By Stephen McLaughlin
By early November 1920 the final victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia was no longer in doubt. The anti-Bolshevik White cause was on its last legs, confined to the Crimean Peninsula. It had received a stay of execution when Poland invaded the Soviet state, drawing off major units of the Red Army, but an armistice had been signed on 12 October, and now massive numbers of Red troops were gathering to attack the last remaining White stronghold.
General Peter Wrangel, leader of the White forces, had foreseen this outcome as early as May, when he began secret preparations for an evacuation of his armed forces, officials, and their families. In composing his plans he could rely on the fact that the White naval forces had complete control over the Black Sea. Ships were gathered and repaired, coal was stockpiled, and plans for an orderly retreat of the rearguard forces were carefully worked out. There was one great unknown, however—where would his people go once they had been evacuated?
Red forces smashed through Wrangel’s defenses on 11 November. That same day Wrangel proposed to French Admiral Dumesnil that France take the Russians under its protection; in return, all the ships of the evacuation fleet would be transferred to France. Two days later an agreement to this effect was signed between Wrangel and French representatives.
By this time the evacuation was already under way. Units of the White army retreated along prearranged routes toward the embarkation ports—the great naval base of Sevastopol was the largest, but ships were also earmarked for Evpatoria, Feodosiya, Kerch, and Yalta. Despite careful planning, there were problems, especially at Feodosiya, where a panic broke out. Some troops had to be redirected to other ports and ships were rerouted. Wrangel was on the move throughout the embarkation process, constantly steaming from one port to another in the cruiser General Kornilov to ensure that everything was being done to save as many as possible from the vengeance of the Bolsheviks.
The first ships put to sea from Yalta and Evpatoria on 14 November, and by the 18th all were under way, bound for Constantinople. Conditions aboard many of the overcrowded ships were appalling—refugees aboard some were so tightly packed that they could not even sit down, sanitary facilities were lacking, as were food and water. The big transport Rion, with several thousand aboard, ran out of coal and wound up drifting and helpless until the cruiser USS St. Louis—one of several American ships assisting in the evacuation—took her under tow. The old destroyer Zhivoi had set off under tow because her engines weren’t working but foundered when rough seas parted the tow line, taking 250 people with her.
Zhivoi, however, was the only ship lost of 126 that set out from the Crimea. An estimated 145,000 people were rescued, many of whom would certainly have met a terrible fate under the Reds. From Constantinople they would eventually disperse across Europe and America, but all of them owed an enormous debt to the foresight and planning of General Peter Wrangel.
Photos from Wikipedia