Royal Navy locates, images War of Independence-era wreck

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HMS Echo, a survey ship of the class of the same name. Source: MoD/Wikimedia commons

A ship from Britain's Royal Navy recently surveyed the wreck of one of its own vessels, which had sunk over 100 years ago, during the Estonian War of Independence.

HMS Cassandra, a C-Class cruiser, struck a mine off the coast of Saaremaa, while en route to Tallinn, on the night of December 4-5 1918, sinking quickly, with the loss of 11 lives from the 400-strong crew, the Royal Navy says.

The wreck was rediscovered and its presence formally announced over 10 years ago, by the Estonian Navy (Merevägi) and Estonian Maritime Museum (Meremuuseum).

Now, the Devonport-based HMS Echo, a survey vessel, was able to image Cassandra's wreck via multibeam echo sounding, revealing that she came to rest on her starboard side, with about 20 meters of her bow section missing.

HMS Cassandra was laid down during World War One, and commissioned into the Royal Navy in June 1917, in time to see active service in both that war and in the Baltic.

Royal Navy Surveyor P.O. Kirsty Warford said: "Of all the wrecks in the Baltic, I was most interested in HMS Cassandra. It was very sombre to see the images of the wreck appear as Echo sailed over the site where she had sunk, with the ship's company pausing to think of those who perished."

Vessel played role in Estonian independence

Cassandra was part of a Royal Navy force sent to the Baltic region in support of Estonian and Latvian independence and as part of an allied plan to intervene in the Russian Civil War, ongoing at the time.

Imperial Russia had been a British ally during World War One, which ended less than a month before the Cassandra met her demise, though the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 was followed by a peace treaty with Germany, which took Russia out of the war altogether.

Royal Navy action in delivering weapons and supplies, clearing mines and in engaging Red Russian vessels was key in preventing Tallinn from falling to the Bolsheviks, and ultimately Estonia winning the independence it had declared in February 1918, with the signing of the Tartu Peace Treaty nearly two years later.

Two Red Russian destroyers, the Avtroil and the Spartak, were captured by the Royal Navy and handed over to the Estonians, being renamed ENS Lennuk and ENS Vambola (the former was sold to the Peruvian Navy at a later date).

Two other wrecks of Royal Navy ships are also in the vicinity, both minesweepers, HMS Myrtle and HMS Gentian, which both suffered the same fate as Cassandra, on July 15 1919.

HMS Echo had been in the area through the early weeks of this year, and investigated several other wrecks in the vicinity, including MV Wilhelm Gustloff, a German transport ship torpedoed by the Soviet Navy in January 1945 while she was transporting civilians from the former East Prussia. That incident, at an estimated loss of 9,400 lives, is actually the largest loss of life of any ship's sinking in maritime history.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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