Via Wikimedia Commons

Britain’s forgotten battle for the Baltic

As the guns of the Western Front fell silent, Britain fought a quiet but decisive war alongside Estonia to check Soviet expansion

Artillery Row

I was a first-day tourist wandering through the old town of Tallinn in Estonia, when I came across a brass plaque in the wall which caught my eye. Its short inscription is worth quoting in full: “In memory of the officers and seamen of the British Royal Navy who served and gave their lives in the cause of freedom in the Baltic during the Estonian War of Independence 1918–1920.” There follows a list of four British admirals who were awarded the Estonian Cross of Liberty, and the final words on the plaque read: “On behalf of the grateful people of Estonia.”

I sometimes delude myself into believing I have a reasonable grasp of history, and yet I am constantly reminded of the fact that my knowledge is patchy and there are huge gaps. The plaque was just such a reminder and an intriguing one. A century ago British warships were sent to the Baltic to help secure for this small country the first measure of true independence it had ever attained. The state which emerged then enjoyed 20 years of sovereign existence until 1940, when the dark forces of German National Socialism overwhelmed the fledgling nation. After the Nazis came the Communists, and Estonia’s fate was sealed for the next 45 years as a ghost state in the Russian imperial prison that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

National manumission came in 1989 with the collapse of the USSR. This presented Estonians with the opportunity to reconstruct their country and society, which — to this casual observer — they seem to have achieved triumphantly. Modern Estonia is a show-piece example of how, freed from the shackles of the Soviet system and embraced by the EU, a small country can thrive. If there’s a nicer small capital city in Europe than Tallinn, I have yet to visit it.

Estonia knows its liberties cannot be taken for granted, though. Underlying the modern, affluent, smiling face of Estonia there is a residual anxiety about the machinations of its neighbours. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sent ripples of apprehension through the three small eastern Baltic states; history has taught all of them that they occupy strategic territory that has often been coveted by aggressive and much stronger neighbouring states. A look at the map tells you why.

The Baltic Sea swings north from the southern tip of Sweden at Malmo up towards Stockholm; there it splits into two seaways: a western leg, the Gulf of Bothnia, which separates Sweden from Finland; and a much smaller eastern leg, the Gulf of Finland, which is the gateway to St Petersburg. Two cities lie opposite one another at this gulf’s mouth, Helsinki on the northern shore and Tallinn on the southern. Whoever controls these two cities commands an important strategic route. Throughout its history Tallinn has been a contested prize. For 245 of the past 300 years, the city along with the rest of Estonia lived under Russian rule. One does not have to be a professional military strategist to understand why this territory matters to Moscow. Strategic considerations aside, Tallinn, one of the ancient Hanseatic ports, is an important entrepôt and trading station with intrinsic economic value.

In historical terms the Russian possession of Estonia might be seen as merely another iteration in the country’s existence as an occupied land. In the 13th century Estonia and Tallinn (then known as Reval) fell under the sway of the Teutonic Knights. In the 16th century Sweden, then the Polish-Lithuania empire, then Sweden again took control of Estonia. After Sweden was defeated in the Great Northern War, a victorious Tsarist Russia ruled Estonia for the next two hundred years — sovereignty confirmed in a treaty of 1721.

There was a yearning for freedom and national self-determination

One hundred and ninety nine years later, in 1920, the successor Russian state — the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) — signed the Treaty of Tartu, which removed “in perpetuity” any territorial rights or claims to Estonia. The treaty was the culmination of two years of fighting in which the Estonians had resisted invasion by Soviet Russia. It was in this war — the Estonian War of Independence — that the Royal Navy played such a crucial role. Very few Britons these days know anything about this conflict, and there are good reasons for that. Not many British servicemen died in it so, after the industrial slaughter of the Great War, it might seem a minor sideshow. It was nonetheless a conflict which demonstrated some of those qualities we most admire in our fighting forces: resolution and steadfastness combined with a strong dash of derring-do. It also resonates with our current situation. We should remember and learn from it.

To understand why and how the Royal Navy became involved requires a grasp of the complex political situation in the Baltic in 1918. Earlier in the war Germany had crushed the Tsarist army at Tannenberg, and the aftermath of that catastrophic defeat proved a fertile seedbed for revolution. In 1917, the communists seized control. Russia, then as now, was an imperial entity, an enforced collection of different ethnicities including those of the Baltic states we now recognise — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

There was a yearning in all these territories (as in many other parts of Europe) for freedom and national self-determination. Estonians might have been a subject people for centuries, but the spark of national identity, underpinned by their distinctive language, had never been extinguished. As World War One drew to a close, Estonian patriots seized the moment. They declared independence, and a national government was formed — a government that was recognised as legitimate in London, Paris and Washington. The fledgling state was immediately menaced by the RSFSR; the Soviets were determined this strategic land should remain under Russian control. What is more, they had the military muscle to enforce their wishes: large land forces backed up by the Baltic fleet menacingly sitting in its home port of St Petersburg.

The Russian fleet was a strong fighting force comprising battleships, heavy cruisers, submarines and destroyers. St Petersburg itself was a strongly defended base; entry to its harbours was ringed by minefields and dominated by the island fortress of Kronstadt. A chain of sea forts equipped with heavy guns protected the entry channels. Whilst it remained in harbour, the Russian fleet was safe from attack, and it could at any time break out and bring force to bear on the Baltic states. It was to prevent this happening that a Royal Navy force was despatched to the Baltic in 1918.

The decision was not a popular one within the government. Struggling to repair an economy devastated by the war, many ministers were opposed to further expenditure on behalf of a small country of which they knew little. It was Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, who championed the cause. Consistently (and we might think rightly) suspicious of Soviet intentions, Churchill fought his corner doughtily — and prevailed. Despite the losses, the cost and a pervasive war-weariness, a fighting force was maintained in the Baltic for the next two years.

The Navy’s job was twofold: to bottle-up the Russian ships by patrolling the Gulf of Finland and engaging them when possible, and secondly to support Estonian (and Latvian) land forces by using the navy’s big guns to bombard Communist positions. They succeeded triumphantly in both tasks.

The man who led this daring venture was straight out of a John Buchan novel

Set out like that, it might seem that the Baltic conflict was a rather dull one — maintaining a blockade whilst occasionally bombarding enemy soldiers makes it sound routine. There was one episode, however, which for thrilling heroics matches pretty much anything in the annals of naval history. The idea was to use very fast “coastal motor boats” (they could do 40 knots) armed with torpedoes to penetrate the St Petersburg harbour and sink the big Russian ships at anchor there. A raid took place in August 1919, and the record of it reads like a Boy’s Own adventure story. The man in charge of the RN Baltic force was Admiral Walter “Titch” Cowan. A small man, what he lacked in physical stature he made up for in fighting spirit; he was known, like Nelson, as a “fighting admiral” — someone who always chafed unless he was able to engage the enemy at close quarters. His Baltic command hadn’t provided many opportunities for that so he dreamt up the idea of getting some “CMBs” right in amongst the Russian fleet and doing what damage they could.

The man who led this daring venture was a character straight out of a John Buchan novel, Lieutenant Augustus Willington Shelton Agar RN. At the end of the war Agar, who had been commanding CMBs in the English Channel, found himself beached, mooching around on Osea Island trying to keep his boats in trim and contemplating a period of boring inactivity. Early in 1919 Agar was on leave in London when he was unexpectedly ordered to a meeting at the Admiralty. There he found himself being interviewed by Mansfield Cumming, or “C” as the legendary head of the British Intelligence Service came to be known. Cumming needed some way of getting British agents in and out of St Petersburg where they were gathering intelligence about the Soviets. Agar and his CMBs were to be the ferry service.

Agar was despatched to the Baltic where he established a secret base on the Finnish coast just across the water from St Petersburg. Admiral Cowan noted with interest what Agar was up to and then hatched the plan to use the CMBs as an attack force. In the early hours of 17 August 1919, Agar slipped past the sea forts into the St Petersburg roads, located the 7,000 ton heavy cruiser Oleg, unleashed his torpedoes and sank his target. Then, with searchlights sweeping the sea and the enemy guns firing madly, Agar brought his flimsy craft and its three crewmen safely back to their Finnish base. The mission earned Agar the Victoria Cross and, as Cowan later remarked, “ … showed them [the Russians] I have a sting which I can always use if they show their noses out of Kronstadt”.

Agar’s raid was the single most dramatic episode of the Royal Navy’s deployment in the Baltic. For the most part its duties were routine, but far from safe or uneventful. There were exchanges of fire with Soviet ships, regular supporting action for Estonian and Latvian land forces, and constant danger from the minefields. Added to that, the cold-water sailing took its toll on men and ships; it was a tough mission which exacted a cost. In all, two Royal Navy destroyers, two sloops, one submarine, one light cruiser, one store ship and ten light craft including CMBs were sunk. On the Russian side, five heavy ships were sunk, three surrendered and four were seriously damaged, but the main objective — denying the Soviets command of the Baltic — was triumphantly achieved. The human cost (the “butcher’s bill”) was 128 RN personnel killed, 50 seriously injured and nine taken prisoner. Compared with the slaughter of the trenches these were not massive losses, but they came after “peace” had supposedly been achieved.

The Estonian army had shown itself resolute in defence of the homeland — much larger Soviet forces were engaged and repeatedly repelled. Eventually at the end of 1919 the two sides began negotiating a peace treaty. A ceasefire came into effect in early January 1920, and in February The Treaty of Tartu, which established a permanent border between Estonia and the RSFSR and relinquished “in perpetuity” all Russian claims on Estonia, was signed. Although the country’s hard-won freedom lasted a mere 20 years until the Nazis invaded, that first taste of national independence was the foundation of the modern Estonian nation — and the decisive role played by the Royal Navy has never been forgotten. This is why, for Estonians, the current situation has such historical resonance because, as I write, the Royal Navy is deployed in the Gulf of Finland. Once again, its role is to deter Russia and thwart any ambitions it might have to regain the eastern Baltic lands it once claimed as its own.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made all the Baltic nations jumpy

It is a perhaps surprising fact that Estonia now hosts the largest deployment of British forces anywhere in the world outside the UK. There are now about 1,500 British troops permanently stationed in Estonia, and British forces regularly exercise with their Nato allies in the area. In May 2023 the Royal Navy’s amphibious flagship HMS Albion played a key role in a large scale exercise involving Royal Marines. They simulated landings on the beaches of northern Estonia beaches only a few miles away from the Russian border; that border is now a potential tripwire should Moscow ever be tempted to reassert its control. All of this underlines the closeness of an alliance which looms much larger in Estonian minds than it does in British. To the Estonian ambassador in London, Viljar Lubi, the UK is the “godfather of Estonian independence”. The role of the Royal Navy in 1918–1920 has never been forgotten.

He told me the current situation has echoes of that time: “Yet again we have our British friends in Estonia ready to stand next to us if and when needed to push back the enemy who does not share the same values and ideals that we both do: democracy, human rights, the things we take naturally and often for granted, but something that we need to fight for in the 21st century Europe. This is very unfortunate but that is the case. Therefore, we appreciate very highly the presence of the British and other allies (UK having the lead) that are stationed in Estonia and together with our defence forces make sure that our way of life prevails.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made all the Baltic nations jumpy. From Moscow’s point of view Estonia, over which it exerted undisputed sovereignty for two centuries, might look like “lost lands” to which Russia has some legitimate claim. Alarmingly that idea received apparent backing from the Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye, who in April 2023 questioned the sovereignty of former Soviet states like Ukraine and, by implication, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Lu Shaye was slapped down by his bosses in Beijing, but the idea is out there — that in some way Russia might have a legitimate claim on Estonia. It is a viewpoint that Ambassador Lubi is understandably quick to contradict. “European history has been violent,” he told me, “ but in the last 80 years we have built a new system that has more or less ridiculed aggression and military power in intergovernmental affairs. Russia and other similar authoritarian or revanchist powers around the world need to understand that the world has changed and we will not tolerate this kind of politics any longer.”

Though Britain is these days a much-diminished force in the world, we still play our part in defending freedoms around the globe. What the Royal Navy did in the Baltic sea a century ago might have faded from our national consciousness, but it is imprinted in Estonia’s memory. In Tallinn’s old town just round the corner from the brass plaque commemorating those events, there is the Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit. In the north transept, next to another plaque listing the names of all the Royal Navy men who died in the campaign, hangs a white ensign. When I commented on this to a churchwarden manning a stall at the back and said I was surprised to discover it, he told me, “Oh, yes, every Estonian school child knows what the Royal Navy did here back then.” At a time when our own history is under attack from ideologues who seek to persuade us of the inherent wickedness of Britain’s history, it is surely good to remind ourselves that often we have been on the right side of history. Much British blood has been spilt in the name of others’ freedom.

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