The general view of the British interventions in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution is that they were all pointless, costly failures. However that isn’t the case of the British led naval intervention in the Baltic, where a small British fleet was able to play a major role in protecting the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,
The situation in the Baltic states at the end of 1918 was very confused. Officially the Germans had agreed to withdraw under the terms of the Armistice, but in reality they moved slowly, often leaving German led forces behind. After the revolution the Soviets had promised self-determination to the peoples of Russia, but as the Germans withdrew from Estonia, the Red Army invaded. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania all declared independence and formed armies. The anti-Bolshevik White Russians also had an army in the area, but they wanted to restore the entire Russian Empire, so wouldn’t cooperate with the Baltic governments!
The newly formed Estonia government’s Ambassador in London asked for help, and despite the mess Lloyd George agreed to send a small fleet. However the fleet’s commander wasn’t given any clear instructions, so had to make his own mind up as events played out.
The intervention didn’t start well. During the first sortie into the Baltic one light cruiser ran aground and had to be sent home for repairs and another hit a mine and sank. However after that the small force had an impressive impact on the fighting. When they did reach Estonia in mid December they were able to help stop a Soviet offensive aimed at capturing the capital at Reval.
The campaign had two strands. At sea there were several clashes with the Soviet Baltic Fleet. These normally involved the smaller Soviet ships but on occasions a battleship would emerge. The most daring exploit was a raid on the Soviet naval base at Kronstadt by a force of coastal motor boats in which one Soviet ship was sunk and a battleship damaged.
On land the fleet carried out shore bombardments, often playing a significant role in events, bring supplies and armies to the Baltic armies and on occasion carry out evacuations. They faced two main opponents – the Red Army, and a combined German-Russian force effectively led by General von der Goltz. This campaign lasted for over a year, before the German led force was defeated at Libau. Soon afterwards the Soviets officially recognised the independence of the Baltic States, ending the conflict.
The book starts with a good introduction to this confusing period, followed by a narrative of the campaign, with a more detailed look at the attack on Kronstadt.
We then move onto a look at the rival fleets. In theory the Soviets had a very powerful fleet in the Baltic with four dreadnoughts, three pre-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers, three light cruisers and ten destroyers at Kronstadt and three more cruisers at Petrograd, but many of their crews had been withdrawn to fight with the Red Army, and many of the guns had been removed to fight on land. Fuel oil was in very short supply. The core of the fleet during this conflict was the dreadnought Petropavlovsk, the pre-dreadnought Andrei Pervovanni, the cruiser Oleg and a number of destroyers, with the smaller ships most active.
On the British side the initial fleet was built around modern light cruisers and destroyers, supported by minesweepers and minelayers. During the campaign the actual ships involved changed, and older cruisers and destroyers were sent to the area. A submarine flotilla and its depot ship, the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive and the monitor HMS Erebus also spent some time in the Baltic. The Vindictive had two flight decks separated by her superstructure, so wasn’t really suited for air operations but she was able to ferry aircraft to the area and the operate them briefly while a shore base was prepared. The smallest ships to arrive were the fast but flimsy coastal motor boats (CMBs). During the campaign an impressive total of 26 cruisers, 85 destroyers and 20 submarines were used in the Baltic (although not at the same time).
This is a useful account of this little known campaign, combining a good narrative of the rather confused fighting with overviews of the rival fleets, looking at their overall size, the types of ships involved, their leadership and the morale and attitudes of their crews.
The Soviet Baltic Fleet
The Allied Fleet
Author: Angus Konstam