During the times of the Soviet Occupation the Soviet propaganda made movies like “Tobago Changes its Course” (1965) that depicted the mutiny on the Latvian trade ship Tobago on the behalf of the new Soviet government. The story was based on real Latvian naval cargo ship “Hercogs Jēkabs” (Duke Jacob) whose captain choose to subordinate to the new Latvian Soviet government and from Cavalyo, Peru tried to sail back to Latvia. Despite the attempts of the Latvian Embassy in Washington to cancel its route to USSR and the temporary arrest, it made its way to Vladivostok. It was renamed Sovetskaya Latvia and used for ammunition transfer. After the war it was used as prisoner transfer ship in the Sea of Okhotsk. But, this was one of the rare examples that soviets could use. In fact most Latvian trade navy ships defied the soviet order to turn back to occupied Latvia. They still kept its allegiance to the Republic of Latvia and stayed on the western shores. Despite the fact that Latvia had no government in exile, only legitimate diplomatic embassies in US and UK, the western powers refused to turn over these ships to USSR. Most of these ships could not survive the war. One of them was Ciltvaira.
Latvia as a country with long coast line with the Baltic Sea had long naval traditions. Before the arriving of Crusaders , the ancient Curonian and Livonian tribes made first trade voyages and raiding parties. At the start of the 19th century when serfdom was abolished, Latvians started to form their own naval schools and built their ships. At the start of the 20th century under the flag of the Russian Empire Latvians had some 550 vessels, stationed at the ports of Ainaži, Rīga, Roja, Pāvilosta, Liepāja and Venstpils. The main Latvian shipbuilding company was Austra, at Ainaži the well-known Latvian intellectual opened a naval school. Liepaja had constant passenger routes to New York. On 1914 within the Latvian ports 333 ships were registered.
The World War I made great damage to Latvian ports, as Germans captured the Liepāja and Ventspils harbors and limited access to Riga port. Third of the Latvian ships were lost. Then on 1918 after World War I ended and Russian Empire had ceased to exist, Latvian sailors had chance to raise the flag of the new-born Republic of Latvia. First vessel to do so was a steamship Maiga, next was Saratov that was used by the Latvian Provisional government. After the end of the War for Freedom, Latvia regained 8 ships from Petrograd (St. Petersburg), but all ships taken by Germany were lost. Latvians begun to form their own trade fleet. Most Latvian steamers were used before WWI, only new built one was icebreaker Krišjānis Valdemārs. Latvian vessels carried Latvian goods – wood, flax, butter and many other products. Passenger lines went to London, Hamburg and Stockholm.
Latvia was just beginning its naval modernization when the World War I broke out. Latvia had 103 trade ships on January 1939, leaving the ship on duty was forbidden. On 1939 no ship was lost as many them carried their duties across the seas as usual. On June 1940 Soviet Union occupied Latvia and started took over all Latvian navy. Those who were stationed at Latvian shores had no real chance to resist. But, those who were sailing at the oceans had a choice – go back to Latvia and became part of the USSR navy or keep the Latvian banner within western shores. Both choices were grim. The Soviets could arrest some of the sailors and send the ships far away, but as there was no Latvian government in exile, only still acting diplomatic envoys, staying on Latvian side was dangerous because Latvia was no longer recognized as de facto sovereign country.
The freight steamer Ciltvaira was built on 1905 at the Sunderland, Great Britain. Before it came under the Latvian banner it was known as Twyford, Vironia for Estonia, President Bunge for Belgium and Endsleigh for Great Britain again. On 1935 it was acquired by Latvian owners J Zalcmanis, J Freimanis and K. Jansons. The first captain was K A Kaktiņš, later M A Osis, A P Galdiņš and K Šķenbergs. Ship made numerous long routes to North Sea, Mediterranean Sea ad Soviet Northern harbors. When Word War II started the ship stayed within the waters of the Western Hemisphere.
When Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union, none of the Western powers did not rush to acknowledge this as legitimate act. The most strongest response was from US , that issued a resolution that condemned the annexation of the Baltic States. Latvian gold assets worth of 17 890 422 was frozen and Latvian consulates continued their work. 8 Latvian ships were within the American shores and stayed under the Latvian flag- “Everasma”, “Abgabra”, “Reģents”, “Everelza”, “Evaragra” and “Ķegums”. And also Ciltvaira.
The captain of the Ciltvaira M A Osis received an order from Latvian Soviet government to head to Murmansk, Soviet Union. Osis decided to follow this order. However, Latvian consulate demanded to stop the ship until the change of the captain. This was done at the port of Rio de Janeiro and ship was taken to US. Captain Osis and 12 other sailors went back to Soviet occupied Latvia and were involved in the World War II activities.
The new captain of the Ciltvaira was Pēteris Augusts Galdiņš. Born in 1904 at Mazsalaca – a small port town at Vidzeme region. Took part in the War for Freedom within Latvian ranks, wile being only 14-year-old. Was a steerman at Evarlda, and Ķegums from 1939. While at Argentina, he received order from Latvian US Envoy A Bīlmanis to head to Uruguay and take over ship of Abgara, that also was prevented from leaving off to Latvia. On 1941 he was called to captain the Ciltvaira. Galdiņš acquired US residence permit and later US citizenship and had US long freighter captain diploma. After Word War 2 he worked in Panama-Scandinavian lines and on Chinese ships.
The Ciltvaira was operating under the US commands, but as Latvian ship. After Germany declared war on US, the German U-boat submarines started to hunt for US trade ships that sent goods to Great Britain and USSR. Since Latvia was occupied then by Germans, they had no respect for the Latvian banner if it was within allied command. On January 19 1942 Ciltvaira was heading from Norfolk to Savannah with a load of paper. At that point the new captain was Karlis Šķembergs. The German U-123 sub led by captain Reinhard Hardegen spotted the ship and struck it with a torpedo at 5:00 AM. Boiler room and room N0.2 was flooded. Two men were killed instantly – firemen: Carl Gustaefssen and Rolf Semelin. Radio Operator Rūdolfs Musts was left stuck in his room due to the door being after the hit. The ship had no escorts and no arms to defend itself and was not part of the lend-lease program.
Captain Šķembergs ordered to abandon ship. The survivors abandoned ship in both port lifeboats when she settled by the head with a list to port after the boiler room and #2 hold were flooded. About 14.00 hours, the wreck was sighted by the northbound Coamo which avoided the area at full speed as she was in danger of being torpedoed herself, but the American steam tanker Socony-Vacuum stopped and picked up all survivors. Because the Ciltvaira had remained afloat, the master and eight volunteers returned to the ship while the tanker brought the rest of the crew to Charleston, South Carolina. At 16.00 hours, the Brazilian steam merchant Bury arrived and her master agreed to take the ship in tow for Norfolk. Four men from the Brazilian ship went aboard to help the few men with the ropes after the tow parted several times and they finally got underway. However, the following evening the salvage operation was stopped because the ships were only proceeding at 2 knots or less and all men taken off and eventually landed at New York.
The USS Osprey (AM-56) arrived and stood by until the ocean-going tug USS Sciota (AT-30) could resume the tow. What happened next is somewhat sketchy. One report indicates it remained afloat and drifting for two days. Another report states a number of different variations from it be torpedoed a second time to ship while being towed lost in heavy seas. The current location of the wreck is unknown. Its claimed to be 120 feet under near Nags Head diving center and filled with marine life.The community of Nags Head has a street named after the Ciltvaira.
Latvian sailors who refused to leave the doomed ship as still wanted to save her, were greeted as heroes. New York Times 22 January issue wrote that Latvian men being two years on the sea still wants to go back to the ships, no matter how many of them could be lost as long as Latvia regains its freedom. The Charleston newspaper “The News and Courier” made interviews with rescued sailors who showed no fear of German subs and said that next time their ship will be armed. Meanwhile the Nazi controlled Latvian newspapers in Latvia, condemned the Americans for using Latvian ship and placed it on the another successful German U-boat hit list.
The Ciltvaira was not the last German victim. Five of the eight Latvian ships were sunken. One was sunk by Italian submarine. Many Latvian and foreign sailors abroad the Latvian ship lost their lives. Only two Latvian ships made it to the end of the war. The ship “Regent” lost 14 out of 35 men. Everelza was sunk taking 19 men with it. Ķegums survived the war as convoy ship, but crushed at thick fog on 1948 at the Bay of Biscay. The Evaragra was hit by torpedo on 1943 but survived.
This was a price for lost Latvian independence and the non recognition policy. While US was unable to liberate Latvia from Soviet occupation, it did anything it could to defend the Latvian patriots and their property from the Soviets. Many of them did not live till 1991 when Latvia regained independence. In the pictures are the personal belongings of the Ciltvaira captain Augusts Pēteris Galdiņš. A silver platter that the crew of the Ciltvaira gave to Gustav in honor of his leadership and heroism for standing up to the Russians, a platter hastily but skillfully engraved by hand with a knife, dated before the Ciltvaira made it to the US but after it defected. It was presented at a time when quite literally the Ciltvaira, the 7 other vessels and the Latvian Embassies in Washington, DC and London were the only elements of the Latvian sovereignty. The platter is stamped and I think purchased in Newfoundland, perhaps as they made their way to the US, and was hand-carved and presented to Gustav before they landed in the US. It now belongs to his close family friend in US. Galdiņš retired on 1970 and lived in Santa Clara California where he died on 1988. Pictures are posted by his permission. Latvians are said to be a farmer nation, but Latvians are pretty much can be called as sailor nation. The Ainaži naval school was one of the beginnings of the Latvian national awakening and naval carrier was a motivation for many young Latvians to explore the world and gain education. Today Latvian sailors sail on board of many countries ships. Many Latvian owned vessels are under third party country flag like Panama and Cyprus. But Latvian naval life is still active and its history of the heroic Latvian sailors of the WW2 is story to be remembered.
Ilze Bernsone, Inta Sīpola. (2003) Latvijas jūrniecības vēsture : 1850-1950 . Riga.Rīgas vēstures un kug̦niecības muzejs