How the Royal Navy Fought to Save Estonia and Latvia

Stephen Dunn

4 mins

27 Feb 2020

The thriving modern republics of Estonia and Latvia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the fact that they exist at all is due to the Royal Navy and its battle against German revanche and Bolshevik aggression immediately after the First World War.

For many men in the Royal Navy, the war did not end on 11 November 1918. No sooner had the German fleet been interned at Scapa Flow, than the navy was ordered into the Baltic Sea to hold the ring and protect the fragile nascent states of independent Latvia and Estonia.

In the aftermath of war

British campaign in the Baltic

British squadron in Koporye Bay in October 1919 (Credit: Public domain).

Along the Baltic littoral, a plethora of factions staged a bloody and vicious conflict for control of the region.

The Bolshevik Red Army and Navy fought to bring it under Communist rule; German-Baltic Landwehr were intent on making a new German client state; White Russians were bent on reinstalling a tsarist monarchy (and taking back the Baltic States).

Then there were local freedom fighters, at war with all and with each other. Even the German army was there, forced by the Allies under Article XII of the Armistice to remain in place as a reluctant barrier to communist expansion.

Into this maelstrom was thrown the Royal Navy. Small ships only, light cruisers, destroyers, minesweepers, submarines, motor launches, eventually even an aircraft carrier, they were tasked with containing the Red Baltic Fleet battleships and cruisers based at Kronstadt, near St Petersburg.

The cheaper political option

 British Naval Campaign in the Baltic

British ships in Liepāja, 1918 (Credit: Imperial War Museums).

The navy had been given this difficult task because neither Britain or France wised to commit troops to a new conflict; indeed, governments might have fallen if they had tried.

It was a cheaper and lower political risk decision to use ships, a plan supported to the hilt only by Secretary of War Winston Churchill. Prime Minister Lloyd George was less than lukewarm, as were the rest of the British cabinet.

However, through the navy, Britain could provide sea-based artillery support, prevent a breakout or raids by the Bolshevik fleet and supply arms and ammunition to the armies of the Baltic States.

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In 1919, Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan was placed in charge of this difficult mission.

In one way he was the right man for the job, for he was aggressive by temperament and always looking for a fight to get into.

On the other hand, he drove his men hard and without thought for their well-being. This would eventually have consequences.

On the sea battlefield

 British Naval Campaign in the Baltic

Royal Navy fleet in the Baltic on its way to Reval (Tallinn), December 1918 (Credit: Imperial War Museums).

The Communist army and navy, headed by Leon Trotsky, were unleashed by Lenin who declared:

the Baltic must become a Soviet sea.

And so from late November 1918 and for the next 13 months, the Royal Navy was in action against Soviet ships and ground forces, inspired by Trotsky who ordered that they should be “destroyed at any cost”.

Sea battles raged between the Red Navy and the RN with losses on both sides.

Eventually, in two daring actions, Cowan was able to neutralise the Bolshevik fleet; tiny coastal motor boats sank the cruiser Oleg, two Soviet battleships and a depot ship in attacks which resulted in the award of three Victoria Crosses.

Royal Navy ships were also involved in providing a constant artillery barrage in support of the forces of the Baltic States, protecting their flanks and helping drive back their enemies.

Aircraft from an early form of aircraft carrier also played a role. As one Latvian observer recorded:

the Allied fleet rendered irreplaceable help to the fighters for freedom.

The navy even rescued British spies from the Russian mainland.

With the RN’s gunnery support, the armies of Estonia and Latvia were gradually successful in beating back their multiple foes. But it was a close-run thing.

Only the intervention of the Royal Navy’s fire power saved Reval (now Tallinn) and the massive 15-inch guns of the monitor Erebus and her consorts drove the invaders out of Riga when it seemed certain to fall into enemy hands.

The cost of battle

 British Naval Campaign in the Baltic

Royal Navy fleet at Libau (Liepaja). Light cruiser HMS CASSANDRA on left, 1918 (Credit: Imperial War Museums).

There was a price to pay for these achievements; 128 British servicemen were killed in the campaign and 60 seriously wounded.

Over the period of the naval effort, 238 British vessels were deployed to the Baltic and a staging base set up in Denmark; 19 vessels were lost and 61 damaged.

There was a cost in morale as well. The sailors and many officers did not understand why they were fighting there. Politicians cavilled about the navy’s orders and role, and decisions and recognition were not always forthcoming.

The living conditions for the navy were poor and the food was terrible. And the tasking was relentless and perceived as uncaring.

Mutiny broke out on several vessels, including Admiral Cowan’s flagship, and sailors preparing to sail to the Baltic from Scotland deserted.

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In February 1920 the combatants signed a treaty ending hostilities and an uneasy peace prevailed until 1939.

A war-weary Royal Navy had held the ring, fighting against Russian and German opponents alike. It had helped the Baltic States gain their freedom from Bolshevik terror and German revanche.

Steve R Dunn is a naval historian and author of 8 books on the Royal Navy in World War One, with another commissioned for 2021. His latest book, Battle in the Baltic, was published in January 2020 by Seaforth Publishing.