The Tragic Story of Submarine M-200 Myest
On the 21st of November 1956, the M-200 Myest (Месть, meaning vengeance or revenge) collided with a Russian destroyer and sunk to the bottom of the Baltic.
The M-200 Myest was a Malyutka-class small torpedo submarine of the XV series, built in Leningrad in 1940. The XV series was an extended version with six watertight compartments for a crew of 32 men: four officers and 28 enlisted.
The small submarine was 50.5 metres long (162 feet), about the size of a Boeing 767. The XV series was 11% longer and had 37% more displacement than its predecessor. The safe diving depth was just 60-70 metres (around 200 feet), minimal even by World War II standards. For context, 200 feet is the depth of the Deep Dive pool in Dubai or the height of the largest recorded Douglas fir tree.
The physical details and more are available on wwiiafterwwii’s page on the forgotten M-XV class submarines.
The crew accommodations were harsh and the M-XV class could only stay at sea for a maximum of 26 days; usually 1½ weeks was considered the limit. Despite the hardships, WWII Soviet submariners liked this design as they felt it was uncomplicated and safe.
Construction started on the M-200 Myest in Leningrad in 1940; the submarine was launched in 1943, the first of only four XV series to be completed during the war. After World War II, it was attached to the submarine division of the Baltic Fleet, based in Paldiski.
There are a lot of discrepancies in the details of what happened on the evening of the 21st of November 1956. The M-200 Myest had surfaced and left the sheltered water near the shore (roadstead). It was either travelling from Tallinn to Paldiski or from Paldiski to Liepaja when it needed to pass another ship or, according to some references, it was specifically travelling to rendevous with the other ship. That other ship is consistently referred to as the Statny, which is problematic as that was a Russian destroyer which is listed as sunk in 1941.
Now, according to Stalin’s Ocean-Going Fleet, Statny was raised in 1957 and towed to Tallinn for scrapping, a year after the accident. Another source refers to the Soviet mine hunter Statnyi which could be the destroyer or another ship altogether; sadly there are no references for further detail. All I can say for sure is that there was a large ship off of the northern coast of Estonia near where the submarine was manoeuvring.
Visibility was clear; everyone agrees that the submarine and ship had each other in sight. The Captain Third Rank had the conn, in command of the submarine; one source says that another, more experienced captain was below having his supper.
What happened next depends on the reference. Either the submarine attempted to pass the ship on the wrong side or it attempted to draw up alongside the ship for the rendezvous and accidentally cut in front of it.
Then, disaster. One version is that Statny tried twice to turn away from the submarine but Myest continued to come around and struck the ship. Others claim that Statny rammed the submarine. What’s clear is that the bow of the ship collided with the aft starboard side of the submarine with such force that it tore the submarine open.
Eight crew members on the submarine’s bridge were thrown into the sea. Sailors on the ship threw life buoys and preservers, saving six of the men, including the captain. The aft compartments 5 and 6 flooded immediately, killing the men stationed there. Almost two dozen men were still on board, trapped in three compartments as the submarine sank.
The alarm was sounded at Tallinn naval base and all available vessels were dispatched towards Myest. Meanwhile, the crew trapped in the submarine managed to release an emergency buoy connected to the submarine with a hermetically sealed phone line, which meant that the rescuers were able to establish communications with the ship. There was one surviving officer on board, who became the contact.
Conditions in the submarine were bad. Two of the compartments were leaking and quickly flooded, killing everyone within. Compartment one, the forward torpedo room, held secure. But the Baltic waters in November are cold and the temperature within the compartment quickly dropped and as the other compartments flooded, the pressure in compartment one increased.
Historian Mati Õun described the scene in the Estonian Public Broadcasting news .
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.
Meanwhile, above the waves, the leaders of the Baltic Fleet and the Soviet Navy argued about who was in charge. The first priority was to get air into the submarine. Myest had a pneumatic valve on her hull for exactly this purpose. However, Soviet reforms had cut military personnel as a cost-saving exercise and there were no experienced divers. Despite the risks, a young and inexperienced diver was dispatched with an air hose, who lost his life trying to connect the air hose to the valve. Some accounts mention a second diver who was killed in another attempt to connect the hose. Refusing to risk more men, the rescuers sent divers to Paldiski for specialised training in the submarine and how to connect the air hose to the pneumatic valve.
By now, only the six men in compartment one remained of the twenty-eight who had gone down with the ship.
At four am, still with no supplementary oxygen, the men asked to use their escape equipment to leave the wreck one by one. They had five oxygen tanks and it was possible for a man to crawl through a shaft, sealing it behind him, and then opening an emergency hatch and escaping the submarine, closing the hatch for the next person to enter the shaft.
This was a dangerous manoeuvre and the senior officers rejected the idea, ordering the men to remain in the compartment and await rescue. After hours of meetings, they had come up with a plan to slide cables under the submarine and drag it to shallow water. There, the submariners could escape through the emergency hatch with much less risk.
The surviving Myest crew clung to a pipe on the ceiling, dehydrated and half-frozen. The officer on board quipped that perhaps it would be good to have a few foreign journalists witness the rescue effort. He no doubt wanted to spur the officials above into action but it did not appear to have the desired effect.
The following day, the rescuers abandoned the previous plan of dragging the submarine with cables. Instead, they hoped that heavy-lift ships, designed to transport heavy cargo, could physically lift the submarine to the surface. Meanwhile, the weather deteriorated into a storm. The rescue vessels, which were anchored at the site, were dragged away. Then the telephone cable connecting the communications buoy to the submarine was severed; some say because of the storm, others say that the Soviet officials, now concerned that foreign powers might find out about the disaster, moved the buoy onto a trawler to ensure that no one could listen in.
The rescue was a disaster. They could no longer communicate with the crew. Worse, no one had plotted the location of the buoy so now they no longer knew where, exactly, Myest was. Inside the compartment, the six men were becoming weaker as they struggled with cold, dehydration and lack of oxygen. With no idea what was happening outside, they decided that they had waited long enough. They had no choice but to disobey the orders to wait and attempt to rescue themselves via the escape hatch.
Five of the men donned the remaining oxygen tanks; the officer went without. The first crew member, a midshipman who was likely believed to be in the best physical shape, crawled through the shaft to the escape hatch.
It was three in the morning when the rescuers located the submarine again. The weather had calmed and divers were quickly dispatched to inspect the hull. There, they found the corpse of the midshipman. He was halfway out of the hatch with his mask torn off. Later reports, referring to the autopsy, said that he was suffering from CO² poisoning and had died of asphyxiation or a heart attack or both.
The remaining men had died in the compartment, clustered around the shaft, waiting for their turn.
Six days later, Myest was recovered from the depths by a salvage pontoon. The disaster was quickly covered up. The captain of the submarine, who had been rescued after the initial impact, and the captain of the ship that tore through the hull, were charged with criminal negligence. Both men were sentenced to three years hard labour.
The bodies recovered from the sea, and three empty caskets to signify the remaining three missing men, were buried at a site near Paldiski South Harbour which became known as the Paldiski Submariners’ Cemetery. Janno, a long-time resident of Paldiski (and my friend) remembers the original memorial in the forest on the outskirts of town.
The captain of the submarine moved to Paldiski after finishing his sentence and, as per his wishes, he was buried at the site of the memorial of the M-200 Myest, alongside his crew. A doctor who had been part of the rescue operation also asked to be buried in the cemetery.
In 2004, all of the graves were excavated to make way for the South Harbour. The men, along with their captain and presumably the doctor, were reinterred in the Paldiski Orthodox Cemetery along with a memorial stone. The Paldiski Submariner’s Cemetery is now covered in concrete.
Note that all of this is from secondary sources with significant discrepancies from each other. I have used machine translation for Estonian and Russian text, which could be an additional source of error. Here are the references so that someone researching the subject for themselves can see the original details:
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_submarine_M-200 (citations needed)
- https://et.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paldiski_allveelaevnike_kalmistu (Estonian)
- http://www.deepstorm.ru/DeepStorm.files/17-45/m%20XV/m-200/m-200.htm (Russian)
- https://web.archive.org/web/20110806214707/http://submarine.id.ru/memory/M200.htm (Russian)
- https://woodsman.forum2x2.ru/t56-topic (Russian)
Also, Russian speakers can watch the thirteen-minute Insight documentary on Myest (Mest) on ERR.
A submarine is an odd subject for an aviation website but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been following the news of Titan, the submersible which imploded on a deep dive near the Titanic last week. I find it amazing that it is possible to sell passenger seats for an experimental craft, especially after safety concerns and lack of testing had already been revealed. I decided that I would rather tell a different tragic story, one where every submariner on board has my deepest sympathy and respect. I discovered the memorial at the Russian cemetery near the train station in Paldiski and knew that I wanted to know more.