posterity and secured in an Adrianople vault where a Zzzptm historical researcher chose to hide in order to escape a bunch of Bulgarian loan sharks, we would never have known of it today.

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