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In September 1944 negotiations between the Soviet Union and  Finland led to a truce, demanding the evacuation of Finland by German  troops.   At  the same time  a big  Soviet offensive against Estonia and Latvia forced the German Army Group North to evacuate both countries.  When in early October the Soviet 1st Baltic Front broke through to the Baltic Coast near Polanga, the Gennan  troops  to  the  north  were  enclosed  in  the  Courland Bridgehead, to be supplied only over the sea.  The Soviet High Command wanted to disrupt or sever the supply routes from the Western Baltic and the Bay of Danzig to Liepaja and Ventspils not only  by  their  strengthened  air  forces  but  also  by  the  use  of submarines and torpedo cutters, while the bigger surface vessels were  held  back  by  Stalin’s  order  to  conserve  these  ships  as training vessels for the new big high seas fleet program.

In 1943 and in the spring of 1944 the Germans and Finns had closed the exit to the open Baltic from the Gulf of Finland by big mine barriers from Narva Bay to the Finnish Coast at Kotka and by a combined mine- and net-barrier at the entrance to the Gulf.

Losses, transfers and lay-ups had reduced the Soviet Baltic Submarine Brigade from 66 units on 22 June 1941 to 19 boats in early 1944, notwithstanding the commissioning of 13 new boats from 1941-1944. The training of the available submarines, especially diving exercises, were greatly hampered by the icing of the Gulf of Finland from November to May and the fact that the area under Soviet control up to September was confined to the shallow area east of the mine barriers.

In August, before the truce with Finland was signed, the three remaining small submarines M-90, M-96 and M-1 02 were sent on short reconnaissances of the mine situation in the area of Suursa-ari, the Narva and the Luga Bays. On 7 September M-96 and M-102 again left Kronshtadt for a reconnaissance of the mine situation, but M-96 {KL N.I. Kartashin) did not return and was lost on a mine on 10 September, while M-102 (K3R N.S. Leskov) returned after touching mine wires two times. [Editor’s Note: Soviet ranks are denoted as follows: K2R: Kapitan Vtorogo Ranga-Captain 2nd Rank,· K3R: Kapitan Pevogo Ranga-Captain 3rd Rank,· KL: Kapitan Leytenant-Captain Lieutenant.]

In the truce agreements the Finnish Navy was forced to provide the Soviets with secure routes along the rocky islands off the Finnish Coast under Finnish escort, and to cede to the Soviets base facilities at Helsinki, Hango and Turku.

On 20 September 10 submarines were ready for operations . On 26 September the first three, SC-310, SC-318 and SC-407, left Kronshtadt, pausing a short time at Helsinki, and then escorted by the Finnish gunboat KARJ ALA and the Soviet minesweeper T -215 reached the forward bases and departed for the first patrols. They were followed in a similar way on 1 October by the next four boats, D-2, L-3, S-13 and LEMBIT, and on 5 October by the last three, SC-307, SC-309 and S-4.

The Command of the Baltic Fleet had established 10 patrol areas, to be occupied by one submarine each:

  1. East of Stockholm and south of the Aaland Islands: SC-307 (KL S. Kalinin)
  2. . West of Oeset and the Irben Strait: SC-309 (lOR N.A. Filov)
  3. From Ventspils to the south ofLiepaja: SC-318 (K3R L.A. Loshkarev)
  4. From Klaipeda to Briisterort: SC-407 (lOR P.I. Bocharov)
  5. The Danzig Bay: S-13 (lOR A.l. Marinesko)
  6. The area of the Stolpe Bank: S-4 (lOR A.A. Klyushkin)
  7. The area between Kolberg and Bornholm: LEMBIT (K3R A.M. Matiyasevich.
  8. The area west ofBornholm: L-3 (K3R V.K. Konovalov)
  9. The area east of Karlskrona and Oeland: D-2 (K2R R.V. Lindenberg)
  10. The area east of Gotland: SC-310 (KLN. Bogorad)

But the assigned sectors were changed very often according to the situation reports. During the first days of the operations in early October the Red Army accomplished its breakthrough to the coast near Polanga and it became most important to interrupt the German supply traffic to Klaipeda, Liepaja and Ventspils. The Soviets also had to attack the German surface ships-cruisers, destroyers and torpedo boats-supporting the German Army units on Oesel and the Sworbe peninsula and the troops near the coast.

So the first three attacks were made by SC-407 and SC-310 between 5 and 8 October off Klaipeda and the Irben Strait. SC- 310 sank the training vessel NORDSTERN and the towed dredger BAGGER 3. and SC-407 the transport RO 24/ZONNEWUK. Off Hela S-13 missed the trawler SIEGFRIED with torpedoes but sank the ship by gunfire on 9 October. while L-3 and LEMBIT laid two mine barrages of 20 mines each north of Cape Arkona and northeast of Kolberg. Ifs very difficult to establish exactly the successes of the submarine laid mines. because since 1942 and especially in 1944 the RAF Bomber Command conducted a big mine offensive in the Baltic inside the 20 meters depth line. so that the Soviet submarines had to avoid these areas where the most used German sea routes laid.

It seems sure that on L-3·s barrage at least the torpedo boat (small destroyer) T-34 sank and the sail trainingship ALBERT LEO SCHLAGETER was damaged. The other vessels claimed by Soviet historians after the war very probably really sank on British air laid mines in the mine areas Geranium in the Pomeranian Bay or Spinach off Rixhoft and Hela. That was where the tanker THALATTA. assessed to S-4, was damaged by an underwater detonation, while the trawler TAUNUS and the small tanker TERRA really sank at the times when S-4 claimed sinkings from 12 to 14 October.

Other attacks by submarines from 15 October to 10 November, when the last units of the first wave started to return to their bases. all missed and were only sometimes observed by German ships. The only exceptions are attacks by SC-309. which had to return on 21 October to Turku and departed under the new commanding officer. K3R P.P. Vetchinkin. again on 31 October for the area off Ventspils. where it sank on 10 November the German freighter CARL CORDS and on 7 December the freighter NORDENHAM. The first of the big submarines. K-56 (K3R I.P. Popov). had to return before reaching the assigned area.

With the transfer of the two new submarines. L-21 (K2R S.S. Mogilevskij) and K-52 (K3R I.V. Travkin). from Kronshtadt to Helsinki at the end of October the preparations for a second wave of operations started. They were followed by the new K-51 (K3R V.A. Drozdov), and K-53 (K3R D.K. Yaroshevich) from 11-25 November. the small M-90 (KL G.M. Yegorov) and M-102 (K3R N.S. Leskov) from 16-19 November and by SC-303 (KL Ye.A. Ignatev). operational again after big repair work. from 15 December. Meantime in October the submarine depot ships IRTYSH. SMOLNYJ and POLYARN AYA ZVEZDA were transferred to the Finnish bases Helsinki, Hango and Turku, to supply and repair the submarines returning from their patrols.

On 9 November L-21 and K-52 departed, but K-52 had to return with damages after being depth charged in the Danzig Bay on 21 November. On 23 November L-211aid 17 mines northwest of Rixhoft on which very probably the German freighters EICH-BERG and ELIE were damaged and EBERHARD sunk. In addition, L-21 on 24 November sank with a torpedo the trawler SPREEUFER. Next, on 23 and 24 November, K-51, K-53, and from the first wave again S-4, SC-407 and LEMBIT started. They were followed, after a short stop at Turku to replenish, by L-21 on 28 November, by SC-310 on the 1st, by D-2 on the 12th, and by K-56 on 17 December. But they all came too late to interfere with the operations of German cruisers and destroyers supporting the evacuation of the Sworbe peninsula from 18 to 24 November. Only the first wave’s SC-309 was there on 21 November to attack the Task Group bombarding the advancing Soviet troops on Sworbe with the heavy cruiser PRINZ EUGEN, four destroyers and four torpedoboats-but the torpedoes missed .

K-51 on the way out southwest of Stockholm disposed of the small Swedish vessel HANSA by gunfire, but its many oth~r attacks southeast of Bornholm remained unsuccessful. LEMBIT again laid a mine barrage off Briisterort, leading probably to the loss of the steamer DIRSCHAU, the former Polish TCZEW, while the other ships, later claimed for this barrage were lost by other reasons. A torpedo attack on 11 December was not observed by the Germans. LEMBIT claimed to have sunk on 12 December in a collision near UtO a German U-boat, possibly the missing U-479 In a daring attack inside the Putziger Wik SC-407 torpedoed and sank the big liner SEEBURG, the former British ADELAIDE STAR, the loss of which was for a long time assigned to the British air mine field The many other attacks reported in December by K-53, S-4, SC-310 and D-2 remained unsuc-cessful or were not observed. Only K-56 in the area of Bornholm on 25 and 29 December torpedoed the German freighter BAL-TENLAND and sank the Swedish VENERSBORG. The small M-102and M-102 were sent at the end of December and in early January to the area of Uto to search for German U-boats, but had no sightings to report.

The German anti-submarine forces were relatively weak up to the end of 1944. The few destroyers and torpedoboats, as well as the fleet minesweepers, were mostly used to support the hard pressed army in the coastal areas and to provide A/S and A/A escort to the cruisers bombarding the positions of the Red Army. The vessels of the Sicherungs-Divisionen, mostly rebuilt fishing vessels, were mainly concerned with keeping the sea routes free of the British mines, and were badly equipped with A/S weapons. So only D-2 and K-52 were damaged by depth charge attacks, and on 4 January S-4 was sunk by depth charges of the torpedo boat T-3 off the Danzig Bay.

The commanding officers of the Soviet submarines overestimat-ed their successes and especially the tonnage of the attacked ships greatly, probably because they lacked the necessary experience. as the table on the following page shows (the mine successes are omitted).

In January 1945 the situation on land changed rapidly. On 12 January the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front broke out of it’s Vistula bridgehead at Baranow. followed by strong attacks of the 3rd, 2nd and lst White Russian Fronts on 13 and 14 January forcing breaks in the German lines. In a short time these offensives overran Poland. broke through to the coast west of Elbing and enclosed the area west of Danzig. Gdynia and Rixhoft. Big streams of refugees. running away from the advancing Red Army. converged to the remaining ports of East and West Prussia. The German Navy concentrated all available shipping from the big liners down to small coasters for the biggest evacuation operation in history. Interrupting this flow of ships running back and forth between the harbors in the eastern and western Baltic became a main task of the Soviet submarines along with their continuing operations against the supply traffic to Courland. But there were only a few submarines fit for operations after the return of most of the second wave. On 4 January SC-307 departed for the area off Liepaja, to be followed on 11 and 12 January by S-13, SC-407 and SC-318 to positions at the Stolpe Bank, the area of Rixhoft and the Danzig Bay, and off Pill au and Briisterort. On 22 January K-51 was sent to the west of the Stolpe Bank and L-3 had to lay two new mine barrages of 10 mines each off Ventspils and off Briisterort.

The claimed successes, besides a freighter HENRY LOTGENS sunk on 29 January off Ventspils, are doubtful, because the positions of ships lost in the area off East Prussia by mines are not exactly known, and because the number of British air laid mines was so much greater-in January 668, in February 1354 and in March 1198-that probably most of these ships were lost on RAF mines and not on the few Soviet submarine mines. In the first three months of 1945 there were probably 67 ships of 137,764 gross tons lost on these mines and 32 more ships damaged. Also many ships were sunk by attacks of the Soviet air forces and some also by Soviet torpedo cutters. Many German ships were saved probably because the Soviet submarines could not enter the areas inside the 20 meter depth line for fear of the British mines. And there most of the German ships were running, very often forced to stop at anchorages to wait for the completion of minesweeping operations. A submarine, for instance, may have had the possibility for a surface night attack against the anchorage off Swinemun-de, not really covered by A/S vessels, and could have sunk several of the big liners or freighters waiting there.

View full article for table data

Notwithstanding the fact that most of the German liners and big freighters transporting refugees from East Prussia escaped naval attack, three or the biggest shipping catastrophes in history were caused by Soviet submarines. S-13 on 30 January in a bold night attack hit the big liner WILHELM GUSTLOFF, running with a torpedoboat on the deep water route off the Stolpe Bank, with three of her torpedoes, causing her to sink fast. Of the 6288 people on board only 904 were rescued by the vessels called to help. A fortnight later, on 10 February, S-13 on a dark night attacked and sank a ship assumed to be a cruiser, but in reality it was the liner GENERAL STEUBEN, taking down 3608 people, while only about 300 could be saved by two small escorts. Even more catastrophic was the loss of the GOY A, to be described later. K-51 sank only the Danish freighter VIBORG offRugenwa-lde on 28 January. The relieving K-52 arriving in the area on 20 February, claimed four ships and two escorts sunk, but the only ship possibly sunk was BOHUS on 1 March.

On 16 January off Liepaja SC-307 probably hit the freighter STEINBURG, beached after a mine damage in a heavy storm before, and SC-318 on 4 February sank the small tanker HID-DENSEE. Other attacks by these boats and SC-407 and L-3 failed. Against the supply traffic to Courland and the redeploy-ment of some divisions from Courland to East Prussia the Soviets sent in February M-90 and M-102 to Ventspils, and SC-309 to Liepaja where this boat on 23 February sank the transport G01TINGEN, causing about 500 losses, only to be heavily damaged by depth charges from the escorting minesweeper M-801.

On 8 March the relieving SC-303 attacked a convoy, and sank the small steamer INKA but not the claimed transport BORBEK, sunk three days later by a Soviet torpedo bomber. The submarines M-90, SC-310, M-102 and D-2, relieving each other offLiepaja from March to May 1945, reported some attacks, but there is no evidence for a real sinking.

On 3 and 4 March again K-53 and L-21 departed for the area north of Kolberg and the Danzig Bay. On 17 March K-53 sank the steamer MARGARETHE CORDS, while L-21 on 13 March laid a successful mine barrage in the Hela Bay, on which the torpedoboats T-3 and T-4 and the U-boat U-367 sank in the next two days, while the destroyer Z-34 was damaged on 10 April. In addition, L-21 torpedoed and sank the patrol vessel V-2022/EMIL COLZMANN and the tug ERNI on 23 March. On 23 and 24 March, L-3 and LEMBIT started new minelayings northeast and northwest of Rixhoft. It is possible that on the first barrage the KRIEGSFISCHKUTTER M-3138, and on the second the transport NEUWERK and the KFK Vs-343 were lost, but these and also the other later claimed sinkings might have been caused by RAF air laid mines.

L-3 continued its patrol then in the area and on 16 April sank the refugee ship GOYA with torpedoes, causing the heaviest losses in a ship sinking in history. No less than 6666 people perished, only 334 were rescued.

On the night of 19 April, L-3 claimed the sinking of a transport of 8000 gross tons, later assumed to have been the gun carrier SAT 5/ROBERT MULLER 6. But according to witnesses this ship sank already in the afternoon of 18 April after hits by Soviet torpedo bombers. In April again K-56, K-52, SC-407, S-13 and K-53 were sent into the area between the Danzig Bay and the area north of Kolberg, but only K-56 on its way out sank the Swedish fish ing cutter RAMONA by gunfire.

The claims and real sinkings by torpedo or gunfire amounted in 1945 up to 8 May to: evacuation of refugees, wounded and soldiers from Baltic ports in Finland, the Baltic States, East Prussia and Pomerania from September 1944 to May 1945 (omitting the neutral ships) great discrepancy is apparent: 409 German warships from cruisers down to Marinefllhrprl1hme and KFKs and 672 merchant ships from big liners down to coasters were engaged in one or more, sometimes up to 20 journeys. They transported 2,401,367 people. Of the 245 lost merchant ships, 130 sank after Soviet or RAF air attacks, 73 by mines, and only 20 of them were sunk by torpedo or gun attacks of Soviet submarines. 33,082 people lost their lives in these shipping losses, 16,728 of them by submarine attacks, most of them in the three big catastrophes.

View full article for table data

The reason why the Soviet submarines achieved only marginal successes besides the three big sinkings, was at first the small number of available submarines, secondly the described training difficulties, but thirdly especially the necessity to avoid the British ground mine fields where the mostly used shipping routes laid. Even if there were some efforts to use results of the air recon-naissance, the submarines had difficulties to find their targets without radar. As the tables show, many of their attacks were tactical or technical failures, and the commanding officers overestimated the tonnage of the attacked ships greatly, leading the Soviet historians after the war to reduce the tonnage of not identified ships to an average of 2600 gross tons. Without exact knowledge about the British mine fields the Soviet historians also claimed almost any ship mentioned in German publications as lost to mines or unknown reasons in the eastern Baltic for the subma-rine mine fields, for instance the big liner BERLIN, which sank on three air ground mines on 31 January northeast of Swinemunde and not on LEMBIT’s mines.

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