Pallada - the search for a sunken Russian cruiser that was torpedoed in October 1914
Victim of WWI submarine attack was for decades the worst maritime disaster in the Baltic
The armoured cruiser Pallada
By Unto Hämäläinen
This is the first item of news to be published in Helsingin Sanomat about the Imperial Russian Navy's cruiser Pallada for nearly 100 years.
The last occasion on which the newspaper mentioned this vessel was on March 31st, 1915.
The news item was not exactly expansive.
In the middle of a lengthy discourse on the progress of the First World War there was a mention, almost in passing, that a Russian warship named the Pallada had been sunk the previous autumn.
World War One, or as it was called until 1939 "The Great War", began on the first day of August in 1914.
On the one side were the "Central Powers" of Germany and Austro-Hungary, and ranged against them were the "Allies" of the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia.
The Imperial Russian leadership feared Germany would attack St. Petersburg, the then capital, either by sea or with an invasionary force through Finland.
As our history books tell us, Finland was at that time a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.
Fearing an attack through Finnish territory, the Russian Army moved some 30,000 soldiers into Finland at the outbreak of hostilities.
In order to ward off the prospect of an invasion by sea in the north-east corner of the Baltic, long strings of naval mines were laid across the Gulf of Finland, just as occurred in the Second World War [another article linked below explores this particular subject].
The most extensive of them spanned the entire gulf between the Porkkala peninsula in the north and the island of Naissaar (Nargen in German), to the north-west of Tallinn, on the southern shore.
Narrow fairways were left close to the coasts of Finland and Estonia, along which Allied vessels were able to pass unhindered by the dangers of mines, but these routes were policed against enemy incursions by the threat of hefty coastal artillery batteries.
Even with these defensive measures in place, the greatest responsibility for the safeguarding of St. Petersburg remained with the Russian Baltic Fleet, which enjoyed the special protection of Nicolas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.
It was in essence the Emperor's own navy.
In 1914, before the arrival of four new Gangut-class dreadnoughts, the armoured cruiser Pallada was the pride of the Baltic Fleet.
She was a modern warship, 137 metres stem to stern, with a displacement of just under 8,000 tonnes, carrying two 8" guns mounted fore and aft and a further eight 6" guns in casemates port and starboard, and she had been completed and commissioned only three years earlier, in 1911.
The construction of the Pallada was begun in 1906 and it had taken all of five years to bring her into service, as she was built more or less simultaneously with two other Bayan-class cruisers, the Bayan (or Bayan II) and the Admiral Makarov, which was initially laid down in France.
In the early months of the war, Russian warships held sway over almost the entire Gulf of Finland. In addition to St. Petersburg, they used Tallinn, Helsinki, and Hanko as their home ports.
Russia received help in the marine defence of the Baltic from their British allies, who sent submarines into the Gulf of Finland. These were able to deploy from bases in Helsinki and Hanko.
The German Navy, by contrast, was obliged to remain further down the Baltic, as there were no bases under the German flag along the coast of the Gulf.
Any German raiders heading into the Gulf of Finland had to do so from the southern shores of the Baltic Sea.
Nevertheless, the Kaiserliche Marine wished to flex its muscles and show its strength, and at the end of August 1914 it penetrated into the Gulf.
This proved to be a rather inauspicious beginning - in fact it was excruciatingly embarrassing for them.
The German light cruiser Magdeburg, herself the pride of the Kaiser's navy and only commissioned in late 1912, managed to run aground in fog close to Odensholm, off the Estonian coast.
The Magdeburg was so tightly stuck on the reef that getting her refloated was impossible, and with the arrival on the scene of the Russian Pallada and another cruiser, the Bogatyr, both with very obvious hostile intentions, it was decided that the only course of action was to evacuate the stricken Magdeburg, blow her up, and scuttle her, rather than risk the ship being captured as a juicy prize.
Even this went badly.
Before the ship was properly detonated, the Germans desperately tossed overboard all the Magdeburg's documents, including top secret naval code books and signal logs.
The Pallada and the other Russian warships swept in, however, and succeeded in salvaging several of the code books and - much more damaging - an encryption key.
Copies were given to the British allies, and as a result of the lucky windfall the Russian and British Navies were able to decipher intercepted German wireless traffic and to know the location and intentions of many German warships. The great naval battles of Dogger Bank and Jutland in 1915 and 1916 were directly influenced by the signals intercepts that the British admirals were able to enjoy.
The loss of the Magdeburg was such a huge humiliation for the Germans, so early in the game, that there was a very powerful desire to get even.
The law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth demanded swift revenge.
Later in the autumn, the Germans began a deliberate policy of goading the Russian Navy, with a view to pushing them into intemperate action.
The intention was to coax the Russian warships into the sort of exposed location where they could become prey to German submarines.
On Sunday October 11th, 1914, the sky in Hanko was cloudless.
There was only a light breeze blowing, and the Gulf of Finland was fairly smooth as the Pallada and her sister-ship Bayan left Hanko Harbour on patrol, accompanied by a flotilla of motor torpedo boats.
Visibility was good. This was important, for the ships' crews had to keep a sharp eye out at all times.
There was no radar in those days, and enemy vessels had to be seen with the naked eye or through binoculars.
The Pallada was a very impressive craft. She had two vertical triple-expansion steam engines producing 16,500 horse power, and could make 21 knots at full speed.
The cruiser was armoured throughout, with reinforcement 19 centimetres (7.5 inches) thick over her machinery spaces at the waterline, and she was fitted with ten deck-mounted naval guns of 8 and 6 inches and 24 smaller-calibre cannon of 3" and 1.9", and she also carried two submerged 15" torpedo tubes.
The crew was also right out of the top drawer.
The Pallada's commanding officer was Captain 1st Class Sergei Romanovic Magnus, an experienced and decorated naval officer in his early 40s.
He had graduated from the cadet school in 1890 and had served honourably in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
Magnus was assisted by a score of commissioned officers, all experienced men, and by a large and carefully-picked crew, since work on the new vessel required technical smarts and the ability to learn fast.
They had been conscripted from European Russia, and particularly from the St. Petersburg region.
Most were quite young, in their early 20s.
Nearly all were able to read and write, and many had been at work in factories or the docks prior to their call-up.
The great majority of the ship's complement were Russians, but there were also some Estonians and other Balts in the crew.
As far as is known, there was only one Finn aboard the Pallada, and he was one of the officers - the ship's surgeon George Silfversvan, a 40-year-old Helsinki nobleman whose family had produced numerous naval officers.
The Pallada's lookouts swept the horizon, but on that Sunday morning they did not see any German vessels in the vicinity.
The lookouts had, however, made a fatal error.
They had failed to spot the presence of the German submarine U-26 shadowing the convoy.
It followed the movements of the Russian vessels just below the surface, using its periscope.
The German Navy had invested massively in developing its submarine fleet, as it wished to challenge British hegemony on the high seas.
The first fully-functioning diesel-electric-powered German submarine had been built only a decade before the war broke out, and submersibles were still rather clumsy and difficult to manoeuvre.
They could remain submerged for only a few hours at a time, and were very slow-moving vessels.
Navigating a submarine, let alone turning it into a weapon of war, made great demands on the officers and crew.
Submarines often sank: not for nothing were they described as "iron coffins" or "sisters of sorrow".
The commander of the U-26 was Kapitänleutnant Egewolf von Berckheim.
He was just 33 years of age and had been given command of the vessel and its crew of thirty only a matter of months earlier.
Now the U-26 was far from its base in Gdansk and sailing in dangerous waters.
If the speedy Russian torpedo boats or a destroyer escort were to spot the submarine, the encounter would likely be a fatal one.
The lookout on the German U-boat had already observed the Russian convoy early that morning.
The submarine shadowed the Russian warships all morning, and dived to slip closer to the convoy unnoticed.
It was 11:10 when Kapitänleutnant von Berckheim issued the order to the torpedoman manning the third tube:
"Rohr drei - Achtung - Los!"
The torpedo was so large that the firing of it rocked the 700-tonne submarine.
The missile carried a payload of 200 kg of explosives.
Capt. von Berckheim was able to watch through the periscope as the bubbling wake of the torpedo approached the cruiser across the surface.
The distance to the target at the point of firing was a bare 500 metres.
It is quite certain that those on the deck of the Pallada would have seen that same wake from the incoming torpedo, but by then it was all theatre: there was no way the large armoured cruiser could take evasive action.
The Pallada took a direct hit amidships, in the most vulnerable place imaginable, for the ship's magazine was located here.
A monumental explosion followed.
The cruiser broke her back and split into two parts, sinking in a matter of minutes.
The entire crew went down with her. Depending on the books and research documents one examines, there are some discrepancies about the actual number of casualties.
The largest figure is 611 officers and men, and the smallest 584.
It is also a little unclear as to whether anyone did manage to survive.
Some sources suggest that a handful of men were rescued from the waves, while others insist everyone on board perished.
What IS certain, however, is that five sailors who for one reason or another were not on board that day lived to tell the tale.
Whether on shore leave, sick leave, or spending some time sobering up in the cells, these crew-members were fortunate enough to be on dry land in Hanko at the time.
The crews of the other Russian vessels could only look on helplessly as the Pallada vanished under the surface in a trice.
According to eye-witness accounts, all that was left floating where the ship went down were sailors' hats and a few timber spars that had been blown off in the blast.
A few days later an Orthodox icon of the Redeemer was recovered from the water. It belonged to the Pallada.
The icon was to have protected and blessed the vessel.
It did not protect her against the German torpedo.
Immediately after the sinking of the Pallada, the commander of her sister-ship the Bayan had to telegraph Fleet HQ in Kronstadt with the awful news.
At this juncture, Russia was under a rigid wartime censor.
The newspapers were permitted to write only sparingly about the events of the war, and particularly if they involved defeats or casualties.
The effects of the blanket censorship were also felt in reporting of the loss of the Pallada.
The papers in St. Petersburg carried little about the sinking.
For example the illustrated weekly magazine Ogonyok published pictures of the drowned officers, but nothing was said about the ratings who died along with them.
News of the shipwreck did spread by word of mouth, when the Navy had to inform hundreds of families that there was no hope their nearest and dearest might have been saved.
The relatives of the drowned tried desperately to get more information. There was not much to be had.
At this time, in 1914, Helsingin Sanomat was Finland's most important media outlet, the country's largest daily newspaper.
Two days after the disaster, on Tuesday October 13th, there was a small one-column piece in the paper under the headline "Pallada sunk with all hands".
The number of victims was not given.
A couple of days later, there was a follow-up article that described the course of events at sea.
At the end of the piece - most certainly on the orders of the authorities - was tagged a curious sentence: "It is a terrible shame to have lost a cruiser and her drowned crew, but the loss of one ageing cruiser will have no adverse effect on the outcome of our military actions in the Baltic Sea."
This same frighteningly blunt approach was maintained in later reports.
The newspaper handled the fate of the Pallada briefly and on only five occasions.
Six months on, on March 31st 1915, the subject was finally dropped - for nearly a century.
In the very last article, the Helsingin Sanomat journalist even had the nerve to claim that despite the loss of the Pallada and her crew of 600, the Russian Baltic Fleet had "as a whole" become stronger rather than weaker.
This was a complete travesty of the truth.
The sinking of the Pallada, a brand-new vessel that had recently earned its spurs in the Magdeburg incident and was anything but obsolete or "ageing", was the first major naval defeat for the Russians in the entire war, and a huge blow to navy morale.
The Times of London, on the other hand, was able to put the defeat into a proper context a few days after the sinking: it was a turning point in the naval war.
The Times journalist took the view that the destruction of the Pallada by a direct hit from a torpedo indicated that the German submarines were capable of operating effectively in larger sea-areas.
The British were particularly concerned about the enormous fire-power of the torpedoes, because in this instance a single strike had been able to rip apart something as large as an 8,000-tonne armoured cruiser.
In the German capital Berlin, the news of the sinking of the Pallada was met with much jubilation.
Taking out Russia's largest cruiser in this spectacular fashion was a major triumph of the new military technology.
Kapitänleutnant Egewolf von Berckheim, the commander of the U-26, became an instant war-hero.
When the submarine returned to its pen in Gdansk after the victory, there was a congratulatory telegram waiting from none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II himself.
Capt. von Berckheim - and his entire crew - received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class.
This was an exceptional gesture, and the first Iron Cross of the conflict awarded to the German Baltic Fleet.
But the war was only just getting started.
After landing the big fish of the Pallada, submarine U-26 continued its forays in the Baltic.
Under her young commander, the sub managed to wreak destruction on a large scale: in the course of a year she sank five Russian ships - the large armoured cruiser Pallada, one large minelayer, and three merchant vessels.
At the end of August 1915, the U-26 was again on patrol in the Gulf of Finland when she suddenly vanished.
The Germans tried to find out what had happened to their submarine, but without any notable success.
The craft simply disappeared, possibly after a close encounter with a Russian naval mine, and nobody has been able to determine where she went down.
The fate of the cruiser Pallada was forgotten in the fog of war, in spite of the fact that she carried some 600 men to the bottom with her.
She was not alone, of course: in WWI the Russians lost a total of 37 vessels to enemy action in the waters off Finland.
All the same, the loss of life in these other incidents came to fewer than 300 men all told.
For eight decades, the sinking of the Pallada was the worst maritime disaster to occur in Finnish waters.
Only when the cruise ferry MS Estonia went down in an autumn storm in 1994 were more lives lost at sea.
A total of 859 passengers and crew drowned that night.
In terms of size, the Estonia was a rather larger ship than the Pallada, at 155 metres and 15,600 GRT.
Several monuments have been erected to the victims of the Estonia disaster, and the dead are remembered each year on September 28th, the anniversary of the sinking.
Nothing has been built to the memory of those who drowned on the Pallada, and they have not been remembered in any shape or form - not in Finland, nor in the Soviet Union back in the day, or in Russia, or in Estonia.
Over the decades, even the place of her sinking was forgotten.
The Pallada acquired a semi-legendary reputation amongst a small coterie of naval history buffs and wreck-divers. The wreck was somewhere far out in the open sea, and buried so deep that it was impossible to get at.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print in the October 2012 issue of the Kuukausiliite monthly supplement
In Part II of this article (linked below), the wreck is nevertheless rediscovered by a Finnish team of divers...
More on this subject:
PART II: Rediscovery
EPILOGUE: A grieving mother's request
The Baltic Sea is a treasure chamber of shipwrecks (8.10.2012)
Juminda, 28.8.1941: To the memory of the drowned - all 12,000 of them (7.9.2010)
Shipwrecks off coast of Helsinki contain oil, mercury and explosives (5.9.2006)
Russian cruiser Pallada (1906) (Wikipedia)
Nordic and Baltic Wrecks and Shipfinds
The Pallada at Steelnavy.com
Cityofart.net: The Bayan Class of Armoured Cruisers
Blueprints.com: The Pallada (1906)
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat