EML Lembit is one of two Kalev-class mine-laying submarines built for the Republic of Estonia before World War II, and is now a museum ship in Tallinn. She was launched in 1936 at Vickers and Armstrongs Ltd., Barrow-in-Furness in England, and served in the Estonian Navy and the Soviet Navy. Until she was hauled out on 21 May 2011, Lembit was the oldest submarine still afloat in the world. Her sister ship, Kalev, was sunk in October 1941.
Lembit is the only surviving warship of the pre-war Estonian Navy and in the Baltic countries. Estonia is a maritime nation, and like every country with a long coastline to defend, it has to safeguard its territorial waters. With regard to experience gained and observed during World War I, submarines found their proper application in the pre–World War II Estonian Navy. The collection organised by the Submarine Fleet Foundation in May 1933 developed into one of the most successful undertakings among similar fundraising events nationwide.
In the course of building and testing the two submarines, the Estonian crews received training in Great Britain between 1935-1937. Throughout 1937–1940, Lembit and her sister ship Kalev were the most imposing vessels in the Estonian Navy. Their inactivity in the annexation of Estonia by the USSR was a political decision.
In Spring 1937, Lembit joined the Estonian Navy, where she operated until the Soviet occupation in mid-1940. The submarine carried out one training torpedo attack in her three years of service in the Estonian Navy, but was never used in the minelaying role.
On 24 February 1940, The Third Reich expressed an interest in obtaining the submarine. This request was turned down. The submarine was formally taken over by the Soviet Navy on 18 September 1940, by which time only five men of the submarine's Estonian crew remained on board. They were needed to assist the Soviet crew in learning unfamiliar machinery.
After the German attack on the USSR in June 1941, Lembit was commissioned into the Soviet Baltic Fleet. The original name Lembit was initially retained. At least three of her original Estonian crew helped to operate the submarine during the war. Lembit participated with the Soviet Baltic Fleet in military operations. Lembit carried out a total of seven patrols during the German-Soviet war.
On 18 June 1946, Lembit was renamed U-1; on 9 June 1949 S-85; on 30 January 1956; STZh-24 on 27 December 1956 UTS-29. Some time between 1949 and 1956 she possibly carried the designation PZM-1 (PTsM-1?) for some time. The original name was probably restored when she was decommissioned and returned to Tallinn as a museum ship in 1979.
Lembit was presented with the Order of The Red Banner on 6 March 1945 for her victories earlier in the German-Soviet war. She was withdrawn from active duty on 17 January 1946 and become a training boat. On 12 January 1949 Lembit was included among medium submarines. She was stricken (disarmed) on 10 June 1955. She was transferred to the Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard on 3 August 1957 and subsequently towed to Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod). Here Lembit was preserved as an experimental boat and an example of British submarine design. Her hatch for the pressure-tight anti-aircraft gun storage shaft was of particular interest. It was copied into designs for the missile hatches of new Soviet submarines.
On 28 August 1979 exactly 38 years after she had left Tallinn, Lembit returned – under tow. After a lengthy overhaul, the submarine was opened to the public as a war memorial, (more precisely, as a branch of the Museum of the Soviet Baltic Fleet), on 5 May 1985. She, along with other artifacts, was used to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany. Lembit was one of three submarine war memorials in the USSR in 1987, along with S-56 in the Far East, and K-21 in the Far North. There had been plans for displaying all three vessels out of the water, but a floating crane which was to have been used, (which had been moved from Kronstadt), lost its boom during the tow.
After the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the subsequent dissolution of its navy, the submarine was taken over by Estonian officials on 27 April 1992 – a few Defence League men hoisted an Estonian flag on the vessel, meeting no resistance.
Lembit is one of two surviving pre-war Estonian warships; the other is a small gunboat on Lake Peipsi, the Uku, which is a wreck. Lembit received the honorary nomination of 'vessel No. 1' in the new Estonian Navy on 2 August 1994. After a long and expensive restoration, the submarine was opened to the public, as a department of the Estonian Maritime Museum, with a collection of other naval weapons. Lembit is one of the few surviving pre–World War II submarines (among others are the Finnish Vesikko, built in 1933, and Soviet K-21, built in 1937). She could be the oldest submarine in the world still afloat.
Unlike most other submarine museums, no new means of entry has been cut into the hull of Lembit. Visitors enter and leave the ship through one of the original entrances – the torpedo loading hatch. (It was also used in this way when the submarine was in port.)
In late 2002 the Lembit caught fire. One person was killed in the blaze, but nothing of historic value was lost. The inside was filled with flammable wood and rubber. Nobody knew how or why it caught fire but through 2003 it was not viewable by the public.
The original design drawings were discovered in a Cumbrian archive in 2010. They were scanned and sent to Estonia.
A total of over 200 drawings were sent, so that they could be used for restoration.
Estonian Maritime Museum developed plans to place the vessel into the museum building (Lennusadam) in 2008.
The Lembit was pulled out of the water on 21 May 2011, using another exhibit at the same museum - BTS-4 (an armoured recovery vehicle, based on the T-54 tank). The winching was done on a 100m ramp.
The submarine was missing its external torpedo tube covers. They used one original, that was stored somewhere else and the drawings (obtained from England), to construct 3 replicas. Most of the external paint was also removed, for minor derusting and the removal of some small dents. It was anticipated that the total restoration, would cost over 360000 Euros.
The submarine was "parked" next to the Lennusadam building, until the night of 6/7 July 2011, when they began to tow it into the Lennusadam. The towing was done the same way as when it was pulled out of water and it took until 10 July. The Lennusadam opened to visitors in May 2012, with the Lembit now undercover for visitors to explore, both inside and out.