Archaeologists hunt for Lithuania’s first navy ship at bottom of Baltic sea

Prezidentas Smetona

Underwater archaeology specialists will use the Brabander sailboat to sail towards the Gulf of Finland, where, for the first time in history, they will try to make contact with the sunken ship in the depth of 70 metres. If possible, specialists will try to film it and bring back a piece of it during the expedition in October.

The odyssey was given the greenlight by the commission responsible for questions regarding the commemoration of the jubilee of Lithuania. Funding of €10,000 will be dedicated towards the mission.

“That money is enough for a ten day expedition. People haven’t seen the historical destroyer President Smetona since 1945, when it was sunk near Tallinn. We met with Estonian heritage custodians, who promised an opportunity to do research,” KU academic and submarine archaeology expert Vladas Žulkus said. He will also be the one to lead the expedition.

Chasing ghosts

Attempts to try and find the ship have been likened to searching for ghosts of the past. In 2008, Estonian experts notified specialists from Klaipėda that they had discovered the first Lithuanian military ship several dozen nautical miles away from Tallinn, but it became clear later that it wasn’t the ship they were looking for.

A year later, Lithuanian archaeologists were getting ready for an expedition themselves when they thought that they had found the ship’s location but after the sonar data was analysed, it became clear that it was another miss. Now, the expedition will be based on the latest findings which scientists believe should be more accurate.

“There’s a 90% chance that they are reliable. We have a sonar picture of the ship, taken by a researcher at the Estonian sea museum, Vello Mass,” Žilkus said.

The President Smetona ship is believed to lie at the bottom of the Baltic sea in Estonian territorial waters, at a depth of 70-80 metres, 23 nautical miles north of Tallinn.

A symbol of Lithuania

As the only military ship Lithuania owned during the interwar period, Prezidentas Smetona is rightfully considered a symbol of the country as a maritime nation. After restoring independence in 1918 and reassuming control of the Klaipėda region in 1923, Lithuania had to start paving the way for its maritime future.

In 1927, the stand-out moment of this historical period was the purchase of the German destroyer boat M 59, which cost 289,000 LTL. It was named Prezidentas Smetona after the first Lithuanian President, Antanas Smetona. At first, the ship was used by border guards as a floating fortress to fight contraband.

In 1933, Prezidentas Smetona was handed over to the defence ministry. Additional weaponry was mounted on the ship and in 1935, the destroyer sailed out for the first time bearing the flag of the Lithuanian navy, which was created the same year.

The ship was also a personal yacht of the president, Antanas Smetona. For that reason, his personal cabin was placed in the back quarters. It was hoped that the president would use the ship to visit other countries, but it is unknown whether or not that happened. It’s known, however, that the president visited the ship several times.

“That was the first military ship in the reinstated Lithuanian nation. It was also the biggest, and it was docked in Šventoji port. That was the port that the soviet torpedo boat military boats blocked in 1940, and Prezidentas Smetona was in Soviet hands afterwards. Its name was changed numerous times, the latest name was “Korall”. During the Second World War, the destroyer didn’t come back to Lithuania,” Žulkus recounted.

In January 1945, the ship sunk in the Gulf of Finland after being hit by either a mine, or a torpedo from a German submarine.

Estonian support

The journey to find the legendary ship will be made using the training sailboat, and only sailboat afloat, Brabander. The likely date of the journey is in October, because that’s when it will return from summer expeditions.

“The ship that interests us is situated in territorial waters of Estonia, which is why it was important for us to be able to do research there. We talked with representatives from the Estonian national heritage department and the National museum, who gave us permission.

“One of our missions is to physically identify the destroyer and propose that it be included in the list of protected cultural heritage register of Estonia. It is currently not included in the register, as nobody has seen Prezidentas Smetona for 71 years,” Žulkus explained.

The team for this historical expedition will consist of five or six sailboat crew members and about 12 researchers and divers. Estonian heritage specialists will also take part in the expedition.

“The journey towards the place where the ship sunk and back will take 10 days, of which approximately five will be devoted to underwater research. Members of the marine military force who will travel along and bring special underwater equipment: devices that photograph and film remotely. Divers from Kaunas will also collaborate. We [the scientists] will also plunge into the depths because we want to bring back at least a symbolical piece of the ship to Lithuania,” Žulkus said.

Recording the expedition

The Kaunas University team of scientists contacted the commission responsible for commemorating the 100th anniversary of restoration of Lithuania’s statehood and originally requested €26,000. The commission recommended the government to give €10,000 instead, but the team haven’t given up on making the documentary about the expedition that they requested the funding for.

“The rest of the money was needed to create a documentary about the ship and its search. After returning from the expedition, we will evaluate our findings and try to request financing from the government or other foundations in order to sponsor the creation of our documentary,” Žvalkus said.

The government‘s vice chancellor Rimantas Vaitkus confirmed that it was the commission that decided to grant the sum of €10,000 to finance the expedition.

“We must first wait for the government’s decision. The scientists asked for more money that would also finance the salvaging of the ship, but we should first do an expedition and see concrete evidence. It is very important to find Prezidentas Smetona for the sake of remembrance of Lithuanian history,” the government vice chancellor noted.

Translated from Lithuanian by Aivaras Medeubetovas

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