A Collection of Medals for the Russian Intervention 1918-20

Date of Auction: 27th February 2019

Sold for £900

Estimate: £200 - £300

A rare ‘North Russia 1918-19’ pair awarded to Second Lieutenant M. M. Bernoff, a White Russian officer serving in the Slavo-British Legion, which mutinied and murdered five British officers on 7 July 1919 before going over to the Red Army

British War and Victory Medals (2. Lieut. M. M. Bernoff.) edge bruising, very fine, rare to unit (2) £200-£300


Michael Markovitch Bernoff, a Russian national and former Imperial Russian Army officer, joined the Slavo-British Legion at Archangel on 7 August 1918, and was evacuated to the United Kingdom via Murmansk on 6 September 1919.

The Slavo-British Legion
After the British invasion and occupation of Archangel in early August 1918 recruiting began locally for the formation of the ‘Slavo-British Legion’ raised from White Russian volunteers as a ‘British Foreign Legion’ to fight the Bolshevik Red Army. A sister unit, the ‘Slavo-British Aviation Corps’ was formed under the command of Imperial Russian ace Alexander Kazakov to fly British aircraft against the Reds. The Legion would be commanded by British officers with a sprinkling of volunteer White Russian officers recruited into the Legion and given British ranks. It was incorporated into the North Russia Expeditionary Force Order of Battle, wore British Army uniforms and observed British Army traditions. The hat badge of the Legion was a brass Cross of St. Andrew, the Legionnaires also wore brass ‘SBL’ shoulder titles on their epaulettes. The faithful devotion to duty of the Legionnaires was recognised when General Ironside presented the Legion with ‘King’s Colours’ at a public parade attended by local dignitaries and representatives from each of the Allied military contingents conducted in front of Archangel Cathedral on King’s Birthday, 1 June 1919.

On the night of 6–7 July 1919, the Slavo-British Legion were billeted behind the front line on the eastern bank of the Dvina River near the village of Topsa. At 0230 a party of eight mutineers led by Corporal Nuchev and Private Leuchenko crept towards the hut where the British and White Russian company and platoon officers were sleeping. Corporal Nuchev shot Captain Aubrey Finch (Seaforth Highlanders) through a window as he was sleeping, killing him outright, whilst the other mutineers stormed the hut shooting and killing four more British and four Russian officers and three batmen.

Captain David Barr (East Lancashire Regiment) was badly wounded with bullet and bayonet wounds but managed to evade his attackers and flee out of the hut into the twilight, swimming across the Dvina to one of monitor H.M.S. Humber’s picket boats. For his gallantry in fighting his way out of the billet under fire and courage and endurance despite his wounds, Barr was awarded the Military Cross but sadly succumbed to his wounds six days later and was buried in Archangel Allied Cemetery.

As the mutiny erupted and hundreds of Legionnaires fled into the forest to join the Red Army, Legion company officers Captain William Beavan, Welsh Regiment and Alfred Barrett, Royal Berkshire Regiment, formed their men on parade despite the mayhem and by their determination held the men steady with the assistance of 2nd Lieutenant Sydney Brooker, General List, who was commanding one of the platoons in Beavan’s company. All three men were awarded the Military Cross for their courage and devotion to duty. Also murdered during the mutiny were Lieutenants Gerald Gosling, M.C., Gloucestershire Regiment; Cecil Bland, M.C., Royal Berkshire Regiment; and Thomas Griffith, Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

Twenty six captured Legionnaires were charged with offences relating to the mutiny, their court-martial carried out in the field over two days, 12–13 July. Eight men were acquitted whilst the remaining 18 charged were sentenced to death, six of these having their capital sentences commuted to 10 years penal servitude leaving 12 mutineers sentenced to execution.

On the morning of 17 July 1919 the condemned men were brought out to meet their fate. Ironside ensured that 500 new White Russian recruits were present to witness the executions as a none too subtle warning. Royal Air Force ace pilot Captain Ira Jones was witness to the executions:
‘I have tonight seen something which I never want to witness again. An execution…The men were being shot by their own comrades who had not mutinied, each of the condemned men having a machine-gun all to himself [although each loaded only with a belt of 5 rounds] at ten yards range. It was an eerie sight because the executioners were themselves covered from behind by machine gunners from the Royal Fusiliers, in case they suddenly changed their minds and turned their weapons on the British present!
A Russian officer was in charge of the execution, although a British Assistant Provost Marshal was present. The signal to fire was when the officer dropped his raised sword, then a strange thing happened which lengthened the lives and agony of those Bolos for about one minute. A little dog appeared from somewhere and trotted up to one of the prisoners and sniffed at his legs. The dog had to be got away before the officer dropped his sword. I shall never forget the rattle of those machine guns and the wriggling bodies as their life was shot out of them.
The executioner of the sergeant either deliberately missed him or became very nervous, because when the smoke of the guns had cleared away the N.C.O. had pulled off his handkerchief and was shouting “Long live Bolshevism”.
The officer, pulling out his revolver strolled up to him – I was secretly hoping he would not shoot – and as he did so pointed the revolver at the disc on his heart. The sergeant spat at him. Bang! Bang! Bang! And two more for his head.
Afterwards, all the bodies were buried in one big grave which the victims had themselves dug in the morning.’

Of the mutiny one British officer wrote:
‘In their innermost hearts the loyal Russians were not sorry. They regretted the butchery of British officers, but the mutiny itself they regarded as the natural and inevitable outcome of the whole effort. They merely shrugged their shoulders as if to say, ‘We told you so.’

The British Army made a concerted attempted to track down the mutineers who escaped to defect to the Red Army. The names of a further eight mutineers were identified, an internal British military intelligence memo stated:
‘The names of these Russians should be carefully recorded and never lost sight of. They are guilty of the blackest treachery conceivable, and if our affairs with Russia should at any time in the next five or ten years reach a condition when it is possible for us to demand their exemplary punishment, we must not fail to do so’.

The escaped mutineers were never found, and only a handful of loyal Slavo-British Legionnaires who were evacuated to England after the British withdrawal from North Russia in October 1919 became eligible for awards of the British War and Victory Medals.

A full account of the Slavo-British Legion mutiny can be found in Churchill's Secret War with Lenin by Damien Wright.

Note: The Slavo-British Legion Medal Roll contains 67 names, most of whom do not appear to have been issued any medals, with many others had their medals returned unclaimed. The medal roll confirms only 17 British War and Victory Medal pairs issued to the unit, five of them being to officers.