The downing of Kaleva-airplane

Kaleva was a civilian Junkers Ju 52 passenger and transport plane, belonging to the Finnish carrier Aero O/Y (predecessor of the modern-day state-owned Finnair). The aircraft was shot down by two Soviet Ilyushin DB-3 bombers (most likely used aircraft) during peacetime between the Soviet Union and Finland on 14 June 1940, while en route from Tallinn to Helsinki, killing all nine on board.

Kaleva took off on its last flight towards Malmi Airport from Tallinn. The Finnish crew consisted of captain Bo von Willebrand and radio-operator Tauno Launis. The passengers were two German businessmen (Friedrich Offermann & Rudolf Cöllen), two French diplomatic messengers (Paul Longuet & Frederic Marty), one Swede (Max Hettinger), one Finnish-Estonian (Gunvor Maria Luts), and one American (Henry Antheil). The incident took place during the tense political climate of the interim peace as no complaint was made to the Soviet Union about destroying a passenger aircraft during peacetime.

The official Finnish inquiry did not reveal the true cause of the crash to the general public and the Soviet Union denied any involvement. This has given rise to a few interesting theories of the shooting.
A wild theory includes a direct order from Stalin himself to shoot down the plane, due to his suspicion of the Estonian president Konstantin Päts being onboard. Likewise, ideas of smuggling out the last remaining Estonian gold depository or other notable people have been suggested due to the fact that Estonia was to be fully occupied only a few days later. No notable people were being smuggled out of Estonia, but there were valuables salvaged in the aftermath: 2 golden medals, 2000 Finnish marks, 10 000 Romanian leus, 13 500 French francs, 100 Yugoslav dinars, 90 Italian liras, 75 US dollars, 521 Soviet rubles and 10 Estonian kroons.

A more modest theory involves the 227 kg of diplomatic mail that was on board. The American (Henry W. Antheil Jr. and brother of the composer George Antheil) was a clerk at the U.S. legation in Helsinki and is suspected to have been transporting U.S. military codes to safety from Soviet-threatened Estonia. The French couriers are reported to have been transporting 120 kg of documents that could not be afforded to fall into the wrong hands. Either way, a lot of diplomatic mail was on board and it is reasonable to think that crucial information was being transported, though it does not explain why the mail had to be intercepted through such an unconventional method.

A mundane theory involves a failure in communication e.g. pilots not receiving the clearance of the flight or interpreting orders regarding the blockade of Estonia too exact. These were the final days of Estonian “independence” and for an average soldier, the circumstances could have been erratic.

Estonian fishermen were first to arrive at the scene and the salvaged material was confiscated by the Soviet submarine Shch-301. The Finnish military headquarters intercepted the submarine’s communications and were well aware of the incident, having also sent the top fighter ace Ilmari Juutilainen to investigate and circling the crash site before returning to base. As mentioned, the Soviet Union denied the accident until its end, and documents regarding the incident have gone missing. The story of Kaleva might have faded into history if it wasn’t for an aviation-historian named Carl-Fredrik Geust. In 1988 he found in a Leningradian bookstore the memoirs of Lieutenant General Pjotr Iljitš Hohlov, which included a detailed account of the incident (though it dates the shooting to take place a week later once Estonia was fully occupied). There has been a growing interest in the event ever since, though it is still largely unknown to the public. Thorough searches of the wreckage have also taken place, with the most recent attempt in 2008, and although unsuccessful, they did find Shch-301 in 2006 (having sunk in August 28, 1941).

Hopefully Neidell et al. can now find this piece and mention it in an out of the foxholes episode. This is my attempt at contributing to the show and a reminder of all the little stories that are easily overshadowed by the major events (fall of Paris and Kaleva taking place on June 14, 1940). I am happy to provide sources and sorry that they are mostly in Finnish and Estonian.