Many Brits who grew up in the Cold War spent some time worrying about the possibility of Russian tank divisions advancing up Whitehall. That didn’t happen, but British invasions of Russian soil and Russian water have happened.
In 1807, after signing the Treaty of Tilsit with France, Russia was forced by Napoleon to declare war on us. We promptly responded by seizing the payroll of a Russian Mediterranean flotilla, which happened to be sitting handily in Portsmouth harbour, and then we sent Vice Admiral Sir James Saumarez to the Baltic with a fleet. Saumarez subsequently proceeded to annoy and harry the Russians in the area, getting involved in a number of actions and also attempting to blockade the Russian naval base at Kronstadt (outside St Petersburg).
Not content with operating only in the Baltic, we ventured as far as the Barents Sea and White Sea. HMS Nyaden, which we had originally nicked off the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1807, launched a number of successful raids in the area in the summer of 1809, capturing assorted vessels and launching a night raid on a Russian garrison on Kildin Island. We also briefly took control of Catherine Harbour in the Kola region and seized assorted stores there.
Eventually, after Napoleon invaded Russia, the Russians, for fairly obvious reasons, made peace with us.
In the 1850s, we were back. The Crimean War is, not unreasonably, known as the Crimean War because a lot of it took place in the Crimea. The region is now part of Ukraine, so we’ll look at that part of the war in the Ukraine section. What is not so well known is that there was plenty of action going on outside the Crimea as well.
Once again, there was a lot happening in the Baltic region. In 1854, for instance, British and French ships made a couple of attempts against the Russian naval base at Kronstadt. And again there was action in the Kola region. On 23 July 1854, our ships Miranda and Brisk attacked the town of Novitksa. Then, on 23 August, the Miranda anchored off the town of Kola, demanding its surrender. When no surrender was forthcoming, the ship opened fire on the shore batteries and sent a landing party which captured the guns and put the garrison to flight. Government stores and buildings went up in flames.
But this time our operations also extended much further. In the south, along with actions in the Crimea, we operated more widely in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Several times we attacked the Russian port of Taganrog, the taking of which would have opened the way for us to the important strategic city of Rostov on Don. In the summer of 1855, a British and French squadron arrived off Taganrog and demanded its surrender. When surrender was refused, we bombarded Taganrog and then sent troops ashore to take it. This assault was beaten back by the defenders. The British and French ships retreated, only to return to bombard Taganrog again and make a failed attempt to enter the Don and then to return a third time and make another failed attack on the port.
We even attacked Russia’s Pacific coast, with a fairly disastrous (disastrous for us and our French allies, that is) attempt to capture Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. A British and French squadron bombarded the town and put a landing party ashore to try to take it, but the landing party was ambushed by the Russians and we and the French had to withdraw. For most of the First World War the Russians were our allies, but the revolution in Russia led to the country quitting the war and set the stage for our next invasions, this time to counter the Bolsheviks.
Our troops operated on a number of different fronts.
Campaigns in the Caucasus and the Caspian region are mainly dealt with elsewhere, but we also attacked territory in the region relevant to this section. For instance, British planes from Petrovsk bombed targets in Grozny and British planes from Baku bombed docks and shipping at Astrakhan.
Unsurprisingly, bearing in mind our past record in conflicts with Russia, the Royal Navy was active once more. In the Baltic, we blockaded the Russian fleet in Kronstadt, yet again, and not only that, a couple of daring raids by British Coastal Motor Boats were launched into Kronstadt Harbour itself, in which a number of Russian ships were sunk or damaged. On 17 June 1919, Augustine Agar set off with two Coastal Motor Boats. One had to turn back, but he pressed on with his boat, making his way through a destroyer screen. He had to stop to repair the boat after the hull had been hit, and he sank the Russian cruiser Oleg before escaping under heavy fire. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his achievement, and a promotion.
In the White Sea region, operations included running a river force on the northern Dvina River.
This war also involved substantial land invasions in both the north and east of Russia as well.
In the north of Russia, in the summer of 1918, a British expeditionary force arrived to take control of Murmansk, and the North Russia Relief Force occupied Archangel. Along with Brits, there were also French and Americans, and a number of other nationalities, fighting the Bolsheviks in this area. Ultimately, though, it was decided that the intervention was not achieving much and the British troops were withdrawn. You can still see a captured British tank in Archangel today.
It was in the east, in Siberia, that perhaps our most spectacular invasion of Russia took place, an intervention which, though again achieving very little, still deserves to be better known, especially for the staggering distance our troops penetrated into Russia. It was an international intervention, including Britons, Americans, Canadians, Italians, Japanese, Poles and French. The 543 men of the 25th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment landed in July 1918 and, after fighting against Red partisans on the Ussuri, advanced as far as Omsk, positioning garrisons along the railway lines to protect them. In October 1918, the 9th Battalion of the Royal Hampshire Regiment arrived in Vladivostok and headed for Omsk too. It’s worth taking a look at a map to see just where Omsk is in Russia. It’s a long, long way from Vladivostok. However, as the White forces opposing the Red Army began to crumble, it became increasingly obvious that this intervention wasn’t achieving anything much either, and British forces were withdrawn in 1920.