New details emerge about disappearance of Swedish ships in the Cold War
by Susanne Berger and Kerstin von Seth
In 1948 Swedish military officials considered the possibility that the loss of the ships “Iwan” and “Kinnekulle” had not been accidental, but that they had been delivered “intentionally” into Russian hands, in retaliation for Swedish smuggling operations.
Months earlier, in November 1947, Foreign Minister Oesten Undén personally met with a Swedish captain questioned by Polish authorities about smuggling activities by Swedish ships.
Also, on at least one occasion the Swedish Defense Staff used a Swedish commercial vessel to infiltrate a secret agent into Poland in 1946.
All these issues may have had serious implications for Swedish ships traveling the dangerous Gdansk-Trelleborg corridor during the Cold War years.
New documentation obtained from the archives of the Swedish Defense Staff (MUST) and the Swedish Security Police (SÄPO) shows that as early as 1946 Swedish civilian and military authorities had detailed knowledge about illegal smuggling operations of various goods and refugees from Eastern Europe conducted by Swedish ships. The papers also make clear that there existed at least a routine exchange of information between the Swedish State Police, the Customs Office, as well as the Swedish Foreign Ministry and Defense Staff on the subject at the time. There is evidence that by November 1947 Foreign Minister Östen Undén was so concerned about the problem and its wider political impact, that he held an official meeting with a Swedish captain after a prominent Polish politician had fled to Sweden on the captain’s ship.
The secret traffic, however, also flowed in the opposite direction. The new papers reveal that the Swedish Defense Staff on at least one occasion used a Swedish vessel to smuggle a secret agent into Poland. According to records from MUST, the head of Försvarsstaben, Utrikesavdelning, Curt Kempff, in August 1946 personally authorized the transfer of a Polish agent onboard a Swedish commercial vessel. These actions raise important new questions about the disappearance of Swedish ships in the Baltic sea in the Cold War years.
Sending an Agent to Poland
Lieutenant Thorsten Akrell, special agent of Försvarstaben, Inrikesavdelning oversaw the project of infiltrating an agent into Gdansk. Akrell had earned a formidable reputation as a man for highly sensitive tasks in World War II, such as delivering two radio sets hidden in the diplomatic pouch to Hungary in 1944. He also undertook several dangerous missions to wartime Berlin, in close cooperation with British and American intelligence services.
The new documentation from MUST consists of several memoranda, some of which remain heavily censored. They appear to be part of Akrell’s official file at Försvarsstaben.
According to the papers, Akrell’s confidential contactmen in Trelleborg in 1946 were the public prosecutor Carl Nyquist and the sea captain Yngve Ekberg. The smuggling operation itself is outlined in an unsigned memo dated 20.11.1951. (P.M., angående Torsten (sic) Akrells “utsmuggling” av en polsk medborgare från Trelleborg till Gdansk i Augusti 1946) In the P.M. the author explains that Akrell and his confidante Ekberg managed to hide a Polish man in a hollowed out area of a Swedish ship and he was then successfully let off near the Polish coast. Nyquist later testified that he had understood from Akrell that the man had been given a specific task to obtain intelligence information on behalf of Försvarsstaben.
Akrell’s actions in 1946 apparently caused much internal debate and consternation among his colleagues. Interestingly, the papers show that Akrell had formally left his post with Försvarsstaben just a few days before the smuggling action was carried out. Initially, there had been plans to seek Akrell’s arrest, but this idea was abandoned when it became clear that he had sought and received Curt Kempff’s direct approval for the project. Still, Akrell had acted without the knowledge of his immediate superiors in the Interior department [Inrikesavdelning] and that raised serious concerns since, according to one P.M., “.. the Defense Staff/Interior Department should not be kept outside foreign affairs business managed within the country” [“Fst/In icke får lämnas utanför affärer i utjänst vilka försiggå i landet”]. (emphasis as shown in the original text). According to the P.M. from 1951 it remained unclear on whose behalf the project had been carried out: “Whether colonel Kempff or someone else was giving the orders to A I never figured out” [“Hurudvida överste Kempff eller någon annan stod som A:s uppdragivare fick jag aldrig någon klarhet i”]. An addendum to a memo from 1955 explains Akrell claimed at the time that ” .. then Colonel Juhlin-Dannfeldt himself had explained the entire matter to Lt Col [Hakon] Leche.”
Aside from the question of who ordered the operation and why – the still heavy censorship suggests high sensitivity of sources or possible involvement of foreign interests – , many other questions remain unanswered including the identity of the smuggled person and whether or not the incident in 1946 was an isolated case or if other such agent transfers were carried out over the years. While Swedish intelligence’s role in infiltrating agents into the Baltic states in the 1940’s is well documented, the transfers of agents to Poland involving Swedish commercial ships has not received any public scrutiny.
The Disappearance of “Sten Sture”, “Iwan”, “Kinnekulle” and Swedish smuggling operations
The documentation obtained from SÄPO indicates that the Swedish Defense Staff maintained a network of confidential contacts among Swedish sea captains in various harbors, including Malmö and Trelleborg. Ekberg and Nyquist were obviously sought out primarily for possessing the necessary access and expertise to secure a secret departure for a hidden passenger on a commercial vessel. But the two men are of some interest also in another connection. Seven months after Akrell’s Trelleborg project, in March 1947, the two played central roles in the formal inquiry into the disappearance of the trade vessel “Sten Sture” . The ship had vanished seemingly without a trace on January 25th, after delivering a load of iron ore to Poland.
The participation in the “Sten Sture” inquest by both Nyquist and Ekberg (who served as special expert) raises important questions. Even if the “Sten Sture” had not engaged in clandestine affairs, Ekberg and Nyquist still may have had good reason to downplay the disappearance, since Swedish authorities obviously wanted to draw as little attention as possible to the activities of other Swedish boats. If, on the other hand, the “Sten Sture” was used for smuggling operations – for which the new documentation provides strong indirect evidence (see below) -, and the two men had knowlegde about such activities, they could perhaps be relied on not to reveal that information and to prevent others from learning about it.
According to SÄPO documents, Ekberg himself was briefly questioned by Polish authorities on a trip to Gdansk in the summer of 1947, as part of a stepped up effort to counter Swedish smuggling operations. Ekberg said that he had no involvement in such affairs. However, a few months later, in the beginning of November 1947, the prominent Polish politician Stefan Korbonski and his wife escaped to Sweden on Ekberg’s ship, the “Drottning Victoria”. Not only did the escape receive international publicity since Korbonski was a key figure of the wartime Polish-government -in exile, but seven Swedish sailors were arrested by the Polish Security Police, which was widely reported in the Swedish press. The Swedish Foreign Ministry asked Statspolisen [Central Government Police Force] for a full investigation of the matter, and recalled the Swedish Consul in Gdansk and the Swedish Minister in Warsaw to Stockholm for consultations. On November 22, 1947 Foreign Minister Östen Undén personally met with Ekberg who denied any involvement in Korbonski’s flight. Undén briefly refers to the incident in his memoirs, but identifies the Korbonskis only as “a Polish couple”.
Sweden officially suspended all ferry traffic to Poland which was resumed only after weeks of tense negotations. Just three months later, in February 1948, the Swedish ships “Iwan” and “Kinnekulle” vanished on the same day during a trip from Gdansk. Undén’s memoir contains not a single reference to their disappearance.
Coming so shortly after the Korbonski episode, the omission is worth noting. Already months earlier, SÄPO and the Swedish Customs Office (Tullverket) had documented and shared with other Swedish authorities Polish suspicions that both vessels had repeatedly engaged in smuggling operations. Two secret memoranda from the Swedish Defense Staff dated March 3 and March 31, 1948 respectively show that some officials believed that the two ships had not disappeared by accident but that a known Polish agent in Sweden by the name of Stanislaw Musnicki was believed “…by provocation to have turned Iwan (Kinnekulle) into the hands of UB or possibly the Russians” [“..genom provokation fört “Iwan” (“Kinnekulle”) i UB:’s eller eventuellt ryssarnas händer.”]
There is some supportive evidence for this. In a report from the year 2000 concerning the “Kinnekulle”, researcher Jan Sjöberg cites a letter by the head of T-Kontoret, Thede Palm, to Sven Grafström, then head of UD’s Political Department. In the letter, dated May 18, 1948, Palm explained that according to his sources, the “Kinnekulle” crew had been detained by Polish and Soviet authorities following a visit to a place called “Czarnkowo close to Ustka”. New information from MUST now shows, however, that Palm, omitted one critical piece of information in his letter to Grafström: He did not reveal that his source claimed that some crew members had been explicitly invited by Polish contacts to visit Czarnkowo because it housed a facility for “launch of V-weapons.” Palm received the information on May 14, four days before he passed it on to Grafström almost verbatim. Who among the “Kinnekulle” crew would have been so foolhardy to accept a visit to a military facility in 1948? While the reliability of the information still cannot be fully ascertained, Palm obviously considered the source significant enough to share with the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
Important Questions Remain
Could the “Sten Sture” perhaps too have fallen victim to a similar act of provocation/retaliation, for a clandestine transfer of an agent or refugees? There are certainly many important issues that should have been raised in the immediate aftermath of the ship’s disappearance and that require further investigation. For example, at his arrival in Gdansk on January 21, 1947, the “Sten Sture’s” Captain G. Rudnert signed in with a crew of 19 men. The official crew list provided by Eruths (the ship’s owner) states that there were only 18 men on board. Furthermore, from an interview Swedish Police officials conducted in 1952 with the most well known smuggler in Gdansk, Karl Joel Nilsson, SÄPO learned that the “Sten Sture” had apparently aided several Polish refugees in their escape to Sweden. This should have raised a number of red flags and prompted additional inquiries.
Regarding the ship’s disappearance, a handwritten note in the files of the Swedish Consulate in Gdansk indicates that officials had received information from the crew of another ship belonging to Eruths, the “Nils Sture”, saying that they had seen a ship, “likely “Sten Sture””, at the Polish Peninsula of Hel(a), at the time it went missing. This point was never raised at the official inquest.
For sixty years it was publicly assumed that “Sten Sture” had vanished near the Danish island of Bornholm, even though experienced sailors already in 1947 voiced their belief that the ship could only have sunk in Polish waters. Polish records first listed the wreck in 1977, precisely at Wladyslawowo, 10 miles off the coast of Gdansk, the starting point of the Hel(a) Peninsula. Swedish authorities claim that they had no knowledge of the “Sten Sture’s” discovery until 2008, until publication of a book about the case (“När du ser Karlavagnen”, Kerstin von Seth, Domarringen 2008)
An important question is who besides Curt Kempff in the Swedish intelligence community might have been involved in smuggling agents to Poland? Thede Palm, former head of T-Kontoret, was known to be rather sceptical about intelligence collection through Eastern European refugees. (p. 56, Några studier till T-kontorets historia, published by Evabritta Wallberg, Kungl Samfundet för utgivande av handskrifter rörande Skandinaviens historia. Handlingar del 21, Stockholm 1999) He did however explain that some Swedish commercial ships were used in aiding British intelligence collection efforts in the Baltic Sea during the Cold War. (ibid, p.78)
If members of the Swedish Defense Staff actively involved Swedish ships in infiltrating agents into Poland in 1946, more information must be available in Swedish or other foreign archives. According to documentation from SÄPO, the transfer of refugees from Poland was in part supported and financed by a network of Polish emigre circles in Sweden that had close ties to London and the former Polish government-in-exile. The activities of Karl Joel Nilsson, who was arrested by the Polish Security Police in 1947, also deserve closer examination. He was questioned in detail by interrogators from the Polish Ministry of State Security, including by the Deputy Chief of the Polish Security Service, Minister Jozef Rozanski. Such high level involvement strongly suggests that Swedish ships did not simply fall victim to random acts of piracy or bad weather. The relevant files must still be available for review. Most importantly, since Swedish authorities at the highest levels, including the Foreign Minister, were alerted to the dangers faced by Swedish vessels traveling the Gdansk corridor, the question arises what measures exactly were taken to protect Swedish ship and their crews.
It is time now for an official, comprehensive inquiry into the background of the disappearance of ships like the “Sten Sture”, “Kinnekulle, “Iwan” and other Swedish vessels during the Cold War. Such an inquiry should address the question what knowledge Swedish offcials and institutions possessed through the years concerning the use of Swedish ships in intelligence and smuggling operations, as well as the cause of disappearance of these ships and the fate of their crews. Sweden currently has a unique opportunity, as the wreck of the “Sten Sture” lies in shallow waters, off the coast of Poland, available for exploration.
A few months ago, the Swedish Ambassador in Warsaw, Dag Hartelius, placed a formal request to IPN for an official review of Polish archives regarding the disappearance of the “Sten Sture”. That is a welcome step, but Sweden must go further and conduct a full inquiry into all aspects of this case.
December 15, 2010
Sources and additional information is available in the printed version of Contra magazine