Opinion: March 1944 Tallinn bombing anniversary dignified commemoration ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Saturday saw the 75th anniversary of the March attack on Tallinn by Soviet bomber planes. An installation entitled ''Images of Memory'' in Tallinn's Freedom Square, drawing on materials from the city archive and the Tallinn City Museum, under the direction of Loone Ots and presented by Anne Velt, featuring performances by actors Liis Haab, Katrin Valkna, Iivi Lepik, Tarvo Krall and funded by the city government, took place in the capital (see gallery above).

In the evening, a memorial ceremony was also held in the city centre cemetery, in the Juhkentali district of the capital, and candles were lit in Harju Street in the Old Town, site of major bombing damage during the raid. Tours of air raid shelters in the Old Town's subterranean bastion tunnels also took place on Saturday.

The Estonian media is rightly focussing on commemorating the event from a human-interest perspective. For instance, daily Postimees has published reminiscenes of the event, recounted by the mother of singer Siiri Sisask.

But what was the nature of the March bombing and how does it, in brief, compare with other air raids of the era? While its scale wasn't immense, the dignified commemoration of the event points to its significance to Estonians, as well as its status as a borderline war crime.

Night of the 9 March, 1944

The raid was not the first to hit the city during World War Two; both Soviet and Luftwaffe planes had struck before, and during the first Soviet occupation of 1940, red airforce planes flew from Tallinn to bomb Helsinki in the opening stages of the Winter War.

According to the recently-published Estonia: a Modern History by Neil Taylor (2018), 300 Soviet aircraft attacked Tallinn on the night of 9 March, killing around 600 people and making far more, some 20,000, homeless.

Other sources state the Soviets dropped a little over 3,000 bombs, split roughly 50/50 between high explosives and incendiaries - extremely unpleasant devices to be on the receiving end of, through the course of the raid.

Comparisons with other World War Two raids

Compare this with the July 1943 bombing of Hamburg, Germany, pointedly entitled Operation Gomorrah, which lasted around a week and saw waves of hundreds of British Royal Airforce (RAF) bombers, including the ubiquitous Avro Lancaster, and similar numbers of United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) planes, dropping thousands of tonnes of bombs on the city (over 2,300 tonnes were dropped on 27 July alone).

Over 42,000 people, predominantly civilians, lost their lives in the course of the Hamburg-Altona raids.

Similar figures apply for other famous (conventional) air raids by the western allies, including Dresden, where around 1,300 RAF and USAAF bombers killed around 25,000 people, in February 1945.

Exactly a year and a day after the Tallinn raid, just 300 USAAF bombers carried out one of the most economical such attacks, under the tutelage of Commander Curtis LeMay, over Tokyo, Japan, leading to as many as 100,000 deaths and a million made homeless.

Clearly the Tallinn raid is dwarfed in comparison, though not quite as much as first glance might imply.

Tallinn's population at the time, whilst difficult to pin down in the confusion of war and impending occupation, would have been smaller than it is today (circa 450,000). In 1925 it was recorded at around 119,000; by 1959, under Soviet occupation, it had swelled to close to 300,000, according to some figures. Taking a very cautious mid-point and bearing in mind large numbers of people would have both left the city, due to war conscription, evacuation, and the earlier Soviet deportation of 1940, and possibly flooded into it as war refugees, let's say it was around 200,000 in March 1945.

That compares with 1.7 million for Hamburg at the time, and possibly over a million in Dresden in February 1945, famously swelled by huge numbers of war refugees at the time the allies attacked. Tokyo, then as now, was on another scale, with a population nearly three times that of Estonia today, at 3.5 million (though less than half its pre-war population), in March 1945.

Tallinn raid part of a very different strategy

This gives us figures of around 0.3% of Tallinn's population losing their lives in the March 1944 Soviet raid, compared with 2.5-3% of the populations of Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo in the raids outlined above. A very significant proportion of the populace, possibly as much as 10% using our estimate above, was additionally made homeless.

A major factor concerning the scale of events is the differing nature and military doctrines of the major powers involved. The western allies were engaging in long-range, strategic bombing, under men like LeMay, and Arthur Harris of the RAF, with the dual intention of knocking out axis industry and breaking civilian morale. They had the planes to do it as well: not only the Lancaster, but four-engined bombers like the B-17 Flying Fortress, capable of carrying much heavier payloads than anything which had gone before, as well as some very effective lighter bombers.

The bombing of Tallinn, by contrast, came as part of the overall thrust into Estonia by the Soviet armies, in turn part of its vast push into central and eastern Europe in its attritional defeat of Nazi Germany. The raid took place just a few days after the Battle of Narva (itself far more heavily bombed, practically razed to the ground over a period of several days) and the breaching of Estonia's eastern border, though the Soviet land advance thereafter got bogged down through much of the rest of 1944. The Soviets made use of smaller, tactical bomber planes like the Ilyushin Il-4 and the Petlyakov Pe-2, mirroring to an extent tactics they'd faced themselves with the Stukas and Junkers-88s of the Nazi invasion of their own territory nearly three years before, and working cohesively with land forces.

Tallinn's Estonia Opera and Ballet House after the March 1944 raid. Source: Estonica.org/wikimedia commons

A closer parallel, then, might be drawn with the Luftwaffe's bombing on British cities from 1940 onwards. This was again using only smaller, twin-engined tactical bombers, most famously blitzing London, but also focussing on big industrial centres up and down the country, as well as the notorious Baedeker raids, named after a series of guidebooks and vectored on culturally significant towns like Bath and Exeter.

Comparably-sized air raid on British city

The November 1940 bombing of the midlands English city of Coventry, roughly comparable in size to Tallinn, was perhaps inevitable and a peach of a target from a teutonic perspective - both an industrial centre and a city which, prior to the raid, boasted many late-medieval buildings. The raid involved a little over 500 German planes which dropped at least several hundred tonnes of bombs over the course of the night (though facing stronger air defences), killing almost exactly the same number of people as in Tallinn in the March 1944 attack. Over 4,000 homes were destroyed, so we can assume a slightly lower figure for numbers of homeless as Tallinn. Much is made of the bombing of Coventry, in the UK, though perhaps with a more rumbunctious and mocking tone, than would be the case with the March bombing of Tallinn; clearly both should be commemorated, with the latter a near war crime.

Whilst Coventry is ''twinned'' with Dresden precisely because the misfortune to befall both cities during the war came from the air, the difference in scale is so massive it would be more appropriate for it to be twinned with Tallinn.

Fifth column in Estonia

Nonetheless, this was hardly going to happen in the four and a half decades of occupation which followed Tallinn's bombing by Soviets, Britain's allies during the war, however, and there are other key differences in the nature of the attack. German spies were no doubt active in British cities during the war, but the scale of pro-Soviet saboteur activities in Tallinn leading up to, and during, the raid of March 1945 resulted in city water pumping stations being put out of action, with large numbers of wooden buildings burning down as a result of the raid. Conversely, both military and industrial inflicted damage was minimal; the Soviets intentionally used incendiary devices on residential areas of wooden buildings (as the Americans did over Tokyo), explaining the relatively high number of people made homeless by the raid.

Another curious aspect of the March 1945 raid by the Soviet Union recalls a refined version of the Baedeker approach noted above. While much of the Old Town was left intact, some buildings of cultural interest were hit, presumably deliberately in the case of the sprawling Opera and Ballet House, one of the most famous bricks-and-mortar victims of the raid. This relative precision may have been partly a demonstration – the left-hand side of Harju Street, or instance, walking in the direction of the Town Hall Square, is an open park with a small ice rink, where older buildings once stood, and at least one post-war building incongruously graces the opposite side of the street.

I have heard anecdotal reports that this was the site of Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation, but in any case the Soviets were also clearly wanting not to damage their ''prize'' too much; the churches and other historical buildings in Tallinn's Old Town were put to a variety of secular and communist-related uses after the bulk of the occupying forces arrived.

Air raids over neighbours to north and south

The Latvian capital, Riga, also experienced extensive Soviet bomb damage, though over time and not concentrated in one single raid. Soviet air raids over Helsinki proved less deadly too, with around 100 people being killed in the most destructive raid in February 1944, though the bulk of the Soviet ordnance ended up in the sea. The Finnish airforce was also active in the aftermath of the Tallinn raid, pursuing Soviet planes to Leningrad, bombing airfields there, and shooting down over 30 Soviet planes.

Saturday's events in Tallinn are thus very much appropriate and in proportion to the incident they commemorate. The way the raid was conducted, its purpose and coordination with the fifth column on the ground are something which people can come to terms with more freely than under the Soviet system, naturally; the targeting of civilians pushes it into war crimes territory, not on the scale of Dresden - itself often hailed as a war crime, as well as Harris and LeMay and others being deemed war criminals - but worth wider attention internationally.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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