Battle for the Baltic
The Royal Navy and the Fight to Save Estonia and Latvia, 1918-1920
The First World War ended on 11 November 1918, but for the men of the Royal Navy there was no going home. Despite over four years of slaughter and worldwide war weariness, from December 1918 thousands of RN sailors and over 200 ships were sent to the Baltic Sea to fight a fierce and brutal battle against Bolshevik Russia and help protect the fragile independence of the newly established states of Estonia and Latvia.
Not surprisingly neither the British Government nor the public had any appetite for fighting such a war - the political fall-out might well bring down the Government. But Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill saw Russia being rapidly reduced by the Bolsheviks and was determined to stop them retaking the new Baltic countries, which he saw as a shield against the encroachment of the communism into Europe. As a result, worn out men and ships of the Royal Navy, firstly under Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, and then commanded by the fire-eating Walter Cowan, were sent into this maelstrom of chaos and conflicting loyalties, much against many of their wishes.
What made the situation even more challenging was they faced more than one opponent. The Communist forces of the Red Army and Navy, headed by Leon Trotsky, were unleashed by Lenin who declared ‘the Baltic must become a Soviet sea’. And then there were the gangs of freebooting German soldiers, the Freikorps, intent on keeping the Baltic States under German domination. And White Russian forces were gathered, bent on retaking the Bolshevik stronghold of Petrograd and rebuilding the Russian empire.
So for the next thirteen months the navy was in action against Soviet ships and ground forces – inspired by their leader Trotsky who, referring to the enemy, ordered that ‘they should be destroyed at any cost’. Sea battles raged between the Red Navy and the RN with losses on both sides. Tiny coastal motor boats sank the cruiser Oleg and badly damaged two Soviet battleships and a depot ship in actions which resulted in the award of three Victoria Crosses.
Royal Navy ships were also involved providing a constant artillery barrage in support of Estonian and Latvian forces, protecting their flanks and helping drive back their attackers, leading to eventual military success. Aircraft from newly arrived aircraft carriers also played a role. As one Latvian observer recorded, ‘the Allied fleet rendered irreplaceable help to the fighters for freedom’. The navy even rescued British spies from the Russian mainland.
In February 1920 the combatants signed a treaty ending hostilities and an uneasy peace prevailed until 1939. An exhausted Royal Navy had helped hold the ring, fighting against Russian and German opponents alike. But there was a cost; 133 British sailors died in the campaign and seventeen RN ships were lost. Three VCs were won but the hardship and war-sickness brought about two separate mutinies, rare in a service which prided itself on its self-discipline.
Today few people are aware of this exhausting campaign and the sacrifices made by Royal Navy crewmen. This book tells their exciting but forgotten stories using much first-hand testimony and brings back to life a crucial naval operation which helped save the fledgling Baltic democracies.