The very first work day of the underwater search expedition "180 miles to Leningrad: the history of the Tallinn breakout on the modern sea map. Comprehensive underwater research for the 80th anniversary of the Tallinn crossing" turned out to be productive. The underwater exploration team investigated and identified the medical military transport "VT-524" lying at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea, which sank as a result of a German air raid on August 29, 1941.
According to the head of the expedition, Konstantin Bogdanov, on May 5, his team went out to sea, and the next day the divers made a dive in the area south-west of Moschny Island, where four sunken objects had been previously discovered.
Military transport 524 ("VT-524") (until 1940 "Kalpaks", until 1926 "Leyton", earlier – "Marie Louise")
Built and launched in 1914 in France as a cargo ship "Marie Louise". Subsequently sold to an English owner and renamed "Leyton". In 1926, it was acquired by a Latvian private shipping company and was named in honor of Oskars Kalpaks, a former Russian officer who became one of the first army commanders of the independent Latvian state that emerged on the ruins of the Russian Empire. In 1940, after Latvia became part of the USSR, the steamer was nationalized and transferred to the Latvian Shipping Company. With the outbreak of World War II, the ship was mobilized and included in the Red Banner Baltic Fleet as a military transport. However, there were no time to remove the old name, "Kalpaks", from the sides, and that is why many sources continue to call the ship that way.
Full displacement is 2190 tons. Length – 82 meters. The power was mainly generated by a boiler, power – 1100 hp. Speed – 8 knots.
“The vessel lies at a depth of 48 meters,” said Konstantin Bogdanov. “A team of underwater researchers filmed the bridge, bow and stern, and inspected the holds. On the steering wheel, we found a stamp in French, testifying to the construction of the ship in France, which already allowed us to suggest that it was ‘VT-524’. Definite identification became possible after the discovery of the bow bell with the inscription "Marie Louise" and the indication of the year and place of construction – 1914, city of Nantes. Numerous remains of people, small arms, helmets were found in the holds and on the deck.”
The hospital ship sailing in convoy No.1 was sunk by German aircraft at 4:45 pm on August 29, 1941, south-west of Moshchny Island (in 1941, Lavansaari Island).
For the first time, the ship's hull was discovered by the expedition "A bow to the ships of the Great Victory" almost two years ago during the search for the M-96 submarine, but then it was not examined. Specialists of the marine engineering company “Fertoing” conducted an area survey of the bottom using multi-beam echo sounders, and based on the obtained data they built a preliminary 3D model of the wrecked vessel. And although the members of the expedition assumed that it could be "VT-524", until now, there has been no evidence to prove it.
The fate of this purely peaceful ship, that found itself in the real hell of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, is symbolic in itself. And the story of its destruction clearly highlights the inhuman methods of the war conduct by the Nazi invaders, who sank civil and hospital ships. The history of the ship's participation in the Tallinn breakout and its wreck has reached us thanks to a detailed report by the miraculously surviving captain of the ship, Ernst Veinbergs, and many years of research and publications by the military historian, researcher of the crossing, retired rear admiral, Radiy Anatolyevich Zubkov.
By August 27, 1941, in Tallinn, the 524th military transport had taken on board more than 1000 people, of which 850 were wounded soldiers and 200 civilians – mostly women and children.
As soon as the steamer entered the Tallinn roadstead, it was immediately attacked by Nazi aircraft.
From the report of the ship's captain, Ernst Veinbergs:
"At 12 o'clock, when the enemy aircraft raided the roadstead, a large-caliber bomb exploded 5 meters from the ship. A Kingston valve burst during the shock; the ship got a leak and the underwater hull got deformed.
At 14 o'clock the roadstead came under heavy artillery fire. Fearing being hit, we went further N. At 22 o'clock we approached the “Leningradsovet” military ship, getting into a caravan for retreat, following the “Vironia” steam ship. At 23.30, due to storm N 7 and poor visibility, by order of the leader, the “Leningradsovet” military ship was anchored."
On August 28, at dawn, the roadstead was air raided again."
This was just the beginning of the nightmare. During the breakout, the ship was repeatedly running into minefields already placed by the invaders. And after passing them, it was air raided by enemy aircraft several times a day.
In the absence of heavy weapons (the crew had only small arms), skillful maneuvering became the main method of protection. At the same time, the crew, under fire, heroically rescued people from the sinking ships of the convoy. Taking into account the rescued, by the evening of August 29, according to various estimates, there were already 1,300 – 1,500 thousand people on board, almost all wounded or exhausted after staying long in the cold sea water.
From the report of the ship's captain, Ernst Veinbergs:
"Near Prangli Island, we came under artillery fire and were raided by enemy aircraft. There were no hits. Opposite the island of Mokhni, drowning men from the damaged SS “Vironia” were taken on board. By order of the commandant, we left the caravan and tried to tow SS “Vironia” despite the fact that the SS "Kalpaks" was a hospital ship and the location was under artillery fire ...
On August 29, at dawn, we moved on. Until Gogland, the steamer was bombarded almost continuously by enemy aircraft. However, we managed to avoid all the hits. Chief engineer said that the ship had gotten a leak from close explosions of aerial bombs.
At 12.30, having passed Gogland, we were bombed again. The leak intensified, but was pumpable. At 14.30 passed Bolshoy Tyuters Island.
At 16.30, in SO (south-east), a group of 11 enemy aircraft appeared. Two aircraft avoided the bombardments. After that, 4 aircraft descended to the height of the masts and began firing at the steamer from machine guns. Having sent the chief officer to the protected wheelhouse, continued to maneuver.
At 4:40 pm was wounded by a bullet in the left knee."
Over and over again, German planes attacked the defenseless hospital ship, firing machine guns at it and dropping bombs on it. One of them fell into hold No.1, and the bow of the ship began to slowly sink into the water. The bleeding captain gave the order to lower the boats. A second later, another bomb exploded in hold No.2. The steamer began to sink rapidly.
From the report of the captain of "Kalpaks", Ernst Veinbergs:
"Having stopped the machines, gave the order to abandon ship in view of the inevitable sinking of the steamer.
After less than two minutes after the first bomb hit, at 4:45 pm, was washed off the bridge and went to the bottom in the whirlpool. Having swum to the surface of the water, I swam up to a bunch of boards and people who pulled me onto the boards. After a little rest, we began to make a raft from the boards. The base of the raft was made from the boards tied together. Due to the loss of blood, there was no more strength to stand on the boards. The cook and the engineer of the steamer swam up to us and dragged me off the boards onto their raft. At that time, about 150 people from the “Kalpaks” steam ship were visible on the water, holding on to boards and other floating items. A caravan of small watercrafts passed nearby, which did not approach us. On the morning of August 30, rowing with boards, we swam to the burning SS "Järvamaa" and climbed onto it. The minesweepers picked us up from there at 8 o'clock.
I must note that the steam ship’s crew did not succumb to panic and carried out all orders responsibly and selflessly to the last."
It is noteworthy that after the "Kalpaks" had sunk, the Nazi planes continued to fire at the floating people from machine guns and bomb them. Witnesses recalled that German pilots were photographing the tragedy from a height of several tens of meters.
In total, out of about 1,500 people on board the ship, no more than 70 were saved...
The expedition "180 miles to Leningrad. The history of the Tallinn breakout on the modern sea map. Comprehensive underwater research for the 80th anniversary of the Tallinn crossing" began on May 5, and will last until the end of August. On August 28-29, the day when the 80th anniversary of the great feat and the great tragedy of the crossing will be celebrated, memorial events will be held on the island of Gogland. This is a joint project of the Russian Geographical Society, the Underwater Exploration Team and the “Fertoing” engineering company, carried out in close cooperation with the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. It is symbolic that it is the sailors of the Baltic Fleet who are today participating in the search for the lost ships and vessels and in perpetuating the memory of their heroic crews.
In the course of the joint expedition, it is planned to find and identify 15 ships and vessels that sank during the passage, resting at the bottom of the Gulf of Finland. Based on the results of the search, an interactive map will be created with the exact coordinates of the sunken ships and their three-dimensional projections. It is also planned to collect as much information as possible about those killed during the Tallinn breakout – both military personnel and civilians.
The project is supported by the "Presidential Grants Fund" and the "Transneft" company.