Tallinn Evacuation Operation

This was the Soviet evacuation of forces from Tallinn, in Soviet-annexed Estonia, on the south coast of the Gulf of Finland (27/31 August 1941).

After the start of the ‘Barbarossa’ invasion of the USSR by German forces on 22 June 1941, Generaloberst Georg von Küchler’s 18th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘Nord’ moved rapidly to the north-east in the general direction of Leningrad through the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which had all been annexed by the USSR in June 1940, and by the end of August had surrounded Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where a significant part of Vitse-Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet was caught in the harbour.

In expectation of a Soviet attempt either to bring in reinforcements or undertake an evacuation, German and Finnish naval forces had begun on 8 August to lay minefields off Cape Juminda on the coast of the Lahemaa area between Leningrad and Tallinn. When Soviet minesweepers tried to clear a path through these minefields, the Germans installed a battery of 150-mm (5.91-in) guns on the coast near Cape Juminda and the Finnish navy prepared its 2nd MTB Flotilla with the torpedo boats VMV-9, VMV-10, VMV-11 and VMV-17. At the same time Korvettenkapitän Friedrich Kemnade’s German 3rd Schnellboots-Flottille (S 26, S 27, S 39, S 40 and S 101) was concentrated at Suomenlinna outside Helsinki. The Junkers Ju 88 bombers of the Kampfgruppe 806 were also put on alert at Estonian airfields.

On 19 August the Germans began their final assault on Tallinn, which was held by the X Corps of General Major Ilya M. Lyubovtsev’s 8th Army within General Leytenant Markian M. Popov’s Leningrad Front. On the night of 27/28 August the X Corps disengaged and its 24,000 surviving men boarded transport vessels in Tallinn under cover of smoke screens. The minesweeping effort in the days before the evacuation had been ineffectual as a result of bad weather, however, and there were no Soviet aircraft available for the protection of the embarkation. The German shelling and aerial bombardment killed at least 1,000 of the evacuees in the harbour even before the ships put to sea.

The four convoys and their covering forces assembled during the course of 28 August in the roads at Tallinn. Under the command of Captain N. G. Bogdanov, the first convoy comprised six transport vessels, one icebreaker, one repair ship, one training ship and the submarines Shch-308, Shch-307 and M-97, escorted by the destroyer Surovyi, patrol ships Ametist, Kasatka and Saturn, five old minesweepers, two ‘MO-IV’ class submarine chasers, five patrol cutters and one tug. Under the command of Captain N. V. Antonov, the second convoy comprised six transport vessels, two netlayers, one survey ship and one schooner, escorted by the gunboat Moskva, patrol ship Chapayev, four old minesweepers, nine motor minesweepers and two ‘MO-IV’ class submarine chasers. Under the command of Captain Y. F. Yanson, the third convoy comprised eight transport vessels and one tanker, escorted by the gunboat Amgun, patrol ships Kolyvan and Ural, four old minesweepers, four motor minesweepers and two ‘MO-IV’ class submarine chasers. Under the command of Captain S. A. Gikhorovtsev, the fourth convoy comprised nine small craft escorted by the patrol ship Razvyedchik, gunboat I-8, nine motor minesweepers and two magnetic minesweepers.

The main force, under the command of Tributs, comprised the cruiser Kirov, flotilla leader Leningrad, destroyers Gordyi, Smetlivyi and Yakov Sverdlov, submarines S-4, S-5, Shch-301 and Kalev, minesweepers T-204, T-205, T-206, T-207 and T-217, motor torpedo boats TKA-73, TKA-74, TKA-94, TKA-103 and MO-131, MO-133, MO-142 and MO-202, tender Pikker and icebreaker Suur-Toll. Kontr-Admiral Y. A. Panteleyev’s covering forces comprised the flotilla leader Minsk, destroyers Skoryi and Slavnyi, submarines Shch-322, M-98, M-95 and M-102, minesweepers T-210, T-214, T-215, T-216 and T-218, submarine chasers MO-207, MO-212, MO-213 and MO-510, four motor torpedo boats and patrol ship Neptun. Kontr-Admiral Y. F. Rail’s rearguard force comprised the destroyers Kalinin, Artem and Volodarskiy, patrol ships Burya, Sneg and Tsiklon, two motor torpedo boats, five ‘MO-IV’ class submarine chasers and minelayer Vaindlo.

When these ships had departed, forming into a column some 15.5 miles (25 km) long as they moved out into open water, Burya, Sneg, Tsiklon and Vaindlo laid mine barrages in the harbour and in the approaches to it, and the old minelayer Amur, 696-ton steamship Gamma and three tugs were sunk as blockships.

The withdrawing forces were attacked to the west of the mine barrages in the afternoon of 28 August by Junkers Ju 88 bombers of the 2./Kampfgeschwader 77 and the Küstenfliegergruppe 806: the 2,250-ton icebreaker Krisyanis Valdemars and three transport vessels (2,414-ton Skrunda, 2,317-ton Lake Lucerne and 1,423-ton Atis Kronvalds) were sunk, and the 2,026-ton command ship Vironia was damaged and later hit a mine and sank. In trying to break through the mine barrages off Cape Juminda during the night 28/29 August, among the several ships which succumbed were the destroyers Yakov Sverdlov, Skoryi, Kalinin, Artem and Volodarski, patrol ships Sneg, Tsiklon and Saturn, minesweepers T-214, T-216 and Krab, submarines Shch-301, S-5 and S-6, gunboats I-8 and possibly Amgun and Moskva, netlayers Onega and Vyatka, motor torpedo boat TKA-103, submarine chaser MO-202, 12 transport vessels (1,446-ton Alev, 2,758-ton Tobol, 1,363-ton Ydrvamaa, 3,251-ton Everita, 2,329-ton Luga, 237-ton Kumari, 2,191-ton Balkhash, 2,917-ton Yana, 1,839-ton Naissaar, 206-ton Ergonautis, 1,522-ton Ella and 1,791-ton Ausma), and 1,700-ton Tanker No. 2. During this same period of the evacuation, heavy damage was also suffered by the flotilla leader Minsk, destroyers Gordyi and Slavnyi, minesweeper T-205 and several transport vessels.

On 29 August the remaining transport vessels again came under air attack, in this instance off the island of Suursaari by the Ju 88 bombers of the 2./KG 77 and KFlGr.806 after the fast warships had gone ahead to Kronshtadt in accordance with orders. In this action, two transport vessels (2,190-ton Kalpaks and 3,974-ton Vtoraya Pyatiletka) and 1,270-ton training ship Leningradsovet were sunk, and two transport vessels (3,974-ton Ivan Papanin and 1,207-ton Saule) and the 5,920-ton repair ship Serp i Molot) were severely damaged and had to be run aground near Suursaari. Only the transport vessel Kazakhstan, having disembarked 2,300 of her 5,000 troops on Steinskiir, reached Kronshtadt, though she too had been badly damaged by bombs.

A special covering and salvage force, under Captain I. G. Svyatov, was despatched from Suursaari: this force comprised 12 old minesweepers, a division of patrol vessels, six motor torpedo boats, eight submarine chasers, two tugs, four motor boats, two cutters and the rescue ship Meteor. In the next few days this force rescued a total of 12,160 troops, some of them from islands in the Gulf of Finland.

The submarine Shch-322, which had also been used in the rescue effort, failed to return from its mission.

The evacuation of Tallinn succeeded in recovering 165 ships, 28,000 persons and 66,000 tons of equipment, but the losses were more than 12,000 military and civilian dead as well as 13 warships and 34 merchant vessels.