OPERATION “Red Trek” Part I

ART of JOSEPH HINDS

In June 1919 a force of two CMBs attacked Kronstadt and sank the cruiser Oleg. Lt. Augustus Agar of CMB4 won his Victoria Cross in this operation. In August, a larger combined operation with aircraft managed to damage one battleship and sink a depot ship. There were casualties as the mission came under heavy fire. Lt. Agar won a DSO to accompany his VC.

This is (the) inevitable result of the failure of the Allies to enforce their wishes on the Germans since the occurrences at Libau on 16th April. It is hard to understand how any collection of Statesmen and Soldiers in high office could, in face of the urgent recommendations and reports of those on the spot—all of them consistent and constantly reiterated—disregard and take no effective action in a matter which will lead either to a fresh war or to an ignominious betrayal of the two small States, which were encouraged to rely on our effective support against German domination.

THE QUOTATION comes from one of Cowan’s June reports. Strictly, perhaps, he should not have vented his frustration in such words. The Admiral was not, however, admonished by Their Lordships: Wemyss and Ferguson had every sympathy with him since the “Statesmen and Soldiers” in Paris and Versailles seemed unable to restrain a defeated Reich from dominating Latvia and Lithuania, from supporting a Balt invasion of Estonia and from displaying open hostility to British warships. This last intransigence went further than mounting guns that threatened to make Libau an unsafe anchorage for the Royalist: Duff was treated with insolent contempt by German troops when he landed to visit Grant Watson who doubted whether his Mission’s position would remain tenable for much longer. And in the middle of June Duff was obliged to withdraw the destroyers Waterhen and Vancouver from Riga for fear that they might be rushed and seized by German troops. One “enquired of my officer of the watch as to what right Waterhen had to fly the British ensign when she was a German ship; (others) made gestures with their hands by drawing them across their throats and pointing to the ship,” wrote her Captain. The two ships were consequently unable to continue their support for the efforts of the American Mission to restrain the German Commandant from executing a large number of Letts without proper trial.

Early in June Goltz moved his headquarters to Riga so that Duff and Grant Watson were denied direct access to him when he showed no signs of complying with the Allies’ latest terms. However, Tallents, very soon after his arrival at Reval, recognised the importance of stopping a German advance into Estonia. Hurrying south to Cecis, where fighting had broken out between Laidoner’s troops and the Landeswehr, he was able, with the support of French and American representatives, to negotiate a temporary armistice on 16th June. But news that a division of 12,000 German troops was moving north from Riga made him apprehensive of further hostilities.

Cowan, for his part, was especially concerned that a German refusal to sign the Peace Treaty would be a signal for Goltz’s guns to open fire on the Royalist. He therefore ordered Duff to withdraw to seaward where he was reinforced by the cruisers Danae and Dauntless. This squadron returned to Libau on 24th June to find that the Germans had withdrawn three miles from the town, leaving it to be garrisoned by Prince Lieven’s Russian troops. Since this suggested that Goltz might be about to comply with the Allies’ demands, Tallents and Gough met Duff on the 26th, when Niedra unexpectedly arrived from Riga and stated that his puppet government had resigned. The Germans, he said, had withdrawn their support, and since he had been Prime Minister at the time of the atrocities perpetrated against the Letts by both Germans and Balts, most of his fellow-countrymen now looked on him as a traitor. Tallents, Gough and Duff therefore agreed that as a first step towards re-establishing a Lettish Government Ulmanis and his colleagues on board the Saratov should land. These stout-hearted Ministers, who had so patiently accepted their water-borne refuge under British protection for two months, came ashore on the 27th and received a great ovation from a large crowd, the proceedings including an official reception, speeches from a hotel balcony and a concert in the evening—not to mention pulling down the monument in Libau’s principal square to the Germans’ capture of the town in 1915.

Gough and Tallents then left to arrange for Ulmanis to transfer his Government to Riga, which they were obliged to do by way of Reval since the Germans still refused to allow any British representative to travel direct to the Lett capital by rail or road, and since Duff had intelligence that the entrance to the Dvina had been freshly mined against Pitka’s ships which were now active in the Gulf of Riga. Thus, by the time the Heads of the British Civil and Military Missions reached their destination, they were confronted with a new problem. As Tallents feared, hostilities had been renewed by Estonian troops and Colonel Zemitan’s Lettish force against the Landeswehr, supported by a German division. The latter had been routed at Cesis on the 22nd, allowing the Estonians to advance on Riga so that by 1st July, 1919, they were within ten miles of the city. In these circumstances it must be counted one of Tallents’s and Gough’s greatest achievements that they were able to impose a comprehensive armistice on 3rd July. The Estonian advance, designed to prevent further German-Balt aggression, was halted in the outskirts of Riga and their troops obliged to withdraw. And to ensure that the Landeswehr devoted their energies to expelling the Bolsheviks, whom Lettish troops were having difficulties in holding at Latgale, the Landeswehr’s German commander was removed. In his place Tallents appointed a young Irish Guardsman from the British Mission, Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. H. R. Alexander, described by Walter Duranty as “the most charming and picturesque person I have ever met and one of two soldiers I have known who derived a strong, positive and permanent exhilaration from the worst of danger.” One may wonder how often Field-Marshal Lord Alexander of Tunis, who was thus the only British Army officer to fight in the field in the Baltic States, recalled his command of this German-Balt unit when he held the position of a Supreme Commander in the Second World War. Tallents also removed the German Commandant from his position in Riga and appointed himself temporary Civil Governor until Ulmanis could arrive and assume control. Lastly, but most important of all, Gough, on the evidence of their recent successes, recommended that the task of clearing the Bolsheviks from the country should be left to Estonian troops operating on a common front with the Lettish Army and the Landeswehr, in accordance with the agreement which Pats and Ulmanis had reached in February. This allowed Tallents to require Goltz to comply with the Supreme War Council’s demand that all his troops should evacuate Latvia as soon as possible: so far as Riga was concerned this was to be effected by 5th July.

Goltz fulfilled this last requirement by pulling back to Mitau. The German garrison also withdrew from Windau. Two days later Ulmanis’s Government, now composed of both Letts and Balts in accordance with the wishes of the Allies, who had stressed that it must be broadly based if it was to retain the people’s support, arrived in the Dvina on board the Saratov. But few supposed that Goltz had abandoned his ambitions, or that the Weimar Government could control him. To quote Duff:

I do not think the (German) withdrawal (from the three ports) should be looked upon as more than a strategic move. There are too many thousands of Prussians who have openly said that they intend to have these provinces. It would appear probable that, if they retire, they hope to arrange that disturbances will occur, and the state of the countries become such that they will have an excuse for returning—this time not on the invitation of the Allies but on account of the danger of Bolshevism in states on their borders. This time they would remain.

The Supreme Council did nothing to resolve the issue when it rejected an American proposal that the United States should assume a mandate over Latvia and Lithuania, Britain doing likewise for Estonia; and then turned down a British proposal that the Allies should make a sum of £10 million available to the three States, largely because France would not allow this to be charged against the reparations they intended to squeeze out of Germany. The Council confined itself to instructing Foch to make a fresh demand on Berlin to withdraw their forces. Goltz denied to Gough that he had received any such instructions from his Government for nearly three weeks, and then said that it would take him two and a half months to evacuate his army, that he would not do it by sea, and that he expected trouble because many were Germans who had volunteered for service in Latvia in return for a promise of land on which they might settle.

Duff also objected to the German troops being evacuated by sea through Libau.

It is feared that the return of the Germans will cause a grave setback. The hatred of the people for the Germans is such that it will be very difficult to prevent occurrences leading to fighting. At the same time the Prussian Army in this country is so accustomed to doing exactly what it pleases that it is anticipated considerable looting will take place (which) there is no force to prevent. I have been doing all that I can to arrange that the evil is minimised. The plan suggested by the War Office, which sounded so simple, is quite impracticable.

Though Gough helped by appointing one of his staff as Military Governor of Libau, Duff was constrained to comment:

The following, I think, is often not realised. The Allies out here may make arrangements which appear to them necessary, but which they have no power to enforce; and if met, as has generally been the case, by a flat refusal to carry out these arrangements, they can only refer the matter to Paris. By the time it has been possible to obtain any decision from there the German has done what he intended—thanks to having the force to do it; and by the time a decision has been given and action taken from Paris, it has been too late.

A further potential source of trouble was Lieven’s Russian force. Notwithstanding the Prince’s willingness to co-operate with the Allies, his troops were not popular with the Letts. So long as their number remained limited all might be well, but there was news of 12,000 more Russian ex-prisoners of war coming back from Germany who could be expected to demand that Latvia should remain a Russian province, for whom, moreover, the Letts had no food. So Gough arranged with Cowan for the Princess Margaret to transfer the Prince’s troops to Reval and join the North-West Army; but Lieven was persuaded by Goltz that this would not be in the interests of a reunited Russia and refused to allow his men to embark. This trial of strength between German and Allied influence was, however, handled with such tact and firmness by Duff that eventually he got most of the Russians away.

The Commodore’s destroyers, stationed at Riga and Windau, had their own problems. On 3rd July, for example, the Vancouver reported the arrival of the S.S. Hanover escorted by two German torpedoboats. Since the Peace Treaty allowed no German warships, other than minesweepers, to be at sea, Duff immediately dispatched the Danae to ensure that these craft returned to their own country. Nonetheless, life for officers and men of the British ships was easier now than it had been for some time past. At Libau on 19th July, 1919,

the date of the official peace celebrations, the ships were dressed over all, and in the afternoon a very successful sports meeting was held on shore. A band was hired, and the local officials with their families, the Lettish officers, and the French and American officers and men were invited. A very large number of men were landed from our own ships. Tea was provided for about 600. The afternoon appeared to be a great success. In the evening a short display of fireworks was given the ships.

Three days before, however, Duff had written:

All reports tend to show that the German Command has halted its preparations for evacuating (Latvia). Troops are returning again from Prussia to Mitau. Colonel Dawley came to see me yesterday (and said) he thought it quite possible that Goltz considered the political situation so unstable that it was worth waiting to see if it might be possible to avoid complying with the order to evacuate the Baltic Provinces.

Goltz, having failed to use Lieven for his purposes, had enlisted the help of one Paul Bermondt. This vain adventurer of dubious Russian origin and uncertain loyalties, who had started his military career in a regimental band and now styled himself Colonel Prince Avalov, was forming a new division out of the expected Russian ex-prisoners of war and German volunteers, which was being supplied by Goltz with all that it needed. “I am to request,” wrote the Secretary of the Admiralty to the Foreign Office on receipt of this news, “that the attention of the Supreme Council may be drawn to the urgency of the recall of General von der Goltz.” Duff’s only weapon was a rigid control of all German shipping visiting Libau, Windau and Riga: no vessels were allowed to arrive at or leave these ports except to remove German troops and their equipment. By continuing to refuse to allow any supplies to be landed, the Commodore had the small satisfaction of knowing that he was causing Goltz some inconvenience.

On 26th July, Duff, having transferred his broad pendant to the Caledon which had come to strengthen his force, proceeded to Riga. It was the first time a cruiser had been up the Dvina since Sinclair’s withdrawal at the beginning of the year.

Judging by the appearance of the outside of the buildings, (wrote Duff) the town has suffered very little from the various occupations it has been subjected to, but, like Libau, it is a depressing sight inasmuch as it has the appearance of a dead city. Practically all the factories are closed (and) most of the houses stripped of their furniture. There are no signs of the prosperous business population which was so marked a feature of the place. The people seen in the streets are mostly of the poorer classes. Although food is reported to be very scarce and prices are enormously high, their appearance did not give the impression that they were suffering anything approaching starvation; though, when the work of the American Food Mission finishes on 15th August, the food question may become very difficult. After the terribly unsettled times the town has been through, the state of nerves of most of the inhabitants is such that the wildest rumours are given credence; this is utilised by German agents (to) hinder the formation of a stable government. The moral effect of seeing our officers and men walking calmly about the town has been of great service in assisting the population to regain some control over its nerves. The destroyer stationed there has been giving regular afternoon leave, and Caledon did the same, and the behaviour of our men has been excellent.

Tallents and Gough could not derive as much satisfaction from their discussions with Goltz at Mitau. On 1st August Foch again ordered Berlin to withdraw their turbulent General, and to complete evacuating their troops from Latvia by the 30th under Gough’s supervision. But, though those orders were passed to Goltz, Berlin instructed him that he was not to co-operate with the British Military Mission. As a result, in Cowan’s words, “the German evacuation of the Baltic Provinces continues to be delayed by every shift and evasion which Goltz can engineer; and until this officer is summarily ejected from the Baltic Provinces it is not to be hoped that German intrigue, interference and domination will cease.” Seven weeks after the armistice which the two British Heads of Mission had so successfully arranged, Goltz was still in control of the greater part of Latvia except for Riga, Libau and Windau, so that Ulmanis’s Government had been unable to make much progress towards the reconstruction of their country. And Bermondt’s division was daily gaining in strength—a division which Goltz was deliberately organising against the day when evacuation of his German troops could be delayed no longer.

Since this would not be before October, we may conveniently leave events in Latvia at this point—the first weeks of August 1919—and return to the Gulf of Finland by way of Lithuania. Though Foch had been unable to persuade the Poles to withdraw their troops from their illegal occupation of Vilna, he had fixed a demarcation line, designed to prevent them encroaching farther on Lithuanian territory, which had avoided any serious clash of arms. Elsewhere, the German Tenth Army retained control but had allowed the Lithuanian forces to launch an offensive against the Bolsheviks with some success. But Voldmaris’s Government could make no real progress towards establishing their country’s freedom so long as Goltz’s machinations in Latvia continued.

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KRONSTADT: The fortifications are extensive and were begun by Peter the Great in 1703. Prince Menshikov constructed the works under the direction of Peter and one of the forts still bears his name. Succeeding Governments have strengthened the fortifications and secured the approaches from seaward by sinking ships and erecting batteries, especially after the visit of (Napier’s) Baltic Squadron in 1854. It has long been the chief station in the Baltic for the Russian Fleet. The dry docks will admit the largest vessels of war, and a splendid steam factory almost rivals Keyham (Devon-port) in its mechanical appliances.

So wrote the author of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Russia, published as long ago as 1868. As much might be said of Kronstadt in 1919 except that the harbour had been made more impregnable by replacing the sunken ships with massive breakwaters comparable with those at Gibraltar. But the Handbook also refers to it as a commercial port visited by 1300 vessels annually, two-thirds of them British, with the consequence that there was a “British Hotel,” a British chapel and a British Seaman’s Hospital and “even the drojky drivers are able to converse in ‘pigeon [sic]-English’”; and all this had been outdated. A deep water channel had been dredged and a canal constructed which allowed large vessels to proceed up to St. Petersburg, saving the inconvenience of transferring cargoes to lighters, and allowing shipyards to be built in the capital. By the First World War Kronstadt was to the Russian Navy what Portsmouth was to the British. On the other hand, Kotlin Island, five miles long and at most a mile wide, on whose south-eastern end Kronstadt stands, was more than this. Conveniently sited fifteen miles to seaward of the Neva delta, its eight forts had been supplemented by a chain of nine, similar to those at Spithead, across the six-mile wide channel separating the island from the mainland to the north, and a further six across the four-mile wide channel to the south, the water in both being no more than two fathoms deep. And a mine barrage to seaward of Tolboukin Lighthouse, designed to keep enemy ships outside gun range, made it unlikely that any of those batteries would be destroyed by naval bombardment. Kotlin was thus the core of a defensive system that rendered Petrograd virtually impregnable from the sea—just as Krasnaya Gorka (and Fort Ino before it fell to the Finns) protected it against land and sea attack—whilst Kronstadt Harbour provided a secure base for the Russian Baltic Fleet. Indeed, until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the German Navy never approached so close to it as Cowan’s ships after their arrival at Biorko, and its defences were never seriously challenged until Donald’s aircraft carried out their first raid at the end of July. Even then, since their bombs could do little damage, Zelenoy’s ships might have remained safe under the cover of Kronstadt’s guns and protected by its breakwaters, if Cowan had not realised, largely as a result of the sinking of the Oleg, that C.M.B.s (which had been devised in the latter half of the First World War for comparable attacks against the German coast) were a weapon whose high speed and shallow draught might be used to breach such formidable defences.

The Admiral’s aim was the destruction of the Bolshevik ships, notably the battleships Petropavlovsk and Andrei Pervozvanni, so that they no longer presented a serious challenge to his own force, and so that they could not menace the flank of the Estonian and Russian North-West Armies when their advance on Petrograd carried them to the east of the minefields. To this end Cowan planned Operation “RK,” so named after his friend Keyes who had given the dragon’s tail such a “damn’ good twist” at Zeebrugge. Having no staff apart from his Flag Captain, Secretary and Flag Lieutenant, to do the manifold work which operating and administering his now sizeable force involved, he enlisted the help of his flagship’s able Executive Officer, Commander Clark, assisted by Agar who provided invaluable knowledge and personal experience, and by Dobson and Donald. These two made a number of reconnaissance flights over Kronstadt, whilst air photographs also showed where the Bolshevik ships were berthed. The targets selected, in addition to the two battleships, were the depot ship Pamyat Azova, to reduce the effectiveness of the enemy submarines, the cruiser Rurik because she was reported to be carrying 300 mines whose detonation would destroy much of the dockyard, the cruiser Avroras or Diana, and the caisson of the Nikolayevsky dock. A secondary target would be the destroyer on patrol outside the harbour. Surprise being vital, a night air-raid would divert the attention of the defences. Under its cover six C.M.B.s would penetrate the harbour, using guncotton charges to cut a passage through the boom across the fifty-yard wide breakwater entrance, and fire their torpedoes. And against the possibility that the attack might provoke a sortie by the enemy, Cowan’s cruisers and destroyers would lie in wait to seaward of the mine barrage.

Everything was ready by the middle of August 1919, a fortnight after the C.M.B.s’ arrival from England, since Cowan was convinced that he could only ensure surprise by carrying out the operation with the minimum of delay. The boats’ hulls had been overhauled after their 2000-mile tow, their 1500 h.p. petrol engines had been tuned and their torpedoes shipped in their stern firing troughs with the ready help of the crew of the Vindictive. Rehearsals, too, had been staged in Biorko Sound, but, as always seems to happen on such occasions, the summer weather broke: a strong westerly wind and heavy rain prevented an attack on the 15th and 16th. However, Sunday, the 17th, dawned fine and clear, when Cowan, having ordered the operation to be executed that night, visited the Vindictive and spoke to all who were to take part.

At 2200 Dobson’s flotilla left Biorko: their gallant captains, all in their twenties, each of whom took the wheel of his own craft, must be named: No. 24, Lieutenant L. E. S. Napier; No. 31, Lieutenant R. Macbean (with Dobson on board); No. 62, Lieutenant-Commander J. T. Brade, R.N.R.; No. 72, Sub-Lieutenant E. R. Bodley, R.N.R.; No. 79, Lieutenant W. H. Bremner; No. 86, Sub-Lieutenant F. Howard, R.N.R.; No. 88, Lieutenant A. Dayrell-Reed. Each boat carried another officer, whose main task was to fire its torpedo (es), and a chief motor mechanic to nurse its twin engines. All seven proceeded to a rendezvous off Inonini Point where they were joined at midnight by Agar in his own boat. He was to lead the flotilla through the chain of forts and up to the entrance to the harbour, though each captain also had the help of a Finnish smuggler as pilot: by virtue of their “trade” with Petrograd, they knew the way. The night was cloudy with a calm sea, a light wind and no more than a new moon when the eight boats, proceeding at fairly high speed, altered course for Kronstadt.

Shortly after midnight Cowan in the Delhi brought the Danae and Cleopatra out of Biorko. The three cruisers were preceded by the Second Destroyer Flotilla, led by H.M.S. Spenser, Captain Colin Maclean, which had just arrived from England to relieve the Wallace and Campbell’s First Flotilla. These ships were destined to play an unspectacular part: they had no more than a distant grandstand view of the attack from the west of the mine barrage. By 1000 on the 18th they were back in Biorko.

The C.M.B.s had difficulty in keeping in touch with each other as they ran in towards the North Channel. “Boats astern were dropping behind and only three could be seen,” wrote Lieutenant Gordon Steele, second-in-command of No. 88. “After about half an hour’s run, land could be seen to starboard which we knew was (Kotlin) Island. The first large fortress loomed up, (then) the chain of small forts which guard Petrograd Bay. They rise right out of the sea and looked unpleasantly close together. We seemed to be in sight of (them) for an interminably long time. I began to feel quite drowsy and had to keep awake by constantly reminding myself that any instant those black objects might change into flashes of gunfire. Indeed, from the noise our engines were making and (the) large sheets of flame coming from the exhaust pipes of the boats ahead, we ought to have been spotted at any minute.” The flotilla intended to pass between Forts Nos. 8 and 11 but, according to Agar, “Dobson and the two boats following him (Bremner’s and Dayrell-Reed’s) lost sight of us. His smuggler-pilot, finding himself too close to the (eastern) end of the Kotlin shore, turned parallel to the chain of forts and slipped in between Nos. 7 and 10, a passage not previously used, and on which they would certainly have stuck had it not been for the extra water under their propellers due to the temporary rise of the water level. Luck was so far with us.” To quote Steele again: “The seconds seemed like hours; it appeared outside all possibility that they would not see us. I stood by the Lewis gun pointing it at the fort as we passed—not that it would be of much use, but it gave one confidence.” Two of the forts did open fire on some of the flotilla but failed to pass the alarm to Kronstadt, so that by 0100 all the boats were off the eastern extremity of the island with the lights of Petrograd visible in the distance. There, whilst Kronstadt slept on, they formed up in two groups for the attack. Dobson was to take Nos. 79, 31 and 88 into the enemy harbour first. They were to be followed by Nos. 86, 72 and 62. Napier’s No. 24 had to deal with the destroyer Gavriil which was anchored outside the entrance.

Meanwhile, back at Koivisto, on the landing strip which the men of Cowan’s squadron had slashed out of Finnish forest, mechanics had swung the propellers of Dobson’s machines; and a dozen “stick and string” biplanes had taken off into the night. Fifteen minutes later, flying at little more than sixty knots, they were over Kronstadt; and shortly before 0130 they came in over the harbour from many directions. The defences were alert: searchlights swept the sky: the guns of the warships and shore batteries put up a firework display of shrapnel and tracers. The planes, nonetheless, dropped their bombs, two apiece, none weighing more than 112 lb., and sometimes had the satisfaction of seeing a yellow detonation followed by a flickering red flame. This done, they continued to hold the enemy’s attention by diving again and again down the searchlight beams. Judged as an air raid, the attack was to small effect: the R.A.F. had had little experience of bombing by night. But it served its purpose well: “we knew,” wrote Steele, “that our faithful supporters, the Air Force, were taking the enemy’s attention off us and getting a warm reception themselves in consequence.” They were doing more than that; they compelled the greater part of the garrison, the men who were supposed to man the lookout posts and the guns of the forts to repel an attack from the sea, to remain under cover whilst the C.M.B.s made their final approach.

The first group was led by Bremner whose boat carried the explosives and other gear needed to deal with the boom: Macbean, with Dobson aboard, followed: then came Dayrell-Reed. Their boats approached in line ahead, with their engines throttled back to cut noise and eliminate the white streak of bow waves. “The entrance to the middle harbour could now be seen to starboard, and ahead of us the guard-ship,” wrote Steele. “She looked quite peaceful at anchor and it was hard to imagine her as an enemy ship guarding the entrance to an enemy harbour. Our three C.M.B.s glided past her and arrived at the entrance without a shot being fired at us. We stopped engines to give the two boats ahead of us time to get in.” Bremner found no boom to bar his way—a deficiency to which some Soviet authorities ascribe the British success. Opening his throttle he roared into the main harbour, which was less than half a mile square, and headed for the Pamyat Azova, berthed off the jetty extending into the centre of the basin. Swinging round to starboard he discharged his torpedo which struck the depot ship. She listed rapidly and as quickly sank. Dobson, following close behind Bremner, swung to port towards the dreadnought Petropavlovsk. “His attack,” records Agar, “was a more difficult manœuvre; he had to stop one engine, turn the boat, and gather speed quickly again before firing. This requires great judgment and coolness, but he did it; his torpedoes found their mark.”

The roar of these explosions brought the garrison from their shelters. “As Dayrell-Reed’s boat entered the harbour,” noted Steele, “fire was opened on us, first from the direction of the dry dock and afterwards from both sides. We (headed) for the corner where our objective, the battleships, were berthed.

Almost simultaneously we received bursts of fire from the batteries and splashes appeared on both sides. Instinctively I ducked as the bullets whistled past. I turned round and was just about to remark to Dayrell-Reed, ‘Where are you heading?’ as we were making straight for a hospital ship, when I noticed that his head was resting on the wooden conning tower top in front of him ”: No. 88’s captain had been shot through the head. Despite Reed’s considerable weight, Steele managed to lower him into the cockpit: “at the same time I put the wheel hard over and righted the boat on her proper course. We were now quite close to the Andrei Pervozvanni. Throttling back as far as possible, I fired both torpedoes at her, after which I stopped one engine to help the boat turn quickly. As I did this we saw two columns of water rise up from the side of the (Petropavlovsk) and heard two crashes. I knew they must be Dobson’s torpedoes which had found their target. (Then) there was another terrific explosion nearby. We received a great shock and a douche of water. Looking over my shoulder, I realised the cause of it was one of our torpedoes exploding on the side of the (other) battleship. We were so close to her that a shower of picric powder from the warhead of our torpedo was thrown over the stern of the boat, staining us a yellow colour which we had some difficulty in removing afterwards. (Missing) a lighter by a few feet (we) followed Dobson out of the basin. I had just time to take another look back and see the result of our second torpedo. A high column of flame from the (Andrei Pervozvanni) lit up the whole basin. We passed the guardship at anchor again. Morley (No. 88’s mechanic) gave her a burst of machine-gun fire as a parting present and afterwards went to see what he could do for Reed.”

The Gavriil was still there because Napier had the mortification of missing her with No. 24’s torpedo: it passed under the destroyer’s bottom. Moreover, Sevastyanov’s crew retaliated so promptly that a shell split No. 24 in half and sank her. Brade was equally unfortunate: as his boat was coming in she collided with Bremner’s as it was leaving the harbour, the latter being nearly cut in two. Brade, who had realised that he was not required to carry out his main task—attacking the battleships if Dobson or Dayrell-Reed failed—then displayed great presence of mind. By going full speed ahead he kept his boat and Bremner’s locked together, whilst the latter first fired the fuse of the guncotton charges he carried to deal with the boom, before clambering to safety with his crew. The charges exploded and destroyed Bremner’s boat after Brade had drawn clear, when he turned to fire his torpedoes at the Gavriil; but like Napier’s, and for the same reason, both missed. Brade’s boat was then likewise sunk by Sevastyanov’s gunfire.

Howard and Bodley, in Nos. 86 and 72, who had hoped to deal with the Rurik and the caisson of the Nikolayevsky dock, suffered ill-luck. Howard’s engines broke down as he was about to begin his run in at the head of the second group, so that he suffered the frustration of being unable to take part in the attack. And as Bodley was approaching the entrance a shell splinter damaged the firing gear of his torpedo. With his boat deprived of its sting he had to withdraw; but he found Howard and, though under fire from Kronstadt’s forts, towed his boat safely away, a fine piece of courageous seamanship. Agar, who had fired his torpedo into the harbour from just outside the entrance, was the last to leave the scene as dawn was breaking, when a hail of enemy shell pursued his boat and those of Dobson, Bodley and Howard as they returned to Biorko.

As soon as Donald’s pilots, their unselfish task of acting as decoys so well done, had landed at Koivisto and refuelled their planes, they took off again and returned to reconnoitre the scene of the action. They rejoiced to find that the Petropavlovsk, the Andrei Pervozvanni and the Pamyat Azova had all been sunk, though there was insufficient water to submerge their hulls, and the floating dock had been damaged by a bomb. Subsequent intelligence revealed that the Petropavlovsk had been struck by two torpedoes so that it was a long time before she could be salvaged; and that, whilst the Andrei Pervozvanni had only been struck by one, so that she was quickly raised and moved into dry dock, she would require extensive repairs.

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