Rear Admiral Johan Pitka (19 February 1872 – ? September 1944)
Johan Pitka was born in the village of Jalgsema in Võhmuta municipality in Järva County. From 1880-1884, he studied at Jalgsema village school and Seliküla municipal school. From 1884-1885 he lived with his brother Peäro (nom de plume Ansomardi) in Tallinn where Johan planned to enter Aleksander Gymnasium; however, the illness of his mother interrupted his educational path. Pitka then lived on his father’s farm.
Pitka’s interest in seafaring developed in 1890 when he started service on the steamer the Yekaterina II in St. Petersburg. From 1891-1895, Pitka studied at the nautical schools in Käsmu, Kuressaare and Paldiski. He took his oceangoing steersman’s examination in 1893 and oceangoing captain’s examination in 1895. In 1894, he married Helena Neu- haus. The couple would have eight children.
From 1895-1902, Pitka served aboard several vessels. In 1900, he took the naval reserve ensign examination and was excused from the compulsory military service. In 1904, Pitka fled to England to avoid being drafted in the Russo-Japanese War. He and his family lived there until 1911. Having returned to Estonia, he was involved in business and in com- munity organizations.
In 1917, Pitka founded the Laevandus society for promoting the merchant marine and ship- ping, and it was as a representative of this organization that he was elected to the Tallinn Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council on 4 March 1917. Pitka soon joined the Estonian Union, an initiative started by various societies and associations in Estonia. In June, he left the supervisory board of the Estonian Union and was elected as a member of the
Supreme Committee of Estonian Military. Pitka organized the formation, quartering and provisioning of the Estonian national units. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Tallinn
Rear Admiral Johan Pitka
19 February 1872 – ? September 1944
in 1918, Pitka was sentenced to death in absentia for his role with the national units, at the proposal of Jaan Sihver at the Second Congress of Estonian military men.
After the Republic of Estonia was proclaimed, Pitka revived the home defence organized by Tallinn citizens the previous autumn. Pitka was able to keep the organization operating during the German occupation under the name of Bürgerwehr and by including Germans. On 11 November 1918, the Bürgerwehr was re-organized as the Estonian Defence League and Pitka became the chairman of the board. In November he also had a seat on the committee that developed the economic policy of the Estonian Provisional Government.
On the first day of the War of Independence, 28 November 1918, Pitka travelled by armoured train to the Narva front. Later he was in charge of the construction of armoured vehicles and trains and organized the military fleet of the Republic of Estonia. On 17 December, he was made the Ministry of War’s official on the Lembit artillery ship and Pitka became, for all intents and purposes, the commander of the Navy. As of December 23, he organized an amphibious landing on the north coast, behind Red Army lines. On 15 January 1919, Pitka was appointed commander of the armoured car and train administration and on 22 April the commander in chief gave him the rank of naval captain.
During the Landeswehr war, on 2nd July 1919, an amphibious landing led by Pitka captured Daugavgrīva and Bolderāja, and along with these towns, two ships. On 21 Sep- tember, the commander in chief promoted him to rear admiral. On 28 November 1919, Pitka left the post of naval commander due to illness and went to England for treatment. On 1 April 1920, he was assigned to the reserve due to his age. Pitka returned to Estonia, where he was engaged in politics and battling corruption and other social ills. He and his family lived in Canada from 1924 - 1929 as he had become disillusioned with life and politics in Estonia.
Upon his return, Pitka joined the War of Independence movement and in 1931-1932 served as deputy chairman of the central board of the Association of War of Indepen- dence Veterans and chairman of the Battle Comrades Club. He left the organization due to conflicts with Andres Larka and Artur Sirk. In 1933, Pitka was one of the founders of the Association of War of Independence Front Personnel and chairman of the manage- ment board of the Submarine Fleet Fund.
At the beginning of World War II, Pitka sought British support for Estonia, and travelled to Finland in September 1939 to see whether Finland was prepared for war with the Soviet Union and examine whether it was possible to form Estonian units that would fight Stalin as part of the Finnish armed forces. After the Soviet occupation, Pitka fled in July 1940 through Latvia and Sweden to Finland. He returned to Estonia in April 1944 and formed a battalion-sized strike group bearing his name. The move came with German consent but the unit was independent of German command. After the Germans pulled out, “Pitka’s Boys” fought the Red Army in Harju and Lääne County.
In September 1944, Johan Pitka went missing.
Antique silverware set owned by Admiral Johan Pitka
The set was made in 1849 by a renown silversmith of Saint Petersburg Carl Boyanovski, originally for the Russian imperial family. During the World War II the silverware set was stored in the Bank of Finland. In 1948, daughters of Admiral, Linda Paaren ja Saima Queenie Joasalu took the set with them to Canada. In 2000 they gave it to Estonian Navy. In 2022 the Navy gave the invaluable set to Estonian War Museum.