A Story that was Almost Forgotten
Sometimes big and important events in maritime history are forgotten. The local communities that these events concerned may remember across generations, whereas the general public might be totally unaware that these events ever took place. In the Gulf of Finland, virtually unknown has been the catastrophic loss of seven out of eleven German destroyers (S57, V75, G90, S58, S59, V72 and V74) to mines in November 1916 during World War I. These 80 metre long ships were actually called torpedo boats, but were in many ways equivalent of contemporary destroyers of other navies, hence the name “destroyer”. While being the most advanced torpedo boats they were also the pride of the German Navy.
The 10th torpedo boat flotilla of the Imperial German Navy (German: Kaiserliche Marine) was detailed to conduct a bombardment raid of Baltic Port (present-day Paldiski, Estonia) during November 10-11th 1916. The operation is one of the best examples to illustrate the effectiveness of mines and one of the most catastrophic maritime operations that ever took place in the Gulf of Finland. For almost one hundred years these shipwrecks had been forgotten and missing. This summer Badewanne was able to identify first two of the lost destroyers – G90 and S59. Estonian Maritime Administration had located unknown wrecks during their hydrographic surveys from an area that was promising. We were able to combine our archive and literature research with these findings and concluded, that the anomalies at these locations could quite possibly belong to the lost 10th torpedo boat flotilla. And in fact, they were.
Bombardment of Baltic Port
The loss of the 10th torpedo boat flotilla was the biggest loss encountered by the Imperial German Navy during World War I in the Baltic Sea. The attempt to move against Russian patrols off Dagö at entrance to Gulf of Finland resulted in loss to mines of destroyers S57 and V75 during evening of 10 November and – after the bombardment of Baltic Port – the loss of the destroyers G90, S58, S59, V72, and the V76 in early hours of 11 November.
Historical records do not provide any single clear answer to question why exactly the decision to attack Baltic Port was made, and under what circumstances. However some details are known.
On the 9th of November 1916 Rear Admiral Hugo Langemak sent three light German cruisers – Augsburg, Kolberg, Strassburg – and two torpedo boat flotillas to the Baltic Sea. They were ordered to harass the Russian transport fleet that was operating in the area. This is confirmed by the memoirs of Commander Franz von Wieting – the commander of the 10th torpedo boat flotilla – who wrote that the initial plan was to attack Russian transports. Since the Germans didn’t find any enemy ships and it was already midnight, a decision was made to go and bomb Paldiski which, according to German intelligence, was full of Russian warships. One theory suggests, that the decision was made because the flotilla had agreed to meet with the Rear Admiral’s two cruisers at dawn, and they were running out of time.
The flotilla was supposed to proceed through the Hanko-Hiiumaa mine barrier and the Commander of the Flotilla von Wieting was prepared for probable (possible?) losses. On their way to Paldiski V75 hit a mine. The contemporary Russian mines were not very effective, and V75 did not sink immediately because the ship – like all other G-type vessels in the flotilla – were well built with multiple compartments. This gave the Germans a lot of time to rescue the crew of the V75 and S57 went to pick up the survivors. Shortly after, S57 hit a mine. Once again all survivors were picked up, and the flotilla continued its way to Baltic Port.
However, the German intelligence proved to be highly inaccurate and flotilla was met with an empty harbor without any Russian ships in the vicinity. According to contemporary sources, the Germans were so disappointed by the empty harbor, that they started to shell the city without anything better to do. After firing some 160 artillery shells the fleet decided to retreat back to the sea. Ten people, mostly civilians died in the raid, including a family of five, and 36 buildings were damaged. Fortunately for Batic Port, the gunfire was not very accurate with most of the shells falling short in the water, or going too high hitting the forests behind the city.
Wietings plan was now to avoid the mine field during retreat by going further north from to point where V75 first hit the mine. Unfortunately to the Germans, the mine field was denser and larger than expected, causing five more ships to hit a mine and sink in rapid succession. The first was the V72. After her crew was rescued, the Germans torpedoed the ship in order to speed up its’ sinking. Five minutes later G90 hits a mine with eleven sailors losing their lives in the explosion. G90 was also sunk by a torpedo. Roughly 30 minutes later, S58 hit a mine. And finally, just two hours after S58, S59 hit a mine. Furthermore, some 50 minutes later, V76 hit a mine. Despite the loss of 7 destroyers, only fifteen German sailors lost their lives. After returning to Germany, Langemark along with Vice Admiral Friedrich Schultz were relieved from their duties.
The hull of the G90 is broken into two sections, and roughly 30 meters of the midship section is missing. The Germans had to torpedo the vessel since it was not sinking fast enough, to avoid the enemy capturing it. The explosion of the torpedo destroyed the midship section and broke the vessel in two.
The wreck of S59 rests a few nautical miles from the G90. The hull is embedded into the sediment almost up to its deck level and the deck and some of the visible structures are covered by clay.
The vessels were not named in the traditional way. Instead, they were assigned with a letter based on the shipyard that built the vessel and a sequential serial number. While many technical specifications were demanded by the German Admiralty Board, shipbuilders were afforded considerable freedom in the designs which resulted in minor differences between the vessels built by different dockyards.
|G — Germaniawerft, Kiel
S — Schichau-Werke, Elbing
V — AG Vulcan, Stettin and Hamburg
Diving these wrecks was made possible by co-operation with Estonian authorities to whom we would like to express our sincere thanks: Estonian Maritime Administration, Estonian National Heritage Board &Estonian Police and Border Guard Board.
The archives that were vital for the research were: the National Archives in Washington (DC), Bundesarchiv – Freiburg & RGAVMA, St. Petersburg.
2004 Marked the Centenary of World War I
According to UNESCO, underwater cultural heritage from World War I has not yet been comprehensively researched despite the fact that it bears witness to one of the most important conflicts in recent history. This heritage is also highly threatened by metal recovery and treasure-hunting. Badewanne encourages all divers to exercise a sense of responsibility and to respect our common and unique unique submerged legacy. We hope that all wreck sites, regardless of their age, would remain untouched for the future generations.
More information about the World War I underwater cultural heritage can be found at UNESCO.
Media contacts & further information
Badewanne diving team is a non-profit organization representing a group of voluntary divers that have been documenting shipwrecks in the Gulf of Finland (known during WW II as “Badewanne”) for more than 20 years. We are a multitalented team with a broad skill set of underwater video, still photography, drawing & painting, 3D modelling, underwater engineering, marine biology and environmental sciences.
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