Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Battle for the Baltic Islands 1917 - Gary Staff

This review was written by Chris Buckham but published by Sabretache magazine. The website for the magazine is: the editor is Mr Paul Skrebels
Title: Battle for the Baltic Islands 1917
Author: Gary Staff
ISBN: 978-1-84415-7877
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Pages: 178
Photographs/Maps: 47 b/w//15

Conventional knowledge regarding naval operations in the First World War tends to be limited to the Battle of Jutland and perhaps the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Additionally, they are traditionally focussed almost exclusively upon engagements between the British and the German capital fleets; Russian, French, Austro-Hungarian and Italian fleet operations have generally been forgotten. Furthermore, the casual history buff will know only that the German High Seas fleet did not have another major engagement with the British following Jutland, rebelled at the end of the war and was scuttled after being interred at Scapa Flow. This is one of the main attractions of Staff’s book, the fact that it sheds light on a heretofore little known, yet critical, joint German engagement that had a fundamental impact upon the course of the war.

The German Fleet was, in fact, quite busy with operations in the Baltic against the naval forces of the Czar. This book centres upon the largest of these engagements, the Baltic Islands. Why this battle was undertaken involved both operational and strategic considerations on the part of the German Empire. Germany desperately needed to free up forces from the eastern front and the Russians continued to fight despite the Russian revolution which toppled the Czar and destabilized the country; Germany needed to deliver a blow that would quickly bring ‘whomever’ on the Russian side to surrender talks. The Baltic Islands were key to this as they controlled access to the Gulf of Finland which, in turn, controlled the approaches to St Petersburg, the Russian capital.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this battle was the jointness of the operation (led by the German navy under the command of Vizeadmiral Ehrhard Schmidt) on the German side. Planning involved the landing of naval as well as regular army forces (at Regimental and Divisional strength), supported by aircraft and zeppelin assets. The complexity of the planning, the cooperation between the elements and the critical success of the operation itself is testament to the capabilities of the German leadership. Another facet was the impact of the revolution on the effectiveness of the Russian forces. Soldier’s/sailor’s councils acted to consistently challenge and undermine the command and control of the Russian Commanders (as they had to convince as much as order in many cases). Regardless, they were still very well led by the overall Russian fleet commander, Vice-Admiral MK Bakhirev; there was a great deal of fight left in the Russians as they too realized the importance of these islands.
Staff’s writing style is very engaging and his analysis thorough and comprehensive. He presents a very balanced view of both of the protagonists in terms of tactics, personalities and strategic interests. Additionally, he draws attention to a number of interesting facets of the engagement that serve as a foreshadow of things to come: the fact that despite the confusion of the Russian Revolution, the Czar’s Intelligence service continued to function almost unaffected and the German Air Force undertook a series of successful air raids on not only land positions but also naval targets. The end of the book contains a series of appendices that explain the technical capabilities of the naval forces engaged, their command structures and a timeline of the battle; excellent for quick reference. Finally, much of the narrative is drawn from first hand recollections and sources of individuals present at the situations described. The author has made very good use of these, weaving the accounts seamlessly into the broader storyline.
Overall, I strongly recommend this book for its high production value, fascinating history and the strength of the writing and research of the author. The role that the German Fleet played in the war has been diminished and greatly overshadowed by events elsewhere and its utility as an effective arm of German foreign policy largely lost; Staff’s book sheds light on a successful fleet  engagement that had a fundamental impact upon the course of the war and resonated far beyond the islands that it was fought over.

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