FREEDOM WARS: ESTONIA I

Nikolai Yudenich

Estonian artillery in war against the Landeswehr

The most northerly parts of the tsar’s empire that faced the Baltic Sea, Finland and Estonia, had longstanding ethnic, linguistic and cultural links. Like Latvia to the south, Estonia was home to Estonians, Russians who had settled in the area, and ethnic Germans – in the main, wealthy landowners, some of whom were descendants of settlers who had moved into the region during the time of the Teutonic and Livonian Knights. These German families had historically been staunch supporters of the tsars, in return for which they were granted considerable privileges, but during the 19th century there was a steady increase in Estonian nationalist feeling. Tsar Nicholas’ deliberate policy of Russification caused great resentment, leading to uprisings during the 1905 Revolution, followed by repression when Russian authority was restored.

Following the February Revolution and the fall of the tsar, Estonian leaders demanded greater independence. After some hesitation – due as much to the chaos in Petrograd as to any unwillingness to reduce the degree of control over Estonia – the Russian authorities gave permission in April 1917 for the creation of the Autonomous Governate of Estonia, followed three months later by an elected National Council, or Maapäev, led by Konstantin Päts. The degree of independence that would be granted to this new body remained the subject of disagreement, but just a few days before the October Revolution, the Estonian Bolsheviks under Jaan Anvelt seized power in Tallinn. The Bolshevik movement was not strong in Estonia and Anvelt struggled to establish any authority; in any case, his time in office proved to be short-lived, as German troops advanced almost unopposed into Estonia on the northern flank of Hoffmann’s offensive following the collapse of the Brest-Litovsk talks, and together with other Bolsheviks he fled to Russia. On 24 February, the Maapäev issued a declaration of Estonian independence, assuring full rights to all minorities and ending with a national rallying cry:

ESTONIA!

You stand on the threshold of a future full of hope in which you shall be free and independent in determining and directing your destiny! Begin building a home of your own, ruled by law and order, in order to be a worthy member of the family of civilised nations! Sons and daughters of our homeland, unite as one in the sacred task of building our homeland! The sweat and blood shed by our ancestors for this country demand this from us; our forthcoming generations oblige us to do this.

For Estonia, it was a unique moment: the nation had never known independence before. On this occasion, it proved to be very short-lived. German troops arrived in Tallinn two days later and refused to recognise the declaration. The Maapäev was forced to go into hiding.

The Estonians had started to organise a national army, but the Germans rapidly declared this illegal and arrested several leading Estonian figures, including Päts, who was imprisoned first in Estonia, and ultimately in Grodno in Poland. Despite this, Estonian independence was recognised by the Entente Powers, and, with the tide turning against Germany on the Western Front, many in Estonia looked forward to the future with real hope. The Germans had their own plans for Estonia and tried to create a new political entity combining Estonia with much of Latvia under the control of the Baltic Germans, who were encouraged to declare the creation of the Baltischer Staat or Baltic State, with its capital in Riga. The first head of this new state was to be Adolf Friedrich, Duke of Mecklenburg, but the Baltic State would be an autonomous part of the German Empire. Until Adolf Friedrich could take up office, a regency council of ten – four Baltic Germans, three Latvians, and three Estonians – ran the government in Riga under the close watch of Ober Ost.

Only Germany recognised the status of the new Baltic administration, and as it became increasingly clear in Berlin that the war would end unfavourably, attempts were made to try to create a government that would be acceptable both to the Estonians and the rest of the world. In October, Prince Max von Bayern sent a telegram to Ober Ost with instructions to set up a civilian administration; the intention was to create a series of such governments in the territories overseen by Ober Ost, starting in the Baltic region, but time ran out before the policy could even begin. After the end of hostilities in the west, Konstantin Päts was released from captivity and recognised by the new German government as the head of the Estonian government.

As German authority collapsed, Päts struggled to create the institutions that would be vital for the survival of an independent Estonia. In particular, he needed to create an army that could protect the nation from a variety of forces. Ever since the establishment of the Maapäev, a paramilitary Omakaitse (‘Citizen’s Defence Organisation’) had existed, with Ernst Põdder, a former officer in the Russian Army, as its commander. During the German occupation, the Omakaitse was forced to operate clandestinely, but with political control back in the hands of the Estonians, the force was now organised to deal with the multitude of threats that the fledgling nation faced.

There were several military powers operating within Estonia. By far the largest was the German Army, which was in the process of withdrawing and returning home in keeping with the terms of the Armistice. As morale in the army collapsed, many soldiers didn’t wait for orders and simply drifted away from their formations, attempting to make their way home, but most continued to obey orders. Päts tried in vain to persuade the Germans to hand over weaponry to the Omakaitse, but in the main, the Germans either took their weapons home with them or destroyed them. Fortunately for the Estonians, help was at hand. The newly independent Finland to the north, whose people had a long history of links with the Estonians, provided both weapons and ammunition, though in limited amounts.

In addition to the Germans, there were large numbers of anti-Bolshevik Russian troops in Estonia. These formations had largely been raised from released Russian prisoners of war and anti-Bolshevik Russians who first gathered in Pskov where their officers squabbled ineffectively amongst themselves over questions of precedence. From there, they were forced to flee to Estonia, where General Alexander Pavlovich Rodzianko – the nephew of the former chair of the Duma – managed to organise them into something resembling a military formation that now became known as the White Russian Northern Corps. Whilst Rodzianko remained its commander, the corps was subordinated to General Nikolai Nikolaevich Yudenich, who had commanded the Russian Caucasus Army during the First World War. In some respects, his appearance was deceptive; contemporaries described him ‘physically slack and entirely lacking in those inspiring qualities which a political and military leader of his standing should possess’. Despite this, he achieved considerable successes against the Turks during the war, but after the fall of the tsar he was dismissed from his post for insubordination and returned to Petrograd. He was involved in the attempt by Kornilov to oust the Kerensky government in August 1918 and fled to Finland when Kornilov and his associates were arrested. In Finland, Yudenich joined the ‘Russian Committee’, an organisation set up to oppose the Bolsheviks, and was appointed commander of all White Russian forces in the northwest. Like many Russian generals of the tsarist era, he was bound by the prejudices with which he had grown up, and he refused to accept the reality of independent Finland. Rather than try to build an alliance with the strongly anti-Bolshevik Finns, he preferred to relocate to Estonia, where he created the Northern Corps. Whilst this force would be prepared to fight against any Bolshevik intervention, the presence of so many foreign soldiers was nonetheless not entirely welcome to the Estonians.

As the fighting on the Western Front drew to a close, a Bolshevik intervention in the Baltic region grew ever more likely. Lenin had never intended to be bound by the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the collapse of Germany effectively made the treaty meaningless. The Red Army, successor to the Russian Army of the tsars, was now a far more powerful force than it had been when Hoffmann brushed it aside in early 1918, though it remained very limited in terms of logistic and other support. The disorganised, untrained Red Guards had undergone at least a degree of formal training, and the incorporation of large numbers of soldiers from the Imperial Russian Army further improved the overall level of practical knowledge and ability in the front line. Nevertheless, whilst it could probably fight and win short campaigns, sustained operations still posed huge challenges for the Red Army.

With the dissolution of Ober Ost and the departure of German troops, there was an opportunity for Russia to regain some of its lost territories. From the point of view of the Russians, this was essential. Prior to the First World War, the Russian capital had been safe from foreign invasion, but the loss of Finland and the Baltic States suddenly created a substantial threat. From Narva in northeast Estonia to Petrograd was a mere 81 miles (130km), and the presence of Yudenich’s troops was therefore a significant threat to the Bolsheviks, particularly as the White forces in the Caucasus, Siberia and Ukraine had already drawn the attention of much of the Red Army. Even though the capital was now Moscow, the loss of such a major city would be a huge – possibly irrecoverable – blow to the prestige of any Russian government.

Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks had every reason to feel beleaguered. White Russian forces were threatening from the east and south, while the western fringe of the Russian Empire had been torn away by the Germans. Throughout 1917, British, French and American ships had brought a steady stream of war materiel to Archangelsk in the north, but the growing disruption of the Russian railways after the February Revolution resulted in large stockpiles building up around the port. When Goltz and the Baltic Division were landed in Finland, there were concerns that the Germans might be able to capture the stockpiles in northern Russia; rather more realistically, the Western Powers had no intention of allowing the stockpiles of modern armaments to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, who had made no secret of their intention to export their revolution to the rest of the world. There had been widespread agreement that the troops of the Czechoslovak Legion should be enabled to reach Western Europe, but now that they were embroiled in the Russian Civil War, the presence of western troops in Archangelsk might provide an opportunity for concerted action to overthrow the Bolsheviks. To that end, a mixed force of British, Australian, French, American, and even Serbian and Polish troops was dispatched to Archangelsk. Many of the British contingent were marines who had little experience of war; some were very young, and others were former prisoners of war who had recently been released by the Germans. In some cases, they were denied home leave and were dispatched to northern Russia at short notice, resulting in widespread morale problems. Once there, they found themselves slowly drawn into combat against the Bolsheviks. They succeeded in advancing about 100 miles (160km) south along the railway line leading to the Russian interior before a decision was made to pull back to a tighter perimeter and ultimately to evacuate the expedition entirely; after suffering losses in an attack on a Russian village, one British company of marines mutinied and refused to attack again. Several men were court-martialled and condemned to death, but after intervention by British politicians the sentences were not carried out.

The opportunity to strike a potentially decisive blow against one of these hostile powers encircling Russia was therefore most attractive to the Bolsheviks. Although this has been described as the Soviet Westward Offensive, and according to one source was given the codename ‘Target Vistula’, it seems that there was no central planned offensive.434 Rather, a series of uncoordinated movements occurred in the same region, with little if any overall coordination. However, the animosity of the Soviet leadership towards the Baltic States certainly played a part in the development of events. Lenin told his staff:

Cross the frontier somewhere, even if only to the depth of a kilometre, and hang 100-1000 of their civil servants and rich people.

As with so many wars, the geography of the region dictated the course of the campaigns. The border between Estonia and Russia is dominated by Lake Peipus, with the result that land routes for combat operations are either north or south of the lake. To the north, the confrontation would be across the River Narva, with the city of Narva itself forming part of the battlefield. This area offered the most direct route for a Russian advance towards the Estonian capital, Tallinn (previously known to both the Russians and Germans as Reval), but the northern flank of any such operation would be exposed unless the sea was controlled by the Russian Navy. Consequently, naval operations would play a major role in the fighting. To the south of Lake Peipus, any Russian advance to the Baltic coast, roughly along the border between Latvia and Estonia, could conceivably come under pressure from either flank. As a result of these geographic constraints the conflict in the northern part of the Baltic region, which became known as the Estonian War of Independence, saw repeated thrusts by either side north of Lake Peipus, and although the same territory changed hands on several occasions to the south of the lake, the fighting tended to follow the same pattern: a Bolshevik advance, and an Estonian counterattack against its flanks.

The most northerly Soviet formation involved in the offensive was the Seventh Red Army under the command of the Latvian Jukums Vācietis, who attacked towards Narva with 6th Red Rifle Division. The experienced core of the old Russian Army was gone; many of its troops, sick of the war, had returned to their homes and had no desire to take part in further fighting, and few officers of the old army were regarded as acceptable by the Bolsheviks. The division was made up of volunteers, many of them from the Narva region, with just a sprinkling of veterans. Opposing them were elements of the Estonian Defence League and the German Infantry Regiment 405, originally part of 203rd Infantry Division and the only organised German formation left in northeast Estonia. After a brief battle on 28 November 1918, in which the Soviet armoured cruiser Oleg and two destroyers supported the main attack, the Germans and Estonians retreated from Narva, leaving the city in Russian hands. A few days later, the 6th Red Rifle Division pushed on towards Tallinn, and though the newly created units of the Estonian Army, ill-equipped and poorly trained, were dispatched to the front as they became available, the Russians seized Rakvere on 15 December and Koeru ten days later, finally reaching a point only 21 miles (34km) from the Estonian capital by the end of the year.

At the same time, a second Soviet advance developed from south of Lake Peipus. The Soviet 2nd Novgorod Division began to attack westward on 25 November, and made good progress in the face of weak resistance by the White Russian Northern Corps. The 49th Red Latvian Rifle Regiment, part of the 2nd Novgorod Division, took Tartu on 24 December, leaving more than half of Estonia in Russian hands by 1919, but this success was to mark the high-water mark of the Russian advance. Heavy snow, poor roads, and a chaotic supply situation made the prospect of further gains very unlikely without major reinforcements.

In the areas occupied by the Bolsheviks, there was widespread repression of anyone suspected as being a nationalist. In addition, the Bolshevik policy of targeting the ‘bourgeois classes’ resulted in a variety of individuals, from clergy to teachers, being arrested and shot. It has been estimated that over 500 people lost their lives as a result; not a huge number in the context of the deaths in the First World War, but sufficient to encourage a growth in partisan activity, which further disrupted Russian supply lines.

The reduction of territory controlled by the Estonian nationalists worked in favour of the defenders, who now contended with much shorter supply lines. Colonel Johan Laidoner, who like most Baltic officers of his generation had served in the tsar’s armies, had commanded the Estonian Army’s first formations, hastily grouped together into an infantry division, and on 23 December was appointed commander of the entire army. He used the lull in fighting to good effect, creating a second infantry division and the staff of a third. In addition, the country’s German community raised a Baltic Battalion of volunteers, a welcome boost both in military and symbolic terms: Estonia’s Baltic Germans were explicitly supporting the Estonian government, rather than seeking to secure control themselves, as the Germans had originally intended. Almost immediately, the Baltic Battalion was deployed in the front facing towards Narva. The dockyards and railway works of Tallinn improvised a variety of armoured cars for the Estonian Army, which despite their limited mobility – they were badly underpowered and became bogged down in even slightly soft ground – proved to be effective weapons, not least because of the fear with which they were regarded by many in the Red Army. Whilst the old Russian Army had possessed large numbers of armoured cars – mainly supplied by Britain and France – and Bolshevik units elsewhere, even in Latvia, still operated many of these vehicles, they were conspicuously absent from Red Army units in the far north.

Help for Estonia also arrived from the west. Even as the war in the west came to an end, British officials were discussing how to further the cause of anti-Bolshevik forces. Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, wrote a memorandum in November, concluding:

For us no alternative is open at present than to use such troops as we possess to the best advantage; where we have no troops, to supply arms and money; and in the case of the Baltic provinces, to protect, as far as we can, the nascent nationalities with our fleet.

As the Red Army pressed into Estonia, a delegation arrived in London to seek support. British diplomats responded that it would not be possible to send troops, but warships and armaments might be available, leading immediately to objections from the navy; the Baltic area was heavily mined and it was unwise to dispatch warships before the mines had been cleared. Nevertheless, the political necessity to intervene in the Baltic overruled purely naval concerns and on 22 November, after escorting the German High Seas Fleet into British waters where it was to be interned, the light cruiser HMS Cardiff and four other cruisers of the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron set off for the Baltic, accompanied by nine destroyers and seven minesweepers, under the collective command of Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair. The orders issued to him were a masterpiece of vagueness: he was to proceed to Libau (now Liepāja) and thence to Tallinn, ‘to show the British flag and support British policy as circumstances dictate’. He took with him a substantial store of weapons and ammunition and was to advise the governments of both Estonia and Latvia that they had to be responsible for their own defence. In the event of interference by Bolshevik warships, he would be able to call on the support of British battleships, which would soon deploy to Copenhagen.

Problems in obtaining sufficient fuel supplies – the minesweepers of Alexander-Sinclair’s force were coal-fired – led to the warships proceeding beyond Denmark without the minesweeper force. Late at night on 5 December, as they sailed past the Estonian island archipelago that had been the scene of fighting in 1917, the warships found themselves in a previously unsuspected German minefield. HMS Cassandra struck a mine and rapidly sank; all but 11 of her crew were rescued. Two accompanying sloops were also lost to mines. A second cruiser, HMS Calypso, had been damaged after striking a submerged wreck, and two destroyers sustained light damage when they collided with each other; the rescued crew of Cassandra was placed aboard these three ships, which returned to Britain.

The somewhat diminished British force arrived in Tallinn on 7 December, where it received an enthusiastic welcome. With Russian forces close to his capital, the increasingly desperate Päts suggested that Estonia should become a British protectorate and that Britain should immediately deploy troops in the Baltic region. This was clearly contrary to the intentions of the British, who nevertheless reassured Päts that guns and ammunition were en route (they were being carried by the minesweepers, which were still awaiting coal in Copenhagen). Unwilling to allow the Bolsheviks a free hand, Alexander-Sinclair decided to interpret his instructions as loosely as possible and on 13 December dispatched two cruisers and five destroyers east along the coastline to a point near Narva, where they brought the coastal road under shellfire and destroyed a vital bridge, further disrupting the supply lines of the Seventh Red Army. A few days later, the British ships helped land a force of Estonians on the coast to operate in the rear of the Bolshevik troops. At about the same time, as if to confirm the upswing in the fortunes of Estonia, the first of 2,000 Finnish volunteers began to disembark from ships in Tallinn.

The Russian naval authorities suspected the presence of British warships from interception of wireless traffic but were uncertain of their strength. The fleet in Kronstadt was in poor shape following the October Revolution, and attempts to carry out a reconnaissance of Tallinn by submarine were unsuccessful, with repeated mechanical problems; as will be seen, this was a recurrent issue. Many ships had been poorly maintained during the First World War, and spare parts for the vessels – most of which had been built outside Russia – were hard to obtain. Even when they were available, the Bolsheviks often lacked skilled engineers to carry out repairs.

After the British bombardment that disrupted supply lines between Narva and the front line, Vācietis asked for naval support for his Seventh Army. On 24 December, a task force consisting of the battleship Andrei Pervozvanni, the cruiser Oleg and three destroyers was assembled under the command of Fyodor Fyodorovich Raskolnikov, the commissar of the Baltic Fleet, with orders to carry out an armed reconnaissance and to destroy the British warships – but only if the balance of power was strongly in favour of the Russian force. It is likely that this group of vessels represented a very large proportion of all the warships in Kronstadt that were seaworthy. A plan was drawn up for the destroyers Spartak and Avtroil to penetrate into Tallinn harbour, where, in addition to looking for British warships, they would shell two small islands to determine whether any defensive batteries had been positioned there. Should they encounter British forces, they were to withdraw towards the island of Gogland, where Oleg would be waiting; if a further withdrawal were required, the three ships would pull back towards Kronstadt, in order to bring the pursuing British ships within range of Andrei Pervozvanni and her 12-inch guns.

Raskolnikov had played an important part in the Kronstadt Mutiny of 1917, and had held a variety of posts since the October Revolution. He arrived in Kronstadt on 25 December to discover that the destroyer Avtroil had developed mechanical problems. Rather than delay the operation, he decided to proceed with only Spartak. As Spartak set off, Raskolnikov received a signal that the destroyer Azard, which had been patrolling the area and therefore might have been available to him as a replacement for the Avtroil, was unable to accompany the mission due to a shortage of coal. Towards dusk, Spartak encountered the Russian submarine Pantera, which was returning from a reconnaissance of Tallinn. The submarine reported no sign of any smoke rising from ships in the Estonian port, but a later account suggested that, like other Soviet submarines, the Pantera probably didn’t enter the port at all due to major mechanical problems and was forced to make its observations from some distance. Spartak and Oleg dropped anchor and spent the night near Gogland. The following morning, they waited in vain for Avtroil to join them, and when they received a signal informing Raskolnikov that the destroyer’s mechanical problems showed no sign of resolution, the commissar decided to press on with just Spartak; Oleg would wait near Gogland to provide support should the destroyer make a hasty withdrawal.

Alexander-Sinclair’s force had undergone further changes. As will be described later, the situation in Latvia required urgent intervention and he dispatched two of his cruisers and half his destroyers to Liepāja; the return of Calypso and the much-delayed arrival of the minesweepers was therefore greatly welcomed, not least by the Estonians who took possession of the 5,000 rifles and other weapons that had been brought to equip their army. The crews of the British warships had been invited to a civic reception on 26 December and the enthusiasm of the sailors was probably considerably enhanced by the promise of a dance after the dinner, for which women would be ‘hired’. While preparations for the event were under way, there was the sound of distant naval gunfire. Reports arrived swiftly that a Russian vessel had been spotted in Tallinn Bay, attempting to bombard coastal positions. The British personnel hastily returned to their ships and began to prepare for action. As smoke began to rise from the funnels of the two British cruisers and four destroyers, Raskolnikov ordered Spartak to reverse its course in order to draw the British onto the guns of Oleg.

Raskolnikov’s plan had always been ambitious: his destroyer was nearly 90 miles (145km) from Gogland, and even at maximum speed it would take nearly three hours to reach the Oleg. Although the British cruisers had a similar maximum speed to the Spartak, the accompanying destroyers were faster, and any mishap aboard the Soviet destroyer – mechanical problems, or damage from British shellfire – might prove fatal. Like Avtroil, Spartak was not in perfect condition and almost inevitably developed engine problems as she attempted a sustained period of maximum speed. As the British destroyers closed in, Spartak’s bow gun tried to fire on the pursuing vessels. To do this, the turret had to be traversed until it was pointing back past the bridge, and when the gun was fired, its blast demolished Spartak’s charthouse and damaged both her bridge and helm. Shortly after, the destroyer ran aground on the Kuradimuna sandbank. Attempts to scuttle the destroyer failed when the seacocks jammed, and British sailors from the destroyer HMS Wakeful came aboard to seize the ship. Raskolnikov attempted to hide in the hold under several sacks of potatoes, but was taken prisoner together with the rest of the crew.

One of the officers aboard HMS Caradoc later wrote an account describing the state of Spartak and her crew:

The crew themselves, very dirty and in a dreadfully dirty ship, appeared pleased at being captured. Many of them had articles of various sorts, such as cameras and furs, obviously looted from shops and houses, which they sold to our crew at ridiculous prices, some even offering the things gratis, possibly fearing to be caught by Russians with them in their possession. Much valuable information was found in the ship; also an amusing signal which had been dispatched: ‘All is lost. I am chased by English’.

Raskolnikov’s despairing signal was not the only piece of intelligence gained with the capture of Spartak. There was also a message from Trotsky instructing Raskolnikov that the British warships must be destroyed and confirming the plan to lure them onto the guns of Oleg. The two British cruisers promptly set sail in order to locate and destroy the Russian cruiser. To their disappointment, they found the coast of Gogland deserted and returned to Tallinn. On their outward voyage, they had spotted a ship, presumed to be another Russian destroyer, cautiously sailing west, and had decided not to engage it, but now they signalled the British destroyers in Tallinn to put to sea with the intention of trying to capture the Russian ship. Raskolnikov, who was still being held aboard Wakeful, described what transpired:

Then, from above our heads, there was a sudden, deafening sound of gunfire, and after it that soft noise made by the compression of the recoil-absorber which always follows the firing of a gun. There could be no doubt about it: the shot had been fired from the destroyer in which we were held captive. We eagerly rushed to the portholes, but we were so far down in the hold that the field of vision from any of these portholes was small. We could not see anything except the other British destroyers which were sailing near us. The firing ceased as suddenly as it had started. The engine also suddenly stopped. There was a strange silence. The destroyer Wakeful had come to a halt. We were taken up to the top deck for exercise. A sad spectacle met our eyes. Right next to us lay the destroyer Avtroil, with her topmast awry. She had just been taken by the British, but the red flag still flew over her. The British squadron had come round her from behind and, cutting her off from Kronstadt, had driven her westward, into the open sea. The British commander had ordered us to be let out for exercise at the very moment when Avtroil surrendered, so as to wound our revolutionary self-esteem and mock this defeat suffered by the Red Navy.

The two captured destroyers were handed over to the Estonians, who renamed them and put them to use in their new navy. With the exception of Raskolnikov and Avtroil’s commissar, the crews were also handed over; despite British protests, about 40 were later executed.

Raskolnikov and his fellow commissar were eventually exchanged for 18 British personnel being held prisoner by the Bolsheviks. Unfortunately for Raskolnikov, a grim fate awaited him. He served as Soviet ambassador to Estonia, Denmark and Bulgaria, but in 1937 was recalled to Moscow. He delayed his return until the following year, but then learned that he had been dismissed. Fearing that he would be a victim of Stalin’s purges, he published an open letter to Stalin in which he acknowledged that he had been a friend of Trotsky, and went on to denounce the purges. Shortly after, he died in Nice, either as the result of an unexplained fall from a window, or possibly from poisoning.

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