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Red Sailors, Part Four

The story began in Part One, and continued in Part Two and Part Three.

After the Magdeburg disaster, the Germans did little with their fleet ln the Baltic, assigning a motley force of a few cruisers and elderly battleships commanded by the Kaiser’s dilettante brother, Grand Admiral Prince Heinrich (the highest-ranking officer in the Imperial German Navy) to patrol their coastline. Some clashes occurred in the central Baltic between cruiser squadrons, and most of these were won by the Russians.

Riga fell to the Germans in August 1917, and in early October 1917 German ships started landing troops on Dago and Osel. The two islands controlled the mouth of the Gulf of Riga, and possession of them would allow the Germans to sweep the heavy minefields in the gulf and open the huge port of Riga to German supply traffic. As the troops landed, warships began forcing their way through the lrben Strait leading into the gulf.


Revolutionary battleship Slava returns the imperialist fire.

Gunners at the 12-inch battery at Tserel covering the strait sent Minister-Chairman Alexander Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, a telegram in which they vowed to fight to the last man. However, when a German seaplane flew over early in the assault and dropped a bomb into their magazine, the massive explosion killed or wounded 121 men and made the rest quickly lose heart. The battery fell easily to German infantry; most of the gunners having fled to the mainland. The German landing force, assisted by most of the High Seas Fleet, quickly overran both islands.

A few days later, the German dreadnoughts König and Kronprinz steamed north into Moon Sound, between the islands and the Estonian mainland. There they shot up the battleships Slava and Grazhdanin and cruiser Bayan; the minelayer Amur’s crew refused orders to fight and fled from approaching German torpedo boats. Slava, heavily damaged and burning fiercely, sank in shallow water. Her crew, politically the most radical after those of Petropavlovsk and Andrei Pervozvanny, had fought well, hitting König several times.


Revolutionary battleship Slava finds a watery, but heroic, grave.

The other battleships were made ready for action at Helsinki but were not committed to battle, in case the Germans pressed on to Petrograd. All six responded to orders without complaint. Ship committees passed resolutions confirming their willingness to obey orders during battle and to defend the revolution from the Germans.

While the fleet was in action to the south, Lenin was in hiding a few hundred yards from the battleships’ berths. There is no evidence of contact between naval Bolsheviks and
Lenin during this period, but his decision to back an uprising was based largely on the obvious revolutionary reliability of the Baltic sailors.

Sailors were in the vanguard when street fighting broke out in Petrograd a month after the Battle of Moon Sound. Men from the depots led the troops and Red Guards sent to seize key points in Petrograd.

The Provisional Government had finally realized that a newly-rearmed warship lay nearby at the Franco-Russian Shipyard and on 4 November 1917 ordered the cruiser Aurora to head to sea immediately. The sailors refused, and two days later drove off a detachment of armored cars sent to force the cruiser out of the shipyard.

Revolutionary leaders were unsure how to use the cruiser, when someone suggested that the ship could drive loyalist cadets off the vital Palace and Nikolaevsky bridges in the heart of Petrograd. Orders were sent to bring the cruiser up the Neva River but her commander, Lt. Nikolai Erikson, refused to risk his ship in the shallow and treacherous waters. The shipping channel, he told the crew, had not been dredged since the beginning of the war and was unsafe. They responded by locking him in his cabin and starting upriver on their own.

Erikson, known as one of the best navigators in the Russian Navy, then relented and said he’d guide the ship to keep the sailors from wrecking his beloved command. Aurora inched up the river, and at 3:30 a.m. on 7 November she dropped anchor just below the Nikolaevsky Bridge and turned on her searchlights.

A sizable flotilla gathered in and around Petrograd. The minelayer Amur - her crew apparently having changed their minds about fighting - and several destroyers brought more sailors from Kronstadt. The ancient training battleship Zaria Svobody was towed into position between Petrograd and Kronstadt to cover the railway lines with her heavy guns.

The sailors were fairly well-armed; Russian sailors, like those in other European navies, were given basic infantry training before starting their naval lessons. The large stocks of arms formerly held at naval depots had been emptied to arm soldiers at the front, but the arsenals were refilled when the Provisional Government lost control of the huge arms warehouses at Smolensk. Well-armed sailors, dressed in their distinctive black uniforms, led the storming of the Winter Palace. Their pride in their ships, if not in their officers, continued during the assault. Sailors from Aurora, Amur and other ships fought as distinct units. Men from the naval depots were sprinkled among the worker detachments as instructors and leaders.


Sailors (black uniforms, center) and others assault the Winter Palace.

Small groups of sailors continued to arrive from Helsinki aboard small warships. In the Finnish capital, sailors crammed every available train. Those unable to stuff themselves aboard sat by the tracks and wept bitterly.

When Krasnov’s cavalry began to move on Petrograd, Lenin urgently cabled the naval bases, asking for ships and men, The Bolshevik leader, apparently as ignorant of navigation as Kerensky, sent messages demanding that all four dreadnoughts steam up the Neva to bolster the Bolshevik cause. This was impossible, but several more destroyers and two cruisers set out from Helsinki. Destroyers moved up the Neva, ready to shell the railways.

The sailors were only about 6,000 strong during the uprising. But they were a disciplined, compact group and easily recognizable. Most importantly, there was no doubt over their allegiance.

Defeated, Kerensky fled - dressed as a sailor.

The fleet congress sent the message, “Curses to the traitor to the revolution, Bonaparte-Kerensky.” The Petropavlovsk committee was more direct: "Get out, criminal, or we’ll kill you."

In the Black Sea, Kolchak had resigned in June after the fleet committee accused him of working for Russia’s defeat. Kolchak ordered the battleship TriSvitetelia, launched in 1893, decommissioned so that her 750-man crew could be used aboard new assault transports completing at Odessa. Enemies in the committee seized on this as evidence of his reducing the fleet’s firepower, and he was replaced by Vice Admiral N. P. Sablin. Discipline was largely non-existent by November, but there was no revolutionary activity on the scale experienced in the Baltic.

Word of the Bolshevik takeover arrived on 8 November, cancelling the planned "Operation Nakhimov" to land about 30,000 troops on the Turkish coast at Sinop. Tsentroflot, the Black Sea equivalent of Tsentrobalt, quickly seized power.

In February 1918 the Germans launched a new offensive in reply to Trotsky’s policy of waging “neither war nor peace.” Estonia was quickly overrun, with the fleet leaving Reval where the advancing Germans seized 626 guns. With the aid of icebreakers, the Reval squadron reached Kronstadt. The White Finns, meanwhile, were busy defeating the Red Finns with the aid of the German Army’s Baltic Division. The new Finnish leadership ordered the Russian ships to leave Finnish waters immediately or be seized. The sailors elected a new leader, Capt. A.M. Shchastny (right), to head the fleet. In March and April, he brought the major warships to Kronstadt despite serious crew shortages - many sailors were still in Petrograd. It was a tremendous feat of navigation through the drifting ice: only a few small warships were lost or badly damaged.

“This remarkable voyage,” an émigré officer wrote later, “only succeeded thanks to the energy of Shchastny, assisted by the officers and by some sailors who had remained loyal.” Shchastny was arrested on arrival at Kronstadt on charges of “having made himself popular by performing an heroic deed with a view to using this popularity later against the power of the soviets.” He was court-martialed in June and shot.

The Germans and Austrians also occupied much of Ukraine. In April 1918 most major ships in the Black Sea Fleet raised the Ukrainian steppe-and-sky flag to forestall a German takeover, but the advance on Sevastopol continued. German troops entered the outskirts of the city on 1 May. Prompted by the guns of the two remaining dreadnoughts, 14 Russian destroyers left Sevastopol for Novorossisk. The battleships and remaining destroyers soon followed.

The old battleships and some smaller vessels fell undamaged into German hands. The two best battleships, Evstafi and Ioann Zlatoust, were immediately overhauled and made ready for Turkish crews.

At Novorossisk, a furious argument erupted over Lenin’s order to scuttle the fleet rather than allow it to fall into German hands. Some wished to follow Lenin’s order and snub the Germans, while others thought it best to hand their ships over to the Central Powers. The dreadnought Volya and five destroyers went to Sevastopol, while her sister ship Svobodnaya Rossiya, possibly against the wishes of her crew, and nine destroyers were scuttled in Novorossisk. Most of the sailors then apparently deserted.

The Germans commissioned Volya in September 1918, but due to crew shortages and endless arguments over ownership between the Germans, Turks and Austrians no patrols were made before the end of the war. The ship was handed over to the British and by them to the White Russian movement. She led a motley fleet from the Crimea to Tunisia after the fall of Sevastopol, and was scrapped by the French in 1936.


The revolutionary dreadnought Volya.

In March 1918 the British seized the Arctic squadron. While there was discontent among the small squadrons there was no direct action taken by the Arctic or Pacific sailors against the government in March or November.

As Bolshevik rule spread from the capital to the provinces, Baltic sailors became the shock troops of the revolution. Several hundred were sent a few weeks after the revolution to battle the reactionary Orenburg Cossacks, and afterwards Baltic sailors formed the core of most Bolshevik battle groups. Of the major Baltic ships, however, only the redoubtable Petropavlovsk was still operational by 1919. The dreadnought was very active shelling the White Estonians, but the British put an end to that, sending motor torpedo boats to sink her in Kronstadt harbor. She was eventually repaired and served in the Great Patriotic War as Marat.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, 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. Leopold can swim but is not a revolutionary.