Preparations for the opening of North Europe’s biggest new maritime museum are well underway in Estonia with the world’s oldest in the water submarine having been lifted to land.
The legendary Estonian submarine Lembit was hauled from the water at its home port in Tallinn as it is prepared to become the centrepiece at the new maritime museum at the Seaplane Harbour (Lennusadam). The unique museum will be opened at the former seaplane hangars in 2012.
Lembit is the only warship in Estonia’s pre-war fleet to survive intact. It is the crown jewel of Estonia’s military history, being in excellent condition and offering a glimpse of state of the art technology in the 1930s.
Having made its maiden voyage almost 75 years ago, Lembit was hauled to dry land on special air cushions in one of the most complicated water engineering operations ever to be carried out in Estonia. Once on land, the submarine’s interior is being thoroughly restored to give visitors an opportunity to see the submarine as it was in its heyday.
Estonia’s two identical submarines, Lembit and Kalev, were built at the British Vickers-Armstrongs shipyards in Barrow-in-Furness and made their maiden voyage on 7 July 1936. The ships reached Estonia in the summer of 1937 after thorough trials at sea and the training of the crew.
After the Soviet Union’s occupation of Estonia on 6 August 1940, the red communist flag was raised on the ships of the Estonian Navy and the crews and officers were replaced by Russians. Lembit was part of the Soviet Union’s Baltic Fleet during the Second World War. After the war, the vessel survived thanks to its state of the art technology and the Soviet Army’s keen interest to investigate the British engineering solutions of the time.
The submarine fell into disappear until war veterans who had served on the ship during the war came across it docked on the River Volga in the 1970s. After lengthy and often contentious negotiations, Lembit was brought back to its hometown in 1979, becoming part of the Baltic Red Fleet Museum. It was opened to the public in 1981.
In April 1992, after a campaign by the defence forces and naval veterans, the Estonian Maritime Museum took control of the ship. On 2 August 1994, the ensign of the Estonian Navy was raised on the submarine and it became ship Number 1 of the reinstated Estonian Navy.
When it opens next year, The Seaplane Harbour will become a home not only to the Lembit but also to an impressive three level permanent exhibition which includes the best of Estonian historic maritime technology and wartime weapons.
The seaplane hangars, which were built between 1916 and 1917 as part of the Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress, are currently under reconstruction and are expected to be finished next year. The complex of seaplane hangars at the Seaplane Harbour is included in the Estonian architectural heritage list as one of the first shell concrete structures in the world. When finished, the Seaplane Harbour will be a rare combination of objects, the architecturally unique hangars, a maritime museum, and a functioning harbour.