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|Geplaatst: 18 Mei 2008 8:34 Onderwerp: Operation Kronstadt - Mission of 2 Victoria Crosses
|Operation Kronstadt: revealed, the full story of the mission to pluck a spy from the jaws of death in Bolshevik Russia
BY ANDREW ROBERTS -
The mission began as the riskiest rescue operation in the history of British Intelligence - and ended in an astonishingly successful Royal Navy raid on the most heavily defended fortress in Western Europe.
"Their cool, disciplined, daredevil gallantry turned what the outside world would have called a forlorn hope into a legitimate operation which met with far greater success than I had ever hoped."
Those were the words of Admiral Walter Cowan about the men of the Coastal Motor Boats who attacked the Soviet Fleet in the Gulf of Finland on August 18, 1919, and they were well-deserved - two Victoria Crosses were awarded for the action.
But only now can we learn of the full remarkable story of this great action. A fascinating, minutely-researched and groundbreaking new book by former MI6 officer Harry Ferguson has put together for the first time the complete account of the Kronstadt Raid, which turns out to be a tale of adventure, honour and raw courage quite as extraordinary as anything found in fiction or on the silver screen.
Many of the small force of Secret Intelligence Service agents and Royal Navy officers and men - along with the brave Finnish smugglers who helped them - have had their astonishing story told here for the first time, almost 90 years after the event.
In May 1919, with World War I recently over but with the Russian Revolution turning into a full-scale "Red Terror," the head of MI6, Sir Mansfield Cumming, known as "C," had a desperate problem.
A British agent - Paul Dukes - had infiltrated spies into the Bolshevik government and made copies of top secret documents, but he was cut off in Petrograd (present-day St Petersburg).
Dukes, a 30-year-old concert pianist from Bridgwater, Somerset, was a master of disguise, hence his admiring soubriquets such as "The New Scarlet Pimpernel" and "The Man with A Hundred Faces."
The only MI6 agent ever to be knighted for his services in the field, Dukes was, as Ferguson writes: "The sort of spy we all wanted to be."
The Government in London desperately needed a personal briefing from him about the situation in Russia, as well as the documents in his possession. But how to get him out?
Cumming asked a 29-year-old naval lieutenant, Augustus "Gus" Agar, to undertake a seemingly suicidal mission to rescue him.
An expert in skippering high-speed Coastal Motor Boats (CMBs), Agar was asked to come up with a plan to cross into Russian territorial waters in the Gulf of Finland and spirit Dukes out of the country, before the Russian secret police, the Cheka, were able to capture him.
The task was awesome. The borders had been sealed and a succession of couriers who had tried to cross them had been captured; six were betrayed, tortured and shot in one fortnight alone. So a high-speed boat landing at a pre-arranged rendezvous on the coastline near Petrograd was planned instead.
CMBs were 40ft long, had a crew of three, carried two Lewis machine guns and a single torpedo. They had hydroplane hulls, hence their nickname "skimmers," but were made of plywood so were almost defenceless against enemy fire.
The fastest naval vessels afloat, they were ideal for slipping past the huge array of defences in the Gulf of Finland - except for the deafening noise they made when they reached their top speed of 45mph.
Protecting the sea approach to Petrograd was the forbidding island fortress of Kronstadt and its 15 forts - nine to the north, six to the south - with enough guns to halt any enemy fleet.
Furthermore, the forts were connected by a hidden breakwater that MI6 told Agar was only three feet under the surface and which, since CMBs drew 2ft 9in of water, meant that his two vessels would have only three inches to spare at normal speed.
Although the Gulf of Finland is 250 miles long, it is only 30 miles wide, and with gunboat patrols, floating and fixed mines, searchlights, submarines and seaplanes, it seemed impassable to any but the most intrepid sailor.
Cumming explained the mission to Agar in his office in Whitehall, and ordered him to choose only unmarried men with no immediate dependants for his seven-man team; Agar himself had been orphaned at the age of 12, and although he had a sweetheart they were not then engaged.
Cumming also warned Agar that in the event of capture he could expect no help, or even official recognition, from the British Government.
His unit would be in plain clothes, although Royal Navy uniforms and caps would be donned in the event of capture, to protect them from being shot as spies.
Yet Cumming and Agar both knew that if they were captured by the Cheka, they would be tortured before being executed. (Among the Cheka's favoured methods were scalping prisoners alive and thrusting them naked into a barrel studded with razorsharp nails and rolling them around the interrogation room.)
Despite this, Agar said: 'Of course I'm going. Who wouldn't? I have no responsibilities and besides, the war is over - where else would I see action? This is a chance. Maybe a great chance.'
Agar returned to his base at HMS Osea, a 600-acre island connected by a causeway to the Essex coast. He recruited six other men and they then made their way to Finland by Swedish merchant ship, posing as commercial travellers selling war surplus CMBs as pleasure craft. The machine guns and torpedo-firing gear went as engine spares.
"I must hurry - hurry the devil!" noted an impatient Agar, worried lest the Cheka might arrest Dukes before he was able to get there.
Once established at the Finnish village of Terrioki on the north coast of the Gulf of Finland, close to the Russian border, Agar could see quite how perilous the whole project was, and how the "white nights" of that region in summer meant that action could take place only in those few hours of the day when the sun was not shining.
He also saw how on the other side of the Gulf, the Russian cruiser Oleg was mercilessly pounding the White Russian (ie anti-Bolshevik) garrison trapped in the nearby fortress of Krasnaya Gorka.
Since there was no prospect for the moment of contacting Dukes, Agar decided - in contravention of his orders - to launch an attack on the Oleg. At 11pm on the night of June 17, 1919, Agar's six men in two speedboats set out to sink the cruiser, along with her crew of 565.
It was a feat out of the annals of Drake and Nelson. Although one CMB had to turn back with engine failure, at three minutes past midnight, having slipped between three destroyers in the dark and got within 900 yards of the Oleg, "Gus" Agar launched the torpedo.
Immediately, he opened the throttle to escape, records Ferguson, the sea erupted all around them and it seemed to Gus that every vessel in the Soviet Baltic fleet was firing at them as they raced for a gap between two of the destroyers.
He threw the CMB violently from side to side to make it as difficult a target as possible. But some of the shells detonated as close as ten yards away, throwing great cascades of water across the boat.
Nonetheless, even above the roar of the boat's powerful engine, they felt the tremendous explosion as the torpedo smashed into the Oleg's hull: "There was a brilliant flash which lit up the entire night sky as a column of thick smoke began to billow out behind the Oleg's foremost funnel. Her sirens wailed as she immediately began to keel over."
It was this coup for which Agar was awarded the Victoria Cross, although because the Russians put a £5,000 price on his head he could not be publicly named, so it was always known as "the mystery VC." Admiral Cowan forgave Agar's impetuosity, and was soon persuaded that a raid of seven CMBs into Kronstadt harbour itself could also succeed.
So at 1.40am on August 18, Agar and six other Royal Navy CMBs sped into the Soviet naval base and, at the cost of eight killed and nine captured, managed to either sink or damage the Soviet battle cruisers Petropavlovsk and Andrei Pervozvanni and the key submarine supply ship Pamiat Azova.
Two more VCs were awarded for that operation, and Agar got the DSO. Yet he had still not achieved what he had come to the Gulf to do: rescue Dukes. A rendezvous was set up for the agent to meet his rescuers.
Despite another perilous journey by CMB, Agar managed to make the rendezvous point at midnight on the appointed evening, but Paul Dukes did not turn up. After waiting for an hour, Agar tried to return to the base at Terrioki.
At first, the boat's engine struggled to start because the compressedair bottle which acted as a starter motor had been leaking and there was barely enough gas left for one attempt.
Then, once it had roared into life, a squall developed as they returned between the Kronstadt satellite fortresses, and two feet of water poured over the hull, reducing the CMB to a crawl and threatening to stop the engine altogether - but the boat limped home.
On his next attempt to rescue Dukes, and his 13th trip through the line of forts, Agar was even less fortunate.
As Ferguson records: "They were about 800 metres from a gap between two forts when a searchlight passed over them, and then returned to hold them in its beam.
"Gus jinked the CMB left and right to try to lose it, but the beam stayed doggedly on them. Then a second light joined in and at the same time the guns of the fortress opened up.'
Agar kept to his course, knowing that the closer they got to the forts the harder it would be for the gun muzzles to be depressed and to track them.
Although they managed to shoot out one searchlight with the Lewis gun, another searchlight opened up, temporarily blinding Agar. One shell landed so close that it lifted the CMB out of the water. Believing the boat sunk, the Russians broke off the engagement, and their propaganda led Dukes to conclude that Agar had been killed.
He therefore resolved to leave Petrograd by land, and was forced to jump from tram to tram in the city to shake off Cheka agents.
After a series of extraordinary adventures through war-torn Latvia under a variety of disguises, he got back to London, along with his secret documents copied on to tissue paper.
Yet Agar was not dead; instead, the CMB had run aground on a breakwater. The propeller shaft was smashed, the watertight seams had gone and there were two huge holes in the hull.
"Even if we could get her off the breakwater," one of the men on board reported, "the only place she'd go is straight to the bottom."
Yet if they didn't get away, daylight would reveal them and the Russians would renew the bombardment. So they stuffed the holes with canvas, heaved the four-ton boat off the breakwater, and, bailing water furiously, drifted off with the two-knot current, fashioning a makeshift sail from other canvas torn from the deck covering.
Even then, they knew they had no hope of getting past the forts as daylight broke through the clouds. The three men sat together in the torpedo launch trough to share a last cigarette before the Soviets spotted and killed them.
At that moment a sea mist, unknown in those waters at that time of year, began to rise from the waters around them. Agar called to the others to start bailing again, and - towed by some Finnish fisherman whom they both bribed and threatened with the Lewis gun - they made it back to base.
The great Kronstadt adventure was over.
Finally, after nearly 90 years, the whole story of Operation Kronstadt has been told, and it stands as a tribute to the incredible courage and determination of the Royal Navy and MI6 teams involved, but especially to Captain Augustus Agar, "the mystery VC."
ē Operation Kronstadt by Harry Ferguson (Hutchinson, £18.99). To order a copy for £17.10 (p&p free), call 0845 606 4206.
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