Saturday, 20 October 2012

Onega & Back Part 3 - Action on the Lake 1919

When you join the navy you probably don't expect to find yourself in the middle of a lake in Russia, but in early 1919 that's exactly where a small Royal Navy flotilla were. Admittedly Lake Onega is enormous, the 2nd largest in Europe, but they had still had to get there by rail, from Murmansk. In fact even then a path had to be cut through the forest to even reach the lake shore. Fortunately, a party of American railroad engineers was available to do the job, and a naval base of two American (40ft)  and 11 British small (55ft) "coastal motor boats" (CMBs) was set upon the lake. Unfortunately, the Americans were withdrawn by their government, handing over one of their boats to the Royal Navy, who promptly christened it the Jolly Roger!

 To understand why Lake Onega was so important you have to appreciate that the only route from St Petersburg (Petrograd) through dense forest to the Allied/White base at Murmansk was the Murmansk Railway, and the only population in this area was in the villages around the lake. Control the lake, and the railway, and you controlled the whole area.

The Royal Navy on Lake Onega

Initially it was far from clear that the British would control anything on the lake. Their flotilla of small launches was drawfed by the Bolshevik fleet, which in February 1919 stood at 4 medium size lake steamers, 4 floating batteries and 2 minelayers, armed with a mixture of 75,mm, 47mm, and 35mm guns and machine guns. They also had 2 Grigorovich M-9 seaplanes, although as we will see later, the British had plans of their own in this regard.
 A view of Lake Onega in 1915, including a view of one of the lake steamers (Library of Congress)

The British flotilla was commanded by Lt Commander Mather, a former Antarctic exploder, who from the start decided the best form of attack was defence, mounting raids all over the lake, and increasing his fleet at the expense of the Bolsheviks.

Early in June, the four armed Bolshevik lake steamers were observed steaming on Lake Onega northwest towards Medvyejya. Mather, in command of a flotilla of CMBs, engaged the enemy and for this action he was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The citation reads:

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, on the 5 June 1919, before Shunski Bor, Lake Onega, when in command of four motor boats he engaged four enemy steamers, carrying many heavy guns, in order to relieve the Russians who were being heavily attacked. Notwithstanding the disparity in armament he caused the enemy vessels to retire south, and so enabled the Russians to counter-attack with success. He showed throughout great courage and devotion to duty and set a fine example to all".

The "Jolly Roger" with it's 3 pdr gun was kept busy bombarding Bolsehvik positions on the shoreline, such as on June 10th when it attacked the village of Fedotova on the Shunga peninsula destroying a bridge and killing 30 Bolsheviks. Unfortunately, on July 8th a fire in the engine room exploded the petrol tank and the ship was lost.
 The "Jolly Roger"

Better news came on August 3rd when three of the four Bolshevik steamers were captured, 'Silny", 'Pajalostny" and "Azod' off Tolvuya, Lake Onega. With a decent troop carrying capacity Mather got even more ambitious.

The Raid on Rimskaya

On August 29th a major raid was launched on Rimskaya, 80 miles from Medveja Gora and the Bolshevik headquarters on the eastern side of Lake Onega. The raiding force would consist of 130 Russians, 25 Serbians, and 60 men of the British naval flotilla, all carried in a small fleet consisting  of the Sileny (a captured Bolshevik steamer), the Axod (a captured Bolshevik tug), the Royal Navy motor boats and various small Russian chasers.
 A view, reportedly, of the jetty at Rimskaya during the action

The Axod was first alongside the landing stage, a British officer leaping of the bows and leading his men to occupy the buildings and wood piles by the jetty. The Bolshevik outpost there was overcome after a short fire fight, and the site secured for the landings. The prisoners taken on the jetty incidentally were found to have been from a White battalion in Archangel that had mutinied and shot their British officers - they were handed over to the White authorities.

One of the first ashore was Boson C.H. Mitchell, who won the Military Cross. His, and other, reports in the London Gazette are given below.....

"This Chief Petty Officer showed great gallantry and devotion to duty during the attack on the village of Rimskaya on 29th August, 1919. He was one of the first to enter the village, personally took twelve of the enemy prisoners and captured one machine gun, which had been delaying the advance. He set a magnificent example of gallantry and coolness."

Eighteen enemy tried to make a stand in woodland around the pier, but were broken up by Able Seaman Logan, an American from New York serving in the Mercantile Marine Reserve.

"On 29th August, 1919, at Rimskaya on Lake Onega, this rating, showed great resource, courage and initiative on the occasion of landing. Together with another man he captured eighteen prisoners who were taking cover in the woods round the pier and who would have held up the advance of the Allied landing party."
 A site on the lake,  probably not Rimskaya, showing the typical buildings and log piles (Library of Congress)

Troops fanned out into the village - one house, unusually, has a horse tied up outside. As the British approached a Red Commissar broke cover and tried to escape, but was captured.

Fire fights broke out all over the village as the Bolsheviks tried to set up machine gun posts. Motorman H. Barker, from Penge, won a Military Cross for overcoming one of these..

"On 29th August, 1919, at Rimskaya, this rating displayed conspicuous zeal and gallantry on the occasion of the storming of the village. Coming under a heavy machinegun cross fire he persevered and then became mainly responsible for the capture of thirty-one prisoners."

The raiders had machine guns of their own, more skilfully handled. Able Seaman J. Buss, from Camberwell, won a bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal he already possessed, for his part in the battle...

"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Rimskaya, on 29th August, 1919, when he advanced with his machine gain under (heavy fine, and' by skillful handling of the same was largely responsible for the capture of 30 prisoners by his section.".

Buss in fact was not a sailor at all, but an ex-Sergeant in the London Regiment, who had won his Distinguished Conduct Medal the previous year.

Another 30 prisoners were also captured by Lt. Walter Wood, who won a Military Cross. All in all 150 prisoners were taken and the operation was a huge success. And meanwhile the RAF had also been in action over the lake, but that's another blog.

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