12,000 of them-To the memory of the drowned-1941

Juminda, 28.8.1941: To the memory of the drowned - all 12,000 of them

The seabed in the Gulf of Finland between Kallbådagrund and Cape Juminda is one enormous graveyard

Juminda, 28.8.1941: To the memory of the drowned - all 12,000 of them
Juminda, 28.8.1941: To the memory of the drowned - all 12,000 of them
Juminda, 28.8.1941: To the memory of the drowned - all 12,000 of them
Juminda, 28.8.1941: To the memory of the drowned - all 12,000 of them
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By Pekka Hakala
      Officer Cadet Fyodor Paramonovich Yeryomenko stood on the deck of the Soviet Baltic Fleet destroyer Volodarski and peered out to sea.
      It was largely a vain exercise, since the Gulf of Finland was pitch-black in the dark August night.
      The sun had gone down two hours earlier. The sea was choppy with new and old waves - a swell left over from the morning's storm that had blown from the north-east and new waves kicked up by a gradually strengthening breeze from the south-west.
      It was Thursday August 28th, 1941. The time was approaching 23.00, and Yeryomenko was counting down the minutes until the end of his watch.
The Orfey-class destroyer Volodarski, launched in 1914 in St. Petersburg as the Pobiditel, had left the Estonian capital Tallinn just after sunset, at the tail end of a long flotilla of Soviet troopships, merchantmen, and naval escorts heading towards Leningrad and safety.
      Before very long, the Volodarski would be level with Cape Juminda, a headland sticking out from the Estonian coast, some ten nautical miles to the south.
      The ship was making 14 knots and heading east-north-east towards the island of Suursaari and Russian waters.
The Soviet Union's Baltic Fleet, which had established its headquarters in occupied Tallinn, had launched an urgent evacuation operation to escape the closing net of German troops outside the Estonian capital, and to try to bring home to Leningrad as many ships and units of the Red Army as possible.
      The fleeing armada faced many dangers en route, but there was no longer any alternative: the advancing Germans had cut through the land connection to Russia three weeks earlier.
Approximately 30,000 Soviet Red Army soldiers and thousands of civilians were packed into more than 200 vessels.
      Everybody was aware that earlier in the year, in June, the Germans and Finns had laid countless naval mines in the waters off Cape Juminda, and it was for this very reason that Fyodor Yeryomenko was standing on deck and staring into the darkness.
      Somewhere ahead of the Volodarski were the minesweepers.
      Their wires, sweeps, and devices designed to cut the anchor-cables of the horned contact-mines were supposed to bring the mines to the surface, where they could be blown up - or at least where it would be easier to spot them and avoid them.
      But first you had to see them. And try as he might, the 18-year-old cadet could see nothing but inky-black water.
It was a boring and ultimately fruitless watch. Yeryomenko felt inclined to hum a tune to accompany the hissing of the waves and the dull thud of the destroyer's turbines.
      A song from Ukraine, perhaps, for this is where he was from - Dnepropetrovsk, in the lower reaches of the Dnieper River.
      Officer training had brought the boy to Leningrad and then the war had taken him to Tallinn.
Somewhere ahead of them in the darkness, explosions could be heard now and then, and bright lights flashed on the horizon like summer lightning.
      This was war.
      The departure from Tallinn had come not a moment too soon, with the German columns storming unopposed into the outskirts of the surrounded city.
      The open hand of an fellow officer cadet landed on Yeryomenko's shoulder.
      At last! He could go off watch and get down below.
Yeryomenko slithered along the wet deck and into the ship's galley.
      It was packed with people, most of them civilians who had been evacuated from Tallinn.
      The young cadet pushed his way through the crowd and eventually reached the samovar.
      He even found a place to sit down, and the hot tea warmed him.
His head fell sideways onto his shoulder, and he dropped off to sleep - only to wake an instant later to the sound of a powerful explosion.
      The drowsy Yeryomenko initially had not the slightest idea what had happened. He nevertheless knew it was not good, and quickly made his way out of the chaos, meeting up with another cadet.
      It soon transpired that the Volodarski had struck a mine and had broken in two. Yeryomenko and his colleague - and most of the passengers - were in the bow section, which was already listing heavily.
The two cadets quickly climbed into a lifeboat hanging from its davits, where they knew there would be life-vests to put on.
      Stripping down to their underwear, the two teenagers put on the life-vests, scrambled out of the boat and back to the deck, and slid down the side of the stricken destroyer's hull into the sea.
      "No, I did not feel at all cold; my blood was pumping that fast", Fyodor Yeryomenko, now 87, recalls the events off Cape Juminda sixty-nine years ago.
A busload of navy veterans has gathered on the anniversary of the ill-starred Evacuation of Tallinn, in the village of Juminda, some 75 kilometres east of the Estonian capital.
      Their numbers are getting thin: Yeryomenko is the only one among them who was actually present in the doomed flotilla in 1941.
      His ship, the Volodarski, was one of a trio of destroyers - Artyom, Volodarski, and Kalinin - ordered to escort the stragglers in the fourth group at the back of the evacuation fleet.
      All three of them ran into contact-mines on the western fringes of the mine barrage in the space of 15 minutes either side of 23:00. All three vessels were sunk.
"There were ships ablaze all around us", says Yeryomenko.
      "Thousands of people in the water, all shouting, so that the air was filled with a single loud blare of fear."
      The explosive gases of the mines soon gave way to clouds of steam as the Volodarski's 30,000 horse-power turbines and Vulkan boilers sank beneath the waves.
      Heavy fuel oil coated the people and goods tossed into the sea.
      Yeryomenko fastened onto a floating wooden bed along with two other victims, and they hung there for three or four hours.
In the early hours of the morning, a patrol boat that had been part of the naval escort came by and threw the three swimmers a line.
      "We tried to climb on board, but our hands were covered in oil and slipped on the rope. In the end the sailors tied ropes around us and hauled us up bodily."
      Yeryomenko got inside the cabin of the small patrol vessel and was given a dry set of clothes.
      The ship's master wisely hove to in the middle of the minefield to wait for the sun to rise.
Yeryomenko was cast into the sea by either a German mine or a Finnish one, as the co-belligerents had laid down a thick blanket of the explosive devices north of Cape Juminda side by side.
      The division of labour had finally been settled at a naval meeting in Kiel on June 6th, 1941, but the Finns - embittered at the outcome of the Winter War of 1939-40 and fearing that a new attack was being hatched by the Soviet Union - had been looking to Germany for help for a good deal longer.
The first mines in the Juminda barrage were laid off the Estonian coast on June 22nd.
      This was four days before the official commencement of hostilities in what is known as the Continuation War (1941-44).
      The initial batch of mines was dropped under conditions of strict secrecy by Finland's 500-tonne Vetehinen-class submarines - Vesihiisi, Vetehinen, and Iku-Turso.
      The three subs, gathered to the west of Emäsalo, close to the location of the modern Porvoo oil refinery, received orders from the Finnish Naval Command on the afternoon of Saturday June 21st - some 12 hours before Adolf Hitler's Operation Barbarossa had even begun.
The submarine captains regarded the orders as strange and suspected there was some misunderstanding.
      The master of the Vesihiisi Kalervo Kijanen reports in his memoirs how he went to point out to his senior officer Lt. Commander Arto Kivikuru that such a mission required that a state of war existed.
      "You had better get going without asking any more questions, as the gent giving the orders is quite powerful enough to know what is going on", answered Kivikuru, according to Kijanen's memoirs.
      Years later, Kijanen enquired of his former superior exactly what he had meant by the "powerful gent".
      "Hitler", Kivikuru had replied bluntly.
When one reads of the history of what happened that August night with modern eyes, the most astonishing thing is the behaviour of the Soviet Navy.
      The evacuation of the Estonian capital was undertaken late, at the point where the only reasonable escape route had been blocked by an almost biblical quantity of naval mines.
      The evacuation plans had been drawn up already in mid-July, but permission to excecute them was not forthcoming either from Josef Stalin or from Kliment Voroshilov, who had been made commander of the Northwest Direction following the German invasion in June.
Voroshilov was also incidentally the commander of the Soviet forces in the Winter War against Finland, and though he was made the scapegoat for the enormous casualties suffered by the Red Army before an armistice was reached, he remained a very powerful figure.
      So powerful, in fact, that it is a moot point whether anybody in Tallinn had actually dared ask him or Stalin for permission to leave.
The orders to vacate the city were eventually given on August 26th, but by that time the German troops were already engaged in house-to-house fighting in the southern suburbs of Tallinn.
      The time-frame given for carrying out this enormous evacuation exercise was one single day.
      The Commander of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, Vice-Admiral Vladimir Tributs, was responsible for the defence of Tallinn.
      On Wednesday August 27th, he ordered the sailors who had been in the trenches facing the advancing Germans to report back immediately to their ships.
      In addition to Soviet soldiers and the families of serving officers, the vessels were loaded with doctors, engineers, and representatives of other potentially useful professions.
The political elite of the newly-formed Soviet Socialist Republic of Estonia, created after annexation in 1940, were ordered to leave as well, under the leadership of the Communist Prime Minister and Chairman of the Council of People's Commissars Johannes Lauristin.
      In an interesting twist, Johannes Lauristin - arguably one of those who sold Estonia away to the Soviets in 1940 - was the father of Professor Marju Lauristin, a central figure in the so-called "Singing Revolution" that led to Estonia's becoming independent once again in the early 1990s.
      According to the official records, Johannes Lauristin was among those who drowned in the minefield mayhem, but a more likely scenario is that Admiral Tributs had him shot on shore as a political loose cannon before the ships had even cast off.
      As well as those mentioned, the flotilla took on board more than 4,000 wounded servicemen, thousands of Estonians who had effectively been press-ganged into arms, and a whole bunch of political prisoners.
In addition to the naval escort, which included Tributs' flagship the cruiser Kirov, nine destroyers, three motor torpedo boats, 12 submarines, and more than forty minesweepers of varying age and seaworthiness, the evacuation fleet rounded up all the passenger and cargo vessels that had been commandeered from the Baltic States.
      According to recent calculations made by the Estonian historian Mati Oun, there were between 224 and 232 ships in all.
      Nobody really knows the precise figures, since the actual convoy was joined
      at the last minute by a number of other escape vessels.
In any event, this was an almighty concentration of ships, but there were more than enough mines to go round.
      The vessels faced an extraordinarily arduous passage, since the German Luftwaffe could be expected to batter them from the air during daylight hours, and the 170mm coastal batteries on Cape Juminda were unlikely to hold their fire.
      But it was the mine barrage that posed the greatest threat.
      The Germans and Finns had put down most of the parallel rows of naval mines - contact mines, and magnetic, acoustic, and pressure mines - in the course of August.
      According to a volume on the history of the Finnish Navy, a staggering total of 1,787 mines and 771 anti-sweeping devices had been laid before the evacuation began.
      Two-thirds of the mines were laid by the Finns.
      The barrage extended from Cape Juminda as far north as the shallows of Kallbådagrund, in Finnish waters, and consisted mainly of a series of lines - some more than 10 kilometres in length - running north-south or NE-SW.
The evacuation fleet spent the night before the actual departure (Wednesday night to Thursday morning) anchored offshore behind the islands of Naissaar and Aegna, just north-west of Tallinn.
      The intention was to set off in the early morning so as to be able to traverse the barrage during the hours of daylight, when it would at least be possible to see the mines that the minesweepers had brought to the surface.
These best-laid plans came to naught, however, as nature stepped in: the wind rose rapidly in the morning to the point where it was blowing at 16 metres a second from the north-east - a Force 7 moderate gale on the Beaufort Scale. In this sort of swell, the minesweepers' work would have been impossible.
      After about noon, the wind began to abate, and the flotilla was able to set sail.
      The transport ships were split into four convoys.
      The main battleforce was led by Vice-Admiral Tributs on the 8,000-tonne heavily armed cruiser Kirov.
      The vessels were spread out over about fifty kilometres, with the last to leave only getting up steam in the evening.
However, the destruction had begun earlier than that.
      The first explosion was heard at 17:08, when the 1,500-tonne Estonian freighter Ella struck a mine and sank.
      The Luftwaffe, based in airfields in Estonia, harried the ships from the air, with Stuka dive-bombers and Junkers Ju-88s sent into action.
      The coastal artillery guns on Cape Juminda opened up, and submarines added to the toxic mix.
      A Finnish motor torpedo boat flotilla also slipped into the area, and MTB 17 sank the motor schooner Atta, carrying 150 persons.
The greatest losses came from the meticulously-placed mines.
      After the sinking of the merchantman Ella, the blasts followed with sickening regularity until late into the night.
      The flotilla got jammed up in the darkness in two groups in the midst of the minefield.
      Ships collided with one another and exploded in flames. Floating mines kicked up by the efforts of the minesweepers were frantically pushed aside with oars and poles.
      The captain of the destroyer Skoryi shot himself on the bridge of his ship as the vessel was going down after hitting a mine, following an incorrect order to the helmsman.
As day dawned on Friday morning, any semblance of order had long since vanished: the fast Soviet warships had cut and run from the German bombers, with the Kirov leading the way, and were steaming past the island of Suursaari.
      The troopships and merchantmen were left to their own devices.
      The first ships arived in Kronstadt, in front of Leningrad, late on Friday afternoon, while the stragglers limped in only on Saturday.
There have been many and differing estimates of the total losses, but Mati Oun's calculations seem close to the truth.
      It is known without argument that 64 ships were sent to the bottom and that at least 12,400 people drowned in the space of one day between the 28th and 29th of August 1941.
      With these horrific numbers (and there have been even wilder figures put forward), the naval engagement off Cape Juminda ranks very high indeed on the list of the most lethal in all history.
According to Oun, the only naval conflict that was more bloody was the Battle of Lepanto in the Mediterranean in 1571, when a fleet of the Holy League clashed with the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire.
      Events such as the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 or the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force troops from Dunkerque in 1940 pale alongside the carnage off the coast of Estonia.
      In many ways, the Evacuation of Tallinn was a nightmare version of the retreat from Dunkerque - everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
The largest estimates of casualties in August 1941 run to more than 100 ships lost and as many as 25,000 killed, but these figures admittedly take in vessels that were sunk during the previous week and into early September.
      Approximately 15,000 or 16,000 people made it back to Kronstadt.
      The seabed of the Gulf of Finland between Juminda and Kallbådagrund is one gargantuan graveyard, of ships and men.
Against this apocalyptic background, it may seem surprising that there has been little discussion of the Battle of Cape Juminda or the Evacuation of Tallinn.
      In 2006 the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) showed an excellent documentary directed by Ari Lehikoinen, entitled Helvetti Suomenlahdella ("Hell in the Gulf of Finland"), after which the pages of the Swedish-language newspaper Borgåbladet carried several comments from readers about bodies being washed up in the islands of the Porvoo Archipelago.
      "It may be that the Finns have felt a little ashamed about their part in it", suggests Mati Oun.
      "There were a lot of civilians on the ships that went down, and no-one wants to go bragging about such things."
On the Soviet side, nobody was in any great hurry to boast about the awful losses or the mistakes that had been made.
      Emeritus Professor Ohto Manninen, a specialist on Second World War history, recalls attending a seminar in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, at which the younger Russian history scholars were incensed at the way in which the losses during the Evacuation of Tallinn had been downplayed.
At the northern end of Cape Juminda there is a red granite boulder, a horned Second World War naval mine, and in front of the boulder a plaque in black marble with the words "Juminda, August 1941" and an image of a stricken merchant vessel. The letters "-VAL" visible on the sinking ship's hull could be reference to Reval, the old name for Tallinn.
      Under the headline, engraved in Estonian, Russian, German, and Finnish, is the inscription: "To the victims of the Second World War, 25.8.2001".
      The then Estonian President Lennart Meri had approved this form of words on the 60th anniversary of the disaster, as it carefully avoids any political taking of sides or apportioning of blame.
The Soviet veterans make their speeches in Russian at the site and then retire to a local restaurant to continue their discussion in Russian with an aide to the military attaché from the Russian Embassy.
      He was the only official representative at the occasion.
      The scars of Soviet occupation are still too raw among the people of Estonia for the toasts to the fallen to have been made in two languages.
Fyodor Yeryomenko steps away from the shoreline and the memorial among the last of the group.
      In 1941 he got away from here in a naval motor launch and made it back to Kronstadt and to a sauna to warm his bones.
      From there he was taken a day or two later back to officer training school in Leningrad.
      "It was only then that the tears started to flow, even though to this day I do not really understand the entire event."
Of the 100 of Yeryomenko's fellow-students who were ordered to Tallinn, 25 died in the defence of the city and 68 were drowned in the evacuation.
      Even so, the man who went on to retire from the Russian Navy as a Lt. Colonel (Commander) does not believe for a minute that it was all in vain.
      "The great majority of the warships made it back to Kronstadt", he points out, and he stresses the vital role that these men and arms played in the defence of Leningrad during the seige.
      "It was important, and this was the sacrificial offering to be made."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 5.9.2010