Myths And Facts About “Armenia” Shipwreck

Графика ЦПИ РГО
Графика ЦПИ РГО

In the Black Sea, as a result of a search operation by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the “Armenia” ship was found. Experts from the RGS Underwater Research Center participated in its study and identification. The hospital ship was sunk by German aircrafts in 1941. More than six thousand people died on board. At our request, a historian from Yalta, Aleksey Spasenkov, who has been collecting materials about the “Armenia” shipwreck for many years, answered the most controversial questions related to this tragedy.

1. How many passengers were on board?

Fact. There was no boarding with tickets for the “Armenia” ship, and no one kept a general list of passengers in a panic. Various sources state that there were from 5 to 10 thousand wounded and refugees.

Myth. According to one version, the ship was half empty, it was filled with weapons and valuables. According to another, there were a lot of people on the ship. That is why the authorities were silent about the death of MS “Armenia”.

Aleksey Spasenkov: “We will never know the exact number. Some did not board the “Armenia”; and some did, but without getting on the lists. In the case No. 37 of the Central Archive of the Black Sea Fleet, I came across the following quote, ‘Evacuation of the sanitary squad of the Main Naval Base from Sevastopol entailed the liquidation of the department, which, in addition to managing the sanitary facilities of the base, was also the department that gathered all the medical records.’ "

So, technically, the last names of everyone aboard “Armenia” and those who evacuated there form hospitals were not on any records! In fact, historians have only a few files from different archives with a list of personnel to be evacuated on this ship. If we talk about the possible number, there is an archival document about the evacuation of the "Armenia" ship from Odessa. Then, the vessel took 5 thousand people.

In mid-October 1941, the ship “Armenia” evacuated from besieged Odessa to Sevastopol:

‘Cargo description – 5.000 military people,  72 people injured, guns 28 pcs., trailers 24 pcs., vehicles 5 pcs., anti-aircraft guns 3 pcs., miscellaneous cargo 165 t.’

Case No. 1147, Russian State Archive of the Navy

And there is also mentioned the "Abkhazia" ship, ​​which was slightly smaller than "Armenia". It evacuated "6.000 military people, ammunition 300 tons, guns 9 pcs., vehicles 1 pc., miscellaneous cargo 300 tons."

Therefore, the "Armenia" could accept 6 thousand people and a large number of cargo.”



2. How many passengers managed to survive?

Fact. During the war years, almost nothing was written about MS “Armenia”; there were enough tragedies. The Germans occupied Crimea for three years. After the war, nobody began to purposefully look for eyewitnesses to the disaster. And finding them in a war-ravaged country was extremely problematic.

Myth. Some people say that no one survived. According to other sources, from 8 to 82 people survived. The media widely spread the story of a certain Anastasia Popova, who, despite the terrible cold and being  pregnant, swam to the shore. "Having gone to sea, the ship was attacked by enemy’s aircrafts. All hell broke loose. Bomb explosions, panic, people screaming – everything was mixed up in an indescribable nightmare. People rushed about the deck, not knowing where to hide from the fire. I jumped into the sea and swam to the shore, losing consciousness. I don’t remember how I ended up on the shore."

Alexey Spasenkov: “To establish the truth, it is necessary to provide a weather report for November 7, 1941: a strong northeast wind of 6–7 points, waves of up to 6 points, the lower edge of cloud cover is 500 meters, cloud density is 2–3 points (archives of the Black Sea Shipping Company, Russian State Archive of the Navy, German Federal Military Archive).

Of course, sometimes a person can do the impossible, and you want to believe the words of this woman, as well as dozens of “stories” on this subject. But all the same, with a strong offshore wind, waves, low temperature and wet winter clothes, it was almost impossible to do. In the archive transcript on this subject, there is the following, "When it was going under, boats were dropped from the ship ... 6 people were saved, there were up to 300 people in the water." 6 hours later in the disaster area "two suitcases are floating on the left side... A large box is floating on the right side." So, according to the documents, six were saved. "


Теплоход "Армения". 1935 год. Фото:
Теплоход "Армения". 1935 год. Фото:

3. What cargo was accompanied by the NKVD officers who boarded in Balaklava?

Fact. The "Armenia" ship left Sevastopol on November 6, at 20:10 (report of the coast guard tower), and on November 7 the duty guard of defense of waterway area made a journal entry about the call of "Armenia" to the port of Yalta at 2:15. We get 6 hours. And at 2:40, captain Vladimir Plaushevsky reported to the area commander about his arrival. Why did the ship take so long to get there?

Myth. In recent years, the story has spread, that near Balaklava the NKVD boats were waiting for the “Armenia” to load secret boxes. In them, according to one version, there were gold and valuables from Crimean museums; according to another - paintings from the collection of the State Russian Museum (K. Bryullov, I. Kramskoi, I. Repin, I. Levitan), which at the time of the war were exhibited in Alupka as part of a traveling exhibition. The third version - archival documents. Many experts consider the hours of staying in Balaklava as fatal to the fate of “Armenia”.

Alexey Spasenkov: “No cargo was taken aboard the ship in Balaklava! I have not seen in any archive any mention of the fact that “Armenia” stopped there.

Let us recall the weather conditions, and this would be about 10pm, plus wartime, and therefore, blackout. Let’s also consider the dimensions of the “Armenia”: the displacement of 5770 tons and the length of 112 meters, the width of 15.5 meters. And we will understand that it was almost impossible to enter the inner harbor of Balaklava bay.

A hypothetical rendezvous could only happen on the high seas. And there was a strong wind, waves, and absolute darkness. And the ships on which the NKVD officers allegedly came were most likely “submarine chasers” (one of the locations of which was Balaklava): wooden boats up to 26 meters long, narrow and very cranky on the waves. To approach the “Armenia”, which was huge for them, would have been really reckless and criminally irresponsible, considering they had some “valuable cargo”.

Not only could they not transfer the cargo, but also simply approach the ship. Those who have experience in bunkering on the high seas will understand what I`m talking about. The boats of the NKVD officers would have been smashed to pieces before they could remember themselves. None of the archival files I studied, and there were about 280 of them, mentioned Balaklava as a transshipment place. And why would it have been? Sevastopol, with bays protected from the weather and with air defense means, was near." 


Фото предоставлено ЦПИ РГО
Фото предоставлено ЦПИ РГО

4. Was the “Armenia” in the full sense a hospital ship, and were there weapons on board?

Fact. On the last voyage there were wounded from hospitals, doctors, and evacuees aboard “Armenia”, which indicates the hospital nature of the vessel. Were there guns on board? The specialists of the RGS Underwater Research Center examined the sunken ship "Armenia". The central part of the deck, where 21-K cannons could have been located, is so destroyed that it is not possible to confirm or deny their presence.

Myth. There were two/four 21-K cannons on board. The Black Sea Fleet itself provoked the attack on the “Armenia” ship, placing weapons on it. According to international law, a hospital ship did not have this right. Moreover, large shipments of weapons were transported on the ship.

Aleksey Spasenkov: “The Nazis didn’t particularly respect international law, and in the Soviet Union the Nazis completely forgot about them. In July 1941, the Germans bombed the “Kotovsky” and “Anton Chekhov” hospital ships, and later, in August, “Adzharia” and “Kuban” sank as a result of air raids. So the installation of guns on ships was a necessary defensive reaction.

Was MS “Armenia” in the full sense a hospital ship? It is referred to as ‘hospital ship’ only in Order No. 00162 from 08.08.41 “On the enrollment of the hospital ships ‘Armenia’ and ‘Abkhazia’ as part of the Black Sea Fleet.” In all other documents studied it is referred to as ‘motor ship’ or, more often, ‘vessel’.

"On the boat deck in the area of ​​the 156th – 157th frames, two 21-K type guns are installed, one on each side, at a distance of 1.150 mm from the board. One gun is mounted on the drum on the lower bridge deck, in the region of 124th – 125th frames, along the centerline. Reinforcements for the "Armenia" are made according to drawing No. 3. The ammunition magazines are designed for 1,420 shells (plus three ready boxes for the first shots for 180 shells; 60 shells for each gun). They are located in the officer’s bath room and the office that are on the boat deck. The loading of the ammunition magazines and shell delivery are manual".

Case No. 1431, Russian State Archive of the Navy

In one of the cases there is a mention that on the approach to Odessa the convoy was attacked by enemy aircrafts; and that the “Armenia” was firing anti-aircraft weapons. From archival documents it can be seen that all mobilized civilian transports were actively used in the transportation of weapons, ammunition, personnel, wounded, civilians. The people were transported in the same vehicles as the supplies..

Most likely, there was no time to paint the “Armenia” ship in a special white color. There simply were other things to worry about. I specifically looked for some mention of coloring, but could not find any mention of a single vessel in 1941 anywhere. Therefore, we cannot call the "Armenia" a strictly hospital ship. Converting several cabins for medical needs does not make a hospital ship out of it!”


Карта боевой обстановки на южном берегу Крыма 7 ноября 1941 года. Из архива Алексея Спасенкова
Карта боевой обстановки на южном берегу Крыма 7 ноября 1941 года. Из архива Алексея Спасенкова

5. Is it true that Captain Plaushevsky went to sea during the day, disobeying the order?

Fact. The ship "Armenia" left Yalta at 8:00 am, which was mortally dangerous for the ship.

Myth. After the vessel had been filled with people, Captain Plaushevsky received an order from the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, Admiral Filipp Oktyabrsky, to leave after dark, after 7:00 pm. However, the captain of the “Armenia” decided to go to sea, for which he could be executed. According to one version, he did it because of the advancing Germans, according to another - the NKVD officers pressed the captain for an early departure.

Alexey Spasenkov: “No, no and no! Plaushevsky did not disobey any orders. Moreover, he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Banner, and in 1970 a dry-cargo ship was named in honor of Plaushevsky.

I will quote, “ ‘Armenia’ vessel arrived in Yalta at 02:40 am, the captain reported that he had an order to leave during the day if the weather was bad. The head of the Yalta front ordered to start loading. The chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of Crimea, Comrade Menbariev, was present. Our units were retreating at that time, and the enemy fired at Yalta with machine guns from the mountains. The drivers, who drove the wounded in cars – they scattered. They didn’t load one car with the wounded and ordered it to go to Sevastopol. At this time, an order was received from the duty officer of the Black Sea Fleet to leave Yalta."


Наградной лист на капитана Плаушевского. Документ из архива Алексея Спасенкова
Наградной лист на капитана Плаушевского. Документ из архива Алексея Спасенкова

6. Had MS “Armenia” remained in Yalta, would have people survived?

Fact. At 8:00am MS “Armenia” left in the direction of Tuapse. At 11:25am the ship was shelled by German aircrafts, and in 4 minutes it sank.

Myth. If the captain of “Armenia” had waited for darkness, then everything would have ended successfully; the ship would have reached its destination, and everyone would have been alive and well.

Alexey Spasenkov: “At the same time as the refugees were loaded on the “Armenia” ship in Yalta, the Germans were in the suburban village of Nikita and fired at the Yalta port from that area. The Wehrmacht soldiers crossed Yalta during the day and occupied Livadiya in the evening. We must understand that Germans were going to the southern coast of Crimea along several roads. An overloaded motor ship in the port is an ideal target. Having gone to sea, people still had a chance. But not too big: by the summer of 1942, Nazis destroyed 70% of all civilian ships mobilized during the war."


Сухогруз Плаушевский. Фото из архива Алексея Спасенкова
Сухогруз Плаушевский. Фото из архива Алексея Спасенкова

7. Where did the report on the wreck of MS "Armenia" go?

Fact. In the history of the shipwreck of MS "Armenia" there are many blank spots. Many documents which can be used to study it are still classified.

Myth. Many who studied the history of the ship "Armenia" refer to case No. 19, which is stored in the Central Naval Archive. It was known by separate passages. Later, the information appeared that in 1949 it was first classified and then destroyed. External interference is also used to explain the small number of documents about "Armenia" in the archives of Germany.

Alexey Spasenkov: “The version that the NKVD officers (including later in the German archives) cleaned everything up could only come from people who never worked in the archives. For each deposit collection, there is a history of its formation. It’s very hard to remove or cross something out, since all cases do not exist in a vacuum. For example, I got information about “Armenia” not from one, but from dozens of files. You can rewrite or redo one, but not all of them. Let`s take a logbook for example. In order for something to be falsified, you will have to rewrite the entire document. And it is usually 350-360 pages.

The scanty amount of the Luftwaffe materials in the German Federal Military Archive in the city of Freiburg is explained by the extreme bombing by the allies of Dresden, where in late 1944 - early 1945 the Germans moved the bulk of the archives from Berlin.

In reality, nobody specifically destroyed anything about “Armenia”. The documents are just “scattered” both through archives and deposit collections. And no one has ever researched this topic seriously. However, there is still one document that is classified "Top Secret". But there are only 11 of 422 pages devoted to the "Armenia".

Natalya Mozilova