Updated: Jan 10, 2021
It feels like yesterday when I stepped off the plane in Riga with both a sense of excitement and apprehension about what was to come in the following week. First Contact had been made by me in 2000 when Legenda had just been formed, and I had been researching battlefield archaeology in France as I had just returned from the Somme, when I came across the first Legenda website.
I contacted them for advice and help and we soon we were corresponding regularly discussing many things about battlefield recovery and over the months that followed I could feel a great relationship forming. Then in early 2001 everything changed as one day I got a formal invite to visit Latvia and Legenda as a guest and from that invite I couldn’t have imagined how it would change the course of my life.
I was incredibly honoured and excited to be asked as I knew this would be a first for Legenda to invite foreigners having only a few years previously being independent from the USSR and knowing our cultures where very different during this time.
The date was set for May 2001 and I was accompanied by my brother Chris McDermott, my Brother in law Ken Roberts and our friend Dr Lee Vansrensburg.
We went through airport security and as we emerged we where met by a nervous looking group of Latvians all in Military kit which looked amazing to me and knew then things where going to be just fine. Introductions and pleasantries where made and we all piled in to a van and headed off to Riga. After being shown around Riga and a night on the town we were told to be ready at 7am outside the hotel the next morning. Feeling and looking a bit the worse for wear the 4 of us where there on time and where picked up by the diggers and off we headed in to western Latvia in to the unknown…
After a couple of hours travelling through the remote countryside of Latvia and only occasionally seeing towns that harped back to soviet occupation in their cold concrete appearance we suddenly went off the road on to a dirt track and it then occurred to me that no one knew where we were and I thought we could easily disappear and never be found !!.
My fears where of course unfounded and it was just nerves and apprehension about this leap of faith we had all made making this trip happen.
It was very interesting having talked to my Latvian friends later on how nervous they were as well as think we had both been brainwashed by our governments about each other and it goes to show when people actually meet without all this baggage they generally get on which is of course what happened with us.
We arrived at the most beautiful lakeside hotel not far from the town of Saldus and we where now deep in the Kurland Battlefield area.
Radi from above: Our base for searching the battlefields check it out here!
We travelled through Saldus (wartime frauenburg) then drove down a dirt track for what seemed like hours then we stopped in the middle of nowhere and all got out. “Now we walk” shouted Talis the boss and off we went in to the forest taking everything with us we would need for the day. We walked for over an hour and then came across evidence of the heavy fighting that took place here in 1944/45 including bunkers and trench lines. And so our search started, using metal detectors we searched and dug finding many relics or war and some Soviet soldier’s remains which we removed from the forest to be laid to rest at a later date in a proper ceremony near Riga. We searched for 3 days and found further soldiers and the debris of war.
This was the blueprint for every subsequent expedition and continues to this day and in 20 years only this year has had no international expedition due to COVID-19.
Interestingly as time has gone on there has been more encroachment in the the forests by logging companies and the days of waking for hours are much less these days as the logging roads now make it easier for us to access once inaccessible battlefield locations.
Burials and retrospectives
We then attended a burial near Riga for soviet soldiers who had been found over the last few months which was attended by high ranking dignitaries and it bought home to me how important the work Legenda was doing then and now. These ceremonies still happen regularly during the year to bury soldiers Legenda recover. This was the catalyst for what Legenda is today but on a much bigger and more professional level as we have now grown and now international members from all corners of the world who help us continue the invaluable work Legenda do in anyway they can.
Looking back I am incredibly proud to have been involved in the first contact with Legenda from the west and feel this first trip was the most important one as it cemented friendships and has helped make the Legenda of today. The highly respected soldier recovery group that it has now become and long may it continue!
Finally a message from Matt McDermott - Head of the International Team:
'We at Legenda still managed to do some limited searching for missing soldiers safely, adhering to the local COVID-19 restrictions, and we recovered many soldiers that are now missing no more, but sadly this year without the help from the international group members. We look forward to a hopefully better 2021 for the Legenda Team and our continuing search and recovery operations resuming with more exciting news and projects in the pipeline. We at Legenda would like to say a big thanks to everyone who follows and supports us on our various platforms we are on and we wish you all a happy and prosperous new year.'