BATTLE IN THE BALTIC: THE ROYAL NAVY AND THE FIGHT TO SAVE ESTONIA & LATVIA 1918—20

Reviewed by: OTT LAANEMETS, LIEUTENANT COMMANDER, ESTONIAN NAVY

A new treatment of the Baltic Campaign of 1918-20 has been published by Seaforth. This campaign has not been a widely written topic in English besides Geoffrey Bennet’s Cowan’s War (also published as Freeing the Baltic) and some memoirs (e.g. Augustus Agar’s Baltic Episode, Paul Dukes’ The Story of ‘ST 25’). This reflects the official status of that campaign a century ago: the commanding admirals never got very clear political instructions, the men were tired of war to start with, and the ships and men in the Baltic were never given proper recognition by the British government or media. However, for the new coastal states this was a struggle for life and death, now called Independence War both in Estonia or Latvia.

The situation in the aftermath of World War I on the eastern front was complex. All nations involved had two sides amongst themselves: Reds (or Bolsheviks, later called communists) and those for independent democratic nation states; Red Russians (Bolsheviks) and White Russians (monarchists); the remnants of the German Army and factions of local Baltic Germans; and finally, the Western powers (UK and France).  As the author puts it “The devil himself could not have brewed a more confusing stew” (p. 36). A century later the picture is somewhat clearer, however the setting on the geopolitical frontier is complex by default.

The book covers with decent detail all ‘lines of operations’ in the Baltic conducted by the RN. In support of Estonia, RN ships blockaded the Red fleet into Kronstadt, donated captured destroyers to the newly formed Estonian Navy and guaranteed command of the sea for Estonian amphibious operations. The description in the Gulf of Finland includes the famous raid on Kronstadt and Lt Agar’s clandestine coastal motor boat operations in support of a British spy in Petrograd, Sir Paul Dukes.

For Latvia, the assistance was more political, including giving shelter to a lawful Latvian government on board for a while, and assisting in fire support to defend Riga, showing the limitations of sea power in a land conflict. The defence of Riga in 1919 is probably one of the historic examples for C. S. Forrester’s The Commodore describing very similar events during the Napoleonic wars a century earlier.

The third line of operation is the logistics support from the ‘forward operating base’ in Copenhagen. Mr Dunn also allows the reader to follow relevant political discussions in London to understand the wider setting. The story is illustrated with quotations from diaries and memoires of officers and rating who participated in the events as first-hand accounts, which gives context and the mood on board HM ships.

The author’s objectives to tell the story and then understand (p. 278) are fully met with no serious oversimplifications or omissions. Even the author’s disclaimer to have taken a British perspective using Anglophone sources, is not worth mentioning by a reviewer with local perspective. The story is about the RN in the Baltic after all, and the book is ‘only’ 304 pages thick. Moreover, those events seen from an Estonian perspective have only recently been given proper treatment in form of a PhD thesis (Arto Oll, University of Tallinn).

Reading this book makes one believe that naval warfare in the Baltic was composed of cold weather, groundings and mines. Although the winters in the 21st century are not as cold and the Baltic rarely freezes any more, the geography has not changed. In a degraded C2 environment, navigation in the Baltic littoral is as demanding as it was in those days and there are probably more mines after two world wars, though called historic by now. Therefore, besides those with pure history interest, the book about the Baltic Campaign in 1918-20 is a good appetiser for those being deployed to the eastern Baltic Sea.