Gallery: Two-week international exercise clears up 127 maritime explosives

An international mine-clearing operation in Estonian waters ended Thursday. Over 120 pieces of ordnance, the bulk of them dating from World War Two, were discovered and disposed of during that time. Various shipwrecks were also discovered during the exercise.

Of the 127 pieces of ordnance found during the exercise, dubbed Operation Open Spirit 2021, 93 were German World War Two-era sea mines, while seven unexploded torpedoes from the same war, and other ordnance, were located.

Primary combatants during the war at sea in the Baltic 1939-1945 were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both of which occupied Estonia at various times, as well as Finland and, early on in the war, Poland. While neutral, Sweden's navy and merchant marine was also active in the area. Older ordnance, wrecks and other detritus from the Estonian War of Independence, World War One and even earlier is also sometimes discovered, while the Soviet Union ringed much of Estonia's coastline with sea mines during its occupation of the country.

A total of just under 200 sq km of sea was surveyed, while the wrecks of both vessels and planes were found by the navies involved (see gallery).

The Estonian Navy (Merevägi) forwards details on such wrecks, including their precise location and any sonar images taken, to the relevant authorities.

These are in the first instance the Transport Board (Transpordiamet) from a practical side, and the National Heritage Board (Muinsuskaitseamet ) from the historical value perspective.

A Belgian Navy minesweeper, the Crocus, emerged "winner" in the exercise, having found a total of 24 pieces of ordnance, just one more than the Merevägi's own ENS Ugandi.

In the weeks and months preceding Open Spirit, the Ugandi had taken part in exercises with the Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One (SNMCMG1), along with allied vessels. The group even took the opportunity to visit one of Estonia's many islands, during the exercise.

Two other Merevägi ships were involved in Open Spirit, the mine-hunter, ENS Sakala, and the support vessel the ENS Wambola, as well as divers, headquarters staff and other personnel.

Overall commander of the operation, Lt. Gen. Mati Terve, said that while the 127 explosives cleared may not seem like a huge number given around 80,000 such items are though to still remain floating around the Baltic, the area covered had been large, and the operation had been a success.

A total of nine nations took part, along with Estonia, including nearest neighbors Latvia and Lithuania, Germany and the U.S., and around 900 sailors were involved.

As noted, Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One (SNMCMG1) was also on hand, having arrived a couple of weeks earlier.

The civilian Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) also provided security patrols with its vessel, the General Kurvits.

Naval cooperation on mine removal between the three Baltic States is almost as long-standing as the three countries' restored independence, with Operation Baltic Sweep starting in 1995 and being renamed Open Spirit two years later.

Each of the three countries hosts the operation on a rotational basis. Estonia's previous last Open Spirit took place in 2018, twenty years after hosting it the first time.

The Merevägi is operationally a part of the Estonian Defense Forces, with mine-hunters and layers such as the Ugandi and the force's flagship, the ENS Admiral Cowan, forming the core of the fleet.

The navy recently took delivery of two locally-built patrol vessels.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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