All rights belong to the author: John T Smith.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.

John T. Smith GONE TO RUSSIA TO FIGHT THE RAF IN SOUTH RUSSIA 1918–1920

By the same author:

Rolling Thunder
The Linebacker Raids
Detail of picture here.

MAPS

Map One: The area of operations for Dunsterforce
Map Two: The area around Tsaritsin
Map Three: The area of operations for 47 Squadron
Map Four: Fort Alexandrovsk harbour

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Most of the information about the RAF in south Russia is contained in the National Archives at Kew. The staff at Kew are never less than helpful and courteous. The people at the RAF Museum, Hendon, London are real enthusiasts and I thank them for the help they gave me. Other sources consulted were:


The Tank Museum at Bovington, Dorset

The Army Museum at Chelsea, London

The British Library, London

The Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London

The Canadian National Archives

The Canadian Armed Forces Museum

The US National Archives


The photographs are from the Canadian Archives and the Canadian Armed Forces Museum. I would like to thank David Rogers, who read the manuscript. Any mistakes are all mine.

The quality of some of the photographs is poor but they have been included because they were the best available.

A painting by Mick Davison depicting the incident on 30 July 1919 over the Volga River port of Tcherni-Yar, for which Captain W. F. Anderson and Lieutenant Mitchell were both awarded the DSO. Captain Anderson was the pilot of a DH9 that was hit by ground fire in the fuel tank, and Lieutenant Mitchell was forced to climb out onto the wing to block the leaking fuel with his thumb. Another DH9 in Anderson’s flight was also hit by machine gun fire and forced to land behind enemy lines. Anderson landed close by and picked up Captain Elliot and Lieutenant Laidlaw. With Mitchell still on the wing, Anderson managed to take off, just before an enemy cavalry patrol arrived, and fly them back to base.

INTRODUCTION

Very little has been written about the RAF in south Russia and much of what has been written has been inaccurate. Several myths have been accepted as truths and written into the histories. This book is an attempt to set the record straight by going back, where possible, to the primary sources.

The first wave of RAF personnel sent to south Russia was not given any choice in the matter. Most of the men had volunteered or been conscripted to fight in the First World War against Germany, Austria, and Turkey. They found themselves, after the end of the ‘real’ war, fighting in the middle of Russia in a civil war they knew little of and cared even less about. But they overcame enormous difficulties and made a substantial contribution to General Denikin’s temporary successes.

The second wave of RAF people sent to south Russia comprised volunteers. These included many experienced flyers from the Western Front in France and from the Middle East. Many of them had found great difficulty in settling down to peace and relished the chance of further combat in Russia. Together with those people from the first wave who decided to stay, these later volunteers formed an elite group who played a leading part in the civil war, out of all proportion to their limited numbers. The exploits, in difficult circumstances, of the RAF in south Russia deserve to be better remembered.

The RAF men seem to have liked and respected the Russians individually, but did not understand the Russian way of doing things. The massive corruption in Denikin’s Army, whereby large amounts of money and equipment simply vanished, forced the British to lose faith in the eventual victory of the White Armies.

With the success of the Red Army and the creation of the Soviet Union, there seems to have been a conscious effort by the British authorities to play down or forget the part that Britain played in the efforts to crush the nascent communist state. But the RAF achieved amazing things and deserve to have the truth told about their deeds in south Russia.

In late 1919, the RAF changed from Army ranks to RAF ranks. Army ranks have been used throughout this book to avoid confusion.

CHAPTER ONE THE RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR

The Russian Civil War was one of the major wars of the twentieth century. It lasted between 1917 and 1926, but the main fighting took place between 1918 and 1920. Thirteen million Russians died during the course of the war. Most of these died of starvation, privation, and pestilence rather than as a result of direct military action. As in all civil wars, there were acts of extreme atrocity on both sides. In fact, it is hard to speak of two sides, as what are called the White Armies were never united in any common cause and covered all factions of political thought and ethnic backgrounds. Some sections of the anti-Bolshevik forces spent more time fighting each other than the Red Army. Also involved were the troops of up to fourteen foreign countries, including Britain, France, Japan, America, Greece, and Rumania. At the time of the Civil War, Russia was the largest country in the world and the fighting extended from the Arctic in the north to the deserts in the south and from Poland in the west to Vladivostok in the east.

The massive destruction caused by the First World War had triggered unrest among the revolutionary forces that had existed in Russian society for many years. In February 1917, the first Revolution deposed the Tsar and created the Kerensky government. But the decision to stay in the war allowed the more extreme revolutionary forces to continue to press for a more radical government. What was left of the Imperial Army began to fade away from the front line as a consequence of both these revolutionary pressures and military exhaustion. The October Revolution (November in the new calendar) created what became the Soviet government. This new government found itself beset by opponents on all sides.

As the Bolsheviks had played a large part in destroying the Imperial Army, they found themselves with few forces to fight the gathering enemies they faced. Trotsky is usually credited with creating the Red Army, and there is no doubt that he played a considerable role. Rather than use what remained of the Tsar’s Army, the first reaction was to build a new Army based on the Red Guards. These were originally armed factory workers, who elected their commanders and discussed every action before carrying it out. As the new state came under threat, large numbers volunteered to join the new Army and, later still, millions were conscripted. When revolutionary fervour was found to be no substitute for military experience, Trotsky was forced to employ thousands of ex-Tsarist officers as ‘military specialists’. But he placed a party commissar alongside each officer. As the fighting continued, the Red Army slowly became a conventional Army, with no pretence of electing officers or discussions of any decisions. Party orders were enforced with an iron hand, and thousands of Red Army soldiers were killed to enforce discipline.

Many of the minorities in the former Russian Empire took the Bolshevik rhetoric at face value and tried to create their own independent states. These included the Cossack homelands, Poland, Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Transcaucasia, and areas of Siberia. The Red Army fought against all of these breakaway states, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

In the north, around Murmansk and Archangel, there were enormous stocks of arms and munitions that had been sent to Russia by the Allies. British, French, and American troops were sent to this region originally to keep these supplies out of the hands of the Germans, and then to deny them to the Bolshevik government. The Allies advanced south towards St Petersburg, but were blocked by Soviet forces and by the desolate terrain. After two miserable years in the frozen north, the last Allied troops left in 1919.

The White forces in north-western Russia were concentrated along the eastern shore of the Baltic. Commanding this force was General Yudenitch. At various times, this group was supported by the Germans and, later, by the Allies. A British squadron in the Baltic, under the command of Admiral Walter Cowan, gave every assistance to the White forces, and British supplies were sent through the port at Riga. Several attempts were made to capture St Petersburg but, although they came close, this was never achieved. By November 1919, the Bolsheviks had destroyed this Army and the remnants were forced back into Estonia, where they were disbanded in January 1920.

One of the most amazing stories of the Russian Civil War was that of the Czech Legion. The Legion had been a corps in the Imperial Russian Army, formed from Austro-Hungarian prisoners who were willing to fight for a Czech homeland to be created after the war. When the Imperial Army collapsed and the Soviet government reached an agreement with the Germans, the Legion was practically the only part of the Russian Army to remain an organised, disciplined force. With the end of the First World War in the east, the Legion demanded to be transported to Vladivostok and then to France so that it could continue to fight. By May 1918, the Legion had grown, with the release of more prisoners by the Russians, to around 50,000 strong. As the Legion began to move east towards Vladivostok, an incident occurred with a trainload of released Austrian POWs, and the Legion began to fight the Red Army. After several days, it controlled nearly 5,000 miles of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The Czechs, who had reached Vladivostok, now began to move back westward towards Moscow.

To support the Czech Legion and to protect the large amount of supplies the Allies had delivered to the Russians in Vladivostok before the Russians had surrendered, the Allies (including the French, British, Americans, and Japanese) landed troops in Vladivostok. The Czechs had joined forces with the anti-Bolshevik Army operating around the Omsk and Samara areas to push back the Red forces. A White Russian government was formed around these forces, controlled by Admiral Kolchak. This became the Supreme Government, and all the other major anti-Bolshevik forces gave nominal allegiance to Kolchak. But, in practical terms, this allegiance did not have any real meaning. In late 1918 and early 1919, Admiral Kolchak’s forces began to advance towards Moscow, but the Red Army rallied and by the middle of 1919 forced them back east of the Urals. Czech soldiers handed Admiral Kolchak over to the Reds in January 1920. What was left of the Czech Legion finally left Vladivostok in 1920, bound for the new homeland of Czechoslovakia, which had been created by the Versailles Peace Conference. As the Red Army advanced through Siberia, the Allied forces began to leave, the last being the Japanese in 1922.

Supported by the Germans, both Finland and Poland successfully broke away from Russian control. Both these countries fought long-drawn-out campaigns to maintain their independence. Poland developed ideas of recreating the Polish Empire that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and at one point in 1920 it seemed that this was a possibility, but once again the Red Army fought back and an armistice was signed. The Germans had occupied the Ukraine in 1917-18, and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty recognised the new state. But when the Germans left, the Ukraine descended into chaos. From this chaos a nationalist government took control, commanded by Simon Petlyura. A strong Bolshevik movement controlled some areas of the country, and disparate nationalist factions also fought each other. The White Russian forces of General Denikin captured a large section of the country in late 1919. The Red Army finally took control of the Ukraine in 1920.

Various Cossack hosts fought against the Red Army. These included the Don Cossacks, the Kuban Cossacks, the Terek Cossacks, the Astrakhan Cossacks, the Ural Cossacks, and the Siberian Cossacks. They all hoped to create their own homelands from the remains of the Russian Empire. It was correctly thought that the Soviet government would end the special rules relating to the Cossack areas that had in the past allowed them a limited amount of self-government. A more detailed description of the Civil War in south Russia will be given in Chapter Three.

Starting from practically nothing, the Red Army managed to defeat all these different enemies. There was little or no co-ordination between the White forces, and the Red Army was able to defeat them in detail. The central area of Russia around Moscow and St Petersburg remained in the hands of the Bolsheviks throughout the war. This was the area containing most of the industry and most of the Imperial Army’s arms dumps, plus a large part of the population. Few of the original Bolshevik leaders had any military experience, or experience of organising anything larger than a party meeting, but they managed to create an Army from scratch and to keep the county running in the face of enormous difficulties.

During the course of the Civil War, the political base, culture, and civilisation of large parts of Russia collapsed. Into this country, in a state of total change, were sent small numbers of RAF forces in a vain attempt to determine the outcome of the conflict.

CHAPTER TWO DUNSTERFORCE

The Bolshevik revolution in late 1917 had effectively taken Russia out of the First World War. In the chaos that followed, many of the smaller provinces that made up the Russian Empire declared themselves independent. This occurred in the south Caucasus, where Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan allied themselves as the TransCaucasian Commissariat, even though there was no love lost between these three breakaway states. In March 1918, the Russians signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany and Turkey. As part of this treaty, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were given to the Turks.

Not surprisingly, the TransCaucasian government refused to accept this settlement and a Turkish Army began to advance towards the oil-fields at Baku. After less than a month, the TransCaucasian Commissariat broke up. The Georgians placed themselves under German protection in order to keep out the Turks. Most of Armenia was occupied by the advancing Turkish Army, as was most of Azerbaijan. The oil town of Baku, in Azerbaijan, with a large industrial work-force, had created a Bolshevik Soviet to run the area around the town.

Many of the Moslem Azerbaijanis supported the Turks. In late March, the Soviet forces and the Armenians carried out a massacre of as many as 12,000 Azerbaijanis in Baku. The Turkish advance was extremely slow, as most of their effort was still directed against the British forces in Palestine and Mesopotamia. But, finally, the Turkish forces reached the peninsula on which Baku is situated. On 30 July, the Soviet was dissolved and replaced by the Armenian-controlled Centro-Caspian Dictatorship. One of the first acts of the new government in Baku was to invite the British to help in the defence of the town.

A small party of British forces had been waiting in north Persia to be invited into Baku. This was under the command of Major General Lionel Dunsterville. Composed mainly of Army officers, this small force had set out from Baghdad with forty-one Ford model T cars and vans to drive the 700 miles north-east to the Caspian Sea. After many adventures, this group was waiting in the port of Enzeli on the south Caspian shore. Commodore David Norris and twenty-two ratings were the Naval element of this force.

The area of operations for Dunsterforce.
Left: Commodore David Norris. Right: General Lionel Dunsterville.
The British aims were to keep the oil from Baku out of the hands of the Germans and the Turks. Also, the main rail line from Moscow to the area north of British India ran down through the Caucasus (the route continued across the Caspian by ship, and then from Krasnovodsk on the eastern shore to Afghanistan): it was the aim of the British to prevent the spread of Bolshevism to India by controlling the Caspian link. Commodore Norris had left Baghdad on 27 July 1918 with one four-inch gun and two twelve-pounders. Very little was known of the conditions on the Caspian and no charts were available, as no Royal Navy ships had ever sailed on it. It was not even known if suitable merchant ships would be available to mount the guns on.

The route from Baghdad to Enzeli ran for 700 miles of mule and camel tracks. Most of the way was through high mountainous regions. The Ford vans could only carry just enough fuel to reach Enzeli. On 5 August, Norris arrived at Enzeli and had his first sight of the Caspian. Money was paid by the British to the local authorities at Enzeli to allow them to use the port. General Dunsterville was anxious to obtain the shipping needed to move his forces to Baku. All the available Naval personnel and guns from the Far East were beginning to make the long trek overland to the Caspian Sea. Army reinforcements also began to move forward from Baghdad to reinforce General Dunsterville.

The first ship chartered by the Navy was the SS President Kruger. On 16 August 1918, General Dunsterville and his staff, along with Commodore Norris, set sail for Baku in the Kruger, arriving the following day. Baku was the largest port on the Caspian, and the population had increased with the influx of people to work in the oil industry. Parts of the town were made up of large modern buildings, but other parts were only shacks separated by cart tracks. To the west of the town, was a large oil-field and refinery. The population was a mix of Armenian, Russian, and Azerbaijani.

Most of the fighting against the Turks was being done by Armenian troops. As soon as even a small number of British troops arrived, the Armenians considered that they had done enough fighting and many of the troops returned to Baku. But General Dunsterville pointed out that the British could only supply limited numbers of troops, and the intention was only to provide support for the Armenians. Two more ships, the SS Kursk and the SS Abo, were taken over by the British. As the Army and Navy reinforcement arrived in Enzeli, they were shipped across the Caspian to Baku. Dunsterville only had around 1,200 British troops to support 8,000 Armenian troops against the 14,000-strong Turkish forces. Also, most of the surviving Azerbaijanis, after the massacre in Baku, were now working for the Turks.

The seafront at Baku.
The Turks launched a major attack towards Baku on 26 August. British forces were driven back from a defensive position called the Mud Volcano. Two local battalions had been ordered forward to support the British troops but had never appeared at the front. This had given General Dunsterville extreme misgivings about the vulnerability of the British. Another major attack was launched on 31 August and again the British were forced back. The numbers of British casualties continued to rise. During this action, General Dunsterville witnessed an entire Russian battalion leave the front and flee.

General Dunsterville called all the different groups in Baku to the Hotel Europa on 1 September. He stated that unless they were prepared to fight, then no power on earth could save them from the Turks. All the parties involved agreed that things would change. The Turks did not carry out any more advances for the next two weeks.

The air support for the British force was to be provided by aircraft from 72 Squadron. This squadron was nominally based at Baghdad but had been broken into separate flights. A Flight was based at Samara and equipped with DH4s and SE5As. C Flight was at Marjiana with Bristol monoplanes. B Flight had been operating with the Army in north Persia against local insurgents known colloquially as the Jungalies. The squadron diary reads:

The bombing raids that followed on the Jungalies so completely demoralised them, that the mere sight of Aeroplanes put them to flight, and our troops were able to occupy Resht.[1]

B Flight was stationed on the airfield at Hamadan in north Persia. They were equipped with Martinsyde G.102 Elephants, large single-seat reconnaissance aircraft. Lieutenant A. A. Cullen, who was part of A Flight but also flew the Martinsyde, described the aircraft:

Jumbo Martinsyde, a big rather clumsy single seater, with a 150 HP Beardmore engine, originally designed for long reconnaissance flights.[2]

Two Martinsydes were sent from Hamadan to support the British forces in Baku. On 15 August 1918, Lieutenants M. C. Mackay and R. P. P. Pope were told to prepare their aircraft for the trip to Baku. On 18 August, the aircraft were flown to Enzeli, where they were dismantled and stripped to enable them to be carried on a ship. The Turks held most of the coast and it was not thought a good idea to fly the aircraft direct. The airfield at Baku was four miles outside the town. After they were unloaded onto the docks, the aircraft were taken to the airfield by truck. By 25 August, the aircraft had been reassembled and a two-hour test flight using local petrol was successfully carried out.

False reports were received that German fighter aircraft were operating with the Turks at Baku. To counter this threat, it was decided to send three of A Flight’s SE5As to Baku. The aircraft were sent forward from Baghdad. The pilots were Lieutenants A. A. Cullen, Pitt, and Cannel. On 19 August, Lieutenant Cullen crashed his SE5A while landing at an airfield at Kermanshah. The next day, he was forced to follow the other two SE5As by car to Hamadan. On 21 August, Lieutenant Cannel crashed his SE5A while taking off from Hamadan. Later in the month, Lieutenant Cullen made a forced landing behind Turkish lines while carrying out a reconnaissance flight and was taken prisoner. The plan to send the SE5As to Baku was abandoned.

General Dunsterville only had the two Martinsydes and two Russian flying boats operating from the harbour at Baku as effective aircraft. There were other Russian aircraft operating from the airfield outside the town, but they did not provide effective support. The squadron diary states:

On the 27th August Major Boyd, visited Baku with Captain Fuller and in his report on Aviation generally, remarked on the little enterprise by the Russian Pilots, and as they did not appear to understand the first rudiments of war flying, we were prepared not to receive much support from them.[3]

General Dunsterville did what he could with the limited forces at his command. But the expedition was doomed from the start.

The two Martinsydes, during the twenty-one days they were flying in Baku, carried out reconnaissances, bombing, and leaflet dropping. Rumours of German-flown fighter aircraft proved to be false and no aerial opposition was encountered. An attempt was made to carry out spotting for the Russian artillery gunners, but the Martinsydes were not equipped with radio. A system of dropping information in message bags was tried, but this did not work very well.

In the harbour at Baku was the Centro-Caspian Flotilla, comprising a number of armed ships. This naval force was nominally supporting the political leadership on the shore, but was in reality only maintaining its own position. The Flotilla was determined to stop the British from arming any more ships, as this would threaten their situation of superiority on the Caspian. After heavy fighting, the Turks closed in on the port and General Dunsterville told the Armenians that if they could not hold the Turks off the British would have to evacuate.

The RAF personnel were forced to evacuate on 4 September, along with the rest of the Army. Lieutenant Mackay wrote the report on the evacuation. It is worth quoting the report in full:

About an hour before daybreak on the 14th September, the Turks attacked the Allied lines West of Baku. Their main attack was concentrated on Wolf’s Gap – a large break in the British Ridge – through which ran a road. At dawn Lieutenant Mackay flew over this sector of the line and observed troops on the British ridge. Owing to cloud and mist at 1,000 ft. the identification of these troops was difficult, and to avoid any mistake the pilot flew farther West to the Turkish ridge where enemy reserves were seen halted on the Western slopes. Six drums from the Lewis were fired into these troops and a report taken back to HQ as to their whereabouts. During the morning Lieutenant Pope did two reconnaissances – the first of 30 minutes – the second of 55 minutes. During the first, three drums were fired on to troops on the British ridge, who had now been identified as Turks. Owing to the gas regulator key falling away from his gun, Lieutenant Pope returned to the aerodrome – but the trouble having been remedied – again took off and crossed the Turkish lines.

Six drums were fired into Turkish troops who were now about half way between the old British ridge and Baku. Lieutenant Mackay crossed the enemy lines shortly after this and again fired six drums into the enemy reserves and the British ridge. The last three flights were carried out at 1,500 ft. Lieutenant Pope’s machine had been unserviceable for a day or so previously and owing to shortage of mechanics and time required to be spent on the serviceable machine, only one machine flew on the 14th September. By 12.15pm on this day the machine was unfit to fly owing to hits from rifle and machine gun fire from the ground – and at 3pm orders were received from the G. O. C. British troops Baku, to destroy the two machines, their flying to Krasnovodsk, Lenkoran or Enzeli being out of the question. At 3.45pm the machines were burnt, the engine being rendered useless by revolver bullets and an axe. At 4.15pm Lieutenants Pope and Mackay left the aerodrome which was then under shell fire – taking away with them one (top) machine gun and three cameras. The RAF personnel was ordered to take one of the remaining machine guns and several drums of ammunition and join the British line which was then close to the northern end of the aerodrome. The third machine gun was smashed.

Bradley, with Lieutenants Pope and Mackay then left the aerodrome and proceeded to the Hotel Europa where all photographic chemicals and plates which were unable to be got away were destroyed. At 5pm Lieutenant Pope and Mackay were ordered to embark on a ship which got safely out of Baku at 8pm. The RAF personnel evacuated with the other British troops and were picked up at Enzeli. They had smashed up the last machine gun just before retiring to the quay at Baku. On the 18th instant a RAF tender arrived from Kasvan and took all RAF personnel back with it.[4]

The three British-commanded ships in the harbour at Baku were the Abo, the Kursk and the Kruger. During the afternoon of 14 August, the British forces began to pull back towards the harbour in an orderly fashion. The Centro-Caspian Flotilla in the harbour at Baku had stated that they would fire on any British ships that tried to leave. According to Navy records, the Abo left at 18.30 hours, carrying women, wounded, and various small parties (including the RAF officers). All the ships in the harbour were getting up steam and preparing to sail and nobody seems to have noticed the Abo leave. As the Army moved back to the port, the quay became choked with lorries, armoured cars, and mules, which all had to be abandoned. The Kursk left the harbour, carrying troops, around 23.00 hours. Some of the artillery was loaded onto the Kruger, and when it was clear that no one had been left behind, the ship pulled out of the harbour at 01.00 hours on 15 August. The Russian guard ship fired on the Kruger but no hits were achieved. All three ships arrived in Enzeli later the same day.

HMS Kruger, General Dunsterville’s flagship.
The Turks entered the town within hours of the British departure and in three days of massacre the Azerbaijanis killed 16,000 Armenians. After six weeks, the British were back in Enzeli where they had started. A number of ships had fled the fall of Baku and these were now in the harbour at Enzeli. The workshop facilities at Enzeli were limited, but work was started on the SS Ventuir with the intention of mounting on the vessel some of the guns that were now being delivered from Baghdad.

Commodore Norris decided to visit Krasnovodsk, on the eastern coast, to look for a better-equipped dockyard to use as a base. Krasnovodsk was controlled by an anti-Bolshevik committee and welcomed the British ship. There was a large railway workshop at Krasnovodsk and the British decided to use this as their fitting-out base. By the end of October, there were five armed British ships on the Caspian. These were the Kruger, Ventuir, Asia, Alla Verdi, and Emile Nobel. None of these were very large; they were all in poor condition and their guns were old-fashioned, but they did provide the basis of a British fleet on the Caspian.

In September, Commodore Norris had a serious accident and the command on the Caspian passed to Captain Washington. Also at this time, General Dunsterville was given a command in India and was replaced by General W. M. Thompson. Three more ships, the Bibiat, the Slava, and the Zoro-Aster, were in the process of being armed, thought ammunition remained in short supply. Eight 4.7-inch shells was one camel load for the 700-mile trip across north Persia from Baghdad. On 31 October, the Turks signed an armistice with the Allies.

The British naval squadron now began a series of cruises on the Caspian. Early in November, the five armed ships visited Petrovsk, north of Baku, and the Asia was sent to Guryev, a port on the river Ural. This was the headquarters of the Ural Cossacks, who were part of the White Russian forces fighting against the Reds. The main Bolshevik base on the Caspian was the port of Astrakhan, on the mouth of the Volga River. Using canals, it was possible to bring armed ships from the Baltic onto the Volga and down to the Caspian at Astrakhan. Using this supply route, the Bolsheviks were building up their forces in the north of the Caspian.

CHAPTER THREE THE MILITARY SITUATION IN SOUTH RUSSIA

The original justification for British intervention in south Russia was the Anglo-French Agreement of 23 December 1917. When it became obvious that Russia would soon be out of the war against Germany, an agreement was reached between Britain and France. Under this agreement, the Allies were planning to continue an Eastern Front against Germany on Russian territory, with or without the support of the Bolshevik government. France was given responsibility for the area west of the river Don, and Britain was given the Caucasus and the area north and east of the Caspian. In truth, while the First World War continued, there was little that could be done against the German occupation of the Ukraine or Turkey’s attempted occupation of the Caucasus. The Dunsterforce expedition had soon been driven out.

Earlier in 1917, the Kerensky government had asked the leader of the Army, General L. Kornilov, to move loyal Army units to St Petersburg to restore order. But as soon as Kornilov had started to move troops, Kerensky had lost his nerve and had him arrested for planning a military dictatorship. Kornilov was imprisoned, along with General Anton Denikin. They were held by military personnel, however, and were allowed to come and go as they pleased. The new head of the Army was General M. V. Alekseev. With the takeover of the Bolsheviks in the October 1917 Revolution (November in the new calendar), Alekseev fled to south Russia, thinking the Cossack regions in the south would be a centre of resistance to the Bolsheviks. In December 1917, he was joined by Generals Denikin and Kornilov, who had simply walked out of the prison in which they had been kept.

A small number of officers and men began to join Alekseev in the south to take part in the fight against the Bolsheviks. General Alekseev called this group the Volunteer Army. Most of the men joining Alekseev were officers, and some of the early units were made up entirely of officers. After some disagreement, General Kornilov became the military commander and Alekseev the political chief. The Cossack hosts were as war-weary as the rest of Russian society and failed to rise against the Bolsheviks. Also, the numbers joining the Volunteer Army remained small and the promised finance failed to arrive.

General Anton Denikin.
During February 1918, Rostov was captured by detachments of the Red Guard sent out from Moscow. At this early stage of the Civil War, many sections of the population supported the Soviet government, not having yet suffered under Bolshevik rule. With the fall of Rostov, Alekseev and Kornilov led the Volunteer Army, now 4,000-strong, into the north Caucasus. To the Volunteers, this period became known as the ‘Ice March’. During this time, massively superior numbers surrounded them on all sides as they marched across the frozen steppes. Kornilov, as the military commander, decided to attack Ekaterinodar, the Kuban Cossack capital, which was now the capital of the Kuban Soviet Republic, in order to give themselves a base for operations. The attack was started on 10 April 1918. During the fighting, Kornilov was killed by artillery fire when his command post in a farmhouse was hit. The command passed to General Denikin, who was forced to call off the attack on Ekaterinodar and retreat towards the Don territory.

Russia had been negotiating with Germany to end the fighting between them, but when these talks broke down during February 1918 the Germans again began to advance into Russia. What was left of the Russian Army melted away in front of the Germans. Large areas of eastern Europe were occupied, including the Ukraine. The Russians returned to the negotiations and signed the Brest-Litovsk peace on 3 March. As part of the settlement, the Germans were given a free hand in the Ukraine. On 8 May, they captured Rostov.

The Don Cossacks soon became tired of Soviet rule. In May 1918, a meeting of the Don Krug elected a new Ataman, General Peter Krasnov. The Red Guards only had a loose hold on the Don territory and were soon driven out. The region to the west of the territory held by the Don Cossacks was now occupied by the Germans, who supplied money and arms to the Cossacks. By the middle of June, the Don Cossacks had an Army of 40,000 operating against the Reds. The Red Army was still in its infancy and had few combat troops available to send to the south, forcing them to rely on local troops.

After they had reoccupied all their own territory, the Don Cossacks turned east to try to capture Tsaritsin. But, after months of fighting, they failed in their bid to take the city. Tsaritsin was a large, built-up industrial area with a substantial working-class population that had supported the Red takeover. Most of the Don Cossacks were cavalry, and they lacked the heavy forces needed to capture the trench lines around the city. In command in Tsaritsin during the summer of 1918 was Stalin, along with Vorishilov and Budenny in subordinate roles. Stalin clashed with Trotsky over the strategy in the south and over the use of ex-Tsarist officers in command positions and was finally recalled to Moscow.

The area around Tsaritsin.
General Baron Peter Wrangel.
The Volunteer Army was re-equipped with arms and munitions from Germany, acquired via the Don Cossacks. Volunteer Army policy had originally been to continue the war against Germany, but this does not seem to have stopped them taking German money and arms through the Cossacks. By June 1918, the Volunteer Army had grown to 9,000 and they again tried to capture the north Caucasus area from the Red government forces. On 18 August, they captured Ekaterinodar, the Kuban Cossack capital. Once they had been liberated, the Kuban Cossack leadership joined the Don Cossacks and the Volunteer Army in the fight against the Bolshevik forces.

The original Volunteer Army was an effective and disciplined force capable of defeating Red Army units of much larger numbers. General Denikin continued to advance eastward across the Caucasus, and the Red Army set up their new base at Piatigorsk on the main rail line to Tsaritsin. On 8 October 1918, General Alekseev died, leaving General Denikin as the undisputed leader of the Volunteer Army. The Don Cossacks were faced with the 8th and 9th Red Armies in the north and the 10th Army in Tsaritsin, but they continued to hold out against the increasing pressure. During August, General Peter Wrangel joined the Volunteer Army. Wrangel was forty years old and had been in the Army for seventeen years. He had risen to command a division in the First World War. When he arrived in Ekaterinodar, the Volunteer Army had grown in size to around 38,000 troops. Denikin, who knew Wrangel slightly, offered him command of a division in the Volunteer Army. Wrangel went on to become the most effective of the White generals.

The counter-revolution in the south was still a limited affair but the influx of huge amounts of Allied equipment, money, and men would transform the situation. ...


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