Tallinn’s Seaplane Hangar Museum

On our last day in Tallinn, we visited the Seaplane Hangar Museum, the primary repository of Estonia’s maritime history.

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I was, frankly, not too interested in the modern warfare parts of the displays (mines, gunboats, guns, submarines), and of course, it was the history that attracted most of my attention. But the building itself was interesting, and they allowed visitors to carry around a card with which we could automatically email to ourselves, links to the info we were interested in. Of course, I did so, and here is a bit of what I found. If you aren’t interested in history, you are welcome to skip this rather long post.

Before you go, however, check out these photos below. Behind the modern warfare displays was a long wall of murals depicting extremely creepy anti-war images, that I honestly have not quite figured out. They were profoundly disturbing, at least to me. I don’t think most visitors paid much attention to them, but I was captivated. It was also nearly impossible to render them properly in pixels, but here are a couple of the better examples:

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Now the history.

The Maasilinnia Ship

The Maasilinnia ship was the first historic wreck to be recovered in the Baltic Sea and used for scientific purposes. The ship has a distinct keel unknown to be a part of the design of any other Baltic Sea countries’ ships. The distance between the keel and the ribs, about 20 centimeters, formed a water collection well or bilge.

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Although Estonians have always been sea-dwelling peoples, there is not much about ancient and medieval boatbuilding and shipbuilding remaining available to modern scholars. Centuries of “toil under foreign administrations” interrupted the boatbuilding traditions handed down from father to son, therefore the Maasilinna ship is the only available example of Estonian medieval shipbuilding found to date.

The ship is of Saaremaa Island origin, and was built in about 1550.

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It has been impossible to fully restore the Maasilinna ship to 100% of its original appearance as no one knows precisely what the vessel looked like. At least three-fourths of the ship has been completely lost.

Credit for finding and conserving the Maasilinna ship goes to the underwater archeology club ‘Viikar’ of the Estonian Maritime Museum. In 1985, they were exploring the anchorage of the medieval Maasilinn (Soneburg) Order Castle when they found logs extending from the sea bed in 3 meters of water. The wreckage site is in the Väike Väin Straight, separating Saaremaa and Muhu Islands. In 1987 the wreckage was floated to the surface, and a temporary building was erected on Illiku Islet to protect the find and allow conservation to take place. The timbers were freeze-dried, and treated with a solution of polyethylene glycol over a year, to preserve them. The solution presses remaining water out of the wood and fills empty pores. Next, the wreck was frozen to allow for thorough drying over a longer period.

Historians assume the ship was a single-masted vessel without a deck, approx. 16 meters long and 5.5 meters wide. While its design could probably have navigated the entire Baltic Sea area, it is thought to be a local transport vessel, used for moving construction materials along the island coasts. The vessel is similar in design to the Swedish haxe and the Finnish haaksi type of transport vessels.

The Maasilinna Order Castle was built in the 14th century. In 1554, Maasilinna and the premises owned by the Castle were sold to Denmark. In 1556, the Castle was demolished by order of King Frederick II of Denmark, so it would not be captured by Sweden and become a defensive stronghold. Historians presume that the Maasilinna ship was sunk by an enemy attack. The above-water frame of the ship likely burnt to the waterline, the ship filled with water, and finally sunk.

The Seaplane Hangar

In 1527, the region called Kalamaja, that would become Estonia/Tallinn, had 78 residential plots and at least 17 taverns. In the 1700s, the Swedes built several strongholds: Skoone bastion and the Stuart redoubt, in what is now North Tallinn. They also expanded the port/harbor.

Having conquered Estonian territories in the Great Northern War (1700-1710), Russian Tsar Peter the Great began building a great military harbor in Tallinn. In 1716, a fierce storm destroyed the construction and sank two of the Tsar’s ships – the Fortune and the Antoniy, forcing the Tsar to forgo Tallinn as an option. He then chose Paldiski as the new location of his port.

The Tsar next demanded that two batteries be built to defend the port of Tallinn. In 1833 the two log-built structures were joined as one. The structure, known even then as Topeltpatarei (Peter the Great’s Port), was improved, starting the following year, with granite walls. It was equipped with 43 cannon and manned by between 150 and 215 soldiers.

During the Crimean War of 1855, it was feared by Emperor Nicolas I, that the imposing fortifications would be taken by the English and French, so the fortification was scuttled. (He had renovated much of the structure by about 1840, including the Kaitsekasarm or defensive barracks, built next to today’s Seaplane Hangar port). The renovations included coastal defense batteries and mine barriers, intended to close off the Gulf of Finland, and protect the Russian capital of St. Petersburg from potential attack from the sea.

In 1868, the ruined naval fortification was sold to private ownership, and the remains were used as construction material. Legend says that much of the material was used to build many of the foundations under the structures in Kalamaja. The extant parts of the structure are called the “old battery.”

After Tallinn lost its status as a fortification town in 1864, the name Kaitsekasarm was replaced with Patareikasarm, or briefly, “Patari” (Battery) by which the complex is known today. The buildings were used as a prison during the Soviet era.

Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

The entire naval fortress, if plans had been completed, included a southern sector (Estonia); a northern sector (Finland); and the sea between them. Tallinn was the center of the naval fortress and the operational base for Russia’s Baltic Fleet.

The Peter the Great Naval Fortress was considered so important that Tsar/Emperor Nicolas II came to lay the corner stone. His words, recorded by the daily Päevaleht of July 15, 1912: “Be the bridgehead of our forces on the Baltic coast as skillfully constructed as we like, its strength and invincibility will rest chiefly on the mental fortitude of the naval officers …”

As the First Word War loomed on the horizon, Nicolas II, like other world leaders, realized that aviation would play a new and important role in warfare. In 1914, the commander of the Naval General staff introduce a plan for an aviation port, which mentioned the need to build a mechanism to lower seaplanes into the water, and for hangars to house them. During the reign of Nicolas II, nearly his entire Baltic Fleet was annihilated at the Battle of Tsushima, in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5).

By 1916, the Russian Empire had over 100 aircraft in the Air Force division of their Baltic Fleet. That naval air squadron that was part of the Peter the Great fortress was made up of 15 reconnaissance craft, but they were housed elsewhere. A search for a suitable location for the stage 1 seaplane base resulted in the purchase of land from a private businessman on Tallin’s coast.

Tsar Nicolas II abdicated his throne in Feb. of 1917, and his entire family and household were executed in Feb. of 1918.

Estonia began taking control of its harbors as the Russian Empire experienced chaos. As of March, 1918, the Estonian air squadron had two conventional planes and two seaplanes. Only one was airworthy. In April that year, used aircraft from England arrived. In the autumn of that year, Estonia’s Air Force naval squadron was formed, and based in the Seaplane Harbor.

By 1923, with the move of the Air Force training school to the seaplane squadron barracks (construction completed in 1922), the Seaplane Hangar area became the training ground of the future Estonian Air Force pilots.

On June 19, 1940, the Seaplane Harbor, its equipment, personnel and facilities, were transferred to the Baltic Red Fleet’s controls and ownership. After German forces conquered Tallinn in the autumn of 1941, the port was used, especially when Lake Ülemiste was frozen, to launch patrol seaplanes to search for enemy activity above the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn was recaptured by the Red Army in 1944, and the Lennusadam port was used by the Baltic fleet for shipyard administration. The hangars themselves were used as storage areas for the military units that made up the Soviet Union’s naval fleet.

Today, the primary hangar is the Lennusadam Museum, detailing Estonia’s maritime history with three concentrations per floor: above water; on the water; and below the water. There are areas for children to play and climb, battle ship gun ports to sit in (popular with boys of all ages), a flight simulator, a gun/target simulator, and a submarine to explore inside and out. Outside at dock are more ships of each era to be explored.

While we were there, a cute play of some sort, about which we had no clue because it was performed in Estonian, was undertaken for the children. The human-animated “puppets” were colorful, primitive and delightful. I managed one photo in the dim light.

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As we walked back to the hotel, we passed a wax museum with a welcome party outside:

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