Finland relied on outside trade in order to survive and this only became more crucial during war time. Small convoys would form in neutral Swedish waters and be escorted by the Finnish navy through the extensive minefields surrounding the Åland Islands (Ahvenamaa). On the 13th January, one of Finnish biggest maritime disasters occurred when the escort vessel, Aura II, was sunk by a malfunction of one of her depth charges.
Aura II’s long history
The story of Aura II goes back to 1848 and the Halmstad Castle in Sweden. Several prominent individuals in the world of shipping had been invited by the Governor of Halland, Adolf Patrik Lewenhaupt. He wanted to encourage investment in shipliner traffic from the Halland region throughout the West Coast of Sweden, as well as Copenhagen. British born industrialist, Alexander Keiller, stepped up to the task and founded the Hallands Ångbåtsaktiebolag (Hallands Shipping Company).
An order was placed with AB Motala Verkstad, a well known engineering company, and soon the Lindholmens shipyard was filled with the noise of construction. The vessel being built was to become Sweden’s first ship to have electric lights. It would displace 466 tons, be powered by two twin-cylinder compound steam engines producing 480 hp and have a rated speed of 12 knots. She was rated to take 61 passengers. When she was completed, she was commissioned with the name Halland.
The exact year of her maiden voyage are in dispute, but between 1848-1850 she was put on a route that saw her go between Gothenburg and Lübeck once a week. The Crimean War of 1852-56 was a good time for Sweden’s merchant navy and the Halland played her part. Not long after the Crimean War ended, the Danish-German war broke out and once again Halland was ferrying goods at a very profitable rate.
In March 1918, after many years of service with Hallands, she was sold to Trawl AB Sill and then on to AE Appelberg. Appelberg was a subsidiary of Bore Shipping Company of Turku, based in Stockholm. This allowed the Finnish company to bypass the tight laws surrounding the purchasing foreign vessels. She soon arrived in Turku for refurbishment.
Her maiden voyage for the Finnish company was in September 1918 on the popular Stockholm – Turku route. However disaster struck when on the journey from Stockholm. Just off the island of Yxlö, she collided with German steamship Cronshagen. A huge hole was torn in her side and the captain ordered the ship to be ran aground in order to avoid sinking. One stoker died. She was sold, salvaged and repaired in early 1919.
Rederi Ab Halland operated her on the Turku – Lübeck for less than a year. Bore Shipping Company purchased Rederi Ab Halland and so Halland was returned to Bore’s service. She was renamed in 1928 to Bore II and assigned to the Helsinki – Stockholm line. In 1930, she underwent a luxurious makeover as the owner of Bore, Hans von Rettig, purchased her as his personal luxury yacht. Now named Seagull, she served her new master for several years, sailing throughout the Baltic sea. Her career only seemed to rise when in 1936 she was donated to the Finnish state and made the official Presidential yacht. Now named Aura, she faithfully served two presidents, Pehr Evind Svinhufvud and Kyösti Kallio, bringing them for state visits in the Baltic States. However, in the run up to the Winter War, due to Governmental cuts, she became increasingly neglected.
Naval Service and the Winter War
Due to the increasing tensions throughout Europe, the Finnish Navy scrambled to enlarge its fleet. One of the many vessels that were ‘drafted’ into the navy was the Aura. She was fitted out with a 75mm 50 caliber Pattern 1892, a Madsen 20 mm AA Machine Cannon M/38, a 7,62 mm Maxim machine gun and depth charge throwers. Appropriately armed, she was assigned to the 1st Division of the Escort Flotilla (I Divisioona, Saattolaivue) and put under the command of Luutnantti (Lieutenant) Esra Immanuel Terä.
Her role was simple; to protect the vital shipping coming into Finland from Soviet submarines. Throughout December she would work alongside her sisters of the 1st Division escorting merchant ships through the Sea of Åland and the Archipelago Sea into the Gulf of Bothnia. Under her watchful gaze, she brought Finland’s lifeline through the dangerous mined waters and into various ports, and not once lost a vessel under her protection.
On the 13th January 1940, Aura II alongside the patrol vessel Tursas, were escorting a small convoy through the Sea of Åland. The three vessels of the convoy, SS Anneberg, SS Hebe and the SS Bore I, were heading to Turku. As the convoy was passing by Märket island, torpedos were seen passing between Anneberg and Hebe. A moment later, a Soviet submarine surfaced 300 metres to Tursas’s port side. Alarms sounded throughout the convoy and Tursas attempted to ram the submarine.
Aura II went into immediate action and headed towards the now submerging submarine. It passed over where the sub had dived and dropped three depth charges in quick succession. The action was rewarded with an oil slick but to make sure; orders were given to drop three more. As the sixth one was being launched, it exploded, tearing the stern off the ship. The powerful 135 kg charge significantly damaged the ship and soon she began to sink. Lieutenant Esra Immanuel Terä was mortally wounded but encouraged his crew by saying “Let us sing, boys”.
Within 5 minutes Aura II was claimed by the icy January sea. Tursas attempted to rescue as many as she could but only 15 from a crew of 41 were saved. The Soviet submarine, later identified as Soviet submarine SHCH-324, escaped and returned to her home port of Tallinn. To date, no wreck has been found but her position is marked as 60° 23′ N, 19° 10′ E.
Some Soviet/Russian history books state that the sinking of Aura II was due to fire from the SHCH-324 but to date there is no evidence to support this and is probably down to confusion of early tellings of the incident.
Aura II Roll of Honour
Luutnantti (Lieutenant) Esra Immanuel Terä
Aliluutnantti (Ensign) Tenho Tapio Vuori
Aliluutnantti (Ensign) Toivo Veikko Pohjola
Pursimies (Chief petty officer) William/Viljam Ikäheimonen
Ylimatruusi (Seaman) Kaarlo Olavi Aaltonen
Ylimatruusi (Seaman) Viljo Elis Aaltonen
Ylimatruusi (Seaman) Eino Johannes Kaarne
Ylimatruusi (Seaman) Alfons Leonard Salovaara
Ylimatruusi (Seaman) Vilho Sundman
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Hannes Kaarlo Aarto
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Wiljo Wilhelm Blomqvist
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Einar Aleksi Friberg
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Jouko Kaleva Heinonen
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Taavi Kaarlo Hellström
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Väinö Armas Hiltunen
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Kaarlo Jaakkola
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Runar Edvard Kullberg
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Gunnar Veli Vilho Lehtimäki
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Heikki Ilmari Neffling
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Karl Åke Henrik Saarikoivu
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Einar Ilmari Sundström
Matruusi (Seaman apprentice) Lauri Vilhelm Vanne
Sotamies (Private) Reino Kärkkäinen
Sotamies (Private) Karl Bertil Nabb
Sotamies (Private) Edvin Jalmari Salmela
Jyrki K. Talvitie ja Kalevi Keskinen. Suomen merisota – Taisteluja Itämeren herruudesta (WSOY 2013)