SU­PER SUB

THE EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY STORY OF THE CRAFT THAT TELLS 100 YEARS OF ES­TO­NIAN HIS­TORY

The New European - - Expertise -

As Es­to­nia cel­e­brates its 100th an­niver­sary, SI HAWKINS finds an un­usual na­tional sym­bol at the cen­tre of com­mem­o­ra­tions, which chron­i­cles ev­ery twist of the coun­try’s ex­cep­tion­ally event­ful cen­tury

For a na­tion which has en­dured so many sea changes over the last 100 years, the Es­to­nian sub­ma­rine Lem­bit could hardly be a more fit­ting sym­bol of na­tional pride. Built by one coun­try for an­other, cov­eted by a third and seized by a fourth, she es­caped one of his­tory’s worst mar­itime dis­as­ters, plus sev­eral fires and a wreck­ing or­der. As the Iron Cur­tain fell, the in­domitable craft – dubbed the ‘im­mor­tal sub­ma­rine’ – even sur­vived a dra­matic armed stand-off to emerge as an em­blem of her coun­try’s re­gained in­de­pen­dence.

Now, as Es­to­nia cel­e­brates its cen­te­nary, Lem­bit is once again in the na­tion’s fo­cus, as a cen­tre­piece of the com­mem­o­ra­tions.

Lem­bit’s own story opens at the very birth of the na­tion in the Es­to­nian War of In­de­pen­dence, which broke out in Novem­ber 1918 as the Bol­she­viks en­gaged in a wider con­flict to es­tab­lish con­trol over the for­mer Rus­sian em­pire.

Bri­tain – specif­i­cally its navy – played an im­por­tant role in the war, pro­vid­ing arms to the Es­to­ni­ans and pro­tect­ing their coast from the Sovi­ets; ul­ti­mately the new na­tion pre­vailed and its in­de­pen­dence was in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised in 1920. Es­to­nia’s naval lead­ers were swift to sug­gest that it should buy some sub­marines – a pow­er­ful, de­fen­sive weapon for a small, coastal coun­try – and the UK was first choice to help.

“There was a con­sen­sus that we must or­der th­ese ships from Great Bri­tain, be­cause Bri­tain aided us in the War of In­de­pen­dence,” says Arto Oll, an

Es­to­nian his­to­rian who has writ­ten a book about Lem­bit.

“The Es­to­nian navy al­ways tried to base its struc­ture and ed­u­ca­tion on the Royal Navy; it is even men­tioned in Bri­tish for­eign of­fice doc­u­ments in the 1930s: ‘of all the na­tions in Europe, Es­to­nia is the one who is weirdly still very thank­ful to us that we came to her aid.’”

The Es­to­nian/bri­tish dy­namic was cer­tainly in­tense dur­ing the ship­build­ing process.

The job was ul­ti­mately given to Vickers-arm­strongs – now part of BAE Sys­tems – but it took al­most two decades for the pur­chasers to de­cide ex­actly what their new sub­marines (they or­dered two) re­quired. Even­tu­ally, in 1935, build­ing be­gan on a whole new cat­e­gory of ves­sel: the 60ft Kalev class, named after Lem­bit’s iden­ti­cal sis­ter ship.

Much ju­di­cious dooms­day think­ing went into those plans, and one ma­jor re­quire­ment was com­pat­i­bil­ity. The ships would need to be ad­justable for dif­fer­ent types of tor­pedo, Bri­tish and Fin­nish: Es­to­nia had been se­cretly co-oper­at­ing with Fin­land to counter po­ten­tial in­cur­sions by their omi­nous neigh­bours, the Soviet Union. If Tallinn fell and their Bri­tish tor­pe­does ran out, Lem­bit and Kalev had to be able to adapt to ac­cept big­ger tor­pe­does in Fin­nish ports.

The two subs also re­quired a re­in­forced ice-break­ing hull – they were built for pa­trolling and minelay­ing in the Baltic Sea – and would be ex­tra-wide to house dozens of mines. Their Swedish/ Ger­man-made bombs in­trigued Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence, said Oll. “The Bri­tish re­port says ‘they’re us­ing some weird mines that re­sem­ble a Ger­man mine but we don’t know what they are’.” When the mines were trans­ferred to Bri­tain for load­ing, one of them went mys­te­ri­ously miss­ing – Oll sug­gests it was taken by the Bri­tish for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Dur­ing the build­ing process, Es­to­nia fre­quently sent in­spec­tors over, who were “strict, kind of nosy, but very pro­fes­sional,” ac­cord­ing to Vickers’ records. Then the fu­ture crew ar­rived too, for train­ing.

The sub­marines of­fi­cially be­came Es­to­nian after their launch from Vick­er­sArm­stongs’ Bar­row-in-fur­ness yard, in 1937, “The flag was hoisted, peo­ple saluted,” said Oll. “And only then were they given the det­o­na­tors for the tor­pe­does.”

Es­to­nia’s own­er­ship of the sub­marines quickly be­came com­pli­cated, how­ever. Although Es­to­nia had been briefly oc­cu­pied by Ger­many to­wards the end of the First World War, re­la­tions be­tween the two had since strength­ened, as a re­sult of a shared sus­pi­cion of the USSR. As the Sec­ond World War loomed, there­fore, Ber­lin sent a re­quest to Tallinn to take pos­ses­sion of the sub­marines – to keep them out of Rus­sian hands. It was se­ri­ously con­sid­ered by the Es­to­ni­ans, but they ul­ti­mately deemed it a be­trayal of the Royal Navy, since the Ger­mans would in­evitably pore over the ves­sels to learn more about Bri­tish tech­nol­ogy.

Five weeks be­fore the Sec­ond World War be­gan, how­ever, Ger­many and the Sovi­ets signed their non-ag­gres­sion pact and Es­to­nia was left to fend for her­self. How­ever, the coun­try boasted a proud civil­ian army (the bor­der city Narva still does, in fact), while Tallinn Bay was thought to be vir­tu­ally im­preg­nable due to its coastal de­fences, sub­marines, and mines.

So what hap­pened next still be­wil­ders his­to­ri­ans. Led by con­tentious pres­i­dent Kon­stantin Pats, Es­to­nia sim­ply waved Soviet forces in and handed them their mil­i­tary re­sources, in­clud­ing Lem­bit and Kalev: the in­fa­mous ‘si­lent sur­ren­der’. So bru­tal was the Soviet oc­cu­pa­tion that when the tide turned and the Nazis cap­tured Es­to­nia in 1941, they were seen as lib­er­a­tors by many. “When the Sovi­ets came in they ex­e­cuted –

mas­sa­cred – chil­dren, women,” said

Oll. “It was very hard­core stuff that hap­pened here.”

The Sovi­ets’ at­tempted evac­u­a­tion of Es­to­nia in 1941 via Tallinn Bay – then awash with Ger­man and Fin­nish mines – was hard­core too. Lem­bit and Kalev, now sail­ing un­der the flag of the Soviet navy, slipped through but the sur­face fleet of troop ships was not so lucky. The op­er­a­tion, some­times de­scribed as Rus­sia’s Dunkirk, re­sulted in one of his­tory’s blood­i­est naval dis­as­ters with a death toll con­ser­va­tively put at more than 12,000.

The sub­marines soon be­came ca­su­al­ties too, although with wildly dif­fer­ing con­se­quences. In the au­tumn of 1941, the Kalev van­ished while on pa­trol in the Baltic, leav­ing few clues as to her fi­nal rest­ing place. Her most likely fate is that she struck a mine, and was com­pletely de­stroyed.

Al­most a year later, Lem­bit al­most suf­fered a sim­i­lar fate. Dur­ing an at­tack on an enemy con­voy, she was tar­geted with depth charges from the de­fend­ing ships above. The ves­sel dived in an at­tempt to es­cape but the new Soviet crew – not as well drilled as the pre­vi­ous Es­to­nian one, ac­cord­ing to Oll – had left the light­ing sys­tem on, caus­ing a fire to break out. Lem­bit sur­vived though, and limped into port.

The stricken ves­sel re­quired a year of ex­ten­sive re­pairs, dur­ing which the war in the Baltic raged on, with the Sovi­ets en­dur­ing par­tic­u­larly heavy losses. The pe­riod of con­va­les­cence may have saved Lem­bit from a Kalev-like fate, and she sur­vived the con­flict.

Lem­bit was ul­ti­mately cred­ited with sink­ing sev­eral Axis ves­sels but, ac­cord­ing to Oll, her even­tual war record should be taken with a pinch of Siberian salt. “We know the Soviet sub­ma­rine force didn’t achieve much,” he said. “They cre­ated their own his­tory.”

The semi-re­tired sub was kept busy in the post-war decades, div­ing in a Rus­sian river to ac­cli­ma­tise po­ten­tial sub­mariners, but by the late 1970s she was due to be scrapped. Some­one, how­ever, spot­ted the po­ten­tial for pro­pa­ganda and Lem­bit re­turned to Tallinn as a float­ing ex­hibit, a sym­bol of uni­fied Soviet/es­to­nian strength.

And that seemed to be that, un­til the Ber­lin Wall fell and the Baltic na­tions re-de­clared in­de­pen­dence. Lem­bit sud­denly found a new pur­pose, and saw more ac­tion. The Sovi­ets – re­treat­ing from Tallinn once more – re­solved to take Lem­bit with them again. But a brief stand-off be­tween the Rus­sian guards and some armed Es­to­nian ser­vice­men saw her re­main – an­other si­lent sur­ren­der.

The vet­eran ves­sel – newly-clas­si­fied 001 in Es­to­nia’s nascent navy – re­turned to ac­tive ser­vice, sta­tioned in Tallinn har­bour, mon­i­tor­ing the wa­ters for sus­pi­cious mar­itime ac­tiv­ity. Her lat­est in­car­na­tion – surely her last – is in Tallinn’s Sea­plane Har­bour Mu­seum. It took sev­eral days to slide Lem­bit in to the con­verted hangar, in 2011, via in­flat­able pon­toons. The mu­seum is dec­o­rated with blown-up recre­ations of her orig­i­nal blue­prints, which were dis­cov­ered in ar­chives in Cum­bria around a decade ago.

The mu­seum is one of Tallinn’s main at­trac­tions and has been deeply in­volved in cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions, which are run­ning through­out 2018 and last­ing un­til 2020. In­deed, ear­lier this month the Earl and Count­ess of Wes­sex vis­ited the sub­ma­rine and the mu­seum to open a new ex­hi­bi­tion com­mem­o­rat­ing Bri­tain’s role in Es­to­nia’s War of In­de­pen­dence, which ul­ti­mately led to the pur­chase of Lem­bit.

For the sub­ma­rine, and for Es­to­nia, the 100 years since then have been any­thing but plain sail­ing.

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PRIDE OF THE NA­TION: (1) A Kalev class sub on sea tri­als (2) Kalev’s launch in Bar­row-in­Fur­ness in July 1936 (3) The Kalev’s crew at a pa­rade in Portsmouth in 1937 (4) Kalev on ex­er­cise in (5) Kalev and Lem­bit at Per­nau in Au­gust 1937

Pho­tos: Es­to­nian Mar­itime Mu­seum

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