The forgotten fleet: the British navy and Baltic independence

  • 2004-12-15
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - While Latvia held back-to-back celebrations for Lacplesa Day and Independence Day, a much smaller commemoration was held in Jelgava's Meza Kapi cemetery. On Nov. 14 - Remembrance Sunday - representatives of the city of Jelgava, the Latvian armed forces and the British, Canadian and American communities met to pay homage to the Latvian and Allied forces killed in Latvia's independence war.

Jelgava may seem an unlikely place to house the remains of British servicemen, but for a brief but crucial period from Nov. 1918 to Jan. 1920 an almost-forgotten Royal Navy detachment was instrumental in maintaining Baltic independence.

The situation in the Baltic states at the end of WWI was chaotic. The Russian empire had collapsed. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had been granted nominal independence by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, but Lenin declared: "The Baltic must become a Soviet sea," and unleashed his forces across the region. German garrisons held many of the major cities, few of them inclined to obey their government's order to return home. And in Latvia and Estonia, White Russian forces were gathering, bent on retaking the Bolshevik stronghold of Petrograd and rebuilding the Russian empire.

Foreign aid

The British government was uncertain how to handle the situation. They agreed with the principle of supporting the newborn states, but after four years of carnage in France, they feared the political fall-out a prolonged infantry campaign would cause. Spurred by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Wester "Rosy" Wemyss, a man who believed in extending the "freedom of the seas" principle to the Baltic, they decided to send a naval task force "to show the British flag and support British policy as circumstances dictate." On Nov. 22 1918, the Sixth Light Cruiser Squadron - five light cruisers and nine destroyers plus supporting vessels - sailed for the Baltic under the command of Rear-Admiral Edwin Alexander-Sinclair.

The first blood was soon shed: the squadron was passing northwest of Saaremaa, heading for Tallinn, when the cruiser Cassandra struck a German mine and sank with the loss of eleven hands. It was an ill-omened start, but the British soon recovered. Soon after reaching Tallinn they sailed again, steaming to Narva to bombard the Bolshevik positions there. Their actions infuriated Trotsky, who commanded: "They must be destroyed at any cost." On Dec. 26 a Soviet task force left Kronstadt naval base. One destroyer was sent to Tallinn to lure the British into an ambush, but when the British left harbor the destroyer began firing so wildly that it wrecked its own charthouse, concussed its helmsman and ran aground, signaling "All is lost. I am pursued by the English." By the end of the night two Soviet destroyers had been captured and donated to the Estonian navy, and the commissar of the Soviet fleet, F.F. Raskolnikov, had been found hiding under 12 sacks of potatoes and taken prisoner.

War games

Sinclair returned to Britain in January 1919. His replacement was Rear-Admiral Sir Walter Cowan, who had first seen battle in Nigeria in 1895, and whose final campaign was in the Adriatic in 1944. The situation in the Baltics had been complicated by the arrival of German Major-General Rudiger von der Goltz, and for the whole of 1919, Cowan's greatest challenges were to keep the Soviet fleet penned in Kronstadt and to stop the Germans overrunning from the Baltics. His success was spectacular.

The Soviet fleet had been reorganized on pragmatic lines following the loss of its two destroyers, and Trotsky had given the blunt instruction: "The Revolution must put the British fleet out of action." At first, fortune favored him: mines damaged the British cruiser Curacoa and sank the submarine L-55 and the minesweepers Myrtle and Gentian with the loss of over 50 lives.

The British managed to keep the Soviet navy from intervening in Estonia's war for independence, but failed to cause material harm until June. In that month, a single 40-foot coastal motor boat commanded by Lieutenant Augustus Agar penetrated the Kronstadt minefield and sank the cruiser Oleg. The action inspired Cowan, and on Aug. 17 he sent eight CMBs into Kronstadt. These small motorboats, armed only with torpedoes and machine guns, entered the main harbor basin and sank the Soviet fleet's two chief battleships and a store-ship. In the hail of fire that followed, three CMBs were sunk with the loss of 15 lives; but as Cowan commented of the Soviet fleet: "Nothing bigger than a destroyer ever moved again." Although a Soviet submarine later sank one British destroyer and a mine sank another, the naval threat to Estonia's flank was permanently lifted.

In Latvia, meanwhile, the situation was more complex. The largest armed force there was Goltz' German army, and Goltz was bent on conquest. To further his dream he repeatedly sabotaged the creation of a Latvian army, arranged a Baltic German coup, built a wall along Liepaja quay to keep Latvians and British apart (the British waited until the wall was finished, then simply moved their ships around it) and accused Karlis Ulmanis of having Bolshevik sympathies. The Latvian leader took shelter on the Latvian ship SS Saratov, and for the next few months his government lived under the protection of the Royal Navy's guns.

When Goltz was forced to resign in September 1919, he was replaced by the Russian adventurer Paul Bermondt-Avalov, whose army promptly attacked Riga. Latvia's nascent army deserves all the credit for stopping them; but throughout the battles, Cowan's ships and a French flotilla provided artillery support and transport, enabling Latvian forces to capture the fortress of Daugavgriva and turn the enemy flank. In the process, the HMS Dragon was struck by German artillery with the loss of nine lives; almost certainly it is one of these who lies in an unnamed grave in Jelgava. Soon after, Avalov's forces attacked Liepaja, and again the Allied ships acted as floating batteries, covering the Latvian counter-attack that drove the Germans out of the city. As one Latvian observer recorded: "The Allied fleet rendered irreplaceable help to the fighters for freedom."

Remembering the past

It was the last stage of the battle. On Nov. 11, 1919 Avalov was driven from Riga. On Nov. 14, his forces failed at Liepaja, and by the end of the year the last organized German forces had left Lithuania. On Dec. 28, 1919, Sir Walter Cowan sailed for home, and though the British naval presence in the Baltic continued throughout 1920, it was not to fire its guns in anger again.

Cowan's action is largely forgotten in Britain. Compared with the battle of Jutland in WWI, or the hunts for the Bismarck and Graf Spee in WWII, it was no more than a sideshow. But the Baltics have not forgotten.

Jelgava City Council maintains the Jelgava graveyard out of honor. A memorial plaque in Daugavgriva records the Allied contribution to Riga's freedom. In July 2003 a new memorial was unveiled at Tallinn's Puhavaimu church by the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces and the British First Sea Lord, while moves have been made to provide an identical plaque for Riga. And still, each Remembrance Sunday, the Anglophone community returns to Jelgava. Cowan's flotilla may rate no more than a footnote in most histories of the Baltic, but in the simple words of the memorial service: "We will remember them."