The Battle of Bolshie Ozerki was a major engagement fought during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. Beginning on March 31, 1919, a force of British, American, Polish, and White Russian troops engaged several Red Army partisan regiments at the village of Bolshie Ozerki. Although the allied attempts to take Bolshie Ozerki were beaten off, the outnumbered Allies managed to defend their retreat. The Red Army was later ordered to another location. The battle was also the last significant engagement of the intervention to involve American forces, which began to flee from northern Russia shortly thereafter.
Bolshie Ozerki was a small village situated between the port city of Onega and an important allied position at Obozerskaya Station, along the Arkhangelsk-Vologda railroad. Because the port of the main Allied base at Arkhangelsk froze every winter, reinforcements had to be brought to the frontline overland from the port of Murmansk, which did not freeze. The road linking Murmansk to Obozerskaya ran through Bolshie Ozerki, so when the British 6th Yorkshire Regiment was dispatched to the front, the Red Army decided to seize the village in order to prevent the British column from reaching Obozerskaya. After destroying the British column and taking control of the railroad, the Red Army would then proceed by clearing the way to Arkhangelsk, which would then be taken.
Several skirmishes occurred at Bolshie Ozerki immediately before the main battle, which began on March 31. The first occurred on March 17, when a Red Army ski detachment, led by Osip Palkin, reconnoitred the village's defenses. Slealthily, the Reds captured two sentries and learned the precise locations of the Allied fortifications. Shortly thereafter, and with information collected by Palkin's ski detachment, Commander Peter A. Solodukhin's brigade of 600 to 800 men attacked and overwhelmed between 80 and 160 French and White Russian troops garrisoning the village. On the following day, the Allies launched a counterattack, but they aborted it after a brief engagement. The weather was extremely cold, so much so that the Red Army commander, Major General Aleksandr Samoilo, ordered his men to cease all offensive operations on the same day, citing lack of warm clothing and other necessities as the reason. This gave both armies a chance to prepare for the coming battle. Samoilo issued orders for the 6th Army to resume offensive operations on March 25, but the Red Army commander-in-chief, Colonel Ioakim I. Vatsetis, countermanded it "because of the severe frost."
On March 23, about 320 men from the 6th Yorkshire Regiment and about 70 men from the American 339th Infantry Regiment launched coordinated assaults on Bolshie Ozerki from positions west of the village. But, due to waist-deep snow, which prevented the Allies from charging, and heavy enemy machine gun fire, the attack was repulsed. Simultaneously, 300 White Russians and between 40 and 80 British soldiers assaulted the eastern approaches along the road. Again the attack was halted by effective enemy fire, at which point, Company E, 339th Infantry, attempted to flank the enemy defenses by skirting around through the forest north of the road. However, the movement required the Americans to cover three miles of snow-covered forest in four hours time, in order to make the attack. Already tired from marching ten miles, the Americans failed to traverse the forest in time, and, when they were finally done, they were ordered to turn around and go back. The Allies lost about 75 men as result of the two attacks, after which, the commander of the Allied intervention in northern Russia, General Edmund Ironside, personally took command of the forces at Bolshie Ozerki and had his artillery bombard the village. The artillery bombardment mostly destroyed the village by March 25, when General Ironside returned to Arkhangelsk, although Red Army troops remained in control of it.
Despite the weather, both sides continued to bring up reinforcements. The Allies also constructed a series of wooden blockhouses, log barricades, and troop shelters at a site about four miles east of the village, on the road to Obozerskaya, which was 12 miles further east. By the beginning of the main battle on March 31, the Allies had brought up all of their available artillery, most of which were 75-mm guns, manned by White Russians. They also concentrated all the troops they could spare in Arkhangelsk and other sectors, including Companies E, I, and M of the 339th Infantry, three infantry companies and one machine gun company of White Russians, two platoons from the 6th Yorkshire, and one section from the American 310th Engineers. Altogether, there were just under 2,000 Allied soldiers, who were opposed by an estimated 7,000 Red Army troops and a battery of 4.2-inch guns.
The main battle began on the morning of March 31, 1919. At about 8:30 AM, the Red Army cut the telephone lines between Obozerskaya and the Allied positions along the road. They then attacked a White Russian artillery battery from the rear with three divisions. Lieutenant Kukovsky, the White Russian in command of the battery, turned his cannon around just in time to fire four shrapnel rounds into the Reds at point-blank range. His actions, combined with the effectiveness of Company M's Lewis gun fire, unsuccessfully drove the Reds back. The fighting then shifted to the frontal positions as the Red Army launched repeated infantry charges against the Allied lines. Few were driven back, however, by the men in the blockhouses and behind the barricades. Allied artillery was also ineffective.
The main Red Army assault began at about 3:30 AM on April 1, shortly after daybreak, with determined frontal attacks on the Allied line, and a weaker demonstration at the Allies' rear. Again, all of the Red Army attacks were barely beaten back by machine gun, and rifle grenade fire. On the same day, several Allied troop deserters crossed the line and surrendered to the Bolshevik farmers. They revealed the demoralization taking place among the Allied units, reporting that an entire company of the American Regiment had refused to help and join the fighting. Despite the bad news, Allied command decided to launch a diversionary attack against the village from the west, in order to take some of the pressure off of the Allied soldiers who were heavily damadged east of the village.
The diversionary attack was set to begin at 3:00 AM on April 2, 1919. Lieutenant Marsh, 6th Yorkshires, took Company C and some White Russian guides along a trail through the woods to flank the village from the north, while Captain Bailey, 6th Yorkshires, took Company A, an American trench mortar detachment, and a team of machine gunners from Company H, 339th Infantry, along another trail to attack from the northwest. Two other platoons from Company H were assigned to the reserve. A small Polish column would also assist by advancing down the road towards the village, in order to protect Bailey's right flank. They were to deploy along the southern edge of the road upon making contact with the enemy.
The attack was, however, less successful compared to the Red Army offensive that was occurring simultaneously. At 2:00 AM on April 2, Lieutenant Marsh reported that his company was lost, his horses were "belly-deep in the snow," and that he could not proceed. As a result, one of the main elements in the attack was neutralized until it returned to the main road. By this time it was about 5:10 AM, Marsh was far from his objective, and the Poles had already suffered heavy casualties, forcing them to retire temporarily. An hour later, Company A, 6th Yorkshires, was partially surrounded and forced to give up a great amount of ground and supplies. Captain Bailey was mortally wounded at about this time, and his successor, Lieutenant Goodloss, ordered a retreat. Lieutenant Clifford F. Phillips, in command of one of the 339th Infantry platoons, rushed up from the reserves to cover the British retreat. During the following delaying action, Phillips was mortally wounded in the chest, but he and a few of his men managed to hold off the rebelling farmers for over 20 minutes with the help of two Lewis guns, they lost them both later. The British made it back to their retreat positions successfully.
The following describes how Lieutenant Phillips was mortally wounded:
|“||During the attack on Bolshie Ozerki from the west by H Company, Lt. Phillips, "through the superb control of his men, kept them all in line and his Lewis guns going with great effectiveness and gave ground slowly and grudgingly, in spite of casualties and great severity of cold." During the fighting, Lt. Phillips received a chest wound, which nicked an artery in his lung. According to his Company commander, who was watching him when he was hit, "it knocked him down as if a ton of brick had fallen on him. He said to me, 'My God, I got it. Captain, don't bother with me, I am done for, just look after the boys'." Lt. Phillips was eventually removed to the field hospital in Onega, where he died on 10 May 1919.||”|
The fighting for the rest of the day was mostly artillery and mortar exchanges, with strong Red Army infantry attacks, which "petered out" by 12:00 PM. However, pressure on both of the Allies' flanks provoked an unsuccessful counterattack at 5:30 PM, and by 7:00 PM the farmers and workers had been given orders to move out. The Allies then retreated to their fortifications nearby to wait for the next engagement. The Red Army was prepared for victory, though, and they did not launch anymore attacks over the following days. Both defensive lines stood up; the Allies luckily held the roads, while Bolshie Ozerki remained firmly in Bolshevik hands. By April 5, the farmers and workers were withdrawing from the area. They had to leave because they could not risk leaving their artillery and their sleighs behind in the spring-time mud, which was getting worse every day. On the other side, the Allies began the evacuation of their troops from Arkhangelsk right after thaw.
Allied casualties were heavy compared to that of the Red Army, which suffered an estimated 2,000 killed by all causes. The extreme weather caused many casualties on Allied sides. One American source acknowledges the loss of over 600 men due to frostbite in a whole American brigade. Although the weather was sunny during the day, and a "relatively warm" -20 °C (-4 °F) at night, when the snow melted each day, the boots of the Allied soldiers would get soaked, causing more frostbite casualties than in winter, when it could get as low as -40 °C at night. According to Chew, one reason why the Red Army's frostbite casualties were so low was because they "boldly" committed a strong brigade from the warmer southern Volga region into the battle without proper winter gear, such as felt boots and sheepskin coats.
Shortly after the battle, on April 17, 1919, Brigadier General Wilds P. Richardson arrived in Arkhangelsk with direct orders from President Woodrow Wilson to begin a full retreat of American forces due to many defeats in the camphain, making the fight at Bolshie Ozerki their last major engagement in northern Russia. During the rest of April and May, American forces gradually transferred control of their positions over to representatives of the new North Russian Army, under the command of General Eugene K. Miller.
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