German battleship Grosser Kurfürst photographed during Operation Albion in October 1917.
In October 1917 the Germans executed the major Baltic naval operation of the war in the Gulf of Riga. With the Russian army disorganized by the revolution, the Germans resumed their advance and captured Riga and Dünamünde in early September. This enlarged the amount of Courland coast under German control but also raised the question of Ösel and the other islands in the Gulf of Riga. Russian naval forces still had control of the gulf, which meant that the left flank of the German army along the water remained exposed to naval gunfire. There was also the danger that the Russians might attempt a landing in the rear of the German forces, although the state of the Russian army made this highly unlikely. Perhaps more important was the fact that the Russian naval threat prevented the Germans from using Dünamünde as a supply port. The Germans had already learned to their cost that the German fleet could not remain in the Gulf of Riga without securing its line of communications through the Irben Strait, and this would mean taking Ösel and the batteries on the Sworbe Peninsula that commanded the minefields. There also appear to be some Germans who believed, unlikely as it may seem, that the British had surveyed the Sworbe Peninsula with the idea of seizing it and taking advantage of the situation to establish a foothold on the shores of the Baltic.
The prospect of action in the Baltic was agreeable to some German naval leaders. The operation—code named “Albion”—would require a heavy contribution from the North Sea. Scheer, now chief of the High Sea Fleet, later wrote: “This offered a welcome diversion from the monotony of the war in the North Sea.” Captain Levetzow, chief of operations on Scheer’s staff, was also happy to bring the heavy ships into action. The chief of the Admiralstab, mindful no doubt of recent disturbances in the fleet, also was anxious for an action in order to raise morale. The psychological factor was also important to the high command. Ludendorff thought of it in terms of increasing the desire for peace in the Russian army: “The blow was aimed at Petrograd, and, since very many people have no idea of time and space, was bound to make a profound impression there.” Hindenburg believed the operation would “intensify our pressure on a nervous Petersburg without employing any large forces.”
The naval leaders in the Baltic were less enthusiastic about Albion. It was much easier for the High Sea Fleet to detach dreadnoughts to the Baltic than it was to send large numbers of the absolutely essential minesweepers. The minesweepers were needed in the North Sea to keep the exits open for the U-boats, and all agreed the submarine war had priority. Prince Heinrich had severe reservations about the operation, especially because of the lateness of the season and uncertainty of the weather, the formidable mine defenses, and the presence of British submarines. These doubts were shared by his chief of staff Rear Admiral von Uslar and Rear Admiral Hopman, commander of the Baltic scouting forces. Uslar thought the effort too much for merely providing better security for the flank of the army. Hopman wrote Tiṙpitz shortly before the operation that its military value was “nonsense” but that “it brings a fresh breath of air into the fleet, whose spirit, as far as the ratings are concerned, is in even more dire straits than Your Excellency suggested some time ago.”
The doubts were overcome, and on 18 September the orders for the joint operation to capture Ösel and Moon Island were issued. The question of command was a potentially delicate one; both Scheer—half of whose fleet would be employed—and Prince Heinrich laid claim to it. The problem was eventually solved by entrusting the naval command to a Sonderverband (task force) under the ranking subordinate admiral in the High Sea Fleet, Vice Admiral Ehrhard Schmidt. The joint operations were to be directed from Riga by Lieutenant General von Hutier, commander in chief of the Eighth Army, in whose zone the operation would take place. Lieutenant General von Kathen would command the expeditionary corps, consisting of the reinforced 42d Infantry Division and 2d Infantry Cyclist Brigade (approximately 24,600 officers and men), which would be transported in two echelons by nineteen steamers to Tagga Bay on the western shores of Osel.
The Sonderverband was by far the largest and most powerful German naval force to appear in the Baltic during the war. It included: the Moltke (flag); the Third Squadron (the König, Bayern, Grosser Kurfürst, Kronprinz, and Markgraf); the Fourth Squadron (the Friedrich der Grosse, König Albert, Kaiserin, Prinzregent Luitpold, and Kaiser); the Second Scouting Group (five cruisers); Hopman’s three Baltic cruisers; Commodore Heinrich in the cruiser Emden, leading the three half-flotillas of destroyers and torpedo boats from the High Sea Fleet; a minesweeping division from the North Sea; the Baltic minesweepers, mine hunters, mine breakers, submarines, and mother ships; and the “Rosenberg flotilla” (an antisubmarine flotilla of torpedo boats and trawlers under Fregattenkapitän von Rosenberg). The German armada numbered more than 300 vessels of all sorts plus 6 airships and more than 100 aircraft. Nevertheless, as the former chief of staff of the German Eighth Army noted in a detailed study written after the war, the fleet “was lacking in adequate mine-sweeping equipment. This deficiency later, on several occasions, made itself felt most embarrassingly.”
The Russian forces in the Gulf of Riga were under the command of Rear Admiral Bakhirev, flying his flag in the cruiser Bayan. They included the old battleships Grazhdanin (formerly the Tsarevitch) and Slava, the cruisers Admiral Makaroff and (later) Diana, 3 gunboats, 12 new destroyers, 14 older destroyers, 3 British C-class submarines, older torpedo boats, minesweepers, minelayers, mine hunters, and assorted patrol craft. The main Russian anchorage was in Kuiwast Roads, between Moon Island and the mainland, roughly 60 miles from the Irben Strait. The Russians, perhaps due to the chaotic conditions in the army, appear to have done little to strengthen the land defenses, preferring to concentrate on minelaying in the Irben Strait. The Ösel garrison, theoretically almost 14,000 strong, was only at 60 to 70 percent strength. Russian morale and powers of resistance were uncertain. The navy on the whole, with exceptions, fought hard, perhaps harder than many had anticipated.
Bad weather delayed the preliminary German minesweeping but improved sufficiently for the main German landing to take place at Tagga Bay at dawn on 12 October, with the Moltke and the Third Squadron engaging the batteries at Tagga Bay. A subsidiary landing, covered by the Rosenberg flotilla, took place near Pamerort farther north on the island. The Fourth Squadron engaged the batteries at Sworbe on the southern tip of Ösel. The German plan was to push their light forces through the shallow waters of Soela Sound between Ösel and Dagö Island, obtain command of Kassar Wick (the inlet between Moon Island and the southeast coast of Dago), support the army’s passage from Ösel to Moon Island, and block the passage from Moon Sound to the Gulf of Finland, thereby trapping the Russian naval forces defending the Gulf of Riga. The navy also had to force the Irben Strait so as to provide naval support to the German army advancing on Arensburg, the main town on Ösel.
The landings took place successfully, but very quickly the danger from Russian mines became apparent. The Bayern and Grosser Kurfürst were both mined while taking up their bombardment positions. A transport also was mined, and her troops and their equipment had to be rescued by the escorting torpedo boats before the ship was beached. The damage to the Grosser Kurfürst was not serious; her bulkhead protection limited flooding to between 260 and 280 tons. On the other hand, the damage to the 15-inch gunned Bayern—one of the newest and most powerful of the German dreadnoughts—turned out to be much more serious than first assumed; temporary repairs did not hold, and the ship had to put back into Tagga Bay. It took nineteen days for the Germans to get her back to Kiel.
The Germans also had great difficulties in the narrow waters of Soela Sound and in attempting to gain control of Kassar Wick. The hydrographic conditions were difficult, with tricky currents, narrow channels, uncertain depths, sandbars, and rocks. It is not surprising that a number of German torpedo boats and other craft sustained damage from touching bottom. The Germans also ran into Russian destroyers in Kassar Wick on the morning of the 12th, and the Russians forced the German minesweepers back into Soela Sound. The Germans faced a tactical problem: the farther they pushed into Kassar Wick, the farther they got from the big guns of their supporting ships, whereas the Russians could be supported by their cruisers in Moon Sound. In the afternoon two German torpedo boat and destroyer flotillas engaged four Russian destroyers, supported by a gunboat. The Russians were later joined by another five destroyers and the cruiser Admiral Makarov, and the Germans did not succeed in getting through to Moon Sound. The Germans did not remain in Kassar Wick after dark and withdrew through Soela Sound.
Commodore Heinrich, commanding the flotillas, asked for reinforcements, but the Germans did not get any farther on the 13th when Russian destroyers, aided by fog, prevented the light cruiser Emden from entering Soela Sound or drawing close enough to deliver effective counterfire. Heinrich was convinced that it would require the big long-range guns of a battleship to drive off the Russian destroyers and gunboats and secure control of Kassar Wick. The Russians, in turn, planned on the night of 13–14 October to block the channel in Soela Sound by sinking a ship and laying a minefield. These plans were frustrated when the blockship ran aground and could not be freed and the ship’s committee of the minelayer Pripyat refused to carry out the mission on the grounds it was too dangerous—a breach of discipline condemned even by the Soviet account of the operations.
The tide turned decisively on the 14th when the Germans, laboriously sweeping and buoying a channel, managed to bring the dreadnought Kaiser from Tagga Bay to the entrance of Soela Sound. The Kaiser was in position by 11:30 A.M. for her 12-inch guns to drive the Russian gunboats and destroyers away from the eastern entrance to Soela Sound. Commodore Heinrich’s reinforced flotilla then dashed through the Sound to engage the Russian warships in Kassar Wick. In the running fight, the large new Russian destroyer Grom was hit in the engine room by a 12-inch shell from the Kaiser, knocking out both turbines. The destroyer took on an immediate list. The gunboat Khrabri tried to take the Grom under tow but was engaged by the German flotilla, and after the tow broke, the Grom was abandoned. B.98 raced to capture the Russian destroyer and take her under tow, but the ship was too badly damaged and sank. The Germans might have been cheated of a prize, but they were able to recover an invaluable chart of the local waters from the sinking ship. By 3:00 P.M. the German flotillas had driven the Russians out of Kassar Wick and remained in control until they withdrew after dark. The Russians were still a threat; the Germans came under fire at the eastern edge of the inlet from the cruiser Admiral Makarov in Moon Sound.
During the night of 14–15 October, the Pripyat assisted by three motorboats laid a field of mines in Kassar Wick north of Cape Pawasterort. According to one account, the Pripyat’s mutinous crew had been replaced by more reliable men drawn from the destroyers and torpedo boats. When the German flotillas returned to the inlet the next day, the destroyer B.98 had her bow blown off and had to be towed back to Libau. The destroyer B. 112, in seeking a path around the new minefield, grounded and was put out of action. Nevertheless, the heavy fighting in the waters around the north of Ösel was really over. The Russians moved the battleship Slava to Moon Sound to join the Admiral Makarov in keeping the German flotillas from coming out of Kassar Wick. The Russians deliberately listed both ships to increase the range of their guns. By the 16th, however, the land fighting on Ösel had reached the point where it was essentially a matter of mopping up for the Germans, and the brunt of the naval action had shifted to the southern tip of the island and the Irben Strait.
The Irben Strait had to be opened before the big German ships could get into the Gulf of Riga and eject the Russian battleships and cruisers. It was really the Russian mines that caused the most trouble, although there was also the powerful 30.5-cm battery at Zerel. On the night of 30 September the battery had been badly shaken by an air raid in which a bomb blew up a magazine, causing heavy casualties. Nevertheless, Zerel was in action when Operation Albion began, and for a number of days was able to keep the vulnerable little minesweepers from effectively sweeping, a situation reminiscent of the Dardanelles.
The sweeping operations at Irben were under the overall command of Admiral Hopman, but the Germans had been making at best slow progress. On the night of the 13th, Schmidt ordered Hopman to break through in order to provide naval support for the German army now closing in on Arensburg. The Germans, harassed by the 30.5-cm battery at Zerel, failed to break through the thick minefields on the 14th. The dreadnoughts König Albert and Kaiserin, later joined by the Friedrich der Grosse, bombarded Zerel at long range (7½ to 12½ miles), but accurate counterfire from the battery forced the ships to alter course frequently and disperse. The Germans, always mindful of the danger from submarines and mines, ended the bombardment after about an hour.
The following morning (15th) Vice Admiral Behncke, commander of the Third Squadron, arrived off the entrance to the Strait with the battleships König and Kronprinz. The Zerel battery did not reply to German fire, and the Germans assumed it had been silenced and they could make progress with their minesweeping. They suddenly had to break off sweeping in the afternoon when the battleship Grazhdanin and three destroyers were seen approaching the Sworbe Peninsula. Actually, the Russians were there for another purpose. It was the advance of the German army rather than naval gunfire that doomed Zerel. The Russians evacuated the battery after most of the gun crews had deserted. The remainder blew up the guns and ammunition stores, but the Grazhdanin and her destroyer escorts were not sure how effective the destruction had been and bombarded the now-abandoned position. The remaining garrison, cut off on the Sworbe Peninsula by the German advance, were evacuated by sea.