Gallery: First World War - Great-uncle George Smith was sent to rescue a spy from Russia
Did a broken heart prompt Suffolk sailor George Smith to volunteer for a brave if virtually-suicidal secret mission in the Baltic? Steven Russell meets a family still seeking the whole truth
For Able Seaman George Smith, the First World War didn’t end when the guns fell silent in 1918. The young man signed up for a bizarre military operation that the following summer aimed to put Russia in its place and whisk away a British spy from under its nose.
It was an astonishingly risky initiative – prepared for partly in Essex and led by a man who, like George, had spent his schooldays in Suffolk. If George’s immediate family knew how it turned out, they never much talked about it. Later generations knew little of his bravery.
As with virtually all stories of the past, details vary between the different accounts that later emerged, but it seems this is pretty much what happened during the “Kronstadt Raid” of 1919.
The Russian revolution less than 24 months earlier had put power in the hands of the Bolshevik/Communists – though the situation was unstable – and the British intelligence services were worried about the threat to our shipping interests.
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Enter clergyman’s son Paul Dukes, a concert pianist who had studied in St Petersburg. He started spying for MI6 in 1918, reporting on what the Bolsheviks were planning and how strong they were.
Dukes helped White Russians (the “other side” in the civil war) flee to safety in Finland. Skilled in the art of disguise, he became known as The Man with A Hundred Faces. Dukes (codenamed ST25) infiltrated the Communist Party and even the secret police, feeding information back to the intelligence authorities.
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When the Government decided it needed key documents he possessed, and to speak to Dukes face to face about what was going on in Russia, the head of MI6 turned to former Framlingham College student and naval lieutenant Augustus Agar (“ST34”) to extract the spy from under the noses of the Bolsheviks.
Catch number one: It would mean entering the Gulf of Finland and getting past an imposing island fortress – Kronstadt – guarding the entrance to St Petersburg (Petrograd in those days).
Stealth and agility were crucial, so the plan involved using high-speed coastal motor boats (CMBs in naval jargon) that could skim across the waters of the Baltic at up to 45mph.
Gus Agar was an expert in using them and was stationed at HMS Osea. The island in the River Blackwater, near Maldon, was a motor boat base during the First World War, with about 2,000 men living there.
Catch number two: CMBs might have been nimble but they were also pretty flimsy. They were made of plywood, which offered virtually no protection from Russian bullets. About 40 feet long, they carried three people, a couple of machine-guns and – usually – just one torpedo.
Not for the faint-hearted.
To make matters worse, the vast Gulf of Finland wasn’t the safest of places. There were mines to contend with, searchlights and gunboat patrols to dodge, and even seaplanes and submarines to worry about.
There was also a hidden threat: a kind of breakwater lurking three feet beneath the surface. The CMBs would clear it by only three inches or so as they headed for the coast.
As he put together his team for the hazardous mission, Gus Agar was told to select single men with no close dependants. The clear implication was they might not be coming back.
They would certainly be on their own if caught. Britain wouldn’t acknowledge the servicemen if anything went wrong, and the Bolsheviks would doubtless torture them before putting them out of their misery. In the summer of 1919, Agar’s team of six sailed for Finland on a commercial ship, posing as salesmen hoping to offload CMBs as leisure craft. The vital hardware – equipment needed to fire torpedoes, plus the machine-guns – masqueraded as engine spares.
They settled themselves in a little Finnish village on the Gulf, about 13 miles from Kronstadt. A church steeple proved a great vantage point. As he waited, Agar looked across the water, where the Russian cruiser Oleg fired at White Russian troops trapped in a fort.
Acting off his own bat, without official approval, he decided to attack the 440ft ship at about midnight on June 17. One of the CMBs was affected by engine problems, but the other managed to dodge between three Russian destroyers and unleash its torpedo.
The motor boat immediately came under fire – some shells landing only 10 yards from the vulnerable British boat – but the sailors survived… and the Oleg sank.
Far from being carpeted for this maverick action, Agar was awarded the Victoria Cross – though his identity was kept secret and he became known as “the mystery VC”. Just as well, for the Bolsheviks placed a £5,000 bounty on the head of the man who had sunk one of their vessels in their own backyard.
That wasn’t the end of it. A plan was hatched to send a raiding party of seven CMBs into Kronstadt harbour’s naval base in the early hours of August 18. It was known as Operation RK.
It was at this point that George Smith became involved, it seems. The Suffolk-born sailor had been at Osea from July 11 to 15, and was then assigned to His Majesty’s Coastal Motor Boat 79a from July 16.
A month later, the CMBs damaged two Russian battleships and sank a supply vessel, earning Agar the Distinguished Service Order and Victoria Crosses for two other men. The cost to Britain was the loss of eight men. Nine others were taken prisoner.
On subsequent nights, Agar made two unsuccessful attempts to pick up the spy Dukes. The second time, his boat was blown out of the water and the Russians believed he was dead. Dukes did too. Thinking his chance of a “lift” had vanished, he shook off the secret police and escaped through Latvia, managing to make his way to England with secret documents copied onto tissue paper. He was knighted for this bravery and achievements.
Agar and the men with him weren’t dead, though. Thanks to some Finnish fishermen, and a sea mist that gave vital cover, they managed to limp back to their base.
That autumn, back in London, the former Framlingham College student finally met Dukes. He also went to Buckingham Palace to receive his Victoria Cross from the king.
As for George Smith, his immediate family might have known the gist of what happened, but the details did not percolate to subsequent generations
Nephew Ray Saxby, who lives in Leiston, says: “All we knew was what my mother told me, which wasn’t much.” She was one of George’s six sisters.
It is thanks to Ray’s son Tim that the story has come to light, many years later and piece by piece.
Tim had been researching the Second World War service of his grandfather, who had been in submarines. While doing that, he realised there was something unusual about great-uncle George’s service record. “Everybody talks about the First World War, 1914-18, and I couldn’t understand why, here, it finished in 1919.
“Also, in the paperwork about his death, it was ‘Killed in action’. That’s never normally said in Royal Navy terms; it’s always ‘Discharged, dead’. I started thinking there was more to it.”
The question was posed, too, by the details on a mourning card. “What was he doing in the Gulf of Finland, getting killed, in 1919?”
Tim pursued the lead about Coastal Motor Boat 79a and learned about its part in the raid on Kronstadt Harbour. “I knew from my grandmother, from the stories she told, that he’d been killed, but nothing was ever said about where, or anything like that.”
What does he think, now he knows the truth?
“I thought it was quite amazing. There are hundreds of thousands of stories – every family has them, don’t they? – but this…
“I’ve got his medals, he was mentioned in despatches and has got an oak leaf on his ribbon for it, but I thought ‘That’s not really a lot, to be honest.’
“Not being funny, but Agar got a Victoria Cross, and survived. That’s probably because of the class structure at the time. But I thought ‘That’s not really a lot for going through that.’”
Meanwhile, the family is still left with many frustrating gaps unlikely to ever be filled. They have a big collection of documents and photographs – and those medals and the “death penny” given to next of kin in tribute – but they don’t know much about the man himself, or his motivations.
“Although the navy wasn’t greatly used during the First World War, why would you go through all that and then think: Right, I’ve got to the end of the war all right; I’ve survived; I’m now going to volunteer for something that was possibly a suicide mission? I was trying to work it out. Apparently, my dad seems to think, he came home on leave, was jilted by a long-term relationship, and that’s why he did it. But there’s nothing to prove that.
“The things you can’t find out, they’re the things that niggle at you. Did that really happen that he got jilted? Did he know what he was going into? Was it just that the money was better! The internet is brilliant – you can find so much out – but you can’t find the personal things.”
William George Smith was born on April 29, 1896, at Oak Cottage, Coldfair Green, Knodishall, near Leiston. He was the son of farm labourer Harry and his wife Minnie.
The cottage – still there – had only two bedrooms between a large family. George had six sisters and two brothers. A painter’s labourer before joining the Royal Navy, according to his service history supplied by the Ministry of Defence, he followed older brother Leonard into the “senior service”. Sixteen-year-old George started at HMS Ganges – the navy’s training establishment at Shotley, near Ipswich – on July 30, 1912. The “Boy 2nd Class” was there until the following February, when he joined the cruiser HMS Hawke.
“There is a story – I don’t know how true it is – that he ran away from Ganges,” says Tim. “Apparently he made his way back to Coldfair Green and the police found him hiding in a bush in the garden and he was taken back and beaten.” We know from the records that he was 5ft 2in when he joined the navy, and that he had brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion. He’d serve on a number of vessels, including the battleships London and Formidable, the large cruisers Shannon and Bacchante, and four months on the torpedo school ship HMS Actaeon at Sheerness.
Able Seaman J18754 was killed in that attack on Kronstadt on August 18, 1919. The body of the 23-year-old was never recovered.
He is, though, remembered in a citation on the Chatham Naval Memorial – and, locally, at Knodishall church and at Leiston.
There are poignant details from his “certificate of wills”. His “residue of wage” was £11, 15 shillings and sixpence; the sale of his effects raised £3 three shillings and sixpence, and his naval war gratuity was £29.
Tim and his family have more tantalising glimpses of the past that might or might not involve George.
There are photographs of a ship in the Arctic, for instance. Perhaps it’s HMS Shannon, with their relative aboard. “That might be where he got connected with Agar,” ponders Tim.
Whatever the pictures show, the family is proud of George.
“He was definitely a brave man. It’s just unfortunate you can’t find out what was in his mind to make him want to do it.
“I imagine that the average sailor and normal man in the street wouldn’t know much about the politics and the Bolsheviks, so why would they know who was right or wrong? They just did what they were told, basically.”