The Russian Baltic Fleet in the Time of War and Revolution

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The Russian Baltic Fleet in the Time of War and Revolution 1914-1918: The Recollections of Admiral S N Timirev. Translated by Stephen Ellis. Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, 2020. Seaforth, a division of Pen & Sword Ltd, Barnsley, UK, 2020, 238 pp plus preface, biography and forewords. Illustrations, maps, appendices, endnotes, translator’s commentary, bibliography, index. £25.00, ISBN: 1526777027 (hardback).

Reviewed by: Mark Bailey PhD

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Admiral Sergei Timirev (1872-1932) was the son of a naval officer, joining the Imperial Navy in 1889 and having an active career. During the Russo-Japanese War he served aboard the battleships Peresvet and Pobeda before commanding naval infantry at Port Arthur.

He was severely wounded at Vysoki Hill and refused to give his parole, remaining a POW with his men. He subsequently served for four years aboard the Royal Yacht Shtandart. By 1914 he was a Captain, in command of the Baltic Fleet training squadron and the training ship Vernyi.

The book has a logical structure and, unusually for a translated memoir, is set about with ample supporting material. The translators preface and commentary are of special value in contextualising the memoir.

Two matters stand out about this work. The first is the high quality of Stephen Ellis’ translation. The comparison to the 1961 translation is unflattering to the latter, resulting in a much better flow, including translation of Imperial Russian Navy-specific vernacular and technical terms. The result is a very readable book telling an interesting story. The second is the care taken to provide information (via endnotes) on issues and persons long obscured by time and cultural distance.

The reviewer had a longstanding interest in the operations of the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet in WWI. This memoir is valuable, explaining why that fleet fought the war as it did. This is due to Timirev being inside the command system, which is revealed as fractured, personality dependent and different to any Navy which derives its traditions and culture from the RN. Of extra-ordinary value is the way in which Ellis has included biographical data explaining who the officers Timirev refers to were. Timirev provides assessments of the Fleet commanders: Admirals von Essen, Kanin, Nepenin, Maksomov, Verderevsky, Razvozov, Shchastnyi and Zarubaev. In concert with other works such as Greger’s 1972 The Russian Fleet 1914-1917 and Barrett’s 2008 Operation Albion, this book gives a full depth view of how and why the Baltic fleet achieved what it did, failed where it did, oscillated erratically between these poles and collapsed into combat ineffectiveness under revolutionary conditions.

Timirev was present for the Moön Sound operations and provides insight into the Russian side of that campaign. With Barrett’s work, this provides the first comprehensive view of that operation in English.

This book is a valuable addition to the library of those interested in WWI naval history and the war in the Baltic. The coverage of Russian operations, command structure dynamics and their impact on operational capability makes it worthy of recommendation to ANI members. More sadly, Timirev also explains how revolutionary activity destroyed the combat capability of the Russian Navy.

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