Saturday, 2 June 2012

Utria 1919

In the chaos following the First World war and the Russian revolution many peoples seized the chance to leave the Russian Empire. One such was the tiny republic of Estonia on the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately, the Bolsheviks turned out to be just as Imperialist as the Tsars, if not more so, and in 1918 a huge Soviet army entered Estonia sweeping all before it. The 6th Red Rifle division captured Narva with support from an ex Imperial cruiser and two destroyers giving artillery support, whilst the 2nd Novgorod Division attacked south of Lake Peipus. Both Russian divisions were about 7,000 strong well stocked with artillery, machine guns and supported by armoured trains and armoured cars. The Estonians were about equal in man power, but only about 2,000 had proper training and they only had light weapons, the rest were untrained militia. By December the Reds were within 34km of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, and were shelling from the sea.

Estonia was saved mainly by Britain and Finland. A Royal Navy squadron under Rear Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair arrived off Tallinn on the 31st of December, and captured the two Russian destroyers, Spatak and Avtril, turning them over the the Estonians to be renamed Vambola and Lennuk. The rest of the Soviet fleet was then bottled up in Kronstadt. They also delivered 6,500 rifles, 200 machine guns and 2 field guns. The Finns delivered 5,000 rifles and 20 field guns for the new army, and 2,000 volunteers arrived in January. Early in 1919 the counter attack began, and city after city was liberated. Narva was still held by the 6th Red Rifle division, and with control at sea guaranteed by the Royal Navy a daring plan was hatched to capture it.

Plans and forces

The road to Narva was blocked by various garrisoned towns which would hold up any advance and withdraw onto the main force at Narva itself. The plan was to launch an amphibious assault between these garrsions and Narva, catching them by surprise and stopping them retreating into the city.

On 12th January Captain Johan Pitka was put in charge of the operation. On the 13th the newly Estonian Lennuk brought in the information that the 50th infantry regiment was at Hungerburgis, at the mouth of the river Narva, and the 46th Estonian Red Regiment was nearby. 600 men of the Finnish volunteer battalion were embarked on two transport ships from the port of Kunda and they rendezvoused with the Estonian contingent on the evening of the 16th outside Taliin.

In total there were 600 Finns and 400 Estonians, together with sailors and some machine guns. The biggest contingent was the Finnish volunteer battalion under Major Martin Ekströmi consisting of four companies, the 1st under Captain Antto Eskola. Then there was the Estonian Assault battalion under Karl Aleksander Pauluse. This consisted of three "roods" of about 100 men each under Lieutenants Karl Tulmini,  Otto Jansoni and staff Sergeant Hans Rebase. After that there were two small detachments. The Narva Defence League of 28 men under under Ensign Aleksandrovi, which although small was invaluable for their local knowledge. And also a squad of White Russian officers (30 men).

There was no real Estonian uniform as such, according to the Estonian War Museum most were wearing ex-Russian uniforms at this time.The Finns though had their own uniforms.

 Finnish volunteers arriving in Talinn, December 1918

There were nine ships in the fleet. The most powerful was the Lennuk whose 5x 100mm guns had arange of nearly 14 km. As a "gift" from the British she was to prove invaluable. Also very busy was the gun boat Lembit. There were two mine sweepers, the Olev and Kalev, two coast guard vessels, the Laene & Lood, two tugs, the Wrangel & Santsev, and the Reval.

Opposing them the Soviets had many men, but scattered and not expecting an attack from this direction. In Narva itself there was the 7th Petrograd regiment, with one battalion of the 50th at Narva-Joesuu, about 800 and 200 men respectively. Assigned to coastal defence was the 86th regiment, with 500 men and 10 guns. In addition to these units there were 200 marines from Kronstadt, a battalion of Estonian communists (the 53rd Viljandi Kütipolgu) and a cavalry squadron of about 50 sabres. There was also, significantly, two armoured trains. This sounds quaint now, but armoured trains were potent weapons at the time. Not only could they travel vast distances in mid winter, they also mounted wagons with heavy artillery, delivering it where it was needed.

The Landings

At three in the morning of the 17th January 1919 the little fleet left the Bay of Kunda, sailing through the bitterly cold night.  There were reports that the Russian ice-breaker 'Ogon', which was adapted to lay sea mines, had visited the mouth of the Narva river so this was discounted as a landing site. Instead Pitka chose a village near the Kotsenevi palace where it was known that the beach had little surf, though the area  could be windy. This area was a popular holiday resort in the summer because of the beaches and there were many manor houses and dachas scattered amongst the woodland.

Part of the landing beach at Utria

About 250 men were ferried ashore in 11 boats starting at midday. There was scattered artillery fire, especially from the Soviet armoured trains, but the landing ships were out of range and the fire from the "Lennuk" and"Lembitu" soon silenced the guns. However, by then the wind was getting up and after two boats were capsized, tipping their men into the freezing water,  Captain Pitka stooped further landings at 18-40

The first wave, mainly Finns and a detachment of cadets from Narva, (the Narva Kaitseliidu salgast) immediately moved inland across the snow and assaulted Utria, breaking into the village centre after a small battle and driving out the Soviets leaving four dead. Barriers were placed on roads entering the village in anticipation of a counter attack.

By 23:00 the wind had died down and the remaining troops could be landed through the night, it was still bitterly cold but a full moon helped and they finished at 11 am on the 18th. A conference was held between Pitka and Ekstrom on how to proceed and they distributed their forces. The Finnish 2nd company was ordered to join the first that had landed in the first wave and push on towards Narva. The 3rd and 4th Finnish companies and the Russians were sent towards Laagna followed by the Estonian battalion, less the 2nd company which stayed to garrison Utria. The men from Narva were split between the other detachments to act as guides.

Meanwhile, the "Lembit" and "Lennuk" had headed to the mouth of the Narva River and started bombarding Narva. At approximately 11-30, after a 1hr bombardment, white flags appeared over Hungerburgis at the river mouth. The Lembit continued shelling Narva whilst the Lennuk returned to support the landings at Utria.

The amphibious assault behind their lines had taken the Reds completely by surprise. On the 18th Ekström Utriast announced that the 4th Finnish company had taken Laagna, the 2nd had taken Merikülani and then turned towards Riigiküla as Narva-Jõesuu had already been taken by the crew of the Lembit. The 3rd company had reinforced the 4th and had repelled an attack by communist Estonian forces on Laagna manor.

 Laagna Manor

The main Soviet counter attack came at Laagna Manor, with two of the Red Army companies, a squad of cavalry, and two armoured trains. They assembled around the railway line and poured fire into the house. After the first two assaults had been repelled the defending commander sent the following message...

"The enemy is located in the woods opposite Laagna manor , around the track. From reports of prisoners are there for 2 companies and a squad of cavalry. We are taking a  lot of fire from there. Two offensives, we hit back, and are waiting for the third. Condition is serious but not hopeless. Anyway, do not retreat from our estate. I lost three good officers, one of them died, some 10 soldiers wounded and dead. The Finns are hit especially hard."

The Lennuk shelled both the railway track and surrounding forest and the Soviet forces were driven off. The hinterland of the landing area was now secure.


The landings had been a complete success, taking the Russians by surprise and capturing territory. Most importantly, with the area under Estonian control the fight for the important city of Nara could start, and it fell in heavy fighting the next day. The front now became the Narva river. Despite campaigning in the middle of winter the Estonians had advanced 200 km in just 11 days.

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