Rear–Admiral Sir Johan Pitka – An Unlikely British Columbian Who Founded the Estonian Navy

by John M. MacFarlane (2011)

Admiral Johan Pitka

Early Life

Johan Pitka, (VR I/1, KCMG, Order of Lacplesis (2nd Class)) was born on the 19th of February 1872, at Jalgsema village (Jarvamaa County) Estonia. He grew up on the Ansomardi farm about a kilometer away from his birthplace and attended local schools and then senior secondary school in Tallinn.

In 1890 he obtained a position in the crew of the steamship Yekaterina II sailing out of the port of St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1891 Pitka studied at the Kasmu, Kuressaare and Paldiski Marine Schools. In March 1893 he qualified as a Mate (Deep Sea) which also qualified him as a Master (Coastal). He re–entered the Paldiski Maritime School in 1894 and on 28 March 1895 he qualified as a Master Mariner (Deep Sea). He served in a number of vessels before a term in the coastal defence ironclad ship Admiral Ushakov for six weeks at Liibavi (Liepaja). It is thought that he was commissioned at that time as an Ensign in the Imperial Russian Naval Reserve.

Admiral Johan Pitka

In 1902 he joined the team constructing a transport vessel for the Russian Pacific Squadron at the Muhlenthal Engineering Shipyard. On February 9, 1904 the Russo–Japanese War was declared. Pitka and Muhlenthal evaded the mobilization into the Imperial Russian Navy by sailing to England. From 1904–11, Pitka lived in England and in 1905 he moved his family there so they could live together in Kingston-Upon-Hull and later in Liverpool.

In 1907 he moved with his family back to Tallinn, founding the Marine Trade Association and the In 1907 he founded the Estonian–Latvian Shipping Agency. In 1912 he was one of the founders of the Mereabi (Marine Aid) Mutual Marine Insurance Company. He purchased the Laevandus Shipping Trade Company. In 1917 he became the Director of the Baltic Rescue Company by purchasing it from German interests.

War of Independence

After the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there was a strong counter–revolution reaction attempting to restore the old order. Estonia had long been under strong Russian influence and Estonians aspired to independence. Pitka was elected to the Tallinn Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies as a representative of Laevandus. The Council consisted mainly of immigrant workers and soldiers who were advancing Russian territorial interests.

In 1917 the Provisional Government established Estonian Sovereignty by uniting the country and transforming it from part of the Russian sphere toward independence. Late in the year the Estonian Provincial Assembly was established under the leadership of Konstantin Pats. Russian civil servants were dismissed and replaced by Estonians. Political parties of all colours were formed with Bolsheviks making dramatic gains. In October the Bolsheviks seized power and began repressing Estonian nationalists who were forced underground. Independence was declared by the nationalists at Parnu on February 23, 1918 and German troops reached Tallinn two days later.

Pitka started organizing returning Estonian soldiers who had previously fought in the Russian Army during the First World War. For his nationalist activities Pitka was brought to the attention of the security services and he was forced to go underground after the communists sentenced him to death. Pitka shaved his trademark beard and mustache and went underground living with friends in Tallinn.

After the start of the German occupation in February 1918 privileges of the Baltic-Germans were restored and Estonia was denied independence. The Germans proposed to establish a Baltic Dukedom. Pitka organized the Self–Defence League which he had proposed in Tallinn the previous fall. This brought him into conflict with the German authorities who ordered the organization to disperse. Pitka displayed the flexibility that allowed him and other Estonian leaders to survive over the years by renaming it as the Burgerwehr and recruited a number of prominent Germans as members. He himself took the deputy head position deferring to an ethnic German as leader.

The German occupation of Estonia lasted from February to November 1918 and with the close of the First World War in November German power in Estonia collapsed. The Estonian members of the Burgerwehr re–organized into the Estonian Defence League, electing Pitka as leader and Major–General Ernst Podder elected as military commander.

The Bolsheviks renounced the Treaty of Brest–Litvosk and commenced a campaign to reclaim territories lost from the old Russian Empire. On November 22nd the Red Army attacked Narva – repulsed by the German troops still bivouacked in the city. On November 28, 1918 the War of Independence was declared.

Pitka arrived at Narva in an improvised armoured train. Pitka was already involved in constructing and manning of several armoured train units. The first one was ready 10 days after the start of the war, and the second became ready two weeks later. In total, five armoured trains were built during the war, and they played a crucial role in the Estonian victory. Many called Pitka "father of armoured trains" for this accomplishment and they were involved in major actions between the stations at Vaivara and Auvere.

Red Army attacks were repulsed briefly by the German forces but they lacked the will to fight – the war was over for them. As they retreated, the Red Army occupied Narva. Estonian Bolsheviks established the Commune of the Working People in Estonia intended to become part of the new Soviet Union. By December the Red Army had occupied half of Estonia and were at the gates of Tallinn. In February 1918 a Royal Naval squadron intercepted the Red Army force at Tallinn. On January 6th, 1919 General Laidoner counter–attacked using the armoured trains to great advantage and Narva was captured on January 11th. During the Estonian War of Independence Pitka participated in the establishment the Estonian Navy needed for making landings on the north coast in late December 1918. These landings were intended to mount a rear–guard attack on the Red Army to create disorganization and to reduce its impact on the fronts.

On April 22, 1919 Pitka was appointed as a Captain in the Estonian Navy (then part of the army). On September 21, 1919 he was promoted to Vice–Admiral – with his title later changed to that of Rear–Admiral to correspond more closely with international naval ranking conventions. He was then appointed as Commander–in–Chief of the Estonian Navy. The greatest battles were fought with the Baltic-German Landeswehr forces. Pitka led the navy in all major operations including supporting the 1st Division in the capture of Narva from the Russian SFSR and supporting the 3rd Division attacking the Landeswehr fortifications at Riga Latvia. This brought the war to a close and allowed the Karlis Ulmanis Government to be established in Latvia.

Post War Activity

The stress of war was crushing on Pitka who became ill. He was forced to resign his position as Commander of the Estonian Navy and was moved to England for treatment. He was decorated by Estonia, Latvia, and was appointed as a Knight of the Order of St. Michael and St. George by King George V in recognition of his huge contribution to the allied effort to counteract the Soviet gains in the Bolshevik Revolution.

He was soon returned to Estonia intent on politically fighting against corruption in government and in the civil service. The Peace Treaty of Tartu was signed with the Russians which allowed the right of return for Estonians abroad. A new constitution in 1920 produced a parliament in which no party had a majority. In 1920 Pitka founded the Vigilence Union and established a newspaper–Valve (The Guardian) at the Uhiselu (Common Life) Publishing House to carry the fight. On 30 December 1922 the Minister of Internal Affairs ordered the paper shut down as a "threat to the public security".

Commemorative Postmark for Admiral Johan Pitka

In 1923 he ran for a seat in the Riigikogu (Parliament) for the National Liberal Party. The Party’s newspaper Eesti (Estonia) was published 1923–1924. The Bolsheviks failed in 1924 to take over Tallinn and the country was in crisis. Pitka ran in the electoral district of Peterimaa County but was not elected in spite of the Party gaining four other seats. Bitterly disappointed with the result, Pitka left Estonia with his family accompanied by his supporters and their families. If they could not live safely in Estonia then they must find a new home – in Canada.

Estonian Colony in British Columbia

During his role as a merchant mariner he had apparently been a representative of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. As a result he had become interested in Canada and was aware of Canada's immigration policies, the availability of homesteading land, and its natural beauty.

He decided to establish a settlement in the Sowchea area of Fort St. James British Columbia. The Sowchea area was located across Stuart Lake from the Hudson Bay Co. fur trading post at Fort St. James. Pitka was given 260 hectares and his son–in–law Aleksandr Paaren received 93 hectares. They were not required to pay for the land for 15 years, by which time they were supposed to have been well established. Pitka built a seven room house.

On April 3, 1924, he led Estonian settlers who had arrived at Fort St. James to their new home. The initial settlers were Pitka’s family consisting of: Lady Mari–Helene Pitka, sons Edward and Stanley, daughters Saima and Linda and son-in law Lieutenant Aleksander Paaren; the families Andrekson, Rosin and Saar; Colonel Steinman, Mr. Nilk and Mr. Partelson with their wives; and Messrs. Kuusk, Olem, Puhm, Sulakatk, Vaimel, Unger and Wilmanson.

Pitka was receiving an Estonian Government pension during this time. In the early days the Estonian settlers were reported as happy living in the wilderness but this would not last. Pitka tried a sawmill, dairy and sheep farming and raising various crops. None of these efforts paid out a desired financial yield and it slowly became clear that the Canadian experiment would not last for the settlers. Landmarks around Fort St. James still bear their mark (including Pitka Mountain, Pitka Bay, Pitka Bay Resort, Lind(a) Lake, Colony Point and Paaren’s Beach Provincial Park).

Return to Estonian Political Life

In 1930 he returned to Estonia for a visit and to see his son August–Andreas. This visit became a permanent return to Estonia. After his arrival he was offered the chairmanship of the Estonian Central Consumers Society, serving 1930–37. His family joined him from British Columbia in 1932 and after their return to Estonia they enjoyed prosperity and Pitka himself became involved in the political movements of the day.

He joined the Warriors of Independence and the Central Union of Warriors of Independence acting as the Deputy Chairman 1931-1932. In 1931 he also was a founder of the Brothers–in–Arms Club. These organizations were all focus for political struggle fomented by representatives of radical elements. After the 3rd Congress of the Warriors of Independence Unions in March 1932 Pitka and the members of the Brothers–in–Arms Club left the Central Union. Pitka founded yet another organization, the War of Independence Combatants Society and was elected as Chairman in 1933. He was elected as Chairman of the Endowment of the Submarine Fleet later the same year.

In 1934 the League of Liberators (Vaps) representing veterans from the War of Independence threatened political stability creating the possibility of a radical quasi–fascist regime. To blunt this force General Laidoner reclaimed his position as Commander–in-Chief at the request of President Pats who in turn assumed emergency powers under a new constitution widely welcomed in Estonia. Together they froze all political activity and forced through a new constitution focusing power in the President and army. Leaders of the Vaps were imprisoned, but released some time afterwards. In 1937 Pitka was elected as a member of the Lower Chamber of the National Assembly representing Jarvamaa County.

Soviet influence in Estonia was increasing constantly. In 1939 border incidents were staged that created an opportunity for the Soviets to demand concessions. Red Army bases were established and used by Soviet bombers to bomb Finland during the Winter War. Sovereignty was compromised to the point where the Estonian Government had lost control. On June 21st, 1940 a client Estonian Socialist Republic was established under Soviet domination ending independence.

Monument to Admiral Johan Pitka

War Returns Pitka to Life and Death

After the Soviet coup d’etat and occupation in June 1940 arrests of the previous national leadership, high ranking military and police officers and intellectuals began – followed by wider arrests, deportations and execution of dissidents. For years Pitka had been on watch lists of the Soviet secret police. Pitka escaped from Estonia to Finland in August and he remained there until April 1944. In late 1941 he submitted a proposal to Risto Ryti, President of Finland, proposing a type of union between the two countries. This proposal was firmly rejected.

On June 14, 1941 Pitka’s sons and their wives were arrested by the Soviet occupation government and disappeared into Russia. August–Andreas was shot in Moscow’s Butyrka prison July 20, 1942. Stanley and Edward were shot in the Solikamski prison on September 1, 1941. Pitka’s daughters Saima Josalu and Linda Paaren, their husbands and their mother fled to Sweden by boat in late 1944 and from there returned to Canada in 1948 settling in the Vancouver area in 1949.

In September 1944 the Germans were retreating, and the action front arrived at the border of Estonia. Nationalists decided to support a German counter-attack against the traditional Communist enemy of Estonia. Pitka tried to join the Finnish army but was rejected due to his advanced age. He returned to Estonia in April 1944. Juri Uluots organized a new Estonian government headed by Otto Tief. In 1944 Pitka returned to Estonia to organize military resistance to fight for Estonia’s independence taking advantage of the vacuum caused by the departure of the German forces before the arrival of the Soviets.

Because the Germans were fighting his old enemies in the Red Army he was empathetic to the Germans. He was given support to form a special unit, the Admiral Pitka Shock Troop with several hundred men. At the age of 72 he created Estonian Army units on September 21, 1944 – the day before the arrival of the Soviet troops. These units fought pitched battles – the fiercest at Keila and Kose and then at Laanemaa County. Pitka organized the last defence of Tallinn against the advancing Red Army.

At this point he disappeared, creating persistent legends which reported that he was killed in several different locations on the same day at the end of September 1944. Several stories relate his death either to a battle against a Soviet tank group or perishing on the stormy Baltic Sea when trying to make his way to Sweden aboard one of the last small boats fleeing the country. (It is possible that he died later as a prisoner in the Soviet Union). In his last radio broadcast he stated " I am not afraid of the Communists’ bullets and I can still carry a rifle and shoot!"

As the Germans fell back the Estonian nationalists tried to establish sovereignty on September 18th, 1944. But within fours days the Red Army entered Tallinn to begin an occupation that would last until the collapse of the Soviet Empire.

Badge of EML Pitka

In recent years Estonia has begun to give recognition to this complex historical figure. Monuments, museum exhibitions, postage stamps and historic sites (in Canada and Estonia) highlight his life and accomplishments. An Estonian naval ship now bears his name and operates regularly in the NATO operational structure.

Estonian Naval Ship Pitka

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2011) Rear–Admiral Sir Johan Pitka – An Unlikely British Columbian Who Founded the Estonian Navy. 2012.

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