Wednesday, 20 June 2012

The British view of the Baltic, 1919. Part 2.

June 1919 found Admiral Cowan´s First Light Cruiser Squadron of the Royal Navy based at Bjorko harbour in Finland, monitoring the Bolshevik fleet bottled up in Kronstadt. The aim was to stop it intervening in the newly independent Baltic states, or even in the German Revolution raging at the time. However, there was something of a stalemate, as Kronstadt harbour was well protected by minefields and forts covering the entrance. There was also a danger from German units to the south, supposedly there to oppose the Bolsheviks, but suspected of having an agenda of their own.

 Some of the crew of HMS Caledon

Admiral Cowan´s report, as printed in the London Gazette continues as follows.....

30. It was evident by then that the Bolshevik Active Squadron consisted of:  ...
2 Battleships. (1 Dreadnought " Petropavlovsk"), 1 Cruiser, "Oleg" and 6 Large Destroyers.
31. Up to about the end of June there were constant attempts by Enemy Light Craft to break out on the Northern side at night, and both to sweep and lay mines - and a good deal of shooting, though little hitting, went on between the Patrols - also, there is no doubt more mines were laid by the Bolsheviks, to the Southward of Stirs Point, and to the Eastward of the existing Mine Barrier.

32. On the 13th June very heavy firing broke out between Fort Krasnaya Gorka and the fort and ships at Kronstadt - Fort Krasnaya Gorka having suddenly turned over to the "Whites", who, however, were not strong enough to hold it - the forces immediately available being only a hundred or so of badly-armed and much-exhausted Ingermanlanders, who, owing to the fire from the Bolshevik Heavy Ships, were unable to occupy the Fort long enough either to effectively man the guns, or destroy them - and so, after changing hands twice, Krasnaya Gorka remained in Bolshevik hands.
33. These Ingermanlanders were fighting under the direction of the Estonian Command, and were armed and equipped by them, chiefly from supplies captured from Bolsheviks, and had done very well ever since these operations started, and were fighting with the more enthusiasm as it was their own country they were freeing.
Apparently, however, their successes aroused the suspicion and jealousy of the Russians of the Northern Corps, who, equipped and supported in every way by the Esthonians, had by then begun to become a considerable fighting force, and were holding the line on the right of the Estonian-Ingermanland Force - whose left flank rested on the sea, and had pushed forward as far as Krasnaya Gorka.

34. In order to deal with any attempt by heavy ships to break out - as well as to maintain an effective patrol on the entrance to Petrograd Bay, I considered it advisable to lay mines so as to restrict the movements of the enemy, and this was done by"'Princess Margaret" (Captain Harry H. Smyth, C.M.G.,D.S.O.) and the 20th Destroyer Flotilla (Captain Berwick Curtis, C.B., D.S.O.).
35. On 17th June our lookouts reported a Cruiser ("Oleg") and two Destroyers left anchor West of Kronstadt, and also a Submarine moving Westward.
36. A few minutes after midnight a sudden burst of firing was heard by our outpost Destroyers, which, as suddenly ceased, and next day Lieutenant Augustine W. Agar, .R.N., informed me that he had torpedoed the Cruiser "Oleg" at anchor, the torpedo hitting her about the foremost funnel, and came under heavy fire from the Destroyers on retiring.
37. On the 6th July "Vindictive" on passage from England to join me in the Gulf of Finland, ran aground outside Reyal on the Middle Ground Shoal, and remained there for eight days. It was a time of some anxiety to me, as she was going fifteen knots at the time of striking, and had slid up half her length, and was in two feet six inches to three feet less water there than her draught, and in a tideless sea. " Delhi" and "Cleopatra" made several ineffectual attempts to tow her off before after lightening her by 2,212 tons, and experiencing a rise of water of about four to six inches due to a Westerly wind, "Cleopatra' at last pulled her clear after eight days of effort and, as we discovered shortly afterwards, all the towing operations were carried out in the middle of a minefield.

 Recovering a plane after a bombing raid

38. Early in July strong attacks were made by the Bolsheviks on the Russian front on the Southerly shore, necessitating frequent bombardments by light Cruisers and destroyers of the Bolshevik positions. Bolshevik aircraft were also active; Fort Krasuaya Gorka also occasionally firing at our patrol in Kaporia Bay.
39. Later in the mouth our Flying Operations started, consisting at first of reconnaissance and photographic flights, and then on the morning of the 30th July a bombing operation against the ships in Kronstadt, the main objective being a Destroyer Depot Ship with five or six Destroyers lying alongside her. The whole was under the command of Squadron Leader David G. Donald, A.F.C., R.A.F.
Sixteen bombs in all were dropped, and one hit, at any rate, was registered on the Depot Ship, which disappeared from her accustomed position in the harbour, and was not seen again. All machines returned safely after passing through a heavy anti-aircraft fire from the ships and batteries defending Kronstadt.
40. Thereafter continued a close watch on Petrograd Bay, with frequent bombardments by us of Bolshevik positions on the Southern Shore, and occasional shellings by Fort Krasnaya Gorka and other guns, varied by attacks by enemy submarines on our vessels, and intermittent activity by Bolshevik Destroyers and Minesweepers, with occasional appearances outside the harbour by larger craft.

41. On the morning of 18th August, with the object of removing, as far as possible, the threat which existed to my ships and also to the Left Flank of the Russian advance to Petrograd by the presence of the Bolshevik Active Squadron, an attack on the ships in Krronstadt by Coastal Motor Boats and Aircraft was made.
42. The position of the ships in the harbour had been ascertained by aerial photographs. Frequent bombing raids on the harbour had also been made at varying times in the weeks beforehand.
43. The attack was planned so that all available aircraft co-operated under Squadron Leader D. G. Donald, A.F.C., R.A.F., and that they should arrive and bomb the harbour so as to drown the noise of the approach of the Coastal Motor Boats.
44. The time-table was most accurately carried out; with, the result that the first three Coastal Motor Boats, under Commander Claude C. Dobson, D.S.O., passed the line of Forts and entered the harbour with scarcely a shot being fired.
45. Each boat had a definite objective - six in all. Of these six enterprises four were achieved, the results being gained not only by dauntless disciplined bravery at the moment of attack, but by strict attention to said rehearsal of, every detail beforehand by every member of the personnel, both of the boats and also of the Air Force;
46. Of the latter there is this, to say, that though all their arrangements for bombing were makeshift, and their aerodrome, from which the land machines had to rise in the dark, was a month before a wilderness of trees and rocks, and in size is quite inadequate, not one of the machines (sea and land) failed to keep to its time-table, or to lend the utmost and most effective support during, and after, the attack to the Coastal Motor Boats.
47. After this nothing bigger than a Destroyer ever moved again, but a certain amount of mine-laying and sweeping was observed near the approaches to the harbour.

 The wreck of the Pamiet Azov in Kronstadt harbour

48. During (September) our ships constantly bombarded Bolshevik positions on the Southern Shore in Kaporia, Bay, in support of the Esthomian Left Flank, whilst the aircraft were employed in bombing Kronstadt and attacking their small craft whenever seen.

49. Early in October the long talked of advance against Petrograd by General Yudenifcch began - but as his left flank was not made secure by making the capture of Forts Erasnaya Gorka and Saraia Lochad his first objective - as was repeatedly urged - the attempt failed.
50. The Esthonians, so long as their advance was such that the guns of the light cruisers and destroyers of the Biorko Force could support them, went forward - but thereafter they met with strong and effective resistance and much barbed wire, and were held up within four miles of the land approaches to Fort Krasnaya Gorka and suffered very heavy losses - equal to nearly one-third of their forces, which did not at the beginning exceed two thousand men.
51. It was after this check that "Erebus" (Captain John A. Moreton, D.S.O.) arrived (24th October), which encouraged Admiral Pitka, who was in command of the Esthonian Forces, to try again; but by then the Russians had begun to fall back, thereby uncovering the Esthonian right flank and causing them further distress, and dispersion of their few remaining effectives.
The Russians and Esthonians then fell back with considerable rapidity as far west as the line Narva - Peipus Lake, and I devoted myself to endeavouring to ensure that, from the sea, no further attempt was made to further harass these very war-weary and dispirited troops.
52. Unfortunately the "Erebus" (Captain John A. Moreton, D.S.O.) arrived only after the attempt was doomed to failure, and by that time also the weather had broken, making it very unsuitable for flying in order to direct the firing of "Erebus" ; also our machines and many of the pilots were, from hard service through the summer, rather past their best. The type of machine, too (Short Seaplane), was unable to get sufficient height to avoid the very severe and accurate anti-aircraft fire from these two forts.
53. All that could be done by our ships (light cruisers and destroyers) besides "Erebus" in the way of shelling positions and covering the advance, was done, and always within the range of Fort Krasnaya's Gorka's twelve-inch guns, and under the observation of its kite balloon; although they have constantly shelled us, have never succeeded further than to land a few splinters on board.

54. On the 30th October arrived, out from England General Sir Richard Haking and a small staff of officers, who, after investigating and acquiring what appeared to ine to be a very complete grasp of the whole Baltic situation and its needs, returned to England after two weeks.

55. Towards the beginning of October and concurrently with the attempt on Petrograd by the Russian North-West Army, the German- Russian threat against Riga became acute, and a bombardment of the town commenced. "Abdiel " (Captain Berwick Curtis, C.B., D.S.O.) and " Vanoc " (Commander Edward O. Tudor, R.N.) were there at the time, also a French destroyer ("L'Aisne"), "Dragon" (Captain Francis A. Marten, C.M.G., C.V.O.) was on her way out from England and I therefore diverted her there.

Prince Avaloff Bermont

56. Owing to the situation in the Gulf of Finland and the necessity of supporting the advance of the Esthonians on the left flank of the Russian Army, I was unable to leave those waters myself, and so requested Commodore Brisson, the French Senior Naval Officer, who had by then proceeded to Riga, to take charge of the operations there, and to open fire on all positions within range on the the left bank of the Dvina River, at the expiration of the time given in my ultimatum to Prince Avaloff Bermont, who was ostensibly in command of the troops occupying those positions, and attacking Riga.
57. This Commodore Brisson most faithfully and effectively did at noon on the 15th October, apparently much to the surprise of Bermont, who had, in reply to my ultimatum, stated that he was friendly to the Allies and was only resisting Bolshevism, and disowned all connection with the Germans, and whose forces, were in position and with little shelter, in some places less than one thousand yards from ours, and the French ships, Bermont having evidently assumed that his statements and .arguments were sufficient to hoodwink me and delay our offensive action.
58. This enabled the Lettish troops to cross the river in strength and with great enthusiasm after twenty-six days fighting, to sweep away all these Russo-Germah forces from within striking distance of Riga and out of Mitau - which had been the German main base and headquarters throughout the year - Tukkum and the Windau district.
59. On about the 30th October the threat to.Libau by German troops became serious, and I sent directions to Captain Lawrence L. Dundas, C.M.G., the senior naval officer there, to, with the help of the British Military Mission, get into co-operation with the Lettish Defence Forces, establish communications and observation posts and plot targets, and sent ''Dauntless" (Captain Cecil Horace Pilcher) down from Biorko to reinforce, and shortly afterwards "Erebus" also, as by this time General Yudenitch was falling back from before Petrograd, and therefore the need for bombarding Fort Krasnaya Gorka had ceased.
60. On the 14th October a very heavy attack on Libau commenced and the Germans succeeded in occupying the outer fixed defences of the town, but after eight hours hard fighting by the Lettish troops and incessant bombardment by the British ships they were thrown, back again with very heavy losses.
61. The ammunition question at the end of this day was of some anxiety to me, two vessels having fired the whole of their outfits and other being very short. An ammunition ship was on her way down from Riga at the moment—" Galatea," homeward bound .with General Sir R. Haking. on board, and also two destroyers were in the vicinity, so all were ordered in to replenish the Libau force with their ammunition. No further attack of any weight however was made, and the crisis passed.
62. With regard to these two attacks on Riga, and Libau, it is unquestionable that the German intention was to frustrate by every means in their power any successful attack on Petrograd and Kronstadt, and to gain a footing for the winter in the Baltics Provinces with a view to overwhelming them, and then to drive on to Petrograd.

 Defemsive positions in Riga, Nov 1919

63. I had constant rumours that the Dreadnought Battleship "Sevastopol" had been prepared for, and was in every way fit for, service - also, there was ever-recurring Submarine activity - and by my reckoning there were still two large Destroyers available as well, though two had been destroyed by our mines during the operations in support of Yudenitch whilst attempting to come out and attack our patrols at night.
64. The work of the Destroyers was, as ever, tireless, dauntless, and never ending, and with never the relaxation of lying in a defended port with fires out and full rations, and all their work in cramped navigational waters (necessitating the almost constant presence on deck of the Captain, and, in the case of the Petrograd Bay '" Biorko " Patrol, always within the range, and often under the fire, of the twelve-inch guns from Fort Krasnaya Gorka.
65. This patrolling of Petrograd Bay, though generally in smooth water, was arduous and anxious always, because there was no room to manoeuvre East or West—there were mines in each direction—much foul ground, unindicated by the charts, and the charting of the Southern, Shore disagreed by a mile of longitude with that of the Northern - also for that small space, (six by twenty miles), bounded on the West by Seskar, and on the East by the minefields, three charts had to be in use.
66. In the whole of that area no shoals (and there are many), were marked by anything better than a spar buoy. When the winter came on, with incessant snow and fog throughout the long sixteen-hour nights, I scarcely hoped that the Destroyers could succeed in maintaining their stations without frequent and serious groundings or collisions, and the fact that they did is sufficient witness of the spirit that was in these two Flotillas—the First, "Captain George W. McO. Campbell, and the Second, 'Captain
Colin K.. MacLean, reinforced by some of the Third Flotilla also, under the command of Commander Aubrey T. Tillard, in "Mackay".
The energy, care and forethought which these two officers constantly displayed in order to maintain the efficiency of their Flotillas, I must always bear in most grateful admiration and remembrance.
The boats were always in "watch and watch" - i.e., as often at sea as in harbour, and very frequently under harder conditions.

67. At the beginning of the campaign the enemy's active Naval Force appeared to be -
2 Battleships (1 Dreadnought "Petfopavlovsk", 1 "Andrei Pervozvanni")
1 Cruiser ("Oleg"),
5 Destroyers ("Novik" class),
2 to 4 Submarines, and perhaps 4 smaller coal-burning Torpedo Boats, besides Minesweepers.
68. Of these -
2 Battleships ("Petropavloysk" and "Andrei Pervozvanni") were torpedoed and disabled in Kronstadt Harbour, and have not moved since - except "Andrei Pervozvanni" into dock.
1 Cruiser ("Oleg") was torpedoed and sunk at her moorings off Kronstadt.
3 Destroyers ("Novik" class), "Azard", "Gavril" and "Constantin" were sunk, two of them by our mines, the other either by mine or torpedo.
1 Patrol Vessel (armed), " Kitoboi", which surrendered on the night of 14th-15th June,
and, I think,
2 Submarines, one by depth charge and the other by mine.
Besides this -
1 Oiler was bombed and badly damaged.
A number of Motor Launches were set on fire and destroyed,
and .
1 Submarine Depot Ship ("Pamiet Azov") was torpedoed and sunk, all in Kronstadt Harbour.
An Oil Fuel Store and a very large quantity of wood and coal fuel was also burnt.
69. Against this our losses have been :
1 Submarine ("L.55") mined and sunk.
1 Destroyer ("Verulam") mined and sunk.
1 Destroyer ("Vittoria") torpedoed and sunk by enemy submarine.
2. Mine-sweeping Sloops ("Gentian" and "Myrtle") mined and sunk.
3 Coastal Motor Boats sunk during the attack 'on Kronstadt.
2 Coastal Motor Boats blown up; unserviceable.
2 Coastal Motor Boats and 2 Motor Launches sunk through stress of weather whilst in tow.
1 Store Carrier ("Volturnous") mined and sunk.
1 Light' Cruiser' ("Curacoa") mined and salved.
1 Paddle Mine-sweeper ("Banbury" mined and salved.
1 Motor Launch (M.L.156) mined and salved.
1 Admiralty Oiler ("War Expert") mined and salved.
1 Mine-layer ("Princess Margaret") damaged 'by mine.
70.—The losses of.personnel have been:
Royal Navy .. ... 16 Officers. 97 Men...
Royal Air Force ... 4 Officers. 1 Man.
Total 20 Officers. 98 Men..

71. My aim was throughout the year to prevent any Bolshevik warships breaking out into.the Gulf of Finland - and the ice has now relieved me of this responsibility - and also to frustrate by every means the most evident design of the Germans to overrun and. dominate the Baltic Provinces and then to advance Petrograd, and their repulse from both Riga and Libau in October and November by the Lettish troops under cover of the bombardment of our ships has, I think, put an end to this also, and all German troops were back into Prussia by 15th December.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant,
Rear-Admiral Commanding First Light
Cruiser Squadron.

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