In London, an Estonian delegation consisting of Ants Piip, Mihkel Martna and Eduard Virgo present a written request asking the UK’s government to
- persuade Germany to withdraw its forces from the Baltics;
- send land and maritime forces to help at the earliest opportunity;
- send weapons for the Estonian troops;
- send food to Estonia.
The Estonian appeal for help is discussed in the office of Lord Robert Cecil, Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Those present in the meeting are Piip, Martna and Virgo, Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Sydney Fremantle and Colonel Kisch, representative of the Estonian General Staff. The Estonian delegation make their case and ask the British Government to make a prompt decision. By the end of that day, the British Government decides to supply armaments to aid the Baltic States’ struggle for independence.
Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, Commander of the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron, is appointed the Commander of the British Flotilla deploying to the Baltic Sea. He is given the task of putting together a flotilla of war ships to safely transport weapons to the Baltic States and to demonstrate UK’s political support to Estonia and Latvia. The squadron’s base of operations is to be located in the port of Copenhagen.
On 24 November 1918, Sinclair is given orders by the Government for Baltic operation “Red Trek”:
assemble a squadron of war ships;
when in the Baltic Sea, ‘show the British flag and support British policy as circumstances dictate’;
supply the Estonian Provisional Government with weapons at the discretion of the Squadron Commander.
On arrival in Copenhagen, the squadron is to await further orders and to avoid any contact with the Red Army and its navy.
The light cruisers accompanied by destroyers deploy from the port of Rosyth on 26 November while minesweepers and supply vessels set off from Granton and Methilhaven respectively. Near Ellekilde, in the north of Denmark, the collier Tregarth runs aground and does not reach her destination. The Admiralty sends a replacement vessel that sinks after striking a mine in the North Sea.
The “Sotsiaaldemokraat” [Social Democrat] newspaper writes on 1 December:
As it has been officially announced, today the English fleet is expected to arrive in Tallinn.
This means a new era for our long-suffering motherland, which may leave an imprint on the life of our people for decades to come. <…>
England, whose war ships are believed to be coming to Tallinn harbour today, has taken a friendly stance on Estonia’s sovereignty.
Read an excerpt from the original:
The entire newspaper is available here.
In Copenhagen, Sinclair meets with the British Consul Lord Kilmarnock and the Estonian Ambassador Karl Menning to receive an update on the situation. This is the Admiral’s first conversation with a representative of the Republic of Estonia, who describes the critical state his country is in. He urges the British squadron to set sail for Tallinn as soon as possible to support the Provisional Government and prevent Estonia being occupied by the Bolsheviks. The squadron arrives in Liepāja harbour on 1 December, but Sinclair does not risk leading it north of Liepāja due to the threat from mines.
The “Tallinna Teataja” [Tallinn Bulletin] wrote:
The vanguard of the British Fleet, 12 torpedo boats, have come into the Port of Libau today.
The entire newspaper is available here.
Despite explicit instructions not to engage in combat with the Red Fleet, Admiral Sinclair still decides to bring the squadron to Estonia. He writes in his report:
My remaining at Libau on account of rumours that movements of the Russian Bolshevik warships were taking place in the vicinity of Reval amounts to an acknowledgement that the Bolsheviks are the superior power, at any rate at the Eastern Baltic. This must necessarily have a very depressing effect on the Esthonians, and give corresponding confidence to the Bolsheviks. …my remaining at Libau will have a worse moral effect than risking a meeting with a superior Bolshevik force in the vicinity of Reval.
Read an excerpt from the report:
On the way to Tallinn, passing west of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa during the night, the second vessel of the squadron, the light cruiser Cassandra strikes a mine and sinks at 03:00 on 5 December. Eleven of the crew dies. Taking into account the mine threat and the condition of the crew, Sinclair decides against going on to Tallinn. On 7 December the squadron returns to Copenhagen.
Jaan Poska, the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Provisional Government, informs London that the Red Army and the Baltic Fleet have launched a joint offensive in the direction of Estonia. Poska believes that Bolsheviks are trying to take the capital as quickly as they can, fearing the impending arrival of the British squadron in Tallinn harbour. Although the squadron has been reduced, Admiral Sinclair decides to set off for the Baltic Sea once again.
The squadron, including the cargo ships, sail for Liepāja from Copenhagen.
Colonel Johan Laidoner is authorised by the Estonian War Office to go to Liepāja and guide the British squadron through minefields, for which he is accompanied by seven pilots. He sets off from Osmussaar on 9 December on towboat Reval, but arrives in Liepāja only on 11 December, delayed by a major storm.
The naval force arrives in Liepāja harbour for the second time on 9 December.
Upon arrival, Admiral Sinclair receives Colonel Laidoner on board of the light cruiser Cardiff. Laidoner explains Estonia’s military situation to Admiral Sinclair. Laidoner evidently makes an impact as on the same day Sinclair decides to prepare the war ships for sea. The British squadron leave Latvia in full strength at 22:45 on 11 December.
Estonian pilots help the British ships complete the dangerous journey without any losses. The naval force arrives in Tallinn on 12 December, and representatives of the Estonian Provisional Government and the Estonian Chief of Staff, Major General Larka, immediately come aboard the flagship Cardiff. After this meeting with the representatives of the Estonian government, Sinclair gives orders to unload the following weapons and cargo in the Port of Tallinn the next day:
- 100 Lewis machine guns with 3,332,160 rounds,
- 50 Madsen machine guns,
- 5,000 rifles with 3,450,000 rounds,
- 28 depth charges with 50 detonators,
- 1000 shells for 40 mm artillery guns.
The Provisional Government hosts a festive lunch for the British officers the following day and invites them to see a musical in the Estonia Theatre.
On 12 December, the provisional Government draws up a detailed list of the weapons necessary for the army, which is handed over to Sinclair. Konstantin Päts also asks that the British warships remain in Estonia for as long as possible, believing that the British presence will deter the communists from attempting to seize power in Tallinn. However, Sinclair has not been authorised to stay longer.
The telegram sent by the Estonian Chief of Staff Ernst Põdder to the members of the Provisional Government:
The Allies’ fleet has arrived to Tallinn today. Our forces are stationed on the line between Pikaristi and Kabala station.
Taking Estonia’s critical situation at the front line into account, Admiral Sinclair decides to use his guns against the right wing of the Red Army’s forces. Five destroyers are sent to perform this task on the morning of 13 December, but they have to turn back to Tallinn due to fog.
The “Waba Maa” [Free Land] wrote:
An important meeting was held yesterday in the office of the Ministry of the Interior, attended by Admiral Sinclair, an English diplomatic representative with full power and authority, and the full Estonian Provisional Government. The meeting lasted for over two hours.
The entire newspaper is available here.
On 14 December, a second attempt is made by two light cruisers and five destroyers. This time Johan Pitka, a master mariner, is on board the squadron’s flagship; his knowledge of local conditions and where the enemy could be positioned on the front line is invaluable. Sinclair is delighted by Pitka, saying he is an optimist and the most practical man he has ever met.
Following Pitka’s advice, the ships open fire with their guns, aiming at Red Army’s likely positions in Aseri and Purtse. Purtse bridge is destroyed, and the Red Army’s supply routes and rear lines of communication are cut. On the way back to Tallinn, Pitka, too, mentions the need for leaving some British ships in the capital for defence.
The squadron leaves Tallinn on 15 December bound for Liepāja.
“Postimees” [Postman] newspaper dedicates a major part of its frontpage to the British:
Whatever the British Fleet will do, wherever it is going next and how many ships will join it […] one thing can be said for certain: the Allies will not leave us high and dry.
The entire page is available here as PDF.
Taking Estonia’s situation at the front lines into account, Sinclair decides to take action for the defence of Tallinn as well as Riga and Liepāja, setting out his plans regarding Tallinn in his report on 23 December:
At Reval, one Light Cruiser and two Destroyers will visit the port at intervals, and instruct recruits, as far as possible, during their visits.
Calypso is the first to arrive in Tallinn on 21 December.
Excerpt from the report:
The leadership of the Soviet Russian Baltic Fleet decides to organise a scouting mission in Tallinn harbour to find out which enemy forces are present.
The Soviet Russian destroyer Spartak goes on a scouting mission near Aegna and Naissaar, where it is captured by five British war ships. Attempting to escape, Spartak damages its propeller, running aground in shallow waters at Kuradimuna, and is towed to Tallinn.
The Baltic Fleet sends the destroyer Avtroil to look for the missing Spartak. Estonian signal stations notice the approaching vessel and send information to Tallinn, from where the destroyers Vendetta and Vortigern are dispatched. Seeing these, Avtroil flees east but is intercepted by Calypso, Caradoc and Wakeful, returning from a scouting raid. After a 35-minute chase, the crew of Avtroil surrenders near Mohni Island.
For the last time, Rear Admiral Sinclair goes to Tallinn aboard the light cruiser Cardiff, which is escorted by the destroyer Viscount. One of the reasons for coming to Tallinn is the inspection of the captured destroyers. Initially Sinclair intends to take the technically sound destroyer Avtroil with his squadron, but both vessels remain in Tallinn.
Tallinn receives information that an unidentified submarine has been spotted near Keri lighthouse. The destroyers Vendetta, Viscount and Vortigern are immediately dispatched to investigate. The ships perform a large-scale search operation near Keri lighthouse, launching depth charges for the first time during the Estonian War of Independence. They did not succeed in hitting the submarine.
Sinclair writes in his report to Copenhagen:
The presence of British ships at Reval has undoubtedly had a good effect, and the recent capture of the two Bolshevik destroyers has given a sense of confidence to the populace.
The present Commander-in-Chief – Colonel Laidoner – is very young, but is undoubtedly able and clever, and is a pleasant official to deal with. <…> “General” Pitka, a civilian, is a enterprising, energetic and a single/minded individual, who does a lot of hard work both on shore and on sea.
Read an excerpt from the report:
Navy Captains Thesiger and Pitka meet on board the destroyer Avtroil. Avtroil and Spartak are handed over to the Estonian Navy for use until the period of combat actions ends. The ships are later renamed Lennuk and Wambola respectively.
The British warships located in Tallinn are divided into two groups. Group A comprises the light cruisers Calypso and Caradoc and the destroyer Vortigern, which backed up the Estonian amphibious assault in Tsitre. Group B comprises the destroyers Viscount and Wessex. These are to patrol the area between Aegna and Suursaar (Hogland), trying to spot the cruiser Oleg, which has reportedly often anchored near Suursaar. On this day, no vessels of the Soviet Russian Baltic Fleet are seen there. Later that day, the squadron leaves Estonia.
Admiral Sinclair hands over to Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan as Senior Naval Officer Baltic at Copenhagen. In addition to his flagship, the cruiser Caledon, Cowan also has a light cruiser Royalist and 5 destroyers under his command.
They continue to support the Estonians until the end of December 1919. In that year many important events take place including the sinking of the cruiser Oleg and the famous “Kronstadt Raid”, which proved a pivotal moment in the war. You can learn more about these events from the book Cowan’s War: the story of British naval operations in the Baltic 1918-1920 by Geoffrey Bennett.