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« Tuna 4 / 2018

The Background of Great Britain’s Non-Official Policy of Intervention Regarding Russia and the Arrival of the British Fleet in Tallinn

This article provides an overview of one affair in 1918 arising from the intervention policy of the member states of the Entente regarding Russia. Although several academic research papers on general intervention policy have been published in English, they mostly focus on events from 1919, and matters associated with the Baltic states have attracted little attention.

As is known, Great Britain sent a squadron of its warships to the Baltic Sea in November of 1918. The actions of this squadron helped to fortify Estonian security. With the Estonian War of Independence that broke out at the same time, the country’s highest military leadership recognised that it was entirely powerless to obstruct operational actions of the Soviet Russian Baltic Fleet at sea. Basically, what was feared most was a landing of the Bolshevik fleet in Tallinn. If such an operation were to succeed, the entire War of Independence would most probably have subsided.

The author aspires with this particular article to supplement Estonian historical literature primarily in the context of the British squadron’s activity. At the same time, an overview is provided of Great Britain’s foreign policy ambitions and attitude towards what was happening in Russia in 1917–1918. The primary emphasis of this research paper falls on the following questions – under what considerations was the squadron of warships sent to the Baltic Sea, what instructions were issued to the commander of the squadron, and how did he follow his authorisation?

The actions of the British squadron are ascribed a rather clear-cut meaning in Estonian historical treatments – it arrived to help Estonians and Latvians, and to fight against the spread of Bolshevism. Although this kind of situation did indeed develop in 1919, the squadron’s first mission under the command of Rear Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair was conditioned by different motives. The admiral’s main task was to carry out an expedition to check the harbours of the Baltic states, in the course of which the squadron was supposed to make sure that the German military units were actually retreating. Helping the Estonians and Latvians was secondary, at least initially. Instead of a brief inspection expedition, the squadron remained stationed in Baltic Sea harbours for a longer period of time, being based in Estonia on 12–15 December 1918. Over this time period, the ships even intervened in combat action in Northern Estonia, by which the instructions of the British War Cabinet were essentially ignored. At the same time, armaments were transported to Estonian military units, thanks to which they could continue to put up resistance against the invading Red Army. The observations made by the squadron’s commander regarding assisting Estonia also attracted the attention of the British Admiralty. As a result of this, a fundamental decision was made that Tallinn had to be defended against threats emanating from the sea until the Gulf of Finland freezes over. To this end, a squadron of the fleet was once again sent to Estonia in the interval of 21–23 December. To recapitulate, the presence of the British lifted the morale of Estonian military units, reassured the townsfolk who lived in an environment that was already panic-stricken, and even more importantly, the Soviet Baltic Fleet was prevented from establishing maritime ascendancy in the Gulf of Finland. All of this won time for Estonia to better organise itself for combat action against the Red Army.