Archives For Baltic States

operation albion

Sunset over Saaremaa Island, Estonia
CC Image Courtesy of Luke Saagi

In late 1917, the German High Command was desperate to knock Russia out of World War I and devote more resources to the Western Front. Despite upheaval at all levels of society and especially within the military, Russia had remained a belligerent after the Russian Revolution in February 1917. The Russian military had essentially ceased to be an effective fighting force and yet the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky insisted on continuing the fight against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Thus the Germans devised a plan to invade a trio of islands in what is now Estonia. The operation would achieve two significant objectives and potentially force Russia to withdraw from the war. First, the Russian Baltic Fleet would be all but neutered by German control of the islands and, more importantly, the Russian capital of St. Petersburg would be threatened with invasion.

Dubbed Operation Albion, the plan called for a combined arms operation in which infantry and cyclist troops would land on October 12, 1917 on Saaremaa Island and isolate the garrison. Meanwhile, a naval task force would provide fire support and deal with any attempted intervention by the Russian Navy. Both land and sea forces would be supported by seaplanes which flew reconnaissance and bombing missions.

The Russians had formidable coastal batteries and garrisons on Saaremaa and nearby Muhn Island, however, a combination of poor morale and bold action by the German forces negated any Russian advantages. Russian morale was so low that some coastal batteries refused to engage the German ships in the hope that non-resistance would spare their batteries hostile fire. Russian forces were also hampered by poor communication and a lack of initiative by some commanders.

The German landings were achieved without serious opposition and cyclist troops quickly pushed to divide the Russian forces by occupying a dam which connected Saaremaa and Muhn. The cyclists reached their objectives and wreaked havoc on the Russian forces as they attempted to withdraw across the dam. Russian naval forces and 3 Royal Navy submarines attempted to intervene, however, their efforts were unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of the pre-dreadnought Slava, the destroyer Grom and a few smaller vessels. Apart from damage from mines, the Germans lost no capital ships during the operation.

battleship sinking

Pre-Dreadnought Slava Sinking
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After little more than a week, the Germans had secured the three islands – Saaremaa, Muhu and Hiiumaa and captured 20,000 Russian troops. Most significantly, though, the Germans had successfully launched a combined air-land-sea operation and were now poised to invade St. Petersburg. Less than 6 weeks after the action, the Russians sued for peace and German troops were freed from the Eastern Front to launch a last ditch effort to win on the Western Front.

The operation also had a minor World War II connection. Lieutenant Ernst Lindemann, later the captain of the ill-fated Nazi battleship Bismarck, served in the operation as a wireless officer aboard the battleship SMS Bayern. In 1944, the Soviets would launch their own Operation Albion, this time to wrest control of the islands from Nazi forces garrisoned there.

Viking Sally

Photo: Wikicommons

Eighteen years ago today, the Baltic ferry M/V Estonia sank in heavy seas while en route from Talinn, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden. Designed for use as a ferry, the Estonia was launched in 1980 as the Viking Sally. Following Estonian independence, the ship was purchased by Estlines in 1993 and was the largest ship flying the Estonian flag at the time of its sinking.

The loss of the Estonia is one of the world’s 10 worst maritime disasters and 1 of 2 to have occurred in the Baltic Sea. The official explanation for the wreck is that the bow door locks failed due to the heavy seas the Estonia encountered and the failure resulted in the ship taking on large amounts of water in its vehicle deck. Eventually the incoming water in the vehicle deck caused the vessel to capsize and then sink. Termed the free surface effect, this phenomenon of a ferry sinking from water flooding its vehicle deck is widely associated with roll-on, roll-off ferries such as the Estonia and could have been a contributor to the sinking of the M/V Le Joola.

Alternative conspiracy theories have circulated claiming the Estonia sank due to the explosion of a secret military cargo being transported by Britain’s MI-6 and the American CIA. Fueling the conspiracy claims is the prohibition of diving on the wreck site which has prevented independent analysis of the wreckage. Conspiracists claim the prohibition is to prevent the true reason for the sinking from coming to light while the Estonian government states it is to preserve the site as a monument to the 852 souls who perished in the sinking. The conspiracy has even made it to the big screen in the form of the movie Baltic Storm

Winter War

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In November of 1939, Soviet forces invaded Finland with the intention of bringing additional territory into the communist fold. Even though the Soviet forces vastly outnumbered the Finns, Finnish troops put up a heroic resistance and the conflict was resolved 4 months later with the loss of ~11% of Finland’s pre-war territory. Thus when Nazi Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 the Finns were quick to lend their support to the Nazis in an effort to regain their lost territory.

Flowing from this cooperation was the use of Finnish naval forces to screen against Soviet naval forces while German ground forces advanced through the Baltic states. In one such operation, Operation Nordwind, one of Finland’s two capital ships, the Ilmarinen, struck a mine and sank with 271 casualties. The loss of the Ilmarinen on September 13, 1941 was devastating to the tiny Finnish Navy. For a force consisting of only 3,800 officers and sailors, the loss represented  7% of Finnish naval forces. By comparison, less than .8% of the US Navy perished in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Ilmarinen had been built in the 1930s as a coastal defence ship for the purpose of defending the numerous islands and islets of Finland’s Baltic coastline. Video of the ship in 1938 can be seen here (the Ilmarinen is the first ship shown in the video). The ship saw service in the Winter War defending the Finnish coast against the Soviet invaders and later shelled Soviet forces after the beginning of the German invasion.

Even though the Finns initially sided with the Nazis, they fought not for ideology, but for self-preservation. In September 1944, the Finns established a separate peace with the Soviets and engaged the Nazis in open combat in the Lapland region until the Nazis withdrew to Norway in April 1945.