Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Estonian armour, 1919

During 1919 the small republic of Estonia had to fight for it´s existence against vastly superior numbers of Bolshevik Russians coming from the North and East, and then German Frei Korps from the South. With help from the British Royal Navy, and many volunteers from the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland, they somehow survived.

The Estonians didn´t inherit much from Tsarist Russia. The only destroyer in their fleet had been captured by the British from the Bolsheiks, and they had no armoured cars. They did however have a factory in Taliin, the Federal Foundary, and they resolved to make their own.

The first, the "Tasuja", was built on a Renault chassis and rushed into action against the Bolsheviks in the winter of 1918/9. Unfortunately it got stuck on a damaged bridge during a battle in March and was consequently destroyed.

The next two designs were the "Estonia" and the "Wahur", the latter based on a Packhard lorry chassis. They were rapidly send into action in March 1919, but the "Estonia" was found to be two heavy for the winter roads, and was restricted to Tallinn, though in the summer it was sent south, and by the autumn it had managed to get to Narva to take part in the defence against the Red Army.

 The "Estonia"

There was also the "Vanapagan", based on a Delahaye (2-ton) chassis. It was described at the time as looking as though the armour had been added by a village blacksmith, and Vanapagan was a clumsy giant in Estonian folklore, but it was effective enough.

By now the Estonians were experienced enough to develop a standard design of armoured car, though armoured truck would be more appropriate. Based on an AEC 3 ton chassis, each had a 37mm automatic gun in the turret, two rear facing MGs and a Madsen LMG to the front. The armour was 6-10 mm thick and they weighed up to 8 tons! We are not talking mass production here, they were individually made, and each had a name. Apparently the cars were so noisy when driving that it was almost impossible for the crew to shout to each other.

"Toonela" - complted in April 1919 and on active duty April 22nd
"Kalewipoeg"- completed April 1919, on active duty April 25th. The Kalewipoeg was commaned by a         Swedish volunteer, Einar Lundburg, of which more anew.
"Wibuane" - completed April 1919, and on active duty April 23rd
"Kotkasilm" -  completed January 1920.
"Erilane" - completed January 1920, later renamed "Lembit"

In 1919 the Estonians captured two "proper" ex-Russian army cars, which they renamed the "Tasuja 2" and "Suur Tõll". These were Austin-Putilovs, each with two 7.62mm Maxim MGs in two turrets.

 The Tasuja 2

There was also a Peerless anti-aircraft car, captured by the Finnish volunteer regiment Pohjan Pojat on the 14th March 1919 and donated, willingly or not, to the Estonians in April, where it was renamed the "Pisuhänd". These were basically Peerless trucks adapted by the British to carry a machine gun and pom pom gun, and used by the Russian army as anti-aircraft guns. Even by the standards of the day it was considered slow and heavy, with poor off road performance, but reliable

During summer the cars were painted olive-green , in winter grey/white or just grey, to blend into the inevitable snow. Nonetheless, the name was invariably painted on the side in large letters!


Although they had pretty good armour and firepower, the Estonian armoured cars were not well suited to cross country travel, especially in the deep Baltic winter. Mostly, they had to stick to roads and were used for patrols behind the front line. Nonetheless, when they could be used they were often effective.

i) Fighting the Frei Corps

The "Estonia", "Toonela" and "Vanapagan"  were part of the reinforcements sent to the Southern front in June 1919, to resist the pro-German Frei Corps, the "Vanapagan" attached to the 6th Regiment.

On June 20th 1919, near Riga, the Germans launched attacks all along the front. All day these were resisted, but at about 5 pm the Vilandi Cadets were finally forced to retreat from the mansion they had been defending, and the way was open to Stolben. At this moment the commander, Lt. Col Reek, committed his reserve, the “Estonia” and “Toonela” together with an assault detachment on an armoured train. The "Estonia" carried on down the road whilst the "Toonela" peeled off and moved amongst estate outbuildings. This drove back the attack, although even then infantry from the assault company werer needed to fill the line, as the armoured cars could not traverse the terrain. Further attacks were made but the front had been stabilised.
 The "Vanapagan"

The "Vanapagan", and a handful of infantry from the sappers of the 6th Regiment, skirmished with some Red Latvian infantry & cavalry on the 21s,t but it didn't amount to much and they returned to the Murmuiža estate were they were based.

On the 22nd the Estonians counter attacked at the village of Starte. The road into the village emerged from woodland and then through about 500m of open farmland before entering the village. All of this was well covered by machine guns from the defenders and the company attacking made very slow progress down drainage ditches. Suddenly, the "Vanapagan" dashed full tilt down the road into the village, firing as it went, the Estonians lept to their feet and charged the village, and it was taken. Unfortunately the "Vanapagan" could not follow up the pursuit as it was running low in fuel.

By the 25th the “Vanapagan” needed essential maintenance, and the "Estonia" had serious mechanical problems, but the “Toonela” was stationed on the Riga-Pskov highway guarding the bridge at Cesis.

ii) Einar Lundborg
Einar Lundborg and the "Kalevipoeg"

Einar Lundourg was one of those people who are natural adventurers. He had been in the Swedish army before resigning to join a Swedish volunteer brigade, helping the Finns in their fight for independence against the Russians. He did well there, but when the war was won he returned to Sweden and joined the 5th Hussars. This seemed to bore him rather, so when an office opened in Stockhom recruiting for the Estonian war of Independence he volunteered. By March 1919 he was with other Swedish volunteers, the Svenska Karen, at the battle of Narva.

In April a number of armoured cars became available, and Lundborg was chosen to captain the "Kalevipoeg", setting off for the Southern front.

On May 25th, Lundberg was with the Estonians when they took Pskov, the highwater mark of their advance. The "Kalevipoeg" cleared the way for the attack into the town, and Lundborg was later known as the "King of Pskov".

In September the "Kalevipoeg" was part of August Nieländer's armoured car squadron when it temporarily turned away from the main column, leaving them unprotected from Bolshevik attacks. This seems to have given rise to some bitterness in the infantry, so that shortly afterwards Lundborg found himself without infantry support during a five and and half hour battle, losing 5 of his men. He was only rescued when the "Pishund" appeared and drove the enemy off.

Disillusioned, Lundberg resigned and joined the Swedish White Legion with the White Russian forces at Narva, but something there did not suit him either, and by November he was back in Sweden. Lundborg went on to be a pilot, earning fame for the rescue to Umberto Noble when his airship crashed in the Artic, and in the end dying flying as a test pilot in 1931.

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