Updated: Jan 6
Formed in 1999 Legenda is the name of a Latvian NGO, entirely self financed by its members and outside donations.
One of its first ever operations was the recovery of two Soviet tanks retrieved from the swamp that had swallowed them up during Second World War. Both were in remarkable condition and the T34s engine was running only a few days after the recovery.
But finding relics of the conflict was never the aim of its founders. It was set up to research and recover the tens of thousands of missing from all sides that are scattered through the Latvian fields and forests.
Latvia saw trench warfare in World War I, mainly close to its capital Riga, where some brutal battles were fought around Christmas 1916 in plummeting temperatures and snow storms. Such was the poor way which many soldiers were treated that the Bolshevik revolution grew in popularity amongst many disillusioned troops and helped lead to the overthrow of the Czar and the end of the WW1 Eastern Front. World War II was even more brutal for the population of this Baltic state.
In 1940 they were invaded and occupied by Soviet forces, in the summer of 1941 German forces pushed the Soviets out and occupied the country for the next three years. Then in 1944 the retreating Germans fell back into the area known as Courland (Kurland). A triangle of land with water on two sides it was a good defensive position and by October 1944 it was completely cut off from all other German forces and needed resupply by sea.
From then until the end of the war this small area would hold out against all Soviet attacks. There were six main battles to crush the pocket launched in that time and each made a little progress but the pocket did not surrender. For the Germans and Latvian defenders this was an impressive act of defiance against impossible odds, for the Soviets they claimed this was the world’s largest prisoner of war camp where they kept some 200,000 troops surrounded.
The losses in the fighting were incredible. The Soviets its concluded lost some 350,000 men, the Axis forces some 150,000 in the battles and a further 180,000 were forced to surrender when the war eventually ended on May 8, 1945. At the capitulation, Axis forces threw away any items that would identify them as any kind of specialist and thus badges, medals and equipment was dumped and buried. This along with the chaotic and brutal fighting means much remains below ground including many soldiers that were never given a proper burial, simply lost where they fell, or in cemeteries that were quickly left to rot and vanish by the victors who had other more pressing post war needs.
Finding the fallen
Recovering missing soldiers is a sensitive subject that needs to be handled with care and consideration whilst also taking into account the realities of time eroding the evidence as well as the pure scale of the task.
Legenda works closely and with the permission of all the relevant authorities. Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfursorge, (the German War Graves commission), The Latvian Government and local municipalities and of course the Russian authorities. The aim of course is to search for, retrieve and hopefully identify soldiers missing from all sides, from both world wars as well the Latvian War of Independence.
The Group became more organised and International members who could bring skills to the group joined from around the world. The first was from the UK in 2001 followed by Hans from Sweden in 2002 who had read an article about their work in the UK. The article was written by the same UK member who had joined them as a volunteer the year before.
Today we boast members from a whole host of countries, UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Canada and the USA to name but a few. Whilst the Latvian members will dig and research most weekends the international members join twice yearly for the summer and autumn expeditions, where larger sites are often tackled.
As pointed out earlier, Legenda is entirely self financed, thus we mostly rely on hard graft and quite basic tools during our expeditions. There are three tools we could not hope to ever do without during our search for the missing: A shovel, a manual probe/’prodder’ but perhaps above all metal detectors.
The latter is used not only for pinpointing the exact location of the missing but also on all ground in and around a potential site.
A ‘prodder’ is a long metal pole with handle at top that is pressed into the ground to feel for any changes in the lower layers we are searching - loose dirt means a potential site for finding the missing. Experienced ‘prodders’ can also tell the difference in sound when they hit an obstruction, bones sound very different to tree roots and rocks to the experts.
Metal detectors are then applied once we have established the correct depth for closer examination and excavation. Even when the burial may be many feet down metal objects in the top soil can be crucial. For example in many Soviet mass graves the names are often inscribed on metal markers that were either buried with the fallen or perhaps many years ago marked the site but over the years have become detached from monuments and buried nearby or in the top soil.
Once a site is dug to the level of the missing, metal detectors and pin-pointers are used to find any metal objects remaining, this could be medals, buttons, identity discs or various metal parts from equipment. Once opened sites need to be worked on quickly. There is a huge commercial market for many items that a WW2 soldier would have carried and teams of ‘Black Diggers’ who would happily strip a fallen soldier of any saleable items are always on the lookout for any easy sites to pick over.
Most metal finds are only made with the help of detectors and without them many men would continue to lie in the forest unfound. Three such stark examples spring to mind:
The group was out searching on an old front line where we knew there had been heavy fighting but there were no specific starting points such as old trenches, fox holes or known burial sites. We had been to this specific site on numerous occasions with no success but had not given up as we knew there must be missing soldiers there. Having said that, sometimes you just have to move on to the next site but this one we were not prepared to accept defeat from yet. Once again we were preparing to leave this site empty handed despite a nagging feeling there was something there. One digger, (as we refer to ourselves), could not leave without one more signal- something i know is familiar to all detectorists! The digger was drawn towards a small hillock which had been passed many times on the previous few expeditions. Suddenly and despite others having searched this area, a strong signal was coming from some sandy topsoil. As they started to dig a Red Army helmet became visible, as more soil was removed it became clear it was still being worn by the soldier, only an inch or two below the surface. Lying where he had fallen none of his personal belongings had been disturbed and his medals were still with him which with Soviet soldiers is the best chance of getting an ID. His silver 'For Bravery' medal had a personal number on it and also on his person were fragments of a letter he was half way through writing to his wife and spoke of his comrade 'Nikonorov being killed' and mentioning his 'Dear son Boris'.
It turned out he was a soldier from the Ukraine by the name of Pavel Oleinik who was married with two sons. As the excavation continued two German soldiers were also found close by and it appeared all had been killed in hand-to-hand fighting in some of the vicious battles that had been fought on the Latvian/Estonian border.
His identity was quickly confirmed and his family was traced. When contacted they thought he had been killed on the Estonian/Russian border as that was where he had sent his last letter from, in which he had told them "take care of our sons as I will surely return home" so that he was found in Latvia came as a surprise to them. Pavel was born in 1909 and as one of the older men in his unit had volunteered to stay behind and cover his men during a German counterattack. His widow had never remarried as she waited forlornly for his return and the oldest son had passed away in the 1970s so never heard of his recovery. The younger son however was still alive and he came to Latvia to collect his fathers remains. The Ukrainian Air Force transported him home and he was met there by an honour guard and the Defence Minister and his wife and was buried with full military honours at the parish church near to where he lived.
A few summers back, we were investigating a part of a well known World War One battlefield. The area had seen some very heavy fighting especially around Christmas 1916. The battlefield is now a national park and a monument has been erected in memory of the Latvians who fought and died there as part of the Imperial Russian Army.
After using the prodder on a few different spots, several unmarked mass graves were found and excavated, these are often in old shell holes. All contained Imperial Russian Army soldiers as they were wearing Russian uniforms and the buttons had survived but we were certain many of the missing there were in fact Latvians fighting in the so called Latvian Riflemen Regiments, but sadly none had formal identification matter on them. However, in one such shell hole another signal was slightly to the side and away from the lined up burials and it was deeper. It was a slow process in the sandy soil at that depth but eventually we uncovered another soldier. It appeared he had been running, possibly in a trench when the shell that caused the hole that had been used later to bury his comrades had perhaps exploded and buried this man.
Whereas the other soldiers had had usable equipment removed this man still had all his equipment with him, the first personal item we found on him was a gold cross (fig 11). As we slowly released him from the soil his wallet was intact and within it an Imperial Russian silver gallantry medal. These are personally numbered and will almost always give a formal identification. The records are online and within minutes we had Russian speaking colleagues translating and reading his citation for his award whilst we looked down on him and held his hard won medal. He was also listed as Missing in Action, rather than having been buried and his grave lost, a small but significant difference confirming it to being our man. It's not common to get many WW1 confirmed identities so such finds are always a cause for celebration. Interestingly his surname was a very unusual one and living relatives were quickly traced on social media. This is another example of where the metal detector alone was the sole reason this soldier was found, without them many times we would be blind.
On another occasion it was a roasting summers day and we were digging a small WW2 German field cemetery. From the records we believed there was six soldiers here, all foreign volunteers in the German Army who had enlisted to fight against communism. We had found six soldiers as we had expected and our trench now bordered a small country lane, which meant the records were right… or so we thought.
However, from one of the nearby farms came an old man… He had lived here all his life and told us about the field hospital that had been close by and these soldiers we had found were brought in wounded and had died in the hospital and then been buried here. He remembered events clearly and particularly one Scandinavian soldier he called his friend ‘who had given him sweets every day’. He told us he hated driving down that lane as he knew he was driving over his friend.
On further questioning he was adamant that the cemetery expanded a little to the west of where we had stopped and actually went under the lane. A small exploratory widening of our trench and search with a detector gave the faintest of signals. The ‘boss’ of our group Talis made some urgent phone calls to the local mayor and permission was given to us to dig up the lane as long as we repaired it afterwards. And so we did… and exactly as the old man and the detector had suggested two more burials lay under this lane. One had a bottle laid with him, sealed inside was a letter giving details about the soldier the other was a Scandinavian, the old mans ‘friend’… to see a living link to historical events we can only imagine was certainly one of the many highlights I have had digging with the group.
- By Steve Newman and Hans Sogndal-Valeskog