In November 1918, Soviets ships Oleg and Bogatyr took part in the aborted invasion of Estonia by the Red Army. The next year, Oleg was torpedoed and sunk on the night of 17th June 1919 by Royal Navy speedboat CMB-4 commanded by Captain Augustus Agar in an attack on the Red Navy facilities at Kronstadt. This is the story of Oleg’s sinking by HM Coastal Motor Boat 4 and how its captain (Augustus Agar) won the coveted Victoria Cross (VC) for his bravery, but because of the secrecy surrounding the mission, no details could be announced, and the award became known as the ‘mystery VC’ as the Russians placed a bounty on his head.
Picture Credit: The Russian protected cruiser Oleg was a Bogatyr-class protected cruiser.
Attribution: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_Cruiser_Oleg_LOC_16924u.jpg
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Why was the Sinking of the Oleg Important?
The Oleg was a Tier 3 Imperial Russian Bogatyr-class Cruiser. Its sinking during the Russian Civil War was considered an important event at the time. While Oleg’s sinking may not have had the same level of global significance as other naval battles or events that happened during World War I, it held significance within the context of the Russian Civil War and the ongoing conflict between the Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik forces.
First, the sinking of the Oleg by a British Royal Navy speedboat demonstrated the involvement of foreign powers in the Russian Civil War and the broader international dimension of the conflict. It highlighted the active naval operations and the efforts by the Allied forces to support the anti-Bolshevik factions.
Furthermore, the sinking of the Oleg was a significant blow to the Red Navy and the Bolshevik forces. It represented a loss of a prominent warship and demonstrated the effectiveness of the British naval operations against the Red Navy facilities at Kronstadt. In terms of its wider impact or historical significance, the sinking of the Oleg is typically viewed as one event among many during the Russian Civil War. However, it remains noteworthy as an episode that illustrates the complexities and foreign involvement in the conflict.
The Oleg was laid down at the Admiralty Shipyards at St. Petersburg on 6th July 1902, launched on 14th August 1903 and commissioned into the Russian Baltic Fleet on 24th June 1904. With the Russo-Japanese War already in progress, she was seconded to the Russian Second Pacific Squadron. The Bogatyr class were a group of protected cruisers built for the Imperial Russian Navy. Unusually for the Russian navy, two ships of the class were made for the Baltic Fleet and two ships for the Black Sea Fleet.
Due to his expertise in delivering supplies to the Russian Imperial forces via Arctic ports, Gus Agar was chosen by MI6 to command CMB4 and CMB7 in the northern Baltic Sea. Their mission was to provide support to land-based agents operating in the region. On the night of 17th June 1919, the captain of CMB-4, Augustus Agar, undertook a daring feat by manoeuvring through a series of obstacles, including forts, searchlights, formidable minefields, and a submerged invisible breakwater, to reach the Oleg. Agar successfully torpedoed and sank the Oleg during this operation.
Following that successful raid on Kronstadt harbour in June 2019, HMS Vindictive, an aircraft carrier, and additional CMBs joined the Baltic operation. On 18th August 1919, a more extensive attack was launched against the Russian fleet at Kronstadt as part of this ongoing operation.
Parts of Oleg were salvaged in 1919 and 1933, and the rest of hulk was raised for scrap a year before the start of World War II.
HM Coastal Motor Boat 4
HM CMB-4 was one of a large series of small, fast, shallow-draught Coastal Motor Boats used during the First World War. She was designed by John I. Thornycroft & Company of Hampton, England, ordered in January 1916, built by them and delivered that summer.
In May 1916, Lieutenant W. N. T. Beckett had assumed command of the newly constructed HM CMB-4. Later, in December 1916, he led the 3rd CMB Division to Dunkirk and conducted operations along the Belgian coast. On 7th April, Beckett commanded a Divisional CMB attack on German destroyers at Zeebrugge, resulting in the sinking of one destroyer and severe damage to another. Beckett was mentioned in Despatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for his actions.
HM CMB-4 had a draught of 9 inches (0.84 m) and was powered by a 275 bhp (205 kW) Thornycroft V-12 petrol engine, driving a single propeller. It could achieve a top speed of 24.8 knots (45.9 km/h). The boat was armed with one 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo and two single .303-inch (7.62 mm) LewisF machine guns, which were used in the attack on the Oleg. The crew consisted of only three members.
Under the command of Lieutenant Augustus Agar, the boat became well-known for its involvement in British operations against the Bolsheviks in the Baltic Sea in 1919 during the Russian Civil War. It participated in activities such as the raid on Kronstadt alongside its sister ships. After the operation, the boat was returned to the United Kingdom and displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London. It was later exhibited at the Vosper works on Platt’s Eyot in the River Thames near Kingston, with a painted Victoria Cross on its side. Following the closure of the Vosper works, the boat was restored and displayed at the Imperial War Museum Duxford near Cambridge, albeit without the painted VC.
In July 2019, the boat was moved to Boathouse 4 in the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, where it is on display above a full-size working replica. CMB 4 is owned by the Imperial War Museum and is on loan to Boathouse 4 until 2024. Agar’s VC is held by the War Museum in London.
The HM Coastal Motor Boat 4 was recognized as a historic vessel and was inscribed on the National Register of Historic Vessels in May 1996, becoming part of the National Historic Fleet.
Augustus Willington Shelton Agar, VC, DSO (4 January 1890 – 30 December 1968) was a Royal Navy officer in both the First and the Second World Wars. He received the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, for sinking the Soviet cruiser Oleg during the Russian Civil War.
The end of the First World War had found Agar at the CMB base at Osea Island in Essex, England. He was asked in late 1918 by Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of the foreign section of the British Secret Intelligence Service, to volunteer for a mission in the Baltic Sea, where CMBs were to be used to ferry British agents back and forth from Bolshevik Russia. The shallow draught and high speed of the CMB made it ideal for landing on enemy-occupied shores and making a quick getaway. Agar and his two boats were technically under the command of the Foreign Office (specifically Captain Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the head of MI6). Agar believed his small force should go beyond just acting as a shuttle service. Recognising the threat posed by the Bolsheviks, who had taken control of much of the Russian fleet at Kronstadt, Agar took it upon himself to attack the enemy battleships.
On 17th June 1919, Agar set out with two boats, HM Coastal Motor Boat 4 and another vessel. While one boat had to turn back, Agar continued into the bay. However, the battleships were not in the harbour. CMB4 managed to breach a destroyer screen and approached a larger warship closer to shore. Unfortunately, CMB-4, which had sustained hull damage from gunfire, broke down. It had to be taken alongside a breakwater for repairs, exposing itself to the enemy’s view for about twenty minutes. Once repairs were completed, the attack resumed, resulting in the sinking of the Russian cruiser Oleg. Agar then retreated under heavy fire to the safety of the open bay.
Picture Credit: A group of Naval VCs at a party given for holders of the Victoria Cross by King George V at Wellington Barracks. Gordon Charles Steele is second from the left and Augustus Agar is in the centre.
Attribution: BROOM ALBERT (MRS), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Group_of_Naval_VC%27s_-_IWM_Q66160.jpg
On 18th August 1919, Agar, with his remaining boat, acted as the guide-ship to a flotilla of six others, leading them through minefields and past forts to launch an attack on Kronstadt. Agar’s boat was ordered to remain outside the harbour while Commander Claude Dobson led the assault. During this operation, two battleships, Andrei Pervozvanny and Petropavlovsk, were damaged, and a submarine depot ship, Pamiat Azova, was sunk.
The British naval presence in the Baltic Sea played a crucial role in securing the independence of Estonia and Latvia.
In his naval biography, Footprints in the Sea, published in 1961, Agar described himself as “highly strung and imaginative.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that Agar “epitomises the ‘sea dog’ of British naval tradition: honourable, extremely brave and totally dedicated to King, country and the Royal Navy.” 
In his book Operation Fish, author Alfred Draper described Agar as a “slim, impeccably-uniformed man with an extremely courteous manner.” He had a reputation for expecting a lot from his men but looking out for their best interests as well. Arriving in Plymouth on Sunday, 29th October 1939, after a gruelling two months of continuous sea duty in the North Atlantic, he was informed that he had to get his damaged ship ready for sea in six days. He sent his men home for a much-needed rest and stayed himself to supervise dockyard repairs personally. He devised a means (drawing on his Murmansk experience in 1917–18) of getting steam heat into the mess decks so that the men coming from and going onto duty in the cold could get a “warm-up“.
Britain’s Involvement in the Russian Civil War
The Russian Civil War raged from 1918. During this time, the Bolsheviks faced massive opposition to their rule in the form of the White Armies, led by former officers of the Tsarist state, and also from intervention by the forces of foreign countries. The sinking of the Oleg happened during the Russian Civil War, during which Britain became involved in the conflict, primarily in support of the anti-Bolshevik forces. Here are some ways in which Britain was involved:
- Support for the White Movement: Britain provided military and financial assistance to the anti-Bolshevik forces, commonly called the White Movement. They aimed to overthrow the Bolshevik government and restore stability in Russia. The support included sending troops, supplies, and funds to assist the White Army.
- Intervention in Northern Russia: British forces, along with troops from other Allied countries, participated in the North Russia Intervention. This intervention aimed to secure Russian ports, support the White forces and prevent the German Empire from gaining control over Russian resources during World War I. British forces, particularly the Royal Navy and British Army, were involved in this campaign.
- Support for the Baltic States: Britain assisted the newly independent Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) during their conflicts with Soviet Russia. British naval forces played a role in supporting these states against Bolshevik forces.
- Economic and Political Interests: Britain, like other foreign powers, had economic and political interests in Russia during this period. They sought to protect their investments, maintain influence in the region, and prevent the spread of Bolshevism.
British involvement varied throughout the Russian Civil War, and it was not as extensive as that of other countries, such as Russia’s neighbouring states or France. The intervention eventually ended as the Allied forces withdrew and the Bolsheviks consolidated their power in Russia.
Britain gradually withdrew its forces from Russia during 1919 and 1920. The decision to withdraw was influenced by multiple factors, including the challenging conditions of the Russian Civil War, domestic political considerations, and changing priorities after the end of World War I. The withdrawal process was not carried out all at once, and it occurred over a period of time rather than on a specific date.
The Russian Civil War is generally considered to have ended in late 1922. The exact date can vary depending on the specific region and the cessation of major hostilities. The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, emerged victorious and established the Soviet Union. The last significant anti-Bolshevik resistance was overcome, and the White Movement’s military campaigns effectively ended. By late 1922, the Bolsheviks had consolidated their power and secured control over most of the territory of the former Russian Empire.
Coastal Motor Boats Remembered
The Imperial War Museum acknowledges the role played by Coastal Motor Boats:
“… These boats had a high speed, making use of the lightweight and powerful petrol engines then available, and each was crewed by just three men. They were armed in a variety of ways, with torpedoes, depth charges or for laying mines. Secondary armament was provided by light machine guns. The CMBs were designed by Thornycroft, who had experience in small fast boats. Engines were not proper maritime internal combustion engines (as these were in short supply) but adapted aircraft engines from firms such as Sunbeam and Napier. The concept of a small fast boat that could inflict serious damage and quickly escape went on to be developed further with Motor Torpedo Boats ( MTBs ) in WW2.”
The Portsmouth Naval Base PropertyTrust says:
“CMB 4 took part in raids on Zeebrugge and Oostende but, most famously, in two raids on the Bolshevik fleet in the port of Kronstadt in June and August 1919. In the first daring raid, the cruiser “Oleg” was sunk outside Kronstadt Harbour, for which her commanding officer, Lieutenant Augustus Agar, was awarded the Victoria Cross and promoted to Lieutenant Commander. Seven CMBs took part in the second raid for which two other officers were awarded VCs and Agar was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.”
Sources and Further Reading
- Hit and Run – Motor Torpedo Boats in World War 1, at: https://youtu.be/jGMZwowdeZo
- Ottoman Destroyers & Torpedo Boats of World War I ( 1914-1918), at: https://youtu.be/e_IkWAYs3Zw
- Torpedo Boats, 1910’s – Film 35932, at: https://youtu.be/G4itO0t8S60
- COASTAL FORCES – ‘Cradle of the Power Boat’ – THE BRITISH POWER BOAT COMPANY, Hythe, Southampton, at: https://youtu.be/TFrnp83UvDw
- Hit and Run – Motor Torpedo Boats in World War 1: THE GREAT WAR Special, at: https://youtu.be/jGMZwowdeZo
- Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906–1921. by Ian Randall (author), published by Conway Maritime Press Ltd, available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-Worlds-Fighting-1906-1921-History/dp/0851772455/
- The Imperial Russian Navy, by Anthony J. Watts (1990), published by Weidenfeld Military, available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Imperial-Russian-Navy-Anthony-Watts/dp/0853689121/
- Footprints in the Sea, by Commodore Augustus Agar (1959), published by Evans Brothers (unverified), it is currently unavailable at Amazon UK.
- Imperial Russian Navy (Conway’s naval history after 1850), Hardcover, 31 Dec. 1983, by Fred T. Jane (Author), published by Conway Maritime Press, available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/IMPERIAL-RUSSIAN-Conways-naval-history/dp/0851772951/
- The Oleg Affair: A Naval Episode of the Russian Civil War, by Hugh Walpole. The publisher and availability are unknown. This book, published in 1919, provides an account of the sinking of the Oleg and its context within the Russian Civil War. It offers a firsthand perspective by an eyewitness to the events.
- The Baltic States and Weimar Ostpolitik, by John Hiden. While not solely dedicated to the sinking of the Oleg, this book explores the wider context of British involvement in the Baltic region during the Russian Civil War, including naval operations. Published by Osprey Publishing and available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baltic-States-Weimar-Ostpolitik/dp/0521893259/
- Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-17, by Prit Buttar. Although this book primarily focuses on the Eastern Front of World War I, it covers the later stages of the conflict and the subsequent Russian Civil War. It may provide some information on the sinking of the Oleg in its discussion of the naval operations during the period. Published by Osprey Publishing and available from: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Russias-Last-Gasp-Eastern-1916-17/dp/147282489X/
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End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- Note: There are varying accounts regarding the exact date of the sinking of the Soviet cruiser Oleg. Some sources state that it occurred on the night of 17th June 1919, while others indicate it was on the night of 18th June 1919. ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_cruiser_Oleg ↑
- Source: http://gbcovercollector.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/1984_65th-Anniversary-Sinking-of-the-Russian-Cruiser-Oleg-by-CMB4-BFPS_6045.jpg ↑
- Explanation: Protected cruisers, a type of cruising warship of the late-19th century, gained their description because an armoured deck offered protection for vital machine spaces from fragments caused by shells exploding above them. Protected cruisers resembled armoured cruisers, which had in addition a belt of armour along the sides. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_cruiser ↑
- Source and Acknowledgement: https://www.historyhit.com/the-hornets-of-sea-the-world-war-one-coastal-motor-boats-of-the-royal-navy/ ↑
- Source: Andrew Cashmore (16 September 1999). “Pre-dreadnought Andrei Pervozvanny”. Warships on the Web. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_Agar ↑
- Source: Andrew Cashmore (15 September 1999). “Dreadnought Petropavlovsk”. Warships on the Web. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_Agar ↑
- Source: “No. 31516”. The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 August 1919. p. 10631. ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus_Agar ↑
- Source: Ibid. ↑
- At: https://livesofthefirstworldwar.iwm.org.uk/community/2692 ↑
- Source and Acknowledgement: https://www.pnbpropertytrust.org/historic-boats/boatdetails/cmb-4-coastal-motor-boat/80/ ↑