Operation Albion, Part One
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
August 2021

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.

Gulf of Riga, the seat of war in September-October, 1917.

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 Suur Strait.

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.

Assault Loaded

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 ships’ holds.

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.

Heavy Seas

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."

German battleships shell Osel, October 1917.

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

And here the trouble began. Battleship Bayern (foreground) and cruiser Emden.

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 start.

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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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