The southern route would have taken the fleet along almost 200 miles of coastline occupied by German forces. Orders arrived from Voroshilov’s headquarters expressly forbidding Tributs to evacuate his fleet along this route. Ostensibly, these categorical instructions stemmed from the fact that this route would expose the fleet to treacherous and shallow waters and fire from German shore batteries. Several senior officers headed by Rear Admiral Yuriy F. Rall argued that this channel already had been successfully navigated by more than 200 ships. German artillery fire that could be brought to bear on the fleet would be conducted mainly by field artillery, easily countered by the heavier and more numerous guns of the Soviet naval vessels. Even a shore battery mounting 150mm guns captured by Germans at Cape Juminda was no threat to the Soviet ships.
The real reason for denying the southern route was Soviet mistrust of the Latvian and Estonian crews of numerous transports carrying evacuees and equipment. This paranoia was fed for two reasons. There was an incident in which a converted transport captained and crewed largely by Estonian civilian sailors had been intentionally run aground on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland so that the crew could defect to the Germans. It was also feared that the crews of Soviet naval vessels, given an opportunity, might defect to the Germans.
Therefore, the Soviet high command ordered the evacuation from Tallinn to proceed along the middle route, even though it was thickly sown with German and Finnish mines. The Germans and Finns had been mining the waters of the middle route even before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Axis sailors had been amazed at the apparent Soviet passivity.
Planning the Evacuation
The mission was made further hazardous by the dearth of minesweeping vessels. Obsessed with powerful warships, the Soviet shipbuilding industry had severely neglected the production of support vessels, and the Soviet Navy entered the war with a pronounced shortage of minesweeping capability. To further aggravate the problem, those minesweepers that were available were often used in capacities for which they were not designed, especially as transport ships. Admiral Rall and his staff estimated that almost 100 minesweepers would be necessary to adequately lead the Baltic Fleet during the breakout from Tallinn. Instead, only 10 modern minesweepers were available. They were supplemented by 17 older and slower converted trawlers and a dozen converted Navy cutters.
This small number of minesweepers was tasked with the gargantuan responsibility of shepherding more than 200 vessels to safety. The civilian transports, including 22 large ones, were divided into four convoys, each closely guarded by a few small naval vessels and led by older trawler minesweepers. The naval force was split into three elements: the main force, the covering force, and the rear guard. Ten modern minesweepers were allocated five each to lead the first two combat elements, particularly safeguarding the Kirov.
According to plan, the civilian and military convoys were to leave Tallinn on a staggered schedule. The Soviets were well aware of the danger posed to the convoys by mines off Cape Juminda, and they developed a schedule to allow the ships to traverse the minefields during daylight hours.
The evacuation route was divided into two portions, from Tallinn to Gogland Island, roughly in the middle of Gulf of Finland, and from Gogland to Kronstadt. The first section presented the most danger because of the minefields off Cape Juminda and the lack of air cover. Reaching Gogland Island by nightfall, the fleet would be within range of air cover based at Leningrad and Kronstadt. In addition, a task force of ships from Kronstadt was organized and stationed at Gogland to assist in any rescue and recovery efforts.
The whole operation would require very careful timing. Under relentless German pressure, Soviet ground units were barely holding the line on the outskirts of Tallinn. Admiral Tributs and his staff realized that some of these troops would have to be sacrificed and abandoned to fight hopeless rearguard actions, allowing the majority of forces to embark aboard ships. To avoid a panicked retreat to the harbor, the forward units were not informed about the pullback until the afternoon of August 27. Barricades were erected in the streets for the last-ditch defense. But as they observed NKVD troops manning barricades, many people came to realize that the barricades went up not to halt the Germans but to prevent a panicked rush to the harbor.
Chaos at the Pier
By 8 pm, the withdrawal began in earnest under a protective barrage of naval gunfire. Instead of an orderly retreat, the embarkation immediately deteriorated into complete chaos. The Soviet defenders could no longer hold back the Germans, who continually shelled the harbor. Several transport ships, with shells falling around them, were forced to leave their embarkation stations without picking up their designated units and evacuees.
Crowds of soldiers, sailors, and civilians were surging back and forth along the piers, storming the gangways of waiting transports. People were trampled underfoot in the maddened rush to the ships. The scene was punctuated by exploding German artillery shells and backlit by the burning city. “The whole town appeared to be engulfed in flames; burning and exploding,” recalled Admiral Tributs in his memoirs.
While several transports cast off largely empty, the majority of vessels were overcrowded. Writer Nikolai G. Mikhailovskiy, attached to the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet, recalled, “The staterooms are filled to overflowing. People are standing, sitting and lying down in the narrow corridors and on decks. Many, coming off line after sleepless nights, settled on deck. One had to step over them in order to get from one point to another … The whole shore is aflame. It is strange that during a bright sunny day the harbors are darkened by smoke. Signals relayed by flags are impossible to see. The searchlights shine brightly. Only they can penetrate this incredible darkness.”
As the transports filled up, they cast off and slowly moved to their staging areas off Naissar and Aegna Islands across the bay from Tallinn. In many cases, people desperate to get aboard continued clinging to the gangways, often forcing the crews to cut the gangways in order to get clear of the pier. Over 23,000 troops, including more than 4,000 wounded and several thousand civilian evacuees, were taken aboard. Despite Vice Admiral Yuriy A. Panteleyev’s claim in his memoirs that not a single platoon was abandoned to the enemy, almost 10,000 more men were left behind on Tallinn’s piers.
The wind continued picking up throughout August 27, creating choppy seas and further exacerbating the chaotic embarkation. Because of these delays, the first convoy did not sail until noon on August 28, a full 12 hours behind schedule. The naval and civilian convoys stretched in a line more than 15 miles long. Owing to deployed minesweeps, which required slow speeds to be effective, the convoys crept along at under 10 knots.
Bombs from the Air, Bombs in the Sea
Things quickly began to go wrong. Less than one hour into the voyage and several miles east of Aegna Island, one of the minesweeping trawlers leading the first convoy hit a mine and disappeared under the waves within seconds. The appearance of a mine in waters considered to be safe shocked everyone. The most likely explanation for this tragedy was that the heavy winds and waves generated by the previous night’s storm tore loose the moorings of a mine and the gulf’s current carried it into the midst of the Soviet ships. This loss was the forewarning of swarms of loose mines that were to plague the Soviet convoys for the next two days.
Undeterred, the convoy sailed on. German bombers appeared overhead and cautiously attacked the strung-out convoys. The Soviet Navy ships, spaced along the line of civilian transports, put up a spirited antiaircraft barrage and managed to keep the German planes at bay for a time.
Around 6 pm, the first civilian convoy arrived off Cape Juminda and its minefields. The nightmare began. At 6:05, a large explosion went up at the head of the convoy. The transport Ella, a passenger ship converted into a military transport, hit a mine and began to sink. The tugboat S-101, following in her wake and herself overloaded with evacuees, moved in to assist and hit a mine as well, virtually disintegrating. Of more than 1,000 passengers and crew aboard Ella, most of them wounded, fewer than 100 people were subsequently rescued. No one was saved from S-101.
German aircraft now renewed their attacks. Shortly after Ella went down, the icebreaker Voldemarswas hit by a bomb and sunk with significant loss of life. The large transport Vironia, a converted liner, was damaged by two near misses. Its upper decks, thickly packed with evacuees, were swept by steel fragments, tossing people aside in disfigured heaps and throwing overboard many passengers, both alive and dead. The rescue vessel Saturn moved in and took the damaged transport in tow. Several minesweepers, desperately attempting to keep the 200-meter channel clear, hit mines themselves and went down in quick succession.