Book Review: Operation Albion: The German Conquest of the Baltic Islands

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by Michael B. Barrett

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 298. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN:0253349699

While considerable interest in World War I has been evident over the past decade, much of this attention has remained devoted to the traditional realm of study about the war, the Western Front, with some little attention to other theaters, most notably the Middle East.  The Eastern Front, however, has received scant consideration.  One Eastern Front operation that has garnered some attention lately is the joint operation mounted by the Germans to take the Baltic islands, to include an article by this reviewer.  Now Michael Barrett gives us a book length account of this most interesting operation.

Barrett suggests that the operation is worth close scrutiny because of so many unusual aspects attached to it.  The invasion of the Baltic islands of Oesel, Moon, and Dagö, critical to the control of the Gulf of Riga, featured the creation of a joint planning staff by the Germans, an amphibious landing, extensive use of all manner of aircraft, including zeppelins, the employment of bicycle troops, and naval combat.

Barrett begins with an extensive discussion of the Baltic and its strategic importance in World War I.  Initially considered an area of minor importance, the value of the Baltic had increased considerably by the middle of 1917.  Both the German Army and Navy had reasons for undertaking the operation in the autumn of 1917.  The Army, after the collapse of the Kerensky Offensive, was seeking a decisive success that could finally knock Russia out of the war.

One such alternative, as envisioned by the German high command, was the capture of Petrograd.  The taking of Riga and the islands that controlled Gulf of Riga were essential to taking Petrograd, as Riga would serve as the major supply base from which the advance could be launched.

The German Navy also had a variety of reasons for undertaking the operation.  One area of uncertainty is the naval mutinies that occurred in July and August of 1917.  Barrett overlooks the fact that all of the heavy ships of the High Seas Fleet committed to the Baltic operation had suffered serious disturbances in the summer of 1917.  He endorses the idea that the Navy desired to undertake the operation to show that it was capable of some major activity.  Barrett also portrays the High Seas Fleet and the Admiralty Staff as being in full agreement,  an interpretation not universally accepted by other students of the campaign. 

Given the go ahead by Erich Ludendorff, and "official" sanction by the Kaiser (by then reduced to a figurehead), both Army and Navy planning got underway.  Barrett provides a detailed account of this, and of the material preparations for the operation.

Barrett covers the conduct of both land and sea operations in extensive detail.  Access to Russian records also allowed Barrett to cover the Russian side of the operation in some detail as well.

Although the Russians had erected formidable defenses around the islands, and had some able commanders, the Russian effort was undone by sagging morale and mutinous behavior endemic in both the army and navy.  Low Russian morale was something German planners had counted on, and one of the things that allowed the Germans to take some long chances once ashore, especially when a light force composed of bicycle troops was sent to take the causeway between Oesel and Moon.  Although in some cases both the Russian Army and Navy fought well, resistance collapsed rather quickly.

Barrett has supplemented his very well- researched account with several useful maps and a number of very interesting photographs.  This book will remain the definitive account of this most unusual operation in World War I for sometime to come.
Reviewer: Richard L. DiNardo, USMC C&S College, Quantico   


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