Loss of Ilmarinen

The heaviest blow to Finnish Navy was the loss of the younger ship Ilmarinen on 13 September 1941 (13. and a Friday). Ilmarinen was the flagship of the Navy. In the beginning of September 1941 Germans contacted Finnish Naval Headquarters proposing a joint operation. The purpose of this operation "Nordwind" was deception: German troops were to land at the large Estonian islands Hiiumaa and Saaremaa. From the bases on these islands Soviet planes had bombed even Berlin. Three different deception operations were to be running in the sea while German troops attacked from the coast. And thus on 7 September a telex was sent at 13.13 to the Navy Commander in Turku:

"The Germans will start attack on the islands Hiidenmaa and Saarenmaa 11.9. Your task is to confuse the enemy. Prepare to collect vessels to Utö and move the coast defence ships to Bengtskär area to attack enemy forces trying to get into Hanko".

The Commander of the Naval Forces, General Valve, did not accept the plans of the Navy, as they differed from the German hopes. The German plan was to start from Utö and proceed close to the island Hiidenmaa. On the 8th September German ships for the operation "Nordwind" were in Utö anchorage. One day later the Finnish forces, the two coast defence ships, three icebreakers, two escort vessels and tugs with barges appeared too. It was decided, that the thrust towards Hiidenmaa would be only 30 miles long. The mine sweepers of the Coastal Artillery were ordered to conduct sweeps to as far as 15 miles. However, the plan was abandoned. The Germans ships remained in Utö, while the Finnish ones sailed back to Högsåra west from Hanko.

On the 13th September the Coastal Fleet was in anchor near Attu island. The ships raised anchors at 10.15 and sailed from Högsåra area by the route Vänö-Borstö-Jurmo and arrived to Utö soon after midday. While a conference of ships commanders was going on, the mine sweepers returned and informed of an unknown obstacle about 20 miles away, just in the direction of the planned operation. The plan was then changed, The ships would sail Utö lane out to sea, then about 17.5 miles true course 187o and then turn to true course 232o for about 7.5 miles and then return by Utö [SPK 19119]. The return was planned to begin at 20.30, when it would be dark, sunset being at about 19 hours.

The change of the planned course meant, that the group had to sail through unsweeped waters. No sweepers capable to sail with the group were available as Riilahti and Ruotsinsalmi were far in the Gulf of Finland. The Navy had neither any ships prepared to act as Sperrbrechers. The whole operation was clearly considered not to be dangerous.

The ships raised anchor and sailed from Utö at 17.55 hours [SPK 19119]. They were divided into three groups:

Both coast defence ships and 15 other ships sailed in one long convoy from Utö to Hiidenmaa in the afternoon. The convoy was five miles long. The ships of the "Nordwind" maintained active radio communications during the day, but Soviet intelligence did not find the convoy nor noticed the radio traffic. Battle stations were sounded in Väinämöinen at 18.15 and paravanes were lowered at 18.25 [SPK 19119]. At 19.51 the convoy turned right to course 232o to avoid the obstacle sweepers had noticed. Soon after this it was noticed that something was wrong with the starboard paravane of Ilmarinen. The wire was not pointing away from the ship, instead it passed along the ships hull and disappeared under water. At 20.30 and 59o27'N, 21o05'E the convoy was preparing to turn back. The speed was 10-11 knots when Ilmarinen made its 180o turn.

The course of Ilmarinen had changed about 40o to starboard when two mines exploded under ship on the port side. The explosions happened on the level of aft 105 mm gun and 254 mm turret. The damage was fatal as it broke the bulkhead between aft diesel room and propeller motor room causing flooding of probably six compartments. Survivors told that the explosions shaked ship less than a broadside of heavy guns.

Power was lost immediately and the list was heavy after 10 seconds. The ship rolled to left and men on deck started to climb to bottom. The ship capsized rapidly in only one minute and remained afloat for six minutes more. In the bottom was a large smoke erupting hole. Several men managed to climb to bottom, when the ship capsized. Some jumped overboard. Very few inside the hull or in main artillery turrets managed to escape. From the forward turret three men escaped before list was so heavy that the 500 kg door could not be opened anymore. Only four men from the 90 men strong artillery division and 14 men from the 80 men strong machinery division survived. Many men had been leaning on walls and lost consciousness when the mine exploded. Of the nine men in the badly shaken battle mast only three were able to save themselves. When the ship turned turtle, many men reached the main deck but only few survived as most of the scuttles in accommodation spaces were not large enough for a man to crawl through.

Patrol boats sailed immediately to the capsized ship. VMV 1 saved 57 men from the keel, some of them had almost dry clothes. Other boats VMV 14, VMV 15 and VMV 16 picked 75 men from water. 271 men were lost, 132 survived. 14 officers, including commander of the Navy, commodore Rahola, commander of Coastal Fleet and Ilmarinen, captain Göransson and executive officer of Ilmarinen, captain Villman survived and 13 were lost. Of the 14 chief warrant officers on board only three survived. The number of lost men and petty officers was twice that of survivors. It is not possible to estimate how many men were trapped inside the ship and how many drowned after leaving the ship. One of the survivors in aft gun director told, that all six men got out but only three survived.

After the explosion VMV boats rushed to Ilmarinen. The rest of the convoy turned back and was inside the archipelago at 23.15. From the War Diaries of ships during the operation the sequence of events can be compiled, even though the exact times do not always match:

20.30 VMV 16 Noticed an explosion on the side of Ilmarinen immediately followed by another one after which Ilmarinen began to sink fast. Lowered the boat and started rescuing of Ilmarinen's crew and saved 51 men.
20.31 Väinämöinen Ilmarinen has exploded, probably run into a mine. Listing and sinking lat. 59o26', lon. 21o04,5'. Turned back.
20.33 Väinämöinen Order to all VMV boats: All to help Ilmarinen.
20.34 Väinämöinen Sent by blink to other ships information about the explosion.
20.35 VMV 1 Explosion on the left side of Ilmarinen, middle of the ship. Ilmarinen listed immediately to left and capsized. Steered immediately to Ilmarinen and steered bow to touch Ilmarinen´s bow. Ilmarinen had already turned turtle and there was group of ships crew on the bottom. Rescued the men to VMV 1, 57 from ship bottom and one from sea.
20.40 Väinämöinen Sent blink message to German ships ahead asking to send two small German vessels to accident place.
20.42 Väinämöinen Message from VMV 16: Rescue work going on.
VMV 1 Ilmarinen sank stern first. VMV 1 was only 10 m away. The boat of VMV 1 was lowered and two survivors of Ilmarinen went to it to save men from water. Close to accident place were now also VMV 14, 15 and 16. VMV 1 that was full with survivors went to take them to Väinämöinen, while other boats continued with rescue work.
22.00 VMV 16 Finished with rescue work and began return voyage to Utö.
22.10 Väinämöinen Two German patrol vessels passed by and they were called. The ships sailed to accident place.
22.30 Väinämöinen VMV 17 brought the first survivors from the accident place 1+1+8+46.
22.37 VMV 1 Met Väinämöinen and transferred survivors to Väinämöinen. Got order to follow Väinämöinen.
23.30 VMV 1 Passed Utö light.
00.04 Väinämöinen Anchored west by southwest from Bokulla. Bow to north.
00.16 VMV 1 Tied up alongside Väinämöinen north from Knivskär.
01.15 VMV 16 Tied up in Utö where the rescued 51 men from Ilmarinen's crew were taken.
02.35 VMV 16 Departure to accident place.
05.12 VMV 16 Conducted search in the place where Ilmarinen was lost but did not see anything. During return voyage took the drifting boat of VMV 1 in tow.

The Navy Headquarters got message from Väinämöinen at 22.25 that Ilmarinen had exploded in position 59o26'N, 21o45'E. This was forwarded to Naval Forces HQ 22.35 [SPK 17798]. Naval Forces HQ got more information 14.9. after 01.40 even though some of it was incorrect: The ship ran probably into mine, explosion of aft ammunition hold at 20.32. Position 59o31.5'N, 21o14.5'E. The ship capsized in 1 minute to left. 125 rescued, ship complement 400. The stern started to sink immediately. The ship remained on its side 6-7 minutes. Bow was visible 15 minutes. At 03.30 the position was given as grid square 47088. 11 officers and 114 men saved, including Rahola and Göransson. Missing about 275, including 12 officers [SPK 18708].

Rumours spreaded fast even though Finns tried to keep the loss as secret. The survivors of Ilmarinen were sent to other ships and bases. A large number of the men served later in the Onega Flotilla in Eastern Karelia.

The whole operation had been a costly mistake:
  • Why risk navy's most valuable units in a deception operation?
  • Why no sweepers?
  • Why put the coast defence ships as first ones in the convoy?

A memorial service was held on Väinämöinen on 21.9.1941. On the following day the loss of Ilmarinen was officially announced.
Memorial service

This page is maintained by Jari Aromaa.
Last modified 10.7.2011.