Freeing the Baltic 1918-1920 – review

In 1964 Geoffrey Bennett wrote a book called Cowan’s War. The book centered on the Battles to help free Russia from the Bolsheviks. I remember reading it when I was a teenager as the concept of Britain being involved in another little war immediately after World War One was interesting, and I had just finished reading a book about a motor boat fighting the Bolsheviks (the name of the book eluding me at the moment).

When the opportunity came to review Bennett’s Freeing the Baltic – 1918-1920 it was a great excuse to reread the history and recapture (briefly) the feelings I had when I was a teenager.

Pen & Sword Maritime have released this edition in 2017, ISBN 9781473893078. A preface by Bennett’s son, Rodney Bennett has been added along with an addendum.

The main text of the book covers the complexity of this war. The Entente Cordiale were in the process of negotiating the Versailles Treaty with the Central Powers at the same time as the Russian Revolution was in full swing with the White Russians trying to resist the Bolsheviks (Red Russians). The Entente would have preferred independant Baltic States (as indeed would the states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania). The Germans were still active in the region until the Entente coould direct support there.

Bennett wrote about the Royal Navy admiral, Cowan, who was tasked with supporting the White Russians, ejecting the Germans, supporting the Baltic States in their quest for independence while dealing with his own government, crewmen who had had enough of war and wanted to return to home ports along with mines and all with some light cruisers and destroyers.

It is a boy’s own story and I enjoyed reading it again as a somewhat older boy. That the Baltic States were subjugated by the Soviets or the White Russians were defeated by the Bolsheviks is not because of Cowan’s inabilities but rather an inevitability of the creation of the USSR.

The cover of the book carries a quote from Leon Trotsky, “[The British] ships must be sunk, come what may”. This was the environment Cowan found himself in. The Admiralty assigned 238 ships to the area including 23 light cruisers, 85 destroyers and 1 aircraft carrier with 55 aircraft. The French asl allocated 26 vessels, the Italians 2 and the U.S.A. 14. Over the conflict 17 British vessels were lost to mines, weatrher and the enemy. Sixty-one vessels were damaged and 37 aircraft were lost.

In the area the Soviets had 30 vessels approximately including two battleships.

Bennett’s son added a preface and an addendum to the book containing information uncovered later. Perhaps the most ineresting was Admiral Walter Cowan’s career in World War Two where he served in the Western Dessert with the Indian 18th King Edward’s Own Cavalry, mounted on bren-gun carriers. Captured by the Italians, then later part of a prisoner swap he returned to the dessert. When the Second World War was over he was invited to Indian to become the honourary colonel of the 18th King Edward’s Own, surely the first naval officer to be so honoured.

I loved this book when I was a teenager and I love it now and really appreciate the excuse to read it a second time. The additions by Bennett’s son enhance the book rather than detracting at all from his father’s work. Thoroughly recommended.

Bennett also wrote Battle of the River Plate; Coronel and the Falklands; Naval Battles of World War Two; The Battle of Trafalgar; Naval Battles of the First World War; and the Battle of Jutland.

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Khalkin-gol – Nomonhan 1939 – New Books

A nice parcel arrived from Amazon today with some books I’ve been waiting for. These are three works on the Battle of Khalkin-gol (Nomonhan in the Japanese) that occurred between Russia and Mongolia on one side and Japan and Manchuoko on the other side.

As readers here will know I have a particular fascination with things Mongolian as well as some of the more esoteric areas of the wars of the 20th century (and indeed, the 19th, 18th, 17th, 16th centuries).

The hard copy books go with the Kindle version of Leavenworth Papers – Nomonhan: Japanese-Soviet Tactical Combat 1939 by Edward Drea that I picked up a while ago.

The three books in today’s bundle were:

  • Nomonhan 1939 – The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II by Stuart D Goldman (ISBN 978-1-59114-329-1)
  • In the Skies of Nomonhan – Japan versus Russia May-September 1939 by Col Prof Dimitar Nedialkov PhD (ISBN 978-0-85979-152-6)
  • Nomonhan: Japanese-Soviet Tactical Combat, 1939 by Edward Drea (ISBN 978-1-105-65014-7) – and yes, this is the same as the Kindle version but I wanted a hard copy of it as it is:
    • easier to read in hard copy
    • permanently with me, not at the whim of Amazon.

For those unfamiliar, the Battle at Khalkin-gol started as a border skirmish and escalated.

I have some serious reading to do now – then some research and maybe turn this into a couple of games.

Khalkhin Gol or Nomonhan

From 11 May to 16 September 1939 Japanese and Manchurian forces clashed with Mongolian and Soviet forces on the border of Mongolia and Manchuria (at that time called Manchukuo by many nations) around the village of Nomonhan near the Khalkhin gol (Khalkhin River). Having spent time in Mongolia my office at the bank used to look out on Jukov Square, next to the Jukov Museum. Jukov is the Mongolian spelling of Zhukov, as in Georgy Zhukov (well, it’s the Mongolian spelling when it’s Latinised). Zhukov, having given the combined Mongolian Soviet Army a victory over the Japanese is a hero in Mongolia. For the record, the Mongolians fought with the Russians during the Second World War with Mongolian troops marching into Berlin as part of the Red Army forces in that campaign.

It all started when a Mongolian cavalry unit of about 90 men went searching for grazing in the area between Nomonhan an the river. Manchukuo cavalry attacked the Mongolians and then forced them back over the Khalkhin gol. Two days later the Mongolians returned in greater numbers and the Manchukuans were not able to force them back this time.

The next day elements of two Japanese army arrived and forced the Mongolians out. Then a combined force of Mongolian and Soviet forces surrounded the Japanese causing many casualties. It all escalated. The 2nd Japanese Air Brigade then launched an unauthorised air attack on the Soviet air base at Tamsak-Bulak in Mongolia losing some aircraft but destroying more Soviet aircraft.

Lt. Gen. Georgy Zhukov then arrived to take control of the Soviet-Mongolian forces and so began a battle that lasted until 31 August with the defeat of the Japanese in the area. I’ll provide more detail about individual engagements at a later time. The battle though was significant as it was the first reverse the Japanese Army took in World War 2. At the same time, the result of this battle was that Japan looked southwards for the future which released valuable Soviet (and Mongolian) divisions to the fighting in the West.

Some selections from the Canberra Times about the fighting in Manchukuo and Mongolia.

The Canberra Times Tuesday 4 July 1939

JAPANESE DEMANDS ON BRITAIN AND FRANCE

Threat of Force to Achieve Objectives

LONDON, Monday.

A message from Peking declares that the Japanese controlled Chinese Government dispatched to the English and French Embassies a list of demands for a basis of settlement at Tientsin, and said that the Japanese army in North China supported them.

The Japanese spokesman declares that no compromise regarding the demands would be accepted and force may be used to obtain the objectives.

They include demands that the English and French Concessions support the new Japanese currency; secondly, that the Peking Government be allowed to inspect banks and business houses in the Concession; thirdly, that a rigorous control be exercised over publications and organisations acting contrary to the policy of Peking, and fourthly, that, a Chinese – speaking Government be appointed to control the Concession.

The army spokesman announced that gendarmes are holding in custody Mr. E. T. Griffiths, a British engineer from a British steamer, allegedly for insulting the Japanese army.

He added that the reported stripping of John Anderson at the Concession barricades yesterday was being investigated.

Renewed Fighting in Manchukuo

DARIEN, Monday.

It is officially announced that the Japanese army launched an offensive against the Soviet-Mongolian forces with the object of expelling them from Manchukuan territory.

The British United Press reports heavy fighting on the western border of Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia. Tanks, machine guns, cavalry and planes are engaged.

The Canberra Times Tuesday 18 July 1939

RUSSIAN AIR RAIDS IN MANCHUKUO

TOKYO, Monday.

Eight Russian planes dropped bombs in the vicinity of Nalunarshan railway station, 30 miles inside the Manchukuan frontier, and injured four Manchukuans, as well as destroying four carriages and setting fire to a number of buildings.

The Japanese have protested to Moscow.

In an earlier raid on Sularki station, 180 miles north-west of Harbin, seven were injured.

The Canberra Times Thursday 27 July 1939

MANCHUKUO

JAPAN CALLS UP TROOPS CONTINUED TROUBLE ON BORDER

TOKYO, Wednesday.

In “view of continued trouble on the Manchukuan border, the Government has announced the reinforcing of forces throughout the Japanese Empire.

An army communiqué claims that 59 Soviet war planes were brought down on the Manchukuan frontier on Tuesday.

Japanese artillery heavily bombarded the Soviet position on the west bank of the Khalha River throughout the day.

and lest we forget that the Japanese were fighting the Chinese at the same time, this piece followed in the same issue of the Canberra times the following article was found:

Japanese Claim Major Victory

TOKYO, Wednesday.

The Japanese north of Hankow claim lo have trapped 30,000 Chinese as a result of a fierce offensive launched on Tuesday.

Supported by aircraft, the Japanese are advancing to the north along he Pekin-Hankow railway.

A second force is manoeuvring in order to cut off the Chinese retreat.

From the Canberra Times Thursday 31 August 1939

TO MANCHUKUO

Effect of Russo-German Pact

TOKYO, Wednesday

Large forces are being sent lo Manchukuo as the result of the Russo-German pact

The Premier (General Abe), in a nation-wide broadcast viewed with delicacy the international situation, and stated that the Government was establishing independent diplomacy, and also taking measures at home and abroad with the Chinese incident
as a focal point.

General Abe appealed to the nation for co-operation.

The four Chinese, who were arrested at Tientsin, are to be handed over to the Japanese on August 31.

From the Canberra Times of Tuesday 11 June 1940

SOVIET AND JAPAN AGREE ON FRONTIERS

TOKYO, Monday.

The Foreign Office issued a communiqué that Mr. Toga and M. Molotov, Ambassadors for Japan and Russia, reached an agreement yesterday on the precise demarcation of the frontier of Nomonhan area with mutual recognition of interests.

by special arrangement: Reuter’s World Service in addition to other special sources of information is used in the compilation of the overseas intelligence published in this issue and all rights therein in Australia and New Zealand are reserved.

I’ll give more detail on the battle and the Orders of Battle of both sides of the conflict in a later post.

Is Russia Asia or Europe?

I recently added a post to the Thomo’s Hole concerning travel between Moscow and Beijing. Whilst tagging it for Mongolia and China (and Asia Pacific), I also tagged it for Russia. I then wondered in my best Russian English accent “is mother Russia part of Asia or part of Europe?”

Now I know it spreads across both continents but if I had to classify it with one term or the other, should it be Europe or Asia?

By Rail – Moscow to Beijing

Legend Tours has a page on their website called “Train schedule in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia)” which contains information about travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia.

One of the paragraphs of useful information for the traveller is the one shown below:

Customs & Immigration. There are major delays of three to six hours at both, the China-Mongolia and Russia-Mongolia borders. Often the trains cross the border during the middle of the night, when the alert Mongolian and Russian officials maintain the upper hand. The whole process is not difficult or a hassle – just annoying because they keep interrupting your sleep. Your passport will be taken for inspection and stamping.
During these stops, you can alight and wander around the station, which is just as well since the toilets on the train are locked during the whole inspection procedure.

Immigration Officials Wait At Zamin-uud, Mongolia
Zamin-uud Railway Station, Mongolia, with very cute Customs Officers

This is sort of understatement. Yes, the officialdom part is onerous and a couple of hours each side of the border are given up to much inspecting of documents, checking visas and so on.

In fact, when travelling across from the Mongolian side of the border to the Chinese side, all the Mongolian Immigration officers come through the train in Zamin-uud (and contrary to the article, you are encouraged to remain in the train). Everything is checked, papers and passport. The Mongolian border crossing at Zamin-uud is the only place I have ever been where a customs declaration has to be completed for departure (at the Chinggis Khaan airport in UB, customs forms are only required when arriving). What you should be aware of is that if you travel back INTO Mongolia through Zamin-uud, the Customs folks will want to see the form you completed when you were leaving.

Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China
Erlian Station, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, where the Customs officers are hidden and not cute

The train then crawls along for maybe 30 minutes or so to cover the 5 kilometres between Zamin-uud and Erlian. The Chinese Immigration folks then take the next 2 hours to check your entry papers. There is a detention area half way between Zamin-uud and Erlian and sometimes the train stops there and a young Chinese guy or two will be escorted off the train and into detention. Presumably their papers are not in order.

Of course, the trip from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar is the same, just the waits are reversed. Seems though that the trains tend to get to the border late at night (when travelling either way). The other thing not mentioned is that Chinese Railways run on Standard Gauge track (4 foot 8 1/2 inches between rails). Mongolian Railways run to Russian Gauge (5 foot between rails). So, at the border, apart from the immigration delays, there is a further delay of a couple of hours while the entire train undergoes a change of bogies. This entails jacking each carriage up and replacing the bogies underneath them. This is done with much bumping and banging whilst the passengers are all still in the train trying to sleep.

As mentioned, the toilets are locked but it is near impossible to get out of the carriage. Also, if it is winter, the temperature in the carriage falls as well. The combination of drinking beer before the border (or coffee) and cold temperature puts an unbelievable strain on one’s plumbing.

Indeed, my friend had saved a couple of plastic beer bottle precisely for this event. Out with the Swiss Army knife, quickly remove the top of the bottle and voila, instant relief.

The one thing that still has me frustrated about this whole process is that there is no reason why the Mongolian AND the Chinese Immigration staff could not check all the passengers at the same time. This would take at least 2 hours off the entire process and reduce the time to travel between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing to about 1 day 4 hours.