Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The British view of the Baltic, 1919. Part 1

The British intervention in the Russian Civil War was not a great success - after all, the Reds won. However, one place where they did some good was in the Baltic. The Royal Naval commander there during 1919 was Rear Admiral Walter Cowan. This is his official report.

 London Gazette
6th April 1920

"Delhi" at Devonport,
1. I have the honour to forward herewith this my report on my year's Service in Command of His Majesty's Naval Forces in the Baltic, where I relieved Rear-Admiral Sir Edwyn S. Alexander-Sinclair, K.C.B., M.V.O., on .the 6th January, 1919.

2. When I arrived the German situation was as.follows: German troops were nominally in occupation of Latvia, with Headquarters at Libau.
The Bolsheviks were in Riga, and gradually advancing South and West
The German Troops were of low morale, and in a poor state of discipline - and wherever the Bolsheviks advanced the Germans fell back, in many cases handing over arms and munitions to the Bolsheviks on their retirement.
3. The Bolsheviks had by the middle of February advanced so far as Windau, and were also within forty miles from Libau from the Westward.
4. I therefore in "Caledon " (Commander Henry S. M. Harrison-Wallace, R.N.) shelled them out of Windau; and made what preparations I could to evacuate the refugees from Libau, as I did not consider an indiscriminate shelling of the town in the event of its occupation by the Bolsheviks would be advisable if no troops were available to land for its reoccupation.

5. Shortly after this (at the end of February), large German reinforcements began to arrive by sea, and General-Major Graf Von. der Goltz assumed command. at Libau, and very soon afterwards stabilised the situation, and drove the Bolsheviks well East again - and this, so far, was satisfactory.
6. In the meantime the Letts - under the direction of M^. Ulmanis, the Acting President. - were making every endeavour to raise and equip a sufficient military force - aided by a. limited quantity of small arms and machine guns - to enable them to undertake the defence of their own country against the Bolsheviks when the time should come for the Germans to withdraw. It soon became evident, however, that it was not the Germans' intention to permit any Lettish Force being raised, and constant cases of friction, oppression and disarmament of Lettish Troops began to occur
7. The climax was reached on the 16th April, when at the Naval Harbour - where the Headquarters of the Lettish Troops were - German troops raided these Headquarters, arrested and disarmed all the Officers, and looted money and documents, killing and wounding several Lettish soldiers. Simultaneously with this, in the town of Libau itself, Baltic-German troops arrested those members of the Lettish Government who were unable to escape them, whilst the rest took refuge on board His Majesty's ships, and
M. Ulmanis, the Acting President, with the British Mission, which consequently was surrounded by Baltic-German sentries.
8. That night two young Baltic-German Officers came off to my ship and announced that they were the Heads of the Committee of Safety until the formation of a new Government, and asked me if I could guarantee them the support of His Majesty's Government in this movement.
I pointed out to them that until I had some satisfactory explanation for the events of the day I could listen to and recognise no such proposals.
I then sent them on shore again and heard nothing more of them.

Libau 1919

9. On my requiring an explanation from Von der Goltz for these happenings, he denied all responsibility or knowledge for them, saying that his troops were out of hand, and that the Baltic-Germans were not under his orders.
10. In consequence of this I called a meeting of the Allied representatives, and with them demanded the following from Von der Gdltz;
First. - That the unit which raided the Lettish Headquarters should be at once removed from the Libau district.
Second. - That the Commanding Officer of the offending Baltic-German Unit be relieved of his command.
We also gave him the time and date by which we required the fulfilment of these demands.
11. Both were complied with within the time, but Von der Goltz stated that as he considered the Lettish Government to be Bolshevik and a danger to the district he was administering by order of the Allies, he could not agree to their release from arrest, or the continuance of their functions.
12. This state of affairs was reported to Paris accordingly, and a very few days afterwards, owing to the melting of the ice, and signs of activity by the Bolshevik Fleet, I had myself to proceed, to the Gulf of Finland, and Commodore Arthur A. M. Duff, C.B., arrived on the 29th May and took charge of affairs in the Western Baltic; and thereafter, by his quick and accurate grasp of the whole German situation there, freed me from a very considerable portion of my preoccupations.
It is hard for me to do justice on paper to the adequacy and effectiveness of his administration until he left for England again on the 28th September. I have now transferred to him the duties of Senior Naval Officer in the Baltic.

13.. On arrival in the Gulf of Finland and reviewing the situation, my hope and intention was - as soon as ice conditions allowed it - to move as far East as possible in order to support the left flank of the Esthonian Front, and to protect it from any attempt at being turned from the sea.
14. After getting into touch with the Esthonian Naval and Military Authorities, I went over to Helsingfors to call on the Regent (General G. Mannerheim), and also to congratulate the Finns on the recognition of the independence, which had been announced the previous day. Circumstances then obliged me to return to Libau for a day on the 12th May.
15. I had previously - on the 7th May - shifted my flag from " Caledon" to "Curacoa," On returning from Libau to Reval on the 13th May " Curacoa " struck a mine, which disabled her from further service and occasioned eleven casualties amongst her personnel.

 HMS Caledon

16. I therefore shifted to " Cleopatra," and left Reval the next morning for the Eastward, and, from the 14th May onwards I lay - first in Narva Bay for a few days reconnoitring as far as Kaporia whilst the Esthonians were landing and operating between there and Louga - and then, as they established themselves further East, I moved forward to Seskar.
from which place, with the very good visibility prevailing day after day, I was able from the mast head to keep an effective watch on Petrograd Bay.

17. The situation then was somewhat of an anxiety to me, as the strength of the Bolshevik. Naval Forces was known to include Armoured Ships - the Esthonians were lying in Kaporia with 1 unarmed Transport (including the Nekmangrund Light Vessel, so hard up were they for ships), an old,  slow ex-Russian Gunboat " Bobr," and one ex-Russian Destroyer, dependent on me for fuel, of which I had then, only a limited supply - and my own Force consisted only of "Cleopatra " and four Destroyers, the Seventh Submarine Flotilla arriving shortly afterwards at Reval.
18. From then onwards I maintained a watch on the Bay, whilst the Esthonians were constantly in contact with the Bolshevik Troops, bombarding and pushing forward here and there, and landing more men, whilst relieving those who needed refit, always under the direction of Admiral John Pitka, who, before the War, was a Shipowner of Reval and Director of a Salvage Company, but who assumed command of the Esthonian Naval Forces last winter, and has always shown a most correct instinct for war, both on land and sea. He has since been decorated by His Majesty.

19. On the 17th May a great deal of smoke was observed over Kromstadt; and on the 18th five Bolshevik craft, led by a large Destroyer of the "Avtroil" type came as far West as Dolgoi Nos, five miles clear of the Petrogriad Minefields, and then while still close under the land turned back. So in "Cleopatra" (Captain Charles James Colebrooke Little, C.B) with " Shakespeare " (Commander, now Captain, Frederick Edward Ketelbey Strong, D.S.O.), " Scout " (Lieutenant-Commander Edmund F. Fitzgerald), and " Walker " (Lieutenant-Commander Ambrose T. N.), I went ahead full speed from Seskar on an Easterly course, closing the range rapidly from 20,000 to 16,000 yards when fire was opened, the Bolshevik Destroyer, flying a very large red flag, firing the first shot. I stood on until within half a mile of the mined area, and came under the fire of the Grey Horse Battery, but by this time the range was opening and spotting very difficult, owing to the vessels being close under the land all the time.
20. The speed of the enemy appeared to be reduced to about ten knots, one good hit on the Destroyer at any rate was observed, but under the circumstances I did not consider it advisable to run in over the minefields and under the guns of the shore batteries in order to obtain a decision, and so these craft made good their escape.
21. To the Eastward, but not taking part in the action, was a three-funnelled Cruiser, the "Oleg," and to the Eastward of her again was smoke - and it was reported that the Bolshevik Dreadnought Battleship "Petropavlovsk" was also out.

22. On the 24th May General Sir Hubert Gough arrived in "Galatea" on a special Mission to Finland and the Baltic States, and I accompanied him over to Helsingfors to assist at his ceremonial landing, and to salute him there, and went with him to interview the Finnish authorities, thereafter leaving again for the Eastward, leaving " Galatea" at Helsingfors.

 HMS Walker

23. On the 31st May, whilst still lying off Seskar in "Cleopatra" with "Dragon" (Captain Francis Arthur Marten, C.M.G., C.V.O.), "Galatea" (Captain Charles Morton Forbes, D.S.O.), " Wallace" (Captain George William McOran Campbell), "Voyager" (Lieutenant-Commander Charles Gage Stuart, D'.S.C.), "Vanessa" (Lieutenant- Commander Edward Osborne Broadley, D.S.O.), "Wryneck" (Commander Ralph Vincent Eyre, E..N.), "Versatile" (Commander Gerald Wynter, O.B.E.), "Vivacious" (Commander Claude L. Bate, R.N.), and with "Walker" and two Submarines on patrol, a Bolshevik Destroyer was sighted coming West with a Dreadnought Battleship, and two other small craft behind the minefields. The Destroyer was engaged by "Walker" and chased Eastwards, the Battleship opening a heavy and well-controlled fire at the same time.
24. On the first report I weighed and steamed East, a Bolshevik aeroplane appearing overhead and dropping bombs among my force as it advanced, but it flew off Eastwards on being fired at.
25. The Destroyer fell back on the battleship, which manoeuvred behind the minefields and kept up a heavy and well-disciplined fire on "Walker" as she fell back to meet me;
Fort Krasnaya Gorka having a kite balloon up and firing also.
26. I stood up and down the edge of the minefield, but the Bolshevik Force showed no intention of coming on, and retired Eastwards after a few salvoes had been fired.
27. "Walker " was hit twice, but no appreciable damage was done, and there was one slight casualty only.
28. It now became apparent to me that with the small forces at my disposal it would be necessary, in order to keep an effective watch on Bolshevik Naval movements, and in particular to, if possible, ensure that no mines were laid to the Westward of the existing fields across the entrance to Petrograd Bay, that I should.have a Base nearer to Kronstadt than Reyal.
29. I therefore moved to Biorko, and required certain assistance from the Finns in the way of patrols and accommodation on shore agreed to by them.

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