With the menace from Zerel removed, the Germans were able to make better progress with their sweeping, and on the morning of the 16th, Behncke prepared to break through in the direction of Arensburg. However, Admiral Schmidt, the naval commander in chief, decided that it would be preferable to have the big German ships farther to the north, and that morning sent a wireless message to Behncke to attack the Russian naval forces in the Gulf of Riga and in Moon Sound. This deviated from the original German plan, which had been to merely blockade Moon Sound. Behncke’s force included the König and Kronzprinz, the cruisers Kolberg and Strassburg, and the minesweeping mother ship Indianola, escorted by destroyers and smaller craft. As the Germans steamed across the wide gulf, they ran into a new danger—British submarines. C.26 sighted the German force but grounded in the shallow waters while attempting to get into a firing position. The submarine was kept down by the escorts and later suffered further damage when her hydroplanes jammed and she fouled her propeller in an antisubmarine net. At approximately 4:30 C.27 fired two shots at the battleships, which missed, but succeeded in torpedoing the Indianola, which had to be towed to Arensburg.
At approximately 8:30 Behncke ordered his squadron to anchor for the night. They were on a latitude roughly north of Arensburg, ready to proceed into Moon Sound to attack the Russian naval forces the next morning. They could not effectively do this, however, until they cleared a path through the minefields blocking the channels through Moon Sound. Once again these posed a formidable obstacle.
The German sweepers did not get very far at first when they began sweeping early on the morning of the 17th. The Russians had the old battleships Slava and Grazhdanin along with the armored cruiser Bayan in Moon Sound. The 12-inch guns of these ships, joined by the battery at Woi on Moon Island, frustrated the attempt to sweep to the west of the minefields, and also held off the cruisers and destroyers supporting the sweepers. The Germans then tried to work around to the east where a pair of Russian torpedo boats (which had reported the German advance) retiring to the north indicated there was a mine-free passage. Individually the old Russian battleships might have been no match for the German dreadnoughts, but this was not a battle in the open sea and German accounts indicate they skillfully kept at the outer limit of the range of the German big guns. The Russians had improved the gun mountings of the Slava so that her 30.5 cm could be elevated to 30°, much greater than the maximum elevation of the German 30.5 cm. The Germans were unpleasantly surprised to discover the Slava’s 30.5 cm outranged the 30.5 cm of the much newer dreadnoughts which had to haul off for a time.
It was only after 10:00 that the sweepers had made sufficient progress for Behncke to order the König and Kronprinz to begin their dash to the north. Then it would be a very unequal match. At 10:13 A.M. the König was finally in range of the Slava and opened fire, soon hitting the old Russian ship. Shortly afterward the Kronprinz scored hits on the Grazhdanin and Bayan. At about 10:30 Admiral Bakhirev ordered the Russian ships to withdraw to the north of Moon Sound, but the Slava, hit a number of times by 12-inch shells, was now on fire and listing. The gallant old ship that, despite all uncertainty caused by the events of the revolution, had fought hard against overwhelming forces, was doomed. She now drew too much water to pass through Moon Sound, and Bakhirev ordered her scuttled and her crew taken off in a destroyer. She remained afloat after the charges went off, and a Russian destroyer had to complete the job with a torpedo shortly before noon. The Russians also sank three ships in an attempt to block Moon Sound channel, and destroyers and minelayers scattered a large number of mines in the channel and neighboring waters.
One by one the Russian positions on the islands fell to the Germans. The navy wanted to hinder the Russian evacuations but ran into difficulty. Commodore Heinrich tried on the night of 17–18 October to cut off Moon Island from the mainland with his destroyers and torpedo boats but lost S.64 to a mine. The Admiral Makarov and the Russian destroyers also held off the Germans in Kassar Wick on the 18th, and the large destroyer B.111 had her bow blown off by a mine.
The naval battle was effectively over, although the Russian net and boom obstruction across the deep channel just off Werder kept the big German ships from making a dash through the Sound. Most batteries on land were silenced, but Russian naval forces obliged the German sweepers working in Moon Sound to withdraw under cover of smoke at one point on the 18th. Admiral Hopman was finally able to get two cruisers and a half-flotilla of torpedo boats as far as Schildau Island in the midst of Moon Sound the afternoon of the 19th, and on the 20th the König, towed by mine hunters in the poor visibility, arrived in Kuiwast roadstead. By then the fighting on land was largely over. Ösel, Moon, and Dagö islands were in German hands.
The effective pursuit of the retreating Russians was out of the question. On 19 October the Admiralstab ordered operations against the Russian fleet to be broken off and for the battleships to return to the North Sea as soon as possible. The Russians also left the gulf. On the afternoon of the 19th, Bakhirev led the Russian naval forces through the northern exit of Moon Sound into the Gulf of Finland and behind the “Forward Position,” which the Russians now prepared to defend. They left the two British C-class boats behind in the Gulf of Riga, and on the 20th C.32 attempted to attack the netlayer Eskimo, only to be badly damaged by the escorting destroyers. The submarine was run ashore on the 21st near Pernau and blown up. The Russian mines continued to cause losses in the sweeping that followed the operation. Furthermore, on 29 October, the dreadnought Markgraf was damaged by a mine, probably torn loose by a storm, while leaving the gulf.
During the struggle for the Baltic Islands, the Russians once again appealed to the British for assistance. The Russians feared this was the beginning of a German offensive directed at Revel and Helsingfors and, with so much of the German fleet apparently in the Baltic, wondered if it might be possible for the British fleet to undertake an offensive. The geographical realities that effectively isolated the Baltic had not changed. Admiral Oliver informed the Russian naval attaché that the British sent several squadrons cruising in the North Sea with a view toward stirring German counteractivity, but that the extensive minefields prevented the British fleet from a close approach to the German coast and bad weather had been preventing aircraft from operating and British minesweepers from working. It did not matter what proportion of the High Sea Fleet was in the Baltic, because the defense of German bases rested on mines and heavy artillery. Once again the British pointed out that even if they succeeded in getting their fleet into the Baltic, they could not maintain its long lines of communications, and the Russians could not supply it.
Although Operation Albion had ended in a German victory, it had not been free of cost. A destroyer, three torpedo boats, and eight of the minesweeping and mine-hunting force had been sunk, and vessels damaged by mines included three dreadnoughts and two destroyers. Other craft were damaged by gunfire or grounding. The army losses were relatively light, barely 400 men, and the Germans had captured more than 20,000 Russians. The Russians lost the Slava and Grom, along with the British C.32, the Grazhdanin, and Bayan, and two gunboats and three destroyers suffered damage.
A noted historian described Operation Albion, in which the German navy used no fewer than eleven of its most powerful capital ships, as “a classic case of overkill,” intended primarily as a morale booster. The question should be put to the German high command rather than the navy. Was it really necessary to take the islands? Once the decision to do so had been made, the navy had little option but to act as it did. The numbers of troops involved—a reinforced division—were certainly not excessive by World War I standards. Once they were committed to the hazards of an amphibious operation, however, the Germans faced a situation best described by General Tschischwitz, the former chief of staff of the expeditionary corps: “The experience of Moon Sound amply proves that one can not dispense with battleships so long as the enemy uses them. It is impossible to conduct a naval war with torpedo-boats and submarines alone when the enemy can effectively bring to bear the fire from long range guns.”
Furthermore, there was always the problem of the fleet-in-being. The Russians had four dreadnoughts and two modernized predreadnoughts at Helsingfors. With hindsight, there was little chance those forlorn ships, unkept and with politicized and undisciplined crews, would ever have put to sea, or have stood much of a chance in battle, given the state of training. But the Germans could not take the chance those six capital ships—or at least some of them—would not eventually intervene. The ratio in capital ships would then be 11 to 6, and with two German battleships damaged by mines at the beginning of operations, the German margin of superiority was reduced to 9 to 6. Of course the German ships were qualitatively far superior to their Russian opponents, but the numbers are given to show how an apparently overwhelming German lead could melt away. The Germans actually had great difficulty bringing their superior strength to bear given the geographical realities, difficult hydrographic conditions, and the Russian tactic of fighting behind mine defenses coordinated with coastal batteries. Under these circumstances minesweepers became as valuable as capital ships, and the Germans admitted they did not have as many as they needed. However, the exercise of naval power in this operation required both sweepers and capital ships; one could not do without the other. It was in all respects a combined operation.
There was a tendency for some Germans to compare their success in the Baltic with the Anglo-French failure at the Dardanelles. They stress that the Russian batteries were more modern than the Turkish, and the Russians had more than two and a half years to perfect their mine defenses. But the analogy is misleading. The Russian army at this stage could in no way be compared as far as fighting capacity is concerned with the Turkish forces at Gallipoli, and General Tschischwitz added a cautionary note: Albion could not be used as a model for future operations, for the Russian army and navy were “no longer a full-fledged adversary,” and the Germans took chances in their presence they would not have risked with an enemy who was a proper match.
The operations in the Gulf of Riga marked the effective end of the Baltic Fleet’s participation in the war. On 7 November the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and quickly began negotiations with the Central Powers to take Russia out of the war. On 15 December an armistice was concluded on the eastern front. The Allies, particularly the British, now had to worry about what would happen to the Russian fleet. Would the ships fall into the hands of the Germans? What of the British submarines in the Baltic? There was a wide spectrum of proposals, generally impracticable, which ranged from having the British submarines attempt to torpedo the big ships in Helsingfors to inducing so-called loyal officers and men to try to at least get the valuable destroyers out of the Baltic. According to the armistice terms, the Russian fleet, in theory, was secured from seizure by the Germans. Would the Germans respect those terms? The problem became acute in the winter of 1918 when the Germans resumed their advance in the east in order to compel the Bolshevik government to sign the peace treaty. The Russians gave in, and the Peace of Brest-Litovsk was concluded on 3 March. The Germans also intervened in the civil war that had broken out in Finland between the White and Red forces. In fact the German navy took the initiative before the political decision to intervene had been reached. There were some in the navy, notably Rear Admiral von Trotha, the chief of staff of the High Sea Fleet, who bluntly recommended seizing the Baltic Fleet as “war booty.”
On 28 February 1918, Rear Admiral Hugo Meurer, commanding a special division including the dreadnoughts Westfalen and Rheinland (later joined by the Posen), sailed with approximately 1,000 troops to establish a base in the Åland Islands. The Swedes also had a strong interest in the islands, and there were approximately 700 Swedish troops at Eckerö preserving law and order against the threat of the Red Guards—along with the Swedish coast-defense ships Sverige, Oskar II, and Thor. The Swedes had been unpleasantly surprised by the arrival of the Germans, and Meurer had a certain amount of difficulty in reaching an agreement on 6 March with the Swedish commander, Vice Admiral Count Ehrensvärd, about Swedish and German zones of occupation.
Ice had greatly hampered the movements of the Germans, who now turned their attention to the Finnish mainland. On 2 March the kaiser authorized sending the Baltic Division (approximately 9,000 men) under the command of General von der Goltz to join the Finnish White Army. On 5 April the German force, convoyed by Meurer’s three dreadnoughts, three cruisers, and numerous escorts, landed at Hangö on the southwest tip of Finland. The Russians did not resist, although they scuttled three AG-class submarines, a supply ship, and a patrol boat to prevent them from falling into German hands. In the next few days the navy also transported a brigade of 3,000 men from Revel to a point on the Finnish coast approximately 100 kilometers east of Helsingfors.
The seizure of the Russian Baltic Fleet was not official German policy, and Meurer negotiated an agreement with the Russians at Hangö on 5 April whereby the Soviets agreed not to destroy the port facilities and ships at Helsingfors and to disarm all Russian ships in the harbor. The Germans, in turn, agreed to permit the Russians to move the ships to Kronstadt if ice conditions permitted. The Admiralstab still placed its priorities on the U-boat war, and on 8 April the kaiser ordered Meurer’s special division to be disbanded and its ships returned to the High Sea Fleet. Meurer’s ships reached Helsingfors on 12 April where German sailors joined in the heavy fighting between the Red and White forces. The German navy, despite the lack of opposition at sea, paid a certain price for the intervention in Finland. The battleship Rheinland, which had remained in the vicinity of the Åland Islands, ran on the rocks in foggy weather on 11 April while returning to Danzig to coal. The Germans managed to get the ship off the rocks and back to Kiel, but she was so badly damaged the Germans could not use her at sea again.
The Russians at Helsingfors must have suspected that possession is nine-tenths of the law and worked feverishly to move the Baltic Fleet to Kronstadt. Although hampered by the ice, they managed to get all but a very few ships of little fighting value away before the Germans arrived. They used icebreakers to tow those ships whose engines would not function. The crossing through the ice was particularly difficult for small ships, and the destroyers took eight to nine days instead of the normal ten to twelve hours. Some of the destroyers were also damaged by the ice.
The British did the only possible thing with their submarines: the surviving boats, four E class and three C class, were scuttled just before the Germans arrived. Lieutenant Downie, commanding the detachment, overcame the Russian reluctance to supply icebreakers by threatening to blow the boats up in the harbor. Naval operations in the Baltic ended until after the Armistice.