Even before the guns of World War I had fallen silent in Europe, the great powers were already finding themselves embroiled in another great conflict that was sparking up in the east. Having seemed constantly on the verge of revolution for two decades, the Great War finally broke the Russian Empire and on March 15th 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional government was installed to replace him.
Then on October 25th, the socialist Bolsheviks under Lenin who had been in exile during the war rose up against the provisional government and seized power. Almost immediately, Russia descended in to civil war between the Bolshevik “Reds” and the “White Russians” – a loose alliance of factions each with their own goals but united in their desire to destroy Bolshevism. The old powers in western Europe such as Britain, France and Germany viewed the situation in Russia with horror, concerned that their own countries could be torn apart by their own Marxist uprisings. They therefore committed equipment, ships and troops to support the White Russians in fighting the Red Army and Navy.
The Royal Navy had already been active in the Baltic Sea with a large submarine presence supporting their Russian Navy allies in preventing the import of iron ore from Sweden to Imperial Germany since 1914 but now those allies were likely to be hostile towards them if the Russian crews supported the Bolsheviks. Russian pride in their navy’s major surface combatants was still tainted by their defeat at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima in 1908 and its ability to function had been further inhibited by the loss of experienced officers in the revolution and the general breakdown of discipline amongst the remaining crews. However, the Russian submarine force remained a significant threat with their smaller crews having a greater sense of loyalty to one another than in the bigger ships. They were also equipped with quite capable submarines built during the force’s expansion upon the outbreak of World War I such as the Bars-class which were armed with a single 57mm deck gun and eight 18inch torpedoes.
With Germany and the Bolsheviks negotiating for peace at the end of 1917, a flotilla of eight British submarines found themselves trapped between two hostile powers and were ordered to Finland where they remained until April 1918 when, with German forces closing in, they were taken to sea one at a time and scuttled. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended and the focus was now turned entirely to defeating the Bolsheviks including sending a British naval taskforce in to the Baltic. Dubbed Operation Red Trek and commanded by Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, the taskforce sailed on November 28th and comprised of a number of fairly modern destroyers and cruisers as well as a number of submarines that had survived the First World War in the Baltic. Red Trek had four primary goals;
- To contain Bolshevism.
- To protect Britain’s interests in the region.
- Maintain the freedom of the seas.
- Prevent the newly declared independent states of Estonia and Latvia from being seized by Red forces or remnant German units.
Opposing Alexander-Sinclar’s taskforce was Russia’s Baltic Fleet that still included a number of capital ships such as the Gangut-class battleship Petropavlovsk but was seriously weakened by the manpower shortage and so did little to stop the British ships from landing troops and equipment in Estonia. The British did suffer their first casualty during this time however when the light cruiser HMS Cassandra struck a mine on December 5th near Saaremaa in the Gulf of Finland. The mine had been laid by the Germans during the war and the British were unaware of the minefield’s presence. Mines would prove to be the number one threat to the British in the coming year accounting for a number of losses.
Leaving five of his ships to support the Estonians, Alexander-Sinclair then sortied south to asses the situation in Latvia and lend support to that country’s security. The Bolsheviks decided to launch an attack against the weakened British force to punish them for meddling in Russian affairs sending a flotilla of their ships to attack them. This flotilla almost completely disintegrated as it sailed out to intercept the British due to a combination of poor leadership, even poorer discipline among the crews and generally low reliability amongst the ships to the point where only two destroyers – the Avtroil and Spartak – made a valiant attack on their own. Unfortunately for the Bolshevik crews, courage did not translate in to success. During the engagement off Reval in Estonia, one crew got disoriented and ran aground while the other tried to make an escape but became surrounded and so elected to surrender rather than become martyrs.
The Bolsheviks worked hard over the next few weeks to address the problems typified by the whole affair and aware that if they were to succeed then they could brush away Alexander-Sinclair’s force with their battleships, the British sent the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan to the Baltic. Cowan was a forceful commander who wanted to exercise a more aggressive approach to tackling the Russians when he took over command of the mission in early 1919. His efforts were initially inhibited however by the harsh winter which slowed progress and lowered British morale considerably. The Bolsheviks put to sea again in May 1919 but were forced back by Cowan’s fleet leaving mines and submarines as the only real way they could fight the British.
One such Bolshevik submarine was the Bars-class Pantera under the command of 24-year old Alexander N. Bakhtin which left the port of Kronstadt on the night of July 23rd/24th. Bakhtin was one of the more experienced commanders amongst the Bolsheviks having served successfully aboard the Volk during the fighting with Germany. Bakhtin and his men had orders to attack British vessels off Kaporia Bight, the second submarine crew to be dispatched on this mission with the first, the Vepr, having been forced back to port with engine troubles. They did not have to wait long to encounter a British force spotting two British submarines travelling on the surface the next day. Keeping the sun at his back to conceal his position, Bakhtin launched an attack by firing a single torpedo at the furthest British submarine which spotted it early enough to evade it.
Bakhtin then turned the Pantera on to the closer submarine, HMS E40, and launched two torpedoes in its direction. He then ordered his crew to turn away and dive deep in order to evade a counterattack. Again, Bakhtin’s efforts proved fruitless as the two torpedoes were quickly evaded by the E40 which continued turning until her bow was brought to bear on the diving Pantera. The E40 dispatched a torpedo towards the Pantera but had as much luck as the Russians with it passing alongside the Bars-class sub as it dived. A nearby British destroyer, HMS Watchman, conducted a depth charge attack but Bakhtin and the Pantera escaped back to Kronstadt.
Having been repaired, the Vepr made a second attempt to intercept the British a few days later on July 27th. Early the next day, the Vepr detected two British warships and fired a salvo of torpedoes towards them but without success. Having been detected, the Vepr attempted to escape as it was attacked with depth charges that inflicted significant damage on the submarine including to the electrics which plunged some of the crew in to absolute darkness. Despite having difficulty maintaining their depth due to damage, the crew of the Vepr managed to avoid destruction by the two destroyers – HMS Valorous and Vancouver – and later avoided an attempted attack by the British submarine HMS L15 to limp back to Kronstadt for repairs.
PLEASE NOTE – It is sometimes reported that the submarine involved was actually the Ersh but according to Geoffrey & Rodney Bennett in their book Freeing the Baltic 1918–1920 there is no evidence to suggest the submarine was in the area on July 28th 1919. Record keeping was not a priority in Russia at this time.
Despite the lack of success thus far on the part of the Russians, Rear Admiral Cowan was particularly concerned by the attacks and the potential they could have on his force which now included the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. As part of the effort to contain the Russian fleet, Cowan’s forces instigated a widescale mining operation around Kronstadt and neighbouring ports held by the Bolsheviks. Submarine nets were also deployed near his own harbours to protect his ships from being ambushed as they sailed in to the Baltic while the addition of the Third Destroyer Flotilla increased the number of British ships equipped with hydrophones to listen out for the submarines as they cruised submerged. Cowan committed most of his assets that were not directly supporting land operations to hunt and destroy the submarines including some of his cruisers and aircraft from Vindictive.
On July 30th, he ordered the planes from Vindictive to make a bold early morning attack on Kronstadt one of the aims of which was to target the submarine tender Pamiat Azova. Anti-aircraft fire over Kronstadt was very heavy but the pilots reported scoring a hit on the vessel and claimed a hit on a nearby drydock. It would later be learned that the pilots had mistook the oil tanker Tatiana for the submarine tender which remained undamaged. On August 18th, Cowan’s forces attacked the harbour with a force of coastal motor boats supported by Vindictive’s aircraft. This time they scored hits on the Pamiat Azova after which it sank and lay on its port side in the shallow water.
This aggressive reaction typified Cowan’s style as a commander and appeared to alarm the Bolsheviks to the point where their submarines didn’t venture out of port for the best part of the following month. In the wake of the attack on Kronstadt, it was late in the month when Bakhtin and the Pantera ventured out to face the British again. On August 31st, Bakhtin’s men sighted two British warships including the modern V-class destroyer HMS Vittoria under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Vernon Hammersley-Heenan and which had been configured for laying mines. Bakhtin and his men stalked the British ship for over a day spending much of the time submerged to avoid detection.
Finally, the next day Bakhtin was presented with his opportunity to attack as the Vittoria and HMS Abdiel anchored off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland. Bakhtin fired a pair of 18inch torpedoes toward the British ship one of which missed but the other struck the side of the vessel blowing a hole in the hull. Less than five minutes after being hit, the 22-month old Vittoria had completely sunk taking eight of her crew with her. Bakhtin observed the Abdiel powering up and with depleted batteries, decided to withdraw rather than attempt to attack it too thus allowing the British ship to go to the rescue of their comrades who had survived the sinking of their ship.
Despite this victory, the Russian submarine threat was proving more of a concern for British sailors than their actual impact on the strategic situation. The main threat to British ships remained the many minefields that had been laid in the region with another V-class destroyer, HMS Verulam, being lost to one just three days after the Vittoria was sunk. Unfortunately for the British Admiralty and Cowan in particular, these losses had a profound impact on the already suffering morale of the British crews. The British government had repeatedly made claims that those British servicemen fighting in the Russian Civil War were volunteers but it seemed this did not extend completely to the Royal Navy. Many of the British sailors were quite sullen over the fact that the war they had joined up to fight was now over yet they were still being ordered to risk their lives in combat on behalf of a foreign nation. Added to this was the threat from the much-vaunted underwater menace that was the submarine which along with the hundreds of mines meant many sailors were left wondering if their ship would suddenly blow up from underneath them. This mood was only worsened by the freezing weather experienced in the early months of 1919, the poor conditions onboard many of the destroyers in which crews had to spend a considerable amount of time and Cowan’s repeated cancellation of shore leave in order to achieve his latest aims.
What started as a morale problem quickly escalated and even spread beyond the ships in the Baltic. The First Destroyer Flotilla was due to set sail for the Baltic Sea in early October 1919 but upon hearing this, over 150 seamen abandoned their posts and attempted to make their way to London to present their protests to Whitehall. Over 100 of them were arrested as they travelled by train but 44 of them made it to London although the effort was in vain and they too were arrested and imprisoned. The First Destroyer Flotilla was reinforced with volunteers from battleships and cruisers and set sail on October 14th although with only half the number of destroyers it had expected to have. Even if the crews reported to their ships there still seemed to be a conspiracy to stop them. Socialism was spreading amongst the working class in Britain after the Great War that was seen as a calamity brought upon them by the ruling classes. This led to support for the Bolsheviks and resulted in several refusals by dock workers to load ships headed for the Baltic.
Cowan’s biggest ships weren’t exempt from disruption by disgruntled sailors. In November 1919, discipline aboard Vindictive was seriously breaking down in the wake of cancelled leave during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark leading to Royal Marines having to break up a group of protesters. Later, two stokers were caught trying to sabotage the engines and when news of this got out it only encouraged further dissent leading to the captain enforcing harsh punishments on men he identified as ringleaders. The following month, aboard the cruiser HMS Delhi a quarter of the crew refused to report for duty.
By now the situation on land was becoming more and more hopeless for the White Russians and their foreign allies. While the Royal Navy had largely kept the Bolshevik fleet at bay, the failure of the White Russian General Nikolai Yudenich to capture Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the continued collapse of anti-Bolshevik forces made the allies realise that the war was lost and in December 1919, Cowan began withdrawing his fleet. They had however secured the independence of Estonia and Latvia but it had cost 112 British sailors’ lives. Cowan would continue on in the Royal Navy commanding the Battlecruiser Squadron from HMS Hood before retiring as a full Admiral only to return to service in World War II. He was captured by the Italians in 1942 in Libya but was repatriated a year later. He retired a second time in 1945 and died in 1956 aged 85, the last of the Cowan Barons.
Alexander Bakhtin and his crew returned home as heroes with the Pantera itself finding a special place in the hearts of the revolutionary Russians, it being the first submarine of the Red Navy to sink an enemy vessel in combat. It later dispensed with its imperial-given name, instead adopting the name Kommisar and remained in service long after its surviving sisters had been withdrawn ending its days as a harbour training vessel.
Bakhtin however would not be so fortunate. His immediate fame was short lived when in 1924, two years after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power in the new Soviet Union, his noble heritage was made public and he was stripped of all his revolutionary accolades before being sent to the Solovki gulag in the Solovetsky Islands of the White Sea. There he endured five years of hard labour that seemed to considerably age him beyond his 34 years when he was released in 1929. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis and died almost unnoticed by the people of the revolution he had fought and killed for.