Britain’s Forgotten War With the Soviets

By Damien Wright

Why should such a remarkable event as the two-year campaign by the British Government to militarily defeat the Bolsheviks (later known as the ‘Soviets’) on Russian soil be virtually forgotten today?

From August 1918-July 1920 – initially in an attempt to restore a ‘White Russian’ Government to power, which would recommence hostilities on the Eastern Front after Lenin’s Revolutionary Bolsheviks signed a peace agreement with the Central Powers (considered a great betrayal by Britain and France) – the British Government sent troops, ships and the most modern planes and tanks in the British arsenal to fight the Red Army on the ground in Russia.

When I first developed an interest in the campaign some years ago, asking around British military history circles, few knew anything at all about the British campaign in Russia after the First World War, which seemed bizarre, given the significance of the Secretary of State for War – Winston Churchill – pursuing an undeclared war against the first leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. The ultimate victory of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War – and the establishment of the Soviet Union – would shape most of the 20th century, so why should this fascinating and important period of British military history be so neglected and forgotten?

Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin: British and Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 is the culmination of more than 15 years of research, including trawling through many thousands of pages from National Archives in the UK, Australia and Canada, as well as many diaries, photographs, letters and unpublished private papers generously donated by families of servicemen from across the Commonwealth (particularly the UK, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). Without the generous contributions of family members whose relatives served in Russia, the book would not have been possible.

The highlight of my research into the campaign was meeting with Mrs Victoria Christen (née Pearse) – the daughter of Sergeant Samuel George Pearse VC MM, an Australian ‘North Russia Relief Force’ volunteer killed in action in August 1919 and awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Victoria was born after her father’s death and, at the private presentation of the VC to Pearse’s widow in 1920, Queen Mary nursed baby Victoria – remarking how sad it was that the little girl should have to grow up without her father.

Readers of Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin may be surprised to learn that the last British servicemen to be killed by the German Army during the First World War met their fate in the Baltic in October 1919 – almost a year after the Armistice. In fact they were not soldiers at all, but nine Royal Navy sailors of the cruiser HMS Dragon struck by shells fired by German ‘Iron Division’ troops ashore in Latvia, who considered the Armistice to apply to the Western Front only and not themselves in the Baltic.

British and Commonwealth servicemen held as POW’s of the Soviets in Moscow, winter 1919-20

Readers may also be surprised to learn that the first Soviet submarine kill in history was a Royal Navy destroyer – HMS Vittoria – which was sunk by torpedoes fired from the Soviet submarine Pantera in the Baltic Sea in 1919, or that the RAF and Red Air Force fought each other in the skies over Russia, or that the last Canadian and Australian soldiers to be killed in action in the First World War met their fate in North Russia in 1919 (many months after the Armistice). It is likely that readers will never have heard that the first tanks to capture Stalingrad were British crewed Tank Corps Mark V’s albeit it was June 1919 and the city was still named ‘Tsaritsyn’ or of the more than a hundred British and Commonwealth servicemen from all three services (including a VC recipient) who were held as POWs by the Soviets in Moscow. It is also a little-known fact that the bodies of nearly a thousand British and Commonwealth servicemen who died fighting the Soviets remain buried in Russian soil.

Immediately after withdrawal in mid-1920, the British Government attempted to cover up their involvement in Russia by classifying all official documents relating to the campaign under the ‘50 year’ rule. By the time the files were quietly released decades later, there was very little public interest.

Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin fills a huge gap in the knowledge of modern British and Commonwealth military history. Imagine if the British attempt to overthrow the Bolsheviks had been successful and there had never been a Soviet Union… the ramifications would have been enormous, and the world we live in today would be very different indeed.

Churchill’s Secret War with Lenin: British and Commonwealth Military Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 by Damien Wright is available for purchase here.


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