Freeing the Baltic

Freeing the Baltic

Freeing the Baltic

Freeing the Baltic


In 1919, the Baltic was in ferment. The Red Army struggled to take over the nascent Baltic States; Finland was in revolt; German armies, attempting to conquer a realm in the east to compensate for defeat in the west, rampaged through Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As White armies marched on revolutionary Petrograd, the new governments of the Baltic states appealed desperately to the Allies for assistance.. Cowan was given no clear instructions from the British Admiralty as to what he was expected to achieve, and, as negotiations continued through the Armistice, he effectively had to make his own policy. He succeeded to devastating effect. Despite having only a tiny force, he succeeded in improvising one of the most daring raids ever staged by the British navy - an attack which penetrated into the heart of impregnable Kronstadt and sank two Russian battleships. He outmaneuvered the Germans and the Whites in a game of cat and mouse, raid and counter raid which left Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania free and which formed the basis of a permanent bond between these three countries and Britain. Cowan proved that the greatness of the British navy lay not simply in the size and power of its ships but in the brilliance and courage of its officers and men.


When this book first appeared thirty-five years ago under the title Cowan’s War, the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were firmly entrenched in the Soviet Union, where they had been since their occupation during World War ii. Any chance of their regaining the independence they had had between the World Wars seemed remote. It was to be almost another three decades before this even started to become a reality, but as it now has, a further edition is very welcome.

While this new edition was being prepared I learnt that in at least one of these states the events recounted here are remembered and respected. I had an opportunity to visit the Estonian capital Tallinn (called Reval, its old German name, in this book). Walking around the charming ‘old town’ I entered the historic Church of the Holy Ghost and spotted a white Ensign at one end. Beneath this a new plaque, placed there in the year 2000, records Britons who have been honoured by Estonia for their contribution to freedom. High on the list, just below Winston Churchill, is Sir Walter Cowan.

Then, at the edge of the old town, there is a well-appointed maritime museum in a castle tower known as ‘Fat Margaret’. By the side of the entrance another clearly recent plaque, black marble topped with the silhouette of a destroyer, records in both English and Estonian:

In memory of the officers and seamen of the British Royal Navy who served and gave their lives in the cause of freedom in the Baltic during the Estonian War of Independence 1918–1920

The following Admirals were decorated with the Estonian Cross of Liberty for their distinguished services:

Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair G.C.B. M.V.O VRI/I 1865–1945 . . .

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