British Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea 1918-1920 Supporting the Latvian Independence

British sailors on board during the Battle of Riga 1919

British sailors on board during the Battle of Riga 1919

On November 1919 Latvian army faced attack from the much superior enemy – superior both in size and weapons. However, Latvian army withstood the attack and chased away the enemy from Riga for the final time. This would not have been done without the support of the British Royal Army, the French Navy and also Italian Navy. The British Royal Navy mission to Baltic Sea to assist Latvia and Estonia in the fight against the Bolsheviks made a great deal in winning the War for Freedom. The British Naval forces not only fought the Bolshevik navy, but also acted as artillery assistance against the pro-German forces that besieged Riga on October-November 1919.  This is a story of the British Royal Navy Mission in the Baltic Sea and how it assisted the Latvian fight for freedom.

The Russian Empire was the British and French most important ally. However, since 1915 when Germans marched deep within the Russian territories it was also the most vulnerable ally. German forces split Latvian lands in half across the river Daugava, but failed to capture Riga. Latvians formed the Riflemen regiments within the Russian Army to defend rest of Latvian territory and liberate the German occupied territories. The front stayed mostly intact until 1917 when the February revolution caused the breakdown of the Russian army. Germans captured Riga and later took over Vidzeme and Latgale. On March 8 1918 the new Bolshevik government signed peace agreement with the Germany and ceded Baltic States to Germany. Allies were shaken by this because now Germans could send their forces from the Eastern front to the Western Front. Their sent naval expeditions to  Murmansk, Arkhangelsk and Vladivostok to secure the large stockpiles of resources and armament both from Bolsheviks and Germans. Meanwhile the German government was reluctant to completely annex the Baltic States. Instead a plan was made to create a United Baltic Duchy that would be a German puppet state. It would be a constitutional monarchy based on the Baltic German political dominance. Its borders would include Estonia and all Latvia except Latgale. As it was part of the Russian province of Vitebsk with small German population. Lithuania as country with less German influence was allowed to proclaim independence on February 16 1918. Germans hoped to keep it under their protection, but Lithuanians projected a very nationalistic policy from the early start. On February 24 1918 Estonia declared independence, but day later Germans captured Reval (Tallinn) and chased away the German provisional government.  Finland meanwhile as autonomous part of the Russian army chased away the Bolsheviks and declared independence. Germans also considered it as ally state.

If Germany had won the Great War the Baltic States would become a formal parts of the German Empire. Supposedly sovereign but as puppet states. That did not happen as on November 11 1918 Germany was forced to sign ceasefire. The United Baltic Duchy proclaimed on November 5 1918 failed to establish a strong administration and after the German defeat lost its way. On November 18 Latvia proclaimed it independence. In Reval German troops started revolt and the Estonian government released from prison immediately started to work. The First Armistice at Compiègne included Article XII that demanded Germans to evacuate the troops from the occupied Russian lands as soon as the Allies would find an appropriate moment to do this knowing the local circumstances. Allies knew about the Bolshevik ambitions and wanted to have the German forces to keep Bolsheviks away from Western Europe. But, Germans in Latvia and Estonia had other plans as they still wanted a United Baltic Duchy. The revolutionary German provisional government was complimentary to this and supported them as discretely as possible.

Soon after the Germany had given up the war in the west, the Bolsheviks broke the peace agreement and wowed to gain back the lost lands of Baltic, Belarus and Ukraine. German army in the eastern front was broken and demoralized. The Britain and France had to make a hectic choice between German interests, the Russian Royalist White Guards and the new national republics in their struggle against the Bolsheviks. The ceasefire also allowed the allied fleet to enter the Baltic Sea first time since 1914. British government was not confident of the new Baltic States, but considered that they need to be supported from the Bolsheviks. Week after the ceasefire Estonian delegation arrived in London and asked to send troops and warships to support them The Foreign Ministry rejected sending troops, but promised to send navy and resources. British however were weary of the minefields set up all across the Baltic Sea. Bolsheviks also gathered their own Soviet Baltic Navy.

On November 21 1918 the first British Naval Squad set sail to the Baltic Sea. Under the leadership of the Counter Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander Sinlcair the cruiser Cardiff, Cassandra,Caradoc,Ceres,Calypso, 9 squadron minehunters and 7 mine trawlers set sail to the Baltic Sea. Sailors were reluctant because they thought the war is over and wanted a long-awaited vacation. After encountering issues in Copenhagen when the coal transport ship became stranded leaving the mine trawlers without coal Sinclair  was forced to set sail to Tallinn because of the Bolshevik attack. The squadron passed the cold and stranded Liepāja and sailed towards Estonia. On December 4 across the Saaremaa island the cruiser Cassandra struck the mine. Broken in half the ship sank. 10 men died in explosion the remaining 450 were rescued by the mine hunters Westminster and Wendetta. Loosing cruiser at start of the campaign was a heavy blow. The light cruiser Calypso also had to be repaired because it collided with shipwreck in the Liepāja harbor. It took the rescued Cassadra sailors back home along with two damaged mine hunters. Despite the odds Sinclair entered troubled Tallinn. City was harmed by the food shortage, lack of coal and money. In the December cold the Red Army commanded by the Latvian colonel Jukums Vācietis captured Narva on the Russian border. Valka and Tartu also were captured.  Estonians asked British to make Estonia their protectorate and send military mission that would train the Estonian army and the small navy. The Russian Whiteguard North-west army was also in Estonia and asked British help. Sinclair rejected the white Russians because Estonians mistrusted them. Sinclair said that his navy can only stay in the Strait of Finland until it becomes frozen and the weapon transports are on the way.

Despite being asked to only make reconnaissance operations, Sinclair  understood the dangers of loosing Tallinn and started to shell the advancing Bolshevik forces. The only bridge across the Estonian border was destroyed cutting off the Bolshevik supplies from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). On December 24 Estonians begun successful counter offensive with sea landing operation at the Kunda cutting the Bolshevik lines from behind. While Bolshevik fleet stuck in Kronstadt Sinclair set sail to Liepāja to understand the Latvian needs. Bolsheviks had battleship Petropalvosk, smaller Andrej Pervozvannij and cruiser Oleg. And three submarines along with smaller ships. Their naval command was weak and the sailors were poorly trained. Most Tsarist officers were shot. Their commander was Fyodor Raskolnikov. His attempts to attack Tallinn resulted in capture of the mine hunter Spartak.

When Sinclair arrived in Liepāja he saw even more misery then in Tallinn. While in Estonia Konstantin Pats government had the majority support, the Kārlis Ulmanis government was not well received by many. Poor peasants, workers and unemployed welcomed the invading Bolsheviks. The Baltic German nobility was reluctant to support Latvians and organized their own forces. The legendary Latvian Riflemen were converted to Bolshevism and now came to Latvia to install Soviet power. Latvian government managed to organize few ill-equipped companies of students and volunteers. Meanwhile Germans formed better equipped Land Guard the Landeswehr, from the defeated German 8th Army and the Freikorps volunteers from Germany an Iron Division was formed.

The Russian Newspaper reports The English Ships are in Riga and standing right in front the Anglican Church

The Russian Newspaper reports The English Ships are in Riga and standing right in front the Anglican Church

On December 19 the British mine hunters entered Riga. The situation was even more dire than in Tallinn. Sinclair was informed by Latvian Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis that 40 000 German troops are preparing to leave Latvia for Germany. Only what was left 700 men from the Baltic German Landeswehr that was made to strengthen the Latvian army. Brits convinced Germans that they must apply to paragraph XII and stay in Latvia to hold off the Bolsheviks. Latvians were weary of the German army, but were forced to cooperate with them. Despite that German army did nothing for next five days. Bolsheviks were just 46 km from Riga. British started to load up 350 British and allied citizens on board of Princess Margaret. Then on 29 December two Latvian regiments who took retreat in Riga has risen up against the Latvian government and wanted to join the Bolsheviks. On January 3 1919 another Latvian unit went rouge. On the same day Sinclair left the harbor and took more refugees and members and supporters of the Latvian government. As the German Iron Division was defeated in Inčukalns on December 30-31 the Latvian government abandoned Riga and moved to Jelgava and then to Liepāja. The British navy left the Baltic shores and reached Rosyth on 8 December. The first naval mission had ended. It had failed to stop the Bolshevik advance in Latvia, but the Estonia and Finland were not overran leaving hope.

Admiral Walter Cowan the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea

Admiral Walter Cowan the commander of the Royal Navy in the Baltic Sea

British Navy and Military were concerned about the fate of the Baltic States. It reported to the British government that to fight off the Bolsheviks a significantly larger expedition of land troops were needed. The British government rejected sending land troops to the Baltic States and instead again ordered to send naval mission. The Admiralty was against this. But, it assembled new squadron under the command of the Counter Admiral Walter Cowan. Cowan was one of the most experienced naval commanders of the British navy. His first combat experience was in the British Africa on 1895-1897. He also joined the land forces under the command by the Lord Kitchener  in the Nile expedition. He was awarded with the Exceptional Service  Order and then moved to South Africa. However, the Royal Navy was unimpressed of him leaving the naval service without their consent. So they wanted to cross him out of the service list. He joined navy again, but was not promoted. After marriage and honeymoon he joined the battleship cruiser Prince George of the Channel Fleet. In the age of 30 he was promoted as the commanding captain. On 1914 he as the commanding officer took part in the WWI naval battles including the Battle of Jutland. Awarded with the Order of the Bath, he was however disappointed that the battle was not won. Promoted as commodore and later as counter admiral he was sad that the war was over. When he was called to command naval mission to the Baltic Sea he was again exited.

He was instructed by the Naval command to support the British interests in the region and attack the Bolsheviks from the shores. The Baltic States had to be defended at all costs, however the support had to be only in therms of the naval support and arms shipment. Puzzled by the complicated Baltic situation Cowan set sail to Liepāja while being noted to not visit Riga or Tallinn. When he arrived to Liepāja, the Bolsheviks were just 92 km from the city. Germans were not helping instead they trowed in to sea guns supplied by the British for the Latvian forces. There was also a White Russian corps commanded by the prince Anatoly Lieven  – a member of the old noble German family. He was supportive to the Latvian state but was under the vile German command. Cowan had come to conclusion: “Latvians are powerless to help themselves”. Meanwhile the Estonian forces had chased away the Bolsheviks from their capital and moved towards Tartu and Narva. On January 25 the British were informed that the Bolsheviks were stopped along the lines of the river Venta. Latvian forces gained first victories and the German forces also reached first success. However, on January 31 the port of Ventspils was lost and Liepāja was in danger again. Cowan was asked to bombard the Bolsheviks. Their artillery batteries were destroyed and Bolsheviks fled the city. Latvian forces under the command of the colonel Oskars Kalpaks grew to 3500. Estonians agreed to form a  common front with Latvians against the Bolsheviks. And the German Major General Rüdiger von der Goltz arrived to command the German forces.

A vicious and cunning Prussian officer von der Goltz was known for his action in Finland where he helped to re-capture Helsinki from the Bolsheviks. As devout Prussian officer and nationalist he was against the Baltic independence and started to plot against the Latvians and the British. British had no idea of what danger this man could bring. On the path back to Copenhagen Cowan’s ships intercepted German cargo ship transporting unlicensed supplies to Memel (Klaipeda). It was a sign that the seemingly peace wishing Berlin government was secretly aiding the Germans in the Baltic Sea.

On February the frontline in Courland was satisfactory the Goltz forces were ready to lead the counter offensive. Latvians voiced concern about the German real intentions and Cowan was aware of this. He reported to London not to aid the Germans, but support Latvians ass possible for their need the money and support as much as possible. On February 21 first Cowan mission ended and he left, awaiting to return on Spring when the Bolshevik fleet was ready to leave their ports. British, French and US leaders were busy conducting the Versailles Treaty and saw the Baltic States as a secondary objective. The Admiralty voiced concerns on the lack of decisions and concrete stance. France had given the Baltic States under the British sphere of interests. Allies were against the Bolsheviks, but were not ready to send troops. Instead a financial and naval aid was only possible to the White forces and the new republics. Meanwhile Germany defeated in the West hoped to use their forces in the East to re-install their power there. Social-democrat government also hoped to arrange alliance with the Bolsheviks to head against the West once more. Goltz the ex imperial officer who despised the German republic was sent as the envoy of the German Eastern interests. But, Goltz wanted the power for himself and took over the Baltic States.

Liepāja on 1919

Liepāja on 1919

On March 2 the Latvian government uncovered  the documents about the coup plotted by the Baltic Germans under the leadership of von der Stryk. There was no proof of the Goltz involvement. He however moved to Stettin  (Szczecin) to avoid arrest. But, his man tried to seize weapons and ammunition on board the  steamship Saratov. British were concerned and predicted a coup d’etat by the Germans who has a strong force of 8000 man. Berlin was sending more troops than necessary. On March 6 British informed  Goltz that all supply shipments for Germans are brought to halt and no German ship may enter the Baltic ports. Goltz replied with strong statement that in such case he cannot lead the assault on the Bolsheviks and leave Latvia to its own fate.

Royal Navy decided to send new squadron to Baltic Sea. As the Bolshevik fleet was soon to be active and the Baltic States needed supplies and gun fire. The British PM Loyd George sent military and diplomatic mission. But, he was against sending large squad of the naval forces there. So Cowan with his light cruisers and ten squadron mine hunters returned to Baltic Sea. Cowan commanded the cruiser Caledon. Meanwhile Goltz had moved towards Jelgava and to avoid  the British embargo took away the food supplies for Latvian civilians in Liepāja. Cowan arrived in Liepāja and met Goltz. Insulted by the German demands to show entry permit, because of the discovered Bolshevik cell within the Golzt forces, Cowan raised concerns about the dire situation in Riga. He asked when it will be taken back. Goltz replied that he is not sure if Berlin wants him to retake Riga and that he has enough forces. He asked if he captures Riga will British would cancel the embargo. Cowan made clear if Riga was to be taken it will be supplied with food. Few days later Admiral was informed that because of the thaw all military operations has been canceled.  The roads were to no use so Riga had to wait.

On April 14 Cowan informed Goltz that the British government is ready to cancel embargo for a short time if the Germans would stop obstructing the buildup of the Latvian forces. Goltz rejected this. And he had a reason for it. Sensing the danger Cowan stayed in Liepāja. That was a wise move. On April 16 Goltz forces started a coup against the Latvian provisional government. Germans took over the Latvian command center. British learning the danger reinforced the steam ship Saratov filled with supplies for the Latvians.   Germans besieged the Latvian government office, but arrested only two ministers. Saratov moved into trade port. Ulmanis and the rest of government found refuge in the British diplomatic mission. British mine hunters arrived and stopped Germans from taking over the Trade Port. Scared off by the warnings of cannon fire, Germans left off allowing the Latvian government to  get on board the Saratov. Brits rejected Germans demands to hand over the Latvian statesmen. On same day the US military mission arrived surprised by the events and prevented the arrest of the Latvian officer.

The steam ship Saratov where the Latvian government took refuge

The steam ship Saratov where the Latvian government took refuge

German coup had backfired thanks to British action. The Latvian government had avoided the arrest, the Latvian forces disobeyed the German directory government lead by Baron Manteifel. On April 19 French navy arrived in Liepāja with gun boat Dunois and  guard ship Meuse. French captain Brison wanted to sail to Tallinn, but was convinced to stay in Liepāja to guard the city. On April 21 Goltz informed the allies that he has nothing to do with the coup, however it was necessary action to  arrest the Latvian government. Cowan demanded to call of the officers involved in the coup and release the arrested Latvian officers and MP’s. Goltz rejected and accused Ulmanis of aiding the Bolsheviks. Prince Lieven proposed to organize a Latvian coalition government of Latvians and loyal Baltic Germans. Cowan said its not the right time and convinced him to stay true to his country and try to ease the Latvian and German issues. 24 hours later London ordered him to demand to restore the Ulmanis government at once.  However, April 25 Cowan set sail to the Strait of Finland to counter the Bolshevik fleet.

Meanwhile Goltz condemned by the Allies and refusing to admit his leading part in the coup installed a new “Latvian goverment” lead by pastor Andrievs Niedra on May 10. He was rejected by majority of Latvians and the allies who asked to remove Goltz from Latvia. Berlin was irresponive. On May 15 the pro-German government ordered to attack Riga. Berlin was forced to forbid Goltz to lead his Iron Divison to Riga. Instead the Baltic Landeswehr and Latvian forces lead by General Balodis headed towards Riga. Landeswehr entered Riga first and started to terrorize and punish the Bolshevik supporters. They had reason for it as for months the Latvian Bolshevik government had repressed the Baltic Germans killing many thousands of them. The Red Terror was replaced by the White Terror. Day later Latvians arrived trying to stop the Germans from terrorizing the city. Allies were afraid of the German government rejecting the Paris Peace Treaty and Goltz forces attacking their ships and representatives and allowed Goltz to stay, but demanded Berlin to order Goltz stop all actions against Latvians. Berlin replied that the evacuation of the Goltz troops is underway and Goltz has done nothing against Latvians. For Berlin has not instructed him to do so.

The British main naval force moved to Finnish Strait were it fought the Bolshevik navy destroying their ships and trapping them in Kronstadt harbor. As Estonians were already chasing  Bolsheviks to Northern Latvia, the Tallinn was no more in danger and so as Finland. Meanwhile on the beginning of June Goltz moved to north to Vidzeme instead East to Latgale where the Bolsheviks had retreated. Estonian forces commanded by general Laidoner and the Northern Latvian army lead by colonel  Zemitāns has reached Cēsis the central part of the Vidzeme region. From the Latvian refugees in Estonia and Bolshevik deserters a large fighting force was made. Stronger than those on the western part. As Goltz forces moved towards Cēsis he was confronted by Estonians and Latvians and was defeated. Goltz retreated from Riga leaving only garrison of prince Lieven Russian troops. On June 26 Andrievs Niedra government accused of betrayal resigned. The Kārlis Ulmanis government who  spent all this time on board of the ship Saratov arrived in Riga the next day and was greeted by the cheering crowds. After the Red and White Terror Latvian majority finally accepted the democratic government.

The Latvians and Estonians had enough troops to completely destroy the Iron Division. But, the allied powers still wanted them to be used against the Bolsheviks. On July 3 the Strazdumuiža ceasefire was signed. Estonians draw back. The landeswehr Baltic German commander was replaced by the Irish Guard Junior Colonel Harold Alexander the future field Marshall of the North African British forces on WW2. He however had no German knowledge so he was assisted by baron Taube. Goltz was demanded to evacuate all his forces from Latvia as soon as possible. And to leave Riga at end of the July 5. He did that and moved to Jelgava. Germans withdraw their forces also from Ventspils and Liepāja. But, few could imagine that Goltz will give up.

British warships again entered Riga. Goltz was defiant both to Berlin and the Allies and delayed the evacuation of his troops still concentrated in the large parts of the country. Cowan and main fleet was concentrated on battles with the Bolshevik fleet. He led the raid on the Bolshevik war port destroying three warships Petrapavlosk, Andrej Pervozvannij and Pamatj Azova. The Bolshevik Baltic Fleet was sunken, but the British government was unimpressed as  they secretly planned to remove their troops from Arhangelsk and gave up the intervention. But, the main Bolshevik attack force was no more danger to Finns and Estonians.

From July to October it was relative peace in Latvia. Moscow Bolsheviks endangered by the White offensives wanted to give up the Baltic States So there was stalemate on the Latvian Eastern front. Meanwhile in Jelgava Goltz had not evacuated his forces. Making many excuses he delayed the evacuation and accused Latvians of attacking his forces. On April 1919 a plot was born to assemble the Russian WWI POW’s from the camps in Germany to form a White Guard army under German leadership. One part of them were sent to Courland. Their leader was phony Russian colonel Pavel Bemondt- Avalov. A adoptive of the Georgian noble, he started as musical conductor for the Russian cossacks. On 1914 he was Lancer captain. After being captured by Ukrainian nationalists and when released he moved to Germany.

The eccentric  Georgian “count” was only the front of the Goltz plot to strike again. His Western Russian Volunteer Army included all the Goltz Iron Division and The German Freikorps. German soldiers had to wear Russian imperial insignia. His force was well equipped with armored vehicles and warplanes.  Bermondt declared that his objective is to head to Russia and assist General Yudenich. And then on October 8 his planes dropped few bombs on Riga. The attack had begun. 17 000 Bermontd troops with 65 cannons and 24 airplanes, two armored trains faced 11 300 Latvian men with 9 cannons, 23 heavy machine guns, 2 armored trains, 2 armored vehicles and few warplanes

Cowan was still in the Finnish Strait. Cruiser Phanteon led by captain Curtis along with ships Aisne and Abideil was stationed in Riga. Along them the French ships. British ships was instructed to hold fire, but were caught in the fire exchange. Latvians secured the bridges and prevented Germans from crossing them. Germans had problems using their artillery to not hit the British ships. Cowan did not sail to Riga himself. He sent cruisers Dragoon, Cleopatra and Princess Margaret. Germans asked Brits to leave for they are standing in front of their artillery range.  Brits showed the Yudenich proclamation condemning Bermont and excluding from the White Guards. On October 13 French captain asked Cowen to start shelling the Daugavgrīva fortress so the Latvians can regain them, for the Germans are firing their ships.

Allied ships in Daugava. From the movie Lāčplēsis 1919

Allied ships in Daugava. From the movie Lāčplēsis 1919

On October 15 the Allied ships opened fire on the Daugavgrīva fortress. Latvians started to cross river Daugava to chase away Germans from left side of the river. Bermontd expressed confusion about the White Guard army fighting the Bolsheviks are bombarded by the  allies. He was replied that he is no White Guard as the General Yudenich does not recognize him. From October 15 to November 11 the allied warships continued to bombard the Bermondt army greatly assisting Latvian army. On November 3 a counter attack begun and on November 11 the Battle of Riga was won. Estonians sent one armored train. So the main fighting was done by Latvians themselves. But, the artillery fire from the British ships was a major supporting factor.

British ships also helped Latvians to defend Liepāja. Bermontd forces were unable to capture the important war harbor. After the victory in Riga the Bermontd forces were chased away from Latvia. It took a month for them to leave Lithuania. On December the defeated Bolshevik Baltic Fleet was again ice kept in the harbor. On February 2 1920 Estonia signed Peace Agreement. Latvian and Polish forces chased Bolsheviks from Latgale on January 1920.  Later on August 11 peace agreement was reached. The Allied Naval mission in the Baltic Sea had reached its end. The Bolsheviks in the Baltic States were defeated, Germans pushed away, Latvia and Estonia had reached independence. Petrograd or now known as Leningrad was captured and their fleet despite greatly damaged was still alive. But, Cowan and his allied commanders had made a great deal with their limited resources. Great Britain and France recognized Latvia de iure on 1921 January 26.

Cemetery for the British sailors in Jelgava

Cemetery for the British sailors in Jelgava

Cowan continued his military carrier on 1921 he became the captain of the famous battleship Hood. On 1923 he was appointed as the commanding officer of the Scottish Coast guard.   He was promoted as admiral on 1926 and ended his carrier as the first adjutant of King George V. On 1929 he was retired on the age of 59. When WW2 begun 70-year-old Cowan rushed to ask Admiralty for the job. He ended up in North Africa front and took part in the combat actions. On 1944 he left the military for good as one of the oldest serving officer in the British Army. He was also promoted as honorary colonel. The old man was most happy of such decoration and moved back to England. He died on 1956. As valiant naval officer and a great commander Cowan expressed great sympathies for the Latvians and Estonians and his leadership was crucial for the success of the Allied naval mission in the Baltic Sea.

Selected Sources:

Geoffrey Bennett (2002) Freeing the Baltic. Birlinn Ltd. Latvian translation Atbrīvojot Baltiju 1919-1920. (2012) Rīga. Zvaignze ABC

Juris, Ciganovs. (2013) Latvijas Neatkarības Karš 1918-1920. Rīga. Zvaignze ABC.

Latvijas Brīvības Cīņas. Enciklopēdija (1999) Riga. Preses Nams


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