Warship Wednesday Nov. 16: Estonia’s national hero, AKA the Soviet’s immortal submarine

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday Nov. 16: Estonia’s national hero, AKA the Soviet’s immortal submarine


Here we see the Kalev-class allveelaev (coastal submarine minelayer) EML Lembit (1) of the Estonian Navy as she appears today on dry land in Tallinn. Curiously enough, the British-built sub was one of the most successful of the Soviet Navy.

Lembit (also Lambite, Lembito or Lembitus) is the elder of Sakala County and national hero who led the struggle of the Estonians against the German feudal lords in the 12th century and the name was seen as a no-brainer for a new Estonian Navy. Their first operational gunboat in 1918 when the country broke from the newly Bolshevik Russia was given the moniker. The country’s first naval combat, on 20 January 1919, was when they sent the gunboat Lembit (which had been the Russian Beiber, c. 1906, 990-tons) to suppress a pro-Bolshevik revolt on Saaremaa island. Lembit was scrapped in 1927, but her name would live on.

The mighty Estonian gunboat Lembit (1918-1927)

The mighty Estonian gunboat Lembit (1918-1927)

Two other Estonian surface ships, the Russian 1,260-ton Novik-class destroyers Spartak and Avtroil, had been captured by British cruisers Caradoc and Calypso and destroyers Vendetta, Vortigern and Wakeful 26 December 1918 and handed over to the Estonians in 1919 who later put them into service as Lennuk and Vambola (Wambola), respectively.


In 1933, the Estonians sold these two ships to *Peru as BAP Almirante Villar and Almirante Guise who were gearing up for  a conflict with Colombia that never emerged. (*Note: the Peruvians kept them in service, despite their Brown-Boveri steam turbines, Vulkan boilers, and Pulitov armament, until as late as 1952 and their hulks are now in scuttled condition off San Lorenzo)

With the money from the sale of the two pre-owned Russian destroyers (for $820,000), and national subscription of scrap metals and donations, the Estonian government contracted with Vickers and Armstrong Ltd. at Barrow-in-Furness for two small coastal submarines (Vickers hulls 705 and 706).

As the Estonian Navy only had a single surface warfare ship, the Sulev— which was the once scuttled former German torpedo boat A32— they were largely putting their naval faith in the two subs augmented by a half dozen small coastal mine warfare ships, a Meredessantpataljon marine battalion and some scattered Tsarist-era coastal defense installations.

Class leader Kalev and Lembit were ordered in May 1935, then commissioned in March and April 1937 respectively.


Small ships at just 195-feet overall, they were optimized for the shallow conditions of the Baltic– capable of floating on the surface in just 12 feet of water and submerging in 40. Their maximum submergence depth was 240 feet, though their topside and surfacing area was reinforced with 12mm of steel for operations in ice.

Their periscopes were made by Carl Zeiss, and their 40mm gun by contract to the Czech firm of Skoda.

While they did carry a quartet of 21-inch tubes and, if fully loaded and four reloads carried forward, would have eight steel fish to drop on a foe, her main armament was considered to be the 20 mines she could carry.

The Estonians purchased a total of 312 SSM (EMA) Vickers T Mk III anchored sea mines, each with a 330 pound charge and the ship’s 39-inch wide mine tubes were configured for them. These mines used electric fuzes and one, marked I / J-04, was lost in training in 1939, then later found by fishermen from Cape Letipea in 1989. Defused, it is on display at Tallin alongside Lembit. Besides one in a Russian museum, it is the only preserved Vickers T-III.


The mines were carried two each in 10 vertical tubes (5 per side).

Oddly enough, the torpedo tubes fitted with brass sleeves to change their diameter to accept smaller WWI-era 450mm torpedoes the Estonians had inherited from the Russians.

Lembits four tubes were sleeved to accept older 450mm torpedoes, though the Soviets removed the inserts to fire regular 533mm ones during the war. The torpedo room kept four reloads (note the cradle to the left) and 16 sailors bunked over the fish.

Lembit’s four tubes were sleeved to accept older 450mm torpedoes, though the Soviets removed the inserts to fire regular 533mm ones during the war. The torpedo room kept four reloads (note the cradle for one to the lower left) and 16 sailors– half the crew– bunked among the fish.

Their 40mm gun was specially sealed inside a pneumatic tube and could be ready to fire within 90 seconds of surfacing.

Close up of her neat-o 40mm Bofors which could withdraw inside the pressure hull. Word on the street is that the Soviet's first generation SLBM tubes owed a lot to this hatch design.

Close up of her neat-o 40mm Skoda-mdae Bofors which could withdraw inside the pressure hull. Word on the street is that the Soviet’s first generation SLBM tubes owed a lot to this hatch design.

The Estonians were rightfully proud of the two vessels when they arrived home in 1937.

Lembit on Baltic trials in 1937

Lembit on Baltic trials in 1937. Some 100 Estonian officers and men trained in Great Britain alongside Royal Navy sailors on HMs submarines in 1935-37 to jump start their undersea warfare program.

Lembit and her sister in Tallin, the pride of the Estonian Navy

Lembit and her sister in Tallin, the pride of the Estonian Navy

Another profile while in Estonian service

Another profile while in brief Estonian service, 1937-40

Lembit was the only Estonian submarine to ever fire her torpedoes, launching two at a training hulk in 1938.

Lembit was the only Estonian submarine to ever fire her torpedoes, launching two at a training hulk in 1938.

In early 1940, the Germans expressed interest in acquiring the submarines from neutral Estonia, which was rebuffed.

With no allies possible due to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of the year before and the Estonian internment of the Polish submarine ORP Orzeł, which escaped from Tallinn to the UK while the Soviets and Germans were battling Poland (with two guards from Lembit, Roland Kirikmaa and Boris Milstein aboard), Moscow demanded military bases on Estonian soil, threatening war if Estonia did not comply.

The Estonians signed a mutual defense agreement with the Soviets on 28 September 1939, which soon turned into an outright occupation and consumption by the Soviets on 6 August 1940. Her bosun, Herbert Kadajase, removed the ship’s emblem from her conning tower the night before and spirited it away, hiding it at his home.

Thus, the Estonian Navy was amalgamated into the Red Banner Fleet with the torpedo boat Sulev being handed to the Soviet Border Guard and the two British-made submarines cleared for combat.


This view of Lembit and her sister illustrate their “saddle” mine tubes amidships. The bulge on each side housed five mine tubes, each capable of holding two large ship-killing Vickers sea mines. “Allveelaev” is Estonian for submarine

Folded into the 1st Submarine Brigade of the Baltic Fleet, forward based in Liepaja, the ships were given almost fully Soviet Russian crews with a few Estonian veterans (torpedomen Aart Edward and Sikemyae Alfred, electricians Sumera and Toivo Berngardovich, sailor Kirkimaa Roland Martnovich, and boatswain Leopold Pere Denisovich) who volunteered to remain in service, primarily to translate tech manuals, gauges and markings which were written in Estonian.

When the balloon went up on the Eastern Front, Kalev completed two brief combat patrols and set a string of 10 mines then went missing while carrying out a special operation in late 1941. According to some sources, her mines blew up two ships. She is presumed sunk by a German mine near the island of Prangli sometime around 1 November 1941.

The Soviets kept Lembit‘s name, though of course in Russian (Лембит), and she proved very active indeed.

Surviving Luftwaffe air attacks at Liepaja, she made for Kronstadt where he brass torpedo tube sleeves were removed and she was armed with Soviet model 21-inch torpedoes.

1942 entry in Conways Fighting Ship for Russia

1942 entry in Conways Fighting Ship for the USSR, showing Kalev and Lembit.

Lembit was sent out on her first mission in August 1941 with 1LT Alexis Matiyasevich in command (himself the son of Red Army hero Gen. Mikhail S. Matiyasevich who commanded the 7th Army during the Russian Civil War, holding Petrograd against Yudenich’s White Guards in 1919 and later, as head of the 5th Army, smashed Kolchack in Siberia and ran Ungern-Sternberg to the ground in Mongolia).

During the war, Lembit completed seven patrols and remained at sea some 109 days (pretty good for a sea that freezes over about four months a year).

Each patrol led to 20 mines being laid, totaling some 140 throughout the war. These mines claimed 24 vessels (though most did not sink and many that did were very small). She also undertook eight torpedo attacks, releasing 13 torpedoes.

Her largest victim, the German-flagged merchant Finnland (5281 GRT), sank near 59°36’N, 21°12’E on 14 September 1944 by two torpedoes. It was during the fight to sink the Finnland, which was part of a German convoy, that Lembit was hit in return by more than 50 depth charges from escorting sub-chasers, causing a 13-minute long fire and her to bottom, with six casualties.

Some of Lembit‘s log entries are at the ever-reliable Uboat.net.

On 12 December 1944, Lembit– according to Soviet records– rammed and sank the German submarine U-479, though this is disputed. Heavily damaged in the collision, she spent most of the rest of the war in Helsinki.

In Helsinki, Winter 1944-45

In Helsinki, Winter 1944-45

Keeping her in service was problematic and her worn out batteries were reportedly replaced by banks of several new ones taken from American Lend-Lease M3 Lee tanks that the Soviets were not impressed with when compared to their T-34s.

The Soviets, with their stock of prewar Estonian/English sea mines largely left behind in Tallin, tried to use local varieties of their Type EF/EF-G (ЭП ЭП-Г) anchor contact mine but they wouldn’t work properly with the Lembit‘s tubes. This was corrected by a small shipment of British Vickers T Mk IV mines that arrived via Murmansk through Lend Lease in 1943 just for use with Lembit. The T-IV, though slightly larger than the mines Vickers sold the Estonians pre-war, fit Lembit like a charm.

Her crew was highly decorated, with 10 members awarded the Order of Lenin, 14 the Order of the Red Banner, and another 14 the Order of the Red Star.

Awarding of the crew Lembit medals For the Defense of Leningrad June 6, 1943

Awarding of the crew Lembit medals For the Defense of Leningrad June 6, 1943

Finally, by decree of the Supreme Soviet, on 6 March 1945 Lembit herself was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and named an “Immortal Submarine.”

Lembit after the war.

Lembit after the war.

When the war ended, Lembit was decommissioned in 1946, used as a training ship until 1955 then loaned to a shipyard for a time for study–with her specialized gun hatch extensively researched for use with Soviet ballistic missile hatches. During this time period, much of her brasswork, her Zeiss periscope, and other miscellaneous items walked off.

While in postwar Soviet service, Lembit lost her name and in turn was designated U-1, S-85, 24-STZ, and UTS-29 on the ever-shifting list of Russki pennant numbers through the 1970s.

She was sent back to Tallin in the late 1970s, her name restored, and turned into a museum to the submariners of the Soviet Navy in 1985.

Her service was immortalized by the Soviets, who rewrote history to make her Estonian origin more palatable.

Her service was immortalized by the Soviets, who rewrote history to make her Estonian origin more palatable. In Moscow’s version, the hard working people of Estonia saw the error of their independent bourgeois ways and eagerly joined the Red Banner to strike at the fascists.

When Estonia decided not to be part of the new post-Cold War Russia, a group of patriots boarded Lembit (still officially “owned” by the Red Navy) on 22 April 1992 and raised the Estonian flag on her for the first time since 1940. Reportedly the Russians were getting ready to tow her back to St. Petersberg, which was not going to be allowed a second time.

In 1996, the newly independent Estonian postal service issued a commemorative stamp in connection with the 60th anniversary of Lembit‘s launch.


Lembit has since been fully renovated and, as Estonian Ship #1, is the nominal flag of the fleet, though she is onshore since 2011 as part of the Estonian State Maritime Museum. Located in Tallin, the site is a seaplane hangar built for the Tsar’s Navy and used in secession by the German (1918 occupation) Estonian, Soviet and German (1941-44 occupation) navies.

The crest swiped by Bosun Kadajase in 1940? His family kept it as a cherished heirloom of old independent Estonia and presented it to the museum

Click to big up

Click to very much big up

In 2011, some 200 technical drawings from Vickers were found in the UK of the class and have been split between archives there and in Estonia.

Her Russian skipper, Matiyasevich, retired from the Navy in 1955 as a full Captain and served as an instructor for several years at various academies, becoming known as an expert in polar operations. He died in St. Petersburg in 1995, just after Lembit was reclaimed by the Estonians, and was buried at St. Seraphim cemetery, named a Hero of the Russian Federation at the time.


His memoir, “In the depths of the Baltic Sea: 21 underwater victories” was published in 2007.



Displacement standard/normal: 665 / 853 tons
Length: 59.5m/195-feet
Beam: 7.24m/24.7-feet
Draft: 3.50m/12-feet
Diving depth operational, m 75
No of shafts 2
Machinery: 2 Vickers diesels / 2 electric motors
Power, h. p.: 1200 / 790
Max speed, kts, surfaced/submerged: 13.5 / 8.5
Fuel, tons: diesel oil 31
Endurance, nm(kts) 4000(8) / 80(4), 20 days.
Complement: 38 in Estonian service, 32 in Soviet
(As completed)
1 x 1 – 40/43 Skoda built folding and retracting Bofors.
4 – 533mm TT, sleeved to 450mm (bow, 8 torpedo load),
20 British Vickers T-III sea mines
1x .303 Lewis gun
(Soviet service)
4 – 533 TT (bow, 8 torpedo),
20 British Vickers T-IV sea mines

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