As the inhabitants of a small Estonian village gathered around a local lake to see what a group of enthusiasts were trying to drag up from its depths with a bulldozer, the suspense began to build. And when the object finally emerged, everyone was awe-struck.
Lake Kurtna Mätasjärv is situated in north-eastern Estonia, not far from the country’s border with Russia. The area is quite remote, with the closest town – Jõhvi – home to just 10,000 people.
At around just 130 feet across at its widest and 23 feet deep, the lake is a body of water that not many people would have expected to be hiding any major secrets. At least, not until 1999, when an unnamed elderly gentleman from a local village shared his suspicions that something was lurking at the bottom of the waterbody.
The man explained his story to Igor Sedunov, head of a local history club named Otsing, meaning “Search.” As it turned out, the man’s story went back a long way, to a time when he was still a boy. Indeed, it started in 1944, when the Second World War was in full swing and Nazi Germany was gradually losing ground to the Allies.
As the man told Sedunov, not long after the Germans retreated from this area in 1944, he found himself walking alongside the lake. He discovered some tracks leading up to the water.
With no tracks to be seen on any of the lake’s other banks, it was clear to him that whatever created the marks went into the water but never came out. His conviction about this was further strengthened when he noticed bubbles of air emerging from the spot for the next couple of months.
When the old man shared his story in 1999, the local war history hobbyists were immediately captivated. Divers confirmed the man’s story, too, swimming down into the lake and discovering something large buried under a layer of peat.
What they found in the murky water was a Soviet T-34 tank. First manufactured in 1940, the T-34 arguably became one of the most effective and influential tank designs of the Second World War, and it played a big part in the Allied forces’ victory over Nazi Germany.
The excited club members were immediately determined to bring the tank up to the surface. The hard part, of course, was finding something powerful enough to pull the 27-ton behemoth onto land.
It wasn’t until August of the following year that they got their hands on the right tool for the job. The enthusiasts rented a powerful 68-ton, 525-horsepower bulldozer from a local mining company.
After first spending a few weeks clearing out mud and other debris from around the tank to reduce its weight, they were ready to begin the excavation. The divers attached steel cables from the bulldozer to the tank, and the operation began.
With local villagers in attendance, the bulldozer began pulling the tank on the morning of September 14, 2000. Although the massive undertaking was not easy, the dozer managed to haul the tank onto land after six hours.
When the mud and silt was hosed away from the tank’s hull, onlookers were excited to find that it bore not just Russian, but also German markings. This meant that this was a Beutepanzer – a Soviet tank that had been captured and subsequently used by German forces.
But that was not all. Inside the tank, the men discovered 116 fully intact shells. The projectiles were carefully taken out of the interior and laid out on the ground before being taken away by military personnel.
This tank must have taken part in the battles of the lesser-known Narva Front during the Second World War, between around February and September of 1944. This front centered on the 30-mile-long stretch of land between Lake Peipus and the Gulf of Finland to the north.
For the Germans, this area was crucial to hold onto after the failed siege of Leningrad, and the battles around it resulted in more than 100,000 dead and 300,000 wounded. The most likely scenario is that the tank was captured by the Germans in the summer of 1944.
However, it soon became apparent to the German command that the Narva region could not be held, and they ordered a retreat. And since the machine’s diesel tanks were found to be empty, it is thought that the retreating Germans ran out of fuel and decided to sink the tank rather than allow it to fall back into Russian hands.
Despite languishing in a watery tomb for more than half a century, the tank didn’t just look undamaged – some parts performed that way, too. Indeed, after its wheels and caterpillar tracks were hosed down, they began to roll as the bulldozer hauled the tank up and away from the lake.
In fact, everything in the tank apart from the engine appeared to work, and there was no sign of rust anywhere. This was likely due to the lake’s acidity and peat protecting the metalwork, not to mention some good old-fashioned sturdy Soviet engineering.
The tank was then loaded onto a truck by a crane and taken for display at the Otsing war museum in the local village of Gorodenko. The club members eventually fixed the tank’s engine with a view to offering rides in the historic war machine to visiting tourists; it had come a long way since being driven into the bottom of a lake all those years ago.