Albion, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
By the fall of 1917, the Russian Empire had
suffered a revolution, repeated military defeat,
and massive losses in soldiers killed, wounded
and captured. The Provisional Government had
attempted to keep Russia in the First World War
for the past half-year, but now another revolution
seemed imminent. The Imperial German Army’s
leadership wanted to conquer Russia’s
Baltic provinces before the Empire collapsed,
to bolster their demand for them at any subsequent
peace conference. Holding the Baltic coast
would, according to Field Marshal Paul von
Hindenburg, “secure our left flank in
the next war.”
In September, Gen. Oskar von Hutier’s
Eighth Army unveiled what would become known
as “stosstaktik” in the capture
of Riga. The new methods included infiltration
tactics, the use of fire teams for battlefield
support, and closer artillery-infantry cooperation.
Riga, a major city with a very large port,
could be used to support further advances
if its port could be opened to German traffic.
if not, it would become a burden rather than
an asset, as the Germans would have to supply
its civilian population over an already-overtaxed
railroad network. The Army asked its sister
service to open the way for seaborne traffic.
Thus was hatched Operation Albion, the attempt
to seize the islands of Dago, Osel and Moon
and the basis of one of the larger Baltic
Sea scenarios in our Great
War at Sea: Jutland game.
In most nations, considerable rivalry develops
between the armed forces as they compete for
prestige and, most importantly, funding. Imperial
Germany lavished funds on both its services
during the years before the war, creating
fewer political problems between them compared
to those of other countries or Nazi Germany
a generation later. The nature of the war
gave few opportunities for joint operations,
but the Navy had acceded to all the Army’s
requests for fire support along the Baltic
coast and had been very cooperative during
the recent advance. And the admirals began
serious planning when asked to make Riga available
to German supply ships.
Riga, the capital of modern Latvia, sits
at the southern end of the Gulf of Riga. The
Gulf is wide and fairly shallow, and “plugged”
across its northern end by the island of Saaremaa,
in 1917 usually called Osel. The Irben Strait
connects the Gulf with the Baltic Sea to the
south of Osel, and to its east runs the Suur
Strait. The island of Dago lies north of Osel
across Soele Sound, with the much smaller
island of Moon to the east between Osel and
the Estonian mainland. Moon Sound runs between
Dago and the mainland as an extension of the
The Russian Navy had just completed dredging
a channel through the Suur Strait deep enough
for large transports and major warships, to
allow them to slip supply convoys to Riga
through protected waters. The Germans suspected
this, but they would be running their own
traffic through the Irben Strait.
The Russians had laid heavy minefields in
the strait, and covered them with big coastal
batteries on the islands. If the Germans wanted
to remove the batteries, they would have to
bring their troops over the water. The Russians
also backed the minefields and batteries with
light surface forces and submarines, making
for formidable defenses. To break the line
and secure communications with Riga, the Germans
knew they had to capture Osel and the other
islands between Osel and the coast. This would
be a major undertaking.
The Army supplied 25,000 troops, 5,000 horses
and 54 guns, most of them from the 42nd Infantry
Division, 2nd Bicycle Brigade, 255th Reserve
Regiment and several attached battalions.
Nineteen steamers would bring the assault
echelons from their concentration at Libau
to Tagga Bay on Osel’s western shore.
Learning from the British disaster at Gallipoli
and Russian successes in the Black Sea, the
Germans had their transports “assault
loaded,” with the troops and weapons
needed to establish a beachhead on deck or
easily accessible, and equipment or supplies
to be unloaded later placed deeper in the
Unrest had appeared within the High Seas
Fleet and Reinhard Scheer, the German fleet
commander, believed that a major operation
would restore morale among the sailors. The
forces he assigned to support the landing
represented massive overkill: one battle cruiser,
ten dreadnoughts, six light cruisers and 17
destroyers would be detached from the High
Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven to join with forces
already in the Baltic. There would also be
six zeppelins, reduced to three by gas shortages.
Vice Admiral Ehrhardt Schmidt, lately of the
High Seas Fleet’s 1st Battle Squadron,
would have the overall command. What the High
Seas Fleet could not provide were minesweepers,
the fleet’s least-glamorous but most-important
assets. One division of them came from the
North Sea but the rest remained on station
there to keep channels swept for submarines.
On the Russian side, about 14,000 men defended
the islands, most of them from the independent
472nd, 470th, 425th and 425th Infantry Regiments,
parts of the 4th Don Cossack Cavalry Division,
and numerous independent batteries. The key
to the defense was the battery of four 12-inch
naval rifles at the southern tip of the Tserel
Peninsula, the long neck of land stretching
southward from Osel at the mouth of the Gulf.
Smaller batteries protected other key points,
including five 10-inch and eight 6-inch guns
covering the southern entrance to Moon Sound
and eight six-inch guns overlooking Tagga
Bay. Within the Gulf, Read Admiral M.K. Bakhirev
had two pre-dreadnoughts, three cruisers and
a number of light craft including a dozen
of the Russian Navy’s big new Novik-type
destroyers. Finally, about 60 aircraft were
available to support the defenders, flying
from several airfields and seaplane stations.
German aircraft attacked the batteries during
the first weeks of October, scoring a signal
success in the early hours of 1 October when
bomb splinters ignited a cartridge fire in
one of the Tserel battery’s magazines,
killing seven officers and 110 men. An attack
on 8 October by five torpedo bombers failed
to hit the two presumed Russian minelayers
spotted off Tserel, expending five of the
Baltic theater’s total allotment of
10 aerial torpedoes to no result. Army and
Navy airships dropped bombs as well, but seem
to have obtained no results.
The Germans set out on the 23rd of September,
but Schmidt led the heavy units into Putzig
Bay just west of Danzig to wait out heavy
weather, while the minesweepers stopped at
Windau and the transport echelon remained
at Libau. The weather beagn to clear in early
October, and the minesweeping flotillas took
up station. Sweeping mines in the heavy seas,
usually during the hours of darkness, proved
stressful and difficult.
"Sleep came only after coal was replenished
and engines and arms for the coming day were
repaired and made serviceable," wrote
Commander Max Doflein of the II Minesweeping
Flotilla. "House-high water spouts and
explosive clouds, bound with the thunderous
crash of the exploding mines, gave news of
the advance of the work. Four of my boats
were blown up in the course of the pioneer
work and many brave officers, deck officers
and men perished with them."
Despite warnings from the minesweeping flotillas,
Schmidt determined to press forward as soon
as the weather allowed and on 10 October the
big ships finally left Putzig Bay. The fleet
was in position by the afternoon of the 11th,
with landings to begin early the next day.
Choosing surprise over safety, Schmidt ordered
the minesweepers to take up their guide positions
— they would use colored lanterns to
lead the heavy ships into their bombardment
positions and the transports to the beaches.
Eight dreadnoughts plus the light cruiser Emden were assigned to suppress the
coast defense artillery; all were brought
to their pre-assigned places without incident.
The only fire support allotted directly to
the landing troops were the torpedo boats'
light guns. The sophisticated fire support
offered by the U.S. Navy during World War
II still lay more than a generation in the
future; the Germans had no procedure by which
the troops ashore could request fire from
the ships. The big ships would fire according
to pre-arranged bombardment plans, while the
torpedo boat gunnery officers would observe
the shoreline and fire on targets as seemed
best to them. Though a primitive solution,
it did not differ greatly from the use of
heavy and light artillery ashore for the first
two years of World War One.
No ship would open fire until the Russian
either fired first or the motor launches carrying
the first wave of troops had them safely ashore;
surprise had to be maintained. Two dreadnoughts
commanded by Vice Admiral Wilhelm Souchon
of Goeben fame would create a diversion, shelling
the big battery at Cape Tserel at the southern
tip of the island while light craft milled
about to simulate a landing.
Sounding the Alarm
Things began to go wrong soon after the first
wave of Pioneers boarded their launches. The
dreadnought Grosser Kurfürst struck
a mine and suffered heavy flooding, but held
her station and would complete her bombardment
mission. But on the eastern end of the German
line, the dreadnought Bayern struck
a mine that flooded her forward torpedo room
(a weak point in all dreadnoughts) and flooding
quickly grew worse as bulkheads gave way.
Under the stress, someone sounded a submarine
alarm. Her captain, Heinrich Rohardt, questioned
the sighting but his gunnery officers swore
they had seen both a periscope and torpedo
track. He gave them permission to fire on
this periscope — no Allied submarines
were actually present — and on the shores,
Russian gunners began streaming out of their
barracks at the sound.
The troops were still far from the beaches,
and the alerted Russians replied with their
first salvo straddling the fleet flagship Moltke. Cursing wildly, Schmidt ordered
all ships to begin the bombardment —
the first wave was already in the boats, giving
Schmidt the dilemma of re-embarking them under
fire or sending them forward against alerted
defenders. The Pioneers raced toward the beaches,
and Operation Albion was off to a disastrous
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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 an unknowable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.
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