Was the Soviet Evacuation from Tallinn a Success or a Disaster?

June 28, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeaponsWarRussia

Was the Soviet Evacuation from Tallinn a Success or a Disaster?

On June 22, 1941, mutual expansionist policies inevitably brought Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union into armed conflict. 

Under relentless air attacks, Soviet ships were forced to maneuver to avoid the bombs. This compelled them to leave the narrow channel cleared by the minesweepers. Several naval vessels went down as if chasing each other to the bottom of the gulf. One of them was Saturn, leaving the practically immobile Vironia bobbing in the water.

Around 6:30, with the Soviet convoys floundering in the minefields in full view of Cape Juminda, a German battery, well-camouflaged in the wooded terrain, opened fire on the Soviet ships. However, its 150mm guns were no match for the ships’ heavier armament. One of the destroyers closed in and laid down a thick smoke screen, while Kirov replied with several volleys of its nine 180mm main guns. It was unknown whether the German battery was destroyed, but it fell silent.

More Casualties to Mines

There was no safety anywhere. Just before 10 pm, the submarine S-5, closely following Kirov on the surface, hit a mine and disappeared under the waves. Shortly thereafter, Kirov caught a mine in the right paravane, forcing the cruiser to stop. While a welder was lowered almost to the water’s surface to cut loose the metal pole with a torch, another mine became entangled in the left paravane. Valuable time was lost cutting loose and replacing both paravanes. While this was going on, the destroyer Gordiy, escorting the cruiser, hit a mine and lost mobility. It was eventually able to get moving again and limped to Kronstadt on its own.

Shortly after Gordiy was damaged, the venerable Yakov Sverdlov, originally commissioned in 1913 as Novik and lending its name to a class of destroyers, went down. Enjoying a distinguished combat record in World War I, this ship held a special place in Tributs’s heart as the only vessel the admiral had ever commanded. He witnessed the Sverdlov’s demise from Kirov’s bridge: “At 20:47 hours, suddenly a column of fire and smoke 200-250 meters high burst out from under Yakov Sverdlov’s body and settled down hissing, burying the surviving crew members … only several dozens of men were saved.”

As more and more ships sank or became disabled, the convoys lost cohesion and became intermingled. Naval detachments, moving on a nearly parallel course to the civilian convoys, often passed by the vulnerable and defenseless transports without providing fire support for them.

In the gathering darkness, lookouts were posted on the ships’ bows to spot mines. At about 10 pm, a mine exploded near the destroyer Minsk, the flagship of Rear Admiral Pantelyev. The explosion reverberated through the destroyer, bursting seams in multiple compartments and leaving the vessel inoperable. Pantelyev ordered another destroyer, the Skoriy, to render assistance. The majority of Pantelyev’s staff officers transferred to the other destroyer. Skoriy hardly had time to cast off and attempt to take Minsk in tow before also striking a mine, breaking in two, and sinking in front of stunned onlookers.

The slaughter continued. The frigate Tsiklon went down, falling prey to a mine. Only 15 minutes after Skoriy was lost, another destroyer, Slavniy, was soon damaged but remained afloat and continued moving under its own power. Shortly thereafter, the destroyer Kalinin, with Rear Admiral Rall aboard, hit a mine and began slowly sinking. As the destroyer Volodarskiy was transferring wounded crewmen from the Kalinin, it hit a mine as well and went under. Admiral Rall, suffering from a concussion, was taken aboard a cutter. The destroyer Artyom also went down.

The toll of noncombatant vessels was also high. The damaged transport Vironia hit a mine and sank. Even a near miss from an exploding bomb would create havoc on ships overflowing with evacuees. The fate of immobilized wounded men, swathed in bandages and plaster and often trapped below decks in compartments blazing with fire or filling with icy water, was particularly terrifying. The ships of the first civilian convoy experienced particularly heavy casualties.

The Convoy Recuperates

As the convoys doggedly continued eastward, many of them had to navigate through floating debris fields and spreading oil slicks of destroyed and damaged vessels. In many instances, unable to stop, they mowed under the survivors bobbing in the water among dead bodies. Whenever possible, though, every effort was extended to rescue the survivors. Still, hundreds perished, succumbing to wounds and exposure. Hundreds more were plucked from sure death in cold water, desperately clinging to whatever pieces of debris that would float. In one truly miraculous instance, a sailor was rescued after clinging to a floating mine for hours.

Throughout the day there were multiple false sightings of German submarines. Every time a phantom periscope was spotted on the surface, one or two destroyers or sub chasers would dart out and drop depth charges. Despite multiple claims by Soviet eyewitnesses, no German submarine operated in the area at the time.

Worried about attacks by German and Finnish torpedo boats as well, the Soviet ships twice opened fire on a group of unidentified small vessels racing toward the fleet. Because of the lack of coordination and communication, the torpedo boats thought to be enemy vessels turned out to be a Soviet detachment returning from screening and scouting north of the main channel. The friendly fire incident resulted in one Soviet torpedo boat taking a direct hit and disintegrating.

With darkness falling, it became impossible to navigate the mine-studded waters, and Admiral Tributs ordered all ships to halt where they were. Even though this went against accepted naval doctrine, the halt at least eliminated the possibility of ships running into stationary mines. German aircraft disappeared with nightfall as well, and now the only danger lay with floating mines cast adrift in the waves. On most ships men lined up along the sides, armed with poles for pushing away the mines. In many cases volunteers took turns jumping into the water to guide the mines away from the ships with their bare hands.

During the halt, almost no crewmen were able to rest. Those not directly standing watch or dealing with floating mines were frantically conducting whatever repairs they could. Small cutters darted from ship to ship assessing damage. The scope of the disaster began to take shape. The destroyer force, representing the bulk of Tributs’s naval contingent, was cut in half. Admiral Rall’s rearguard force ceased to exist, and he was injured. Of the main force, only one destroyer and one frigate still accompanied the Kirov. Even worse, a significant number of the priceless minesweepers had been lost.

Abandoning the Transports

At dawn on August 29, good weather meant the return of marauding German bombers. Having moved clear of the minefields, the naval vessels, now unencumbered by mine sweeps and paravanes, raced ahead at more than 20 knots. Around 5 pm, Kirov’s group arrived at Kronstadt. Its hasty departure left the virtually defenseless transports at the mercy of German aircraft, which appeared around 7 am.

While significant numbers of German planes pursued the departing warships, especially concentrating on Kirov’s group, the majority of Luftwaffe aircraft fell upon the defenseless civilian transports. Beset by German dive-bombers, most transport captains gave up any hope of reaching Kronstadt. At most, they hoped to reach Gogland Island and disgorge their human cargo before German bombs could send them to the bottom of the gulf.

Shortly before 8 am, the large transport Kazakhstan, loaded with almost 5,000 soldiers and civilian evacuees, was damaged by bombs. Its captain, N. Kalitaev, was tossed overboard by the shockwave. Severe panic ensued aboard, with people jumping into the water. After heroic efforts, however, the crew of the transport managed to make minimal repairs and keep the ship afloat. After being thrown overboard and suffering a concussion, Kalitaev was rescued by a submarine and delivered to Kronstadt on the evening of August 29, a full day before Kazakhstan limped in. Arrested by the NKVD and accused of cowardice and abandoning his post, Kalitaev was promptly shot despite multiple testimonies of his innocence.

Under a rain of German bombs, the transports continued their race to Gogland. On many ships the soldiers desperately attempted to keep German aircraft at bay with rifle and pistol fire. As the hours ticked by, transport losses mounted to include Naissaar, Ergonautis, Balkhash, Tobol, Ausma, Kalpaks, Evald, Atis Kronvaldis, Skrunda, and Alev.

Several damaged transports managed to limp to Gogland and run themselves aground, disembarking their passengers. German aircraft easily found the immobile transports and finished them off. By the end of the day the burned-out hulks of transports Vtoraya Pyatiletka, Ivan Papanin, Lake Lucerne, and floating workshop Serp-i-Molot smoked on Gogland’s beaches. Still, despite tragic losses, more than 12,000 people were offloaded on Gogland Island and eventually shuttled to Kronstadt and Leningrad. But before they were taken off the island, German aircraft made several low-level passes, strafing the survivors with machine guns and dropping bombs. Scores of people who thought themselves safe died on this tiny speck of land.

As the transports were being pounded into oblivion by German aircraft, scores of smaller vessels slipped by Gogland Island and headed to Kronstadt. They continued the struggle until the afternoon of August 30. The Tallinn breakout was over.