‘Destroy At All Costs’, December 1918

HMS Vendetta, June 1919 (IWM Q73903).

Thirty-five-year-old Johan Laidoner had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces on 23 December 1918. From the time of his arrival two weeks beforehand, he had set to work with a will, using the breathing space that Alexander-Sinclair’s attack had brought him to organise his forces and plan a counter Bolshevik campaign. By the day of his promotion to CinC he could boast a force of 600 officers and 11,000 volunteers.

December 23rd was also the day Laidoner began the fight back. Escorted by HMS Calypso and the destroyer Wakeful, he landed 200 men at Kunda, in the Bolshevik rear; they caused panic, destroyed supplies and severed communications before retreating, all the time covered by gunfire from the Royal Navy. By 1900, the ships were safely back in Reval harbour, without any interference from the Red navy.

This assault, and the previous destruction of the railway and bridge by Cardiff and Caradoc, occurring as they did so close to the Baltic Fleet’s base at Kronstadt, infuriated Trotsky. He ordered the immediate annihilation of the vessels at Reval, stating ‘they must be destroyed at all costs’. Kronstadt was a formidable fortress, a major source of protection for the Soviet fleet. In 1919 it was probably the best protected fleet base in the world. Built initially by Peter the Great, and developed over the succeeding centuries, it lay on the southern side of Kotlin Island. To the west of the base there were minefields stretching to the shore, with only one swept channel. Closer in, the northern channel around the island was spanned by a line of forts linking Kotlin to the mainland. These forts had a chain of submerged breakwaters between them. The main, southern, approach and the River Neva also had several sea forts. On the high ground overlooking the narrow neck of the bay were large fortified gun batteries mounting heavy artillery, including the 12in guns of the major fortress of Krasnaya Gorka. The Tolbukhin lighthouse commanded a view of all approaches to the island. And behind these impressive defences lurked the Baltic Fleet.

Numerically the fleet was strong and significantly overmatched Alexander-Sinclair’s forces. There were three battleships, Andrei Pervozvanni of 1910, a pre-dreadnought armed with four 12in and fourteen 8in guns; and the dreadnoughts Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, sister-ships armed with twelve 12in guns, and already met in the ‘Ice Voyage’. In addition, there were two cruisers, Oleg of 1903, twelve 6in and twelve 12pdrs, Aurora, eight 6in, and Pamiat Azova, launched in 1888 but now in use as a depot ship. Another cruiser, Gromoboi, was laid up there. Of smaller vessels there were eight destroyers, five modern submarines and an old minelayer. The guns of the battleships and the cruisers were a significant threat to the ships of the 6LCS and their consorts.

The Imperial Russian Navy had long been deficient in training, however, and the situation had worsened since the revolution. The crews at Kronstadt had joined the October Revolution with enthusiasm, some officers had been murdered and most others had fled or been imprisoned. The ships were largely controlled by Soviets of sailors and discipline was practically non-existent. As a fighting force, they were possibly less formidable than first appeared.

This was in part demonstrated by their intelligence-gathering work. The Russians believed that two battleships had covered Laidoner’s landing on 23 December; and, despite reconnaissance by three submarines in November and December, they understood the British ships at Reval to number four battleships and up to ‘fifty or sixty vessels’.

The task of fulfilling Trotsky’s wish for the destruction of the British forces was allotted to Member of the Revolutionary War Soviet (the Revvoeyensovet) of the Red Navy at Kronstadt, Deputy Commander of the Seventh Army and Commissar of the Baltic Fleet, 26-year-old Fyodor Fyodorovich Raskolnikov, previously a midshipman (michman) in the Tsar’s navy.

His plan was for a task force comprising the battleship Andrei Pervozvanni, cruiser Oleg and destroyers Spartak, Avtrovil and Azard to undertake the operation. The destroyers, under Raskolnikov’s direct control, would enter the Reval roads and bombard the port, bringing to action any ships therein. If superior forces were encountered, they were to retire on Oleg with the battleship further back as heavy support. The action was slated for Christmas Day.

At the appointed hour, only Spartak and Andrei Pervozvanni left port, the others being either away or out on patrol. When they all finally rendezvoused, Azard was found to be out of fuel and Avtrovil delayed by an engine breakdown. The operation was put back until the 26th.

Accordingly, at 0700 on St Stephen’s Day, Raskolnikov, aboard Spartak, declared his intention to start the attack; but first he stopped to fire on Wulf (Aegna) and Nargen (Naissaar) Islands (both of which lie across the entrance to Reval harbour and had been fortified in the nineteenth century), ostensibly to see if they were occupied and armed; he then captured a small Finnish steamer which was sent to Kronstadt under a prize crew. These delays were to prove his undoing.

Meanwhile, at Reval, the local authorities had decided to hold a noontime banquet for the Royal Navy officers and crews to thank them for their support. Ladies were to be provided ‘for hire’ as dancing partners. But the preparations for the festivities were interrupted by the sound of gunfire – the attack on the defensive islands – and then by the unpleasant noise of shells dropping in the harbour. Urgently, the ‘recall’ signal was given; sirens blared continuously and British sailors ran for the quayside and their ships. Thesiger had held his command at two hours’ notice for sailing and soon the first vessel left the harbour. It was the destroyer HMS Vendetta; as she passed Caradoc the cruiser’s crew cheered her on. Shortly afterwards Vortigern followed her and then Wakeful, which had lived up to its name. Calypso and Thesiger were immediately behind and Caradoc weighed and went to full speed at 1205, by which time Vendetta had already opened fire.

When Raskolnikov saw the smoke of the three destroyers leaving port he immediately turned Spartak away, heading for Kronstadt, perhaps intending to hide in the Finnish Skerries or find protection under the guns of Oleg.

Wakeful opened fire on Spartak at around 1220 and Wulf Island was passed fifteen minutes later. There was chaos on board the Russian ship. Shells were falling around them, a blast damaged the charthouse and bridge, charts were lost, and the engines proved unreliable. Then with a sudden bang she ran aground on the Divel shoal and stranded. Raskolnikov despatched a final signal to his base; ‘All is lost. I am chased by English’. At 1245, Spartak ran up the white flag.

Thesiger put a boarding party on board. She was leaking badly, with her propellers and rudder torn off. The ship was filthy and the crew generally happy to be prisoners. Vendetta towed her back to port. Once anchored, Spartak was still filling with water so the crew were instructed to raise steam for the pumps; they decided to hold a ship’s Soviet meeting to decide if they should. Armed Royal Marines convinced them of the necessity. As for the Soviet Navy’s commissar and mission commander, Raskolnikov was discovered hiding under twelve sacks of potatoes and taken prisoner. It was rumoured that he had on his person photographs of himself ‘torturing and murdering the old aristocracy’.

Around 1700 the British ships landed their ‘entertainment parties’ and the banquet, delayed but nonetheless mightily enjoyed, took place.

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When Thesiger returned from the festivities, he had an interpreter tell him what information the papers captured with Spartak revealed. This informed him that Oleg was at Hogland (an island in the Gulf of Finland about 112 miles west of Petrograd) with orders to bombard Reval. This gave him the usual problem; the squadron’s orders, vague as they were, did not directly give permission to attack enemy ships. But he also found in the captured papers a transcript of a message from Trotsky saying the British ships should be sunk. This seemed to Thesiger to be a sufficient casus belli and he gave orders for an immediate departure.

At 0050 on the 27th Calypso weighed anchor and, in company with Caradoc and Wakeful, set out to find the enemy. Around 0500, Thesiger observed a destroyer passing on the reverse course; it did not see the British ships and Thesiger resisted pleas to open fire, for he thought that in the dark the destroyer may well be able to mount a torpedo attack unobserved. But he did order Vendetta and Vortigern to depart Reval and find her.

Hogland was a disappointment; there was no sign of the Red cruiser. Thesiger set up a patrol line, Caradoc to the north, Calypso south and Wakeful in the middle and in that formation began to cruise back to Reval; if the destroyer sighted earlier turned around she would run into his line of advance.

The plan worked. The Soviet destroyer, which was the Avtroil, seeking Spartak, ran into Vendetta instead, fled from her and came across Vortigern. She then turned east for Kronstadt and met Wakeful, went north and ran into Caradoc and finally south where she was intercepted by Calypso. Thesiger had previously ordered that he wanted to capture the Russian vessel; Caradoc had fired on her at 1135 and Calypso at 1150; ten minutes later, now surrounded by five Royal Navy ships, the Soviet destroyer hoisted a white flag. A prize crew took her back to Reval.

The Estonian navy to that point had comprised one vessel, an ex-Russian gunboat Bobr, now the Lembit, capable of only 12 knots and armed with two 4.7in guns and four 11pdrs. Päts had pleaded with Alexander-Sinclair for two Royal Navy destroyers, a request refused by the admiral. But Thesiger was now able to oblige him. He presented the two captured Russian destroyers to Johan Pitka, a former merchant seaman and owner of a small chandler’s shop in Reval. In the 1914–18 war his son had been sent to Siberia for subversive activities amongst the British and Imperial Russian sailors in the Baltic but the family now seemed unconcerned about the past. Pitka had been appointed the Estonian naval commander-in-chief. At a stroke he gained two modern, fast ships and an actual navy to command; he named the new recruits Wambola (ex-Spartak) and Lennuk (ex-Avtroil).

But the Gulf was freezing over; Reval would soon be ice-bound, as would Petrograd, locking the Soviet fleet harmlessly in the base. In Reval, the next two days were spent refuelling and embarking refugees; Britons, Danes and the wife and family of the British consul, together with some prisoners of war and Raskolnikov.

Meanwhile Cardiff docked at Reval, inbound from Copenhagen, with Alexander-Sinclair and a further consignment of arms for the Estonian arsenal; 1,960 rifles and 1,380,000 rounds of ammunition. There also arrived some 200 Finnish soldiers on board an icebreaker, the first of an expected force of 2,000.

Back in London, Fremantle was concerned for the safety of the Baltic ships. At the 31 December 1918 War Cabinet meeting the minutes noted that:

Admiral Fremantle wished to know whether the Imperial War Cabinet wished to withdraw the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron, or to face intervention on a larger scale. There was a danger of our being drawn into operations from which it would be difficult to disentangle ourselves. A decision would have to be come to quickly, as the ships would have to leave Riga before the middle of January if they were not to be ice-bound there. From the Admiralty point of view, it was certainly desirable to get the ships away from the whole of that area, both because of the damage they would suffer from the ice, and because of the danger that the ice would obliterate the navigation marks through the minefields. In this connection he mentioned that the port of Libau, further south, was ice-free, and, as there was no Bolshevik trouble there, as at Riga and Reval, there was not the same danger of entanglement if a ship stayed there. He wished to add, however, that it was probable that if we withdrew the ships from Riga the local Bolsheviks would massacre all their political opponents.

6th Light Cruiser Squadron, under R/Adm Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, aboard his flagship HMS Cardiff, sailed from Rosyth for the Baltic & the newly independent republics there “to show the British flag & support British policy as circumstances dictate”

Eventually, the Cabinet decided that ‘the Admiralty should instruct the Admiral in Command of the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron to withdraw his ships from Riga and Reval, owing to the danger of their being shut in by the ice, but that one ship might be left at Libau ready to be withdrawn at short notice’.

Thesiger thought that they should give one last piece of assistance before leaving. Firstly, on 3 January he took two cruisers and two destroyers to transport refugees to Helsingfors and bring Finnish troops back. Caradoc embarked 100 troops and landed them in Reval on the 4th. The ice was already too thick for the destroyers to complete the journey. Indeed, an icebreaker had to be used to take the British ships in and out of Helsingfors port, the ice being 6in thick in places. Stuart Stapleton found it ‘rather funny to see men walking on the ice about 50 yards from the ships, as we were proceeding up harbour’.

Then, after returning to Reval on the 5th, Thesiger took his cruisers and a destroyer on a patrol close to the Russian island of Hogland, expecting the Russians there to report the ships’ presence to Kronstadt such that the Russian ships might be deterred from venturing out. Finally, on the way back to Reval, he made a further bombardment of the Bolshevik positions to the east of the city. ‘This time we managed to blow up a row of houses and set them on fire, otherwise we don’t know what result our fire had,’ noted Stapleton. Caradoc returned to Reval long enough to pick up more refugees and then set out to join the admiral.

As per his orders, Alexander-Sinclair assembled his ships and departed for home, via Copenhagen and thence to Rosyth, where they arrived between 8 and 10 January 1919. They would not return.