The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands
by Michael Barrett
Indiana University Press, 2008
The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands
Operation Albion tells the little-known story of the invasion of Dago, Osel, and Moon Islands in the Gulf of Riga in October 1917. A fleet of over 300 ships transported 25,000 German soldiers to these islands in an effort to shock Russia into surrendering. It proved to be one of the last major German operations in the East, for on October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks initiated the Communist Revolution and Lenin called for armistice talks.
Written by a professor of history at the Citadel, the book shows meticulous research into the German and Russian archives. After Barrett sets the scene, he launches into a day-by-day description of the invasion, land battles, and sea battles that ended with German occupation of the islands.
The prose is workmanlike and the maps adequate, although more map detail would have been nice -- terrain and references to towns not on the map detract a bit from following the narrative. A nice overview of the troops and equipment is included in one of the chapters. For those seeking to recreate this operation on the tabletop, Operation Albion contains enough detail to allow you to do so. You'll have to extrapolate the text descriptions of terrain to the tabletop.
Overall, Operation Albion provides an excellent recap of an obscure campaign. Amphibious invasion, land battles, sea battles, air operations -- this operation has it all. And this book has it all down.
Indiana University Press Books, 2008, $29.95, 299 pages, hardback
List of Maps VI
Dates, Times, and Names VII
ONE Submarine UC-58, Tagga Bay, 28 September 1917 1
TWO The Strategic Importance of the Baltic Islands 8
THREE The Decision to Mount Operation Albion 33
FOUR The Islands and Their Defenses 56
FIVE The Invasion 94
SIX Osel, 12-13 October 1917: The Central Island 119
SEVEN Osel, 12-16 October 1917: The Island's Ends 144
EIGHT The Capture of Moon and Dago Islands 165
NINE The Naval Battle for the Baltic Islands 199
TEN Conclusion 221
ELEVEN Epilogue 236
Appendix: A Word on Sources 241
FILZAND LIGHTHOUSE, 12 OCTOBER
Artur Toom was the first to hear the German guns firing the morning of the 12th of October. He was the lighthouse watchman at Filzand (Vilsandi) Island, on the west coast of Osel at the mouth of Kielkond Bay. When he heard the shooting, just before 6 AM, he raced up the 120 feet to the deck at the top of his lighthouse to see the cannonade. The rain and fog obscured everything at first, and he could discern only the direction from which the noise came-Cape Hundsort. The cape lay to the northeast, some 13 kilometers across the peninsula of the same name, and marked the entrance to Tagga Bay. He knew a Russian fort with a battery of 6" guns guarded the entry to the bay.
Within fifteen minutes the weather lifted a bit, but all he could see was "shell explosions along the entire shore of the Hundsort cape." He could not raise the fort by telephone, and no one else that he reached in the nearby village of Kielkond had any idea what was happening. Soon Toom had his own problems. Three German destroyers steamed right past him and, around 8 AM, opened fire at the seaplane station at Papensholm, 3 kilometers away across Kielkond Bay. A Russian seaplane swooped in at the same time and landed in front of his pier. Toom rushed to the dock. The pilot, Lieutenant Telepnev, got out, shouted excitedly that the Germans were landing, and told Toom to alert the men at the seaplane station. "There are six transports near the shores of Tagga Bay and they are landing troops," said the lieutenant, and "three large vessels are at the entrance to the bay, three destroyers are in the Kielkond Bay and two vessels are northwest of Filzand [Island]."
Toom got through to both the seaplane station and Admiral Sveshnikov's headquarters and relayed the lieutenant's message, but with the seaplane facility under fire from the German destroyers as Toom spoke, Telepnev's report had probably lost some of its immediacy. The officer jumped back into his plane and gunned it just as four German fighters began to attack. The Russian pilot got off successfully and disappeared into the low clouds.
The rain moved back in, obscuring visibility from the lighthouse, so Toom sent a man to a cottage on the other side of the island to see and report what was happening. The lighthouse keeper kept reporting ship movements all morning. At 1 PM, just as the telephone connection with the seaplane station was lost, the three German destroyers headed back out to sea, where they joined a large number of other vessels. At 3 PM, Toom saw that Papensholm was burning, and he decided to abandon his lighthouse and island. After setting his own papers on fire, and noticing that to the north the ocean was full of ships, he cast off from the lighthouse pier at 5:15 PM. The German invasion had started.
TAGGA BAY, 12 OCTOBER
By the time Artur Toom spotted the bombardment of Hundsort, the Germans were already ashore and making for the fortifications at the mouth of the bay. Two launches landed shock troops from the Tenth Storm Battalion just below the forts. The members of this elite battalion raced through the woods, hoping to get to the batteries before dawn. Meanwhile, further down the bay, the flotilla sailed past several fishing camps. A dense mixture of trees and undergrowth started almost at the water's edge, blocking the view inland. A small wooden tower marked the church, the one reported by Lieutenant Vesper in his submarine reconnaissance.
No movement was noted-the Russians seemed to be sleeping. The long line of torpedo boats, launches, and steamers, some thirty-eight in all, safely passed the forts and moved to the middle of Tagga Bay, where they began discharging their cargo of gray-coated infantrymen. As the flotilla approached the landing site, the cutters cast off and rowed to shore. The infantry jumped out when the water was chest high and ran ashore. First ashore was Captain Justi's company of the 138th Infantry Regiment. From the enemy came nothing.
The battleship Bayern, far out at sea from Tagga Bay, inadvertently unleashed the shooting. The Bayern did hit a mine at 5:07 AM, but that explosion probably was not the one the deck officer on the Moltke had reported to Captain von Levetzow. The Bayern was then too distant, kilometers away near the coast of Dagoi Island. The noise from a mine would in all likelihood not have been audible to the sailors or soldiers in Tagga Bay. Commodore Heinrich's flagship, the Emden, was much closer to the Bayern at that time, and his lookouts heard no explosion.' In all likelihood, the sound heard on the Moltke came from Bayern's main guns when a few minutes later the ship fired on a purported submarine. Finally, there was also a good chance the explosion came from within the bay itself, because Lieutenant Vesper of UC-58 had erred when lie made his reconnaissance. "There were Russian mines in Tagga Bay.
The last vessel in the parade transporting the assault landing force was the steamer Corsica, an interned British prize. It carried the Second Battalion of the 138th Infantry Regiment, destined for the east side of Tagga Bay. At 5:10, a huge water spout erupted from behind the Corsica. "Mines!" shouted sailors. It let off a huge blast of steam and abruptly pulled out of the line of ships, flashing the signal that it had hit a mine. Admiral Schmidt did not know of the Corsica's plight until thirty minutes later, but the officers on the Moltke's bridge might well have mistaken either the noise of the steam jet or the small explosion as coming from a mine out to sea, where they knew there were both mines and vessels. In any event, Captain von Levetzow gave the two battleship squadrons and the Second Reconnaissance Group the order to commence firing.
The Russians had awaited the Germans. Long before the Germans began concentrating ships and men at Libau, the Russians suspected an effort to enter the Gulf of Riga. When a U.S. commission, led by former secretary of war Elihu Root, visited the Gulf of Riga in June 1917, Russian naval officers could not assure the Americans that they "would be able to ward off the impending attack of the German fleet on the islands in the Gulf of Riga." Army officers had their own fears about a German offensive. Although the islands were important, their concern centered on the area behind the Twelfth Army, an area that stretched from the front line on the Aa River north of Riga at the southern end of the Gulf of Riga to Baltic Port in the north. The distance was great, the roads were primitive, and the countryside was empty, although that description held true for most of Russia. What made this region unique, however, was the fact that a German breakthrough in this area offered them access to Reval and eventually the Russian capital of Petrograd. The city lay 300 kilometers distant and winter would soon arrive, but one thing the Russians had learned in this war was not to underestimate the Germans.
General Vladimir Cheremisov's Northern Front had responsibility for the area. In addition to exercising operational control over the Baltic Fleet, Cheremisov had three armies, the Twelfth, First, and Fifth. They were arranged from northwest to southeast more or less along the Aa-Duna River line. Until this point, the Gulf of Riga had been an asset protecting the Russian rear, but if the Germans successfully forced entry into the gulf, its eastern shores became an undefended flank. All of General Cheremisov's armies were in the wrong place and facing the wrong direction if the Gulf of Riga became a theater of operations. His Twelfth Army, the northernmost one, which had just been pushed from Riga to Valk, would have to be responsible for this enormous area. It was also the army that, as historian Allan K. Wildman noted, had the most advanced revolutionary committee system of all Russian armies. Its units seethed with revolutionary fervor, and in many, the officers had lost control.
Lieutenant General Dmitry Pavlovich Parsky commanded the Twelfth Army and the vast empty spaces behind his sector of the front leading toward the capital)° Geography divided his area of responsibility into two zones. The northern zone, running along the coast of Estonia from Baltic Port on the Gulf of Finland to Pernau at the midpoint of the eastern shore of the Gulf of Riga, was filled with bogs and low areas, rendering very difficult the inland movement of a major force. The southern zone ran from Pernau to the current front line on the River Aa. The terrain in this area was more congenial to transportation and movement. A landing in this region threatened the immediate rear of the Twelfth Army and the entire northern front. The invaders could either roll up the rear of Cheremisov's three armies or strike inland for Dorpat (Tartu), cutting the northern front's lines of communication and threatening Reval.
General Nikolai Nikolaevich Dukhonin, the head of Stavka, had advised Cheremisov as early as the 23rd of September that German landings were imminent, identifying a breakthrough into the Gulf of Riga as the likely objective. Admiral Razvozov's Baltic Fleet had responsibility for defending the Gulf of Riga, the Baltic Islands, and the coastline from the Aa River front to Petrograd. If the Germans got past the fleet and landed on the mainland, Cheremisov's three armies would have to hold them. Of course, the general knew of the revolutionary disturbances in the fleet and how thinly spread its forces were on the Baltic Islands. Nonetheless, beset with his own difficulties from revolutionary militancy and already directly engaged with the Germans, all he could do was to pass on Stavka's intelligence about German activities and order contingency planning in case the Baltic Fleet failed.
Russian prisoners later told Colonel Tschischwitz the German preparations at Libau were well known to them. The Russian soldiers had been on varying levels of alert since the 25th of September. For days the landings had been expected. Admiral Sveshnikov "ordered the soldiers to sleep without undressing and [for commanders] not to grant leaves to anyone." On the 3rd of October, army officials on Osel told Admiral Bakhirev they expected a German landing that day. On the 10th of October, the Baltic Fleet staff told Sveshnikov the Germans would put to sea the next day. Exhausted by the constant vigilance, however, the Russians finally lowered their guard. The miserable weather also gave them a false sense of security. When, after three clear days (9-11 October), no Germans appeared, the Russians concluded the invasion was canceled. The bad weather and poor visibility on the night of the 11th and 12th of October offered further reassurance, and the soldiers relaxed. The arrival of 12" shells from the Fourth Squadron into the Russian fort at Hundsort shattered their illusions.
The incorrect assumption that inclement weather would keep the Germans home put the Russians off guard, a state from which they never completely recovered. On the afternoon of the first day of battle, Sveshnikov's chief of staff, Captain Reek, presented a picture of a headquarters overwhelmed by the speed of the German operation. "The battle is developing too quickly," he told Colonel Kruzenstiern, chief of staff of the land defense forces. "The losses in units are undoubtedly high, according to the reports.... Events are unfolding like lightning and the enemy forces outnumber ours." Spread thinly on the ground and caught by surprise and the speed of the German assault, the stunned Russian defenders committed their forces piecemeal, a recipe for certain defeat.
Not all the Russians were sleeping. At 5:27 Am a radio listening post picked up von Levetzow's order to open fire and relayed it immediately to Sveshnikov's headquarters, stating that a "German Commander-in-Chief gave some brief orders to the IV and III Squadron and II Reconnaissance Group.." According to Tschischwitz, a Russian artillery observer on the west bank saw the German ships enter the hay and ran to his battery commander, woke the sleeping officer, and reported what he had seen. "Those are our ships; let me sleep!" was the response from the officer, who was awakened by German soldiers a few minutes later.
Although colorful, this story is highly doubtful. Who could sleep through a barrage of 12" shells coming down? On the other hand, it does serve to illustrate that the Germans got their assault force into the bay before the Russians reacted.
After the Germans opened up, the Russian gunners at the head of the bay returned fire almost immediately, aiming at the Moltke. When they looked over their parapets, it was right in front of them, looming large. The battleships were further out to sea, and almost impossible to pinpoint in the impenetrable haze." The first Russian salvo had the direction of the Moltke but landed 100 meters short. The German cruiser returned a broadside, and the next Russian rounds went just over it. The Russians had it bracketed, and the third salvo landed next to it, showering the deck with seawater. "These fellows can shoot well!" shouted a German officer as he scuttled behind a turret. The Moltke continued to fire, as did the dreadnoughts in Squadron IV, and within a few minutes the fort was silenced. One could see only smoke where it was located. The stench from the guns lingered in the air. The first German rounds had penetrated the hunker of Gun 2 in the fort, causing an explosion and putting the weapon out of action. The second salvo brought down the observation tower. The Russian report of the action acknowledged that "the enemy fire was so effective that after the first salvos the battery could not return fire and the crew had to leave." The same scenario transpired with the Third Squadron, which fired on the fortifications at Ninnast on the eastern side of the bay. The Russians in Ninnast never returned a single shot toward the fleet, although they held off the Germans attacking from the land side with small arms fire until 10 AM. By 6:20 the naval barrage at the entrance to Tagga Bay ended, with Schmidt ordering the battleships to cease fire. Admiral Sveshnikov's headquarters reported that "Batteries #45 and #46 [Hundsort and Ninnast] were lost from the very beginning of the battle; they were destroyed by the first dreadnought salvos.
Further down the bay, when the mine went off next to the Corsica, Volkmann wrote that everyone in the assault force looked toward the ship. Then the horizon lit up, followed by the sounds of heavy gunfire. They knew that the bombardment of Ninnast and Hundsort batteries had started. Responding to the German fire, several Russian batteries, carefully concealed in the woods, opened fire on the assault force from both sides of the bay. Battery 2 of the 107th Division occupied the west bank. One of its platoons of guns defended the Hundsort fortifications from the sea, and another sat camouflaged at Ranna, overlooking Tagga Bay. Directly opposite on the east side of the bay and facing west, stood the Third Battery in the village of Kalasma with two of its platoons. A third platoon was to the north near Cape Merris. Each site had an observation tower. In the vicinity of the bay, the Russians also had a reserve of three infantry companies, a death company, and a machine gun company.
The Russians let loose shrapnel on the torpedo boats and the landing sites. Infantry and machine gun fire likewise sounded from the woods. Heinecke's torpedo boats returned fire with their 88mm and 105mm guns, lashing the shore. As the sun rose, one could see the surface of the bay covered with small boats making for the shingle beaches. Had the Russians kept their nerve, Volkmann thought, they could have made each round and sweep of their machine guns count. Instead, their fire went high and the shrapnel burst too soon, while their artillery shells plunged dramatically but harmlessly into the water between the boats. The first wave of assault troops quickly went over the side of the torpedo boats into cutters, which were towed ashore. In the excitement, the cook on the B110 also went overboard into the water, having forgotten to let go of the line securing the cutters to his ship. Soon the noise of the ships' guns lessened, and eventually it ceased. Despite the enemy fire, the landing parties went ashore from the torpedo boats and the Blitz and Equity.
The 131st Infantry Regiment landed on the west bank, the 138th on the east. In the forest, troops found the cover to assemble and head for the Russian batteries. The 138th Regiment captured the Russian artillery after fighting at close combat. It took hand grenades and cold steel to dislodge the Third Battery of the 107th Division, but at that point the Russians retreated through the woods. On the opposite side of the bay, the Russian defenders did more damage to the torpedo boats than their comrades on the eastern side accomplished.," Nonetheless, the 131st Regiment forced the Russians from their positions. At the head of the bay, the storm troopers seized the forts and brought their prisoners to the beach. "A defeated bunch, these Russians," Lieutenant Commander Heinecke said to Volkmann. 'I wouldn't have thought they'd let us off so lightly." A more religious observer noted, "For sure, the dear lord favored black-white-red today."
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Barrett, Michael B.
Operation Albion: The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands
1 vol, 299 pgs 2008 US, Indiana University Press
OMM NEW-dust jacket $29.95