How the Royal Navy took on Soviet Forces
On 26 November 1918, just over two weeks after the end of the First World War, a British cruiser squadron and destroyer flotilla left Rosyth for the Baltic. Many of their war-weary crews had hoped to be demobbed, but instead found themselves heading for a new conflict, one that was being waged by three Baltic states seeking independence from Russia. Britain had decided to support them and also bring some stability to what was now a very volatile situation. As well as the nationalist forces, the Red Army, the anti-Bolshevik White Russians, and German occupying troops were all vying for control of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It didn’t help that the British government was unable to provide Rear Admiral Alexander-Sinclair with clear instructions, and the Baltic was still strewn with mines. Sinclair’s replacement, after he was ordered home in January 1919, was Rear Admiral Walter Cowan, who described his dilemma, ‘It was enough to confuse anyone with a claim to sanity! It seemed to me that there was never such a tangle, and my brain reeled with it. An unbeaten German army, two kinds of belligerent Russians, Letts, Finns, Estonians, Lithuanians: ice, mines – 60,000 of them! Russian submarines, German small craft, Russian battleships, cruisers and destroyers, all only waiting for the ice to melt to ravage the Baltic.’
Konstam provides a concise account of the complex geo-political background to the campaign, before giving an accurate and compelling description of the main activities and actions in which the British warships were involved. An early casualty was the cruiser Cassandra, which sank after being mined. British cruisers bombarded Soviet lines in Estonia, before Russian ships sallied forth from their Kronstadt base to bombard Reval (now Tallinn), but two of their destroyers were captured by the British and handed over to the Estonians. Next, British cruisers bombarded Windau, causing Soviet troops to flee. But the British submarine L55 was lost after an attack by a Russian destroyer.
The famous torpedo attacks at Kronstadt by British coastal motor boats followed. First the cruiser Oleg was sunk, and then, in a concerted attack on the naval base, a submarine depot ship was sunk and a pre-Dreadnought battleship was badly damaged, albeit with the loss of three CMBs. In later actions the British destroyer Vittoria was sunk by torpedoes, and her sister ship Verulam was lost in a British-laid minefield, whilst the Russians lost three destroyers to British-laid mines. Riga was saved from attacking German forces who were routed when British and French warships, including the newly arrived 15in monitor Erebus, bombarded them. By then the Soviets were tiring of war and an armistice was agreed, leading to Soviet recognition of the independent Baltic states. In the last section of the book Konstam describes the warships involved, both Allied and Russian. Throughout the book is well illustrated, including striking new artwork and archive mono images.