Royal Navy divers deal with WW2’s legacy in Estonia

This is the end of 250kg of TNT – safely detonated off the coast of Estonia by Royal Navy divers as they tackled the aftermath of ‘Russia’s Dunkirk’.

A dozen-strong team of divers and mine warfare experts swapped Horsea Island for the Baltic to join like-minded experts from 15 nations in dealing with unexploded bombs, mines, torpedoes littering the waters off Estonia.

In both world wars, the Baltic was one of the most heavily mined stretches of water on the planet.

And in the summer of 1941 the Soviet Union – which occupied Estonia at the time – suffered the greatest naval defeat in its history as it tried to evacuate the capital Tallinn.

More than 80 ships were sunk and at least 12,000 people died – although the Soviets succeeded in saving over 160 ships and nearly 30,000 people.

Nearly 80 years later and some of those wrecks were possibly found by the participants of Open Spirit 2018.

Due to the enormous number of mines laid during World Wars 1 and 2, this will be an enduring mission but a really important one, ensuring the safety of navigation for ships and reducing the risks posed by old munitions washing up ashore,

Lt Peter Needle

Hosted each year by one of the three Baltic states in turn, the exercise focuses on pooling international expertise in mine warfare to deal with wartime ordnance which still threatens safe seafaring in the region; over the past two decades, some 1,200 explosive devices have been found off the coast of Estonia alone.

The Brits – from Fleet Diving Unit 3, one of three elite teams who protect RN shipping from mine threats around the globe – focused their efforts around the small island of Muhu at the entrance to the Gulf of Riga, working with more than 60 frogmen from Estonia, the USA, Canada, Poland and Latvia.

The Royal Navy divers alone found nine mines which were either blown up on the spot or towed to a safe area offshore and away from environmental protection areas and then disposed of by counter-mining using a small quantity of plastic explosive in a controlled explosion.

The Soviet M26 mine safely disposed of in the video is one of nearly 17,000 laid by the Red Navy in 1941 to stem the German tide.

“Due to the enormous number of mines laid during World Wars 1 and 2, this will be an enduring mission but a really important one, ensuring the safety of navigation for ships and reducing the risks posed by old munitions washing up ashore,” explained Lt Peter Needle, Officer in Charge of FDU3.

“It’s also a really good opportunity for the divers and mine warfare team from FDU3 to get involved in such a large scale operation and put their skills into practice both by operating REMUS and by diving on the mines it discovered.”

The Royal Navy divers were helped in their search of the chilly waters (average temperature just 8˚C) by their REMUS robot submersible. It was sent out to scan to the sea bed and return with its findings. The divers then headed down to personally inspect the contacts.

In all, the collective effort by more than 800 personnel – including the crews of NATO’s 1st Mine Countermeasures Group – searched 300 square miles of the Baltic and Gulf of Finland from the Estonian capital to the southwestern tip of the island of Saaremaa, locating 90 pieces of ordnance – most of which have now been neutralised.

“Estonia’s territorial waters have become safer,” said a grateful head of the country’s naval forces, Cdr Peeter Ivask. “It’s also good to know that Open Spirit passed off without incident.”

Investigations will now take place to identify the wrecks discovered during the exercise.

You can watch a video of the explosion on YouTube courtesy of Saartehaal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHvXcVde3iM

Images from the Estonian Defence Forces.