The British had been supplying their ally, Tsarist Russia, with vast quantities of material aid, much of it via the Artic Ports of Murmansk and Archangel, to avoid the German fleet in the Baltic. Murmansk was basically just a small port, with a railway down to St Petersburg. However, the collapse of Russia in 1917 meant that the advancing Germans could well get all this material for themselves. Even worse, the Bolsheviks could get it! Another consideration was that Murmansk and Archangel could act as supply bases for White Russian armies, and with Allied help even topple the Reds completely.
Consequently in August 1918 Allied forces took Archangel and Murmansk from the communist forces there, and linking up with White Russians fanned out South West and South East until the Russian winter halted operations in November.
Murmansk harbour in 1918
By 1919 the situation had changed. Germany had been defeated and there simply wasn't the will to continue another war after the brutal four years of WW1. In 1919 the British commander in Murmansk, General Maynard, was informed unofficially that Allied troops would be withdrawn by the winter of 1919, which was confirmed in July. Murmansk was very much the junior partner to Archangel, which had more fighting, even to the use of British tanks!, and really requires a book in itself. Murmansk though had problems of it´s own, specifically Bolshevik advances up the railway line from St Petersburg (now Petrograd).
Why Lake Onega?
General Maynard, from the front cover of his memoirs, The Murmansk Venture
General Maynard found himself tasked with organising an evacuation in the face of the enemy, never an easy thing to do, as well as training a Russian army to take his place. Rather than patiently waiting for the Bolsheviks to arrive he resolved on a "limited offensive" "to the line Medvyejya Gora- Povyenets at the northern extremity of Lake Onega".
His reasons were as follows;
a) This would block the main route north to Murmansk.
b) It would actually shorten his front line as it would bring him close to the Finnish border, the Finns being anti-Bolshevik
c) (the primary reason given by Maynard) it would open up new areas of recruitment. The Murmansk area was not well populated, and anyway , the people there were "for the most part of a turbulent class, and greatly under the influence of Bolshevik propaganda". In contrast areas to the south were more populous, and "strongly anti- Bolshevik in sentiment".
Many of Maynards British troops had been diverted to Archangel, which left him with;
Two companies of British Regulars, the 1st Special Company of the Middlesex Regiment formed almost entirely of NCOs and long service veterans, and a company of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps.
An Italian battalion
A Serbian battalion
A Finnish legion - these were Finnish communists who had originally been recruited to fight the Germans. They were not so keen fighting the Bolsheviks
Various Russian units including the Olonetz Regiment.
So in March advance forces were sent out and several villages along the railway line were secured. What held them up was agitation in Murmansk, mainly stirred up by the Red Finns with the aim of staging a revolution and combining with Bolshevik forces to the south. Fortunately this was detected in time, stamped on, and the Bolsheviks to the south driven off after a battle at Urosozero.
The Advance to Lake Onega
The Murmansk Railway bridge over the River Suma 1915 (from an amazing collection at the US Library of Congress)
On May 1st the Allies moved south towards Lake Onega, in three columns - "The right column, consisting of locally enlisted troops under British officers, was directed to clear the western and southern shores of Lake Segozero and protect the right flank of the force. The centre column, composed mainly of British, troops, was ordered to advance rapidly down the railway; whilst the left column, which consisted almost entirely of Russian troops, protected the left flank." (From General Maynard's report in the London Gazette).
The railway was absolutely crucial to the whole campaign. Maynard describes the terrain that spring and summer....
"The Murmansk-Petrograd railway, consisting of a single line, is the main channel of communication through the area. It is extremely vulnerable owing to the large number of wooden bridges which carry it over the waterways, and the wholesale destruction of these by the enemy during his retreat impeded the pursuit of the centre column and added greatly to the difficulties of supplying its advanced posts.The maintenance of the flank columns presented even greater difficulties, however, since all supplies and ammunition had to be conveyed for over 100 miles by tracks wholly unsuited to wheeled transport, and along which every bridge and culvert had been destroyed.
Operations were necessarily confined almost entirely to the attack and defence of localities covering such roads and tracks as were in existence, the enemy usually occupying entrenched positions, the flanks of which rested on a lake or marsh. The difficulty of carrying positions of this nature without undue sacrifice was increased by the impossibility of employing any considerable force of artillery. With the centre column, however, field guns were employed on railway mountings constructed in the local workshops and proved of great assistance.
The absence of aircraft during this advance was felt severely."
A typical stretch of the Murmansk Railway, 1915 (Library of Congress)
The first objective was Meselskaya, occupied by the centre column on May 3rd after 48 hours of fighting, the Red forces being driven south, and the left column establishing itself 20 miles to the east, again after heavy fighting. After a few days rest the columns moved off once more, reaching within 5 miles of Medvyejya Gora on May 15th, though only entering the town 6 days later after an attack by all the allies and an outflanking move by the right column to the west. Meanwhile the left column occupied Povyenets on May 18th after several days of fighting.
The capture of Medvyejya Gora opened up many more options for Maynards forces, not least the establishment of an RAF seaplane (Fairey F III C) base and a small naval flotilla on the lake. The recommence range suddenly increased massively, as did the strike power. Additionally, recruitment to the new Russian forces improved and schools of instruction were formed to train the new troops, as well as the raising of partisans along the eastern shore. Some Russian troops were sent by boat with rifles and ammunition to arm the population of the Sunga peninsula to the west. The allies even made contact, briefly, with Finnish troops on their western flank.
Maynard´s main preoccupation was still with the quality of his Russian troops, especially when they failed to break through to the Shunga peninsula and the job had to be taken by the British. To counter this he determined to move further south, into a more anti-Bolshevik area -this and the small victories required to get there, apparently "had a most salutary effect on the Russian forces, which from now onwards showed a steady improvement in discipline and fighting capacity." By July 5th the Allies held a line Svartnavolotski—Tivdiya—Kyapeselga— Shunga.
July saw worrying events with a revolt of the Russian troops at Archangel and Red reinforcements driving the Finns back, but for the Murmansk forces things were looking good. The Russian forces to the east of the lake and on the Shunga peninsula were doing well, and the small lake flotilla was dominating their much larger Bolshevik opponents, not least by capturing several of their ships. Maynard decided his best policy was to stay where he was, but raid aggressively around Lake Onega to keep the enemy off balance, and that's what he did.