Konstantin Bogdanov: Ships Found in the Gulf of Finland Should be Declared War Burial Sites

Константин Богданов. Фото: Ольга Акулова
Константин Богданов. Фото:Ольга Акулова

As we have already reported, the first part 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. In the course of the carried out sonar detection and underwater research, four transport vessels were found and identified, carrying more than 2.5 thousand people. The expedition leader Konstantin Bogdanov, for the first time, talks about the details of the May dives in the Gulf of Finland. What did they find out in addition to the known facts? Why was it difficult to identify some of the ships? And how does the memory of the war suddenly make you think about the environment?

Memory map

- Konstantin, the first thing that determines whether the dive will take place is the weather. Apparently, you were in luck that time?

- Usually at this time the weather is just settling down. This time, eight days out of ten, it favored us. But those other two days that we had to spend on land were not in vain. On May 9 and 10, we were on Moshchny Island and decided to hold a clean-up day at the old Finnish cemetery. It is quite large; there are Finnish and Estonian burials from more than a century ago. The inhabitants of the island are trying to keep an eye on it. But they are always shorthanded. We helped a little to tidy it up: we put upright the fallen monuments, removed the debris, and cleared the thickets of bushes. I think this is in tune with what we are doing in the course of underwater research. This is how the memory of the people who lived before us is preserved.


Погружениям предшествовал этап "штабной" работы. Фото: Ольга Акулова
Погружениям предшествовал этап "штабной" работы. Фото: Ольга Акулова

- The current expedition of the Russian Geographical Society is an excellent example of cooperation between the Underwater Exploration Team, of which you are the head, and the “Fertoing” marine engineering company. How are the responsibilities assigned?

- It really turned out to be a big joint project. Colleagues from “Fertoing” are helping with sonar and 3D scanning of the sunken ship hulls. And only then our underwater researchers go to the depth, where we take photographs and record videos, collect material for constructing photogrammetry (editor’s note: determining the shape, size and position of objects from their photographic images) and identify the detected objects. In addition, the colleagues are working on the creation of a geographic information system "Marine Heritage" – the interactive map that will recreate the model of the Tallinn Breakout and acquaint users with virtual museums of the found ships, as well as show photos and videos obtained during the expedition.

- But there was also, so to speak, the preliminary stage of the expedition...

- Naturally, the success of any expedition directly depends on how well and thoroughly the preliminary "theoretical" preparation is carried out. It started last December.


Специалисты компании "Фертоинг" изучают морские глубины с помощью гидролокатора. Фото: Руслан Шамуков
Специалисты компании "Фертоинг" изучают морские глубины с помощью гидролокатора. Фото: Руслан Шамуков

The basis for our search was, of course, unique materials collected by the naval historian, retired Rear Admiral Radiy Anatolyevich Zubkov, alas, already deceased. His book on the Tallinn Breakout is, to this day, the most complete description of the operation. Then our historian and diver Mikhail Ivanov prepared a localized preliminary search plan. On the basis of Soviet and German archival documents, it was possible to identify a small area where the wrecks of the sunken ships are most likely to be found. That is why the four ships that sank 80 years ago off Moshchny Island were found quickly enough.

Deadly nets

- How difficult was it to reliably identify the detected vessels?

- We made several dives, conducted an initial survey. The surviving ship bells aided the identification. Two vessels – "Kalpaks" and "Atis Kronvalds" – were identified by them. The former Estonian steamers “Järvamaa” and “Alev” were identified by design features and comparing them with old photographs. As a result, all four vessels, despite significant damage, were accurately identified.

- Were there any surprises?

- The identification of "Kalpaks" and "Atis Kronvalds" was more or less straightforward. They are relatively well preserved. In addition, underwater visibility was good – five to seven meters.


Судовой колокол и другие предметы с парохода "Атис Кронвальдс".Фото: Иван Боровиков
Судовой колокол и другие предметы с парохода "Атис Кронвальдс".Фото: Иван Боровиков

But further on, things turned out to be more difficult. The other two vessels received the most severe damage after attacks by German aircraft and were badly burned, the hulls were covered with fishing trawl nets. In addition, due to the current and dispersed suspension, visibility dropped significantly, especially in the places of faults and closer to the ground. We assumed that one of the discovered vessels was “Alev”, but it turned out that it was “Järvamaa”. We realized this when we examined both shipwrecks and compared the video footage.

Another problem popped up as well. The damage to the ships was inflicted not only by enemy aircraft in August 1941. The ship's superstructures and decks were partially destroyed by fishing trawl nets.

In the post-war years, people were fishing here. Large and strong trawl nets clung to the remains of the sunken ships and tangled tightly. The fishermen simply had to cut these nets. And this happened more than once: the hulls of the ships are literally entangled in them.

- This is a source of additional risk for divers...

- Yes, the nets are an obvious diving hazard. But not only for humans. We found several dead seals in these nets. To be precise, we are talking about the Baltic ringed seal. Diving deep for fish, animals get entangled in strong trawl nets and can no longer escape.


Кольчатая нерпа. Фото: Андрей Костромитин, участник фотоконкурса РГО "Самая красивая страна"
Кольчатая нерпа. Фото: Андрей Костромитин, участник фотоконкурса РГО "Самая красивая страна"

Abandoned fishing nets, given their number in the Gulf of Finland, are a rather serious problem. Now we need to understand its scale. We will talk about this with specialists. It is possible that one of our future expeditions under the flag of the Russian Geographical Society will be devoted to this topic.

In the meantime, it is important to complete the story of the Tallinn Breakout, when about 15 thousand people died in just three days in August 1941.

Using a "mosinka" against planes

- Have you seen human remains?

- Sure. Remains on decks, in holds. There are also shoes, helmets, belts with pouches ...


На месте гибели парохода "Атис Кронвальдс". Фото: Иван Боровиков
На месте гибели парохода "Атис Кронвальдс". Фото: Иван Боровиков

I was struck by one sight: a Mosin rifle, leaning against the side, and next to it were the remains of a soldier. He had died before the ship sank. Although most of the human remains, apparently, are in the holds, especially on hospital ships. All this lies under a dense layer of silt and a blockage of boards, debris and transported cargo.

- You mentioned a rifle. Did you find any other weapons?

- The fact of the matter is that we did not find any heavy weapons, for example, anti-aircraft guns or even large-caliber machine guns. Facing bombs and aircraft cannons, our transports were virtually unarmed. And nevertheless, the fighters faught to the last. On deck, we found half-empty boxes of rifle cartridges. Imagine what it is like to shoot back upon dozens of oncoming aircraft from a three-line rifle!


Погода на Балтике благоприятствовала экспедиции. Фото: Руслан Шамуков
Погода на Балтике благоприятствовала экспедиции. Фото: Руслан Шамуков

- The shipwrecks are huge mass graves. What is their status now?

- Technically, these are mass graves, but officially they are not yet war burial sites. Until recently, the exact places of the shipwrecks were not known. I think that after the completion of the project, we will prepare the relevant search descriptions, transfer them to the Russian Ministry of Defense, so that the objects can be put on a map and placed in the official register.

How the war should end

- So, the first stage of the expedition turned out to be very successful. What's next?

- We hope that Estonia will meet us halfway and agree on the possibility of conducting underwater research at Cape Juminda, where several ships sank during the Tallinn Breakout: they could not pass through the minefields. The decision of the Estonian authorities, as far as I understand, largely depends on the epidemiological situation. And all of our participants have either already been ill or vaccinated.

I am sure that the results of our research are interesting not only for residents of Russia, but also for the Republic of Estonia and Estonians, whose relatives may have been participants in the Tallinn crossing.

I know that the Estonian Maritime Museum is also preparing an exhibition dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Tallinn Breakout. We hope that the project will be implemented this year in memory of all the people who died or survived such a severe and tragic ordeal. Regardless of nationality and citizenship.


В Финском заливе не должно остаться "белых пятен" войны. Фото: Руслан Шамуков
В Финском заливе не должно остаться "белых пятен" войны. Фото: Руслан Шамуков

In addition, we are now continuing search operations in the area of ​​the island of Gogland. Not far from it is the T-12 tanker, which also sank in the Tallinn breakout. This vessel has been studied by the specialists from the Underwater Research Center of the Russian Geographical Society for several years. Our task is to find the rest of the ships that sank during the crossing.

- Do you have an understanding of how many there can be?

- According to our information, there should be four more sunken vessels in this area. Which of them are in Russian territorial waters, and which are not – this is to be found out after the sonar.

And, as I’ve already said, the work will begin on three-dimensional modeling, the creation of virtual museums of the sunken ships and vessels of the Tallinn Breakout, as well as the formation and filling of an interactive map.

- What, in your opinion, will be the result and meaning of all this great work?

- In the territorial waters of Russia and Estonia, all vessels that participated in the Tallinn Breakout will be found, identified and examined. On the modern nautical chart, designations will appear with the names of the specific ships and exact coordinates. This will mean that these people are found, they are remembered. And the relatives of those killed in that terrible tragedy will have exact numbers of latitude and longitude, where they can come and put flowers on the water. This is probably how any war should end. Especially at sea.

Aivar Valeev