In 1762 Catherine the Great seized the Russian throne from her estranged husband, Peter III. Like Peter the Great, whom the empress hoped to emulate, Catherine sought to develop Russia's naval power. She turned to Britain and the Royal Navy, which would soon achieve mastery of the world's seas. Among the officers the Royal Navy sent to Russia was one Samuel Greig.
Greig was born in 1736 in the village of Inverkeithing in Fife. He participated in the Seven Years War and was present at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, one of the Royal Navy's greatest victories of the eighteenth century. Greig became a lieutenant in 1761 and he last saw action in the Royal Navy at the Battle of Havana in 1762.
He arrived in Russia in 1764 and was soon promoted to captain. In 1768 war broke out between Russia and the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans threatened the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which at this point consisted only of six ships. Count Alexei Orlov proposed to sail half of the Russian Baltic fleet to the Mediterranean as a distraction (via the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay), a monumental undertaking with no guarantee of success.
In July 1770 the Russian navy met with the Ottoman fleet at Chesma Bay. Greig served as the captain of Orlov's flagship, the Tri Ierarkha. The Ottomans had sixteen ships of the line while the Russians only had nine. Initially the battle was indecisive, with both the Ottoman flagship and the Russian ship Sv. Evstafii blowing each other up. On the morning of 7 July Grieg was transferred to the Rostislav and ordered to escort the four fireships which were sent into the midst of the Ottoman line. The operation was successful and soon the whole Ottoman fleet was in flames. As a result of Greig's decisive action, the grateful Orlov conferred upon him the rank of admiral, which was expressly confirmed by the empress.
The Battle of Chesme was the Ottoman navy's greatest defeat since the Battle of Lepanto two centuries earlier, and sent shockwaves throughout the European powers. The Russian navy demonstrated to foreign observers that it was a force to be reckoned with. Chesme was the only major naval engagement of the war, but after sailing back to home base at Kronstadt Greig worked tirelessly to reform the Russian fleet, including the introduction of a new code of discipline. In recognition of his services Catherine appointed him Governor of Kronstadt.
Greig's final hurrah came in 1788. Sweden (encouraged by the British government) had recently declared war on Russia and threatened to land an army close to St Petersburg. Admiral Greig, now the highest-ranking naval officer in Russia, was sent to blockade the Swedes. The Russians met the Swedish fleet at Hogland on 17 July. It was said that the empress could hear the guns firing from the Winter Palace. Admiral Greig's fleet successfully prevented the enemy from breaking through and thus assumed mastery of the Baltic. The threat of a Swedish landing was completely eliminated. The joy was short-lived for the victorious admiral. A few days after the battle, he caught a fever and soon fell seriously ill. When she heard about her admiral's condition, the empress sent her personal physician Dr John Rogerson (yet another Scotsman in Catherine's service) to Greig. The doctor's efforts were to no avail and Greig died at Reval (Tallinn) on board the Rostislav on 26 October at the age of 53.
Catherine deeply mourned the death of Admiral Greig, who was laid to rest in Tallinn Cathedral in a grand ceremony. Catherine commissioned her neoclassical architect Giacomo Quarenghi to design an elaborate tomb into which the admiral's remains were later placed. Greig's descendants continued to serve his adopted homeland with distinction. His son Alexei Greig (1775-1845) became an admiral himself and was a member of Nicholas I's State Council. Alexei's son Samuil Alexeevich (1827-1887) rose to the rank of Lieutenant General of the Russian army, seeing action in the Crimean War before serving as Minister of Finance in 1877-80.
By Jimmy Chen