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The Hunt for the lost British sailors

Updated: Jan 10, 2021

Earlier in the year we spent a day in the forest near Jurmala at the request of the Latvian Ministry of Defence looking into the possibility that two British sailors missing since 1919 were still lying in lost and unmarked graves somewhere in the forest.

The request from the Government to assist them came about as they had been approached by a lady who as a child remembers tending two graves nearby the village she grew up in. They had been found by fisherman and according to ancient local tradition, they were buried behind the furthest sand dunes from the sea to protect them from the winter storms.

It was said that the graves were tended by local boy scouts throughout the 1920s and 30s but during the upheaval of the Second World War the graves were lost and with only these memories, a black and white photo and ground penetrating radar we set off to see if we could find these two lost and forgotten souls.

The site itself is an area of scientific and natural protection so not only were the normal permissions needed from the authorities, whom in this case were the originators of the task but also forestry commission permits to be able to dig in this area. With all these in place the MoD gave us the greenlight to start.

It was a search that generated a lot of interest as many people asked why were there British sailors in action in the Baltic around Latvia in 1919?

The reason they were there was to support the claims of independence of the Baltic states, chiefly Latvia and Estonia, as well as protecting British interests. The operation known as Operation Red Trek and saw the deployment of various Royal Naval assets after the armistice with Germany had been signed bringing World War One to a close. After the horror and losses of trench warfare in France and Belgium there was no appetite in London to be involved in another ground war so support was limited to Naval engagements.

Royal Navy light cruiser HMS CARADOC bombarding Bolshevik positions on Estonian coast. December 1918. © IWM Q 19345

In December of 1918 HMS Cassandra struck a mine causing the first British casualties whilst later in the month assistance to Estonia helped stop the advance on Tallin by shelling the Bolshevik forces and the capture of two Soviet destroyers helped form the fledgling Estonian Navy. Losses on both sides continued throughout 1919 with the British losing submarine L55 with all hands in June 1919. By the end of 1919 the British were no longer involved in fighting as a treaty to respect the nations independence was signed and many war weary British sailors and ships finally returned home. By 1920 the assets had gone leaving only their casualties behind.

Royal Marines instructing Estonians in the use of Madson guns. December 1918. © IWM Q 19356

There is a memorial in Portsmouth Cathedral that records the names of 107 servicemen were lost in this campaign, their names are recorded here .

There is also a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Jelgava where 36 servicemen lay, most were Prisoners of War who died as captives of the Germans in World War One on what is now Latvian territory whilst there are also four unknown and one from the War of independence period.

The Legenda team arrived at the location for the search on June 26th, these peaceful beaches are now peaceful places, but with hidden stories.

Our search turned out in the end to be little more than a reconnaissance as the exact position could not be satisfactorily identified and the only anomaly that ground radar picked up in the most likely area appeared far too small and shallow to be a human grave and indeed it actually turned out to be that of a domestic dog.

During the dig we were contacted by CWGC via a Facebook message stating that they believed that any such graves would have been moved to Jelgava in the interwar period and we were thus unlikely to find anything.

They also politely requested that should we possibly find them would we not film the recovery. Seeing as the actual number of missing sailors for the era in question is very small and thus their identities could possibly be guessed at before any confirmation could be given to authorities we replied that we would indeed abide by that request out of our respect for that organisation.

A still from the live streamed search shows the Legenda Team using period images to try and locate the exact area of the missing sailors.

As already mentioned our research points to the facts that these graves were still tended by locals long after the initial CWGC (IWGC) burial and identification teams had left and then the Soviet period afterwards means that if they were still there in 1940, then they almost certainly still remain there today, lost and forgotten.

As anyone who follows us knows our simple aim is to find the lost and forgotten whatever their nationality and bring them out of lonely forgotten sites to be buried along with their comrades and to bring closure to family in the cases where identification is possible.

In this case we failed but we note the interest of many in Britain and should a formal British team wish to come and spend a few weeks in the forest looking for these guys and finally answering the question ‘are they or aren’t they there still?’, we would be delighted to share the info we have to try and help bring them in from the cold….

*As a minor footnote to this story we did note some very excitable individuals and blogs stating all kinds of hyperbolic stories about ‘British Government letters’ and ‘serious diplomatic incidents’ and all manner of other things. The truth, as is often the case, is far less dramatic and we received not a single letter/email/phone of fax from anyone regarding this search. Indeed the only correspondence we had was the aforementioned DM from CWGC during the day of the search. Then again this is hardly that surprising as we were working from one old ladies memory and a black and white photo, searching for graves CWGC say are likely not there anymore and being a Latvian group, working under instruction from Latvian MoD, in Latvian forest, with all Latvian permits and who simply found a dead dog always seemed an unlikely background for a major ‘diplomatic incident’….

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