From a Western European perspective, orthodox history and current affairs make it very clear that the Mediterranean Sea has always been a hub for international competition. Some people west of the Rhine are also aware that the Black Sea is, similarly, an arena in which those countries it touches compete for control and resources. Enclosed seas have that effect, for reasons that are pretty obvious, and the Caspian Sea is no exception – but its geopolitics are a mystery to most modern Westerners, much as they were in 1918.
Given our general ignorance, it would seem hardly surprising that the formative battles being fought in and around the Caspian Sea in the months after the Armistice were largely ignored by the victorious Allies at the time, or that we ignore them now. Ah, but today is the centenary of a minor battle that left the Royal Navy as undisputed master of the Caspian Sea during the winter of 1918–19, and was the first action of a strange, largely forgotten naval campaign in the region. I’d best explain, in case no one else does.
The geopolitical melting pot of the Caspian Sea began to boil into chaos after the 1917 revolutions in Russia removed the region from imperial control. North of Persia, the territories around the west, north and east of the sea could be broadly divided along ethnic lines into Russians, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, with the latter category including several related peoples to the north and east. Along political lines they split between restoration Tsarists, various liberal, left-leaning or socialist groups united only by their opposition to Tsarist rule, and Bolsheviks loyal to the Moscow government.
By mid-1918, the fluctuating, violent miasma of alliances and rebellions between relatively small armed forces representing all these factions and sub-factions had coalesced, superficially and north of Persia, into three independent republics – Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia – each with a fragile anti-Bolshevik regime in place. If that sounds reasonably clear, it wasn’t.
Azerbaijan as a whole was strongly anti-Bolshevik but its capital, Baku, was under the control of Armenian and Russian Bolsheviks. Further east, in what is now Turkmanistan, resident Turkomans and Russians were largely anti-Bolshevik but the only useful port, Krasnovodsk (now Türkmenbaşy in Turkmanistan), was in Bolshevik hands until July 1918, when a non-Bolshevik socialist rebellion took control. To the north, Bolshevik control of the of the coast was interrupted by a royalist Cossack enclave in the northeast, and to the south the Persian provinces close to the sea were feral badlands beyond central government control, with tribal warlords, ex-Imperial Russian troops and a small British contingent in tenuous charge of various enclaves. Bolsheviks meanwhile controlled most remaining naval vessels of the Imperial Caspian Sea flotilla from a base at Astrakhan, about 100km from the sea.
The ill-fated advance into the region by ‘Dunsterforce’, a detachment from the British armies in Mesopotamia, was responsible for bringing the Royal Navy into the Caspian Sea (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!). A small naval element arrived with Dunster’s infantry brigade to set up a base at Enzali and, in theory, work with the ‘Centro-Caspian’ flotilla, a few ex-Imperial gunboats supposedly under the command of the Baku government. The Baku regime had invited the British to intervene, but the soviet actually in charge of the flotilla refused to cooperate, so all the British were able to achieve was the hire of a few local merchant ships, which were fitted with 4-inch guns transported overland from the Mesopotamian Front, some 700 kilometres away.
When General Dunster’s expedition was forced to flee Baku in September 1918, the Royal Navy’s commandeered ships and their Russian or Azerbaijani crews remained at Enzali, charged with preventing Ottoman forces in the Caucasus from establishing a presence on the eastern coast. By the end of October British flotilla commander Commodore Norris had converted five merchant ships and was awaiting overland transport of ammunition for their guns from Mesopotamia.
Unsatisfied with poor repair facilities at Enzali, Norris crossed to Krasnovodsk in the first ship armed, the small freighter (and subsequent flotilla flagship) SS Kruger, and moved his base there after accepting assurances of support from the social revolutionary local government then in place. The Armistice changed his mind. Allied warships could now supply the Flotilla through the Black Sea, and on 17 November it steamed into Baku, where it was once again expected to cooperate with the Centro-Caspian flotilla and local ‘White’ ground forces.
Royal Navy forces in the Caspian Sea could have simply gone home after the Armistice – and only a few British personnel were anyway involved, for command, gunnery and radio duties – but imperial thinking kept them in place. Given help and a modicum of collective organisation, anti-Bolshevik forces seemed to have a good chance of winning control over the region – as they did elsewhere in the former Russian Empire at that stage – and getting rid of Lenin’s regime was a high priority for all the world’s surviving major empires. At the same time the British Empire was still very interested in securing oil supplies through Baku, and still determined to guard against any hostile exploitation of the Caspian ‘back door’ into India.
The principal duty of the combined RN and Centro-Caspian flotillas was to protect Baku from any attack by Bolsheviks to the north, with particular responsibility for the Bolshevik flotilla at Astrakhan, but it was also required to supply Cossack outposts to the northeast through the port of Guriev (now Atyrau in Kazakhstan). In early December, while one RN ship performed the latter task another four went on patrol to the north, where the waters south of the Volga Delta were dangerously shallow, largely uncharted and frozen in winter. The Centro-Caspian flotilla’s vessels again turned out to be allies in name only, and refused to take part.
The region’s rich intermingling of ethnic and political factions made any kind of secret difficult to keep, and the British were aware of Bolshevik plans to establish a warm-water naval base at the small port of Staro-Terechnaya, on the mainland near Chechen Island, at the southernmost limit of the winter freeze. Two converted British ships, the Zoro-Aster and Alla Verdi, were waiting off Chechen Island when three Bolshevik armed merchantmen and three transports approached Staro-Terechnaya on 8 December. The Bolshevik ships opened fire, and the British responded. During the skirmish that followed the Zoro-Aster suffered minor damage and one Bolshevik ship caught fire before the rest withdrew, leaving the British short of ammunition but in undisputed control of ice-free Caspian waters for the winter.
The Bolsheviks made no further attempt to move south before northern waters froze in mid-January, when the RN Flotilla returned to Baku for repairs, leaving one ship to make occasional patrols just south of the ice. While some very war-weary conscripts were finally sent home, additional British crews were transferred to the theatre from the Mediterranean and Home Fleets, and the facilities at Baku were upgraded.
Evidence that the Centro-Caspian flotilla and elements of the White ‘Volunteer Army’ in the city were (like much of the working population) in contact with Bolsheviks brought the pretence of cooperation to an end in March, when an Indian infantry division transferred from Mesopotamia expelled the Volunteer Army from Baku and Norris seized the Centro-Caspian flotilla. From that point the RN flotilla underwent a significant growth spurt.
Further British crews were transferred to the region, requisitioned ships were renamed ‘HMS’, the Zoro-Aster was designated a reserve vessel and the slow, unreliable Alla Verdi was paid off. By late June the flotilla mustered eight frontline armed freighters, 12 coastal motor boats, a motor boat carrier, two seaplane carriers and four supporting transport ships, employing a total of about 1,100 RN officers and men along with more than 300 locally recruited personnel. The RAF had also established a base on Chechen Island by late April, when the annual thaw enabled patrols to resume in the north.
The Royal Navy would remain an important military presence in the Caspian Sea for much of that summer, and would fight what very nearly amounted to a battle against a much bigger Bolshevik force before its eventual withdrawal in early September. I’ll give that moment of questionable glory its due when the centenary comes around, but for now this has been a nod to one of Britain’s least remembered military adventures and a reminder that, after all the lessons of the ‘war to end wars’, the British Empire was still acting as if Britannia ruled the waves.