The Cold War Under the Sea

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I must confess to a special interest in ‘Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne; all of my time in the Navy was during the Cold War. I’ve found no other book that delves so comprehensively into the underwater battle space during those tense years – and I’m delighted to welcome Iain as my third Guest Blogger.

Last of the Cold War warriors: the British nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS <em>Sceptre</em><br><em>Photo: Nigel Andrews</em>

Last of the Cold War warriors: the British nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Sceptre
Photo: Nigel Andrews

‘…there are two ways of dying in the circumstances in which we are placed…The first is to be crushed; the second is to die of suffocation. I do not speak of the possibility of dying of hunger, for the supply of provisions in the Nautilus will certainly last longer than we shall. Let us then calculate our chances.’ – Captain Nemo, ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.’

Published in 1870, this was a ground–breaking novel that depicted havoc caused across the oceans by a revolutionary type of submarine.

It was fast and could inflict instantaneous destruction on surface vessels – it struck without warning and then was gone again. It was a type of fighting vessel that did not really become reality until the advent of nuclear–powered submarines in the 1950s.

‘Of all the branches of men in the forces, there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners.’

The face–off between the West and the Soviet Union was by then threatening to burn white hot. During the so–called Cold War there were two competitions – one for command of outer space and the other for control of inner space.

We know plenty about the former and of the latter, hardly anything at all.

The more crucial competition was the hard fought contest waged by the USA, Britain and USSR across a darkly secret maritime battle space. For nearly five decades Humanity’s fate was in the hands of men who silently, secretly and without fanfare or adulation sailed in the silent deep of the world’s oceans. The Cold War submariners.

Year after year they took their vessels out on deployment, disappearing beneath the surface of the sea for weeks, if not months, at a time. Between the last time they saw their homeland and the next, babies were born and loved ones died. Wars might be fought or peace and goodwill reign. Deep in the oceans, throughout every personal tragedy and triumph, each world–shaping event, they hovered, unseen and ignored by the majority of Mankind, on the edge of the abyss.

Aerial view of the Russian Northern Fleet Akula Class nuclear-powered attack submarine<br><em>Photo: US DoD</em>

Aerial view of the Russian Northern Fleet Akula Class nuclear-powered attack submarine
Photo: US DoD

Not only was their deadly theatre of the Cold War literally hidden from the eyes of all except them, the secrecy imposed on both sides was almost all encompassing. Very few shafts of light fell on what really happened and, even to this day, it remains mostly in the shadows.

The campaign waged beneath the waves by British submariners was the most dangerous of plays in the East–West confrontation (between the late 1940s and 1991) and the Royal Navy’s men evolved into its deadliest practitioners.

On long–range missions in diesel boats, fresh water could be in short supply and food run short, with the submariners’ mental and physical health possibly deteriorating – but somehow they endured. In the nuclear–powered vessels the submariners had all the water and oxygen they needed – sheer luxury compared to the early Cold War ‘dirty boat’ diesels.

In Cold War submarines the mission invariably came before the man. For example, in the UK’s ballistic missile boats – the Polaris ‘bombers’ – surfacing to send a mortally sick sailor ashore to hospital could not happen. For it would endanger the primary mission of staying hidden and undetected for an entire patrol. The poorly submariner would have to take his chances. If he expired his corpse would be stored in a refrigerator compartment.

Out there, in the vast ocean, responsibility for the safety of nuclear–propelled submarines and their crews, often manoeuvring in rather close proximity – and occasionally coming to grief – fell on the broad shoulders of a few remarkable men.

The experiences of submarine captains recounted in “Hunter Killers” are unique they but they also serve to represent the broader tale.

The same could be said of the stories told by a small supporting cast of ratings whose fate the officers decided. They are also representatives of an amazing breed of men, all engaged in what was an expansive, yet deeply personal, drama.

A Polaris missile is launched from the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine HMS <em>Renown</em><br><em>Photo: US DoD>/em>

A Polaris missile is launched from the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine HMS Renown
Photo: US DoD

At times such men held more destructive power in their hands than had ever been unleashed on the planet. The Cold War undersea warriors in the attack submarines – the undersea fighter jets of the contest – often had to take split– second decisions. Upon them depended the lives of not only their own sailors but also those of millions living ashore in complete ignorance of the high stakes poker game unfolding at sea.

Today we grapple with different life and death matters on the world stage in a radically changed society. We forget how turbulent, how terrifying and exciting it could sometimes be to live back then. Nowhere was the cutting edge of science more crucial than in the face–off beneath the waves. Gaining knowledge of each other’s technology was one of the key prizes. Espionage lay at the heart of submariners’ activities – whether striving to record the distinctive sound signatures of Soviet submarines and surface ships, or eavesdropping on, and covertly observing, missile tests and other military and naval activities.

To know an enemy’s vulnerabilities – and capabilities – without him realising you had gained that insight was the ultimate. It awarded the possessor a killer edge. Nobody was a more formidable deep cover agent than the Royal Navy submariner of the Cold War.

It is therefore about time we knew at least who some of them were, in order to understand what they all did, or at least as much as secrecy rules will permit us to reveal. In that way we can at last understand what the rest of us actually lived through. For without this story there are pieces of the Cold War jigsaw missing, the truth obscured.

Winston Churchill paid this tribute: ‘Of all the branches of men in the forces, there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners.’

The mindset in the Royal Navy during the Cold War was that the Submarine Service was the pre–eminent arm. For the most serious threat to the existence of the West at all levels came from beneath the surface of the sea.

There were Soviet nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs) ready to wipe out all civilisation, not forgetting guided missile submarines and attack boats that could, in time of war, cut supply lines across the Atlantic, starving NATO of troop reinforcements. They could also deny the civilian population food, energy and many other goods considered essential to daily life.

Hunter Killers is published by Orion Books

Hunter Killers is published by Orion Books

The Russians had hundreds of submarines of all varieties and nothing that floated on the surface of the sea – whether warship or merchant vessel – was safe from them. The only answer was for NATO to field better hunter–killer boats to hunt the enemy down and to meet burgeoning Soviet SSBN destructive power with Royal Navy ‘bombers’ and US Navy ‘boomers’.

Unable to match Soviet numbers, the key to success was in the fine margins of tactical success. And that is where the British submariners proved their worth. The Royal Navy may not have fielded the most submarines during the East–West confrontation, but it sent them into the danger zones where it mattered.
The ultimate tribute to the Royal Navy’s operators perhaps came from the late Tom Clancy: ‘While everyone deeply respects the Americans with their technologically and numerically superior submarine force, they all quietly fear the British.’ Clancy went on: ‘Note that I use the word fear. Not just respect. Not just awe. But real fear at what a British submarine, with one of their superbly qualified captains at the helm, might be capable of doing.’

Iain Ballantyne

For a chance to win a copy of ‘Hunter Killers’ – email and name one of the other books Iain Ballantyne has written. Please include your full postal address. Deadline for entries: November 15. The first two correct entries drawn will be the winners and will be notified by email.

17 Comments on “The Cold War Under the Sea”

  1. Hi served in the Cold War on an SSN from 1972 to 1978. (SSN08-SSN07)
    Loads of covert missions great experience best of my life as a young submariner, youngest LMEM to serve on a sea going boat at that time when we sailed into the deep.

  2. I enjoyed reading these posts, I served on Renown Port crew 80/81 as radio op. and true, we had good camaraderie, our boss was a good captain god rest him. Sugar Bush was our RS There was plenty of things going on down there during the cold war. Things that never got a mensh!

  3. Pingback: Who Really Sank Bismarck, the Pride of Hitler’s Fleet? | Julian Stockwin

  4. Been there done that, followed a Typhoon class too on HMS/M Churchill, a fantastic boat with the best crew ever.
    Finished my time on HMS/M Sceptre another of the best. Loved every minute of it, even the slightly hairy times.

    • Chas, I’m looking forward to hearing what the lads have to say and would love to be in 311 or 345 when the toe curling details are spoken about. I don’t for one minute expect the real stuff to be released OR allowed to be spoken about.
      IF such stuff is released then I’ve got some explaining to do to my old school friends. They knew I was up to something; even though I spent a good deal of home leave getting pissed and saying anything to please except what it was we’d been up to.
      My folks knew better than to ask, they’d been well briefed by me to ask no questions. Having cousins and uncles already doing weird stuff wearing brown uniforms my family were already a secretive lot.
      I look forward to seeing the lads biting their tongues!

  5. I served aboard USS Wasp CVS – 18 which was an Essex Class Carrier that was reassigned as an ASW platform when the Forrestal Class Carriers joined the fleet. We spent many days patrolling the East coast for Soviet Subs. We also spent time tracking our own subs as they practiced approaches and attacks.
    Our primary ASW tools were the Grumman S2-F Tracker as well as Sikorsky Helo’s with dipping sonar.
    I have a picture of my ship taken from the periscope of a friendly sub, which was fortunate since he was real close.
    I’ll have to read this book.

  6. One day the truth will out. Not that I’m implying that untruths have been put about. I’m just a bit miffed that the likes of Tom Clancy made my former profession seem sooooo bloody easy to accomplish.
    Speak to the guys that did it and ask them to divulge the juicy bits and they will all fix you with the same stare that says….’yep, another wannabe on the listen out for tittle tattle’. Wanna know the truth of it….here’s a pen and paper….see that dotted line….sign just there!

  7. My Brother spent 2 years on a SSN in the US Navy, during the 70’s. He doesn’t talk a lot about it to this day. I visited his boat, and was amazed at how the men adapted to the stresses. Submarine life is surely the most difficult branch of any Navy.

  8. Hooked on Julians ‘Kydd’ books set in the Georgian Navy. Just started to read Ians ‘Hunter Killers’ and as an ex submariner am again hooked even after the first paragraph.. I think the spirit and verve of those Georgian seafarers is still alive and well, in the submarine service especially!
    We certainly did ‘Come Unseen’.

  9. Served in Royal Navy submarines during the sixties , one day whilst the skipper was doing ‘an all round ‘with the periscope ‘ he suddenly drew back and fell about laughing …. we were invited to view what he had just seen ; a Russian trawler being tossed around in howling gale in the North Atlantic ,there in the stern was a huge topless woman doing the laundry ! .

  10. Submarines apparently love their exercises or games. I cannot attest to first hand knowledge, but the rumors persist .. how submarines of our friends try to escape notice by U.S. military authorities by sailing submerged up into the Chesapeake Bay and out again without being caught. For years I’ve heard about both U.K. and Swedish submarines doing this. Not so amusing should these attempts have been Russian, or Iranian, etc.

  11. I had the great honour of being amongst these men when I served in diesel boats 71-76. Happy times most of the time. When in subs you relied more than ever on your shipmates. Their actions could be crucial to your existence which is why we not only worked together but we played together as well, going ashore as a ships company. I still wear the ‘Dolphins’ with pride.

  12. As a former Royal Marine i have the upmost respect for all submariners,and having read “strike from the sea” “victory” and “warspite” keep them coming!!!!

  13. Great subject. Some of us were fortunate to be involved in similar scenarios. Just a few weeks ago in Cairns Australia, at a reunion, I caught up with an old mate, ex RP who went into subs as an ROS and served on HMAS Orion. Some of the stuff we discussed would be inappropriate to retell in such an open environment. But it did happen and some of it would make your hair curl. Hard to say who was the hunter and who was the hunted, we thought we knew on the surface but most of the time we were wrong. Cheers Mike Fry ex PORPAC.

    • Too true Mike…Wayne has broadened the subject even further..make the hair curl is right…Those guys were very very brave men and in peace time as well..

      Lance ex A/SAP1

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