The Royal Navy’s Baltic Assignments in the Crimean War (1854-55) and in the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) – Operational and Technological Insights

The Royal Navy’s Baltic Assignments in the Crimean War (1854-55) and in the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) – Operational and Technological Insights

02 Feb 24
Posted by: Anniki Mikelsaar
Message from the Editor

The author examines the importance of cultivating clear strategy and deploying balanced fleets in the Baltic operations of the Crimean War and Russian Civil War. In both cases the Royal Navy was engaged blockading enemy ports and striking at their harbours, frequently without direct orders from London, and with profound consequences for the national consciousness of the region. The parallels for today’s littoral operations in the Baltic and Black Sea are obvious. A 40 minute read.

When considering the Royal Navy’s past successes around the world, the Baltic Sea is not the first theatre that usually comes to mind. The extent to which the Royal Navy’s 1854-1855 intervention in the Baltic against the Russian Empire dictated the outcome of the Crimean War in 1856 is relatively unrecognised in the literature. Similarly, the Royal Navy’s 1918-1920 intervention in the Russian Civil War, successful at defeating the Bolsheviks in the contexts of the Estonian and Latvian Independence Wars, is also not very well-known. Although six decades apart, and fighting a different Russian adversary, these two naval interventions share many commonalities, offering important lessons for Baltic Sea strategy.

Since February 2022 the strategic relevance of this shallow and narrow sea, enclosed by Northern and Central Europe, has only increased for Britain and the Allies. A lookback is warranted, appreciating the extent of the successes achieved in the past interventions, but keeping in mind the operational and technological shortcomings that prevented an even swifter British victory.

Some of the lessons to be drawn include the choice of adequate vessels, weighing the tactical necessity of deploying a flotilla of smaller ships which could navigate better through the narrow Baltic Sea passages, or the larger battleships that could intimidate the adversary but would have less navigational capability. This article argues, from the perspective of naval history, that operational and administrative shortcomings also limited the fleet commanders in both wars. The most detrimental operational shortcoming was the lack of a clear theatre strategy for the Royal Navy’s Baltic Commanders-in-Chief from Whitehall, causing hesitancy and confusion in decision-making. Finally, this article sheds light on how both the Crimean War and Russian Civil War naval interventions strengthened Estonian and Latvian national identity and nation-building efforts.

The Baltic is not usually a sea associated with the activities of the Royal Navy.[1] The Baltic Sea, unlike the English Channel, the Irish Sea, and the North Sea which all have broad openings to the Atlantic, is one of the enclosed, and relatively shallow, seas surrounding Europe, littered with islands, generally not communicating well with the ocean.[2] Nevertheless, the Royal Navy has participated in contests to control the Baltic Sea on at least “half a dozen occasions” over the past three centuries.[3] At the onset of the 19th century, the Baltic became a “critical theatre” in the struggle between European powers.[4] Subsequently, all wars “in Europe in which Britain was involved in” between 1801 and 1920, also brought the Royal Navy to fight in the Baltic Sea.[5] Most notably, with the exception of the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807 during the Napoleonic Wars, the closest the RN got to a “serious naval battle” in the Baltic Sea was in its operations against Bomarsund (1854) and Sveaborg (1855) during the Crimean War, and during the Kronstadt raids (1919) conducted during the Russian Civil War.[6] It was the Crimean War and the Russian Civil War, more than 60 years apart, that saw the most notable combat of the Royal Navy in the Baltic.

The focus of this article will be revisiting these two Royal Navy excursions to the Baltic Sea, the 1854-1855 intervention during the Crimean War, and the 1918-1920 intervention during the Russian Civil War. Both these campaigns, carried out over two-year intervals, saw the most recent, and arguably the most significant, of the centuries-long history of Britain’s intermittent naval interventions in the Baltic. It is not particularly well-known that the Baltic expeditions, somewhat diminishingly also called the “Baltic cruises” by Jackie Fisher, had not only significant regional, but also cross-regional impacts.[7]

For example, the 1854-55 campaign eventually played a key role in making the Russian Empire conclude the large-scale and bloody Crimean War with the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856.[8] Six decades later, in the 1918-20 campaign, the Royal Navy decisively supported the Estonians and Latvians in establishing their independent republics in “the only successful Western intervention” of the Russian Revolution and Civil War.[9] The true extent of the achievements of the Royal Navy in the Baltic theatre have been by and large neglected in the literature, yet the Baltic Sea has hardly lost any of its significance for the Royal Navy today.

The history of British naval campaigns in the Baltic Sea may have ended with the Russian Civil War intervention in 1920, the Royal Navy not having conducted offensive operations in the Baltic since then.[10] Nevertheless, the region’s relevance today is upheld by the clashing interests of Britain, the Allies, and the Russian Federation. It is, thus, relevant to illuminate the naval history of this strategically important region, outline the parallels between the two campaigns, and examine their mutual technological and operational shortcomings.

As products of vastly different times, the following key differences must be kept in mind before comparing the campaigns. The British aims in 1854-1855 were to contain the Russian Empire’s ambitions in the Baltic.[11] Britain’s enemy was no longer the Russian Empire but rather the Bolsheviks, fighting from the same seat of power in St. Petersburg (later Petrograd), during the Baltic intervention of 1918-1920. The Crimean War for its part was the largest war which Britain was involved in the century between 1815 and 1914, distinguishing itself from the Royal Navy’s Baltic intervention in the Russian Civil War, the latter being more so a “remnant of a large war” after First World War, the Royal Navy faced strategically similar challenges as directed by the “peculiarities” of the Baltic theatre.[12] From the standpoint of naval history, it is relatively unique for a bluewater navy to fight in shallow, hard-to-navigate waters such as in the Baltic,[13] with winter’s sea ice playing a restrictive role, combined with remoteness from the homeland, both adding to the numerous complications of fighting in this theatre.

Interestingly, both cases are examples of “almost pure” naval warfare, “virtually unencumbered” by the need to support a British Army on the ground.[14] Technological factors, such as the choice of the ships, became the determining factors in the campaigns, and could in part explain the perceived shortcomings of the campaigns. The primary aim of this article is to ask, how far was technology a determining factor influencing the achievements of the Royal Navy’s 1854-55 and 1918-1920 operations in the Baltic Sea?

Reversing the inquiry, both campaigns had effects on the establishment of Estonian and Latvian statehoods, which cannot entirely be separated from the assessment of their achievements, and thus a secondary aim of this article is to establish this relevant parallel as well. To answer the abovementioned question, first, the context in which the Royal Navy found itself involved in the Baltic during the Crimean War and the Russian Civil War will both be explained, before embarking on a discussion of to what extent was the technological dimension, compared to the operational dimension, most important in deciding the campaigns’ outcomes.

The Significance of the Crimean War Campaign in the Baltic

Not only are the achievements of both these campaigns relatively unrecognized, but the importance of the Baltic theatre has also been gravely underappreciated in the historiography of the Crimean War.[15] It used to be “almost completely forgotten” that the Crimean War was “not only fought in Crimea” but that it reached the White Sea, and even the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific with its “minor subsidiary campaigns.”[16] Decisive for the war’s outcome, it also had a key theatre in the Baltic Sea.[17] The decision to send the British fleet to the Baltic had been made ahead of the war, at the preparation stage.

The First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham was advised that “a blockade” in the Baltic could be the “main British weapon” to counter Russia, requiring “line-of-battle ships, and mortar vessels.”[18] Subsequently, the forces were assembled throughout the winter of 1853, and Graham appointed Sir Charles Napier as the Commander-in-Chief for the Baltic theatre. As part of his preparations, a naval officer was sent to map out the three key Russian fortifications in the Baltic, Bomarsund in the Åland islands, Sveaborg as the defence of Helsingfors (Helsinki), and Kronstadt, the seaward defence of the Russian capital St Petersburg.[19] Meanwhile, British and French officers were also inspecting the defences of Constantinople in Turkey, planning for an Allied intervention in the Black Sea theatre.[20]

Although a slightly unconventional way of looking at the Crimean War, the Black and the Baltic Seas were both the “two principal theatres of war,” as proven by the archival materials of the Navy Records Society showing evidence of the Cabinet treating the theatres at equal length throughout the war.[21] Fighting broke out, first, in the Black Sea littoral, and the Black Sea theatre received a Joint Anglo-French amphibious squadron, ahead of the Baltic, on 3 January 1854.[22] On 10 March 1854, as the winter sea ice had started to recede, and ahead of the formal declaration of war on 28 March, expeditions were sent out towards the Baltic “with great pomp” from Spithead.[23] The Queen waved farewell to Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Napier’s fleet from her royal yacht, with thousands watching the departure from the shore.[24] Napier’s powerful force consisted of 18 ships, with 1,160 guns, led by the spectacular 131-gun flagship Duke of Wellington. French warships under Vice-Admiral Deschenes later accompanied Napier’s fleet, making up a support force of 23 ships with 1,250 guns.[25] The second expedition, replacing Napier’s fleet the following spring, 4 April 1855, was led by Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Sounders Dundas and consisted of an even more spectacular fleet of 99 warships in total, with 3,318 guns, line of battleships and frigates, supported by floating batteries, mortar vessels, gunboats, a floating repair boat and a hospital ship.[26] On 1 June 1955, Dundas’ squadron was accompanied by a small French squadron led by Rear-Admiral Charles Pénaud, with 24 warships and 357 guns.[27]

Even though high expectations surrounded the British Baltic Fleet amongst the public, including some bloodthirsty hopes of a decisive assault on Kronstadt “bombarding the Czar off his throne” in St. Petersburg,[28] the main achievement of Napier’s fleet was constituting an effective “blockading force.”[29] As a result of the first expedition, under Napier, “five-eighths of the entire Russian naval strength” and almost half of Russia’s land forces were tied up in the Baltic, despite being needed in the Crimea.[30] The superior Russian Baltic Fleet had been rendered harmless through the blockade, aiding the Allied war effort in Crimea. Napier’s fleet was also successful at the destruction of the Bomarsund fortress, and the consequential neutralisation of the Åland islands, preventing Russia from establishing their naval base there (Kirby 1989).[31]

The impacts of an economic blockade on the Russian wartime economy should also not be discounted.[32] The threat posed by Dundas’ fleet in 1855 after the successful Sveaborg operation showed Russia the possible fate of Kronstadt if a decisive third expedition were to go ahead the following year. This played a crucial role in forcing Russia to concede to the British and French peace terms in 1856.[33] However, this achievement did not appeal to the British public as sufficient.[34] After the pomp with which the Baltic expeditions had been sent out, and the high expectations, Russia had not been defeated dramatically enough. The war had ended, and the Royal Navy was withdrawn by the onset of the winter at the end of 1855.

According to Andrew Lambert, the main shortcoming of the Crimean War campaign was that the war may have ended sooner with a British victory, had the strategic value of the Baltic theatre and threat to Kronstadt been realised earlier.[35] The war ended not first and foremost because of the fall of Sevastopol in the Black Sea, “a peripheral town in a recently conquered province,” but because of the active military threat in 1856, posed by a “vast armada of British specialist vessels,” preparing to attack the island of Kronstadt, the seaward defence of the capital.[36] Before evaluating the technological and operational factors influencing the outcomes of the Crimean War campaigns, it is necessary to jump six decades ahead and explore the context for the 1918-1920 naval intervention in the Russian Civil War, as the strategic shortcomings and successes of the Crimean War’s Baltic campaign may be later better understood in conjunction with the Russian Civil War.

The Significance of the Russian Civil War intervention in the Baltic

As with the Crimean War, the Baltic theatre has been widely regarded as a “side-show,” in the story of Royal Navy during and in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.[37] Nevertheless, it was “in no small part thanks to” the achievements of the RN that Estonia and Latvia achieved their independence,[38] demonstrating the regional significance of the Baltic campaign of 1918-1920. Apart from British submarines in the Baltic Sea, for the first time since the Crimean War campaign ended in 1855, the Royal Navy re-entered the Baltic with offensive intent in December 1918.[39] The decision to send a naval force to assist the Estonian Army in the Baltic was made by David Lloyd George’s War Cabinet on 20 November the same year.[40] Having initially been “slow to respond” to the Estonian nationalists’ appeals for help in defending against the Red Army, and uneasy with dividing the territory of her former Great War ally, the Russian Empire, the Cabinet’s decision in November confirmed the decisive support the Estonian Armed Forces were about to receive during their Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920).[41]

The Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks, which not only involved Britain but also France, Italy, the United States, and even India (British Raj), reached further from the Baltic to North Russia and the Caucasus.[42] It was the era of an “extended European civil war”[43] which, between the official end of the Great War in 1918 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, was one of “the most violent” contests in the postwar period.[44] The Estonian Independence War, a local war in the Baltic Sea littoral, was in a way a part of, and separately simultaneous to, the Russian Civil War, taking place amid the broader context of “independence struggles, national liberation, and revolutionary change” which erupted around the year 1918.[45] Most imminently, the Royal Navy’s 1918-1920 involvement in the Baltic Sea was a response to the Estonian nationalists’ pleas of help, and not a broader decision to support the cause of the Whites in the Russian Civil War. The 1918-20 intervention in the Baltic had the specific purpose of giving “arms and supplies to the Estonian armed forces,” in addition to the vague instruction to “show the British flag and to support British policy.”[46]

It was on 27 November 1918, under Rear-Admiral Edwyn S Alexander-Sinclair’s command, that the Royal Navy’s five cruisers from the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron, a mine sweeper force, nine destroyers, one transport vessel, and several torpedo boats set out for Estonia from the Firth of Forth naval base.[47] In January 1919, Rear-Admiral Walter Cowan arrived with reinforcements and replaced Alexander-Sinclair as the Baltic Commander-in-Chief. Minelayers Princess Margaret and Angola were loaded with arms and supplies for the Estonians, the arms including more than 5,000 rifles and a number of 3-inch AA guns which “greatly assisted” the Estonian forces.[48]

Throughout 1919 more reinforcements were sent, most notably 10 fast Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs), an early aircraft carrier converted from the cruiser HMS Vindictive, and HMS Erebus a monitor with powerful 15-inch guns.[49] In addition, 20 British submarines supported the fleet, some of them already stationed in the Baltic following World War I, and some sent as reinforcements to Rear-Admiral Cowan.[50] This admirable show of British Naval support to the young Estonian nation, extended also to the Latvian Army, supporting the Finnish and Lithuanians in a joint effort to resist the Bolsheviks.

What makes the 1918-1920 campaign especially surprising is that, unlike in the Crimean War where the public expected grandiose war outcomes and high morale was present among the serving officers, the home support was almost entirely lacking for the post-World War I intervention, and the Royal Navy was “plagued by poor morale” where officers desired to go home after the exhausting First World War.[51] This makes the successes of this intervention the more significant, as the British admirals and their naval contingents sustained “the life blood of arms” from England, provided protection for Tallinn and the Estonian coasts from the sea, and boosted Estonian, and Latvian morale, despite their own fatigue.[52] It tends to be an established “conclusion in the British accounts” that the 1918-1920 Royal Navy Baltic campaign was decisive within the context of the Russian Civil War, and at weakening the Russian Bolshevik forces.[53]

Furthermore, for Estonians, the Royal Navy’s heroic fight for the young nation’s independence was well remembered, and the graves of British Naval Officers secretly commemorated, memorialised, and tributes were paid to them by the Estonian people throughout the Soviet Occupation of 1939-1991. Gratitude to the Royal Navy for the “great help” offered, as can be read on the memorial to the First Sea Lord in the Holy Spirit Church in the Tallinn, strongly exists in the Estonian public memory today. This proves the significance of the Royal Navy’s achievement during the last naval intervention in the Baltic.

Technology as a Deciding Factor in the Baltic naval campaigns

Considering that six decades worth of technological advances separated the two campaigns, it is important to consider that the Crimean War took place in the era of wooden hulled, screw-propelled, steam capital ships which dominated the oceans between 1851-1861,[54] while the Russian Civil War, on the other hand, took place in the era of iron-hulled warships, coastal motorboats, and submarine warfare. John D Grainger in The British Navy in the Baltic surveyed a long and consequential history of all the British naval ventures in the Baltic. One of the overarching conclusions, which resonates especially well with both the Crimean and Russian Civil War campaigns, is the mutual critical importance in both campaigns for the Admiralty to choose adequate naval technology, taking into consideration the peculiarities of the Baltic theatre.[55]

Technology affected the Crimean War “at every level,” and the same can be said about the Russian Civil War.[56] Steam battleships of the Royal Navy provided an unequalled command of the Baltic Sea, meanwhile, the Russian Empire’s “sea power had gone largely obsolete” in the years before the Crimean War.[57] Grainger has argued that technology, more specifically the choice of ships, acted as an important factor for the Royal Navy in the Crimean War. In parallel, William A Fletcher in his article ‘The British Navy in the Baltic 1918-1920’, supported this argument, proving the importance of technology, by showing how the Royal Navy wisely utilised their ample technology and a good choice of small vessels, to “surgically remove” the Bolshevik fleet’s fighting capabilities.[58] The main hypothesis which could be put forth is that the choice of smaller and faster vessels would prove advantageous in the narrow and shallow Baltic waters compared to larger vessels.[59]

It is important to note that the technological lesson of choosing a suitable vessel size for the Baltic was not always self-evident in war preparations. This technological shortcoming was especially true in the earlier Crimean War campaign. In 1854, Admiral Napier’s fleet of 18 ships including the Duke of Wellington, could be judged to have been poorly equipped for the tasks it was sent there to execute. The large-scale British naval advance in the Baltic was expected to “meet enemy in battle.”[60]

However, in encountering this advance, the Russian response had “always been” to sit tight in their fortified bases, having withdrawn the main armament there, choosing not to engage in direct battle.[61] The enemy fleet had 60 to 80 smaller vessels, well-suited for the shallows and rock-strewn shores, where big ships like the Duke of Wellington could not navigate. Napier’s fleet possessed none of the smaller ships, complicating not only their battle readiness and the ability to conduct raids, but also the ability to enforce a naval blockade, as the smaller and faster Russian ships could pass through the blockade close to the coast without interference.[62] Napier even sent a strongly worded letter to First Lord Graham, complaining about this deficiency in July 1854.[63]

Napier’s successor, later on during the Crimean War, was Rear-Admiral Richard Dundas, who received a much better equipped fleet with 50 or so small craft, that played an important role in the successes of the Sveaborg bombardment. The Sveaborg action was significant, acting as a warning to the Russian Empire of what may happen to St Peterburg’s seaward defence, the fortress of Kronstadt, in case it did not make concessions.

Proving the case for smaller vessels as more suitable for the Baltic waters, as a technological determinant, Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs) and submarines played an important role in the Baltic campaign of 1918-1920. “The very presence” of submarines preoccupied every ship commander in the Baltic and Danish Straits.[64] The Coastal Motor Boats, primarily used by the Secret Service to take agents in and out of Petrograd, were used as torpedo boats, capable of carrying one torpedo each. Two of the CMBs mounted a raid on Bolshevik ships to prevent them from bombarding the Estonian coast, and the large Bolshevik cruiser Oleg was sunk by the brave offensive of Lieutenant Augustus Agar, a British secret agent, on a small CMB-7,[65] a vessel much smaller than the cruiser Oleg.[66]

In August 1919, Admiral Cowan launched an attack against Kronstadt. Kronstadt had been made, since Dundas’s fleet threatened to attack it during the Crimean War in 1855, “impregnable to a major seaborne attack” with chains of forts blocking the approaches by sea.[67] Admiral Cowan understood that attacking this powerful target with his large ships would not succeed, and instead, a surreptitious raid by a flotilla of CMBs was attempted. The eight CMBs deployed for this mission indeed succeeded, having penetrated the harbour in the darkness, and successfully torpedoed the Soviet’s two main battleships, and a large submarine depot ship Pamyat Azova.[68] This achievement, by the smallest vessels of the fleet, “deprived the Soviets of their main strength at sea,” as the remaining ships were no longer capable of interfering seriously with land operations.[69]

Therefore, the technology, or more specifically the size of the vessels chosen, seemed to determine to a large extent the strategic success of the Royal Navy in the Baltic. Nevertheless, before the superiority of smaller vessels in the Baltic Sea can be concluded, it is important to note that, in the Crimean War, the heavier fleet made up a notable British advance, and was precisely what kept the Russian Empire’s superior Baltic Fleet bottled up in Kronstadt, whereas it was needed in the Black Sea theatre.[70]

This level of intimidation could not perhaps have been achieved equally well with smaller vessels. Furthermore, the CMBs used in 1919 were far from miracle craft. Being vessels only fit for “nice weather,” a proper wave made the men in the CMBs “jump, and get hurt, to the extent their bones were going to break, and they were about to draw their last breaths.”[71] The utility of submarines, though playing a key role in preventing the Bolshevik fleet from bombarding the Estonian coast, and as protectors of the RN’s light cruisers and destroyers,[72] have been argued by Grainger to have been largely without purpose other than posing merely a perceived threat. However, Wilson’s Baltic Assignment British Submariners in Russia 1914-1919, a much more thorough investigation into the role of British submarines in the years 1918-1919, largely disproves Grainger’s assessment of the utility of submarines in the Russian Civil War, showing that they were indeed effectively used in combat.

Either way, superior technology was one of the key reasons why the Royal Navy succeeded over both the Imperial Russian and Bolshevik Navies. Choice of vessels seemed to determine the extent to which technological superiority persisted. While the technological dimension is important, the operational dimension of the utilisation of this technology must also be evaluated.[73]

Operational and Command-Structure issues in the Baltic naval campaigns

In both campaigns, operational efficiency appears to have been limited. In terms of the 1854-55 Royal Navy Crimean War campaign, there is little consensus in the literature on whether the operational shortcomings were posed more by the lack of clear strategic guidance from the Cabinet, the secretive planning of the strategy of the First Lord Graham, or the extreme hesitancy and incapability in terms of execution from theatre commander Napier. For one or more of these factors, the operational side of the Crimean War campaign suffered as the strategic value of the Baltic was underappreciated. A similar limitation existed in the Russian Civil War campaign: When Admiral Alexander-Sinclair first arrived in the Baltic, he was operating in the same “vague” atmosphere as every other British commander in the Baltic,[74] highlighting how the problem of a lack of objectives and guidance for the Royal Navy persisted six decades later in the other intervention.

“The leading cause of the allied mismanagement” in the Crimean War was in fact Whitehall “not initiating a campaign plan at home.”[75] War provided Britain with an opportunity to halt Russian expansion in the Baltic. Consequently, when the war broke out, this was what constituted the policy for the Baltic, very much short of any “conception” for “practical strategy.”[76] During the Crimean War, it soon became clear, for the British public, that the Royal Navy had not “shone with lustre and brilliance,” as no victory had been achieved by Admiral Napier’s fleet other than the naval blockade, and the “laurels that Russia had lost, Britain had not won.”[77] The “considerable weakness” in the Crimean War’s Baltic campaign, thus, seemed to be the lack of “a great Commander-in-Chief, and clever, far-sighted politicians” rather than limitations posed by lacking technology.[78]

The reasons why Napier had been hesitant and unwilling to attack Russian fortifications, like Sveaborg (later attacked by the second expedition under Admiral Dundas), or the islands around the coastline of present-day Estonia, can be attributed, to a large extent, to “virulent disagreements” that existed between “First Lord of the Admiralty Sir John Graham, and the Baltic Commander-in-Chief Napier.”[79] Lambert has argued that the First Lord should be blamed, as Graham’s planning appeared to be unusually secretive. He purposefully shifted his failures, like the failure of not engaging Sweden to assist the British Baltic efforts with troops and small vessels, onto Napier. First Lord Graham blamed the Baltic Commander’s incompetence, when in reality, the Baltic Fleet did not have adequate capability to enforce the blockade or exert pressure on land.[80]

Meanwhile, Graham was uncommunicative and secretive, and Napier “did his best” with the means available.[81] Edgar Anderson in his article ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area’, attributes far more responsibility for the failures to Napier himself, portraying him as a “quarrelsome, lazy, and insubordinate alcoholic,” who indeed was unable and unwilling to take more decisive action in the Baltic sooner.[82] Further evidence that justifies Graham’s criticism towards Napier, is the aspect that Napier’s successor managed to get along better with the Admiralty. Admiral Richard Dundas, a “cautious and friendly man,”[83] had a much better relationship with his First Lord. Sir Richard Dundas was appointed by Graham, but Graham left office and was replaced by Sir Charles Wood, who was a “much less devious and controlling First Lord to work with,”[84] and this gave Dundas an advantage over Napier. Therefore, whether the fault was more with Graham or Napier, their pernicious relationship did not help the effectiveness of the campaign.

The healthier Dundas-Wood dynamic explains why Admiral Richard Dundas was able to take more decisive action as the Baltic Commander-in-Chief, and thereby dared to exert significantly more pressure on Russia by the end of 1855, which proved to be decisive for the outcome of the war. Then again, it was not only the relationship between the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Baltic Commander-in-Chief that determined success on the operational side. The instructions from the government at home, or lack thereof, which had frustrated Napier, were scarcely more explicit for Dundas.[85] The government could also be scrutinised for not initiating a campaign plan at home, and “looking to the admirals and generals to furnish them with one abroad,” which added to the Baltic Theatre Commanders’ confusion and lack of decisive action for which they were later criticised.[86]

Operational efficiency could be argued to have been an important factor in the 1918-20 Baltic campaign’s successes as well. The British government was operating in a very confused situation following the end of the Great War. Ireland had descended into conflict in 1919, the British Raj faced instabilities in India that year as well, and the revolutionary situation in Russia added to the “toxic mixture of ignorance… and disagreement in London.”[87] It is hardly surprising that both Alexander-Sinclair and Cowan were sent into the Baltic with not only unclear, but actually contradictory instructions, seemingly “designed to hamper” them in the missions they were given.[88]

Admiral Cowan was expected to defend the independence of Estonia and Latvia, while not being allowed to move his ships to Tallinn and Riga without the Admiralty’s permission. To fulfil the instructions and succeed in the main aims of the campaign, he had asked for permission to supply the Estonian and Latvian forces with arms. He did not receive it. Hence, he opted to decide his tactics locally, as had his predecessor Alexander-Sinclair the previous year, and as had done his predecessors from six decades ago, Napier and Dundas in the Crimean War. The next time he needed to act decisively, “he did not ask.”[89]

Despite the administrative obstacles in Admiral Cowan’s operational effectiveness, by moving his ships as he locally determined he managed to enforce a successful blockade keeping the Bolshevik fleet locked up in Kronstadt, raid that very same Bolshevik fleet with the CMBs while they were stuck in the port, and provide supplies to the Estonian and Latvian armies fighting on land. Had Cowan strictly obeyed orders from the Admiralty, the Bolshevik fleet may have been able to come out from Kronstadt to the Gulf of Finland, influencing the ongoing land campaign. The outcome of the Estonian Independence War in the context of the Russian Civil War, therefore, “could well have been different.”[90] As in the Crimean War, operational efficiency would have been achieved better had the government created a clear strategy for the Baltic theatre in London. Instead, Whitehall and the Admiralty left it for the theatre commanders choosing, creating easily preventable confusion. Once again, the operational side was influenced by many factors, including both the government’s instructions, and the competency of the theatre commander.

Not all commanders, as Napier’s example proved in 1854, managed their responsibilities as well as Cowan did in 1919-1920. A clearer theatre strategy would have opened the possibility for Britain to use the Baltic theatre sooner and more effectively. This would imply the superiority of the operational dimension, as more effective operational command would have permitted a better use of naval technology.

The previous discussion highlights the importance of operational and administrative efficiency as the necessary determinant, separate and distinct from the technological dimension. The Royal Navy may have possessed a technical superiority with its steam ships over the Russian Empire’s sailing battleships during the Crimean War in the case of Napier’s expedition, but the Graham-Napier tensions hindered Napier from using this technology in a way which would have appeased the British public more, and perhaps even shortened the Crimean War.

Similarly, in the Russian Civil War, had the Cabinet carefully considered the potential of the Baltic theatre for the Estonian Independence War’s outcomes, Admiral Cowan may have exerted even stronger pressure on the Bolshevik government. Nevertheless, the distinction between the technological dimension and its operational requirements is not nearly as straightforward. Rather, technology and operations were interconnected. Dundas, in the second expedition, commanded a much more balanced fleet than did Napier during the first expedition. That was, in part, the result of a strongly worded letter that Napier had send to Graham in July 1854, demanding smaller vessels. In that sense, Dundas’ success over Napier may have been a combination of his fleet’s technological superiority over the previous expedition, as well as his more amicable relationship with his First Lord of the Admiralty.

Societal effects of the two campaigns

A component of the technological-operational dimension discussion, which is not necessarily separate from an assessment of the campaigns’ outcomes, is the impact these naval campaigns had on the local populations. In a way, perhaps surprisingly for the Crimean War, both campaigns had important and lasting consequences on local Estonian and Latvian nation-building and the rise of ethnic consciousness. The Baltic provinces of Estland, Livland, and Kurland belonged to the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century, whereas the Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had declared their independence from the already-collapsed Russian Empire by the time the RN arrived in the Baltic in 1918. Curiously, the same effect, a strengthened nationalism in the Baltics, was inadvertently achieved in the Crimean War with the Anglo-French Allied assault on the local populations, whereas, in the Russian Civil War, it was achieved through direct cooperation and support for the Estonian and Latvian forces towards establishing statehood.

The Crimean War coincided with the period of the modern Estonian national awakening in the mid-19th century, and a rapidly strengthening Estonian culture and literature.[91] The Crimean War, and more specifically the naval expeditions to the Baltic, not only increased the volume of Estonian-language press, as more war news was distributed, but possibly strengthened the national myth of an ancient free Estonia through Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s writings, which later formed the key cultural basis for the establishment of an independent Estonian statehood – the idea that sparked the Estonian War of Independence in the first place – and thus connecting these two naval campaigns six decades apart. Kreutzwald, the founding father of modern Estonian culture and literature, before he wrote the national epic Kalevipoeg in 1856 (equivalent to the Finnish national Epic Kalevala, 1835), and published a lesser-known work titled Sõda (War).[92] Referring to the Crimean War in 1854, he wrote “English are lion, French are wolf, and they both come here to hurt us. What do they have to complain, merrily celebrating in the West?” thus defining a clear Estonian sentiment of ‘us’ against both the English and French forces, and the Russian empire. Therefore, this key parallel exists between the two naval campaigns. Both expeditions had the effect of strengthening Baltic statehood and national identity, through fighting against the Russian Empire and Bolshevik forces. The two naval expeditions must be appreciated with this parallel in mind. During the Crimean War, the Royal Navy strengthened the seeds of Baltic nationhood inadvertently while, in the Russian Civil War, the RN is to be credited for having fought for the independent nation deliberately and with great effectiveness.


Regarding any war strategy or its evaluation thereof, Michael Howard, in The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy, has warned against excessively “depending on the technological dimension of strategy” to the detriment of its operational requirements, “while we ignore its societal implications altogether.”[93] This article has examined the technological dimension of the Royal Navy’s Baltic excursions in both the Crimean War and the Russian Civil War. Following Howard’s guidance, the operational dimension has also been brought to light, in comparison to the technological dimension of British naval superiority over the Imperial and Bolshevik fleets. Finally, the societal implications, which Howard has recommended to focus on in evaluating any strategy, also brought out a key parallel between the two campaigns.

The Baltic Sea, littered with islands, shallow and narrow, has been demonstrated to have been a key theatre for Britain’s war efforts against the Russian Empire (1854-1856), and against the Bolsheviks (1918-1920). This enclosed and shallow sea requires the adequate choice of vessels, namely, a flotilla of smaller sailboats or coastal motorboats to access shallow waters and narrow passages. The choice of ships, a question of the technological dimension, appeared to determine the effectiveness of the economic blockade in the Crimean War, as well as combat effectiveness, as demonstrated by the Kronstadt Raid during the Russian Civil War.

The operational dimension, namely the relationships between the Admiralty and the theatre commanders, was another key determinant of the naval expeditions’ successes and shortcomings. In the Crimean War, a poor relationship between Napier and Graham prevented any further successes for the first expedition of 1854-1855. This operational shortcoming also prevented the successful choice of vessels, given Graham’s initial reluctance to provide the smaller ships that were needed for Napier’s fleet. The second Baltic expedition of the Crimean War demonstrates the extent to which effective operational command permits a more successful utilisation of technology. With the Russian Civil War intervention, the main operational problem was the contradictory strategy from the government in London.

Nevertheless, this posed less problems for Admiral Cowan, who managed to achieve the naval intervention’s aims. Even though, in the Russian Civil War, the choice of vessels was appropriate, and the technological dimension decisive in establishing the Royal Navy’s superiority, this article has argued that more effective operational planning from the central government, specifically a clear naval strategy for the Baltic theatre, may have enabled Britain to achieve a swifter victory in both wars. The successful utilisation of this technology almost always depends on the operational dimension in turn.


[1] Grainger, John D. 2014. The British Navy in the Baltic. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1

[2] Ibid, 2

[3] Ibid, 3

[4] Vego, Milan N. 2003. Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas. Taylor & Francis Group, 9

[5] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 2

[6] Ibid, 258

[7] Ibid, 1

[8] Lambert, Andrew. 2011. The Crimean War. Surrey: Ashgate, 16

[9] Fletcher, William A. 1976. ‘THE BRITISH NAVY IN THE BALTIC, 1918-1920: ITS CONTRIBUTION TO THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE BALTIC NATIONS,’ Journal of Baltic Studies 134-144, 134

[10] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 258

[11] Lambert, The Crimean War

[12] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 3

[13] Vego, Milan N. 2003. Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas. Taylor & Francis Group

[14] Hamilton, C. I. 1976. ‘Sir James Graham, the Baltic Campaign and War-Planning at the Admiralty in 1854,’ The Historical Journey 89-112, 89

[15] Andrew Lambert in his book The Crimean War has brought the Baltic theatre into consideration, criticising the label ‘Crimean War’ in being the most serious obstacle to any understanding of the conflict with its large scale and grand objectives. The contemporaries had referred to the conflict as the Russian War of 1853-1856, which Lambert also deems as the more appropriate title.

[16] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 216

[17] Anderson, Edgar. 1974. ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ Journal of Baltic Studies 339-361, 340

[18] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 217

[19] The reasons for British involvement in the Crimean War warrant discussion beyond the scope of this article. Even though the Crimean War was fought to prevent Russia from expanding at the cost of the declining Ottoman Empire into the Mediterranean, the central issue was the “imperial and economic rivalry” between Britain and Russia. Between 1815 and 1854, Britain and Russia were “the only world powers,” and Russia was Britain’s most significant threat. This rivalry is key to appreciate the significance and aims of the Royal Navy’s actions in the Baltic theatre in the Crimean War. Lambert, The Crimean War, 1; Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 217

[20] Sweetman, John. 2001. Essential Histories. The Crimean War. Oxford: Osprey, 21

[21] D. Bonner-Smith; Capt. A.C. Dewar R.N. 1943. The Russian War, 1854: Baltic and Black Sea. Navy Records Society.

[22] Sweetman, John. 2001. Essential Histories. The Crimean War. Oxford: Osprey, 21

[23] Ibid, 11

[24] Hamilton, ‘Sir James Graham, the Baltic Campaign and War-Planning at the Admiralty in 1854,’ 91

[25] Sweetman, John. 2001. Essential Histories. The Crimean War. Oxford: Osprey, 11

[26] Ibid, 12

[27] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ 349

[28] Lambert, The Crimean War

[29] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ 342

[30] Ibid, 347

[31] Kirby, David. 1989. ‘Reviewed Work: The British Assault on Finland 1854-1855. A Forgotten Naval War,’ The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 67, no. 4 630-31

[32] Lambert, The Crimean War, 2

[33] Lambert, The Crimean War

[34] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area’

[35] Lambert, The Crimean War

[36] Ibid, 11

[37] Wilson, Michael. 1985. Baltic Assignment. British Submariners in Russia 1914-1919. London: Leo Cooper, 11

[38] Ibid, 231

[39] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 254

[40] Fletcher, ‘THE BRITISH NAVY IN THE BALTIC, 1918-1920’

[41] Ibid, 135

[42] Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 222

[43] Holquist, Peter. 2003. “‘Violent Russia, Deadly Marxism? Russia in the Epoch of Violence, 1905–21.” Kritika 627-52, 645

[44] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 18

[45] Gerwarth, Robert. 2017. The Vanquished. Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923. UK: Allen Lane, 18

[46] Fletcher, ‘THE BRITISH NAVY IN THE BALTIC, 1918-1920,’ 136. More precisely, the Baltic Commander-in-Chief Alexander-Sinclair’s objects, as directed by the Admiralty were as vague as possible. However, a telegram from the Admiralty had ordered a supply of arms specifically to the Estonian nation. Because the immediate background to the expedition was the Estonian government’s appeal for help to the British government, Alexander-Sinclair could “reasonably assume,” that this “British policy” objective, in practice, meant supporting the independence of Estonia, and this could “be expected” to extend to other enemies of the Bolshevik’s revolutionary government in Petrograd (Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 244). The term Russian Civil War intervention is, thus, slightly imprecise in describing the 1918-1920 Baltic naval campaign, obstructing, to some extent, a focused analysis in the context of a specific war, the Estonian War of Independence, which most imminently prompted Royal Navy’s arrival in the Baltic at the end of the year 1918. For the sake of clarity, and to retain a focus on the broader geopolitical picture, the “Russian Civil War intervention” will be used instead of the Estonian Independence War to describe the Royal Navy involvement.

[47] Laar, Mart. 1998. Britain and the Estonian war of independence. Tallinn: Embassy of the UK to Estonia, 4

[48] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 244; Head, Michael. 2009. ‘The Baltic Campaign, 1918-1920: Part I,’ Warship International , 2009, Vol. 46, No. 2 134-150

[49] Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 227

[50] Õun, Mati. 2014. Eesti merejõudude laevu 1918-1940. Tallinn: Sentinel, 115

[51] Fletcher, ‘THE BRITISH NAVY IN THE BALTIC, 1918-1920,’ 142

[52] Ibid

[53] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 253

[54] Lambert, The Crimean War, 5

[55] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 3

[56] Lambert, The Crimean War, 349

[57] Ibid

[58] Fletcher, ‘THE BRITISH NAVY IN THE BALTIC, 1918-1920,’ 141

[59] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic

[60] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 219

[61] Ibid

[62] Ibid

[63] Ibid

[64] Ibid, 238

[65] RUSI. 1928. “Augustus Agar, Baltic Episode, Footprints in the Sea.” Journal of the Royal United Services Institute 123-7

[66] Õun, Eesti merejõudude laevu 1918-1940, 119

[67] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 250

[68] Ibid

[69] Ibid, 251

[70] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area’

[71] Õun, Eesti merejõudude laevu 1918-1940, 120

[72] Wilson, Baltic Assignment, 232

[73] Howard, Michael. 1979. ‘The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy.’ Foreign Affairs, vol. 57, no. 5, 975

[74] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 244

[75] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ 348

[76] Lambert, The Crimean War, 34

[77] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ 348

[78] Ibid

[79] Hamilton, ‘Sir James Graham, the Baltic Campaign and War-Planning at the Admiralty in 1854,’ 89

[80] Lambert, The Crimean War, 218

[81] Ibid

[82] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ 341

[83] Ibid, 348

[84] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 223

[85] Ibid, 224

[86] Anderson, ‘The Crimean War in the Baltic Area,’ 348

[87] Grainger, The British Navy in the Baltic, 244

[88] Ibid, 246

[89] Ibid

[90] Ibid, 254

[91] Hinrikus, Rutt. 2008. “The Journey of the White Ship.” Interlitteraria (Interlitteraria).

[92] Kreutzwald, Friedrich Reinhold. 1854. Söda – Wiru wana Lauliku kenam Kandle-lugu. Accessed 2023.

[93] Howard, ‘The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy, 975