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  • Writer's pictureNeil Datson

Getting it Right: Operation Albion

The Final Hours of Russian Battleship Slava

In the early dawn of 12 October 1917 the German dreadnought SMS Bayern opened fire on a submarine in the northern Baltic. Her target was almost certainly illusory. An anxious lookout had provoked the Bayern’s captain into betraying his ship’s position rather earlier than had been planned.

Had the Russian defenders, just a few miles to the east on the island of Ösel, been better prepared the poin

tless gunfire might have had grim consequences for the troops that the Bayern was there to support. For she had fired the first shots of Operation Albion, an amphibious assault on the Baltic Islands. Fortunately for the Germans, by October 1917 military secrecy and stealth were dispensable luxuries. The March Revolution and the subsequent political turmoil had left the Russian armed forces in a state of perpetual turmoil. Soviets, political committees of the lower ranks, had as much control over the day to day activities of regiments, ships, batteries and garrisons as their officers. The countryside and cities were swarming with deserters. Detachments mutinied if ordered to attack, or tamely surrendered as soon as attacked. They refused to entrain, or refused to detrain. Many only wanted to put an end to the war. Even so, there were officers and men who continued to fight bravely, and there were far more officers and men who were still instilled with a patriotic spirit to defend Mother Russia, but amongst all the indiscipline and confusion their patriotism was futile. Yet Russia still continued in the war. Through the summer and autumn of 1917 she resembled a punch bag rather than a fighter, absorbing the most terrible punishment but incapable of landing any blows.

Only a few days earlier, on 6 October, the senior admirals responsible for the Baltic theatre and the defence of the islands, Razvozov and Bakhirev, had tendered their resignations. Razvozov and Bakhirev were undoubtedly patriots, and both were able and energetic officers. Politically, Razvozov was something of a democrat. He supported Kerensky, who was Prime Minister and in command of the Russian war effort. Bakhirev was a reactionary, who believed that authoritarianism was necessary to maintain discipline in society and the armed forces. Despite their differences they worked well together. But by early October both were exhausted. They not only had to plan and conduct operations to protect the coasts and home waters from the German Navy, they also had to mediate with their sailors’ representatives. When news of the assault on Ösel reached Razvozov his first task was to appeal to the Tsentobalt, the Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet, for permission to move any of his forces. For the immediate crisis the Tsentobalt gave Razvozov its backing, but it generally dedicated far more time to arguing about radical politics than practical matters.

The Baltic Islands, now part of Estonia, are a small archipelago north of the Gulf of Riga and south of the Gulf of Finland. The three main islands of the group are Ösel, Dagö and Moon. They are low, marshy in some parts and heavily wooded. Much of the sea around them is shallow and hazardous, and unsuitable for navigation by large vessels. In the years before World War I they were of little economic importance, as their only industries were farming and fishing. Their population principally comprised a small number of German landowners and a much greater number of Estonian peasants, fishermen and labourers. Relations between the two were poisonous. Neither community felt any strong allegiance to Imperial Russia, nor even to any possible Petrograd government, whatever its political complexion. The landowners identified with the conservatism of the old order but their hearts were German. Among the Estonians unobtrusive nationalism was common. The Russians were distrustful of both. In all essentials the islands were subject parts of an empire, not districts in an independent country.

However, they were strategically important. In World War I their possession enabled the Russian Navy, through the skilful use of its resources, to prevent the far more powerful German Navy from operating in the Gulf of Riga. Minefields were laid in the surrounding waters. These were then protected by land batteries, old pre-dreadnought battleships acting as mobile batteries from sheltered waters, and occasional forays by light warships.

Given their position, it would have logical for the Germans to have made an attempt on the Baltic Islands far earlier in the war. They protected the Gulf of Finland as well as the Gulf of Riga, if not so crucially. Possession of the islands would have allowed the German armies to advance on Petrograd. It would not be unreasonable to argue that if Germany had pursued a Baltic strategy in 1915 then she might have taken Petrograd and forced Russia out of the war. Yet both the army and the navy had their gazes fixed on the west. The army entered the war with eight field armies, seven of which were deployed on the western front. That imbalance was never altered. They saw Russia as an adversary that could be contained by the armies of their arthritic ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, stiffened by a minimal use of German troops. After victory had been won in France there would be time and leisure to deal with the Russians.

The navy’s main focus was always on the High Seas Fleet, a fleet that had been built and nurtured purely in order to undermine British naval hegemony. The High Seas Fleet had a profound impact on the course of history, though not to Germany’s advantage. ‘Splendid isolation’ came to an end. Britain agreed an alliance with Japan in 1901 in order to secure her empire in the far east, and then became informally allied with France. Instead of being spread round the globe, with the largest contingent in the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy’s warships were concentrated in home waters. The two countries competed in a race to build the most powerful fleet of dreadnought battleships. While it was a race that Britain really could not afford to lose, for Germany the High Seas Fleet was really never more than a vanity project. After the outbreak of war the German Navy could have made aggressive use of it in the Baltic but chose instead to keep it safe in Wilhelmshaven, from where it made very occasional and furtive sweeps out into the North Sea. It tied down a large proportion of the Royal Navy, but British naval hegemony was never threatened.

By the summer of 1917 circumstances persuaded the German high command to look seriously at the islands. While she continued in the war Russia was in a desperate state. That was a problem for the western allies but Germany’s own resources were stretched to the limit. The British blockade had shut off her ocean borne trade in 1914. The blockade’s immediate effects weren’t too severe, but as the war progressed industry was starved of raw materials and food became shorter. Germany still had colossal and powerful armies, but she had to contribute soldiers and technical expertise to too many theatres because of the weakness of her allies. The Ottoman Empire was suffering repeated defeats in Mesopotamia and in danger of being forced to retreat from the Near East altogether. The Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed close to dissolution. It was only too easy to foresee it suffering a similar fate to Imperial Russia. The new emperor in Vienna, Karl, had attempted to betray his allies by making secret and rather inept peace overtures to the French. German men, German armaments and German resolve were needed everywhere.

At the same time the western allies were getting – relatively – stronger. The French Army had taken terrible punishment and the failure of the Nivelle Offensive lead to widespread mutinies. But after the more cautious Pétain replaced Nivelle as Commander-in-Chief in May 1917 its morale started to recover. The British Army, supplemented by large numbers from the empire, was steadily becoming better equipped, better organised and more efficient. Most important of all, the one great success for the Germans in early 1917, the resumption of unrestricted submarine war, brought the USA into the war on the allied side on 6 April. Through the spring and summer of 1917 German U-boats sank a massive tally of British and allied merchant shipping, but from May onwards the steady introduction of convoying brought the losses down to a manageable level. Meanwhile American soldiers began to arrive on the western front and American industry geared up for war production.

From the March Revolution of 1917 Germany’s great aim was to get Russia out of the war. Then the eastern front could be shut down and every effort thrown into an assault in the west, before the allies grew too strong.

The consequence of the revolution was that Russia, as Lenin put it, had become the ‘freest country in the world’. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on the 15 March and on the next day a republic was declared. The very first act of the new regime was to promulgate Order Number One, which gave the soldiers broad civil rights and broke the hold of military discipline. From then on there were two centres of power. The Duma, whose members were conservative, liberal and socialist politicians, nominally controlled the administration through the Provisional Government; the Petrograd Soviet, which was a body of workers, soldiers and sailors dominated by Marxist intellectuals, had a tenuous hold of the streets. Without the backing of the Soviet the Duma was powerless yet it was the Soviet that made the need for firm government unanswerable. And while in Petrograd the Provisional Government was weak it was able to exercise some authority, across the rest of Russia conditions were often close to anarchy. Writing years later the novelist Konstantin Paustovsky recalled in his autobiography:

‘Day and night, across the whole country, a continuous disorderly meeting went on from February until the autumn of 1917.’1

Despite the confusion Russia continued in the war. The soldiers were infected with ‘Trench Bolshevism’ – a non-political resentment of their officers and other sources of authority. The Germans did what they could to encourage indiscipline and desertion, even providing brothels in no-man’s land. The most significant German contribution was made in April, when Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks were given passage from Switzerland and across the Baltic. Yet in the autumn of 1917 nothing was foretold. The Germans even had to consider the possibility that, given time, a popular government might actually enhance the Russian war effort.

Planning for Operation Albion started in May 1917. From the start it was a joint operation, which the army and navy planned together, each contributing its own expertise, each accepting the needs and constraints of the other. That was vitally important. German armed forces had never attempted an amphibious operation before. After almost three years of total war the German commanders knew that inter-service jealousies were an unaffordable luxury. It was a political as much as a military operation. The reasoning behind it was not to capture the Baltic Islands to enable German armies to besiege Petrograd. It was to strike the Russians – by means of a daring coup de main – a blow that would make them sue for peace. A great deal of risk was built into it. Merely capturing the islands would be failure. Capturing the islands and their entire garrison was what was wanted. After some delays the Kaiser gave his approval on the 21 September.

The invasion fleet sailed from Libau on 11 October. The initial planned date of departure was 27 September but the weather was unfavourable. Time was becoming critical as the onset of winter would have forced postponement until April. The transport fleet was a ramshackle collection of Germany’s idle merchantmen. Many ships had already been cannibalised and were even lacking such basic equipment as navigation compasses. But it was a fleet that was only expected to make one voyage, to Ösel and back, and would be in close convoy for the whole operation. At sea it was met by escorting warships which had been detached from the High Seas Fleet. Ahead were large squadrons of minesweepers. Because minesweeping was so slow these had to start their work first, another cause of delay.

There was no possibility of true secrecy protecting Operation Albion. Information flowed up and down the Baltic coasts as freely as seawater. The Russians knew that an invasion fleet was being prepared at Libau; a fleet that really could have only one destination. However, they could not know when it was scheduled to set forth. The weather seemed especially favourable for a landing on the 10 October. As it started to deteriorate on the evening of 11 October they became a little more complacent. That probably had no significant consequence for the outcome. Few of the Russian forces provided any worthwhile resistance.

The German soldiers who landed on Ösel on 12 October went ashore on two parts of the coast. The Bayern was supporting the northern landings by 1750 soldiers and sailors, at the village of Pamerort. The great majority of the men who landed there were bicycle troops, under the command of Captain von Winterfeld. Von Winterfeld was under orders to make an immediate dash eastwards to Orrisar, which lay about 40 km away. Orrisar was a key town, because it stood at the south-western end of the Moon causeway.

The main body of invaders landed in Tagga Bay, an inlet on the west coast which was deeper than most of the inshore waters. Even so, some of the larger transport ships could only be loaded to about half their capacity, such was the risk of grounding. About 23,000 troops were landed Tagga Bay, but even this was not a balanced army with infantry, artillery and logistical support. It was little more than a force of lightly equipped infantrymen together with a small cadre of staff officers. On the coasts of Ösel artillery support could be provided by the large escort of warships, which included seventeen dreadnoughts. The squadrons that accompanied Albion were several times the size of the entire Russian Navy. But the whole plan rested on the soldiers ashore having to take more risks and move more quickly than the most reckless of generals would ordinarily have dreamt of attempting. Supplies of food and ammunition were kept to a minimum in the interest of speed.

The Russian defenders on the ground were a mixture of army and navy units. There were about ten fixed batteries on the coasts, at which the guns were maintained and served by sailors. The army supplied the other defenders. Those were chiefly troops that might be expected to move and fight in the field, although some were manning more permanent defensive constructions, such as trenches and pill boxes. Ivanov, the general commanding the army contingent, knew where a landing could be expected but he hadn’t got enough troops, nor was he able to really improve Ösel’s fortifications. There weren’t enough civilian labourers and on account of Order Number One his men could only be ordered to do labouring work if they were paid the same rates as civilians, for which he hadn’t the money. The island’s infrastructure was very poor. Ivanov had to keep the bulk of his forces garrisoned near Arensburg, the capital on the south east coast, about a day’s march from Tagga Bay.

Once ashore the Germans moved extremely fast. They had four especially important objectives: Orrisar, the seaplane base at Papensholm, Arensburg and the Sworbe Peninsula, where the most important heavy batteries commanded the entrance to the Gulf of Riga.

By 10.00 am on 12 October the leading German infantrymen were three or four kilometres inland. By 3.30 pm they had captured the base at Papensholm. Somewhat absurdly, the seaplane squadron was under the command of the Baltic Fleet commander in Kronstadt rather than Admiral Sveshnikov, who was the senior naval officer on the islands. Sveshnikov’s chief of staff noted bitterly:

‘. . . the commander of the [Baltic Islands] position, one which had strategic significance, did not have authority over the only workable intelligence means for the position – aviation.’ 2

So the seaplanes were of no use to the defenders. In fine weather they were unsurpassed as a means of reconnaissance, but the Russians incapacitated them through a clumsy command structure. The Germans captured the base nearly intact. Seven seaplanes were destroyed, three escaped to Arensburg, but the aprons and hangars were little damaged. As soon as they had control of the base the Germans flew their own machines in, and were operating scouting missions from Papensholm late on the same afternoon.

Other parts of the advance went as quickly. The German infantry marched until midnight on 12 and 13 October. There was some Russian resistance but it was extremely desultory. When artillery officers tried to gather a party together to flush a seven man German patrol out of Arensburg, they were told by some infantrymen, ‘this isn’t the old regime and you can’t bully us’. By the end of the 13 October Arensburg was in German hands. A large number of Russian infantry surrendered as soon as they learnt of the German advance. Some deserters even fired on Russian artillery units when they feared that their own surrender would be jeopardized by their comrades’ resistance.

Most of the Russian soldiers did get away ahead of the Germans, retreating to the north east, towards Orrisar and the Moon causeway. However, von Winterfeld had succeeded in his objective and captured Orrisar on the first day of the invasion. While this was certainly a coup, trapping the great mass of the Russian soldiers on Ösel, it was also the most risky part of the German plan. The force that had been landed at Pamerort was small. If the large mass of Russians retreating towards the causeway had only possessed more discipline and resolve then they could certainly have pushed the bicycle troops aside, retaken its south-western end, and secured their retreat to Moon. The only possible German reinforcements had to come from the main body of the army. This had landed at Tagga Bay and spent its first two days on the island on the march, without proper rest or food. There was almost incessant rain and the roads were wretchedly poor and muddy. Even so, as soon as their position at Arensburg was secure they set off on another forced march, the advance scouts going forward on the late evening of 13 October, with the first of the main formations setting off at midnight. On 14 October they moved as quickly as possible, and made contact with the Russians in the early hours of 15 October at a village called Kapra, which was just south of Orrisar. In atrocious conditions the men had marched 53 km in just over twenty-four hours.

By that time the German commanders, General von Estorff and his Chief of Staff, Captain Volkmann, had become convinced that the Russians were in control of the causeway, and so would be able to make a straightforward fighting retreat back along it to Moon. Ösel, excepting the Sworbe Peninsula, was secure in German hands, but they had failed to deliver the shattering defeat that had been hoped for. They had had no information from von Winterfeld. Their only reports of the fighting at Orrisar had been provided by the invaluable seaplanes, now based at Papensholm.

At Orrisar the Germans had actually been through some of the closest fighting of the whole invasion, and the south-western end of the causeway had been briefly wrested back from them. The Russians mounted an assault down the causeway on 13 October, initially with a ragtag collection of soldiers and sailors. Later in the day the attack was reinforced by the Reval Naval Death Battalion, which had been ordered to Moon by Razvozov when he had learnt of the invasion. The Death Battalion was one of the very few Russian formations to still possess a strong fighting spirit. They were also able to use armoured cars, against which the Germans had neither field guns nor other heavy weapons. The bicycle troops had also run desperately low on ammunition. They were relieved from both these problems by the navy. The Soela Sound, the western approach to the causeway, was very shallow but was navigable by the navy’s torpedo boats. Those vessels, more akin to small destroyers than the typical motor torpedo boats of later years, mounted guns that were heavy enough to engage and destroy the armoured cars. They also brought in supplies of ammunition and field rations for the troops ashore. Von Winterfeld’s men couldn’t fully control the causeway but they were able to prevent the main body of Russian soldiers escaping. In consequence, on 15 October von Estorff accepted the surrender of Ivanov, his staff, and the bulk of his army.

While the main body of German invaders was progressing from Arensburg to Orrisar a detachment was attempting to take the Sworbe Peninsula, the southern tip of Ösel.

The peninsula is a natural fortress. Only a very narrow neck of land connects it with the rest of the island and its coasts are treacherous. Zerel, at its most southerly point, was where the heavy Russian batteries which commanded the deep water passage into the Gulf of Riga were placed. Under their cover the Russians had maintained large minefields, and thus secured the gulf from incursions by the German Navy. Even with main part of Ösel in enemy hands it should have been possible to keep the forces on the peninsula supplied and reinforced by sea.

The German advance did not get far. It was checked at the village of Anseküll, where the Russians had prepared an extensive network of trenches and gun emplacements. At that point, perhaps not surprisingly, the Russians appeared to have more spirit to stay in the fight than they had shown in the open country to the north. There was no realistic possibility of an infantry attack breaking through. If the defenders had enough food, ammunition and determination the Anseküll line could have held out indefinitely.

The German commander sent a small negotiating party led by Lieutenant von Oppen forward under a flag of truce, in the hope of negotiating a surrender. Given that he was a military plenipotentiary von Oppen had a rather curious reception. At Anseküll he and his men had their weapons and warm clothing taken from them. They were then escorted south to Torkenhof where they were locked up under guard. After a delay they were introduced to the Russian delegation. However, rather than discussing the possibility or otherwise of surrender, the Russians subjected the Germans to sustained political propaganda.

On 14 October, as the Germans were besieging Anseküll and von Oppen was learning about the virtues of revolutionary socialism, the heavy battery at Zerel was engaged by German dreadnoughts. Fire was briefly returned but the sailors swiftly decided that their fighting conditions weren’t suitable. They abandoned their guns and attempted to negotiate reinforcements. There followed a series of arguments and vacillations as the men mutinied, were persuaded to return to their posts, then finally decided in favour of mutiny. When he learnt that the batteries had mutinied Razvozov ordered the battleship Graschdanin to fire on the Russian batteries from the Gulf of Riga to the north east. Most of the mutineers were evacuated to the mainland. Some of the Russian garrison on the peninsula continued to resist until 16 October, when they too surrendered. Having first landed at dawn on 12 October the Germans had conquered the whole of Ösel in four days.

The Russian commanders did what they could but their options were limited. There were pitifully few military assets that they could rely on. Nevertheless Moon – where only a handful of soldiers had been stationed at the time of the invasion – was reinforced by more than just the Naval Death Battalion. But by the time that the forces had been assembled there the Sworbe Peninsula had fallen, which rendered Moon indefensible. The reinforcements had to be withdrawn immediately, before they too were trapped and forced to surrender.

While the German soldiers had been marching and occasionally fighting across Ösel German warships had been active in the surrounding waters. On the whole they met with more resistance than the men on land. The Russian Navy – although even more politicised than the army – generally showed greater willingness to fight. The reason for that was probably nothing more than the natural communal integrity and exclusiveness of a warship’s crew when contrasted with the more amorphous structure of Russian Army regiments, that were split or amalgamated as and when the need arose. Where the sailors manned the batteries on land they showed no greater resolution and discipline than their comrades in the army.

Initially the main area where the two navies’ warships were engaged was the Kassar Inlet, the body of water between the three main islands. It was not an easy bay for the German Navy to penetrate because the deep water channels into it, the southern and northern Moon Sounds, were still controlled by the Russians.

As soon as the invasion started the German sailors turned their attention to the one passage that was available to them, the Soela Sound, which lies between Ösel and Dagö. Their first task was to deal with the light battery that controlled the sound, which stood at Toffri, on the southern tip of Dagö. They engaged the battery with shellfire and then sent a party ashore to destroy it. When they saw the Germans approaching the entire Russian garrison fled and so it was put out of action with minimal casualties on both sides. The light scouting craft that the Germans sent into the sound quickly learnt that it hadn’t been mined, and that one channel was deep enough to allow the passage of torpedo boats, which were sent to the aid of the bicycle troops at Orrisar.

The torpedo boats also had to deal with some of the larger warships of the Russian Navy. Before they first entered the sound on the 14 October, Bakhirev stationed a small flotilla at its eastern end. To frighten these vessels off some of the larger German warships opened fire on them from some miles to the west. The German shooting was good. At least one 12-inch shell from the dreadnought Kaiser hit the destroyer Grom and she caught fire. The Russians retreated in confusion to the east, pursued by fifteen torpedo boats. In the ensuing mêlée the Grom was abandoned by her crew and boarded by German sailors. She thus became the first prize ever to be taken in combat by the German Navy. She was not held for long. Bakhirev sent out reinforcements to renew the battle, which resulted in the Grom finally sinking. She did however yield up valuable spoils in the shape of code books and mine charts for the waters surrounding the islands. Thereafter German ships were able to penetrate the Gulf of Riga without having to prepare the way with slow and elaborate minesweeping.

While the German torpedo boats brought vitally needed succour to von Winterfeld’s bicycle troops they were also occasionally engaged in a sort of ‘cat and mouse’ naval battle, as Bakhirev deployed some of his larger warships into the Kassar Inlet from the Shildau Anchorage to the east of Moon. When this happened the Germans attempted to lure the Russian ships close enough to the Soela Sound for them to come within range of the German dreadnoughts that cruised to the west.

Informed by the Russian mine charts, and encouraged by the obvious turmoil among the defenders of the Sworbe Peninsula, some large German warships steamed into the Gulf of Riga. After the peninsula fell to the Germans on the 16 October they were able to operate more boldly. Bakhirev fought another skilful rearguard action to the south of Moon, but without the advantage he most needed – exclusive knowledge of the Russian minefields – his smaller and older ships had no hope of preventing the German ships from penetrating Moon Sound and cutting the islands off from the mainland. The remnants of his fleet withdrew into the Gulf of Finland on 19 October. Before they left the navy made vigorous efforts to block the narrowest sections of Moon Sound with mines and blockships.

On taking the whole of Ösel and capturing very nearly all of the Russian soldiers and sailors who had been stationed there, the German soldiers did not rest on their laurels. The first men crossed to Moon by launch in order to attack the Russians holding the north-eastern end of the causeway. By the morning of 18 October both ends of the causeway were under German control and the main body of the invading army marched into Moon. By that time there were about 5,000 Russian servicemen on Moon, very nearly all of whom had only just arrived as reinforcements. What was especially dispiriting for the Russian commanders was that from the 16 October, when their forces on the Sworbe Peninsula had surrendered, they had known there was no chance of holding Moon, yet with the German Navy in control of Moon Sound their men could not be evacuated.

The Russians on Moon offered even less resistance than their comrades on Ösel had done, although the Naval Death Battalion fought hard and suffered serious casualties. It even suffered the indignity of having some of its men captured by other Russian soldiers, who thought that holding Death Battalion prisoners would give them negotiating strength when they surrendered to the Germans.

Taking Dagö had not been part of the original German plan. But as von Estorff and Volkmann assessed their options after they had secured Moon they could see no point in leaving it in Russian hands. By 20 October it too had been taken together with its small garrison.

Mopping up operations on the Baltic Islands continued until 23 October but by then the Germans were already withdrawing some of their forces. The most important warships were wanted back in Wilhelmshaven. Scheer, the Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet, continued to look westward. Throughout Operation Albion he had been anxious lest the Royal Navy should use the fleet’s weakness as an opportunity to strike into the Baltic. The German Navy’s morale had been given a much needed fillip but it could do nothing to weaken the British stranglehold on the North Sea.

The soldiers were also wanted elsewhere. By late 1917 every available man was precious to the German Army. The Baltic Islands were left under the protection of a small garrison. It was clear that the Russians couldn’t retake them. The invaders had nothing to fear from the local population. The German inhabitants openly celebrated their conquest. The Estonians were wary. For them one unloved foreign ruler had been replaced by another; quiet and resentful nationalism simmered on.

As a military operation Albion was a remarkable coup. The Germans invaded with a force of about 25,000 men. It was only marginally larger than the total Russian garrison on Ösel. Standard military wisdom held that the attackers needed a minimum margin of three to one over the defenders. Yet that force captured 20,130 Russian soldiers and sailors. It took other spoil including 141 guns, 130 machine guns and 10 aircraft. German army losses were a total of 54 officers and men killed and 141 wounded. It has to be borne in mind that although the Germans could reasonably anticipate that the Russian defence would collapse, they could not predict its collapse in detail. On occasion they did not know which Russian representatives were empowered to negotiate a surrender. To an extent the invading army’s apparent inadequacy was counterbalanced by the overwhelming strength and firepower of the German Navy, which as well as clearing the minefields and fighting off Russian warships supported the troops by bombarding targets on shore. And the navy’s losses of personnel were heavier; 156 officers and men were killed, with 60 wounded. Two dreadnoughts struck mines and had to be repaired, some small vessels were lost. The Russian Navy lost the Grom and the old battleship Slava, which was destroyed in the battle for control of Moon Sound. The total number of Russian dead can probably never be known.

For Kerensky and his senior commanders the immediate German withdrawal came as a relief. They had feared that the conquest of the islands was a preliminary to an assault on the Estonian coast. They foresaw the possibility of Reval falling to the Germans, German warships operating freely in the Gulf of Finland, and larger German armies besieging Petrograd. To them it appeared that the Germans were neglecting their great opportunity.

As it was the German policy came to fruition in early November. On 10 October, the same day as Albion’s minesweepers started their work, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party passed a resolution in support of armed revolt. In early November they seized key buildings in central Petrograd in an almost bloodless uprising. The events of that November were to become among the most extravagantly mythologized in all history, but – in contrast to their ultimate significance and the magnitude of their consequences – they were remarkably small in scale. The Provisional Government was failing, Russia was exhausted through foreign war and internal anarchy, one little push brought the Bolsheviks to power.

In 1931 General von Tschischwitz published an account and assessment of the invasion: The Army and Navy during the Conquest of the Baltic Islands in October 1917. He concluded that on account of the plight of Russia it had no military or strategic importance, but that ‘a certain psychological effect was expected from this blow directed against the Russian front – the blow was aimed at Petrograd itself’ (his emphasis. 3 As such a psychological – or political – operation it cannot be possible to assess whether or not Operation Albion had a major impact on history. The balance of probability must be that the revolution would have happened in much the same way if the invasion fleet had never set sail. However, the Germans were surely right to aim for as dramatic a victory as their stretched resources would permit. The planners of Operation Albion knew that – in the purest military terms – they were taking outrageous chances, but those chances were justified by the possible scale of the prize. Their judgement was revealed to be sound.

Von Tschischwitz concluded that Albion was a success but he did not omit to draw attention to its weaknesses. In particular, he noted that while the spirit of co-operation between the Army and Navy was positive, practical difficulties emerged that could have been prevented through better liaison. Although the planners had certainly not been so naïve as to assume that it was simply a matter of giving the various tasks to individual services, integration in the field had not gone nearly deep enough. As a joint operation Albion really needed a fully integrated command structure.

This conclusion was echoed and added to by Korvettenkapitän Meendsen-Bohlken when he gave a lecture at the Wehrmacht Academy in March 1936. His list of essential components for joint operations was thorough and sound:

‘– clearly defined operational concept

– no improvisation of combined (ie amphibious) operations

– unified supreme command

– surprise (crucial)

– sea control the most important prerequisite, either in general or for as long as the operation required’ 4

It is salutary to observe to what a remarkable extent von Tschischwitz’s and Meendsen-Bohlken’s key findings were disregarded in 1940, when – spurred on by a frustrated dictator – the German high command began to plan the invasion and conquest of England.

1 Konstantin Paustovsky. The Story of a Life.

2 Quoted in Michael Barrett: Operation Albion, the German conquest of the Baltic Islands.

3 Quoted in Michael Barrett: Operation Albion, the German conquest of the Baltic Islands.

4 Quoted in Peter Schenk: Invasion of England 1940, Planning of Operation Sea Lion.


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