Category Archives: Arctic Theatre

23 JUNE, 1918: Britain Invades Russia!

A hundred years ago today the first elements of an Allied invasion force landed at the port of Murmansk, in northwestern Russia.  Their arrival marked a significant uptick in a steadily expanding international campaign against Bolshevism in Russia, and its centenary gives me an excuse to talk about it.

What is usually known as the North Russian Intervention or the Northern Russia Expedition (or three or four other names, none of them any better known) was a complicated, messy and fairly crazy business, entwined with the equally complex and largely shapeless Russian Civil War.  It was geopolitically connected to anti-Bolshevik interventions from Japanese and US forces far to the southeast, around Vladivostok, and to the adventures of the relatively powerful Czech Legion as it marched across Russia in search of safe passage to Allied territory.  I’ve touched on Vladivostok (12 January, 1918: Port In A Storm, Pt.1) and the Czech Legion (31 May, 1918: Fame And Fortune) during the last few weeks, and I’ll be getting back to them sometime soon.  One day I’ll even attempt some kind of overview briefing about the Civil War as a whole, but for now let’s wonder why and how the British came to be invading Russia in mid-1918.

The roots of British military involvement inside Russia lay in the wartime battle for control of Arctic trade routes.  Like convoys and submarine warfare in general, fighting in the Arctic theatre is popularly associated with the Second World War but was an equally significant factor during the First – and for the same reasons.

Russia, like every other state fighting against the Central Powers, expected and received direct aid from its filthy rich ally, Britain. Given the virtual impossibility of Allied shipping reaching Russia via the Baltic, and the regular interruptions to overland trade traffic via neutral Sweden (10 October, 1917: National Stereotypes), supplies had to be shipped across the top of Scandinavia to the Barents Sea port of Murmansk and the smaller White Sea port of Archangelsk.

Nice, simple map – in case you weren’t sure.

Nobody had anticipated this before the War, and neither port was remotely fit for purpose in 1914, so all Russian activity in the region during the conflict’s first months was concerned with expanding their harbour and railway facilities for use as major supply centres for Allied coal and weapons.  The German Navy eventually decided to interfere with the process in June 1915, when an auxiliary cruiser laid 285 mines at the entrances to Archangelsk harbour, and that was enough to trigger an Allied response.

A makeshift minesweeping force, consisting of a few British armed trawlers and 18 Russian boats seconded from the Baltic Fleet, was cobbled together, and a miscellaneous collection of second-line warships was gathered from other theatres for patrol duties in the Arctic Sea.  By the end of 1915 these included two old British cruisers, a Russian submarine and a minelayer transferred from the Far East, while two coastal batteries were established and thirty old naval guns fitted to merchant ships.  German mines meanwhile sank a British minesweeper and twelve merchant ships.

Levels of Allied naval protection for Arctic shipping rose in line with a steady increase in traffic during 1916.  The Russian Navy formed an Arctic Flotilla in February, operating out a new ice-free base at Kola, and the Royal Navy began establishing a larger presence in the theatre during the summer.  The old, pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Glory was stationed in Murmansk from August, and a scratch force based around the light cruiser HMS Askold and a few old destroyers from the Far East was still being formed in the autumn, when six U-boats of the German High Seas Fleet spearheaded a brief but highly effective campaign against Arctic shipping.  In six weeks before winter ice prevented operations, they sank 25 Allied ships, captured two more and damaged several small Allied warships, losing one submarine in the process.

The biggest warship in the region – the old battleship HMS Glory.

In the wider context of a world at war, and in terms of its practical impact on the Eastern Front, the Arctic theatre was still very small beer, and British aid to Russia amounted to only about £20.5 million of war materials in 1916.  Even that was far more than northern Russian ports could handle, and half the year’s imports were still piled up at Archangelsk awaiting rail transport in early 1917.  By that time four British icebreakers and a few more auxiliary craft had reached northern Russian waters, bringing the combined strength of the Anglo-Russian naval presence up to about 40 vessels – but the German Navy had better things to do with its submarines in 1917 and only 21 more Allied ships were sunk in the Arctic before hostilities between Russia and the Central Powers ended in December.

Although the Arctic Flotilla’s Russian units continued to patrol alongside British ships until the Armistice, the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Arctic naval war to an effective end – but it also triggered the outbreak of land warfare in northern Russia.  British theatre commander Admiral Kemp was charged with maintaining Murmansk and Archangelsk, along with the territory in between and transport links to the Russian heartlands.  The vast area involved, along with the arrival of a German army in neighbouring Finland, threats of Finnish incursions across the Murmansk railway, and chronic uncertainty about whether local Bolsheviks were allies, enemies or neutrals fighting their own civil war, prompted Kemp to ask for reinforcement by the Army in April 1918.  Bad timing, what with the BEF’s desperate need for manpower against the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front, and Kemp was told to make do with the marines aboard his ships.

In early May about a hundred marines, supported by Red Guards and naval units, were landed at the small port of Pechenga, about 50km along the coast from Murmansk, to hold off attacks from German-backed, anti-Bolshevik ‘White’ Finns.  Later that month a single German U-boat appeared off Pechenga and sank a few small craft before disappearing, never to return.  Both incidents served to convince strategists in the British Admiralty and War Office that a major German-Finnish attack on northern Russia was in preparation.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of agreements made with the Petrograd regime concerning the Czech Legion’s safe departure from Russia opened up the possibility that half its troops, some 50,000 men, would march to join any Allied forces in northern Russia.  With Petrograd pressurising the Murmansk soviet (more socialist than Bolshevik at this stage) to stop cooperating with the British, and threatening to send Red Army units to commandeer the trove of war materials lying around in Archangelsk, the British War Office finally approved the dispatch of ground troops to the region.

It didn’t approve much.  The Royal Navy sent an extra marine force of some 300 men to Murmansk, including a naval artillery battery and a machine-gun section, while the British Army managed to scrape two detachments together under the codenames ‘Syren’ and ‘Elope’.  Syren amounted to 600 troops, most of them fresh out of basic training, just released from PoW camps or invalided out of France.  Commanded by Major-General Maynard, an officer previously retired as unfit for duty, they were supposed to protect Murmansk.  The 500 men of Elope were British trainees, backed by a few companies of ANZAC and Canadian volunteers.  Under the command of Brigadier-General Finlayson, they were detailed to cross the White Sea from Murmansk to Archangelsk, and its supply mountain, once the winter ice melted.

Assembled in strict secrecy, because the Allies were not at war with Bolshevik Russia, Syren and Elope sailed from Newcastle on 18 June.  After a difficult journey, during which the emerging flu epidemic struck down the transport ship’s Moslem crew (many of whom were malnourished because they were serving during Ramadan in a region without sunsets), the detachments reached Murmansk on 23 June.  Their arrival brought total Allied ground strength in the new theatre up to around 2,500 (largely second-line) troops, including a few French and Serbian soldiers sent as token assistance by their hard-pressed governments.

Overall command of North Russian operations was given to another British officer, Major-General Poole, who had retired in 1914 but was serving as a military attaché in Petrograd, and who had arrived in Murmansk on 24 May.  Poole was expected to protect a very large stretch of land and its port facilities, to recruit and train local anti-Bolshevik or anti-German elements for their own defence, to absorb any Czech forces that happened to show up, and to use these forces to reopen the Eastern Front.

With hindsight, this was a pretty ridiculous fantasy, particularly given that Poole received hardly any funding for the task and that the entire Czech Legion had by then decided to march east towards Vladivostok – but there is an argument for letting British strategists off the hook.  Deep ignorance of the actual situation in Russia, the sheer scale of the crisis involved and Germany’s obvious desire for an eastern empire all conspired to encourage extravagant speculation, and extravagant strategies naturally followed.  On the other hand, there was no good excuse for General Poole’s extreme optimism about military prospects or his unshakable, seemingly authoritative belief that the Bolshevik regime was a shambles on the point of collapse, both of which exerted a powerful influence on Allied strategic thinking.

A cheery chap, very optimistic and good at despising Bolshies – General Poole, and friends.

The Supreme War Council had already agreed to recruit additional troops for northern Russia from other Allied nations, though most were at least as hard-pressed for manpower as Britain, and Poole’s insistence that, with another five thousand or so troops, he could work all the miracles required of him prompted a steady growth of Allied strength in the theatre.  The campaign that followed eventually occupied some 13,000 British imperial troops, 2,000 French (most of them from French colonies), a mixed group of about 1,000 Serbs and Poles, a battalion of former Russian troops recruited from the autonomously inclined Karelian province and, eventually, about 8,000 US troops.

Long before most of them arrived, and once the winter ice melted, Poole was committed to the occupation of Archanglesk and its supplies.  The port’s Bolshevik government was far less sympathetic to British intervention than the Murmansk authority, and Poole spent July organising a coup by local ‘White’ forces, timed to coincide with the arrival of the Elope force and strong naval support. By way of illustrating the disconnects within what is often mistaken for coherent strategic planning at national level, the coup also happened to coincide with the arrival from Petrograd of a British trade mission that had been instructed to seek friendly relations with Lenin’s regime.  Whatever London’s intentions, the success of the coup on 2 August sparked a state of open warfare between the Bolshevik regime and Allied forces in northern Russia, a breakdown cemented by Poole’s subsequent establishment of regional martial law under a puppet, avowedly ‘socialist’ government.

So now the North Russian Intervention really was an invasion.  Like Britain’s accidental advances through Mesopotamia to Baghdad and beyond, it was a product of strategic sloppiness that blurred the line between attack and defence, allowing feral local commanders to dictate imperial policy.  Never remotely capable of achieving the revival of war on the Eastern Front envisaged by Poole and his political supporters in London (including, inevitably, Winston Churchill), it was destined to expand in black comic, bloodstained fashion during the autumn… when I’ll come back to Russia’s Arctic coasts and point the way to its long, slow deflation, a process that lasted well into 1920.

This has been long and late, because I’ve been under heavy distraction, but the landings of Syren and Scope at Murmansk seem to me worth remembering, and not just as an illustration of the military clumsiness still at large within a British war effort down to its last barrel-scrapings.  Feeble, half-hearted examples of gesture strategy at its most absent-minded, those two little detachments – barely fit for manoeuvres let alone combat – turned out to be the straws that broke the hope, once and for all, of friendly relations between Britain and the new USSR.