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A Line of Work of Decisive Military Importance. The Activity of the J. Telliskivi & A. Saarna Shipping Company 1942–1944

The  economic  situation  in Estonia  under  the German occupation has hitherto been  rather cursorily  researched. Germany’s  economic interests  (the  oil shale  industry,  agricultural production, and  supplying the  Eastern  Front) and the activity of German limited partnerships in Eastern  territories have attracted the  lion’s share of the attention. The Economic and Transportation Directorate (from 1 June 1942 onward the  Economic  and Finance  Directorate) of the Estonian Self-Administration began  operating in September of 1941. Its main field of activity became  the  restoration of Estonia’s  economy. This article focuses on one part of this task — the restoration of Estonia’s  commercial  shipping, answering the question of how the building of new ships was organised and how this was connected to Germany’s  wartime  economy.  This research topic has been approached at the microhistorical level, taking a closer look at the activity of one shipping company — J. Telliskivi & A. Saarna — in the interval 1942–1944.

Estonia’s merchant marine was in third place among  the countries  of the Baltic Sea in terms of tonnage per thousand inhabitants prior to the Second World War. Only 10% of this remained by the autumn  of 1941 when the Germans  captured  Estonia’s  territories. The  restoration of the merchant marine was set as a priority task in the restoration of Estonia’s economy during the German occupation.  Germany’s  own merchant marine had also suffered extensive damage since the beginning of the war, for which reason a largescale merchant marine building programme was initiated  in 1942, which prescribed the building of ships in both  Germany  and  the  occupied territories.

In 1942, two to five-member  shipping companies  began  the  construction of 55 wooden motor  sailers on the Estonian coast. Wood  was used because  metal  was difficult to obtain  due to wartime conditions. A year later, the German Hauptausschuss Schiffbau (Chief Commission on Shipbuilding)  designated  the building of motor sailers built in Estonia  to be of military importance, which extended to Estonia’s shipping companies the same kinds of rights and concessions as for the shipyards included in the shipbuilding programme started  up in 1942.

The J. Telliskivi & A. Saarna Shipping Company started  building  a motor  sailer  21 metres long and 7 metres  wide in the autumn  of 1942. The revival of the enterprise that operated in the 1920’s and 1930’s was presumably hoped for initially. The fact many of the enterprise’s  previous shareholders and workers associated themselves with this  undertaking is evidence  supporting this presumption. Later,  a constant  shortage  of resources  haunted the shipping company, leading to difficulties in acquiring  materials  and  in keeping up with the production schedule. Yet on the other  hand, the recognition  of the shipping company as a line of work of military importance gave its workers the chance to obtain purchasing permits  with larger rations  for consumer  goods and foodstuffs. Working for the shipping company also allowed workers subject to conscription  to postpone their military service or exempted them from service altogether.

Regardless  of the fact that shipbuilding had been declared  a line of work of decisive military importance and  necessary  resources  had  to be channelled into it, only one ship was completed by the autumn of 1944. The construction of most of the ships remained unfinished and the number of ships under construction had dwindled to less than  40. The main reason  why the shipbuilding plans did not come to fruition was the lack of resources and the exploitation of Estonia’s economy emanating  from the needs of the Eastern  Front.