On Sun. 21st Mar. 1920 we received orders to evacuate Novorossisk. By Tuesday 23rd Mar. 1920 we had packed up nearly all our stores & had broken up all our engines, both air and motor & had all our preparations made for the evacuation. After blowing up our ammunition dump & setting fire to all our stores we hadn’t time to take with us, we went on board the “H.M.S. Hanover” at 2:30pm on Friday 26th Mar. 1920 & sailed at 11:30pm on the same date.
The main task of the British Mission, even from the start, had been to organise the millions of punds worth of stores and ammunition donated to the White Army by the British and to assist in the evacuation of the British Army from Russia. In the event it seems men like my granddad were destroying stores as soon as they came in. Much of it had never got anywhere near the front and officers and civilians far behind the lines tended to be more well dressed than any of the por blighters figting off the Bolsheviks. Porstitues in Novorossisk were often to found wearing British nurses uniforms, though I imagine they may have adapted them somewaht. Ironically, as they were beating a hasty retreat, when it was too laste, the White Army had more access to supplies.
Damien Wright in his book Churchill’s Secret War… describes the docks being scattered with every conceivable type of military equipment at this point and the Army Service Corps were working in shifts to push container after container of supplies into the Black Sea to prevent them getting into the hands of the Bolsheviks (WRight, p.423). Presumably granddad was one of these men. General Bridges, in direct command of the evacuation, could not bear to destroy the food in a country where famine was rife so the perishables were left to the Bolsheviks.
Two Sopwith Camels had been brought to Novorossisk on board the Baron Beck and they were assembled ready to fly in an emergency. The long, straight breakwater at the entrance to the harbour was the intended runway but when the seaplane carrier HMS Pegasus arrived in the port the Camels were dismantled on 26 March and shipped out.
Those planes were unusual in that they were salvaged. A number of Sopwirth Camels, RE8s and DH9s were deliberately crushed under the tracks of a tank which was then driven off the end of the wharf. Being attached to the RAF granddad would also probably have been party to the destruction of the planes on the docks, some, it was claimed by Marian Aten in his book Last Train Over Rostov Bridge, were still in their crates.
A Flight (Kuban Group) of the RAF 47th squadron left on March 24th on board the Baron Beck (Wright, p.419) while B Flight left the same night as my granddad who was on one of the last ships, if not the last ship out. B Flight were part of 4000 service men on the Baron Beck, which had berths for only 1500, while granddad was with the British Mission on board the SS Hannover (as opposed to the HMS Hanover which granddad calls it. That is another ship entirely) (Wright p.424).
Our ship left harbour under shell fire from the Bolshie guns. The Bolshies started shelling ships in the harbour and sunk one foreign ship. One of our warships named the “Emperor of India” & some of our destroyers which were in the harbour shelled the hills all round Novorossisk where the Bolshies were & then they blew up the town.
On that last day The Emperor of India was joined by the French cruiser the Waldeck Rousseau, in lobbing huge shells at the Red Army as they came into the town. In the chaos snipers hot at each other and at civilians from the roof tops while a massive black cloud of smoke form the burning stores blocked out the sun. My granddad suggests it was the burning oil wells that created the smoke(Wright, p.423).
When our ship was lying outside the harbour all the oil-wells which surrounded the town were on fire & there was hardly a house standing.
The comes one of the strangest lines in the diary. We have noted that there is little in the way of emotion in the sparse descriptions of sights like frozen corpses or executed prisoners but once at least there was the expression ‘It was a terrible sight to see..’
Here, at what sounds like the end of all things, with the sun extinguished first by smoke and then by flaming night, the choking air punctuated with the cries of those desperate to be rescued and of the dying, the waters of the harbour ‘full with bloated bodies of horses’, as H.N.H Williamson says in his description of the Cossacks plight at the time, not to mention the bodies of people, I imagine, granddad stands, in his memory, on the crowded deck looking back at the devastated city and writes…
It was a lovely sight to see.
As an artist I can understand the power of the visual that was spread before him. How many of us expect to see in our life times the sight of the world on fire?It is an image I am itching to paint, but it will have to wait for the publication of the book. But lovely?
Granddad was, like many men of his time, quite detached from his feelings even more so than most. Even though he spent the rest of his life as a Garda, embedded in the small communities he served, though he continued to be social, he remained very self-contained, distant even. This little notebook is the only clue to any feelings he might have had at this time. On board the SS Hannover, after months of tension, of waiting to be attacked, of being attacked, of seeing misery and death everywhere, to see the whole thing go up in flames as one sailed safely out of reach must have caused a feeling of release in those watching though they would have been aware too of the fate of many of those souls they were leaving behind. It would have been a hard feeling to reconcile with such suffering but very human nonetheless. The worst had happened and they had survived. At least they left knowing they had done what they could.
Konstantin Paustovsky who was there at the time, writes a less fiery but possible even more chilling, affecting account, some of which I included in a previous post. The chapter ended thus…
Suddenly the docks emptied. People hurled themselves back into the alleys, into the chinks of the port.
Riding slowly down the slope littered with broken baggage, torn clothes and here and there a body trampled to death, came a Soviet mounted patrol.
The men rode with their heads bowed, as though lost in thought. They pulled up beside the bodies, dismounted and bent over them, trying to see if any were alive-but none were.
The horsemen rode to the end of the breakwater, halted and for a long time watched the ships.
(Paustovsky, p.220, quoted in Wright, p.424)
After sailing from Novorossisk on the “H.M.S. Hanover” we arrived at Theodosia which is in Crimea at 10am on Saturday 27th Mar. 1920. At 11am on Sun. 28th Mar. 1920 we were taken for a route march round the town of Theodosia. At 2pm on the same date General Holman called us altogether on the quayside and thanked us for the good work we done while serving in Russia.
Theodosia was on the south-east coast of the Crimea and described by one soldier stationed there as ‘not unlike Lyme Regis’ (Kinvig, p.313). The British Mission in the Crimea was smaller and would be headed by Brigadier General Percy while General Holman returned to Britain. Percy would address the last of the British Mission at Theodosia on April 4th.
We sailed from Theodosia on the same troopship at 5:30am on Monday 27th March 1920 and disembarked at Constantinople at 12 noon on Sat. 3rd April 1920.
Next: Quarantine & A Fez.
Further Reading & References
Aten, M., (1961), Last Train over Rostov Bridge, 2010 ed., London:Ashgrove Publishing
Gunn, R., (2013), Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight, Toronto:Dundern.
Kapisto, L., (2011), British Intervention in South Russia, Helsinki:Helsinki University.
Kinvig, C., (2006), Churchill’s Crusade:The British Invasion of Russia 1918-1920, New York:Hambledon Continuum.
Occleshaw, m., (2006), Dances in Deep Shadows:Britains Clandestine War in Russia 1917-1920, London:Constable & Robinson.
Paustovsky, K., (1968), Stories of a Life, London:Harvill Press.
Smith, J., T., (2010), Gone to RussPaustovsky, K., (1968), Stories of a Life, London:Harvill Press.ia to Fight: The RAF in South Russia 1918-1920, London:Amberley.
Williamson, H.N.H, (1971), Farewell to the Don, New York:The John Day Company.
Wright, D., (2017), Churchill’s Secret War:British & Commonwealth Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1918-1920, Solihull:Helion Publishing.