The second stage of the expedition of the Russian Geographical Society "180 miles to Leningrad. The history of the Tallinn Breakout on the modern sea map" has come to an end. The search took place in Estonian territorial waters, near Juminda Peninsula. The largest number of people died there during the evacuation of the Baltic Fleet from Tallinn to Kronstadt in August 1941.
Remembering the people is the most important thing
This time the expedition was of international nature. Colleagues from Estonia and Latvia became partners of the Russian underwater explorers.
“I consider it fortunate that the expedition in the territorial waters of Estonia took place at all, taking into account the widespread anti-Covid restrictions,” says the head of the expedition, founder of "Underwater Exploration Team" Konstantin Bogdanov. “We are grateful to the Heritage Conservation Department of the Republic of Estonia for their trust, and to many Estonian public figures for their support.
We would like to remind you that in just two days of crossing from Tallinn to Kronstadt, 62 Soviet ships were destroyed by enemy fire and mines. The main human casualties occurred on the first leg of the route, which passed through the minefields near Juminda Peninsula.
“For us, the main meaning of the expedition is to perpetuate the memory of the lost people, so we focused on those ships that are of the greatest importance in terms of human casualties,” explains the logic of the search Konstantin Bogdanov. “In order for us to be able to say with confidence that these were the very ships we were looking for, it was necessary to find them, see them live and identify them. And in some cases, to restore the history of their destruction.”
As a result, of the four vessels that Bogdanov's team planned to find, three were discovered and identified for the first time. These are VT-584 "Naissaar" (according to military historian Radiy Zubkov, 1.5-2 thousand people died on it), VT-501 "Balkhash" (3.8 thousand people) and VT-545 "Everita" (about 1.5 thousand people).
"Everita" and "Krišjānis Valdemārs"
We wrote about the fate of the steamships "Naissaar" and "Balkhash" earlier.
The garrison of Naissaar Island was evacuated on the “Everita”. Loading dragged on, and the transport departed from the coast only in the afternoon of August 28. At this time, sea caravans were already heading east. "Everita" was able to catch up with the rest of the ships only late in the evening. In the dark, it was extremely difficult to move along the fairway that had been swiped for mines earlier, and at about 22 o'clock the “Everita” was blown up by a mine. The ship broke and sank almost instantly. About one and a half thousand people who were on board at that moment ended up in the night sea ...
The hull of “Everita” lies at the greatest depth of all objects found during the expedition, 106 meters. Underwater explorers recorded a fracture of the ship in the area of the bow hold, and a stern raised high above the ground.
The underwater explorers also went down to the “Krišjānis Valdemārs” icebreaker. It was discovered in 2011 with the help of a remote-controlled underwater vehicle by the famous underwater archaeologist from Estonia, Vello Mäss.
The icebreaker "Krišjānis Valdemārs" was moving as part of Convoy No. 1. At about 18:00 on August 28, it began to approach the western border of the minefield. At this moment, enemy aircraft struck. Dodging the bombs, the transports began to maneuver and went beyond the mine-swept fairway.
The hospital ship “Ella” was the first to blow up. "Krišjānis Valdemārs" hastened to help it. But it itself fell into a mine trap. The icebreaker sank almost vertically in a matter of minutes. Most of the crew and passengers could not escape. In total, according to military historian Radiy Zubkov, 87 passengers and 50 crew members of the icebreaker were killed.
“In addition to identifying the ships, we had one more task,” continues Konstantin Bogdanov. “In St. Petersburg there is a society ‘Memory of the Tallinn Breakout’, which unites the descendants of the victims of the heroic passage. The chairman of the society Maria Sergeevna Inge-Vechtomova and other people, whose relatives died on the ‘Krišjānis Valdemārs’, asked us to make a live video of the remains of the icebreaker and take the soil from the place of its wreck. We have complied with the request.”
Not a submarine, but "Tsiklon"
Here, near Juminda, the “Tsiklon” patrol ship was found as well. It happened almost by accident. Members of "Underwater Exploration Team" had been searching for submarines that sank in the Gulf of Finland during the war for a long time. At the bottom of the sea, according to available data, there are three more unidentified Soviet submarines: Shch-301, “Kalev”, and M-98.
“From previous trips to this area, we had data on two objects that looked like submarines,” says Konstantin Bogdanov. “And now, taking the opportunity, we decided to test our hypothesis. I confess that we were 80 percent sure that we were diving to a submarine and a new discovery awaited us. Alas, this was not the case. This episode confirms that it is somewhat rash to make public assumptions about the identification of this or that object only on the basis of a sonogram obtained as a result of scanning the seabed.”
Meanwhile, what the members of the expedition initially took for a submarine turned out to be a torn off bow of a surface ship, which was later identified as the "Tsiklon" patrol boat by a number of features. It was covering the ships that took part in the Tallinn Breakout, so the find turned out to be relevant.
The patrol ship "Tsiklon" was moving in the rearguard and was the first to come to the aid of the sinking "Everita". It entered the wreckage and began to take people on board. However, in the dark it itself ran into a mine. The explosion ripped the patrol boat in half. As a result, only a few dozen people, later picked up by boats, were able to escape from the “Everita”. Almost all of the “Tsiklon” crew died. The remains of the ship lie nearby, at a depth of 97 meters ...
“We had a whole series of deep-sea dives,” says Konstantin Bogdanov. “Descending 100 meters in itself is quite difficult, but you still have to do the work. Of the entire three-hour dive, 25-30 minutes remain for the actual exploration and filming of the vessel lying at the bottom. There is a lot to be done during this time. The team must be professional and work together: outline a plan on the surface, assign the tasks, dive, work exactly according to the plan, and ascend to the surface. Everything that needs to be seen and done underwater must be planned and assigned in advance.”
“Our team worked very successfully both in terms of the result and human relations on board, which, you see, is important in such situations. Ivan Borovikov, Abbot Innokenty (Olkhovoy), Yevgeny Zagadskiy, we went on more than one expedition together. And the new members quickly joined the team, instantly got their bearings and showed the highest professionalism. It is quite obvious that the result that we have obtained, without their contribution, could have been much more modest."
The captain of the specially equipped boat Deep Explorer, Rayo Green, was noted by everyone as a virtuoso in the accuracy of setting launching lines even at great depths and ensuring the safety of dives. Maili Roio, a representative of the Heritage Conservation Department of the Republic of Estonia, was present on board. An experienced diver, she did not dive, but provided great practical assistance in everything related to the work organization.
Latvia was represented by operator Maxim Sputai and experienced technical divers Vadim Kutukov and Sergey Shulga.
"It's hard. It's very hard..."
“Emotions overwhelm me to this day,” says the instructor, technical diver Sergey Shulga. “I, of course, knew about this tragic episode of the war before due to the fact that I live in the Baltic and dive here, next to the place of the tragedy. But I never participated in the search and identification of the ships of the Tallinn Breakout. What to say? Such a tragedy should not happen again. Ever and anywhere. The remains of the dead are so well preserved that everything is clearly visible: here are children, even babies, here are women, here are military men. There are thousands of them, lying in layers ... These people had no chance to escape. We must always remember this tragedy. Our expedition is a quiet contribution to the cause of peace, I think.”
“To be honest, I have never worked in such a team and on such tasks. It is obvious that the guys are serious pros. We have gotten a lot of experience with this kind of diving. Precise, well-coordinated work. Everyone knows their role and area of responsibility. Everyone is in their place. Only teamwork could produce the achieved results. One or two divers cannot do this, for sure. A huge amount of work was done by those who remotely and promptly processed the archives, analyzed our underwater footage, helped to accurately identify the sunken ships ... It is pleasing and important to feel like a member of such a serious team."
Vadim Kutukov, a lifeguard and diver, whose personal record is diving to a depth of 161 meters, says the expedition has become a professional challenge for him. And an important human experience too.
“The Baltic itself is not easy for diving, and even more so to such serious depths,” he says. “The opportunity to work on such a project, with such an amazing team is already the strongest motivation. Be among the first and best. Diving unites us all, erases boundaries. Here, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Russian living in Latvia, an Estonian from Lithuania or a Latvian born in Estonia. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers went through the First and Second World Wars. Therefore, the memory of them is in our blood. It's great that there is an opportunity to work on a common cause and then share thoughts, learn from each other with people like Konstantin Bogdanov and his guys. And people like Father Innokenty are just a godsend. He motivates, inspires and helps. Wakes up the soul and blesses you on your further journey.”
Abbot Innokenty (Olkhovoy) deserves a separate mention. The oeconomus of Danilov Monastery is a rather professional diver. This is probably the only clergyman in Russia who was not only able to work with a camera and flashlights, but also read memorial services for all those who died at sea at a depth of 80 meters or more. Having risen to the surface, he helped his colleagues to recover from the nightmare they saw at the bottom ...
The founder and director of “Yacht-Radio” Maxim Sputai was an operator of the expedition and saw how people change after plunging into the abyss of an 80-year-old tragedy.
“The hardest thing was to see the guys' eyes after the dive to ‘Balkhash’. The first to rise was Vadim Kutukov. Very briefly, even sparingly, he reported what he saw at the bottom: ‘It's hard. Very hard’. And he fell silent, withdrew into himself. It felt like he had brought the breath of death with him to the surface ... And then each diver, returning, went into himself in the same way. Gray-haired men, not boys at all. They surface, take off their equipment and are silent ... That was the most difficult thing for me during all ten days of the expedition. Then on the shore I saw the underwater footage. Bones, skulls, clothes, shoes, ammunition, everything is mixed up. Layers ... Woe. Immeasurable grief ... I did not dive, but I was terribly affected. I can’t imagine what it was like for the guys down there to see it with their own eyes ...”
Konstantin Bogdanov says that there were at least seven thousand people on the five ships explored from July 1 to July 9, 2021, most of whom remained at sea forever. Thus, the resting place of about half of all people who died during the Tallinn Breakout has been explored. The main thing is that from now on their relatives can find out the exact coordinates of these giant mass graves.
All in all, according to Konstantin Bogdanov, about 40 ships sank and more than 10 thousand people died in the Juminda area in one night. To this day, not all of them have been identified.
In addition to the ships that participated in the Tallinn Breakout, underwater explorers discovered and identified the hull of the M-96 submarine, which sank in 1944. Search specialists from Russia and Estonia have been looking for it for more than three years. The first submarine commander was the legendary Alexander Marinesko.
Expedition "180 miles to Leningrad: The history of the Tallinn Breakout on the modern map" began on 5 May.
At the first stage, the specialists of the "Underwater Exploration Team" together with the marine engineering company "Fertoing" discovered four sunken ships in the Russian part of the Gulf of Finland: transports VT-524 "Kalpaks", VT-511 "Alev", VT-547 "Järvamaa" and VT-563 "Atis Kronvalds". All of them sank on August 29, 1941, because of German air strikes, and became a mass grave for 2.5 thousand people.
Today, of all the large sea burials of the Tallinn Breakout, only the command ship "Vironia", on board of which there were about 2.5 thousand people, remains not found. The members of the search team hope that they will be able to make trips to the Russian and Estonian parts of the Gulf of Finland before 28 August, that will mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Tallinn Breakout.
In the meantime, it is necessary to analyze all the information received these days. We would like to remind you that the result of the RGS expedition will be the creation of an interactive map with the exact coordinates of all sunken ships that participated in the legendary Tallinn Breakout, and their 3D models.
Expedition "180 miles to Leningrad. The history of the Tallinn Breakout on the modern sea map" is supported by the Presidential Grants Fund and the “Transneft” company.