Bell from the Deep: History of HS "Armenia" Has Fewer Blind Spots

Теплоход "Армения". Графическая реконструкция. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Теплоход "Армения".Графическая реконструкция. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

Russia celebrates the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War on June 22. On the eve of the Day of Sorrow and Remembrance, the specialists of the Underwater Research Center (URC) of the Russian Geographical Society lifted from the bottom of the Black Sea the bell of the motor ship "Armenia", which sank in November 1941. The tragedy claimed at least 4.5 thousand lives, mostly civilians. During the underwater research expedition of the Ministry of Defense and the URC RGS, the circumstances of the ship's wreck were established.

The history of the motor ship "Armenia" is one of the most tragic and, alas, characteristic episodes of the war at sea. On November 6, 1941, a former cruise ship, converted into a hospital vessel, left the port of Sevastopol, taking on board several thousand civilians. People fled from the advancing Wehrmacht troops.

According to some reports, at least seven medical institutions of the Black Sea Fleet were evacuated on the hospital transport ship: the wounded and personnel of Sevastopol Naval Hospital, the 2nd Naval and Nikolaev local hospitals, medical warehouse No. 280, sanitary and epidemiological laboratory, 5th medical and sanitary unit, hospital of the Yalta sanatorium. In addition to the naval forces, a part of the medical personnel of the Primorsk and 51st armies boarded the "Armenia". In addition, the ship received evacuated residents of Sevastopol.

Already at sea, the captain of the ship Vladimir Plaushevsky received an order to enter Balaklava. Here, on the roadstead, the crew took on board a group of the NKVD officers. According to one version of the events, they were saving treasures from the Crimean museums, according to another – documents. However, this fact is questioned by some researchers: during the storm that broke out on November 7, it was almost impossible to do this. But the ship entered the port of Yalta to evacuate, among other things, the staff of the pioneer camp "Artek".

On the morning of November 7, the "Armenia" again went to sea, and was soon attacked and sank. According to various estimates, from 4.5 thousand to 10 thousand people died. The exact number is still unknown, since the evacuation was carried out in a hurry and no one was really counting the passengers. It was rumored that six or eight lucky ones managed to escape from the sinking ship, but there is no reliable information about this either. Until recently, even the coordinates of the place where the "Armenia" sank were not known.

Read more: Myths and facts about the "Armenia" shipwreck. The opinion of the historian Alexei Spasenkov.

For a long time, the tragedy of the ship was a blind spot in the history of the Great Patriotic War, and in Soviet times, all information was classified. Some researchers argued that there are no reports on this event in the Central Naval Archive, and all documentary information regarding the tragedy is only indirect...

In the early 2000s, Ukrainian researchers were looking for "Armenia". In 2006, the Americans joined them. However, the ship was never found.

Only in March 2020, with the help of sonar, Russian military sailors managed to find a certain object at the bottom of the sea, resembling "Armenia" in size and contours. It was located about 15 nautical miles offshore at a depth of 1,500 meters.

In April 2020, specialists from the URC RGS with the help of an underwater robot received the first photos and videos from a one and a half kilometer depth and unambiguously identified the found object as the motor ship "Armenia".

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Спуск телеуправляемого необитаемого подводного аппарата. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Спуск телеуправляемого необитаемого подводного аппарата. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

Already during the first stage of the expedition, it was possible to establish some details of the ship's wreck. It was known about the attempts of enemy torpedo boats to attack the ship. And for a long time it was believed that it was sunk as a result of a torpedo hit.

However, the nature of the destruction speaks in favor of the air raid – the hull lines of the ship were not damaged, but the destruction on the deck and in the area of ​​the ship's superstructure turned out to be serious.

The second stage of the sea expedition took place in April this year. For a more detailed examination, a camera with a higher resolution was used. It was literally manually assembled by the specialists from the RGS Underwater Research center.

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Новая камера позволила сделать изображение более четким. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Новая камера позволила сделать изображение более четким. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

Two bomb hit zones were found. Most likely, Luftwaffe aircraft attacked twice. Sergei Fokin, head of the URC RGS, assumes that the first approach was "sighting": the center of the bomb hits is almost at the stern. It is possible, however, the first failure of the Germans was due to the resistance they encountered.

Four artillery pieces were found on the ship, one of which is still attached to the frame. Of course, this was not enough to repel an air attack. It is also possible that the enemy attack aircraft were scared off by our escort fighters.

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Одно из орудий, обнаруженных на борту "Армении". Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Одно из орудий, обнаруженных на борту "Армении". Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

The main blow happened later and fell on the first third of the ship – bombs exploded between the navigation bridge and the engine room. After that "Armenia" remained afloat for a few minutes...

In April 2021, it was not possible to complete the inspection of the entire hull of the vessel using a high-precision camera due to weather conditions. To complete the work, the researchers undertook another, third, expeditionary trip, which took place in May.

Experts assess the safety of the ship's remains as satisfactory. The ship received the main damage from aerial bomb hits and when hitting the seabed.

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Сергей Фокин с коллегами наблюдают за работой подводного робота. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Сергей Фокин с коллегами наблюдают за работой подводного робота. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

The left side of the vessel was examined in detail, and on the basis of the processing of previously obtained data, the parts of the stern, bow and starboard were re-examined.

It was possible to thoroughly examine and analyze  the damage to the ship's superstructure from being hit by aerial bombs, which allowed to restore the course of the attack and subsequent events.

It is believed that the ship sank in four minutes. However, the specialists from the URC RGS have refuted the earlier version that the crew did not have time to begin the evacuation.

“We didn’t find a single boat in their regular places,” says Sergei Fokin. “Moreover, the attachment points for the boats are intact, all the davits are in the “overboard” position, and the ropes are chopped off. We assume that the evacuation began after the first air attack. That is, there was time to launch the boats into the water. What happened to the people who managed to get off the ship is unknown. Alas, it is impossible to find out by the method of field research. "

The retrieval of the ship's bell of "Armenia" became a kind of symbolic point that ended the sea expedition.

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Судовой колокол теплохода "Армения" на дне Черного моря. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Судовой колокол теплохода "Армения" на дне Черного моря. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

The operation was carried out using a remotely controlled autonomous underwater vehicle. Previously, video equipment was attached to it. Now a gripper was attached to the manipulator. It was invented and made literally by hand by the crew of the research vessel "Seliger", which took part in the expedition and arrived at the place of the wreck of "Armenia". After long hours of operation, the watch bell of the ship was brought to the surface.

"We hope that it will be possible to create a memorial, for example in Sevastopol or Yalta, so that the relatives of the victims can pay tribute to them. And the ship's bell will become the central part of this cenotaph, and perhaps we will hear its voice," said Sergei Fokin.

Meanwhile, at the beginning of March this year, the team of the URC RGS announced that it had succeeded in establishing the names of more than 300 passengers of "Armenia". This is the result of working with archival documents and data received from the relatives of the victims. Researchers want to collect as much information as possible for the 80th anniversary of the ship's sinking.

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Колокол с теплохода "Армения" станет частью будущего мемориала. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО
Колокол с теплохода "Армения" станет частью будущего мемориала. Материалы Центра подводных исследований РГО

For this purpose, the URC RGS and the Russian Ministry of Defense, with the support of the Presidential Grants Fund, are implementing the project "Motor ship ‘Armenia’. Remember everyone". All information is collected on a special site where you can share your stories, memories and, in general, any facts that can shed light on this tragedy. The main goal is to name all who died on that terrible day on the peaceful motor ship "Armenia".

Aivar Valeev

In 1935, the feature film "Treasure of the Wrecked Vessel" (directed by Vladimir Braun and Isaac Menaker, “Lenfilm” film studio) was released, in which we can see the then cruise ship "Armenia".