The submarine M-200 sank near the city of Paldiski around 60 years ago – during peacetime, in the conditions of good visibility and with an experienced captain on board. The findings of the investigation were classified. ETV+ program "Insight" helped shed light on the circumstances.
"This story was so tragic for the residents of Paldiski… But it was our story," a submarine officer's widow, journalist Nelli Kuznetsova recalls.
The rescue operation for submarine M-200 and its crew was a disaster as both the people on board the submarine and rescue operatives perished.
Shipwreck under mysterious circumstances
The M-200 was a Malyutka-class small torpedo submarine. It was built in Leningrad in 1940, served in the Northern Fleet and was attached to the Paldiski submarine brigade after World War II.
The submarine left the Tallinn roadstead while surfaced on November 21, 1956. Moving toward the submarine that was also referred to as Mest in the opposite direction was Soviet mine hunter Statnyi.
The circumstances of the collision that followed were described to "Insight" in detail by Estonian military historian professor Mati Õun who has published several books on the Soviet navy.
"That's the Suurupi Peninsula and here we have [the island of] Naissaar. And here comes Statnyi. The first buoy is here, with the Suurupi lighthouse situated here," Õun narrates, tracing a line on the chart with a sharp pencil. "M-200 turns. I have marked where it went down. They noticed each other from far away. At a distance of around 13 kilometers!"
It was impossible for the two vessels not to notice each other – searchlights were switched on and the weather was clear – but for some reason, the two ships did not have enough room to pass each other safely. The impact on sections five and six of the submarine was so strong that it basically cut Mest in half. M-200 sank aft first after it was rammed by the mine hunter.
Some people are born lucky
A general alarm was sounded at the Tallinn naval base a few minutes later and rescuers and all available vessels dispatched to help the submarine.
"Some people were on the submarine's bridge and fell overboard at the moment of impact. Sailors of mine hunter Statnyi started throwing them life buoys and preservers. Those who did not drown were pulled on board," specialist of the Estonian Maritime Museum Roman Matkiewicz said. "Only six men survived in the submerged portion of the submarine, while everyone in sections five and six was immediately killed by the impact. The survivors were in sections two and three and section one at the bow of the vessel. The submarine went down with them."
At first, rescuers could communicate with the people still on the submarine as the crew managed to float a signal buoy. The signal buoy has a phone line to the submarine in its hermetically sealed interior. The contact on board the M-200 was the only surviving officer, senior assistant commander Sr. Lt. Vladislav Kolpakov.
"It is terrible what happened on that ship"
During their first night, the crew still had oxygen, strength and hope of being rescued, but time was working against them. The conditions deteriorated with every passing minute. Nelli Kuznetsova and her husband knew Kolpakov well, which is why she remembers the events well.
"It was late fall. Half-frozen people were hanging on in an almost sunken submarine," she recalls. "It gets cold pretty quickly. As long as the ship's mechanisms are operational, it keeps the vessel warm. But it gets very cold very quickly once they stop working. Let me recall that it was November," Matkiewicz explains.
It soon turned out that sections two and three had been breached and were filling with water. By the night of November 21, they were completely flooded that caused the pressure to start going up in sections that still had people in them. Mati Õun said that air is compressed in sections as the vessel sinks.
"If the vessel is vertical, as opposed to tipping over horizontally, a pocket of air is formed under the ceiling, while it's physically very demanding to be there," the professor explains. "There is neither light nor heat. It is pitch black, the vessel is heavily alist. People were grabbing onto everything they could not to fall."
Despite the depressing situation, there was no panic. Witnesses say Kolpakov kept his crew motivated and from losing hope.
"The radio operators were communicating what Slava said, while he even managed to crack jokes," Kuznetsova recalls.
The rescue goes horribly wrong
The people on board the submarine realized that their rescue was mostly in their own hands. They prepared the section they were in for individually exiting the sub and asked for permission. The bow of the submarine had a shaft through which sailors could exit one by one. Of course, such independent disembarkation is dangerous, especially for people who are weak from hunger, dehydrated and suffering from a lack of oxygen.
"You need to climb in the shaft, fill it with water and then open the next hatch. One has to wear a special breathing apparatus and an oxygen tank," Mati Õun described.
One needs to come to the surface slowly as the pressure changing abruptly could kill a person. But the crew was not allowed to exit the sub. There were a lot of superiors present by then and the officers dared not take responsibility for a risky emergency exit.
The rescue operation was stalling, while time was working against the sailors suffering from oxygen deprivation. Ideally, the submarine could have been raised using a special device.
"The best thing would have been for the special rescue vessel Kommuna to come to their aid. The Kommuna was a catamaran complete with special cranes meant for lifting up submarines. However, the vessel was stationed at Kronstadt and would not have arrived on time," Matkiewicz said.
Such vessels are often far away when one needs them. "When Kursk went down, they also had a special submersible device that could have saved her, but it was far away and did not reach them in time," Kuznetsova said.
To make sure the crew would stay alive until they are rescued, it was necessary to pump air into the submarine. The attempt failed and the crew faced asphyxiation. The task of connecting air lines to the vessel fell to a young and inexperienced diver who did not know the ship or the air hoses. He perished having failed to supply the ship with oxygen.
Two rescuers died during the first day. The operation was suspended and the divers were sent to the Paldiski training center to learn about similar submarines and how to get air on board. While they eventually succeeded in half-way connecting a single air line to the vessel, it was not enough. People who witnessed the event, including old officers, agreed that such unprofessional and helpless efforts were the result of Nikita Khrushchev's military reform.
Mati Õun said that it was around that time the Soviet Union set about building ballistic missiles and the country needed more money for the arms race. That is why army personnel was cut by two million people, including experienced divers. Now, when it proved necessary to rescue people, no one knew how.
"There was a lot of machinery and a lot of superiors at sea for the rescue operation. The head of the Baltic Fleet was present, as was the supreme commander of the Soviet navy. This added to the chain of command and caused decisions to take a long time to make," Matkiewicz said in terms of why rescue efforts were so slow.
National security takes precedence
By the end of the second day and night, people were holding on to a pipe on the ceiling of the bow section, with the rest of the ship submerged. Kolpakov was likely beginning to realize that they would not be rescued or allowed to exit the ship. Witnesses recall that Kolpakov said, when talking to those on the ground, that it would be good to have a few foreign journalists witness the rescue effort. This phrase, uttered either as a joke or out of desperation, merited a prompt reaction. Rescuers were ordered to lift the signal buoy out of the water and onto a trawler to make sure no one could listen in. A KGB officer was put on the line. However, instructions categorically prohibited lifting the buoy out of the water as putting even the slightest stress on the thin wire could cause the signal to be lost.
That is precisely what happened: there was a storm and the buoy came loose. Waves carried the rescue vessels away and caused them to lose sight of the submarine. The rescue effort resumed the next night, a full 24 hours later.
As the rescue ships were looking for the lost submarine, Vladislav Kolpakov decided the crew would attempt to exit the sub through the escape hatch while they still had some strength left. It would be a very difficult undertaking without help from divers. Another problem was that they only had five breathing apparatuses for six people. Kolpakov was left without one. The most resilient sailor – Vassiljev – was sent out first.
No one survived
"The submarine was found again at 3.43 a.m. Divers who went to inspect the hull discovered the open hatch and a dead sailor in it. He was wearing emergency gear, with his individual breathing apparatus switched on," Matkiewicz said.
Vassiljev was hanging half-way out of the hatch with his mask torn off. He had died of asphyxiation or heart failure and blocked the exit with his body.
Nelli Kuznetsova recalls in a pained voice. "They were clustered around the apparatus through which they were to exit. They were dead. Slava Kolpakov was the last and had bit into the sleeve of his uniform as he died..."
The disaster hung over the families and friends of the sailors for long years.
Kuznetsova said that it was not customary to talk about such things in those times. "Even people in Tallinn did not know about the submarine. There were no psychologists, no one saw to the families. Everyone was left to their own devices."
Investigation results were classified and it remained a mystery why two vessels in perfect sight of each other could not pass each other by safely. Both ships noticed the other in time and there was plenty of time for appropriate maneuvers. But something went wrong at the last minute. Those who wrote about the disaster later noted that the M-200 had recently gotten a new commander who was not familiar with the ship's nuances.
Mati Õun disagrees. The commander was a seasoned submariner. According to his version, the accident could have been caused by a minor stroke that has been known to make people mix up their left and right hands. While this is just a theory, it sounds plausible.
"I have no other way of explaining it," Õun said.
The commanders of both ships were handed three-year prison sentences as a result of the investigation.
Nelli Kuznetsova remembers the commander of the M-200. "He returned to Paldiski after he had done his time. He lived there and died there and it is also where he is buried. Next to his crew."
Even though the inscription on the crew's tombstone reads "To the heroic crew," none of the men who served on submarine M-200 were decorated and the failed rescue operation was forgotten for decades.
Editor: Marcus Turovski