Monday, 15 October 2012

Onega & Back Part 2 - To War by Rail

 British troops in Russia in 1919. In this case, on the Archangel front

May 1919 found a small British/White Russian force on the northern shores of Lake Onega in Russia. At described in part 1 they had fought their way down from Murmansk in the Arctic, following the line of the Murmansk - St Petersburg railway, and they were now based in Medvyejya Gora on the lake shore. The officer commanding, General Maynard, already knew that the British troops were to be withdrawn before the winter, his task was to train up a decent Russian army to take their place, and damage Bolshevik forces as much as possible in the meantime.

Most of the land around was marsh and forest, very heavy going. So movement was more or less restricted to the railway line, which could transport troops, and even offer artillary support via naval guns mounted on wagons. Advance or retreat was measured by how far down the line you were to St Petersburg.

Maynard's British contingent had originally consisted of just two companies from the Middlesex and Kings Royal Rifle Regiments, but once on the lake he was reinforced by RAF sea planes and a small naval flotilla manned by the Mercantile Marine Reserve. He also had Italian and Serbian contingents, but the bulk of his forces were Russian. Unfortunately their quality and numbers varied wildly, and in the initial stages it was the British who did most of the fighting.

 Allies - Serbian troops defending part of the Murmansk railway, 1919

Some idea of the action that summer can be obtained from the following excerpt.

The Middlesex Special Company

The "Die Hards" arrived in Murmansk in April 1919, just one company, but an elite one. Number 1 "Special" company was formed of volunteers and almost all were long service veterans. It was commanded by Major C. D. Drew.

 A typical view of the Murmansk Railway in 1915

Their first "active" service was when No. 1 platoon acted as escort of a train of "undesirables" being deported to enemy lines, but on 2nd May 1919 they were sent by train down to "n. 19 Siding" near Lake Vigozero - as was described in part 1, everything in this part of the world moved by the Murmansk Railway, or by water, there was no other serious way of getting around. From May 5th to 15th they stayed in camp at number 19 Siding whilst the other British Company from the KRRC steadily forced their way south along the line. By May 14th the KRRC had reached Siding 13, and it was the Middlesex's turn. They continued the advance along the line, reaching Siding 12 on the 16th, but here they had to wait until the line was repaired. On May 19th the KRRC advanced again, but were almost surrounded and cut off until the Middlesex came to their aid.

 Medvyejya Gora

 As the Middlesex company reached Lake Onega they were accompanied by a correspondent of the New York Times, Arthur Copping, whose report was published on June 2nd 1919. His report describes their advance.

As they grew closer to the lake opposition increased, the Die Hards had seen off a Bolshevik train with rifle grenades, and next day, advancing in their own armoured train they had come under rifle fire., which they had driven off with the 3 inch guns of the train. The day after that, a party of American railroad engineers sent ahead to repair a sabotaged bridge were almost captured, but managed to escape under covering fire from one Middlesex patrol whilst another flanked their position.

After three days and nights with very little sleep, progressing down the line through forest and across broken bridges, the Middlesex company, the KRRC and their Serbian and Italian enemies entered Medvyejya Gora on May 21st. Even then they spent the night on outpost duty on the heights above the town.

There was now time for some R&R before the Middlesex were sent off down the line again.On June 12th the Middlesex  launched a night attack against Siding 10, and had taken it by next morning. From July 6th until 26th they the company garrisoned the village of Kapaselga, sending out patrols and digging trenches, before being sent back to Medvyejya Gora, returning to Kapaselga on the 1st of August. On the 13th Bolsheviks attacked Kapaselga,  but were beaten off.

 The Enemy - a modern re-enactment of a Bolshevik attack

 Siding 8

The last action of the Die Hards took place on August 17th, as recorded in their Regimental Diary (

 "Company entrained (at Kapaselga) and left School House at 8 a.m. Detrained at railhead two bridges north of Siding 8. Major Lang, Marines, and one battalion were attached to Company. We attacked along railway line, two platoons on each side. No. 1 Platoon with No. 3 in support on the right, No. 2 with No. 4 in support on the left. Four enemy were seen and fired at in No. 8 Siding and retired on to their main position, where the enemy replied with heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. Firing was more accurate than usual for the ' Bols,' and a good ~ many bullets struck the ground between front and support positions. His position was shelled and Company attacked. His position had been hastily evacuated, and dixies of hot water and burnt pancakes were found; also a large amount of ammunition, several rifles and barbed wire. 

Company advanced again; progress had to coincide with attack of Karelian Company on post road. Patrols were sent to post road to keep touch. Company advanced to Siding 7A, approximately 5 versts south of No. 8 Siding. The enemy blew up bridges as we advanced. On reaching Siding 7A an outpost position was taken up. No. 4 Platoon on right (responsible for railway), No. 3 Platoon on left. No. 2 Platoon returned to No. 8 Siding as escort to guns. No enemy were seen during night. A large fire was observed well in rear of enemy line, which may have been a forest fire. Heavy firing was heard from Vakshozero direction. A patrol was sent to Karelians at junction of post road and track from Siding 7A. Our casualties were nil."

The Company returned to Kapaselga on the 18th, but three hours later left for Medvyejya Gora. On the 20th the Middlesex entrained for Kern where they stayed, away from the front line, before leaving Murmansk for home on the 11th of October.

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