Golden Journal No. 30:
The Caspian Sea, Part Three
The Russian Caspian Flotilla saw no action during the First World War; the fighting did not spread to the inland sea’s shores before the collapse of the Tsarist regime in late 1917. The fleet consisted of two gunboats built in St. Petersburg and commissioned in 1911, and several auxiliaries. Some sailors were transferred to the Black Sea Fleet - the flotilla’s parent organization - as well as the main armament of the two gunboats.
The gunboat Ardagan.
The gunboats, named Kars and Ardagan, were sister ships displacing 675 tons and carrying two 120mm and four 75mm guns. They were quite slow at 14.5 knots, but didn’t need to be very fast. They served during the war as troop transports on the Caspian, and after the war’s end were re-armed with a pair of 102mm naval guns. During the chaos following the fall of the Tsar they fell into the hands of the newly-established Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, but would play little part in the naval campaign on the Caspian Sea that followed.
In the late summer of 1918, the Ottoman Turkish “Army of Islam” (including both Turkish regular troops and Muslim volunteers from the Caucasus) invaded Azerbaijan. Hoping to secure the oil fields of Baku, the British dispatched Gen. Lionel Dunsterville and his “Dunsterforce” of about 1,000 men of various British and Empire units, sent to northern Persia to provide a British presence. Fully motorized and supported by armored cars and a pair of airplanes, Dunsterforce made it to Baku ahead of the Turks but were ejected in September after a Turkish attack.
In the summer of 1918, the British Royal Navy sent Commodore David Norris commander of the Persian Gulf section of the East Indies Station, and 22 men to the Caspian to take control of the two gunboats and support Dunsterville. The Centro-Caspian Flotilla, as the Azerbaijanis called their fleet, had fled to the port of Bandar Anzali in northern Iran and Norris had orders to confiscate its ships. Norris found the two gunboats incapable of operations without major repairs and commandeered the freighter President Krüger instead.
The small British contingent fled Baku in September following Dunsterforce’s defeat, but they returned in November. Norris and his men established a flotilla of their own, based around confiscated merchant ships that they armed and a dozen Coastal Motor Boats transported overland after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of October 1918. With their new fleet the British began patrols in the northern part of the Caspian Sea in December. They engaged in a pair of actions with Red troops ashore before winter and ice brought operations to a halt until spring.
Ships of the British Caspian Flotilla at Baku, 1919.
At first the ships flew the Russian naval war flag; the White Russian movement claimed authority over the flotilla and named an admiral, A.I. Sergeev, who Norris seems to have ignored. The Whites left Baku in January 1919 and the British took formal control of the little fleet, raised the White Ensign and commissioned the ships in the Royal Navy.
Norris’ fleet included nine armed merchant ships, including the famous Zoroaster, two seaplane carriers and three motor torpedo boat carriers plus auxiliaries. By this point he commanded 1,400 men: 1,000 Royal Navy personnel and the rest Russians.
Destroyers of the Red Caspian Flotilla steam in formation.
The Reds responded by sending eleven small, elderly destroyers and two to four small submarines from the Baltic Fleet along Russia’s inland network of canals and rivers to form a Caspian flotilla of their own. Sergei Saks, the political commissar to the Red 11th Army, also took personal command of the little fleet, which made for poor coordination.
Even so, Saks used his little fleet aggressively, as did Norris. The British and Russians fought four actions in April and another in mid-May. But Saks sent his orders by radio in the clear, informing the British that three destroyers and a gunboat were at Fort Alexandrovsk on the eastern shore of the Caspian. Norris set out to attack them with five of his own gunboats.
The Battle of Fort Alexandrovsk, 21 May 1919.
The British got the best of the action, sinking one of the destroyers and 11 merchant ships against no losses of their own; the Red scored only two hits on the British ships before fleeing for Astrakhan. The Reds fired Saks from both his jobs and sent two reliable Bolsheviks to replace him. Sergei Kirov became the new 11th Army commissar. Fyodor Raskolnikov, the 27-year-old former commander of the Red Baltic Fleet and Volga Flotilla, took command of the flotilla with his 25-year-old wife Larissa Reisner, a Bolshevik writer, serving as political commissar.
The British now used their seaplanes aggressively to harass the Russian fleet and keep it bottled up in Astrakhan, but the White movement was agitating to take over the flotilla. The British agreed in July and began the handover; in its last action the two remaining British gunboats captured a pair of pirate ships in early August 1919.
“It is quite tough,” Midshipman Patrick Thornhill wrote, “to have to hand over what you have built up under hard work within a year - to people who are likely to run into it within a month. One of the first stories we hear is that Nobel (a converted tanker armed with four six-inch guns) recently went to sea for target practice and fired its aft gun with the muzzle flap still in the barrel, causing the end of the barrel to fly off. Any moving equipment on board appears to have been stolen and monetized as soon as the boys got their hands on it.”
Under White command, the flotilla quickly deteriorated. The Red fleet did not challenge it, and when Red troops conquered the Caucasus two of the ships defected to the Reds while the rest fled to Bandar Anzali in Iran. In March 1920 Raskolnikov led a daring raid on this neutral port that captured the entire flotilla, plus the abandoned gunboats Kars and Ardagan, at least seven merchant ships plus 50 artillery pieces and 20,000 rounds of ammunition that the British had stockpiled for their White allies.
The British intervention on the Caspian Sea ultimately had no more impact than the rest of Western aid to the White Russian movement - it prolonged the suffering and destruction of the Russian Civil War, but had no chance of affecting the outcome. The converted merchant ships returned to their peacetime roles, while the elderly destroyers of the Red flotilla were scrapped at Astrakhan in the early 1920’s. The two gunboats of the pre-war Caspian Flotilla were heavily overhauled in the mid-1920’s and served through the Great Patriotic War into the 1950’s.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.