The first V.C. of the Tank Corps

Born out of the blood and mud of the trench warfare that had cut Europe in half, the tanks and their crews became a key part of every major offensive after their surprise debut on September 15th 1916. As such, many tank crews found themselves thrown in to the thickest of the fighting and suffered for it. The Tank Corps would end the war with four Victoria Crosses awarded to men who had served within its ranks. All four VCs were awarded posthumously.

British Army WW1 World War One Mark I tank

The first man to receive the award was Captain Clement Robertson. Born in to a military family, Robertson’s father was serving in the Royal Artillery and stationed in South Africa when he was born on December 15th 1890. Having studied engineering in Dublin, he went to work in Egypt before joining the Army upon the outbreak of war in 1914. In February 1917, he joined the Heavy Branch, Machine Gun Corps which was the precursor to the Tank Corps.

In the beginning of October 1917, acting-Captain Robertson was tasked with helping capture the high ground over the Reutel Valley in western Belgium. September had seen extremely heavy fighting in the region under the blanket of the Third Battle of Ypres. The British had achieved success against the Germans on the Menin Ridge Road between September 20th-26th 1917 and again in Polygon Wood immediately after prompting the German 4th Army to launch a counter attack. Between September 30th and October 4th, the Germans made several calculated counterattacks often many hours after the British had attacked to gather as much intelligence on the enemy and organise effective artillery support.

It was during this campaign that Robertson would become the first soldier in the still-infant Tank Corps to receive the Victoria Cross but at the cost of his life.

His citation reads:

Captain Clement Robertson Victoria Cross VC Tank CorpsFrom 30 September to 4 October this officer worked without a break under heavy fire preparing a route for his tanks to go into action against Reutel. He finished late on the night of October 3rd, and at once led his tanks up to the starting point for the attack. He brought them safely up by 3 A.M. on 4 October, and at 6 A.M. led them into action.

The ground was very bad and heavily broken by shell fire and the road demolished for 500 yards. Captain Robertson, knowing the risk of the tanks missing the way, continued to lead them on foot. In addition to the heavy shell fire, intense machine-gun and rifle fire was directed at the tanks. Although knowing that his action would almost inevitably cost him his life, Captain Robertson deliberately continued to lead the tanks when well ahead of our own infantry, guiding them carefully and patiently towards their objective.

Just as they reached the road he was killed by a bullet through the head; but his objective had been reached, and the tanks in consequence were enabled to fight a very successful action. By his very gallant devotion Captain Robertson deliberately sacrificed his life to make certain the success of his tanks.

At the time of his death he was 26 years old and had not married. Consequently, his Victoria Cross was instead presented to his mother, Frances Robertson, in a ceremony held at the Royal Barracks, Dublin, on March 27th 1918. The exact location of his remains are unclear but he is believed to have been buried at the Oxford Road Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery located less than two miles from Ypres.

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D-class Submarines of the Royal Navy

At the dawn of the 20th century, the submarine was firmly establishing itself within the world’s navies and the Royal Navy began to seriously look at its future applications. In 1905, a committee was set up to finalise the specifications for the next class of British submarine which would be significantly larger than the C-class boats which were then just entering service. While the C-class and the classes before it were short ranged vessels primarily operated in the coastal and harbour protection role, the new class would be the first British submarines designed for a more offensive role requiring greater endurance to conduct patrols at sea.

royal navy c class submarine world war 1 one

C-class submarine

The resulting D-class submarine was one of the most influential designs in the history of the submarine service incorporating numerous innovations that would be carried on in later classes. It was obvious from the very start that the new class of submarine was going to be significantly bigger than the types then being fielded in order to carry sufficient fuel and provisions for its longer ranged mission. They would also have to take greater consideration in to crew comfort and accommodation than previous classes. This saw the new design eventually swell to over twice the displacement of the C-class coming in at 483 tons on the surface and 595 submerged.

The shape of the new sub would also be came radically different compared to the C-class with the fitting of ballast tanks mounted externally along the pressure hull, a feature that would continue until the Oberon-class launched in 1960. These had the advantage of offering a significant increase in reserve buoyancy that made the submarine easier to manoeuvre and safer to operate in unsettled waters. It also freed up considerably more space inside the pressure hull for fuel and supplies. Another feature included in the design aimed at increasing stability was the fitting of hydroplanes on the forward half of the hull as well as the rear. These had been introduced on the C-class but unlike the earlier type they were positioned so that they remained submerged even when the submarine was cruising on the surface while the aft hydroplane was much further forward due to the unusual shape of the external ballast tanks. The angle of rise and dive angles were set at 50 degrees with the forward hydroplane and 70 degrees in the rear.

Perhaps the biggest departure for British submarine design that the D-class undertook was the adoption of a diesel-fuelled engine for cruising on the surface. This offered numerous advantages over the previous petrol-powered types including importantly for its envisioned mission, greater economy. It was also considerably safer since it was found that explosive fumes often built up in the pumps when using petrol engines. The French Navy had launched the world’s first diesel-powered submarine, the Aigrette, the same year the D-class committee met, proving the concept worked although there were some misgivings especially concerning reliability. The two diesel engines were 600hp units developed by Vickers and each drove their own propellers making the D-class the first British twin-screw submarine type. For propulsion underwater the diesels were cut off and power was provided by a 410kw electric motor.

The D-class had a comparatively impressive range of around 2,500 nautical miles making it a truly ocean-going warship while it could cruise at an economical 5 knots submerged for 45 nautical miles. The committee had demanded that the submarines be capable of around 13 knots on the surface and while it was reported that some of the class could on occasion exceed this figure they generally didn’t travel faster than 11 knots. They were designed for a top speed of 10 knots submerged but the actual speed was closer to 9 although it was rare for them to operate at such speeds due to the significant drain on the batteries this would incur.

Primary armament consisted of two forward 18-inch torpedoes mounted in tubes located vertically on top of one another and with a single reload available for each. The tubes were covered by a one-piece external cap designed to be rotated through 90 degrees to reveal them when it came time to fire. The size of the D-class led some on the design committee to raise concerns that it would not be manoeuvrable enough to escape attack by an enemy vessel and so provision was made for an aft torpedo tube that could be used to launch a torpedo at a pursuing attacker. Unlike the earlier coastal types which could signal the shore with lamps or semaphore, the sea-going nature of the D-class made wireless a requirement from the start and as such it was the first British submarine to be designed with the capability. The aerial was mounted in the coning tower and was extended when riding on the surface but unfortunately was quite short ranged.

D-class submarine Royal Navy World War One WWI

So many innovations were being incorporated in to this new design that the committee demanded that the construction of the first-of-class be undertaken by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness under a veil of total secrecy. The building where HMS D1 was laid down on May 14th 1907 was therefore heavily guarded and all workers sworn to secrecy. The naval race with the Kaiser’s Germany was now in full swing and Germany was building their own submarines starting with the SM U-1 based on the Karp-class designed by Spaniard Raimondo Lorenzo d’Equevilley Montjustin for the Imperial Russian Navy. While inferior to the D-class, the U-1 was an impressive start for the Germans when it was compared to the previous British classes. Further east, the Russians began construction of the Akula as HMS D1 neared completion in 1907 but both these designs were still inferior to the British sub.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (1)D1 was launched at Barrow-in-Furness on May 16th 1918, a year and two days after she was laid down, in a secret ceremony where the only invited guests were a handful of officers from the depot ship HMS Mercury. The submarine was formally commissioned in to the Royal Navy in September 1909 by which time work had started on HMS D2 and HMS D3 at Barrow. On May 3rd 1910, D1 received a new commander in Lieutenant Noel F. Laurence (later Admiral Laurence) who commanded the submarine through that year’s annual naval exercise. The exercise was the chance to get some invaluable experience of the new type engaged in operations similar to what it might experience in war. After loading supplies and fuel in Portsmouth, D1 slipped out of harbour and transited to its operating area off the west coast of Scotland completely undetected by the British Home Fleet. The submarine then conducted a three-day patrol simulating two attacks on British cruisers before putting back to port. Key to remaining undetected was D1’s battery capacity which allowed it to remain submerged during the bulk of daylight hours (in winter the D-class was found that it could remain submerged throughout the fewer daylight hours.)

This highly successful exercise was unfortunately marred by repeated troubles with the revolutionary diesel engines. The fact that D1 had two diesel engines meaning there was always a spare to fall back on was viewed as positively as possible by its supporters but it was clear Vickers had to address this problem if the D-class was to be a success. Despite grand ambitions for a fleet of 18 D-class vessels, the orders was scaled back to ten to allow Vickers time to remedy the reliability issues with the diesels so that these could be implemented on the recently laid down D4, D5, D6, D7 and D8. The latter two vessels in the class were constructed at Chatham Royal Dockyard in Kent and were followed by HMS D9 and D10.  During this time, the D-class would find itself receiving yet another first when D4 was completed with a 12-pounder quick firing deck gun and while this would not be fitted to any other members of the class, deck guns would remain on British designs until after World War II.

As experience on HMS D1 and D2 filtered back, a series of recommendations for improvements were submitted and began to be incorporated in HMS D9 and D10. These improvements became so extensive and included greater armament, increased displacement and improved engines that they became a new class entirely. As such D9 and D10 became the first of the new E-class submarines which would serve with great distinction during the Great War however they would also scupper plans for anymore D-class boats. HMS D6 would be the final D-class to be commissioned (April 19th 1912) while D8 was built to a marginally different configuration incorporating redesigned hydroplanes that were all set at 50 degrees for changing depth as opposed to the 50/70 split in the previous vessels. Along with the E-class fleet, the eight D-class boats formed the backbone of the Royal Navy’s patrol submarine force upon the outbreak of war in August 1914.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (3)On August 28th 1914, the Royal Navy met the German Navy in their first major engagement of the war at the First Battle of the Heligoland Bight. The battle took place in the south-eastern North Sea after a British force attacked German patrols off the north-west German coast. Although entirely a surface action, British submarines did play their part and among them was HMS D2 and D8 who were tasked with patrolling the mouth to the River Ems in north-west Germany to block any German reinforcements that may attempt to enter the battle.

Nearly two months later, D8 was sent to shadow the German hospital ship Ophelia which was reportedly looking for survivors from German torpedo boats destroyed in an engagement with HMS Undaunted. The British had become suspicious of the hospital ship because of the amount of radio communication it was making with the German Admiralty and when her crew spotted the British submarine’s periscope they quickly changed course and headed for home even though they were protected under the articles of war which both sides respected in the early months. The M-class destroyer HMS Meteor was sent to inspect the ship under international law and observed her commanding officer throwing secret documents overboard as it approached. The British decided to seize the vessel as a war prize believing it had been spying on British warships thus invalidating its hospital ship status. The British renamed the ship SS Huntley and used it for transporting fuel from Portishead to Boulogne before it was sunk by UB-10 on December 21st 1915.

The class would suffer its first combat loss on November 3rd 1914. D5 was sailing near South Cross Buoy off Great Yarmouth in pursuit of German Admiral Franz von Hipper’s battlecruisers that had raided Yarmouth the day before when it struck a mine laid by the SMS Stralsund. There were only five survivors including Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert who had been in command. Almost three weeks later on November 23rd 1914, D2’s commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Arthur Jameson was washed overboard while the submarine was charging its batteries on the surface. The submarine was then put under the command of Lieutenant Commander Clement Head but his captaincy would be shortlived for on November 25th, just two days after Jameson’s death, D2 was spotted by a German patrol boat on the surface off Borkum which proceeded to ram the British vessel. The submarine quickly sank taking Head and his entire crew of 25 with it.

Along with the E-class fleet, the D-class spent much of the early war years patrolling the Heligoland Bight as part of the British effort to contain the German Navy in port. On June 15th 1915, HMS D4 under the command of Lieutenant Commander John R. G. Moncreiffe stumbled across the unfortunate German netlayer Bielefeld that had ran aground and was being assisted by a German destroyer. Seizing the opportunity, Moncreiffe attacked the destroyer with a single torpedo which unfortunately missed and alerted the Germans to D4’s presence. The destroyer powered up and went in pursuit of the submarine in the extremely shallow water attempting to ram its coning tower that was only just below the surface. Luckily for Moncreiffe and his crew, he eventually managed to evade the destroyer and return to the position of the Bielefeld where they sank the German ship before escaping out to sea.

On August 13th 1917, D6 under the command of Commander William Richardson took part in an effort to lure out German U-boats using a decoy sailing vessel, HMS Prize so-named because she was actually a German topsail schooner captured in the English Channel mere hours after the war began. During the patrol, the two British vessels encountered the U-Boat UB-48 which exchanged gunfire with Prize before disappearing. Later that night close to midnight, D6 was on the surface when they observed Prize explode from a torpedo hit from UB-48 which had returned under the cover of darkness before escaping again. Prize sank with all hands.

D-class submarine royal navy world war one 1 I (3)

On September 12th 1917, D7 under the command of Lieutenant Oswald E. Hallifax was cruising off the coast of Northern Ireland when he and his men spotted the German U-boat U-45. U-45’s war up to that point had been a successful one having sunk 45,622 tons of allied shipping. Hallifax dispatched a torpedo at the U-boat which struck the rear of U-45 as its crew attempted to dive to safety. U-45 sank killing all but two of its crew who were rescued by D7 and taken prisoner.

HMS D3 2

The crew of HMS D3 

Tragedy was narrowly averted on February 10th 1918 when D7 was mistakenly depth charged by the M-class destroyer HMS Pelican. Now under the command of Lieutenant George Tweedy, D7 managed to surface and show her flag to the Pelican before any serious damage was done. Not as lucky however was D3 which on March 12th 1918, found itself the focus of attention from French airship AT-0 off Fecamp in the English Channel which mistook the identification rockets the British crew released for being German. The French airship dropped a series of bombs on the British submarine which sent it under the waves. Survivors of the attack managed to escape the doomed submarine and it was only when the French airmen heard them speaking English did they realise their mistake. Efforts to rescue the men proved to be in vain and they had drowned by the time help arrived.

D4 would add another U-boat to the D-class’ list of victims on May 12th 1918 when under the command of Lieutenant Claud Barry, it attacked and sank UB-72 in the English Channel south of Weymouth. The U-boat had been in service with the Germans for just eight months but accounted for sinking over 10,000 tons of allied shipping. Only three of the crew survived the sinking.

A month later on June 24th 1918, the D-class fleet would suffer its last wartime loss when D6 was attacked by UB-73 with a torpedo from a range of just 80 meters. UB-73’s torpedo passed under D6 and exploded throwing a column of water 30-40 feet into the air. At first it appeared D6 was unscathed but approximately half a minute later the front of the British submarine pitched down abruptly and it sank soon afterwards. Only two of D6’s crew survived the sinking and were taken prisoner by the Germans. When these men were questioned over the sinking after the war, the British Admiralty determined that the torpedo must have employed a magnetic pistol; a device used to trigger the warhead by detecting the magnetic field around a metal object such as a ship. UB-73 would survive the war to be surrendered to the French.

As 1918 drew on, the surviving four D-class vessels were becoming increasingly obsolete compared to the newer types then being fielded by the Royal Navy. When it was decided to conduct experiments in to new ways to detect a submerged submarine such as with piezoelectric hydrophones dipped in to the sea from airships (a precursor to modern ASW helicopters), the 10-year old D1 was chosen to be deliberately sunk off Dartmouth harbour. The submarine was sunk to a depth of 25 fathoms (150 feet) on October 23rd 1918 for the trials.

The remaining three submarines were briefly retained by the Royal Navy after the war but seldom went to sea or even had a permanent crew assigned. D4, D7 and D8 were then decommissioned in 1919 before being sold for scrap in December 1921 to H. Pounds based in Portsmouth. Despite their problematic birth, the D-class can be considered a success in their own right. However, their contribution to the development of British submarines and their operation cannot be overstated and would prove the genesis from which nearly every major British submarine class was derived until the nuclear age.

 

 

 

 

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino

 

Few aircraft companies in Britain could claim to embrace the triplane arrangement as enthusiastically as Sopwith. While it would be building legendary biplane fighters such as the great Sopwith Camel that the company would be remembered for, it had enjoyed some moderate success with its aptly named Sopwith Triplane fighter which served with the Royal Naval Air Service’s “Black Flight”. Within three months of entering combat the flight had downed 87 German aircraft and the performance of the Triplane was such that it sparked off 1917’s triplane craze in Germany that ultimately led to the famed Fokker Dr.I.

Sopwith Triplane

The Sopwith Triplane didn’t catch on as well as hoped with British forces however and only 147 airframes were built, a comparatively small number for the time. Neither did it attract the hoped-for foreign interest although French, Greek and even Russian forces trialled the aircraft; in the latter case at least one example made its way in to the ranks of the embryonic Red Air Force post-revolution.

While Sopwith would primarily focus on biplanes, they continued to push for research in to triplanes to meet Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service requirements. In 1916, after the RFC issued a requirement for a long-range escort fighter and airship-destroyer, the company began work on another relatively large triplane in response. The resulting aircraft, the rather mechanically-named Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane (LRTTr), was a three-bay, narrow chord wing design that featured a streamlined nacelle in the middle of the top wing for a gunner to be positioned. The Sopwith LRTTr was an extremely clumsy aircraft in the sky and by the time of its first flight was already rendered obsolete by the introduction of more capable biplane designs featuring synchronised machine guns that negated the need for the upper wing nacelle.

Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane LRTTr

Only the prototype Sopwith LRTTr (right) was built but Sopwith were not dissuaded by this lack of success. On the contrary, they were still so enamoured with the triplane layout that they actually began drawing up a new triplane without there being an actual requirement having been issued by the RFC or RNAS. This time however the aircraft was to be wholly different beast being tailored for the bombing role rather than as a fighter. Experience gained on their previous efforts were put to good use in this new design and the aircraft featured only a single bay within its triplane wings which gave the aircraft a more advanced look to it.

It was intended for the aircraft to carry its offensive armament internally in an effort to streamline the design and so the fuselage was deepened to feature a small bomb bay under the pilot’s seat. It was intended that the aircraft would be armed with 450lbs of bombs that would be first fitted on to a self-contained pack which would then be loaded in to the aircraft. The pilot would be given a forward-firing .303 Vickers machine gun synchronised with the propeller while a defensive gunner had a .303 Lewis machine gun in the rear cockpit.

Sopwith approached the British authorities with their new proposal but were met with opposition since they were working on an aircraft that hadn’t been requested. Nevertheless, the design sufficiently impressed them to grant Sopwith a license to build two prototypes for testing as a private venture. There was in fact reason for Sopwith to be optimistic. After German Gotha bombers began attacking London, the British War Office recommended doubling the size of the RFC with the great majority of new squadrons being equipped with bombers. Airco’s DH.9 looked set to swallow up most of the orders but if Sopwith could prove their new aircraft superior then they might be able to tender it as a replacement in the following year.

Construction of the prototypes began in mid-1917 and the first Sopwith 2B2 Rhino was completed in October before being test flown from Brooklands. Driving the Rhino’s two-bladed propeller was a 230hp Beardmore Halford Pullinger in-line, water-cooled engine; an aeroengine that was widely available at the time and that had powered the prototype DH.9. The engine was mounted ahead and above of the weapon bay with the fuselage curving up toward it the look of which helped inspire the Rhino name. Unfortunately, this engine and its installation would lead to criticism from observers since it was proving unsatisfactory in the DH.9 with poor performance at altitude while its position on the Rhino made the aircraft very nose heavy making it something of a handful to land safely.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber

The first prototype (above) was nevertheless submitted for official testing in February 1918 which was undertaken at Martlesham Heath. It was joined by the second prototype the following month which was nearly identical except that the simple pillar mounting for the rear gunner was replaced by a more modern scarff ring. Unfortunately, the aircraft proved disappointing. Compared to the similarly powered DH.9, the Rhino was 10mph slower and had a significantly lower rate of climb both of which was of great concern to the RFC who were already unhappy with the speed of the early DH.9s they were receiving. Official figures showed that the Rhino had less endurance than the DH.9 and had a marginally smaller bombload.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber prototype martlesham heathSopwith knew any effort to develop the design would be fruitless since 1917’s triplane craze which it had largely helped create was now well and truly over. While it was true that triplanes had the advantage of being able to use shorter span wings than an equivalent biplane which made them smaller targets in the air than an equivalent DH.9, the trade-off however was that they were often heavier than their biplane counterparts and they incurred far more drag. They were also prone to cross wind interference which was especially dangerous on landing. As the air war dragged on over the trenches it became increasingly obvious that speed was going to be the deciding factor and the newer biplanes were leaving triplanes behind. Sopwith would continue to dabble in triplane designs up until the end with their last aircraft, the Sopwith Snark, being developed in both biplane and triplane forms.

The two Rhino prototypes would be returned to Sopwith where they would have a short career testing new propeller designs before they were disposed of to join the list of British aviation oddities of World War I.

The Royal Navy’s Battle with Bolshevik Submarines in The Baltic, 1918 – 19

HMS Vindictive Royal Navy aircraft carrier Russian civil war 1918

Although she arrived halfway through 1919, HMS Vindictive played a major role in the last half of the fighting.

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.

Volk Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

Russian Bars-class submarine

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.

Pantera Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

The Pantera (after the Russian Civil War)

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.

HMS Vittoria v-class admiralty destroyer Royal Navy

HMS Vittoria

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.

In To The Hands Of The Enemy

In 1915, the entente powers opened up a new front against Germany and her allies of Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria intended to relieve the pressure on Serbia. The Allies used Greece as their base to strike north through the Balkans but it would prove too little, too late for Serbia which fell in December 1915. The new front was now aimed at liberating Serbia and also to relieve some of the pressure on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The British contingent, known as the British Salonika Army being named after the second largest city in Greek Macedonia, comprised of two full Army Corps (XII and XVI) as well as a contingent of staff officers and support from the Royal Flying Corps’ 16th Wing.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3.jpg

Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.3 (Aviastar.org)

Within the ranks of the RFC in Greek Macedonia was No.47 Squadron equipped with, among others, the Armstrong-Whitworth FK.3 general-purpose biplane. The FK.3 was designed in response to the perceived obsolescence of the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE.2 biplane which operated in the artillery spotting role. Early FK.3s offered little improvement however and plans for it to replace the already established BE.2 were shelved with it instead becoming little more than a training tool based in Britain. Perhaps by some oversight, No.47 Squadron took its FK.3s to Greek Macedonia in 1916 to support the British Salonika Army and in doing so become the only squadron to field the aircraft abroad.

Among the new pilots to join the squadron’s ranks at this time was 20-year old 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Cecil Stopher. Born in Woolwich, London he joined the Army in 1915 gaining a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers before requesting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Completing his training in November 1916 he arrived in Salonika shortly after and was assigned to fly the squadron’s FK.3s on spotter and reconnaissance duties.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219

Stopher’s aircraft (theauxiliaries.com)

A little over three months after joining No.47 Squadron, on February 12th 1917 the now 21-year old 2nd Lieutenant Stopher took off in FK.3 Nr.6219 from a neighbouring French aerodrome to rejoin his squadron at their forward base. There was heavy air activity that day with No.47 Squadron reporting sporadic encounters with German aircraft and so when Stopher was reported overdue it was assumed he had been shot down enroute. However, a few days later the British intercepted a German wireless communication stating that Stopher had in fact gotten lost and mistook the Bulgarian airfield at Demi Hissar in southern Macedonia for his own. Having landed safely he was taken prisoner and his intact aircraft was seized.

Stopher would join over 5,000 British, Serbian and French PoWs at the Bulgarian prison camp at Philippopolis (despite the Greek name the city is actually located in Bulgaria and is known today as Plovdiv). The camp was built on the grounds of a former cholera hospital and prisoners were forced in to labour details helping build canals, bridges and roads in the Bulgarian countryside. Stopher would not be repatriated to Britain until January 1919.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219 Bulgarian markings

6219 in Bulgarian markings (Theauxillaries.com)

As for his aircraft, Nr.6219 was pressed in to Bulgarian service serving with the 1st Aeroplanno Otdelenie Division. Perhaps reflecting on their own machines, Bulgarian pilots were impressed with the aircraft even if the RFC pilots were less so. Having become accustomed to the aircraft the Bulgarians repainted the aircraft with black crosses but retained the 6219 serial number and turned the aircraft on its former owners. In the period between Autumn 1917 and Spring 1918 the aircraft flew a number of offensive operations against the Allies. Official records show 42 missions credited to the aircraft in total that ranged from reconnaissance to strafing and night-bombing.

Then on the night of May 23rd-24th 1918, the aircraft took off with Lieutenant Usunoff at the controls and with Lieutenant P. Atasanoff as observer for a night attack mission. Using small 12.5kg (27lb) bombs and their machine gun they harassed British forces between Gümüsdere and Lake Takhino. During an attack on a British position at Gorasanli the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire forcing the Bulgarians to turn for home however a short while later one of the engine’s cylinders began misfiring before stopping completely. Usunoff managed to glide the aircraft down near Struma, landing it in a boggy field where it began to sink. The two Bulgarians left the aircraft semi-submerged in the bog and began walking back to their lines. The FK.3 was beyond salvageable and never flew again.

Sopwith Pup N6452 replica at Yeovilton Fleet Air Arm Museum

History: Fleet Air Arm Museum
Photos: Tony Wilkins

The Sopwith Pup was a single-seater biplane fighter built by the Sopwith Aviation Company. It entered service with the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in the autumn of 1916 and served on the Western Front until the end of 1917 by which time it was outclassed by some of the latest German fighting scouts.

The aircraft displayed at Yeovilton is a replica built in the 1980s.

12/04/1983 – first flight at Old Warden as G-BIAU
07/1983 – noted at Cranfield Airshow
01/08/1983 – by now at the Whitehall Theatre of War
10/06/1985 – arrived at FAAM after being bought at auction
13/09/1989 – Certificate of Airworthiness expired