Entertaining story. Given the events and the time since they occurred....it's a fun read, but I wouldn't use this as a reference concerning the actual events as they happened. In no way do I disparage the men involved, their courage is not in doubt. I just felt like I was reading a screen play.
OPERATION KRONSTADT: THE TRUE STORY OF HONOR, ESPIONAGE, AND THE RESCUE OF BRITAIN'S GREATEST SPY, THE MAN WITH A HUNDRED FACES HARRY FERGUSON THE OVERLOOK PRESS, 2009 HARDCOVER, $26.95, 384 PAGES, PHOTOGRAPHS, MAPS, APPENDICES
Although often perfunctorily treated in Anglo-American accounts, Baltic naval operations between 1914-1922, German and Russian naval control of the Baltic Sea centered on two major objectives-the continued and uninterrupted supply of iron ore from Sweden to Germany and the steady flow of war supplies to and from Russia to her Allies. During the early days of October, 1914, British submarines, E-1 and E-3, were dispatched to the Baltic. By the end of that month, both had made the hazardous transit to Libau in Courland, where they were to operate from. But fearing a German attack, the Russians destroyed the facilities and mined the approaches. The E-Boats then had to base off from Finland. Although many sinkings in the Baltic would be attributed to the British submarines, most were in fact caused by Russian mines, which were the primary threat.
In light of these earlier naval activities, the British could take the lead in intervening in the Baltic from 1918 to 1920 due to the geographic proximity of these countries and the ready availability of the Royal Navy. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been quick to seek independence from Russia in 1917 but the Germans had occupied all three countries and would remain in control of these Baltic states until the Armistice ending World War I on 11 November 1918. The terms of the Armistice required substantial German forces to remain in the Baltic as a hedge against Bolshevik expansion until released from such duty by the Allies.
In late November, 1918, the Estonian National Council, which hadn't yet had time to establish a fully-functioning government, asked for British troops and warships in order to deter an invasion by the Red Army. In response, Britain sent munitions and ships of the Royal Navy, but no ground forces. In December, 1918, the Red Army began to invade Estonia and Latvia with their 7th Army, aided by internal Bolshevik insurrections. The Germans re-organized their forces, the most reliable elements and volunteer being placed under the command of Major General Rudiger von der Goltz.
The British faced several daunting challenges. Rear Admiral Walter Cowan took charge of naval operations in January, 1919 and a full military mission arrived in Estonia under Lt. General Sir Hubert Gough in May, 1919. Gough had to assist the new Baltic nations on their road to independence while using slender British resources to control the Germans in accordance with their treaty obligations. This meant holding back the spread of Bolshevism into Europe while thwarting the Germans in their real intentions to create a territorial enclave in the Baltic. Additionally, he had to nurture the small but growing force of White Russians under General A.P. Rodzianko that had formed in Estonia to fight the Bolsheviks.
In all, Cowan variously commanded 238 ships in 1918, which included 2 Italian, 14 American, and 26 French ships. Understanding that he would have to neutralize the Red Baltic Sea Fleet, Cowan establsihed an advance naval base at Biorko Sound on the Finnish coast. With the Germans gone, Finland, led by its regent, General Mannerheim, cooperated with the Allies. From Biorko, Cowan duelled with the Red Fleet based at Kronstadt, a fortified island in the Bay of Petrograd that was protected by minefields.
Enter Paul Dukes, a 30-year old British concert pianist from Somerset, and the only British spy in Russia. A master of disguise dubbed "The Man With A Hundred Faces," he managed to infiltrate the Bolshevik government and steal Top Secret information of crucial importance, before being cut off in Petrograd.
With the government in London desperately in need of a personal briefing and the documents in Dukes' possession, and with the feared Cheka or Soviet secret police closing in, a plan-seemingly suicidal-was hatched to rescue him.
Enter 29-year old Lieutenant Augustus or Gus Agar who longed for the thrill of war, and his handpicked team of seven men would board plywood coastal motorboats (CMBs)-the fastest naval vessels in existence-each armed with only two machine guns and a single torpedo-and head into the jaws of the Red Fleet surrounding the island fortress of Kronstadt-the best defended naval target in Russia at the time. Their objective: save Paul Dukes.
To coincide and cover Agar's mission, Cowan launched aerial attacks on Kronstadt using seaplanes launched from the HMS Vindictive on the night of August 17-18, 1919. This distracted enemy gun and anti-aircraft fire while Agar's CMBs, skimmimng over the minefields (thanks to their shallow draught), slipped into Kronstadt. The CMBs launched torpedoes point-blank into several Red ships at the cost of 8 killed and 9 taken prisoner.
OPERATION KRONSTADT: THE TRUE STORY OF HONOR, ESPIONAGE, AND THE RESCUE OF BRITAIN'S GREATEST SPY, THE MAN WITH A HUNDRED FACES is an exceptional read in the tradition of both Ian Fleming and Rudyard Kipling. While many will think this account is fictional, it isn't. I agree with the mistakes pointed out by reviewer Nikolai Skrynnikov but this is still a thrilling account of the only knighted agent in the field-Paul Dukes and recipient of Britain's highest decoration-Gus Agar is an excellant and impressive account of a covert operation during those dark days of the Russian Civil War.
Lt. Colonel Robert A. Lynn, Florida Guard Orlando, Florida
It's an interesting book. The context is...odd. We begin with the necessity of getting a British spy out of Revolutionary Russia, Petrograd, to be exact. The scheme involves a couple of fast, small torpedo boats, of the kind described in Faulkner's "Turnabout". They were to be based in Finland, then neutral, run up the Gulf of Riga, past the fortresses guarding the naval approaches to Petrograd and get the guy. In high summer when there is little night for cover. From the beginning, Ferguson tells us, the Brit intel agency/agencies are full of the incompetence, backbiting, personal jealousy, turf wars, treachery (against your own people), and all the other things we thought John LeCarre made up. And it started at least as far back as...the time of Operation Kronstadt. To add to the fun, Ferguson is a former MI6 officer. Who tells us the place never got better. Or maybe that's what they want you to think Under a picture of him on the book jacket, we discover he was also an undercover investigator for the National Investigation Service. Maybe it's a picture of some other guy. The heroes of the story are the Navy guys led by Gus Agar who take the torpedo boats to Finland, find facilities for them, and prepare for the extraction, running couriers in the meantime and sinking a Bolshevik cruiser despite orders not to. And Paul Dukes, a spy of inhuman nerve and such skill that he has networks into Moscow and into the Party itself. Of course, both heroes are thwarted at practically every turn by the intel guys involved in the op. Things heat up in the Gulf, with the Bolshy navy shelling one of the fortresses which seems to have risen up against the Revolution and taken up with the Whites. So the Brits send a half dozen more torpedo boats and tell the guys to sink the Bolshevik heavies in Petrograd harbor. Also keeping their presence secret, or something, so they can get the spy out. One of the tragic aspects of this case is that of all the incredible intel Dukes and his networks sacrificed so much for, none of it was of any visible use. There was nothing the Brits were going to do with it. The Whites were not a competitor with the Reds for a new Russia. Their view was that the Tsar and Tsardom needed to be restored. Among other things, independence for the Baltic republics was a non-starter. They actively sabotaged efforts to help them because they didn't want the Brit volunteers to get the credit, nor did they want things to be any different than they had been in, say, 1910. There was not likely to be much sympathy among the long-suffering Russian people for the goal. Given this, the Brits, a sea power, were never in a position to swing much weight on the Eurasian land mass, over a front (loosely speaking) that reached from the Arctic Circle to the Caspian and included tens of millions of people going in various directions. The book is an interesting read. Ferguson alternates from the efforts of Dukes, the spy, to those of Agar, the naval officer. If you ever wanted to be a spy, the adventures of Dukes and his cohorts, and the horrifying deaths of some of them, willl cure you immediately. Dukes, it should go without saying, was one of those brlliant amateurs the Brits throw up so frequently. He was a concert pianist with an unhappy childhood who had been refused enlistment due to a medical condition. Ferguson hints that his guilt at avoiding the immense sacrifice of WW I may have been one of his motivations. His attempts to get a pre-war career going in Russia had given him some contacts and language skills which made the whole thing possible. Agar's story reminds us that professional officers do more than lead gallantly into battle. They overcome obstacles of all kinds, from maintenance to personnel, to supplies, to uncertain allies. This is an interesting book because, among other things, it gives us a look at the uncertain and disorganized times immediately following WW I. Most history goes from Armistice Day to the Jazz Age. Not so. The Brits, for example, did not declare war on the Bolsheviks. They merely said they were in a state of war with the Red. Which is why--why was that, anyway?--they wanted Agar to take his plywood fleet past the fortresses and sink some tens of thousands of tons of Red heavy combat ships. The actual end of the whole thing didn't seem to have been thought out. It's an interesting book about a disturbing time. And the fun is that LeCarre seems to have been right. Unless that's what they want you to think.