A Collection of Medals for the Russian Intervention 1918-20

Date of Auction: 27th February 2019

Sold for £1,900

Estimate: £800 - £1,200

A rare North Russia ‘Syren’ Force M.M. awarded to Boatswain C. H. Mitchell, Mercantile Marine Reserve, serving with Syren Lake Flotilla, who was decorated for his bravery during the attack on the village of Rimskaya on 29 August 1919, when he personally captured twelve enemy prisoners and a machine gun

Military Medal, G.V.R. (MMR-978592 Bos’n C. H. Mitchell, M.M.R.) extremely fine £800-£1,200


Provenance: Dix Noonan Webb, April 2003.

M.M. London Gazette 23 April 1920: His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Military Medal to the undermentioned Ratings for bravery in the Field with the British Forces in North Russia: Bos’n C. H. Mitchell, Mercantile Marine Reserve (Portsmouth):-
‘This Chief Petty Officer showed great gallantry and devotion to duty during the attack on the village of Rimskaya [on Lake Onega] on 29th August, 1919. He was one of the first to enter the village, personally took twelve of the enemy prisoners and captured one machine gun, which had been delaying the advance. He set a magnificent example of gallantry and coolness.’

Six Military Medals were announced in this Gazette, all to members of the Mercantile Marine Reserve serving with the Syren Lake Force, and all with published citations.

The Syren Lake Flotilla
During the Spring of 1919 the General Officer Commanding Murmansk Command, General Charles Maynard, ordered the formation of the ‘Syren Lake Flotilla’ to counter the threat of the Bolshevik flotilla known to operate on the lake during summer. Originally comprising five motor boats and several steam launches, command of the flotilla was given to Lieutenant Joseph Stenhouse, D.S.C., who had served as Master of the Aurora during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-16. Three of the flotillas vessels, Wahine, Atlanta and Georgia were crewed by sailors from USS Yankton under Lieutenant Woodward, United States Navy, whilst the remaining three boats were crewed with British artillerymen. To bolster the Flotilla, reinforcements in the form of a detachment of Royal Naval Reserve officers and Mercantile Marine Reserve ratings was on its way to Russia with six 35-ft. and four 40-ft. Thorneycroft Coastal Motor Boats to form the bulk of the flotilla but their expected arrival was not until June at the earliest.

On 14 July 1919, Commander Robert Curteis arrived at Murmansk with a party of ten Royal Naval Reserve officers and fifty Mercantile Marine Reserve ratings (followed on 19 July by a further twenty five ratings who had been left at Chatham due to a shortage of accommodation on the transport ships), bringing with them two 40-ft. and four 35-ft. motor boats to form the bulk of the Royal Navy Syren Lake Flotilla. Curteis divided the flotilla into three sub-units, 1st (British) Division, 2nd (Russian) Division and 3rd(Support) Division. Although a naval unit comprised of naval personnel, the flotilla, along with the Russian crewed motor boats, was administratively placed under the command of Brigadier G. D. Price’s 237th Infantry Brigade.

In its first significant action with the enemy, off the village of Tolvoya on 3 August 1919, the Flotilla captured the armed steamer Silny (two 3-in. guns and two machine guns), a submarine chaser (single 3-in. and two machine guns) and the unarmed tug Azod. Combined with the 54 prisoners taken in and around the village by the landing party it had been a very successful operation.

The flotilla’s next significant action was an attack which took place early in the morning of 29 August against the enemy held village of Rimskaya on the western bank of Lake Onega. At 01:00 a landing part of 10 Royal Naval Reserve officers and 27 Mercantile Marine Reserve ratings, 25 Russians, and 25 Serbs, together with six Lewis guns were landed 500 yards north of Rimskaya tasked to cut telephone lines and capture two groups of houses on the northern edge of the village. Upon capture of the houses the party was to signal the flotilla waiting offshore to put ashore the remainder of the landing party who would then form up to attack the village itself. At 05:00, Royal Air Force seaplanes would attack the village with bombs and machine guns, signalling the landing party with flares when their attack was completed, at which time the landing party would commence their attack. Once the sailors were in the village, 1st (British) Division would come alongside the local pier and land their crews who would then proceed to the village to reinforce the attacking party.
At 05:30,
Silny (one of the vessels captured from the enemy during the 3 August engagement) opened a covering fire with her two 75-mm guns as the remainder of the flotilla formed a single line ahead and charged the shoreline at full speed, all guns blazing, until disembarking the main landing parties at 06:15. Little resistance was encountered during the push from the shore and on completing the disembarkation and search of the area, the landing parties divided into three columns (Serbs on the left, Russians of the 2nd Northern Rifle Regiment on the right and British in the centre) and commenced the advance on Rimskaya. The British encountered little opposition during the approach to the village however the Serbs and Russians came under considerable machine gun fire on both flanks.
As Rimskaya was reached at 09:00, Curteis ordered the British column to deploy by sections and prepare to rush the village under the covering fire of their eight Lewis guns firing at 500 yards range. One of the first to enter the village was Bosun Charles Mitchell, who personally took 12 prisoners and captured an enemy machine gun, for which he was awarded the Military Medal.

The Flotilla’s final action took place on 14 September at the village of Vate Navolok south of Lijma and directly opposite Siding 5 in support of General Maynard’s final offensive to drive the enemy southwards down the railway to secure the withdrawal of the British troops to Murmansk. With the final British offensive operations in Murmansk completed, the Flotilla was soon after withdrawn to Murmansk to prepare for the evacuation which took place during the first week of October. On their return to the U.K. the Mercantile Marine Reserve volunteers who had enlisted under special contracts for the duration of their service in North Russia were discharged and returned to civilian life.

A full account of the operations of the 'Syren Lake Flotilla' including a complete list of awards will be found in Churchill's Secret War with Lenin by Damien Wright in which Mitchell is mentioned on pages 83 and 85.