Stalin's Dunkirk: The Red Army's Harrowing Escape from Tallinn

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October 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IISoviet UnionRed ArmyEastern FrontOperation Barbarossa

Stalin's Dunkirk: The Red Army's Harrowing Escape from Tallinn

The results of the Tallinn breakout are disputed as simultaneously a success and a disaster.

Early in World War II, a bitter joke circulated within the Soviet military. It ran, “What is the first thing Russia does when war is declared? It scuttles the fleet!” The joke referred to sad events in Russian naval history. In 1855, after the Crimean War, Russia lost the right to maintain a fleet in the Black Sea, and in 1904-1905 during the disastrous Russo-Japanese War, Russia lost two out of its three fleets. In 1941, the Soviet Union, born out of old Imperial Russia’s ashes, almost lost its Baltic Fleet.

Containing the Soviet Fleet

In 1940, without firing a shot, the Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland. Along with territorial acquisition, this move was a major coup in projecting Soviet naval presence westward. Besides taking in the tiny navies and merchant marine fleets of the three states, the Soviet Red Banner Baltic Fleet acquired a number of important naval bases on the Baltic Sea. Chief among them was Tallinn, capital of Estonia and a major port city. A chain of several other bases, including a large one at Riga, the Latvian capital, extended farther west along the coast.

On June 22, 1941, mutual expansionist policies inevitably brought Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union into armed conflict. Lacking capital ships in the Gulf of Finland, which rated a low priority, the German Marinekommando Nord fleet consisted mainly of torpedo boats, minesweepers, and submarine flotillas, augmented by the small but skilled Finnish Navy. In contrast, its opponent, the vastly superior Soviet Baltic Fleet, was composed of two battleships, four cruisers, and 15 destroyers plus numerous smaller craft and submarines.

The rapid pace of the German invasion of the Soviet Union took the Soviet High Command by surprise. As German troops briskly pressed eastward through the Baltic States, the Soviet naval bases began falling like dominoes. The escaping Soviet naval vessels were being pushed farther east into the Gulf of Finland. By mid-August 1941, Tallinn had become the westernmost Soviet naval base on the Baltic Sea.

Just days before hostilities began, the German Kriegsmarine and its Finnish allies had begun laying extensive minefields in strategic locations in the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans and Finns relied heavily on mines to negate the Soviet advantage and to protect their own shipping lanes. East of Tallinn, in the immediate vicinity of Cape Juminda, was a heavily mined area of the Gulf of Finland. This major minefield was designed to interdict Soviet operations between their Kronstadt base on Kotlin Island near Leningrad and the rest of the Baltic Sea. Overall, more than 2,000 mines were in place in Juminda waters.

From the opening of hostilities, the Soviet Navy lost the initiative despite its numerical and qualitative superiority. Its losses began to mount steadily, mainly falling prey to mines. Hardly a day went by without a ship sunk, often with all hands. Aggressively led German and Finnish light forces effectively cowed the Soviet naval presence in the Baltic.

On the landward side, Red Army forces were led by Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, who possessed the highest Soviet military rank but was not a capable military tactician. His paramount attribute was complete political reliability and unquestioning obedience to the instructions of Premier Josef Stalin. Despite his best efforts, Voroshilov was completely unable to shore up his crumbling front.

Driving toward Leningrad, German Army Group North brushed aside the Soviet Eighth Army, the closest Soviet formation to Tallinn. No plans to defend the city from a land-based attack were prepared before the war, and it was too late now. On July 22, the Germans struck at the juncture of the X and XI Rifle Corps of the Eighth Army. As a result of this action, the X Rifle Corps was cut off from the rest of the army and fell back to the vicinity of Tallinn. On August 5, the Germans cut the Tallinn-Leningrad railroad and reached the coast of the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn now lay 200 miles behind the German lines.

The Defense of Tallinn

Responsibility for defending the city and the naval base fell to the commander of the Baltic Sea Fleet, Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs. The Red Army forces available for defense were woefully insufficient, consisting mainly of the depleted X Rifle Corps and the 22nd NKVD (Secret Police) Division, which had performed guard and escort duties in the Baltic states before the war, shuttling prisoners to the horrific gulags.

To supplement the Army troops, any sailors who could be spared from the ships were formed into naval infantry detachments to fight on land. In addition, all naval shore facilities were swept of nonessential personnel, and they were placed in naval infantry detachments as well. These measures produced more than 10,000 sailors to bolster the city’s defenses. Additionally, several militia regiments totaling close to 4,000 Latvian and Estonian communists and volunteers joined the defenders. There was no time to train the sailors and militia units in infantry skills, and they suffered appalling casualties in the subsequent fighting. Initially, there were not enough rifles to arm them, and the weapons had to be flown in from Kronstadt.

Because of the weakness of the ground forces, artillery became the backbone of Tallinn’s defenses. Ships anchored in Tallinn’s harbor provided fire support for ground units. Numerous naval spotter teams were placed with the ground units to facilitate fire control, but frequent communication difficulties made the massive naval gunfire often ineffective. Still, on many occasions, all that prevented German breakthroughs was the tremendous volume of fire provided by the cruiser Kirov and her destroyer escorts. Additional fire support came from large-caliber shore batteries, some mounting 305mm guns.

As the Germans came closer and closer, the Red Air Force lost its airfields as well, with most of the surviving aircraft flying east where they joined in the defense of Leningrad. A small number of older Ilyushin I-16 fighters belonging to the Soviet Navy continued operating for a time from a tiny landing strip jammed between a fishing village and the water’s edge. Eventually, they followed their Air Force counterparts eastward, and Tallinn was left without air support.

On August 21, the Germans breached the defenses of the city itself. Despite valiant efforts, the dwindling Soviet forces could not hold them back. Tallinn’s harbor was now within range of German field artillery, and Soviet ships began taking hits. This caused the ships to frequently change positions, reducing the effectiveness of their fire and further weakening the land defenses.

The Red Army Evacuates

Despite the gravity of their situation, nobody at the headquarters of the Baltic Sea Fleet, including Admiral Tributs, dared to ask Voroshilov for permission to evacuate the city. Punishment for being labeled a “panic-monger” was very real, often carrying the death penalty. Finally, on August 25, Tributs went over Voroshilov’s head and submitted a carefully phrased request for instructions to Chief of the Navy Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov. The last portion of the report stated, “The harbors and piers are under enemy fire. The Military Council … is requesting your instructions and decisions concerning the ships, units of the 10th Corps and fleet shore defenses in case of enemy breakthrough into town itself and the pullback of our forces to the sea. Embarkation on transports in this eventuality would be impossible.” Tributs’s concern mirrored Admiral Kuznetsov’s own misgivings, and he took this matter directly to the high command. After much deliberation, permission to evacuate Tallinn and break through to Kronstadt was finally granted late on the evening of August 26.

With permission granted, the Soviets began frantic planning for the evacuation of over 200 ships and close to 40,000 military personnel and civilians. The ships gathered in Tallinn’s harbor were a hodgepodge of both warships and support vessels ranging in size from massive civilian passenger liners converted into transports to the heavy cruiser Kirov, destroyers, submarines, and tugboats.

Fortunately, while waiting for final orders, senior Soviet commanders had already put together contingency plans for evacuation. Now these plans had to be finalized and last-minute corrections made. At the same time, special teams began destroying military equipment that could not be evacuated. The city’s utilities and other infrastructure were also rendered inoperable to deny their use to the enemy.

Three Routes of Retreat

There were three routes of retreat to Kronstadt through the Gulf of Finland, which is only 20 nautical miles wide in some places. The northern route, close to the Finnish shore and under the enemy air support umbrella, was immediately ruled unacceptable even though it was almost completely free of mines. According to intelligence reports that the British government passed on to its Soviet allies, there were no German capital ships in the Baltic Sea or the Gulf of Finland. Lacking their own intelligence sources, the Soviet commanders still classified the British reports as unconfirmed and unreliable. Without any concrete data about the German surface fleet, Soviet admirals allowed for the possibility of German warships attempting to interfere with the run to Kronstadt.