Divers find remains of a Finnish World War II plane shot down by the Soviets | News

The World War II mystery of what happened to a Finnish airliner after it was shot down by Soviet bombers over the Baltic Sea appears finally solved more than 80 years later.

The plane was carrying American and French diplomatic couriers in June 1940 when it was shot down just days before Moscow annexed the Baltic states. All nine people aboard the plane were killed, including the two Finnish crew members and seven passengers: an American diplomat, two Frenchmen, two Germans, a Swede and a dual Estonian-Finnish citizen.

A diving and salvage team in Estonia said this week it has located well-preserved pieces and wreckage of the Junkers Ju 52 aircraft operated by Finnish airline Aero, which is now Finnair. It was found off the small island of Keri, near the Estonian capital Tallinn, at a depth of 70 meters (230 ft).

“We basically started from scratch. We have taken a completely different approach to the search,” explained Kaido Peremees, spokesperson for the Estonian diving and underwater survey company Tuukritoode OU, explaining the group's success in searching for the wreckage of the plane.

The downing of the civilian airliner, called Kaleva, en route from Tallinn to Helsinki occurred on June 14, 1940, just three months after Finland signed a peace treaty with Moscow following the Winter War of 1939-40.

News of the plane's fate sparked disbelief and anger from Helsinki authorities, who were informed that it had been shot down by two Soviet DB-3 bombers 10 minutes after taking off from Tallinn's Ulemiste Airport.

“It was unique that a passenger plane was shot down in peacetime on a regular flight,” said Finnish aviation historian Carl-Fredrik Geust, who has researched the Kaleva case since the 1980s.

Finland officially remained silent for years about the details of the plane's destruction, saying publicly that only a “mysterious accident” had occurred over the Baltic Sea, because it did not want to provoke Moscow.

Although well documented by books, investigations and television documentaries, the 84-year-old mystery has intrigued Finns. The case is an essential part of the Nordic country's complex history during World War II and sheds light on its troubled ties with Moscow.

But perhaps most importantly, the downing of the plane occurred at a critical moment, just days before Josef Stalin's Soviet Union prepared to annex the three Baltic states, sealing the fate of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for the next half century. century before they finally regained independence in 1991.

Kaleva crew photographed in the spring of 1940 [File: Finnish Aviation Museum via AP]

Recovery by Soviet submarine

The USSR occupied Estonia on June 17, 1940, and Kaleva's doomed journey was the last flight out of Tallinn, although the Soviets had already begun to impose a strict transport embargo around the Estonian capital.

American diplomat Henry W. Antheil Jr, 27, was aboard the plane when it crashed. He was on a hurried government mission to evacuate sensitive diplomatic bags from the American missions in Tallinn and Riga, Latvia, when it became clear that Moscow was preparing to swallow the small Baltic nations.

Kaleva was carrying 500 pounds (227 kg) of diplomatic mail, including Antheil's suitcases and material from two French diplomatic couriers, identified as Paul Longuet and Frederic Marty.

Estonian fishermen and the operator of the Keri lighthouse told Finnish media decades after the plane was shot down that a Soviet submarine surfaced near the Kaleva crash site and recovered floating debris, including bags of documents that had been collected by the fishermen of the place.

This has given rise to conspiracy theories about the contents of the bags and Moscow's decision to shoot down the plane. It is still unclear why the Soviet Union decided to shoot down a Finnish civilian airliner in peacetime.

“Over the years there has been a lot of speculation about the plane's cargo,” Geust said. “What was the plane carrying? Many suggest that Moscow wanted to prevent confidential material and documents from leaving Estonia.”

But he said it could have simply been “a mistake” by the Soviet bomber pilots.

There have been several attempts to find Kaleva since Estonia regained its independence more than three decades ago. However, none of them have been successful.

“The wreck is in pieces and the seabed is quite challenging with rock formations, valleys and hills. It's very easy to miss small parts and debris on the plane, Peremees said. “Of course, techniques have evolved a lot over time. As always, you can have good technology, but not be lucky.”

A new video recorded by underwater robots from the company Peremees shows clear images of the landing gear of three Junkers engines, one of the engines and parts of the wings.

Jaakko Schildt, Finnair's chief operating officer, described the downing of the Kaleva as “a tragic and deeply sad event for the young airline.”

“Finding the wreckage of the Kaleva goes some way to putting an end to this, although it does not bring back the lives of our customers and crew who were lost,” Schildt said. “The interest in locating Kaleva in the Baltic Sea speaks to the importance of this tragic event in the aviation history of our region.”

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