9 October 1943
Since the end of World War II, as much as 50 thousand tons of chemical weapons, and 500 thousand tons of conventional weapons have been sunk in the Baltic Sea. There are also thousands of shipwrecks on the seabed, some of which are in Polish waters – 415 items of this kind have been identified to date. Almost one in four of the vessels are in the Gulf of Gdańsk area, an area so important to the economy and tourist trade. Some of the wrecks represent a major hazard to the marine ecosystem. These include specifically the Franken, which is leaking fuel, and the Stuttgart, the remnants of which have polluted 40 ha of the seabed for many years to come.
The #BałtykDlaPokoleń project is a joint initiative conducted by Grupa Enea and UN Global Compact Network Polska, to raise public awareness of the issue and help to fully understand it, and provide updates on progress with work by international organizations to clean up the seabed and neutralize hazardous materials.
The mission of the #BałtykDlaPokoleń project is to bring about implementation of a resolution adopted by the European Parliament of 27 April 2021 calling upon the European Union to eliminate chemical weapons from World War II from the Baltic Sea. The document was adopted almost unanimously, and the architects of the document were Polish MEPS Anna Fotyga and Kosma Złotowski.
The disaster that could occur very soon if more wrecks and containers holding dumped chemical and conventional weapons gradually begin to leak due to corrosion, is not inevitable, but this requires a joint effort. For this reason, we are appealing to sign the Call to the European Commission for action to implement the resolution on cleaning up the Baltic seabed: baltykdlapokolen.pl/join
Save the Baltic for future generations!
The Third Reich surrendered on 8 May 1945. Although the greatest armed conflict in the history of mankind came to an end more than 75 years ago, we are still dealing with the consequences today. One of the decisions made at the Potsdam Conference was to demilitarize Germany. Under the agreement between the Allies, “all arms, ammunition and implements of war and all specialized facilities for their production shall be held at the disposal of the Allies or be destroyed”. At the time, the best ways to neutralize weapons, including chemical warfare agents, were deemed to be burying them and sinking them. The latter method was the beginning of the problems with the Baltic Sea.
The reason given for the decision to sink chemical weapons and other materials in the Baltic is quite simple. The waters are located close to Germany, and this made the operation considerably less expensive. Depositing the arsenal of the Third Reich in the sea also guaranteed that dangerous munitions would not fall into the wrong hands and be used again. Thus one shipment after another departed from the port of Wolgast. In total, hundreds of thousands of tons of conventional weapons and at least 50 thousand tons of chemical weapons, including hazardous substances such as mustard and tear gas and nerve agents, were dumped on the seabed.
Initially, they were to be dumped in the Gotland Deep. A minimum of two thousand tons of weapons were sunk there at a depth of 80-100 meters. Meanwhile, the quantity in the Bornholm Basin is significantly higher – approximately 35 thousand tons of weapons, including 13 thousand tons of chemical warfare agents. Unfortunately, smaller quantities of ammunition were also dumped in the Baltic in the vicinity of the Słupsk Furrow, the Polish coast, and in the Gdańsk Deep.
The first indications of the impending problems began to appear shortly after World War II – due to a dramatic event that occurred in 1955 in Darłówko. More than one hundred people at a holiday camp were burnt when they came into contact with a container full of mustard gas. In the decades that followed, individual items were also found on Baltic Sea beaches or in fishing nets.
As a result of World War II, in the Baltic Sea region, not only conventional and chemical weapons found their way to the seabed, but also ships sunk in the course of the conflict. Undoubtedly the most tragic event occurred on 30 January 1945, when the Wilhelm Gustloff, damaged by a Soviet submarine, sank approximately 20 nautical miles north of Łeba. As many as 10 thousand people might have been on board the ship, measuring more than 200 meters. Only 1215 of them survived.
In addition to the tragedy of the thousands of lives lost – the sinking of ships also causes major environmental problems. The Franken, which was sunk on 8 April 1945, remains in the waters of the Gulf of Gdańsk today. The tanker, of almost 180 meters, held more than 3 thousand cubic meters of fuel. There is also the Stuttgart, which rests in the Bay of Puck. In addition to the many lives lost, there was fuel in its tanks. What this means for the Baltic will be discussed in the next chapters of this tale.
Wilhelm Gustloff sunk
‘Big Three’ Potsdam Conference. One of the decisions made was that the Third Reich’s arsenal had to be neutralized. As a result, some of the conventional and chemical weapons gathered by Nazi Germany were placed at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.
A container holding mustard gas washed up on the beach in Darłówko. Children playing on the beach were burnt, and some of them lost their sight.
The Helsinki Commission is set up. One of the decisions made by the Organization, made up of Baltic Countries and the European Union, is to take action to remove hazardous remnants of materials from World War II from the seabed.
Fisherman find a container holding mustard gas 30 nautical miles north of Władysławowo, and are severely burnt. There have been several cases of this over the years.
Fuel begins to leak from the Stuttgart. More than 40 ha of the Bay of Puck seabed becomes a ‘death zone’ in which there is no life.
The international project CHEMSEA begins. The aim of the initiative was to perform tests to determine where chemical weapons were sunk in the Baltic Sea and to map the hazards.
Two women on the island of Uznam confuse flammable phosphorus with amber. They are taken to hospital for burns.
The European Parliament adopts a resolution to eliminate chemical weapons from the Baltic seabed.
What happens in the coming years depends on us all, and so it is worth signing the Petition calling upon the EU to eliminate chemical weapons from the Baltic seabed. We need to save the Baltic for future generations!
It is not only the waters of the Baltic in which chemical weapons were sunk after World War II. The North Sea, or for example the Adriatic Sea, were also affected, but there are exceptionally important ways in which these two bodies of water differ from the Baltic Sea. Above all, this is due to the average depth:
North Sea – 95 m
Adriatic Sea – 252.5 m
Baltic Sea – 53 m
Moreover, the Baltic is a continental body of water connected to the North Sea only by the narrow Danish Straits, and this means that there is little recirculation. This makes the Baltic Sea much more prone to an environmental disaster than other waters facing a similar problem.
History has shown that a hazardous arsenal can make its way to Baltic beaches and endanger residents and tourists. Another serious problem, although this is changing for instance due to Polish scientists, is that it is not known precisely where the sunken chemical and conventional weapons are located, as dumping also took place at unmarked sites. In turn, this poses a danger to fishermen, as substances that endanger health or life can get into their nets.
Shipwrecks are also a hazard. The Stuttgart and the Franken are among those that need to be dealt with most urgently. There has already been leakage of a large quantity of fuel from the former in recent years, polluting approximately 40 ha of the seabed. This is the equivalent of as many as 560 football pitches. If the same happens in the case of the Franken, the scale of the disaster will be much greater. Experts have calculated that there could be as much as around 6 thousand tons of fuel in its tanks. Meanwhile, according to a Supreme Audit Office (NIK) report, of the 415 wrecks in the Polish coastal region, at least several dozen could contain large quantities of oil. These include vessels such as the Wilhelm Gustloff, Goya, or Steuben.
The level of corrosion of containers holding chemical weapons lying in the Baltic Sea is currently estimated to be 70-80%. Corrosion is occurring in the case of wrecks as well. Prompt steps are needed to eliminate this danger.
No one is in any doubt that the Baltic has played, plays, and will play a major role in the social and economic life of many countries. This is the fishing, shipbuilding, or tourist industry – which is so important to the inhabitants of Poland and the other Baltic Sea basin countries: Germany, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark.
The Baltic also represents the future of the energy sector. Even today, wind farms, harnessing the natural airflow to generate clean energy, are being built on the Baltic Sea. There continue to be plans for further investment projects, which will provide inhabitants of Poland and others with renewable electricity.
Europe must make a Baltic Sea that is safe for the tourist, fishing, maritime shipping, and energy industries and many other areas of the economy in the coming years a priority. The problems relating to hazardous shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea and weapons, including chemical weapons, from World War II, have been noticed. The Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), created by the Baltic States and European Community, has been taking measures in this regard for many years. The academic community and NGOs also play a huge role.
Only by working together at an international level can the expected and much anticipated results be achieved, which means a clean Baltic free of the hazards caused by World War II. These efforts led to adoption by the European Parliament of a resolution calling upon the European Union to eliminate chemical weapons from World War II from the Baltic Sea.
This must be done, otherwise the Baltic Sea will face a disaster of unprecedented proportions. An unchecked and sudden leak of the fuel in the tanks of the Franken could pollute several kilometers of coastline, above all the Hel Peninsula, and other sites of natural value, including grey seal habitats. There are many more shipwrecks and sites of chemical and conventional weapons, and therefore unless quick, decisive and effective action is taken, it will not be possible to curb this problem.
We must not let the Baltic Sea become a wilderness in which life of any kind of marine organism is extraordinarily hampered. We recommend that everyone sign the Call to the European Commission for action on the resolution on cleaning up the Baltic seabed.
Save the Baltic for future generations!
To the European Commission
Due to the need to neutralize arsenal after World War II, at least 50 thousand tons of conventional and chemical weapons containing chemical warfare agents were sunk in the Baltic Sea. As a result of the greatest armed conflict in the history of mankind, thousands of vessels, along with fuel, were sunk.
With the passage of time and due to the corrosion process, the danger posed by leakage from containers holding ammunition and shipwreck fuel tanks is becoming greater. For this reason we call on the European Commission to take immediate action related to:
Enea Group is one of the major energy market players in Poland, and is jointly responsible for national energy security. It provides more than 2.7 million customers with energy, and is the vice-leader of the Polish electricity market in the field of electricity production. The Enea Group manages an entire chain of electricity market assets: from fuel through electricity production, distribution and sale, to customer service. It plays an active part in the energy sector transformation, and is developing renewable energy sources.
UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. Since its inception in 2000 by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, it has acted to promote the environment, human rights, anti-corruption measures, and decent and legal work. By working with governments, cross-border organizations, businesses, and institutions, it conducts a range of ambitious activities, becoming a catalyst for global change. The UN Global Compact Network Poland is the administrative hub for the Polish members of the UNGC and an engine for local schemes and activities.