SMS Lützow: The Skagerrak Battle

One of the only photographs extant that clearly shows the shape of Lützow’s fore funnel after it was fully jacketed.

German Battle Cruiser SMS Lützow Hipper’s Flagship badly damaged by British shell fire.

For the sake of consistency, the times from the Lützow war diary have been altered from summer time to MEZ/CET, a difference of one hour, to match the times given in the official history.

At 02.00 on Wednesday, 31 May the weather in Schillig Roads was cloudy and rainy, with the wind in the NNE. Lützow, with the I AG following, ran out to sea in accordance with Operational Order 6, with the IX TBF as an anti-submarine screen. The day passed quietly until at 15.20 a report was received from the small cruiser Elbing about a smoke cloud to the SW. At 15.26 Lützow went onto course WSW at ‘utmost power’. At 16.08 the I AG was running at 23kts on course NW, and at 16.20 speed was increased to 25kts to chase the British light cruisers. Then large warships came in sight to port ahead. At 16.23 they were made out as British battlecruisers and six minutes later the order was given for fire distribution from the right, as Vizeadmiral Hipper intended to fight the enemy on a northerly course, even though this would take him away from the support of the High Sea Fleet. At 16.28 the enemy ships were observed sending the recognition signal ‘PC’, and then two minutes later at 16.30 they made a turn so that Vizeadmiral Hipper also turned and went onto a SE course at 21kts. Then speed was reduced to 18kts to allow the II AG to catch up.

The wind had changed to the SW, force 2–3, it was sunny, and there was a slight haze. Fire distribution was ordered from the left, ship against ship, and at 16.48 Lützow opened fire on the leading British ship, Lion, at a range of 168hm. During the entire battle Kapitän zur See Harder remained outside the conning tower on the unprotected bridge so he could gain a better overview of the battle, and was accompanied by Signal Offizier Leutnant zur See Schönfeld. Half a minute later the British returned fire, with Lion and Princess Royal firing on Lützow. Korvettenkapitän Paschen, the I Artillerie Offizier, wrote:

For the entire battle Lützow fired with turret salvo fire, forward and aft alternating, a method of fire which I cannot praise highly enough. Both guns worked as one, loaded as one and were directed by one man. After loading all was quiet in the turret. The gunnery leader changed the direction, as and when required. The muzzle smoke collected at the end of the ship, which is most unfavourable for observation conditions. [There was a] 22-second flight time. Impact. 12/16 left, ahead of the bow. 12 to the right. Salvo! A shock from turrets C and D. Impact, over, midships. 8 down, salvo! Over! 8 down, salvo! – straddle! A hit near the bridge! A sigh of relief, and then continue.

Lion was hit twice, at 16.51 and 16.52. Then at 16.57 Lützow was finally straddled, but at 17.00 struck Lion with a hit which penetrated Q turret and blew the roof off. The turret was put out of action and twenty-eight minutes later a huge cordite fire erupted with flames going mast-high, and only the fact that the magazine had been previously flooded saved Lion from destruction. At around 17.00 Lützow suffered the first two hits, both on the forecastle deck. A short time later, at 17.05, Lion sheered out of line and disappeared from sight. She had suffered six hits from thirty-one salvos, whilst Lützow had been hit three times. Target was changed to Princess Royal.

At around 17.15 Princess Royal hit Lützow in the forward dressing station, killing or wounding everyone there. Of the four physicians and doctors aboard Lützow during the battle, two were killed and one was wounded. Then, as the British 5 Battle Squadron approached the I AG and opened fire, at 17.44 Vizeadmiral Hipper ordered the battleships to be taken under fire. In the same minute Lützow hit Barham abreast the aft conning tower. However, relief was now at hand as the German main body came in sight and at 17.51 course north was ordered. So far Lützow had hit the enemy ten times, whilst suffering four hits in return. Of the nine shell-hits on Lion, four did not detonate.

After turning to the north Lützow targeted Lion, and obtained three hits between 17.59 and 18.02. When Lion had passed out of range target was changed to Barham. Nevertheless, observation of the target became increasingly more difficult as visibility deteriorated for the Germans. At 18.13 a 15in shell from Barham struck the armoured belt just ahead and below the port I 15cm casemate. At 18.25 another two 15in shells hit Lützow, striking together between the funnels, and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations, causing heavy loss of life. Vizeadmiral Hipper was instantaneously deprived of his link with his Reconnaissance Groups and with the Flottenchef. Then, at 18.30, the Panzerkreuzer was struck by another 15in shell, this time from Valiant, which hit to port between the IV and V 15cm casemates. At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure below the conning tower.

Around this time the British 3 Battlecruiser Squadron unexpectedly arrived in the east and the German I AG had to turn towards the east to counter this new threat. However, soon 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons began to direct heavy fire on the I AG and at 18.59 Vizeadmiral Hipper carried out a battle turn onto the opposite course, to withdraw from this fire and to close on his main body. At 19.05 Lützow hit Lion again and then at 19.10 the I AG turned back to the NE and took position at the head of the German line. Virtually nothing could be seen of the British forces through the smoke and haze.

Then, at 19.16, part of the British 1 Cruiser Squadron, Defence and Warrior, which had been firing on the small cruiser Wiesbaden, suddenly became visible to the I AG. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Then something unexpected happens. From right to left a ship passes through the field of view of my periscope, improbably large and near. From the first glance I make out an older English armoured cruiser and give the necessary commands. Someone pulls me by the arm: ‘Don’t shoot, that is the Rostock!’ But I see clearly the turrets on the forecastle and stern. – ‘Passing battle. Armoured cruiser, 4 funnels. Bow left. Left 30. Measurement! 76hm, salvo!’ Five salvos fall in swift succession, of them three straddle, and then what happened to the battlecruisers was repeated, and the ship blew up in full view of both fleets. The English main body also has Defence in sight at this time, although to us they are invisible and remain so.

Defence sank at 19.20.

Whilst fighting the 1 Cruiser Squadron, Lützow was hit twice at 19.19 by Lion. One shell struck far forward above the bow armour. The other went through the port casemate roof deck and passed forward to detonate just aft of B turret. During this time Lützow was also evading torpedoes fired by British destroyers, and in return hit Onslow twice, and Acasta twice.

With the 1 and 3 Battlecruiser Squadrons enveloping the German head of the line, Lützow came under increasingly heavy fire. Korvettenkapitän Paschen described it thus:

the English battlecruisers require our entire attention. They stand to port aft 130hm away, as we have swung onto an easterly course, and for us are barely recognisable. And then it began, which made everything before look like a game. Whilst the target of our guns was hidden from me by smoke, I gave the direction to the aft position, when suddenly a hail of hits struck from port aft and port ahead. There was nothing to see other than red flashes, not the shadow of a ship.

Between 19.26 and 19.34 Lützow was hit eight times, all from Invincible and Inflexible. The most devastating of these hits were two 12in shells that struck the forward broadside torpedo room and two 12in shells that struck the bow torpedo room. One shell struck below the armour in the broadside room, the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick forward belt. Both penetrated the broadside room. The two other shells struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline. The entire forecastle ahead of frame 249 and below the waterline immediately filled with water. Speed was reduced to 15kts and then 12kts to reduce pressure on bulkhead 249, but water quickly leaked from compartment XIV into compartment XIII through the joints of bulkhead 249 and through speaking tubes.

Then at 19.30 one of Lützow’s assailants suddenly became visible. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

Meanwhile we had turned onto a southerly course, and suddenly an English battlecruiser of the Invincible type appeared out of the haze clearly and relatively near, four points to port astern. I cannot say strongly enough what satisfaction I felt, to finally have this pest presented before my eyes, and as quick as lightning the commands were given out. But already a dark object slides between my periscope and the opponent: the corner of the admiral’s bridge, which limits the angle of vision of my periscope object lens to about 10°. ‘Has the aft position measured?’ – ‘Jawohl! 100hm!’ – ‘Direction aft position!’ Kapitänleutnant Bode gives brief and clear orders, and to the inexpressible joy of the whole ship, 15 seconds later our guns crash out again, with the exception of B turret. I heard everything myself through the headphones; what Bode and the artillery transmitting station said, and now also saw the opponents again. ‘Over! 4 down, salvo! Straddle! Salvo!’ As the sound of the fall of shot indicator screeched, the columns flickered out of the water around the enemy and again the beautiful and unmistakable dark red flares up.

Invincible had been struck on Q turret and the shell had detonated inside, blowing off the turret roof. A great explosion followed almost immediately as the magazine exploded and the ship broke in two and sank within ten to fifteen seconds. The magazine of A turret is also thought to have exploded. The two halves of the ship came to rest on the shallow bottom and were clearly visible above the water for some time. The time of the explosion was 19.32. Derfflinger had also been firing on Invincible and it had taken just two minutes to destroy her, whilst Defence had been sunk in just three minutes.

At 19.45, whilst still under heavy enemy fire, the torpedo boat G39 was called alongside and Vizeadmiral Hipper and his staff disembarked to move to another flagship. Lützow was down by the bows and was unable to maintain speed and the wireless had been destroyed. The heavily damaged cruiser took course at slow speed off to the SW to withdraw from the enemy fire, but at 20.15 she came under a particularly pernicious and destructive fire. The British battleships Monarch and Orion hit Lützow a total of six times between 20.15 and 20.30 at a range of approximately 169hm. One shell struck turret B, putting it out of action, another struck the right gun of turret A, showering the turret in splinters. A further hit struck the starboard belt armour below B barbette. Another struck the casemate armour of the IV starboard casemate. A further hit struck the deck aft of C turret and destroyed the aft dressing station. Stabswachtmeister Behrens wrote:

Then a report arrived that a heavy hit had penetrated the aft dressing station from above and exploded there. Obermaat Meyer, wounded, brought this report forward to me. His wound did not appear too bad, and briefly after his report he sat down and began to smoke. In reality he was badly wounded by a splinter and succumbed to this wound 14 days later.

Now it was frighteningly clear to me that all the doctors and specially trained medical personnel were dead or injured. The vision earlier seen: the commander of the ship, surrounded by the four doctors, came before my eyes, and now the present situation; both dressing stations knocked out or destroyed by heavy artillery hits and connected with that the injuries to doctors and specialist medical personnel, and destruction of the greater part of the medicines and medical equipment.

Because there was no alternative the badly wounded were simply taken to a Zwischendeck compartment and laid out.

The final hit during this period sent the top of the main mast crashing down on deck.

Lützow was veiled in a smoke screen laid by four escorting torpedo boats and at 20.40 the enemy ceased fire as Lützow crept off to the SW at just 3–5kts. At 21.13 it was reported to the bridge that there were 1,038 tonnes of water in the ship. At 21.35 it was attempted to run at a higher speed, but this had to be abandoned because the bulkhead between compartment XII and XIII could not stand the pressure. Then at 22.05 the first enemy destroyer attack against the fleet was observed to port ahead at a range of about 60hm. At 22.15 there were approximately 2,395 tonnes of water in the ship.

By 23.12 Lützow and four escorting torpedo boats were in grid square 018 epsilon, course SSW, speed 13kts. The draught forward was 13m. The ship quickly sank deeper and deeper by the bow and by 00.05 on 1 June water was washing about the barrels of A turret and the draught was approximately 15m. By 01.00 the pumps could no longer hold the port diesel dynamo room drained. The forward group of pumps had failed as the ‘leak’ pump room was flooded and the pipes in the forecastle were shot through. Water began to penetrate boiler room VI. Even though revolutions were maintained for 7kts the speed achieved was just 5kts. As related by Korvettenkapitän Paschen the battle to save the ship was slowly being lost:

I still held out hope for the ship, but at about 2am in the morning the commander called the senior Offiziere to a conference, and the First Offizier reported 7,500 tonnes of water in the ship, and gave his view that at the longest we could remain afloat was until 8am in the morning. The news was a bitter blow. Our beautiful ship! However, it must be so; the forecastle was now 2m under water; through the open casemates the water entered the battery in streams, and poured through the torn deck into the Zwischendeck. The large forward oil boiler room had to be abandoned to save the men.

The last figures from damage control indicated that there were 4,209 tonnes of water below the armoured deck, and 4,142 tonnes above, giving a total of 8,351 tonnes, but this was still increasing and the draught forward was approximately 17m. Shortly after 02.00 an attempt was made to steer the ship stern first, but this failed because the propellers were already too far out of the water. Likewise an attempt to tow the Panzerkreuzer with torpedo boats was abandoned. Kapitän zur See Harder ordered ‘Fires out’ and gave the order to abandon ship. However, tragically, there were some men trapped in an air pocket in the flooded bows. A Leutnant zur See wrote:

I had to think of the six poor stokers that were still alive when the ship sank. They sat in the forward diesel-dynamo switch room, just like a diving bell, and could not get out. They had called me once, as I had a connection with them, and reported that the water was slowly rising in their room. It was held by pumps at a certain height. They maintained their courage and optimism until the last. They were still trapped.

The four torpedo boats that had remained with Lützow – G40, G38, V45 and G37 – were now called alongside. Three at a time, they lay contiguously alongside to starboard to take off the crew. Kapitänleutnant Jung wrote:

The survivors assembled on the quarterdeck. Above them fluttered the battle flag, shot to pieces by the enemy shells. Where there was no longer any Offiziere, the senior Unteroffizier took command. Still it was a black night. Only in the east the hesitating dawn appeared, heralding the new day. The address of the commander was short and concise. He concluded with the request that we be proud of SMS Lützow and her crew today for their selfless and extraordinary service for the Fatherland. Then three cheers were called for the ship and Kaiser.

‘And now go to the boats!’ The last words of the commander were almost paternal, sounding out of the dark. They touched the deepest emotions of all of his subordinates.

Kapitän zur See Harder was the last to leave the ship. Korvettenkapitän Paschen wrote:

The disembarking of the crew was exemplary; first all wounded, then quietly, all the remaining. When we cast off as the last boat, I could see in the first of the morning gloom the ship as follows: turret A under water, B an island. The bridge stood in water to the upper deck. The stern was approximately 2m higher than usual.

On the orders of the commander the torpedo boat G38 fired a torpedo to scuttle the cruiser, but the draught aft was so reduced and the torpedo ran under the sinking ship; a second struck amidships and Lützow lay slowly over to starboard and capsized. The time was 02.47. Her position was 56° 15’ N, 5° 52’ E.

The torpedo boats steered to Horns Reef light vessel. In the grey dawn there was a brief firefight with three enemy destroyers steering to the SW, and soon after with two British light cruisers and about six destroyers, which, however, did not take up the pursuit. G40 received a hit in the starboard turbine and was towed by the other boats, and thereby could only run at 10kts. Upon receiving news of these events the II FdT (Führer der Torpedoboote), Kommodore Heinrich, made a turn at about 09.45, on his own initiative, and took Regensburg and three boats of the IX TBF to meet the tow unit near Graa-Dyb light vessel. Some of the Lützow crew were transferred to Regensburg and reached Wilhelmshaven during the evening. During the battle Lützow is reported to have lost 116 Offiziere and men, but this number climbed subsequently to a final figure of 128, as in the days following the battle other crew, including Stabarzt Gelhaar and Obermaat Meyer, died from their wounds.

Damage Suffered During the Battle

As the Panzerkreuzer Lützow was scuttled and sank on the morning after the battle, the detailed hit descriptions found with the other cruisers are absent, and the order and location of hits must be reconstructed from reports and an excellent hit diagram. This deals with the hits from bow to stern, but we shall look at them in chronological order.

Hit One

At 17.00 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle near the capstans and made a large hole. The explosion shook turret A and it rocked from side to side. Three men in the working chamber were knocked out but later recovered. Poisonous gases entered the gun barrels and when the breeches were opened the gases entered the turret and rendered three men unconscious.

Hit Two

Likewise at 17.00, this 13.5in shell-hit from Lion also made a large hole in the forecastle deck, and later these two hits allowed great quantities of water to enter the ship.

Hit Three

A heavy-calibre shell from Princess Royal struck between A and B turrets at 17.15 and destroyed the forward combat dressing station.

Hit Four

Hit number four was also at 17.15 from Princess Royal and struck the belt armour aft at approximately frame 120. The shell did not penetrate the thick armour, but the ship was shaken and vibrated powerfully.

Hit Five

At 18.13 a 15in shell fired from Barham struck the belt armour around frame 210 just below the waterline. The shell shattered on the armour, but the plate was displaced and allowed the two outer wing compartments to fill with water.

Hits Six and Seven

At 18.25 two 15in shells from Barham struck the superstructure between the two funnels and destroyed the main and reserve wireless stations. With this hit the shell hoist to the starboard III 15cm cannon temporarily failed, but was soon re-switched and operating again.

Hit Eight

A 15in shell from Valiant struck at 18.30 between the IV and V port 15cm casemates. The shell burst above the armoured deck without causing serious damage.

Hit Nine

At 18.45 a 13.5in shell from Princess Royal struck the superstructure side to port just below the conning tower, causing minor damage.

Hit Ten

At 19.19 a 13.5in shell from Lion struck the forecastle far forward.

Hit Eleven

Also at 19.19, a second hit from Lion – this time the shell struck the port casemate roof and penetrated before passing forward to detonate just behind turret B. A fire was started amongst the damage-control material stored there, which created a lot of smoke.

Hits Twelve and Thirteen

At 19.26 Lützow was struck by two 12in calibre projectiles, from either Invincible or Inflexible, below the waterline. One shell struck the broadside torpedo room below the armoured belt; the other struck the lower edge of the 100mm-thick armour and likewise penetrated the broadside torpedo room.

Hits Fourteen and Fifteen

At 19.29 two further 12in shells from the same antagonists struck the bow torpedo room below the waterline and bow armour. As a result of these four hits the entire forecastle beneath the armoured deck immediately filled with water. The bulkhead at frame 249 came under huge pressure and speed had to be reduced, first to 15kts, then 12kts and finally just 3kts. Bulkhead 249 was not completely watertight and water penetrated compartment XIII and then XII. Later on water finally penetrated into compartment XI, the forward boiler room. The draught forward quickly increased to 12m.

Hit Sixteen

At 19.27 a 12in projectile from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the upper deck of the forecastle, producing a large hole in the deck.

Hit Seventeen

A 12in shell from either Invincible or Inflexible struck the belt armour near its lower edge to port at approximately frame 165, below the IV 15cm casemate. The projectile penetrated the armour and was found wedged on the Böschung (sloping armour) without detonating. Gas pressure damaged the IV 15cm cannon and rendered it unserviceable.

Hit Eighteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the belt armour above the waterline between the port III and IV casemates and shattered without detonating.

Hit Nineteen

At 19.30 a 12in shell struck the port side net shelf just below the V 15cm cannon and detonated.

Hit Twenty

At 20.07 a heavy shell struck the port casemate and put the port combat signal station out of action. The signal personnel were killed and a fire resulted.

Hit Twenty-one

At 20.15 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the right barrel of A turret and detonated just outside the gunport. Splinters showered into the turret, the aft hoop was torn off the barrel of the right 30.5cm gun, which was jammed. The left gun was protected by the splinter shield inside the turret and remained serviceable.

Hit Twenty-two

Likewise at 20.15, a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch penetrated the deck between C and D turrets. The aft dressing station was badly hit and there were heavy casualties amongst the wounded and medical personnel. In addition, the electrical cable to D turret, which ran above the armoured deck in this position, was severed so that D turret had to resort to hand training. Nevertheless, before Lützow sank the electrical personnel successfully restored the cable connection.

Hit Twenty-three

At 20.16 a projectile from either Orion or Monarch struck to starboard in the area of B turret barbette, causing the flooding of the starboard I 15cm gun munitions chamber.

Hit Twenty-four

At 20.17 a 13.5in shell from either Orion or Monarch struck the 250mm-thick armour of the starboard side of turret B, which was still traversed to approximately 280° to port. The aft lower right side wall was penetrated, leaving a calibre-sized hole approximately 0.25sq m in size. The shell was kept out but the punched-out piece of armour was found on the right gun carriage cradle. The loading facilities and right upper hoist were destroyed and men to the rear of the gun were killed. A fore charge on the right upper powder hoist burned, but a main charge directly above it did not. The turret Offizier, Kapitänleutnant Fischer, was killed by toxic gas, whilst others escaped, although some suffered burns.

The right hydraulic pump in the powder handling room was destroyed.

Hit Twenty-five

Sometime between 20.15 and 20.30 a heavy shell struck the upper main mast above the observation position. Inside the aft conning tower a deafening impact was heard directly beside the tower as the upper mast fell from a great height.

Below is a copy of Kapitän zur See Harder’s combat report. Not all of his observations and impressions are entirely accurate. (The times used are summer time.)

‘Lützow’ survivors. Wilhelmshaven, 8 June, 1916. B. N°. Gg 14.

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The Baltic Part I

Interpretation of the Gustloff’s final moments by Irwin J. Kappes

The Soviets, with a little help from their Scandinavian neighbours, made up their mind for them in the Baltic. On 27 September 1944, the neutral Swedish government announced that its Baltic harbours were no longer open to German shipping of any kind and a couple of days later the Finns led the first three of fifteen Soviet submarines from the Gulf of Finland past the defence posts on Hangö and Abo out into the Baltic beyond where they could begin operating off the Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish coastlines. On 29 September the Soviets reinforced the message that the Germans were unwelcome in these waters by landing troops on Moon Island. A German retreat to Ösel (Hiiumaa) swiftly followed. Dagö was taken next on 3 October and a further withdrawal from Ösel to the Sworbe Peninsula on the island of Saaremaa followed later in the month. In an effort to arrest this breakthrough into the Baltic, the Germans employed their heavy cruisers, Lützow and Prinz Eugen, three destroyers and four torpedo boats against the new Soviet positions on the coast between Libau (Liepāja) and Memel (Klaipẻda) in the second week of the month and then used some of these vessels to bombard the enemy troops on the Sworbe Peninsula on 22–24 October. Few could have doubted that these were merely delaying tactics by the Germans for the war in the Baltic States had moved inexorably against them. Much of Estonia had gone, entry into the Gulf of Riga had been secured and Latvia’s ‘liberation’ was at most only weeks away. As part of these measures, the final attack on the Sworbe Peninsula was made by the Soviet 8th Army on 18 November, with fire support coming from three gunboats and eleven armoured cutters gathered off the east coast. Despite putting up some naval resistance over the next few days, the game was essentially up for the Germans and the arrival of the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer, along with a task force of two destroyers and six torpedo boats, was merely designed to slow the advance of the 8th Army and cover the latest evacuation that took place during the night of 23–24 November.

In the Baltic in the new year [1945], the writing had been on the wall for Dönitz and the Kriegsmarine from mid-January onwards when the Soviets had opened their three-front drive on East Prussia from Pultusk in the south and Gumbinnen (Gusev) and Tilsit (Sovetsk) in the north. This move had prompted the Germans to evacuate their XXVIII Corps from Memel (Klaipẻda) across the ice to the Kurische Nehrung over a four-day period (24–28 January) and to withdraw the injured, sick and refugees by boat from Memel before either Soviet submarines or the men of the 1st Baltic Front from Tilsit could prevent them from doing so. Unless the Soviets were stopped in their tracks, all hope for Germany would be lost. Staring defeat in the face, the Germans responded by organising a series of counter-attacks in an effort to restore land communications between Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and its port of Pillau (Baltiysk). Dönitz was obliged to support these efforts from offshore and did so by deploying the heavy cruisers Admiral Scheer, Lützow and Prinz Eugen, a couple of gun carriers, together with a handful of destroyers and torpedo boats to provide as much artillery bombardment as possible against the advancing Soviet troops around Königsberg. It was never going to be anything more than a mere delaying tactic, but it was vital if the Germans were to succeed in organising a massive evacuation from the Baltic States and East Prussia to the western ports of Germany. Generaladmiral Oskar Kummetz and the Marineoberkommando Ost/Ostsee (German Naval High Command East) were given overall responsibility for planning and delivering what was to become the largest evacuation exercise ever attempted. Faced with the enormity of this problem, Kummetz and his team needed to utilise as many ships of a decent size as they could lay their hands on. This vital task was entrusted to Konteradmiral Conrad Engelhardt, the Wehrmacht’s naval transport commander and he became responsible for procuring the evacuation vessels. Fourteen large passenger ships, a dozen of which were over 13,000 tons, twenty-two freighters of over 5,000 tons, unknown numbers of smaller vessels, as well as auxiliary warships and escort vessels were all pressed into service over the course of the next few months as the scale of the military crisis became increasingly more evident as time went by. Organising convoys was difficult enough at the best of times, but under real pressure from an advancing army the logistical complexities became even more horrendous than normal. In order for their scheduling system to work efficiently, Kummetz and Engelhardt needed more than organisational discipline and great stoicism. They also needed a monumental slice of luck – not least because the Soviet submarine fleet had every intention of disrupting the evacuation as and when it could. Lacking the cutting-edge of a suitable number of destroyers and other anti-submarine vessels until the latter half of February, the Germans were left with making the best of the flotillas of minesweepers, patrol boats, submarine chasers, heavy and light gunboats, gun ferry barges, naval fishing cutters, naval ferry barges, converted trawlers and many small fishery vessels that were available to them in Baltic waters.

A start was made to the evacuation on 25 January when three passenger ships sailed from Pillau with the first batch of 7,100 refugees. Within three days some 62,000 people had been moved westwards away from the Red Army, but merely boarding the boats that ranged alongside the dockyards was no guarantee that safety was assured. Apart from the Soviet submarines that initially concentrated on the sea route from Courland, and their larger boats which congregated in the area of the Stolpe Bank and off the Danish island of Bornholm, the greatest threat to these evacuees came from the RAF dropping a total of 3,220 air mines in the western Baltic and as far east as the Pomeranian coast in the first three months of 1945. These mines were to reap a rich harvest of shipping victims. In all some 137,764 tons of German shipping was sunk and 71,224 tons was damaged in this mining blitz. Although the mines were completely undiscriminating – taking out hospital ships as well as transports, destroyers and minesweepers – it could have been much worse had the Soviet Air Force been actively involved. Instead they were largely deployed on land operations and so Kummetz and Engelhardt were given an extended opportunity to continue evacuating large numbers of Germans from the dwindling Eastern Front. Each of the large passenger ships involved in these operations could take 5–9,000 passengers on board and the freighters could hold up to 5,000 at a time. It was crucial, therefore, that these ships should be pressed into making as many return journeys as possible to extricate the largest number of evacuees from the Baltic States. Unfortunately, not all of these ships could be escorted to and fro and occasionally a passenger vessel or a freighter sailing independently was discovered by a submarine and sunk with impunity. In this way the third largest passenger ship used in the evacuation operation, Wilhelm Gustloff, a liner of 25,484 tons with 10,582 people on board, was sunk off the Polish coast on 30 January by S-13 with the loss of over 9,330 victims making it the largest maritime disaster of all time. S-13, loitering with intent off the Stolpe Bank, also managed to evade two escorts in order to sink the tenth largest passenger ship General Steuben on 10 February with the loss of another 3,608 lives.

Complications set in with the Soviet advance on Eastern Pomerania in late February since some of the ships and naval ferry barges as well as the Gun Carrier Flotilla being used in the East Prussian and Courland evacuations were now needed off the Pomeranian coast to take more refugees from the port of Kolberg (Kolobrzeg), or to support the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, three destroyers and a torpedo boat in defending the bridgehead at Wollin (Wolin). Desperate measures resulted in another 75,000 refugees, soldiers and wounded being withdrawn from this front by 18 March. They had not even finished this tricky assignment when the Germans were forced to respond to yet another setback – this time the opening of a Soviet drive from Marienwerder (Kwidzyn) to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and Danzig (Gdańsk). Once again, naval firepower was needed to keep the Soviet 2nd White Russian Front from breaking through before refugees could be evacuated. On 10 March the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen was pressed into service and five days later the obsolete battleship Schlesien along with three heavy auxiliary gunboats and a gunnery training vessel also battered the Soviet positions from offshore. After Schlesien ran out of shells, the heavy cruiser Lützow and two destroyers replaced her on 23 March and the light cruiser Leipzig was added to the bombardment force. Evacuations of refugees began from the naval base at Gotenhafen and the ports of Danzig and Hela (Hel) as the Red Army moved ever closer to the Gulf of Danzig, but on this occasion two divisions of the Soviet Naval Air Force were also involved in carrying out over 2,000 sorties against the operation. In an effort to neutralise the torpedo-bombers over these ports, Kummetz ordered a group of destroyers, torpedo boats and other warships to stand by and provide an effective curtain of A.A. fire to cover the transports as they took on their passengers and left port with them. Although Soviet aircraft still managed to sink five transports, two minesweepers and a submarine-chaser, many German ships were still able to enter and leave these three ports unscathed. Soviet mine barrages did claim a couple of torpedo boats and a U-boat (U367) and their submarines did sink a freighter, a patrol boat and a tug while on passage, but the vast majority of craft laden with refugees made safe landfall in other German ports further to the west. A day before Gotenhafen fell on 28 March the battleship Gneisenau – a constant and frustrating nemesis of the Allies throughout the war – made an undistinguished exit when she was finally sunk as a blockship. At that late stage this sacrificial act served very little useful purpose. Once Danzig was captured on 30 March, Hela became the operational centre for the evacuation. It became a kind of halfway house for refugees from those ports around the Gulf that hadn’t been occupied by Soviet troops and a total of 264,887 evacuees found their way to the port in a multitude of small boats and naval ferry barges in April alone. Adding to the armada of vessels making for Hela were retreating troops and other refugees from collapsed fronts, such as the Oxhöfter Kämpe bridgehead and Engelhardt’s passenger ships which by now had plenty of practice at being used as evacuation transports. Such was the scale of the operation that by 10 April 157,270 wounded servicemen had left Hela for the west. Increasingly, however, the casualties of this evacuation would grow as Soviet air and sea forces devoted more time and resources to attacking this traffic.

The Baltic Part II

By the beginning of April the Baltic was the only area where the Kriegsmarine could make a real contribution to the war. It couldn’t win it any longer, but it could do something to rescue its comrades in arms and other German citizens from falling into the hands of the dreaded Soviet enemy. All around the eastern shoreline of the Baltic from Courland in the north to East Prussia in the south the various campaigns were beginning to show very similar responses. Soviet attacks were held for a time and possibly even beaten off (as had been the usual case in Courland) but eventually the incessant pressure told and a breakthrough was made. Amazingly in these extraordinarily dramatic circumstances, the logistical exercise that was the evacuation operation continued in unabated fashion from Windau (Ventspils) and Libau (Liepāja) in Latvia south to Pillau. Disruptions and delays in the schedule of sailings became more pronounced as the war closed in on the German forces. Once a renewed drive on Königsberg began on 6 April 1945, for example, the situation at Pillau became increasingly critical. Within three days the city was surrounded and on 10 April its defenders capitulated. Faced with a swelling refugee population and the necessity of trying to get as many people away from the port as possible before it fell, German ships kept on returning for another fortnight before the town and its harbour were finally abandoned to the Soviets on 25 April. By that time, however, 451,000 refugees and 141,000 wounded servicemen had been evacuated from this icefree port in the four months that the operation had lasted. It was a quite staggering achievement and reflected the pivotal role Pillau had played in the entire evacuation operation. As the escape routes through that port and others around the Gulf of Danzig were being choked off, however, the Germans had been forced to rely upon the facilities at Hela to keep the process going. These went into overdrive as the port became besieged with refugees from the region of the Lower Vistula. As they did so, the Soviets immediately responded by increasing their aircraft sorties over the port. In the process five transports, two supply ships and a hospital ship were lost along with a handful of other craft. Notwithstanding these losses, Hela performed with distinction. In the month of April alone as many as 387,000 evacuees left the port for the west. These sailings were chillingly tense affairs with the ships hounded by air and sea attacks and with survival never guaranteed. Nonetheless, the alternative – of not attempting to run the Allied gauntlet and accepting captivity at the hands of the Soviets – was unthinkable. For every ship that was sunk on passage from Hela, many more somehow managed to get through with their precious human cargo. There was little time to waste and the Germans herded the refugees aboard with admirable and startling efficiency. In so doing they set a record of embarking 28,000 passengers in a single day (21 April) and ran it close a week later when a mere seven steamers collected a further 24,000. They were the lucky ones. Many more who tried to leave in the last days of the war were nothing like as fortunate.

On the day that the Soviets completed their encirclement of Berlin (25 April), Dönitz and the OKM were forced into beginning a policy of destruction and deprivation. Principal units of their Kriegsmarine were not going to be allowed to fall into the hands of the hated communists and so those ships that couldn’t be moved and were most in danger of being seized by the Red Army – such as the uncompleted aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin – were blown up in Stettin (Szczecin) along with four steamers and other smaller vessels. Schlesien and Lützow were the next to go. Schlesien, after being gravely damaged by a British air ground mine as she attempted to make her way into the Griefswalder Bodden on 2 May, was towed back to Swinemünde and beached as the Lützow had been just over a fortnight before. They shared the same fate again when both were blown up on 4 May. It signified that Swinemünde was finished as a German base.

That didn’t stop about sixty of them in the Baltic from opting to try to get to Norway. In making this journey they found themselves, as did many other surface vessels, confronted by swarms of RAF bombers seeking to destroy them. In a four day blitz (2–6 May) a mixture of Beaufighters, Liberators, Mosquitoes and Typhoons did just that. Seventeen of the U-boats, eleven steamers, three minesweepers, a gunboat and an MTB, along with other minor vessels, were set upon anywhere from the Baltic to the Kattegat and didn’t survive the experience.

Those submariners in German ports from Wilhelmshaven and Bremerhaven in the west to Lübeck and Warnemünde in the east, for instance, were left with the defiant, if doleful, task of scuttling their own craft. In the first three days of May as many as 135 Uboats perished in this way. Even more extraordinary scenes greeted the British XII Corps as they occupied the city of Hamburg on 3 May when as many as nineteen floating docks, fifty-nine large and medium-size ships and roughly 600 smaller vessels littering the harbour were scuttled or blown up by German forces within the port. The next day (4 May) when the U-boat captains in the area heard about the signing of the surrender document applicable to German forces in Denmark, Holland and northwest Germany, they put the coded operation Regenbogen (Rainbow) into practice scuttling eighty-three U-boats in fourteen different locations stretching from the Danish port of Aarhus in the Kattegat southeast to Lübeck in the Baltic and west to the outer Weser in the North Sea.

While this was going on in the North Sea and the Belts around Denmark, every kind of ship from naval barges, freighters and transports to destroyers, torpedo boats and much smaller vessels were making their way either to or from Hela in the Baltic with the last of the refugees and troops to be moved from the east to relative safety in the west. By the time the German unconditional surrender came into force on 8 May some 1,420,000 refugees had made their way by sea to the west from the Pomeranian coast and the ports around the Gulf of Danzig in the period from 25 January to the end of the war. In addition, at least another 600,000 had also been evacuated over much smaller distances within the Gulf of Danzig itself. It had been a quite phenomenal achievement. It took raw courage to keep going back into the dangerous maelstrom that swirled around the eastern half of the Baltic. It ended characteristically with the last two convoys containing sixty-one small naval vessels leaving Windau and four convoys of sixty-five similar craft escaping from Libau on 8 May with a total of 25,700 troops and other refugees on board. Of these only a few of the smallest and slowest ships, containing roughly 300 men, were caught by the Soviets on the following day – the rest made it through safely to the west.

CAPTURING SUURSAARI ISLAND

Major-General Pajari, unaware that he is standing in a minefield on a makeshift speaker’s podium, giving his speech at the Suursaari victory parade on 28 March 1942. (Sa-Kuva)

One of the most daring and unique Finnish operations during the period of trench warfare was the capture of Suursaari Island in the Gulf of Finland, 43km south of Kotka and 56km north of the Estonian coast. Due to its location, this 11km-long island had great strategic significance. Artillery stationed there could control most of the sea lanes to Leningrad. In 1939, the Soviet Union repeatedly approached Finland to see if it could annex Suursaari and the other outlying islands. When these requests were refused, the Red Army took the islands by force during the Winter War.

During the Summer War, the Finnish and German high commands agreed that Suursaari and other outlying islands had to be wrested back from Soviet hands. When supported from these islands, the Soviet Navy was able to disrupt all naval traffic to Kotka harbour, and extend their range of operations deeper into the Baltic Sea. Conversely, if Finland were to hold the islands, it would enable the Germans to bottle up the Soviet Navy into a small corner of the Gulf of Finland. In addition, the establishment of air observation bases on the archipelago could provide early warnings that would considerably increase tactical timeframes for all aerial operations.

Finnish headquarters agreed on a joint operation with the Wehrmacht high command to capture Suursaari and the neighbouring islands. They decided that the best time for the attack would be during midwinter across the frozen Gulf of Finland. Attacking while the sea lanes were still open was considered too risky, as the enemy would be able to ship reinforcements and heavy equipment rapidly to the islands. Once it became apparent that the Germans could not spare the troops needed for the operation, Mannerheim decided that the Finns would carry out the audacious plan themselves. Nevertheless, Luftwaffe support was still expected and officially requested (though it would never appear).

Mannerheim handpicked Major-General Aaro Pajari to lead the attack. He had already proven his worth as an able field commander; first during the Winter War at the battle of Tolvajärvi and again as the commander of the 18th Division during the attack phase of 1941. Despite the involvement of some 3,500 men and 67 planes, Pajari gave orders for the landing plans to be kept top secret.

The Finns had managed to gather relatively accurate intelligence on the strength of the enemy defences. Suursaari belonged to the Leningrad Naval District and was under the jurisdiction of one of their oldest navy formations, the Baltic Fleet, commanded by Vice-Admiral Vladimir Tributs. The Suursaari garrison was commanded by Colonel Barinov, who in turn reported to the fortress commander at the nearby Lavansaari Island. Despite the island’s significance, the vital bases at Suursaari were manned by only 496 soldiers, 12 officers and the compulsory eight political commissars.

The Finns also understood the strength of the fortifications on the rocky island. The problem was how to transport the chosen few thousand men to the vicinity of the island quietly and unseen, quickly enough and with still enough energy left for the fight. The Arctic landscape provided another challenge: the transports had to somehow traverse undetected across a completely horizontal ice plateau (which was entirely devoid of cover) for dozens of kilometres.

Pajari’s plan was to first move the designated troops into staging areas, near Haapasaari and Luppi islands, about 10–15km away from their targets. He hoped to schedule his attack so that heavy snowfall would help conceal the approaching troops. However, this also meant that the necessary roads across the ice would have to be continuously ploughed to keep them open. Strong winds blowing from the open sea could pile up the snowdrifts so fast that whole roads could vanish within 20 minutes. In order to keep routes and assembly areas clear, five cars and one tractor, all fitted with snowploughs, worked continuously for a total of 408 hours.

All of the men were issued with brand new snowsuits. All their equipment was to be painted white. Furthermore, the 738 horses had to be camouflaged with white sheets and the trucks, sleighs and heavy weapons similarly painted. The troops moved into the area mainly on horse-drawn sleighs or in trucks. As time was of the essence, some men on skis were to be drawn along, holding onto ropes trailing from the crammed trucks. In addition to all the soldiers and their weapons, several bridge sections were taken along, in case the ice cracked and caused a chasm to open across the ice road. White tents were to be set up at 10km intervals along the track. These were to serve as supply points and field hospitals. In the end the total traffic on the ice was so extensive that it was a miracle the Soviets did not notice the preparations for the attack. For the time being, aircraft were only stationed on the mainland. When the time came, they were to be charged with reconnaissance duty and then the support and protection of the infantry during the attack. Additionally, they were tasked with evacuating the wounded and preventing the enemy from withdrawing from Suursaari Island.

The main Finnish attack force was split into two battalions: the 1st Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment under Major Lauri Toiviainen, and the 2nd Battalion of the 6th Infantry Regiment under Captain Veikko Elovaara. There was also a reserve coastal guard battalion commanded by Major Åke Sokajärvi in the vicinity of the main attack. Lieutenant-Colonel Lauri Sotisaari led the spearhead with his Detachment S, which was to assault the western shore under cover of darkness. From there his men would then move both north and south along the frozen shoreline while the body of his command took control of the road connecting the two small settlements on the island. Several heavy mortars assigned to the detachment would provide tactical support. A simultaneous attack was also scheduled to start from the opposite, eastern side of the island by Detachment M under Major Martti Miettinen; its role was to prevent the enemy from escaping over the ice, and to act as a distraction from the main assault. Once the enemy dug in to defend, he was to continue his attack towards the two settlements of Suurkylä and Kiiskinkylä. Two light artillery batteries and several anti-tank guns were to provide support for the detachment.

The troops moved into their staging areas and settled into camouflaged tents near the Luppi and Haapasaari Islands. All that was needed was propitious weather. During this crucial time, the Finnish Air Force prevented Soviet planes from approaching close enough to get an idea of the scale of the preparations. On 27 March, once the temperature had dropped to -6°C, Pajari judged that the snow conditions were ideal to launch the attack on skis. Before the assault commenced, each man received a warm meal and 100ml of cognac blended with vodka, in order to give them the boost needed for rapid approach and attack.

The men moved to their jumping-off points. In order to ensure total darkness no fires were permitted and light bulbs were removed from the truck headlights, just in case somebody switched them on accidentally. Unfortunately, the first time the column of vehicles stopped, a long trail of red lights lit up; no one had remembered to remove the bulbs from the brake lights. Luckily for the Finns, this happened far enough away from the Soviet lines that the attackers could continue undetected.

Nevertheless, observers at Suursaari finally realised that something was afoot. On the evening of 26 March at 21:30 the following message was sent to headquarters at nearby Lavansaari Island: ‘About a battalion-strength enemy force seen staging around Haapasaari Island before darkness fell. Special patrols have been sent to observe.’ Lavansaari was at the time snowed in and 40km distant; sending any support there would be slow. However, the island did have an airfield, so in theory at least, air support could be rapidly scrambled.

However, the sighting had come too late. The significance and strength of the Finnish forces was greatly underestimated. After sending the message, Colonel Barinov raised the alarm at Suursaari Island standing his men to. For some reason, instead of sending out patrols to gauge the enemy’s intentions, he was content with letting the troops fight the cold in their foxholes. Although the temperature was only -6°C, the Arctic wind blowing across the ice made matters much worse. At the same time, the increasing snowfall continued to hinder visibility. While the Soviet troops seemed to be hibernating, the Finns approached the island from two directions. Everything was going to plan. Suursaari lay ahead, silhouetted dimly through the billowing snow.

The heavy mortars reached their positions 1.5km from the island, with the light mortars pulled to a mere 500m from the shore. The attack commenced at 04:00 with the troops starting to ski towards the island. When the vanguard of Detachment S was near the western shoreline, the Soviets opened fire. At the same time, the smaller Detachment M had spread out on a wide front on the ice and now engaged the enemy positions from the east. Soon a fierce firefight had developed on both sides of the island. Once the main Finnish forces secured a bridgehead, they started to force their way north and south along the rocky island. Progress was slowed by having to climb steep, rocky cliffs and to wade through ravines filled with deep snow. However, despite the determination of the Soviet defenders, the southerly force soon captured the middle of the island and Kiiskinkylä. At the same time, the majority of Detachment S targeted the rear of Suurkylä and the heavily fortified northern peninsula. A small number of men under Detachment Oksanen were sent to simultaneously secure the southernmost tip of the island from the west.

The Finnish numbers came to bear during the night and through the following morning, when the northern part of Detachment S was able to assault the positions in Suurkylä. Here the Soviets managed to hold out until 15:00. By this time, most of the other important strategic objectives around the island had been captured. Nevertheless, the Soviets continued to resist in several fortified positions across the island and by nightfall, six Soviet fighter planes flew over in support. Twelve Finnish fighters met the enemy planes and proceeded to shoot down four of them. A fifth Soviet aircraft was hit by flak, and only one plane was able to return back to its base at Lavansaari Island.

At this stage, the fiercest opposition came from the Soviets on Selkäapajanniemi Peninsula. There the defenders had used thick timber logs to build extremely strong fortifications in the natural openings in the bedrock. The Finnish Air Force was called upon to soften up these positions. At 17:30, four bombers arrived, strafing the strongholds with machine guns and delivering a total payload of 2,000kg of bombs. By the evening, the Soviet defenders had had enough, and decided to escape over the ice. The Finns pursued them relentlessly across the vastness.

By the bright light of dawn the following morning, the Finns had cleared out the last three fortifications offering resistance at Selkäapajanniemi. This left only one determined enemy stronghold at Lounatrivi lighthouse. So far, the defenders there had resisted all attacks by the Finns. Two pioneer detachments and an artillery squad were sent to resolve the matter. The crew manhandled their gun on top of the piled ice. After setting their sights, they opened fire systematically against the lighthouse, shelling it from the top down a floor at a time. This forced the defenders to flee downwards and eventually out of the front door. Even now, these brave men refused to surrender. They were all killed in the fight that ensued. Kipparniemi Peninsula also held a small Soviet detachment. After completely surrounding the enemy, the Finns concluded that their positions were not strongly fortified. Therefore it was decided to let them stew until the following morning.

The whole of Suursaari finally came under Finnish control on 28 March. That day, Pajari decided to organise a victory parade on the ice in front of the island. Two flights of six Curtis fighter planes each were to fly sentry over the formations. After giving the orders for the procession, Pajari telephoned Mannerheim at his headquarters in Mikkeli: ‘I hereby notify you that I have more or less captured Suursaari Island. Only some minor pockets of resistance remain.’ After the phone call, Pajari found time for a quick nap in his tent. Meanwhile, his men hastened into the parade formations and readied themselves for inspection. The men also had time to assemble a makeshift speaker’s podium on top of a horse-drawn sleigh and a military marching band was even rushed all the way from Helsinki for the occasion. It was extremely risky to organise the parade so soon. Had Soviet planes happened on the scene, the men would have made easy targets on the flat, cover-free ice. Nonetheless, Pajari seemed to have had great faith in the aircraft flying over his men.

The first incident happened after all the men had been inspected, the chaplain had given his sermon and the last of the speeches delivered. At this stage, a lone Soviet machine-gun squad chose to reveal itself and surrender. They had been hiding a mere 100m away from the place where Pajari had been speaking. Had the sergeant in charge of the heavy weapon fancied some posthumous Soviet fame for himself, at least a dozen Finnish soldiers could have been killed. Afterwards, it also came to light that the general and his chief of staff had been positioned directly on top of a minefield. It was sheer good fortune that it had snowed so much, as this prevented the pressure-mines from detonating.

When the excitement of taking care of the surrendering Soviets had died down, a radio message reached Pajari. Twenty-nine enemy planes were approaching the island in three formations of eight, eleven and ten planes. Only one Finnish flight of six Curtiss fighter planes was still in the area while the second flight had already moved nearer to Lavansaari Island. It transpired that the parade had an air show-style finale. The aerial battle quickly developed into a spinning carousel with planes flying in every direction. The six Finnish planes on site engaged immediately with no shortage of targets. The second flight returned quickly from the direction of Lavansaari, attacking the rearmost of the Soviet formations. In the end, the Finns destroyed 18 of the 29 enemy planes without suffering any losses of their own. Earlier the same day, another flight of Brewsters had bagged itself five confirmed kills and a Fokker unit four more. This score of 27 confirmed enemy kills was (to date) the highest one-day tally achieved by the Finnish Air Force. Such triumphs did come with a hefty price: each pilot was forced to fly or be on high alert throughout the day and night. During the last days of the operation, the only way the men kept themselves fit to fly was through heavy use of the German-made combat stimulant Pervitin (methamphetamine). In total, they flew 643 combat missions and delivered over 5,000kg of bombs during the operation.

THE FIRST LITHUANIAN STATE

Battle of Saulė in 1236

The most serious threat to the early Balts came from the west. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, Catholic orders of knights seeking to Christianize the Baltic region began a series of crusades. The first of these crusading orders, the Order of the Brothers of the Sword, was defeated by the Lithuanians at the Battle of Saulė in 1236. Following that defeat, the Roman Catholic pope called for a renewed campaign to conquer and Christianize the pagan Lithuanians. The call was answered by a succession of crusading knights, the most formidable of which were the members of the Teutonic Order.

Lithuanians had yet to form a unified nation-state. The political organization consisted of a nobility composed of feudal dukes and princes ruling over fiefdoms and tribes. Had they chosen to fight the Teutonic Order separately, they would have been easily defeated. Therefore, the nobility formed an alliance, led by a noble called Mindaugas, to engage in the struggle. Despite the alliance, however, the united Lithuanian duchies were not able to stem the continued advances of the Teutonic Order. Recognizing the inevitability of defeat, Mindaugas submitted to the pope in 1251 and accepted Christianity. As a consequence he was crowned the king of Lithuania in 1253 by the pope, an act establishing the first Lithuanian state.

Mindaugas’s decision was not popular among the Lithuanian nobility, many of whom refused to be baptized. The population as well remained overwhelmingly pagan. Hence, the new state was a pagan one with a Christian king. The opposition of the population to Christianity led to the murder of King Mindaugas in 1263 and the renewal of the struggle against the Christian crusaders. Following the murder of Mindaugas, rule of Lithuania reverted to the various dukes and princes. However, in order to fight the Teutonic Order, they submitted to a grand duke, who ruled as first among equals. Thanks to their unity, this time they were able to establish Lithuanian dominance in the Baltic Sea region by the end of the thirteenth century. Nonetheless, the struggle against the Teutonic Order continued throughout most of the fourteenth century, forcing the country to allocate virtually all of its resources to defense; consequently, the country’s political system of the time is referred to by some as a military monarchy.

The concentration of resources permitted the Lithuanian state to become one of the greatest empires in Europe over the course of the next 150 years-the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-1341) began the long-term eastward expansion of the Lithuanians, assimilating Slavic territories, many of which willingly submitted to the Grand Duchy in order to escape having to pay tribute to the Mongols, who ruled most of the Russian lands in that era (having destroyed the Kievan state in the thirteenth century). Gediminas also sought to break out of the international isolation thrust upon the country by the continued struggle against the Catholic Church and the Teutonic Order. He established formal contacts between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the countries of Western Europe, engaged in regular correspondence with their rulers, and began a dynasty that intermarried with many of the ruling families of Europe. Much of this was done in an effort to create rifts within the Catholic Church and between the ruling houses of Europe. To further this strategy, Gediminas also invited Western merchants, artisans, and academics to the new capital that he founded at Vilnius. Among those responding were many Jews, who took advantage of the remarkable degree of religious tolerance that marked the Grand Duchy and established one of the great centers of Judaism in Vilnius.

During the mid-fourteenth century, Grand Duke Algirdas (1345-1377) continued the eastern expansion begun by Gediminas. Under his rule, the Grand Duchy’s Lithuanian subjects were gradually outnumbered by newly assimilated peoples. Algirdas was followed by Grand Duke Jogaila, who is much maligned in Lithuanian history for his decision in 1386 to marry the queen of Poland, thereby entering into an alliance with that state. Jogaila’s decision was motivated by a desire to ensure Lithuanian preeminence in an emerging contest with Moscow for the loyalties of eastern Slavic princes. While still under the Mongol yoke, Moscow was laying claim to the Russian lands, many of which had been assimilated into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In addition, Moscow had been recognized by Byzantium as the seat of religious authority for Orthodox Christianity in the Slavic lands. The recognition brought with it significant legitimacy for the Russian claims over these lands. Given Lithuania’s status as the last pagan nation in Europe, it found itself isolated between a Catholic West and an Orthodox East, both of which claimed the divine right to rule over the territories of the Grand Duchy. A marriage with Poland thus offered the means to both reduce the threat from the West and lay claim to a religious title (that of representing Catholic Slavs, a title that Poland had acquired) competing for the loyalties of Slavic princes. Hence, Lithuania was baptized in 1387, and the last pagan state in Europe became Christian.

As a consequence of the marriage, the Grand Duchy entered a long period of decline, even though this would not be readily apparent for several centuries. By entering into marriage with the queen of Poland, Jogaila became the king of Poland, retaining his title as the Grand Duke of Lithuania. While in the short term this appeared highly beneficial to Lithuania, it meant that the Lithuanians faced the disadvantage of being far fewer in number than the Poles. In the long term, as Lithuania’s territorial holdings were reduced (in the face of continuing Russian expansion), it became the lesser of the two states in the union. However, the advantages of the marriage uniting the two countries appeared to outweigh any disadvantages at the time. Therefore, unlike the first christening, this one was not reversed.

The subsequent grand duke, Vytautas the Great, who ruled at the beginning of the fifteenth century, not only retained Lithuania’s commitment to Christianity, he took full advantage of the union with Poland to further the prosperity of the country. In fact, the reign of Vytautas the Great marks the zenith of Lithuania’s military and political fortunes. In one of the most significant battles of the Middle Ages, Vytautas, leading a joint Lithuanian-Polish army, decisively defeated the Teutonic Order at the Battle of Grünwald (1410; the battle is known as the Battle of Žalgiris in Lithuania), bringing the final defeat of the order and ending the centuries-long threat from the west. In the east, Vytautas pursued a successful policy, annexing further territories in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, expanding the borders of the Grand Duchy from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, and blocking Moscow’s further expansion westward into Europe.

Vytautas also took advantage of the union with Poland to lay the foundations for Lithuania’s full integration into Central Europe, something that its pagan identity had prevented it from achieving. In the 150 years after his death, Lithuania assimilated the political and cultural heritage of Western civilization. The country adopted the crop rotation system, adapted its social system to monarchism, experienced the rise of craft guilds, adopted a written language, and built a university system. Reflecting these changes, Lithuania’s first publishing house was founded in Vilnius in 1522; in addition, a legal code was written in 1529 and subsequently redrafted in 1566 and 1588. The 1588 code remained in force until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Battle of Žalgiris

The Battle of forces of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland defeated the Teutonic Order, was one of the greatest battles of the Middle Ages, let alone in East Central Europe. The defeat of the Teutonic Order, Žalgiris (also known as the Battle of Grünwald, or Tannenberg), in which the joint military an order of crusaders of the Catholic Church, on 15 July 1410, marked the end of the order’s expansion along the southeastern coast of the Baltic Sea eastward and the beginning of the decline of the order’s power.

The first German crusading orders came to Poland and the Baltic region in the thirteenth century. Two hundred years later, they had conquered most of the Baltic coastal region, including Latvia and Estonia. It is doubtless the case that they were intent on controlling Lithuania, Poland, and Russia as well. Had they succeeded, the Roman Catholic Church would have dominated the whole of Central and Eastern Europe.

Hoping to forcibly spread Christianity and acquire more territory, the focus of the Teutonic Order’s military activities in the fourteenth century was the pagan Lithuanian state. Even after Lithuania accepted Christianity in 1387, the Knights of the Teutonic Order did not cease their aggression against the country. It was obvious that diplomatic efforts would not be able to avert war with the Knights. Therefore, the only hope of defeating the order was if Lithuania and Poland united their military forces.

Hence, on 15 July 1410, a joint Lithuanian-Polish army, joined by Tatar, Bohemian, Russian, Moravian, and Moldavian soldiers, met the Teutonic Knights on the field of Žalgiris (located in the northeast of present-day Poland). The allied army was led by the grand duke of Lithuania, Vytautas the Great, and the king of Poland, Jogaila. Although outnumbered (the Knights numbered 32,000, compared to more than 50,000 Poles, Lithuanians, and allies), the order enjoyed superiority in weaponry, experience, and battlefield leadership. Nonetheless, at the end of an entire day of fighting, the Teutonic Knights were defeated, a defeat from which they never recovered. On 1 February 1411, both sides signed a peace treaty, after which the Teutonic Order never again threatened Lithuania.

The Battle of Grünwald is the most important battle in the history of both Lithuania and Poland. As a consequence of the defeat of the Teutonic Order, Eastern Europe was not Germanized, and the emerging nations of Lithuania and Poland were able to develop their own cultures. For that reason, Vytautas the Great is honored in Lithuanian history as the savior of not only the nation of Lithuania, but all of Eastern Europe. Jogaila is awarded that position in Polish history.

WWI – Russian Navy versus German Navy

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Gangut at anchor in Helsingfors, 1915. Note the deployed torpedo net.

WORLD WAR I-BALTIC

After the debacle of the Russo-Japanese War reforms were initiated, and under the able Admiral von Essen the reconstruction of the Russian Navy was taken in hand. In the Baltic, the aim was to reach sixty percent of the strength of the German High Seas Fleet. At first, help from the outside was utilized to a considerable extent. The armored cruiser Rurik (15,400 tons, 4 254-mm. guns, 8 203-mm. guns) was built in England by Vickers, turbines for large destroyers in Germany. At the same time, the creation of an efficient armaments industry was begun; large shipyards were built. In June 1909 the keels of four fast battleships (23,400 tons, 12 305-mm. guns) were laid in shipyards in St. Petersburg. The ships were commissioned in 1914-1915. Three similar battleships, slightly slower, but better protected, were finished in Black Sea shipyards between 1915 and 1917, but four very large battle cruisers (32,400 tons, 12 356-mm. guns) for the Baltic were never completed. A high-quality product of the new Russian shipyards was a series of 36 large destroyers, excellently suited for minelaying.

When war broke out, both sides considered the Baltic a secondary theater of operations. The Germans had to be more active because they were more vulnerable to Russian naval operations. They generally used their old ships in the Baltic but had the advantage of being able to send ships from the High Seas Fleet as reinforcements on short notice. This possibility made the Russians very cautious. They were well prepared for minelaying, and in the first winter of the war undertook a number of cleverly planned operations of this kind in the eastern and central Baltic. Several German warships and merchant steamers were sunk or damaged by Russian mines; operations were considerably hampered. On the other hand, German submarines, as well as mines, proved dangerous to the Russians. After the death of Admiral von Essen in the spring of 1915 Russian naval activity decreased noticeably.

In the spring and summer of 1915 a massive German-Austrian land offensive forced back the Russian armies several hundred kilometers. When German land forces approached the large naval base of Libau (Liepaja) a squadron of Russian armored cruisers tried to interfere but retreated after a short fight with German light cruisers, in which no ship was seriously damaged. The only other encounter between surface forces in the open Baltic happened on 2 July 1915. A squadron of five Russian armored cruisers intercepted the minelayer Albatross (2,200 tons, 8 88-mm. guns), which was protected by the light cruiser Augsburg (4,300 tons, 12 105-mm. guns). The Albatross was soon damaged and beached herself at Östergarne on the Swedish island of Gotland. Then the German armored cruiser Roon (9,500 tons, 4 210-mm. guns) and the light cruiser Lubeck joined in the fight. With 4 254-mm. and 20 203-mm. guns the Russians were still far superior but they did not succeed in seriously damaging the German cruisers. They received some hits, too, and finally retreated although no other German forces were near.

In August 1915, a German squadron, reinforced from the North Sea, made two attempts to break into the Gulf of Riga. In the first, the mine barriers proved impenetrable. The second succeeded, in spite of considerable losses to mines, but had no lasting consequences because the German Army did not participate, although its flank on the Gulf of Riga was being continuously harrassed by bombardments from the sea and even raids by parties landed from the sea.

In the summer of 1915, the number of British submarines in the Baltic was increased. The larger E-boats again passed the Sound (between Denmark and Sweden) as in the fall of 1914; the smaller C-class arrived via canals from the White Sea. They proved distinctly more effective than the Russian submarines. For two years neither side undertook any large naval operations. The Germans suffered losses to mines and submarines, but their domination of the Baltic was never challenged. Sea power worked unobtrusively.

For Germany it was vital to have absolute control of the central and western Baltic: she received most of her iron ore from Sweden, most of the grain from her eastern provinces and coal from the Ruhr district was carried by ship, the supplies for the northern wing of the army fighting Russia went by sea, and-last but not least-sea power relieved the army from the necessity of defending the long coasts in the Baltic. Lord Fisher, for many years the British First Sea Lord, strongly advocated large-scale operations in the Baltic. He was of the opinion that this would compel the Germans to station one million men along their coasts. His estimate was probably too high, but it indicates the size of the potential problem for the German armed forces. Early in 1915 the Royal Navy ordered the Courageous class (19,000 tons, 4 381-mm. guns, 32 knots, draft only 6.8 m.) for Baltic operations. However, the outcome of the Battle of Jutland (31 May/l June 1916) clearly showed that such an undertaking would be too risky even for the Grand Fleet. The battle did not change the over-all strategic situation and therefore in some quarters is considered of little importance. True, the blockade of Germany continued but so did that of Russia, since the British had to abandon their plans for directly supporting her through the Baltic.

As early as January 1915 the Russian government had asked the Western allies to open the sea routes to European Russia again. This request led to the well-conceived, but clumsily executed attack on the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915. In the land campaign of that year the Russian armies suffered disproportionately heavy losses in men as a result of lack of ammunition. According to Minister of War Suchomlinov, field batteries received no more than four rounds per gun for a whole day of fighting. When the Black Sea and the Baltic remained closed the situation in Russia deteriorated steadily. Construction of the Murmansk railway had only just begun; from Arkhangelsk 900 kilometers of narrow-gauge rail led to the main railway system. Nine thousand kilometers of single-track railway crossed Siberia to the Far East. In the winter of 1916-17 food in the larger towns was in such short supply that four meatless days per week had to be instituted. The revolution in February 1917 was the consequence of starvation at home and decimation and defeat in the field. When the Kerensky government tried to continue the fight, the Central Powers put pressure on with three limited offensives. The last was an amphibious operation to take the Baltic Islands of Ösel, Moon (Muhu), and Dago. Russian ships still fought well but without luck. The old battleship Slava was damaged by German battleships and had to be blown up by her own crew. The destroyer Grom was taken. The Germans lost a number of smaller vessels to mines.

In this context it is amusing to read another fairytale [1] of Gorshkov’s: “The Moon Sound operation (12 to 20 October 1917) … had the far-reaching goal of uniting the Central Powers, Britain, the U. S. A., and France in the struggle against the Russian Revolution.” When he quotes Lenin to support this strange idea he only shows that this paragon of political wisdom knew very little of sea power and its consequences. He should have been grateful to the Central Powers, for the loss of the Baltic Islands further weakened the Kerensky government and helped make the Bolshevist October Revolution possible. Figures and facts are distorted in Gorshkov’s short description of the operation, which practically ended the naval war in the Baltic.

[1] In a series of articles written in 1972 (published by the U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings in 1974) Admiral Gorshkov.

WORLD WAR I-BLACK SEA

In the Black Sea the Russian naval forces were more active than in the Baltic. After the German battle cruiser Goeben joined the Turkish fleet in August 1914 neither side had a marked superiority until the new Russian battleships appeared. There were quite a number of engagements, but no conclusive results. When their allies attacked the Dardanelles the Russians repeatedly bombarded the fortifications at the entrance to the Bosporus but did not attempt any landing operations. By this abstention they may have missed the best opportunity for radically improving their supply situation.

The Turkish army in East Anatolia depended on sea transport for a great part of its supplies. When the first new Russian battleship was commissioned· in the winter of 1915-16, Admiral Kolchak, formerly chief-of-staff to Admiral von Essen, made good use of her, and soon the Russians had the upper hand. Well-supported from the sea, their army advanced deep into Turkish territory. At the same time naval forces attacked and nearly stopped the vital transport of coal from Zunguldak on the Black Sea to the Bosporus. With a British army advancing on Palestine, Turkey’s situation soon became critical, but then the October Revolution put an end to Russian operations in Anatolia. The Germans occupied the Ukraine and the Black Sea ports. After the German capitulation, French forces entered Sevastopol temporarily. The best ships of the Russian Black Sea Fleet left with them and rusted for many years at the French base of Bizerta in Algeria.

After foreign war, two revolutions, and a long civil war, the remnants of the Russian Navy were in bad shape. Its reconstruction had to take second place behind that of the Army. The experts disagreed on the type of navy needed by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party decided for a kind of “jeune ecole” fleet, a navy for coastal defense with torpedo craft and submarines. Then Stalin assumed command. With his acute sense for politics and power he saw the possibilities of a strong navy for furthering his plans. He also saw the technical difficulties and therefore did not precipitate matters. The second Five-Year Plan (1933-1937) provided for construction of six heavy cruisers, a number of large destroyers and a minimum of 50 submarines. Then, in the Party Congress of 1934, Stalin launched his campaign for capital ships-through a prominent submarine officer. For the construction of battleships and carriers, begun in the third Five-Year Plan, he tried to get help from the USA, but his request was turned down. After the treaty with Hitler in 1939 .he received a half-finished heavy cruiser (the Seydlitz), fire-control gear, and other equipment. In the Supreme Soviet, Premier Molotov declared that in the third Five-Year Plan the Navy had first priority. Pravda declared: “Only the biggest High Seas Fleet will meet Soviet demands.” When the Germans attacked in 1941, the big ships were not yet ready, but 291 submarines of the target number of 325 were in service or nearing completion.

Battle of Culblean

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Map from Marrens or Wyness book illustrates the Culblean (Kulblane) battle ground.

In the autumn of 1335, Strathbogie raised an army of 3,000 and with some siege engines, set out to conquer the north-east of Scotland in Balliol’s name. His plan was simple – to eject the Bruce following there and replace it with the Disinherited nobles or their heirs from that region. Being autumn, every knight-tenant, landowner and humble cottar (crofter) was engaged in bringing in the harvest. Strathbogie’s campaign was marked by the smoke from burning hayricks, his men feasting off slaughtered livestock. Then Strathbogie laid siege to Kildrummy Castle, east of Aviemore, where David II’s aunt Christian Bruce was sheltering. (Christian Bruce was the wife of the Guardian, Sir Andrew Murray.) Strathbogie extracted a promise from Sir John Craig, commander of Kildrummy that unless a relief force arrived by 30 November (St Andrew’s Day), the castle would surrender to him.

Sir Andrew Murray was in Bathgate engaged in negotiations with Balliol’s commissioners when the news of Kildrummy reached him. Murray immediately broke off the talks and marched north with 800 knights and gentry including the Earl of Dunbar, Douglas of Liddesdale and Sir Alexander Seton along with about 3,000 infantry.8 Learning of the approach of the relief column, Strathbogie withdrew from Kildrummy and bivouacked in the Forest of Culblean, near Ballater on Deeside. Sir John Craig, Kildrummy Castle’s commander and his 300-strong garrison shadowed Strathbogie, linking with Sir Andrew Murray and his force on St Andrew’s Day.

Early in the morning of 30 November, Murray split his force into two divisions, himself commanding one, Douglas of Liddesdale the other. A half-asleep sentry in Strathbogie’s camp heard the sounds of the approaching army. In the growing light, Strathbogie readied his men for an attack he expected to come from the rear of his camp. On that grey autumn morning nearly 4,000 men from the Lothians, the Merse and elsewhere stood in ordered lines among the trees of the Forest of Culblean; perhaps that November morning there was a mist which offered some protection from Strathbogie’s archers. Strathbogie attacked Douglas of Liddesdale in a headlong frontal assault, charging in force to disable the Scottish wing. As the two groups clashed, Murray pressed forward with his division. In the ensuing melee Murray’s men chased Strathbogie deeper into the wood. The battle was soon over; attended by five of his knights Strathbogie placed his back against a tree, fighting bravely until he was cut down, his body pierced by several swords.

Culblean was no Bannockburn but it brought back shades of Bruce’s victories, giving Sir Andrew Murray the courage to continue the struggle. In many ways Culblean was the turning point in this, the second war of independence. The struggle was no longer one of loyalty to David Bruce or Edward Balliol but to the realm of Scotland. Culblean, a minor battle in the north, was won by men from the Lothians and the Merse, Lowlanders who had long been accused of being in the pocket of three English Kings – Edward I, II and III. The Lowlanders’ victory at Culblean restored their honour. Even the chronicles of later years would look back on Culblean as a deciding factor in the struggle for Scotland’s independence.

As mentioned earlier, by 1337 Edward III had lost interest in Scotland, the year he arrogantly declared himself King of France, which began the conflict known to history as the Hundred Years’ War. Thereafter, Edward limited his intervention in Scotland’s affairs intermittently and half-heartely. Although the war between England and Scotland continued, it was no longer prosecuted with the same impetus and enthusiasm and scale as it had been in the days of Edward I.

In a succession of skirmishes and sieges, the Scots gradually cleared the English out of most of Scotland, although the south-east still remained in their possession. By mid-1337, the disinherited nobles had been forced into a small corner of south-west Scotland. Edward III was increasingly absent from England on the Continent, eager to pursue his ambitions in France which offered better rewards than a Scotland impoverished by years of warfare. He paid Scotland little interest, knowing that Edward Balliol was now a spent force on whom he could no longer rely. But the English still occupied the Merse and Roxburghshire, reaping rich rewards from the fertile agricultural lands and lording it over the rural population.

And then came a minor but significantly morale-boosting event in January 1338. After Edward III rebuilt Edinburgh Castle in 1337, he was content to rest on his laurels, losing interest in the subordinate or satellite castles in the south-east – Berwick, Roxburgh and Dunbar – as he considered Edinburgh the key to controlling the area and allowing his forces to continue their occupation of a rich agricultural region where his troops could subsist at little cost to the English Treasury. With Edinburgh Castle in English hands, Dunbar Castle assumed an importance for the Scots as it kept open lines of communication with France, Scotland’s ally. To allow him to further his ambitions in France, Edward appointed Thomas de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick as his lieutenant in Scotland.

John of Fordun’s Chronicle tells us that in the summer of 1337, Lothian suffered wholesale destruction while Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March, was campaigning with Sir Andrew Murray in Fife and Lanarkshire, reducing every castle in those counties which still held out for Edward III or Balliol. In Lothian, the ineffective Earl of Warwick was replaced by Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel and William Montague, Earl of Salisbury; Arundel and Salisbury were appointed joint commanders of south-east Scotland. Salisbury would become the dominant partner in the events which took place in the first half of 1338.

The centre of resistance in south-east Scotland was Dunbar, East Lothian, where its virtually impregnable castle was left in charge of Agnes Randolph, Patrick 9th Earl of Dunbar’s Countess. Because of the unrest in the south-east, Salisbury and Arundel decided that Dunbar Castle must be taken as it posed a threat to stability in the remaining English-held territory. Their strategy was also aimed at relieving pressure on castles in the vicinity still occupied by English or pro-English garrisons. While the siege of Dunbar Castle was in no sense a set-piece battle which qualifies as a Scottish ‘killing field’, it deserves a brief mention in this account because its successful defence prevented the need for a pitched battle by the Scots to regain control of the south-east of Scotland.

The siege of Dunbar began on 13 January 1338 it would last for twenty-two weeks. ‘Black’ Agnes successfully withstood every attempt made by Salisbury and Arundel to capture the castle, by both fair means or foul; Salisbury tried bribery and blackmail to no avail. (Agnes’s sole surviving brother John was brought from the Tower of London and displayed before her, Salisbury threatening to execute him if she did not surrender. Agnes simply replied that were he to do so, she would inherit the earldom of Moray!) In June 1338, Agnes was relieved by Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, much to the annoyance of Edward III.

The elation of the Scots occasioned by the successful outcome at Dunbar was marred by the death of the regent, Sir Andrew Murray of Bothwell; he was replaced by Robert the Steward. The town of Perth remained in the hands of the English, so the new regent concentrated his resources into recovering it. For some unknown reason, Edward III recalled Edward Balliol to England before Robert the Steward began the siege of Perth; perhaps the English king had lost any residual confidence in Balliol, or he wished to spare him the embarrassment of possible defeat. Perth had been placed in the charge of a Thomas Ughtred, who may have been a Northumbrian, given his surname; Ughtred was a common name in that region of northern England during the time of the Bernician Angles.

Perth was a strongly fortified and walled town; however, the Scots aided by some French auxiliaries experienced little difficulty in bringing the pro-English garrison to the negotiating table. In August 1339, Ughtred capitulated and was permitted to march out of Perth with his force intact and return to England. The subsequent re-capture of the castles of Stirling and Edinburgh meant that by 1341, it was deemed safe for David II and his Queen Joan to end their exile in France. David Bruce was hampered by two incompatible political ends when he began his reign in 1341 at the age of seventeen. Scotland’s ties with France through the Auld Alliance remained an obstacle to possible peace with England. David II could not feel secure on the throne of Scotland until England’s claims to overlordship of the country were rescinded, which Edward III would not abandon until Scotland’s alliance with France was terminated.

In 1346, Philip VI of France called upon David to relieve the pressure on France by Edward III who in August 1346 had scored a spectacular victory against the French at Crécy. David responded by raising an army and invading England with a formidable army in the autumn of 1346. He engaged the forces of Edward III at Neville’s Cross, near Durham, on 17 October; decisively beaten, David was taken prisoner along with four of his senior earls and the Bishop of St Andrews. In addition, fifty barons were taken into captivity. Among the fatal casualties was John Randolph, 4th Earl of Moray who had been unceremoniously dragged before his sister Agnes during the siege of Dunbar in 1338. David II would spend the next eleven years in English captivity; in his place, Scotland was ruled by the weak Robert the Steward. Ironically, it was the battle of Neville’s Cross which brought hostilities between Scotland and England to an end.