After the torpedo and mine casualties of the winter of 1915/16, there was little activity by larger warships in the Baltic theatre, although smaller vessels remained active – and suffered losses from the same causes. Ashore, there was an essential stalemate, but in March 1917 the ‘March Revolution’ in Russia ended the monarchy and although the Provisional Government continued the war, pressure began from the far left for an end to hostilities. Then, in July, the failure of the Kerensky Offensive opened the whole front to a German advance.
Against this background, Operation ‘Albion’ was launched in September 1917 to seize the West Estonian Archipelago that closed off the Gulf of Riga from the Baltic.8 The aim was both to free German forces and trade from the threat of Russian ships and submarines based there and to threaten St Petersburg, with a view to encouraging the Russians to seek an armistice.
German land forces – numbering some 23,000 men, carried from Libau by nineteen ships – were supported by a large naval force under the command of FO I. Sqn., flying his flag in Moltke, a veteran of the 1915 Riga campaign. Under him were the III. Sqn (König, Bayern, Großer Kurfürst, Kronprinz and Markgraf), the IV. Sqn. (Friedrich der Große, König Albert, Kaiserin, Prinzregent Luitpold and Kaiser), the II. and IV. SGs (Königsberg, Karlsruhe, Nürnberg, Frankfurt, Danzig, Kolberg, Straßburg, Augsburg, Blitz and Nautilus), the II., VI., VIII. and X torpedo boat Flotillas (forty-three boats with Emden as leader) and thirteen submarines, plus minesweepers and other supporting vessels. In opposition, the Russian Navy could only deploy the battleships Slava and Grazhdanin (ex-Tsesarevich), the cruisers Bayan, Admiral Makarov and Diana, the gunboats Khrabryi, Groziashchii and Khivinetz, and three divisions of destroyers, led by Novik, torpedo boats, plus other subsidiary vessels.
Although the German-based ships left Kiel on 24 September, weather prevented operations until early October, when aerial bombardment commenced, together with the sweeping of mines in the Irben Strait, which almost immediately resulted in the mining and sinking of T54 and M31, with damage to M75, T85 and Cladow. Finally, on 10 October the III. and IV. Sqns departed Putzig Bay, near Danzig, the naval forces rendezvousing the following day. Minesweeping had not proceeded as planned, while a navigational error meant that when the battleships began planned shore bombardments in support of the German landings (Bayern against the battery at Cape Toffri, the rest of III. Sqn against the battery at Ninnast [Ninase] and IV. Sqn. against battery at Cape Hundsort [Tagamõisa]) they were operating in unswept waters.
Early on the morning of the 11th, Bayern opened fire first, followed by Kaiser, Prinzregent Luitpold and Kaiserin. The Hundsort battery’s reply was aimed at Moltke, its 6in [152mm] shells falling only 100 metres short of her, the second salvo over, and the third 50 metres off her bow. Moltke then added her guns to the bombardment, while shortening the range to just 8000 metres as the landing got underway. In the meantime, the III. Sqn had taken the batteries at Cape Toffri and Ninnast under fire, the latter at a range of 4600 metres, allowing secondary batteries to be used. Großer Kurfürst had carried out her part in the bombardment in spite of having been mined forward on the starboard side shortly before, damage being limited to 280t of water in the double bottom, wing passage and bunkers and adding 10cm to her draught forward.
While firing against the 12cm battery at Cape Toffri, Bayern was also mined, suffering significantly more damage, with the bow and forward torpedo broadside torpedo flat flooded, 1000t of water aboard and seven dead; it is likely that damage was exacerbated by the explosion of the twelve air-accumulators in the torpedo flat. The ship continued to undertake her bombardment, expending twenty-four 38cm and seventy 15cm rounds, at ranges varying from 9300 to 10,200 metres, with Emden also adding her fire while the German landing-forces got into position. In parallel, Friedrich der Große and König Albert undertook a diversionary bombardment to the east of the Sworbe Peninsula. Having completed their duties, the big ships came together that evening at Tagga Bay, between the now-neutralised Ninnast and Hundsort batteries.
Russian naval responses had now begun, Admiral Makarov, Groziashchii, Novik and five other destroyers engaging German torpedo boats that afternoon, while on the 12th intelligence reports of submarines being deployed led to the III. Sqn, except for Markgraf, being sent back to Putzig Bay that evening. From here the damaged Großer Kurfürst and Bayern could proceed to Kiel and beyond for repairs. Großer Kurfürst reached Wilhelmshaven on the 18th; she re-joined the fleet on 1 December.
However, while Bayern was initially able to proceed with her squadron-mates at 11kts, strain on her bulkheads resulted in progressive reductions in speed, until she came to a stop around 20.00 while the bulkheads were shored up. It having been decided that the risk of proceeding further was too great, Bayern returned towards Tagga Bay, escorted by Kronprinz and three torpedo boats, supplemented by further torpedo boats sent out from Tagga Bay. The battleship continued to experience difficulties, stopping again for a number of hours, and finally struggled into Tagga Bay the middle of the next morning for temporary repairs. The ship eventually arrived back at Kiel on the 31st, and was under repair until 27 December. The IV Sqn. remained at Tagga Bay, with König and Kronprinz due to return on the 15th.
On the 13th, further actions took place between Russian destroyers, later joined by Khivinetz, and German light vessels, supported by Emden. The following day, the latter and Kaiser provided fire support for operations to secure the Kassar Wiek, the stretch of water between the islands of Dagö (Hiiumaa) and Ösel, the battleship engaging the Russian destroyers Pobiedtityel, Zabiyaka, Grom and Konstantin at long range. Grom received a shell that passed through her engine room without exploding.
These destroyers subsequently engaged the German light forces penetrating the Kassar Wiek, ships on both sides being damaged, before Khrabryi and Khivinetz joined the action, the former taking Grom, which had been badly damaged by V100, in tow. The tow was subsequently dropped, Grom’s hulk being then captured by the Germans and towed further before foundering in shallow water. Grazhdanin and Admiral Makarov joined the fray late in the afternoon, but the range was too great and fire ceased at nightfall.
The following morning, Friedrich der Große, König Albert and Kaiserin departed Tagga Bay to undertake bombardment duties off the Sworbe Peninsula – Friedrich der Große against ground forces, König Albert and Kaiserin against the battery on Zerel, which mounted four 30.5cm guns, with excellent arcs of fire. In the event, Friedrich der Große joined her sisters in action against the battery, which managed to straddle Kaiserin with its fourth salvo.
The IV. Sqn. returned to their bombardment positions off the Sworbe Peninsula the next morning, but did not open fire until the afternoon, while the III. Sqn supported the minesweepers at work in the Irben Straits. That evening, König Albert and Kaiserin were detached to Putzig Bay to coal whilst Friedrich der Große remained to the west of Sworbe. In parallel, Grazhdanin and destroyers were sent to the area, the Russian battleship escaping a number of attempted attacks by German submarines en route.
König and Kronprinz had now returned to theatre and on the 16th narrowly avoided being torpedoed by HMS/M C27 while en route to face the Russian naval force approaching Moon Sound. Since disembarkation at Tagga Bay was now largely complete, Markgraf was ordered to leave the bay and join her sisters. The next morning, however, before Markgraf could join, Grazhdanin, Slava, Bayan and supporting destroyers launched an attack on the German minesweepers, the Russian battleships and the five 10in [254mm] guns of the Woi shore battery straddling but not hitting the minesweeping force. Unfortunately, a fault developed in Slava’s fore turret during this phase of the operation, and thus she was reduced to a single pair of 12in [305mm] guns when König and Kronprinz appeared on the scene.
On the other hand, the Russian guns (although significantly older than those in the German ships) outranged their German counterparts by 1600m – a legacy of the German pre-war doctrine of short-range fighting. The big battleships’ ability to manoeuvre was also constrained by the swept channel. König having narrowly escaped being hit, they were forced to withdraw in the face of their antiquated opponents, which were able to resume their assault on the minesweepers, joined again by shore batteries.
The German battleships resumed action two hours later at a range of 16,000m or more, König taking on Slava at 10.13 and Kronprinz Grazhdanin four minutes later; Bayan was for the time being ignored. This time, Slava was hit by König’s third salvo, two shells striking below the waterline on the port side, abreast the fore turret, and another hitting the superstructure abreast the forward funnel. This caused 1130 tons of water to enter the ship, causing an 8° degree list, reduced by half through counter-flooding. Two more shells struck the battery deck at 10.24, causing fires that were, however, soon put out, but another two hits at 10.39 were again below the waterline, adding to the flooding and resulting in the after turret also being put out of action through water penetration of its magazines.
Grazhdanin was more fortunate, receiving only two hits, one of which caused a fire that was quickly extinguished, the other of which damaged two generators and several steam pipes. Bayan was belatedly taken under fire by König, and at 10.36 was hit a shell that penetrated both the upper and the battery decks and exploded deep inside the ship, where it caused a fire that was only put out the next day. The German battleships ceased fire at 10.40, the Russians having begun to withdraw towards the Moon Sound dredged channel ten minutes earlier. Unfortunately, Slava now drew too much water to pass, and had to be scuttled, with the intention of also blocking the dredged channel against the Germans. However, she ran aground before being properly positioned, her aft magazines being detonated in an attempt to sink her – an act which, although visible 25 kilometres away, seemingly did little more than blow the roof off the turret. Slava was thus torpedoed by the destroyer Turkmenets Stavropolskii, after which she settled on the bottom in shallow water, burning until the following day; the wreck was broken up in 1935.
No attempt was made to pursue the remaining Russian ships, since they no longer posed a threat to the minesweepers, the German forces continuing their advance, the König successfully engaging the Werder and Woi shore batteries. The submarine threat remained, both an imagined periscope-sighting and a real – but abortive – attack by HMS/M C26 soon after 12.00.
Earlier in the day, at 09.25, Kaiser had opened the landing on Dagö with a preliminary bombardment of the landing ground at Serro and by the evening good progress had been made throughout the theatre. Consideration was also being given to cutting off the Russian naval forces at the northern end of the Moon Sound, but the decision had already been made to withdraw them into the Gulf of Finland, with the remaining islands evacuated, although Dago was to hold out for as long as possible. The withdrawal took place on the evening of the 19th,
As the campaign wound up, Kaiserin and König Albert were released on the 19th to return to the North Sea, although Markgraf undertook a bombardment of the island of Kyno on the 21st and Hainasch on the 22nd – in both cases using only her secondary guns. She was left temporarily as the last battleship in theatre on the 26th, when König and Kronprinz left for the North Sea, although both touched ground soon after departing, thus requiring dockyard attention once they reached Germany.
Ostfriesland and Thüringen were due to arrive in theatre on the 30th, and thus Markgraf began her voyage home on the 29th. However, soon after departure she struck two mines on her starboard beam; 260t of water was taken aboard, but there were no casualties. The incident nevertheless emphasised the hazards of operating in the area, and accordingly it was decided to withdraw the newly-arrived battleships and the existing cruisers. Moltke, Ostfriesland and Thüringen thus steamed into Putzig Bay on 3 November, the Special Unit established for the Riga operation being dissolved the same day.