History revealed by WW2 wrecks in Norway’s Arctic fjords

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Bjørn Ballo sits in the cockpit of the downed P-40 plane, a vestige of the Second World War under Jarfjord in Kirkenes. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
Bjørn Ballo sits in the cockpit of the downed P-40 plane, a vestige of the Second World War under Jarfjord in Kirkenes. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
In the 70 years since the war, more than a dozen wrecks of planes and ships have been found on the bottom of the fjords around Kirkenes, Norway.

But only recently have some of their mysteries been truly solved.

“We’ll have to hurry so we get the best of the sun,” Bjørn Ballo says, driving past frozen lakes with a snow-covered boat on his trailer. It’s 10 am, but the days are getting short; the sun is barely up now but it will be dark by 3.

An hour later we are slipping the boat into Jarfjord, changing into drysuits in the warmth of a cabin, and then Bjørn begins coaxing the protesting engine to life.

The sun is nearing its zenith, yet still barely peeking above the snowy hills around the fjord. The boat hisses to a stop in the thin sea ice that’s beginning to form following a few cold days and a winter storm.

Bjørn points to his sonar display. It’s noisy, but unmistakable: two wings, a fuselage and a tail. An American-made, Soviet-piloted fighter plane, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, is 20 meters below us, resting on the bottom of the fjord where it has languished since 1944.

Bjørn Ballo’s sonar screen shows the P-40 plane wreck directly underneath his boat. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
Bjørn Ballo’s sonar screen shows the P-40 plane wreck directly underneath his boat. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)

During the Second World War, Murmansk, less than 250 km from Nazi-occupied Kirkenes, was a vital part of the supply line keeping the Red Army fighting in Europe. Without Murmansk, the Soviets would have starved and Germany would have shifted its focus and might to other fronts. The Barents region thus became an unlikely northern front between the Germans and Soviets, with the Allies doing all they could to do keep the supplies coming.

The P-40 was the first fighter plane supplied to the Soviet Union during the war by the Allies, and altogether, the Soviets acquired over 2,400 P-40 planes of various models.

On June 17, 1944, a squadron of 24 P-40 fighters left Murmansk at 8:25 pm flying west toward the never-setting sun of Arctic summer. One of them wouldn’t return.

The water is about 10°C warmer than the frigid winter air, but my face quickly goes numb anyway while I clumsily sort out my unfamiliar gear, floating amongst tiny pans of ice. It’s a bad time to realize I’m years out of practice. Going down the anchor line, I realize too late I’m sinking faster than I should and hit the bottom like a stone – buoyancy control all but gone.

Less than a foot away through the swirling cloud of silt is the pink algae-encrusted tip of the Warhawk’s wing.

Bjørn descends gracefully a minute later, and sorts out my thrashing. I slowly remember how to trim the amount of air in my suit – although I never truly get the hang of it – and float off to explore the wreck.

The plane is almost fully intact, with the propeller and machine gun notably missing; these are on display on shore. But while the plane has lost some parts, the Arctic waters have provided it with some new ones as well: it is pockmarked with sea stars, graceful anemones, and algae of all varieties. A wary Arctic lyre crab picks its way across the fuselage; predatory wolf fish have been known to shelter around the wreck and crabs are a favourite snack.

An Arctic lyre crab scuttles amongst the algae covering the plane’s fuselage. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
An Arctic lyre crab scuttles amongst the algae covering the plane’s fuselage. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)

While I hover nearby, Bjørn gently drops flipper-clad feet first into the P-40’s cockpit. He settles in, gingerly seated exactly where a young Soviet pilot sat 70 years earlier.

Only half an hour after taking off from Murmansk in 1944, Junior Lieutenant Ivan Georgievich Logutov’s plane was hit by ground-based flak cannons while German fighters scrambled to defend Kirkenes. He brought the plane down in Jarfjord, swam ashore and was captured by the Germans. He was just 21 years old.

He would spend the rest of the war in a German POW camp, although his stay wouldn’t be long. On October 25th, 1944, the Red Army surged across the border to liberate Kirkenes. Logutov returned home where he reentered the Army, later becoming a civilian pilot then a mathematics and physics professor. He died in 1987, but only recently has his connection to the P-40 at the bottom of Jarfjord been known.

Last month, while Kirkenes prepared to celebrate the 70th anniversary of liberation a reporter from the Sør-Varanger Avis published the result of a long effort learn more about the downed pilot’s life after the war. With the help of social media, reporter Yngve Grønvik and historian Rune Rautio had tracked down Logutov’s surviving relatives including his daughter, Tatyana Nikitina.

We winch the boat out of the fjord under a bright full moon, frost forming on our wet gear. Bjørn has seen much worse: he often brings a flask of hot water to avoid being iced into his dive suit. The fjord freezes completely in the winter, entombing the Warhawk for months. Each season it accumulates another layer of silt and more algae, breaking down and passing into history like its once-unknown pilot.

 

Bjørn Ballo’s sketch of the P-40 is only one of many he has made of wrecks, both in their entirety and in small sections. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)
Bjørn Ballo’s sketch of the P-40 is only one of many he has made of wrecks, both in their entirety and in small sections. (Jimmy Thomson/Barents Observer)

In a way the war is what got Bjørn diving. His grandfather was a salvage diver, reclaiming scrap metal and other useful materials from the many wartime wrecks around Kirkenes.

Bjørn was taught by his uncle, and has taught each of his own four children to dive. He has taken a personal interest in recording and drawing the wrecks: downed planes, cargo ships, troop carriers and landing craft.

“I started to see details I hadn’t seen before,” Bjørn says. But the details are slowly rusting away.

There are more than a dozen known wrecks, with many more in deeper water waiting to be discovered. Their hulls and fuselages are decaying, and the memories of their crews disappearing. With so much war history underwater, divers like Bjørn often form the strongest links between the past and the present.

In any investigation the mantra is always go deeper ­– go beneath the surface to find the truth. Divers like Bjørn take that literally, and the answers they find in the depths of fjords and the bottoms of harbours are helping slowly piece together the full picture of Finnmark’s past.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: The discovery of an Arctic shipwreck, Radio Canada International

Finland: Heritage hunting in Finnish forests, Yle News

Russia:  Russia’s Arctic culture heritage sites get protection, Barents Observer

United States:  Crews unearth military history on Alaska Glacier, Alaska Dispatch

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