In the Northern Wastes

He 115C-1 ‘8L+IH’ from Ku.Fl.Gr.906. On 8 October 1942 it participated in the evacuation of Estonian saboteurs from Russian territory.

On 5 November 1942, two long-range Pe-3 fighters from the 2nd Squadron of the 95th Special Naval Aviation Group took off from the temporary airfield near the village of Pona to escort a Soviet convoy going to Arkhangelsk from Belushya Bay. Leading was Lieutenant A. Ustimenko and his wingman was Senior Sergeant W. Gorbuntsov. An hour and a half later the Pe-3s of Lieutenants Constantine Usenko and Sergei Nogtikov took off to relieve them, but one of Nogtikov’s engines failed and Usenko continued alone. His rendezvous with the first took place in the designated area, near the convoy, which was on its way to the entrance of the White Sea. Ustimenko and Gorbuntsov handed over to him and turned to the south-west. When Lieutenant Usenko completed the mission and landed back at base, it turned out that they never came back…

Forty-seven years later, in 1989, searchers have found in the tundra, in shallow swamp, the remains of a twin-engined aircraft. On closer inspection it turned out that this was one of the aircraft that disappeared in November 1942, the Pe-3 No. 40415 of Lieutenant Ustimenko. In the cockpit were the remains of three crew members. The most amazing thing was that both sides of the aircraft were riddled with cannon and machine-gun fire. Many of the holes of large diameter, not less than 30mm. It remains unknown what kind of plane it was that so effectively shot down a heavy Pe-3 fighter so far from the front.

Later, in the remote tundra to the east of Arkhangelsk another place was discovered, which amazed the searchers. Near Lake Okulov there was a large sandy area with a runway formed of densely-laid metal sheets on it. It was a secret German airfield deep behind Soviet lines! On the edge of the airfield were rotting wooden buildings, in which items of Luftwaffe equipment and radio spares were found. Then barrels of aviation fuel with German labels were found nearby.

But this was not the only one. Secret airfields were also found near the village of Megra on the White Sea coast, 76km north-east of the town of Upper Zolotitsa, near the village of Pogorelets (on the shore of Mezen Bay) and in the Leshukonsky district on the Mezen river, 250km east of Arkhangelsk.

This proved that during the war a network of secret Luftwaffe airfields was established in the deserted northern regions of the Soviet Union. It is clear that they were not intended specifically to intercept Soviet aircraft, which did not pose any threat to the Germans. Probably the twin-engined fighters just came across some secret mission by chance.

Secret German air bases existed not only in the far north, but also in the Vologda region. This area was also sparsely populated, being made up dense forests combined with impassable swamps and wastelands. Therefore, it was not difficult to hide an airfield there. All of them were established for the purposes of sabotage. Through the Vologda and Arkhangelsk regions passed the most important railways, which were delivering Lend-Lease supplies to the central regions of the USSR from the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, coal from the Vorkuta basin and the like. Therefore, in the second half of 1942 the Abwehr and RSHA began the large-scale deployment of sabotage groups in these areas.

In June 1942, in the deserted region of Vologda and Cherepovets groups of agents between four and twelve men strong were landed by Ju 52s. Among them were saboteurs from the ‘Brandenburg’ Regiment. They were deployed there to attack the railways. The Cherepovets-Vologda divisional air defence posts recorded thirty-eight flights of unidentified aircraft at night in that month alone. They were mostly planes carrying agents and saboteurs.

On the night of 28/29 August, two groups of saboteurs were landed near the railway lines to Murmansk. The tracks were simultaneously blown up in two places. In early September, the Luftwaffe delivered a sabotage group to an area 80km north-west of Syktyvkar, to blow up the railway bridge over the Vychegda river, which was the only link between Vorkuta and the central regions of the country. Initially the mission was successful, the saboteurs managing to kill the bridge guards without losses on their side. But they did not have time to blow up the bridge. Some prisoners from the nearby GULAG camp were working nearby. It would seem that the saboteurs had a wonderful opportunity to replenish their ranks with the released prisoners. However, something happened that the German agents did not expect. The exhausted ‘enemies of the Soviet people’, despite their resentment of the regime, not only did not help the saboteurs, but, on the contrary, attacked them and killed them with picks and crowbars!

From 24 August to 29 September 1942, Ju 88 bombers from KG 30 ‘Adler’ carried out six massive raids on the city of Arkhangelsk. As a result, businesses and residential areas were severely damaged, and port facilities were almost destroyed. This made it difficult to unload ships with American and British military equipment and to send it onwards. To finally knock out this Lend-Lease route, the Germans decided to deliver a sabotage group of thirteen Estonians serving in the Finnish army to the Arkhangelsk–Vologda railway.

The air drop was carried out on 1 September near Konosha station. The landing was successful, and all the saboteurs quickly disappeared into the woods. After that, for two months the Estonians, divided into small groups, blew up the railway tracks. Trains with American and British tanks, fuel, rations and other goods were regularly derailed. In parallel, the Estonians were destroying communications lines. After each mission, they always managed to escape. The saboteurs regularly transmitted radio reports of their successful missions.

Soon the Soviets concentrated army units stationed in the Arkhangelsk and Vologda regions in the Konosha area. Together with istrebitelnij battalions they combed the tundra, but to no avail. The only success by the NKVD was the interception of radio traffic between the saboteurs and their HQ. Radio direction-finding showed that the transmissions were from remote swampy areas. Russian intelligence was able to decipher some of the messages. From them it became known that the Germans had decided to evacuate the group. To do this, the Estonians were instructed to arrive at Lake Lacha, located 80km north-west of Konosha. The Russians accordingly set up several ambushes on the shores of this large lake.

The early autumn morning of 22 October at first did not promise anything interesting. Over the water was foggy, frozen soldiers of the NKVD and cadets from a military school nervously examined the beautiful surroundings, thinking about how to warm up. Suddenly the silence was broken by the faint roar of engines. Everyone grabbed for binoculars and weapons.

After a while, a seaplane appeared from the north-west, on which German crosses were clearly visible. It landed on the water and stopped near the shore. It was He 115C-1 ‘8L+IH’ of 1./Ku.Fl.Gr.906, flown by Karl Helf. This aircraft had already performed several missions for the delivery and evacuation of agents from Russian territory. After a while, the elusive Estonians appeared from the undergrowth along the bank. The inexperienced cadets were positioned in ambush here, and seeing the plane and the saboteurs moving towards it, the young men opened indiscriminate fire with rifles and machine guns. But the shooting was inaccurate. Five saboteurs were able to jump into the plane, while the rest again disappeared into the dense thickets on the shore.

Helf, seriously wounded in the course of the attack, was still able to start the engines. The He 115 went to take off and, despite the intense machine-gun fire from the shore, rose into the air. But it turned out that the oil tank of the left engine was punctured. Flying about 30km, the plane made an emergency landing on Lake Jung. After that, four Estonians and an aircraft mechanic disappeared into the woods. But they did not get far, and soon the group was surrounded by NKVD troops. The German airman did not want to surrender to the Russians and shot himself, but the Estonians preferred to raise their hands. Soon a few more saboteurs were caught heading west towards the front line. But some Estonians still managed to escape into the deep woods and evade their pursuers.