Navy’s Baltic tragedy remembered 100 years on

Sailors from Britain’s flagship paused to remember their forebears who helped the Baltic states’ struggle for independence 100 years ago.

HMS Albion stopped over the wrecks of two of three British warships lost in the 12-month campaign which eventually saw Latvia and Estonia shake off the yoke of Russian rule.

At the end of World War 1, the Royal Navy dispatched a sizeable force to the Baltic, taking the fight to Communist forces at sea and delivering vital support to the independence fighters. The year-long campaign – Operation Red Trek – cost the lives of 112 British Servicemen.

Twelve men died on HMS Cassandra when she struck a mine in December 1918 off the island of Saaremaa at the mouth of the Gulf of Riga.

The stokers of today are no different from those on HMS Myrtle and Gentian – technology has changed but the will to take the fight to the enemy has not.

Chief Petty Officer Neil Hellier, marine engineering department co-ordinator

Seven months later 13 sailors were lost when HMS Myrtle and HMS Gentian sank within minutes of each other while clearing mines in the same waters.

A century on and the Estonian island has been one of the locations for the final act of the UK-led Baltic Protector deployment, showing Britain’s present-day commitment to the security and independence of the region.

The wrecks of the three warships were found ten years ago by the Estonian Navy – fittingly courtesy of the former British minehunter HMS Bridport (today the Ugandi).

It was 60 metres above the Gentian and Myrtle that Albion was joined by Latvian, Estonian and Lithuanian warships for a centennial act of remembrance, before wreaths were cast into the Baltic.

“The sacrifice of our sailors and airmen who fought in the campaign in the Baltic against the Bolshevik forces a century ago never quite entered the consciousness of the British public, coming as it did so soon after the horrors of the Great War,” said Commodore James Parkin, leading the Royal Navy’s Baltic task group.

“But in this region, our role in enabling the establishment of the Baltic in this spot 100 years ago to the day, we pay a full tribute to all 112 who laid down their lives in defence of freedom.”

Most of those killed when the three ships went down were stokers; only one man from Gentian’s engine room survived, for example, as the waters of the Baltic engulfed the compartment.

As a result, their 21st-Century equivalents – Engineering Technicians – in Albion’s machinery compartments did their best to recreate the feel of 1919 for their own tribute to those lost.

“The stokers of today are no different from those on HMS Myrtle and Gentian – technology has changed but the will to take the fight to the enemy has not.

"We are a proud to be stokers and have utmost respect for those before us,” said Chief Petty Officer Neil Hellier, the marine engineering department co-ordinator.

As well as the tribute over the wrecks, there will be a memorial service in Portsmouth Cathedral – where there is a special section dedicated to the Baltic campaign – on Monday November 4 to mark 100 years since Operation Red Trek ended.

The cathedral is home to a memorial to the men of 1918-19, mirrored by similar monuments at the Church of the Holy Ghost in Tallinn and St. Saviour’s Church in Riga.