Wreckage tells a story of heroism from the past

Helen Mihelson
, reporter
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Wreck of a Soviet bomber.
Wreck of a Soviet bomber. Photo: Jouni Polkko

A few dozen kilometers northwest of the island of Hiiumaa lies the submerged wreck of a Soviet bomber the story following the discovery of which trumps many an adventure novel.

It is not exactly commonplace for an aircraft that crashed into the sea to be found in one piece and good enough condition for the mystery surrounding it to be revealed down to its most minute details. That is just what happened a little while ago.

Studies of the seabed for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline came across a secret the Gulf of Finland had been keeping for over 70 years. 3D imaging suggested something resembling an aircraft to be lying right in the mouth of the gulf.

To shed light on the matter, the Finnish aviation museum invited the international Badewanne team of experienced divers to study the find.

The crew included Estonian Ivar Treffner (40). Treffner is in charge of the Police and Border Guard Board’s maritime rescue coordination center on workdays and does technical diving in his spare time.

His 18 years of diving experience have given him skills few in Estonia and even neighboring countries can match. “We were thrilled to go (to examine the wreckage – H. M.). It’s exiting!” Treffner said.

Surprise in the cockpit

The WWII-era wreck lies at a depth of 100 meters diving to which is no simple matter. Amateurs usually dive up to a depth of 40 meters as anything beyond that requires experience and special training.

Such a dangerous undertaking naturally requires thorough preparation. Chances of critical failure need to be minimized before leaving the port.

The dive was a success: divers spent 15 minutes underwater and managed to take photographs of the wreckage and find the aircraft’s serial number. This made it possible to scour the archives for information.

The front of the plane was buried in mud, and the divers were surprised to find the craft intact. But the submerged wreck held an even bigger surprise.

“It was evident the cockpit had been opened. The emergency lever was in the open position,” Treffner said. “It clearly meant someone had gotten out or at least tried to.”

This made the mysterious wreck even more mysterious – is it possible the crew made it out? How did the plane end up on the seabed in the first place?

The Finnish aviation museum and other acquaintances with access to archives helped piece together the puzzle. Ivar Treffner told the story of events 74 years ago.

The story of a bomber crew

The September of 1944 was cold and clammy, while the situation in the Gulf of Finland was the opposite – piping hot. Soviet troops were closing in on Estonia and German vessels were scrambling to ferry troops out of the region.

The war had been going on for years and the Gulf of Finland had been mined from one end to the other. Since no one really knew how to avoid the mines anymore – the likelihood of hitting one was just so great – the Soviet Union decided not to deploy its navy. Its ships were left in Kronstadt, and the air force was ordered to take the lead.

An airport near Leningrad saw two planes of the 51st Mine Torpedo Air Regiment of the Soviet Union take off on September 18. The duo was made up of a torpedo bomber piloted by Aleksandr Bogachev and a Douglas A-20G bomber.

The latter’s crew was made up of pilot and commander Gusman Bikmeevych Miftahudinov, navigator Gleb Mikhailovich Lokalov and gunner-radio operator Frolovych Axenov.

All three were young and inexperienced. 22-year-old Miftahudinov had started active duty three years earlier but had only been flying for two months.

The planes noticed two German vessels – transport ship Moltkefels sent to Tallinn to evacuate people and minesweeper M151 as its escort – the same afternoon.

Miftahudinov descended and released his bombs a few hundred meters from the ship. The bombs flew like drakestones a few dozen meters above sea level. The attack was a disaster as neither ship was damaged, while the German minesweeper’s new anti-aircraft guns hit Miftahudinov’s plane. The plane flew north for a few dozen kilometers before crash landing into the sea.

The crew survived despite the considerable impact. Miftahudinov lost consciousness for a time, while navigator Lokalov broke his arm and suffered other injuries. Gunner Aksenov was luckiest and managed to get out of the plane first. He helped his crew out of the aircraft along with their life raft. That was not the end of the men’s misfortune, however, as the life raft failed to inflate. There was little left to do other than pump the raft full of air by hand and wait for rescue.

Help did not arrive – as we have already learned, the area was heavily mined. The men spent a total of seven days adrift before a Finnish patrol ship picked them up near Aland. The men were given first aid and transported to Helsinki from where they soon made their way back home.

Miftahudinov was ready to fly again in a few months’ time and plotted a course for the Gdansk Bay. His next attacked initially seemed like the jackpot he had been waiting for: his bombs hit a German steamer and sank it.

At that exact moment, Miftahudinov’s bomber was hit too. Both the commander and his crew were killed.

Bogachev, who piloted the second plane on September 18, went on to become a hero of the Soviet Union.