A Vintage Submarine And Icebreaker In Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour

Tallinn
Tallinn has been an important port and Estonia’s connection with the world since before recorded history. Because of this, the city has not one, but two museums dedicated to the sea. The Maritime Museum is housed in Fat Margaret, an old cannon tower that once protected the harbor. It has the usual assortment of old photos and gear, along with a very cool exhibit on sunken ships.

The other museum is far more interactive. Housed in an old seaplane hanger dating to World War I, Tallinn’s Seaplane Harbour Museum is filled with old ships and other maritime bric-a-brac.

Estonians seem to favor odd lighting in their museums. The Bastion Tunnels have a weird combination of red, yellow, and purple lights. At the Seaplane Harbor museum they seem to favor purple and blue. It gives the place a spooky under-the-sea feel.

Dominating the exhibit is the Lembit, a submarine built in 1936 by the English company Vickers and Armstrongs for the Estonian Navy. When Estonia fell to the Soviet Union in 1940 it was incorporated into the Red Banner Baltic Fleet of the Soviet Navy and saw action against the Axis powers. It managed to sink two ships and damage another.

Climb aboard and you’ll see an almost perfectly preserved submarine that was the cutting edge of technology of its time. You can visit the control room, periscope, radio room, torpedo tubes and cramped crewmen’s bunks all pretty much as they were. It didn’t feel too cramped to me until I read that it housed a crew of 32. Then I decided to enlist in the Army. Check out the gallery for some photos of this fascinating sub.

%Gallery-179305%As you walk around your eyes will be drawn upward by the two giant rotating propellers hanging from the ceiling. They’re so big you might miss the seaplane fitted with skis suspended nearby. A walkway takes you past other historic ships and an extensive collection of mines, presumably defused.

This is a fully interactive museum with touchscreen displays to teach you more about what you’re seeing. You can also man an antiaircraft gun and see how good you’d be defending Tallinn from an enemy air force. Then hop aboard a reproduction Sopwith Camel and try out a flight simulator. While I managed to save Tallinn from the bad guys, my flying skills showed that I should keep my driving on the ground.

Once you’re done with the indoor exhibits, head out back to visit the Suur Tõll, an icebreaker built in 1914 that saw service for several decades, clearing the Baltic Sea lanes during cold winters. Like with the Lembit, it’s well preserved and you can wander all over it. It seemed vast and luxurious compared with the submarine. The officer’s mess looked as big as a ballroom (it wasn’t), the quarters for the crew felt sumptuous (not!) and the engine room was like some Industrial Revolution factory. It takes a pretty tough person to be a sailor, and someone twice as tough to work in a submarine.

If you are at all interested in technology or the sea, don’t miss this place. Your kids will love it too. The museum has an excellent and reasonably priced little restaurant overlooking the hanger in case you get hungry.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Estonia’s Rich Art and Literature Scene!

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Tallinn

Historic Battleship USS Texas Taking In Water, Leaking Oil


The USS Texas is America’s oldest battleship. Commissioned in 1914, it fought in both World War I and World War II. Since 1948 it’s been utilized as a museum at La Porte, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston.

Now the vessel is in peril. It’s sprung a leak and is taking on water. So much water entered the ship that it started noticeably listing to port. The old oil tanks got flooded. While the tanks had been emptied decades ago, they’d never been cleaned, so oily water spread out into the bay.

The oil is being cleaned and the water pumped out. While problems continue, the ship doesn’t appear to be in danger of sinking. The Houston Chronicle reports the ship is taking less water now, from a high of 850 gallons a minute down to 100. Repairs will hopefully start Monday and the ship will be closed for the foreseeable future.

Despite its current troubles, the future may be bright for this floating bit of history. In 2007 a state bond issue raised $25 million to dry berth the ship. This would help preserve it for future generations. Now it’s estimated the project may cost twice that. Getting the money will be difficult in this economic climate, but the project would create jobs and preserve a major tourist attraction.

Check out the video to learn more about this amazing vessel.

Visiting a German bunker from World War Two

World War Two, AntwerpBelgium had it tough in World War Two. Unlike in the First World War, when the Belgian army stubbornly held on to part of the nation and its allies rallied to beat the Germans, in the second war the Low Countries and France were quickly overrun by a German army that now enjoyed superior military technology.

Occupied Belgium was soon covered with fortifications. The Germans feared an Allied landing and dug in. In a park on the outskirts of Antwerp you can see a network of these bunkers at the Bunker Museum.

Not many tourists make it here. In fact, my taxi driver had to call ahead to get directions. Those who do make the journey will be rewarded with a rare look at the life of the German soldier in World War Two. There are eleven bunkers, including barracks, a hospital, a communications bunker, and two large command bunkers.

One of the command bunkers has been turned into a museum. The entrance, shown here, clearly shows the two-meter-thick concrete walls. The roof is 2.5 meters thick. Inside are recreated sleeping quarters, displays about the war around Antwerp, and a large collection of parts from the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

My tour guide was Pierre Koreman, one of the museum caretakers. He was a young boy during the war and clearly remembers the day in 1943 when an American bombing run went astray and destroyed much of Mortsel, the town near Antwerp where he lived. Two schools were destroyed, but the third, which he attended, was spared. A total of 943 civilians were killed. Koreman showed me a letter of apology sent by one of the American airman.

“They had nothing to apologize for,” he said. “They just did their job.”

The intended target was the Messerschmitt airplane factory, where Koreman’s father worked as forced labor.

“He was the biggest saboteur there,” Koreman told me proudly.

He wasn’t the only one. The factory was supposed to test Messerschmitt engines. The workers discovered that the oil they were using separated at high temperatures, making the engine seize up. Of course they didn’t bother telling the Germans that.

“Instead of running the engines they played cards,” Koreman informed me with a smile.
World War Two, Antwerp

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Antwerp was liberated by British, Canadian, and Polish forces on September 4, 1944, but there was no fighting around the bunkers. This has left them in a good state. When the museum started they were completely empty, but careful research and collecting material from other bunkers has allowed the caretakers to give visitors a clear picture of how they operated.

Technologically they’re very impressive considering they were built more than 60 years ago. They have temperature control, filtered air, a system to keep the air pressure normal, generators, telephone, and radio. All this combined with the high-tech remains from the German rockets on display really brought home to me what a massive waste the Third Reich was. With all that effort and ingenuity they could have gone to the Moon. Instead they wrecked Europe. Luckily there was a generation of heroes to stop them, both on the battlefield and through quiet acts of resistance like Koreman’s father.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Fine dining in Antwerp!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Exhibition explores Germany’s relationship with Hitler

More than sixty years after the end of World War Two, Germans are still struggling with their Nazi past. While most of the population is too young to be culpable for World War Two, their parents or grandparents were involved. Many Germans opposed Hitler’s rise to power, but many more supported him, at least in the beginning.

A new exhibition at Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum explores the German people’s relationship with Hitler. Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime brings together a wide range of artifacts and documents showing how Nazism came to dominate every part of German life. Hitler was everywhere–on postage stamps, magazine covers, even toys–and the Nazi party sought to have its ideology permeate every aspect of life.

During the 1920s the German economy was in ruins after losing the First World War and getting caught up in a global economic crisis. In his early speeches Hitler called on Germans to be proud, and blamed Germany’s loss in the First World War on Jews, socialists, and other “foreign elements”. Hitler became even more popular when he got into power and revived the economy. People who suddenly had good jobs after years of hardship and pessimism turned a blind eye to the regime’s seamier side.

Doing an exhibition on Nazism is tricky in Germany and some earlier attempts have been rejected by the police. It’s illegal to display the swastika except in a scientific or historical context, and the common fear is that any exhibition on Hitler will attract neo-Nazis. So far this exhibition has been well received and there have been no incidents.

Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime runs until 6 February 2011.

[Photo courtesy user Professional Assassin via Wikimedia Commons]

Military museums in Rome


The Italian army gets a bad rap.

Sure, it made a poor showing in World War Two, but it was Italian Communist partisans who finally bagged Mussolini. Plus the Italians fought in one of the toughest fronts of the First World War, high in the Alps against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. They endured freezing conditions on top of glaciers for months on end. One of the favorite tactics was to cause avalanches to bury the opposing side. A few years ago the mummies of three Austro-Hungarian soldiers were found frozen in the ice, and another World War One soldier was found last month at an Italian ski resort.

The Italians are also pulling their weight in Afghanistan with 3,800 troops, and joined in the invasion of Iraq and served there for three years. Sadly they have suffered more than 50 deaths in these wars.

And then there was Operation Alba. Operation Alba? Yeah, that’s been pretty much forgotten. In 1997 the government of Albania collapsed, plunging the country into chaos and leading to fighting that killed some 2,000 people. Italy commanded an international coalition that restored order in a textbook case on how to properly run a peacekeeping operation. The rule of law was established and the troops were gone in five months. Military successes tend to be forgotten in favor of military disasters.

Rome has several military museums dedicated to its fallen heroes. Usually overlooked in favor of the giant archaeology and art museums, they offer an interesting glimpse into forgotten history and weapons you’re unlikely to see anywhere else. Take this little tank I’m standing next to, for instance. This is an L3/35 with twin machine guns (now removed). They were introduced in the 1930s and are a stage in development between the lumbering behemoths of WWI and the more practical tanks of WWII. They proved useful during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and 1936. Despite their thin armor, the Ethiopians didn’t have anything to destroy them, although some brave warriors managed to immobilize them by sticking pieces of railroad track or even sabers into their treads! The L3/35 also saw service in North Africa in WWII where they proved easy prey for the more advanced British tanks.

%Gallery-102423%Here are some of the military museums in Rome:

Ufficio Storico Stato Maggiore Esercito: The Italian army archives has an interesting collection of tanks and weapons, mostly from the two World Wars. Several display cases show artifacts dug up from the Alpine front of World War One. It’s in a military building, so bring some ID and expect to have your bag searched. Via Etruria 33.

Museo Storico della Fanteria: The Infantry Museum houses the best and largest military collection in the city with artifacts dating from Roman times up to the present day. The garden is decorated with tanks and cannon set beneath an ancient Roman arch, and the three floors inside are filled with racks of guns, full uniforms, paintings, and dioramas. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 9.

Museo Storico dei Granatieri di Sardegna: Two doors down from the Infantry Museum is one dedicated to the grenadiers of Sardinia. It traces their history from 1659 when they were armed with primitive grenades to their present-day duties as part of the Mechanized Infantry. Piazza San Croce in Gerusalemme 7.

Museo Storico dei Bersaglieri: The Bersaglieri are an elite force in the Italian army famous for running everywhere, even when they’re in their barracks. This makes them very fit and they’re considered some of the toughest troops in the army. Founded even before the unification of Italy, they’ve fought with distinction in all its wars. Porta Pia i Via XX Settembre.

Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare: This museum dedicated to military vehicles displays more than 300 tanks, trucks, helicopters, mobile rocket launchers, motorcycles, and more. It’s located in a large military base. Bring ID and expect to be searched. Viale dell’Esercito 170. If you like tanks, you might want to check out our list of other great tank museums.

There are several more military museums worth seeing, so check out the list the Italian army has here. It’s in Italian, but the basic information is easy enough to puzzle out.

Don’t forget to check out the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: Exploring Rome’s Sinister Side.

Coming up Next: The Catacombs of Rome!