Action in the Baltic WWI


One of the stranger features of the war at sea during the First World War is the relative effectiveness of the Russian fleets in the Baltic and Black Seas and a quality of performance that contrasts very sharply with the Russian naval performance just ten years before in the Japanese war. A certain care needs be noted lest undue credit is given, most obviously in the Baltic, where the Russian performance was primarily defensive and where offensive success, specifically in terms of submarine operations, was very limited and indeed bordered on the nonexistent, but in essence the situation in the Baltic and Black Seas can be summarized simply. In the Baltic there was for the first three years of war a certain balance in which the Russian fleet, from a position of hopeless geographical inferiority, was able to check a German fleet that was, perhaps very surprisingly, for most of this period numerically inferior to itself. In the Black Sea balance gave way to an increasingly assertive Russian presence. Such was the basis of what would appear to be, prima facie, a paradox. In the Baltic Germany’s losses over three years were most modest even as its grip on the sea and its trade tightened, but Germany’s real victories came after Russia had been defeated; in the Black Sea whatever success the Russian fleet commanded by 1916 did not translate into significant enemy naval and mercantile losses and in any case unraveled in 1917-1918 under the impact of revolution.

The basic stance of both Germany and Russia in the Baltic was defensive. In the case of Russia this was obvious; the security of Petrograd was the primary concern. This concern translated itself into two related efforts: the provision of integrated defensive measures of minefields, covering formations and coastal artillery that more or less excluded all German units, including submarines, from the Gulf of Finland, and offensive mining of the 320 miles/510 km of the German coastline. For Germany the primary interest in the Baltic was the Swedish iron ore trade. One of the little-known features of the First World War in general and of the war in the Baltic in particular is the fact that the first use of convoy was by the Swedes. Sweden introduced the system between the Nynäshamn area and Bornholm in November 1915 as a direct response to what were primarily British submarine attacks on shipping in the Baltic. The Germans introduced convoy for the same reason on two lines, to the Swedish east coast and on the Danzig-Memel-Libau route on 7 April 1916.

Action in the Baltic was largely divorced from the war on the Eastern Front. The German advances into the Baltic provinces in 1915 were the product of general Russian defeat in a campaign that brought Germany control of Poland. But after October 1915, and with German military formations having secured Libau and Windau and having reached the Gulf of Riga, the advance was halted by an elaborate Russian defense in front of Riga. There was to be no major change in theater for two years. On the Russian side there was neither the military nor the naval forces available to undertake major offensive operations and perhaps force a German withdrawal in this area; on the German side priorities lay elsewhere. In spring 1916 the German military priority, obviously, was Verdun. As spring gave way to summer this priority shifted first to the Somme, then to the provision of help for Austria-Hungary as a result of the massive defeat in Galicia in the course of the Brusilov offensive, and finally to Romania. The German naval priority was, of course, the North Sea. Any German offensive at or beyond Riga necessarily had to be a joint effort, but the German military had neither the resources needed for nor any real interest in a move north. In strategic terms in 1915-1916 the route into Latvia and Estonia led nowhere, and without the military seeking or agreeing to any offensive, the German Navy was unable to undertake any independent action that would fundamentally alter the situation in the Baltic.

Such a statement necessarily borders on the simplistic. The events in a major theater over a three-year period by definition cannot be summarized in a couple of sentences, however long, or even a couple of paragraphs, but they may provide the basis of understanding events, subject to the inevitable caveats. The war in the Baltic was not without episodes of note, the most obvious being Operation Albion, 12-21 October 1917, which resulted in German landings on and occupation of islands in the Gulf of Riga, Dünamünde and Riga having been secured the previous month in the course of an offensive generally noted as a dress rehearsal for the Caporetto and later the spring 1918 offensives. In naval terms this episode is notable for the fact that it was one of the very few occasions in the war when the German Navy undertook a major commitment in the Baltic with formations drawn from the High Sea Fleet. The German force numbered more than three hundred ships, plus six air- ships and more than a hundred aircraft, and this number included the battle- cruiser Moltke, ten dreadnoughts, and five light cruisers, as well as three destroyer formations, and one minesweeping formation drawn from the North Sea to supplement the formations and units normally in the Baltic.

The Russian naval forces in the zone of German attention were hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed, the two pre-dreadnoughts Slava and Tsarevich being their most important units, but provided good account of themselves over the first four days. On the 17th the Slava was scuttled after sustaining such damage in an unequal action with the dreadnoughts König and Kronprinz that it drew too much water to negotiate the Moon Sound. Thereafter the story was one of unbroken German successes. By 20 October the Germans had all but secured Ösel, Moon, and Dagö Islands though Russian naval forces had been able to reach the safety of the Gulf of Finland during the previous afternoon. Thereafter the German reluctance to continue operations, and the relative slenderness of minesweeping numbers, rendered any further attempt to move north through Moon Sound problematic, and Operation Albion in effect proved to be the last major German offensive undertaking in the Baltic; in the course of the operation the German Navy incurred the loss of just the destroyer S. 64, four torpedo-boats, and eight minesweepers.

If Operation Albion was the largest single-and best known-operation in the Baltic in the First World War there were various other matters, some operational, that present themselves for passing consideration. The Baltic in November 1916 saw one German operation miscarry with the result that showed the effectiveness of mines: seven of eleven destroyers that were detailed to conduct a raid into the western part of the Gulf of Finland to conduct a bombardment of Baltic Port were lost, two on the 10th and five the following day. This episode may have lacked the scale and immediacy of impact of the Anglo-French losses of 18 March 1915 in the Dardanelles, but most certainly it was an episode of some local significance and provided very different comment on the German conduct of operations and Russian defensive mining efforts.

Such a state of affairs contrasts very sharply with the British naval contribution to Russia’s conduct of operations in the Baltic. One of the great problems of historiography is that there can never be any single episode involving the British military or navy in which that contribution was of utmost, in most cases, decisive significance: witness, for example, the irrelevance of the Peninsular War (1808-1814) and Napoleon’s final defeats (1814 and 1815) and the North Africa campaign in the Second World War (1940-1943). The First World War and the Baltic, and the British submarine commitment, certainly lends itself to accounts noted for exaggeration of national worth, suffice to note four matters. First, just two submarines represented the initial British commitment in October 1914. Admittedly that would double the number of Allied submarines avail- able for offensive action-and more followed over time-but in April 1918 the number of British boats on station was just seven. One would suggest that such a total, even allowing for losses, was never going to affect such issues as victory and defeat. For all the laudatory treatment afforded these submarines in British accounts of proceedings, such numbers bordered on the irrelevant. Second, in July 1916, and after repeated Russian requests for assistance, the British high command took the decision to send more submarines to the Baltic. On 3 August four of the older C. class units sailed, under tow, for Archangel and via rivers and canals arrived at Petrograd on 9 September. With such numbers, two British submarines each conducted one patrol before the onset of winter brought a halt to proceedings. Third, the submarine contribution to the Allied cause was all but irrelevant. The first patrol by a new Russian boat did not begin until September 1915. In the course of operations the E. 9 torpedoed but did not sink the armored cruiser Prinz Adalbert on 4 July 1915, the E. 8 completed the task and sank the German warship off Libau on 23 October 1915. The E. 19 sank the third-class protected cruiser Undine on 7 November in the area between Bornholm and Sweden. This represented the sum of achievement. One comment on the 1916 performance suggests that between July and end of November four British and twelve Russian submarines (of which five were new) undertook a total of thirty-one patrols and sank just two ships.

The fourth matter is that so many actions in the Baltic seem to belie the name. It is one of the curious features of the Baltic war that on a number of occasions formations met but to virtually no effect. Perhaps the most astonishing would seem to be the actions of 13-14 and 29-30 June 1916 in Norrköping Bay. In the first action three Russian cruisers encountered a German convoy of ten merchantmen escorted by three auxiliaries. Even allowing for German ships reaching the security afforded by Swedish waters, the fact that just one of the escorts, the auxiliary cruiser Hermann, was sunk is surprising. Some two weeks later three Russian destroyers encountered no fewer than eight German destroyers and torpedo-boats and retired, drawing the German warships forward to the guns of supporting cruisers; no hits were recorded by either side before both withdrew. When the poor results registered in these two actions are placed alongside the returns in the action of 2 July of the previous year when, in an action that has drawn comparison with the Dogger Bank, a superior Russian force accounted for just the minelayer Albatross from a force that included one armored and two light cruisers plus seven destroyers, then question marks impose themselves on the conduct of operations by both sides, most obviously the Russian. Nonetheless, the Russian mining efforts were extensive and thorough, and exacted a steady toll of warships lost and damaged. Perhaps the best comment on Russian mining efforts was that as a direct result of seeing where German warships had operated in the course of the day, on the night of 15-16 December 1915 three Russian destroyers laid a minefield along the Latvian coast between Windau and Lyserort that claimed the third- class protected cruiser Bremen and the destroyer V. 191 on 17 December, and the destroyer V. 177 and patrol boat Freya on the 23rd.

Moreover, any assessment of Russian performance in the Baltic has to be set alongside the fact that 1915 really represented the peak of achievement and that in 1916 Russia was going backward in terms of the conduct of the naval war in the Baltic. This is perhaps somewhat surprising not least because, with new dreadnoughts and submarines coming into service, Russia in 1916 was at the peak of its strength, and 1916 was also a year when there was no appreciable loss of territory and position. Certainly the greater German commitment in the Baltic after Jutland and June 1916 was partly at the heart of relative Russian ineffectiveness in that year. Most certainly 1916 must have come as a sore disappointment after what had been a not unsuccessful season in the Baltic between May and November 1915, though a certain care needs be exercised lest the latter assumes dimensions that did not exist at the time. The Russian successes in 1915 were primarily defensive, and in terms of disruption of the crucially important German iron ore trade with Sweden the toll exacted by Russian warships, submarines, and mines and British submarines amounted to just fourteen steamers of 28,000 tons. It may have been that with the end of the 1915 campaign there was the promise of better things to come, but in truth in 1915 Allied success was most definitely of nickel-and-dime status.

There are three matters with which this fleeting consideration of Baltic proceedings would close, the first, a little flippant, being the observation in the British official history, which records that “in the small hours of (17 November 1915), as the (armored cruiser) Friedrich Carl was proceeding to her covering position, she was struck twice by a mine,” a certain ambiguity in the use of English that perhaps makes the sinking of this ship unique. The second, and more seriously, was the sinking, on 26 September 1917, of the Russian destroyer Okhotnik off Zerel, southwest Ösel Island in the Gulf of Riga, by a mine, this being the first sinking of a warship by a mine laid from the air. The third, and much more seriously, was perhaps the most important single Russian contribution to the final Allied victory in the war at sea. The German light cruiser Magdeburg, having run aground near the Odensholm light, was destroyed by the Russian cruisers Bogatuir and Pallada on 26 August 1914. 20 In coming upon the scene by chance the Russian cruisers forestalled deliberate scuttling, and subsequently retrieved from the wreckage were three copies of the Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine along with the current key. One of these copies, with key, arrived in London on 13 October and it was to be one, and the most important one, of three related documents that made their way to the British Admiralty before the end of 1914. The second was the Handelsverkehrbuch, which was captured in a German merchantmen in the Pacific and which arrived in London at the end of October, and the third was the Verkehrsbuch, which was retrieved from the North Sea by a trawler off Texel on 30 November and which arrived at the Admiralty three days later. These were the code books relating, respectively, to signals between the German admiralty and the fleet, merchant ships, and commanders at sea, and when one considers the closeness to defeat that Britain was dragged in 1917 primarily as a result of Admiralty incompetence one is left to wonder what might have happened had the Admiralty not been in possession of an ability to read German naval signals in real time. Inevitably this ability took time to translate itself into an operational advantage, and the possession of such ability naturally imposed its own restraints in terms of its use lest the enemy became aware that its signals security had been compromised. The ability of the Allies, and specifically Britain, to survive the crises of 1917 was not the result of any single factor, but it is possible to argue that possession of the Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine, inadvertent courtesy of the Magdeburg, proved to be if not the life-saver then certainly of primary importance in the Allied victory at sea.

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