A Whiskey on the Rocks

On this day in history…

On 27 October 1981, the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-363 (a.k.a. U 137) struck an underwater rock in Swedish territorial waters, 2km (1.07 nautical miles) from the Swedish naval base at Karlskrona.

Soviet submarine S-363 (U 137).

The boat was stuck on the rocks for 10-days during a tense standoff that saw the Soviet Navy dispatch a flotilla of destroyers and frigates to the Swedish coast, and the Swedish armed forces scrambling aircraft, patrol boats and coastal artillery.

Soviet submarine S-363 (U 137).

The S-363 was finally hauled off the rocks on 5 November and towed out to international waters where it was returned to the Soviets.

Commemorative plaque at the location of the S-363 grounding in Sweden.

OTDIH 23 October 1943

70-years ago today…

Großadmiral Karl Dönitz has 95 U-boats at sea. The Battle of the Atlantic was not over.

In the South Atlantic:

U-170, a Type IXC U-boat, KptLt Günther Pfeffer commanding, on its 2nd war patrol, torpedoed and sunk the unescorted Brazilian steam merchant Campos (4,663 GRT) 5-miles south of Alcatrazes Island, Brazil. The crew of 57 and 6 passengers took to the ship’s lifeboats, tragically two of which were struck by the ship’s screw, throwing the occupants to the water. 10 crew members and 2 passengers were lost.

SS Campos.

In the Black Sea:

, a Type IIB U-boat, KptLt Rolf-Birger Wahlen commanding, on its 12th war patrol, torpedoed and sunk the Soviet motor merchant Tanais (372 GRT) anchored at Poti, Georgian SSR. The U-Boat was operating in the Black Sea with the 30th U-Boat Flotilla… having been transported overland to Konstanza, Rumania in 1942.

Type IIB coastal U-boat.

Setting a wartime record:

U-196, a Type IXD U-boat, KKpt Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat commanding, returned to Bordeaux, France… thus completing the longest patrol by any submarine during the Second World War: 256-days from 13 March to 23 October 1943.

KKpt Eitel-Friedrich Kentrat.

Attacked in the Atlantic:

U-190, a Type IXC U-boat, KptLt Max Wintermeyer commanding, on her 3rd war patrol, was surfaced ahead of convoy GUS-18 when attacked by the US Navy Gleaves-class destroyer USS Turner (DD-648). The Turner attacked the surfaced U-boat with her Mk 12 5-inch/38-caliber guns. When the U-190 submerged, the Turner attacked with depth charges… shock waves from which disabled the destroyer’s radar and sound gear. By the time Turner was able to resume her search, U-190 had escaped.

USS Turner (DD-648).

Royal Navy suffers double disaster during Operation Tunnel:

During Operation Tunnel, HMS Charybdis, a Dido-class cruiser commissioned into the Royal Navy in 1941, Captain George Arthur Wallis Voelcker, RN commanding, was sunk off north coast of Brittany, France in position 48º59’N, 03º39’W by 2 torpedoes from the German Elbing-class torpedo boats T-23 and T-27 (not MTBs, but torpedo-armed destroyers). 464 men died (including the commanding officer) and 107 survived.

HMS Charybdis.

During the same action, HMS Limbourne (L57), a Hunt-class escort destroyer, Cdr Walter John Phipps, RN commanding, was heavily damaged by German torpedo boats T-22 and T-24. Damaged beyond repair, Limbourne was sunk by gunfire from HMS Rocket (H92) and HMS Talybont (L18).

HMS Limbourne.

The sneaky-beaky Cold War adventures of Australia’s Oberon-class submarines

Love, love, love those Oberon-class boats. First submarine I ever set foot on was HMS Opossum as a small awestruck lad. Loved them ever since. This troy about the RAN’s O boats is an absolute corker.

Cold War exploits of Australia’s secret submarines

The Oberon-class submarine HMAS Onslow at the Singapore Naval Base 1974. Picture: The Australian National Maritime Museum Source: Supplied

ON February 20, 1986, six senior naval officers came to the cabinet room in Canberra to brief prime minister Bob Hawke on Australia’s secret Cold War submarine operations in Asia.

Defence minister Kim Beazley had invited them to explain to Hawke what the navy’s ageing Oberon-class submarines were capable of, and what they’d achieved on dangerous, clandestine missions to Vietnam and China. Beazley wanted to lock in Hawke’s support for the costly and contentious plan to build six Collins-class subs in Australia.

The large and genial defence minister understood the strategic value of submarines as offensive and defensive weapons. When Hawke arrived, he looked like thunder and his crabbed body language signalled he wanted to be anywhere but hearing a presentation from the navy.

That was soon to change. Commander Kim Pitt began explaining he had been on patrol in HMAS Orion in the South China Sea from September 17 until November 9 the previous year; the focus of that patrol was Cam Ranh Bay on the east coast of Vietnam, then the largest Soviet naval base outside the USSR.

Pitt began a video that grabbed Hawke’s attention and immediately transformed his mood. The PM appeared transfixed as he watched dramatic and brilliantly clear footage taken by HMAS Orion as it slipped in behind and beneath a surfaced Soviet Charlie-class nuclear submarine heading into the Vietnamese port.

The video began with distant pictures of the Soviet submarine motoring towards the harbour, well outside the 12-nautical mile (22.2km) Vietnamese territorial limit. The video was shot through a camera in Orion’s periscope as the submarine loitered, barely submerged in the choppy sea.

Then Pitt took the Orion deep, ran in close behind the Soviet boat, and came up to periscope depth again. Now the video showed the Soviet submarine’s wake boiling and bubbling on the surface. Hawke watched, startled, as a clear image of the turning propeller appeared on the screen just above and ahead of Orion.

Pitt ran beneath the Soviet submarine, filming sonar and other fittings mounted along its hull. The remarkably clear pictures exposed the underwater secrets of Charlie-class technology. The only other way to get them would be for a western spy to penetrate dry-docks in the Soviet Union.

Pitt positioned Orion ahead of and beneath the Soviet submarine, slowed almost to a stop, and then allowed the Soviet boat to pass him while he filmed the other side of its hull.

Hawke grasped intuitively that this video intelligence would add immensely to Australia’s prestige in the US. It could be used to Australia’s advantage in negotiations with Washington and gave Australia a seat at the top table in the global Cold War intelligence collection game. For 45 minutes, Hawke asked questions about how the patrols were organised; their duration, their frequency, their success. He was told how the submarines recorded radio transmissions to deliver vital intelligence to the Western effort to track and identify the Soviet fleet.

The officers put up a photograph of a Soviet Kirov-class nuclear-powered cruiser, much admired by Western navies. US spy satellites had picked up the cruiser leaving its base in Murmansk and tracked it around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean.

The RAN sent the guided missile frigate HMAS Canberra to intercept the cruiser off Sri Lanka and follow it through the Strait of Malacca and up towards Cam Ranh Bay. The frigate took vital photographs and monitored the cruiser’s communications until it approached Vietnam.

Pitt, in HMAS Orion, was waiting, submerged outside Cam Ranh Bay with the submarine’s communications masts deployed to record the cruiser’s arrival. He recorded its procedures and protocols, which deepened Western understanding of Soviet naval communications and command and control systems, meaning the West might be able to jam them in the event of hostilities.

The cautious admiral Mike Hudson, chief of the naval staff, dismayed the submariners by telling Hawke that while the operation was professional and produced good intelligence, it was very hazardous. A submarine might be detected and possibly captured, with serious international consequences. “As we do more and more patrols, the likelihood of this happening will increase,” Hudson said.

Hawke rounded on him. “No, you are wrong,” he replied. “I’ve got a degree in statistics and I can tell you that the probability of detection does not increase as the number of patrols increase. They are discrete, one-off events and the probability of detection is constant.”

Beazley was delighted with the meeting. Hawke’s support for new submarines was locked in. The submarine officers were also triumphant. They had put together a show that had convinced Hawke, converting him from curmudgeon to champion.

They did not tell Hawke that Pitt had also video-taped a submerged conventional Soviet submarine going into Cam Ranh Bay. It was brilliant submarine seamanship, but some of his colleagues regarded it as dangerous and unnecessary and Pitt as “a bit of a pirate”. He later became director of submarine warfare.

The mystery boat operations were shrouded in secrecy as the submarines collected intelligence on the Soviet nuclear submarine and surface fleets and reinforced the US-Australia alliance. They also won Australian submariners their spurs in the Cold War’s global espionage game, as they showed uncommon bravery, dash and initiative on about 20 patrols between 1977 and 1992.

Their success ensured the Collins-class submarines were built and secured the future of Australia’s submarine service.

But the last patrol in the series proved a dangerous failure, with HMAS Orion at grave risk of detection and capture.

On October 22, 1992, she left Sydney Harbour and headed for Shanghai to gather intelligence on the Chinese navy, especially its new submarines. Orion’s CO was commander Rick Shalders, who later commanded Australia’s Collins-class submarine fleet.

The Americans wanted better intelligence on the Chinese navy, but US nuclear submarines were too big to be sent into the shallow waters of the East China Sea. Australia’s smaller O-boats were ideal for the task.

Shanghai was China’s biggest mainland harbour at the wide mouth of the Yangtse river; the water was shallow and murky, and busy with non-military shipping, including the local fishing fleet and ferries. The shoreline was heavily urbanised.

It would not be easy to stay unseen and undetected while barely submerged and trying to collect intelligence, and the consequences of detection could be grave for the submarine’s crew and for Australia-China relations.

Shalders’s trip to the area of operations was uneventful and the submariners were looking forward to getting their work done and getting back to the relatively safety of the open sea. Orion was equipped with the best photographic and electronic intelligence collection equipment; civilian language specialists were on board to translate Chinese navy transmissions.

But the patrol proved a nightmare, with the harbour crowded with fishing boats, many trailing long fishing lines and nets.

Shalders had to raise his periscope periodically to check the intelligence-collection aerials.

The fishermen constantly watched for signs of fish and could not miss minor disturbances made by Orion’s equipment and by the presence of the submarine not far below the surface.

They followed Orion around the harbour. Shalders could not surface and could not risk moving quickly away from the danger.

Things started to get desperate when Orion fouled the fishing lines and nets. One fishing boat started to sink by its bow as its net became entangled with the submarine. The fisherman saved himself by cutting away the net from the boat with an axe.

By now Shalders knew he was facing possible disaster. It was only a matter of time before the Peoples’ Liberation Navy became aware something was seriously amiss and investigated what was going on in the shallow water. Shalders and his crew faced the real prospect of detection, surrender, capture, imprisonment, trial and possible execution as spies. Relations between Australia and China would be in tatters. Shalders decided he had no choice but to abandon the operation.

Summoning all his skills, he took the submarine out of the harbour and into the relative safety of the East China Sea. The Australians returned home with nothing to show for their hair-raising experience.

The then chief of the naval staff, admiral Ian McDougall, a former submarine commander, told defence minister Robert Ray the O-boats were reaching the limits of their service lives and the patrols should be stopped because of the growing danger.

The submarine service was incandescent. It saw the patrols as invaluable for its reputation at home and abroad, and for continuing access to funding. The submariners wanted to preserve the skills they had developed.

The Defence Intelligence Organisation argued that despite the Soviet collapse there was an acute need to collect intelligence on the military activities of other countries, especially China, India and Indonesia, and that submarines were the most effective means. But Ray accepted McDougall’s advice and ordered an end to the patrols.

A senior submariner, commander John Dikkenberg, met Hawke’s successor as PM, Paul Keating, to argue for reinstatement of the patrols. Keating listened carefully, but would not over-rule his defence minister.

Four years later, when Ian McLachlan was appointed John Howard’s first defence minister, he asked to be briefed on the cancelled patrols. The navy urged their resumption and was given the OK for a carefully controlled and limited mission off Indonesia to re-establish intelligence-collecting skills.

Bronwyn Bishop, then minister for defence science and technology, also accepted that skills were being lost and gave her blessing to resumed patrols. Six more patrols were undertaken, mainly monitoring Indonesian military communications around Indonesia and East Timor. The Howard government wanted more information on Indonesian military activities in Timor, where Fretilin guerillas were still fighting for independence.

The new Abbott government is considering whether to acquire a fleet of 12 new submarines, which would represent Australia’s largest defence project. If it does, the proud Cold War history of the O-boats will have helped persuade decision-makers that submarines, despite their daunting cost, can be very good value indeed for taxpayers’ dollars.


Russians need sense of humor to test state-of-the-art nuclear subs

In an American missile test there is a special red button. If the missile goes off course they simply press the red button and it safely detonates the missile in mid-flight.

But in a Russian missile test there are two special red buttons. TWO buttons. This proves that the Russians have a more robust testing model. Two buttons… one to blow up the missile and one to blow up the design engineer.

(Old jokes are the best.)

Russians need sense of humor to test state-of-the-art nuclear subs

Russians need sense of humor to test state-of-the-art nuclear subs. 50541.jpeg

These days, for the first time since the Soviet Union, three nuclear submarines – Alexander Nevsky, Severodvinsk and Dmitry Donskoy – are undergoing government trials in the White Sea. There is a military-industrial secret to it: trials are always successful if factory testing team and military crew have a sense of humor.

The first two above mentioned ships are the newest strategic project 995 Borei-class nuclear submarine with “Bulava” rockets and project 885 Yasen-class attack submarine. Dmitry Donskoy is the largest in the world nuclear ballistic missile submarine, designated Project 941 Akula class that will act as the enemy boat during the first two trials.

The first phase of Nevsky trials has been completed. In the coming days, the crew must verify proper operation of all components and systems of the ship, including the missile systems controls. If no serious deficiencies are revealed, the second phase will be scheduled for the fall. At this stage the ship will have to launch several Bulava missiles both from the surface and under water.

It is expected that during the launch, in addition to the standard trial of the launch complex, the latest automated control system of the Navy allowing retarget Bulava in flight will be tested. Alexander Nevsky will be included in the Pacific Fleet.

Dmitry Donskoy will perform several tasks at once. It will listen to and record the sounds of movement and work of the units and mechanisms of Severodvinsk and Nevsky. In turn, submarine detectors of the new submarine will test their detection stations while watching Dmitry Donskoy. In addition, Severodvinsk and Alexander Nevsky will fire training torpedoes without warheads, checking their fire control systems and torpedo mechanisms with new torpedoes. In the future, Dmitry Donskoy will be a staff submarine used for trials of not only the newly built, but also modernized submarines.

Here are a couple of naval stories associated with the delivery of the submarines repaired and built in Severodvinsk. The first story was told by military submariners. It was in late 1980s, the heyday of perestroika, the beginning of the end of the nuclear-ocean navy. A freshly repaired nuclear submarine was moored at the Severodvinsk ship yard. Various commissions and test units, including political units of the military, visited the boat in a continuous flow. Commissioners were scratching their heads trying to identify some momentous party accomplishment that could be timed to the completion of the repairs.

One day the boat was visited by an official in the rank of the political directorate of the Northern Fleet. He walked through the compartments, looked into the crew’s cabin, interviewed the first available submariner for knowledge of fresh quotations from Gorbachev’s speeches about the importance of perestroika and acceleration, and checked officers’ notes of historical speeches of the last party congress. He was about to leave when suddenly saw a well-fed cockroach in the controls room.

The commander and the responsible factory officials were called on board. The incident had political overtones as having cockroaches on the noble ship fleet of the country of victorious socialism was completely unacceptable, particularly after years of repair. Disciplinary scolding was followed by strict instructions: insects on the ship should be caught and eliminated.

The official added that he would be back in two days with another check. Submariners and factory officials were upset that a cockroach that crawled out of the blue ruined the trials. Incidentally, apparently the cockroach was the only one on the ship, and after the compartments were painted there were no insects seen on board.

Then a mechanic whispered something in the ear of the upset commander. The commander waved his hand, letting the mechanic do whatever he wanted, and retired to his cabin. Two days later, the high commission of the Political Department of the Navy visited the ship again. The ship’s political officer trained by the mechanic made a personal report about the elimination of all deficiencies. The reporter demonstrated the leadership a freshly produced billboard “Limelight of Perestroika” in the living compartment, and introduced an Uzbek sailor who knew by heart the names, ranks and years of birth of all members of the Politburo. He then proudly called for a lieutenant who memorized all the awards of a Navy Commander Admiral Gorshkov.

At the end he presented the main treat. In the control room of the submarine there was a wooden box that looked like an ordinary garden birdhouse. A pile of operational documentation near the box left no doubts that this was not a birdhouse, but a special trap for cockroaches. The commissioners of the political department were studying the documents for the new weapon for a while. The documents included tactical and technical data, state tests protocol, combat characteristics and safety measures.

There was a document with the official seal and the signature of the general director of the company, stating that this device was given to the crew free of charge, and its cost was not included in the estimate of the repair work. The non-conformity about insects was closed by the inspectors. The cockroach, as if realizing the importance of the moment, did not appear in the controls room.

Rumor has it that later the submarine crew was set as an example at a meeting at the headquarters of the Navy Commander. The mechanics had to answer questions about the origins of his brilliant invention, and the way he cooked up the paper. Most importantly, everyone was interested how he managed to talk the director into signing the paper. The mechanic just grinned, saying that the director, too, was a man with a sense of humor.

Here is another, very similar story told by factory workers. The circumstances and plot are nearly identical. During the last stage of sea trials, a nuclear Akula-class submarine was sitting at Umba-Bay of the White Sea, the traditional location. The logbook included entries like “The bay inspected, no comments” or “Start cleaning.” The commander, sick of the sight of complete inactivity of the military crew and factory officials, was enraged. He was rushing through the compartments in search of work for his subordinates. Every time he saw a comment he scolded the sailors as his job description required. The crew was looking forward to the second shift when the commander would finally leave for the bridge as a watch officer.

In search of activity, the commander went to the officers’ room for some preventive scolding. He came in and nearly burst with righteous indignation. The sacred commander’s place was occupied by a quiet civilian from the factory wearing glasses and a shabby shirt.

In his hands, instead of a technical description of some piece of iron, he held a detective story. That, of course, made the civilian three times guiltier in the eyes of the commander.

The commander’s face turned purple, and curses went flying out of his mouth. The civilian pouted and proudly left the cabin, offended. Meanwhile, a command to prepare for the second shift was announced. The commander left, trying to calm down. During his watch an inspection of the pressure hull for leaks was scheduled as well as the beginning of the transition to the point of immersion.

The outraged young serviceman went to the upper deck, into one of the many “archipelagos” between the cabins. Fortunately, the submarine has spacious cabins.

The civilian got distracted from the exciting detective story by a sudden strange noise. He shut his book and started thinking. A scary thought pierced his brain excited by the detective story. He realized that the exhaust fan was powered up, which meant that a check for leaks was about to start.

The young man ran to the upper conning-tower hatch just to find it battened down. A howl reminiscent of a siren was heard over the White Sea. He rummaged around in horror. Everything looked like the ship was preparing to submerge. The young man howled and dropped bitter tears on the hatch, scratching the iron like a cat and knocking on the closed door with his forehead, frantically trying to recall a prayer.

And then someone tapped on his shoulder. He saw a watch officer who descended from the bridge, the commander. They looked at each other in disbelief. There was an hour and a half until the immersion.

The people who went to the upper deck for a cigarette after the leak test saw the commander and the service guy standing on the bridge, happily hugging each other. The commander was happy there was no emergency on the ship, and the serviceman was happy to be alive.

Andrei Mikhailov