Monday, 24 August 2020

THE FATEFUL VOYAGE OF THE SOVIET SHIP POBEDA Part 1.

 

The POBEDA at Batumi 1948, underging light maintenance work whilst the ship was being off loaded

A DEFINING MOMENT

On its journey from New York to Odesa, the POBEDA was unexpectedly diverted to a port in Egypt, where it was to be massively overloaded with 2000 additional passengers and 1500 tons of cargo. On the final fateful leg when the ship leaves Batumi on the Black Sea heading for Odesa,  13 passengers were unaccounted for. Passing Yalta a huge fire engulfs the POBEDA leaving 42 dead including a defecting high ranking Chinese diplomat and General in the Government of Chiang Kai Shek.

THE JOURNEY

On the face of it, the journey of the POBEDA was going to be a normal journey by sea for the 323 Russian diplomats and embassy staff on the passenger list from New York. This kind of journey didn't happen regularly but it did happen. 

Amongst the passengers was a diplomat known to followers of this blog, Pavel Ivanovich Fedosimov but not, however, his wife Vera although another passenger with the first name Vera was there. 

Followers of this blog will be familiar with Pavel Ivanovich Fedosimov, he is the number one candidate for being the Somerton Man.


The POBEDA was due to put to sea on the 31st July with a single destination, Odesa in Ukraine on the Black Sea. 

It was to be an unusual journey even before it even started.

SOVIET SCHOOL CLOSED BY ORDER, THE DEFECTORS

It all began in June 1948 when, under orders from Moscow, the Soviet School in New York, set up to teach the children of embassy diplomats and staff, was suddenly closed. All teachers and students were to return to the Motherland by September. 

Amongst those to leave were the Head Teacher, Michael Samarin, his wife, their 3 children, and a 52-year-old Chemistry teacher at the school, Oksana Kasenkina. Samarind and his family immediately on hearing of the recall, successfully applied for Political Assylum. However, in Oksana's case, the situation quickly escalated into a major diplomatic row of epic proportions. Suffice to say, for our purposes here, that Oksana was given refuge in a White Russian facility belonging to the Tolstoy Foundation, she returned to the Soviet Embassy of her own free will to some accounts, was held in the Russian Embassy and leaped from a 3 rd floor room to get helped by two passing NY Police officers who dragged her over the wall and to freedom. The Press was having a field day.

Stirring the pot with apparent enthusiasm was a former Democratic Congressman and New York State Supreme Justice, Samuel Dickstein. It was he who signed the writ of Habeus Corpus which was refuted by the Soviets, (Lomakin). Dickstein threatened to have his Sheriff seize Kasenkina if necessary and lock Lomakin up if necessary. All very tough grandstanding do you think? Not really, you see in later years it was discovered that Dickstein was in fact a paid agent of the NKVD.

A DELAYED DEPARTURE

You might think that whilst all this was happening the POBEDA quietly slipped away? Well, actually, no, she didn't. 

According to Russian documents recently received, the ship was delayed at the dock because US officials had instructed that the interior of the POBEDA had to be thoroughly cleansed and  'disinfected' before it could get underway, as you could imagine, that took many hours. The Soviets were concerned about what the real reason may have been. Interestingly another account had it that the reason for the delay was something to do with 'customs and luggage'. Whatever the cause, the ship was delayed for some hours before heading out to sea and Odesa, or so they thought.

A CHANGE OF PLAN

As the ship approached Gibraltar, a radio message was received, they were to alter course and head for Alexandria, Egypt. There, they were to pick up some 2000 Armenian Repatriates and take them on to Batumi on the Black Sea. In addition, another 1500 tons of cargo was to be uplifted.

As you might expect, the additional passengers and cargo put the ship well over its limits, and thus the journey to from Alexandria to Batumi, normally around 5 days duration took longer. The weather at the time was quite warm so sleeping/living arrangements were mainly on the decks of the ship with a canvas cover.

On arrival, the 2000 Armenian passengers were disembarked and the cargo offloaded. 

Once the disembarkation and offloading were completed the ship would have topped up with fuel and headed off to its original destination of Odesa. However, the documents state that only 310 passengers were aboard for this, the last leg of the journey, 13 passengers short of the original passenger manifest total of 323 that was recorded at the starting point of New York on July 31st. 1948.

THE FIRE: 70 MILES OFF YALTA


Here we will defer to the Russian report of the catastrophic fire onboard the POBEDA:

"On the passenger ship "Victory" (POBEDA), during the flight from New York to Odessa, a fire broke out. 42 people were killed: two crew members-the the barmaid G. Gunyan and the sailor V. Skripnikov, 40 passengers, including 19 women and 15 children; among them, the Chinese Marshal Feng Yuxiang with his daughter and the widow of the writer A. N. Afinogenova Yevgenia Bernardovna (Jenny Schwartz). The fire on the ship and the death of the Chinese Marshal were immediately reported to Stalin. A fire broke out in the storeroom, due to a spark when rewinding film films, there were also stored 2 thousand gramophone records. 

Everything in the room caught fire, the hot air knocked out the door, a fire tornado engulfed the corridor, along the vertical shafts of the stairs reached the upper bridge. the fire engulfed the Central part of the ship, including the navigation, steering and radio room, the cabins of the captain, and navigators. Then it began to spread through the living quarters, onto the boat deck, and toward the holds and engine room. Several independent, random groups in different parts of the ship were engaged in extinguishing the fire. On the night of September 3, when rescuers came, the main fire was extinguished. On September 5, "Victory" (POBEDA) came to Odessa. The ship was originally named "Magdalena". built in the city of Danzig in 1928. In wartime, already under the name "Iberia" served as a floating base of the German Navy in Kiel. After the war, the ship received the British Navy. But on February 18, 1946, the Iberia, which was not damaged in the war, was transferred to the black sea shipping company by the USSR for reparations. 

The liner received a new name - "Victory". It worked on the line Odessa — new York, headed by the crew of the captain of long-distance navigation Nikolai Adamovich Pakholok.In 1949, a closed trial of the culprits took place. They recognized the non-standard projectionist Kovalenko, his assistant-sailor Skripnikov, the captain of the ship Pakholok and assistants, the radio operator who did not transmit the SOS signal, the dispatcher of the shipping company. 

The ship's captain Nikolay Pakholok and the projectionist Kovalenko were sentenced to 15 years in prison, pompolit (Political Officer) Pershukov to ten, and the radio operator Vedeneyev to eight. Alexander Nabokin, who was responsible for fire safety, was the most severely punished: he was sentenced to 25 years in prison — the highest measure at that time. 

Pobeda continued to operate in the CHMP on domestic and foreign lines. In the mid-1950s, she was listed among the best ships of the shipping company. In 1956, the ship Pobeda went on its first cruise around Europe. On-Board were nomenclature workers, many writers, including Konstantin Paustovsky, scientists, and journalists. In 1962, during the Caribbean crisis, the ship was used to transport Soviet troops to Cuba. In the late 1970s, it was decommissioned from the fleet and disposed of in Chittagong (Bangladesh). The ship Pobeda in 1968 starred in the Comedy by Leonid Gaidai — "the diamond hand "as"Mikhail Svetlov". It is on the deck of the Victory, 20 years after the tragedy, that Andrey Mironov sings a song about the Island of bad luck."

SUMMARY

From the very outset, the POBEDA seems to have been marked by intrigue and disaster. The defections in New York, the involvement of an American and paid Soviet Agent, the strange delay just prior to departure, the sudden change of the route, the missing passengers, the tragic fire and deaths of 42 passengers and crew.All of this on one journey seems hard to take.

In some Russian circles it is still thought that just maybe the 'disinfection' where curtains, carpets and linen were all sprayed may have been part of the plan to set the ship on fire and to cover the assassination of the General Feng Yuxiang, the so-called 'Christian General' of the Chinese Nationalist Army and a competitor to Chiang Kai Shek' leader of the Nationalist Army.

Other reports talk of strange 'ores' that glowed and quickly caught fire were discovered in the wreckage of the ship.

Or is it the case that the Soviets delayed the departure whilst they tried in vain to find and 'collect' the missing defectors from the Soviet School and perhaps others?

The case of the 13 missing passengers remains a mystery. The documents say that the ship had only one destination for the 323 passengers on the manifest when she left New York, Odesa, and the change in the routing did not occur until the Pobeda approached Gibraltar. Yet the passenger list ex Batumi shows just 310 passengers before the fire.

Is it possible that another agenda was being followed? Is it possible that amongst the missing 13 passengers was Pavel Ivanovich Fedosimov, the Soviet Diplomat and NKVD officer who had been recalled to Russia under suspicion of being about to betray the mother country? (According to Vassiliev's notes) Did Pavel leave the ship at Batumi and head for Iran and an ultimate escape via the ship to Australia?

I have asked the source of the information in this blog if he could assist in tracking down the ship's log which hopefully includes the Batumi passenger manifest.



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4 comments:

  1. A detail which may be of use if not now then perhaps later as and when we are able to get copies of the passenger manifest on leaving Batumi. The survivors of the Batumi fire were picked up by another ship, the 'Vyacheslav Molotov' a wartime hospital ship and later floating ammunition factory but converted back to a liner after the end of hostilities.

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  2. "The Pobeda had carried 2000 Armenian repatriates from Egypt, dropping them off at the Georgian port of Batumi shortly before the disaster."
    That gives at least two ports where someone could disembark. Alexandria and Batumi. Were there any other places for possible disembarkation?

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  3. I think that Batumi would be a better place, easy to get lost amongst the noise and confusion of 2000 Armenians milling around. Having said that, the rescue vessel would also offer an opportunity, lots of confusion on arrival in Odesa you would think.

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  4. This could be purely coincidental, TAMAN is a region of Russia. In fact it's the TAMAN PENINSULA and it lies just North of the route that the POBEDA took across the Black Sea close to the Sea of Azov. Here's the Google Maps link: https://www.google.com/maps/@45.4634222,36.625076,8.75z

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