The O-Boat Mystery Boats

The mystery boats

by Geoffrey Barker
Reprinted with permission from the Australian Financial Review Magazine, December 2003 pp.17-21.


It’s the great untold story of Australian naval history. Throughout the last decade of the Cold War, Australian Oberon-class submarines conducted perilous intelligence-gathering operations off the coasts of Vietnam, Indonesia, China and India as part of a global effort to check the Soviet Navy’s formidable fleet. Shrouded in secrecy until now, their exposure would have had the power to bring down the government of the day.

Black, barnacled cigar

Deep below the choppy surface in the South China Sea, they waited in silence. Inside a black, barnacled metal cigar, 90 meters long and 8.7 meters wide, the stench of diesel fuel and the sour sweat of the crowded 75 men pervaded the humid heat, but nobody noticed. On the surface above, a new Soviet frigate was heading into Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay at a gentle five to six knots.

Seeing an opportunity for what submariners call an “underwater look”, the O-boat commanding officer (CO) positioned himself about 1,000 yards (914 meters) behind the frigate to check its speed and course. Then he dived deep and closed quickly to about 200 yards behind the frigate to calculate the depth at which he could photograph its hull shape, propellers, weapons systems and sonar. How close he came would depend on the sea, the keel depth of the frigate and the height of the submarine.


Specialist “Mystery Boat” HMAS Orion (left), striking the jackstaff before a patrol and (right) HMAS Otama on passage

With these calculations in mind, the CO slowed the submarine to about a half-knot above the frigate’s speed and listened to course and direction readings from his sonar operators. “Red two getting louder … Green three softer … right ahead,” the sonar operators called, indicating how many degrees to port or starboard, or how directly, the two vessels were aligned. When the submarine was just 50 yards behind the frigate, the CO raised his periscope. Now, finally, he could see the wake of the frigate. It was his first close visual sighting.

He brought the submarine to within six feet (1.8 meters) of the frigate’s hull and passed silently along one side. The O-boat’s cameras and hydrophones recorded the images and sounds of the Soviet vessel. Once past the frigate, the CO altered course slightly, slowed down, and allowed the unsuspecting surface vessel to overtake the submarine on the opposite side. Again, the cameras and hydrophones were recording. “If you got it right the first time, it generally took about 30 minutes to complete the manoeuvre,” retired RADM Peter Clarke tells The AFR Magazine, 20 years later. “But it was a very full-on thing. You were driving several thousand tons of submarine to within feet of a vessel that you could not see.”

RADM Clarke commanded the British O-boat HMS Oberon and the nuclear submarine HMS Tireless before transferring to the RAN 10 years ago. A former RAN submarine squadron commander and force element group leader, he adds: “You had to have a three-dimensional picture in your head of what was happening in the water. If you were taking an underwater look at a submarine, you were always concerned that it might dive onto you.”

An underwater look was particularly perilous in the warm and turbid water of the South China Sea where visibility is poor. “If we’d raised our periscope, we would have punctured the surface ship’s hull,” another former O-boat commander recalls. But the risks of collision and death, or of the humiliation of discovery and capture, were worth taking for the intelligence rewards. A successful underwater look would give Western navies complete and accurate knowledge of the defensive and offensive performance capabilities of a potential Soviet adversary. In the event of hostilities, this would be an important combat edge.

RAN Oberon Class (SSG)

(RAN Website specifications)
Displacement (tons): 2,196 tons Surfaced, 2,417 Submerged
Dimensions (feet): 295.5 x 26.5 x 18 (90 x 8 x 5.5 metres)
Propulsion: Diesel-electric, 2 x diesels, 6,000 hp, 2 shafts
Max. Speed (knots): 16 Surfaced 18 Submerged
Armament: 8 x 21-inch torpedo tubes (6 fwd, 2 aft) Mk48 Torpedoes and Sub Harpoon missiles.
Complement: 62



Untold stories

What exactly the O-boats did from the end of the 1970s until the early 1990s has been one of the great untold stories of Australian naval history – until now. A decade after the end of the patrols, and nearly five years after the last O-boat was replaced by the Australian-built Collins class submarines, the navy is still extremely reluctant to discuss the patrols.


An Australian Collins class heads for sea.

Many former O-boat commanders say their work and achievements are still too sensitive to disclose. But they want their story to be told and acknowledged. One reason their freedom to speak openly is still restricted by security regulations is that the Collins class submarines are engaged in sensitive intelligence-collection activities. “We don’t want to spook the neighbourhood,” one knowledgeable political figure says.

But some lips have been loosened by the publication of books on the Cold War activities of the US and British submarine forces. Blind Man’s Bluff. The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew (Public Affairs, 1998), tells the American story. We Come Unseen by Jim Ring (John Murray, 2001) tells the British story.

Against the background of these publications, some Australian politicians, public servants and submariners have been prepared to give The AFR Magazine a glimpse into the secret and silent Cold War world of the O-boats, albeit usually on condition of anonymity. Quite apart from revealing a remarkable chapter of Australian maritime history for the first time, the story of the O-boat patrols shows just how diligently Australia has, down the decades and under successive governments, pursued the US alliance.

Increasing concerns

The Australian O-boat patrols were a response to increasing concerns about the expansion of the Soviet Pacific Fleet under Admiral Sergei Gorshkov from the early 1970s. “It was the second biggest fleet after the Northern Fleet based at Murmansk,” a former intelligence officer recalls. “By the late 1980s, Cam Ranh Bay on Vietnam’s east coast had become a highly significant Soviet base. There were at least 15 surface ships, some submarines, 30 bomber aircraft, a SIGINT (signal intelligence) station, missile-handling facilities and 10,000 Soviet troops,” he says.

From Cam Ranh Bay, Soviet ships would go into the Pacific to target the West Coast of the US. And they were only a few days’ travel from Australia’s vital sea lines of communications. So the US and Australia shared concerns about the strategic implications of the big Soviet presence. Ironically, the Cam Ranh Bay base had been built by the Americans during the Vietnam War, but was leased by Vietnam to the Soviet Union in 1979. (In May 2002, Russia agreed to hand it back to Vietnam.)

Cancelled 1992

Australia’s secret O-boat patrols started in 1978 and ended in 1992. They were cancelled by the then Defence Minister in the Keating Labor government, Senator Robert Ray, who, according to senior submariners, panicked when told that one of the O-boats had come dangerously close to being detected. “We paid a high price with that cancellation, both in terms of the body of knowledge we were developing, and in terms of maintenance of the capability,” says one veteran of the patrols.

There were, in all, 16 patrols during those 14 years, meaning that one O-boat was out collecting intelligence continuously for part of each year. Two of the six O-boats – Orion and Otama – were the RAN’s designated ‘mystery boats’ and were specially fitted for intelligence operations. They made most of their patrols, but Otway and Oxley also made secret patrols. Onslow and Ovens were not involved but were deployed to track Soviet submarines moving into the Arabian Gulf from Vladivostok via the Coral Sea, south of Tasmania, across the Great Australian Bight and past Cape Leeuwin in WA. The Soviet subs took this route in an effort to avoid detection, but Onslow and Ovens kept an eye on them.

The men primarily responsible for the patrols were former O-boat CO (Otama, Onslow and Otway) CMDR Peter Horobin, who was deputy director of submarine policy, and the electronics expert James Armstrong, director of Navy Electronic Warfare. Horobin was a quiet and utterly determined Australian; Armstrong a brilliant English boffin who shocked his colleagues when he announced one day that his uncle was Donald Maclean, the notorious Soviet spy.


Initial motivation?

It is still not clear exactly why the RAN started the patrols. Some former O-boat commanders believe Australia felt it had to contribute high-quality intelligence to the US and UK to establish the RAN’s credentials and credibility at what was then the sharp end of the global Cold War submarine contest. Former intelligence officers say the patrols started at the request of the US. What is certain is that the Australian submarine arm won its spurs in these perilous days of the Cold War.


Oboats alongside HMAS Platypus.
This was partly because the large US nuclear-powered deep ocean attack submarines were less suited to close-in intelligence-collection patrols in relatively shallow coastal waters. Moreover, the US and British nuclear submarine fleets were fully occupied tracking Soviet submarine activity from their submarine bases on the icy Kola Peninsula in the Barents Sea and at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka peninsula below the Sea of Okhotsk. US boats were also watching Soviet Pacific Fleet headquarters at Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan.

In the Northern waters, especially in the Arctic region, British Oberon class submarines were conducting electronic surveillance, acoustic signature recording and underwater looks. So it fell to the Australian O-boats to target Cam Ranh Bay and the South China Sea. They also, inevitably, took the opportunity to look over, and listen in to, places of interest en route on the coasts of China and India, which had close defence relations with the Soviet Union.


“Conventional submarines are much better than nuclear submarines at littoral surveillance,” a political figure familiar with the secret patrols says. “They can get into harbours for a decent look. They can get close to boats and have a useful capacity to listen to their emissions and look at their sonar and propulsion systems.

“If they get close to the coast they also have a capacity to hear what else is around. By getting close to a facility or to a city you can identify a considerable amount of what is being emitted. And that is useful for targeting purposes,” he says.

The men who drove the O-boats were among the most remarkable Australian seafarers of their generation. Former commanding officers remember their training at the famous British Perisher submarine command course and their patrols as the most intensely lived moments of their lives. They included the legendary CMDR Bob Woolrych, now an avocado farmer in Queensland, and retired RADM Peter Briggs, who ended a distinguished naval career in charge of the Collins class submarine repair operation. Others remain in sensitive naval and intelligence posts.


RADM Peter Briggs, delivers the 2002 Creswell Oration.

The RAN acquired its six O-boats over 10 years from 1967 to replace a British submarine squadron that had operated in Australia since World War II. Built in Scotland, the O-boats were in service for 30 years. With refits and updates, they were the most silent and capable conventional diesel-electric submarines of their time and ideal for coastal intelligence collection.

Specifications (but see RAN Website data, above.)

The submerged displacement weight of the O-boats was 2,400 tons; their draft was 5.5 metres. Their maximum speed was 12 knots on the surface and 17.5 knots submerged. Their maximum safe dive depth was 200 metres. Fully armed, the O-boats carried 28 torpedoes that could be fired from six torpedo tubes. They could carry 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel in internal tanks and in numbers three and five of the main ballast tanks. In theory, they could circumnavigate the globe without refuelling.

Designed to accommodate a crew of five officers and 57 sailors, the so-called ‘mystery boats’ usually went on patrol with more than 70 people on board. In addition to their normal complement, there were always some submarine service trainees and civilian ‘spooks’ operating specialised intelligence-collection equipment. Among the crew, monitoring communications from shore facilities and vessels at sea, were specialist linguists, fluent in Russian and regional languages, who could warn of any indication that the submarine had been detected.

During patrols, perhaps not more than 10 people on board would know the boat’s location. A curtain was placed around the chart table to discourage curious crew members. Once on patrol, crews quickly adjusted to the crowding and the stink of diesel and sweat; to ‘hot-bunking’ or sleeping on torpedo racks; to careful water use and to the need for minimal noise.

Initial personal tensions evaporated quickly once patrols were under way, although some COs noted that they tended to resurface as patrols ended and crews neared home. One O-boat had an unpopular executive officer named Trevor. The crew smuggled a budgerigar aboard, named it ‘Trevor the Budgie’ and trained it to shit on the officer’s white shirt.

On top of the crowded, uncomfortable conditions, O-boat crews had to endure occasional food shortages. One crew famously survived for weeks on omelettes, scrambled eggs and pavlova when it found its supplies reduced to egg powder alone. Another ran out of toilet paper in the first week of a six-week patrol.


Lonely and isolated

More generally, life on the O-boats was lonely and isolated, as well as perilous. There was no communication with families. Personal bad news was withheld from crew members until patrols ended. And there was always the possibility of death at sea, or capture and imprisonment – or execution – as spies.

To the dismay of some O-boat veterans, the Australian Government has refused to recognise their service as warlike and denied their request for an active service medal (see inset below). The issue particularly rankles with Bob Woolrych. “In the event of capture, there were quite specific instructions on what to ask for in order to get better treatment. We thought it an exercise in pissing into the wind at the time … We would have been thrown to the sharks,” he says.

A test of their medal

“The work was known to very few in government, defence and the navy. The missions were conducted as ‘war patrols’ and the tasks undertaken by these submarines (were) considered … to be among the most hazardous undertaken by RAN seagoing units for many decades.”

These words were written by the national president of the Australian Submarine Association, CAPT Barry Nobes, to the Defence Force Chief, GEN Peter Cosgrove as part of a plea for the Australian Active Medal (special operations) to be awarded to submariners who had served on the secret spy patrols.

But Cosgrove was unmoved. Whether the AASM or the ASM was the appropriate medal, he replied in August 2003, hinged on the definition of ‘warlike’ and ‘non-warlike operations ‘under current regulations’. And the reviewing officers had determined the O-boat service warranted the ASM with a special ops clasp because the operations were non-warlike.

Why? “… the nature of these patrols was not warlike,” Cosgrove wrote, “because the application of force was not authorised, there was no expectation of casualties, there was no state of declared war, there were no conventional combat operations against an armed adversary (and) they were not peace-enforcement operations.”

Cosgrove’s ruling offended O-boat drivers who had operated under rules of engagement that allowed hot pursuit of intelligence targets and permitted submarines to move within feet of surface ships for intelligence-collection purposes. But Cosgrove was adamant, telling submariners that they could be proud of their ASM with special ops clasp, and concluding: “I regret that I can be of no further assistance to you in the matter.”

Some submariners were annoyed by CAPT Nobe’s subsequent advice to them : “… we should accept this decision with the knowledge that we have done our best to secure a favourable outcome, but the regulations are very unlikely to be changed (and) do not permit it. I believe that any further submissions will be futile and possibly counter-productive in other areas, such as health and welfare, where we really do need support.”

It is unlikely that this will be the last word on the medal issue. Submariners are tough and determined old salts and their claim for the AASM does seem to have been sunk by regulations that define warlike service very narrowly indeed. If the nature of the patrols and the dangers to which they exposed their crews were not in the ordinary meaning of the word ‘warlike’, then it is hard to see just what would qualify.

Certainly to describe such patrols as ‘non-warlike’ is to play down the hazards and the accomplishments. Service in the O-boats required courage and daring. It was more sustained and more active than much of the military service that now qualifies as active service.

The O-boats were organised in two watches and could be brought to action on either watch. Crews worked six-hour shifts and had four meals per day. Commanding officers, though, tended to survive on only two to two-and-a-half hours’ sleep in every 24-hour period on patrol. “You were always prowling,” one CO recalls.

The story of the O-boats is a salutary reminder of the seriousness of the long Cold War nuclear standoff that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The derring-do of underwater looks wasn’t the main activity of the O-boats. During their six-week patrols, mostly out of HMAS Platypus, their base in Neutral Bay, Sydney, they spent most of their time submerged in the South China Sea, with antennas raised above the water, conducting electronic surveillance. “Hoovering stuff out of the atmosphere,” is how one former commander describes the activity.

Acoustic signature recordings

Their other task was to record the acoustic signatures of Soviet surface ships and submarines. The O-boat would lie submerged and silent, passive sonar hydrophones switched on, to record the sounds of passing ships and submarines. “We have been able to identify signatures for individual ships. Hulls, air-conditioning, pumps, have characteristic sound signatures,” a commander recalls. The recorded sound signatures were fed into the computers of Australian, American and British submarines. This would enable them to identify the vessel and its capabilities in the event of hostilities. Again the combat edge would be important.

Although they operated under rules of engagement that prevented them from trespassing on the territorial waters of littoral states, they were permitted to pursue interesting targets if the CO judged the intelligence pay-off was worth the risk. The strictly enforced rule, however, was that the O-boats had to stay on the high seas.

As one former CMDR says: “There was no need to enter territorial waters, and the penalties were too high if you were caught. Most of the navy didn’t know what we were doing, and probably only two politicians – the prime minister and the defence minister. You had an obligation to get it right, because if you stuffed up you could bring down a government.” The O-boats were certainly not permitted to make pre-emptive torpedo attacks against potential adversaries, but they were permitted to go within six feet (1.8 metres) of vessels for those ‘underwater looks’.


New Zealand’s embarrassing decision

With the growth of the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet in the Atlantic theatre in the 1970s, the US navy set itself the task of achieving timely indications and warnings 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Assisted by the smaller British submarine fleet, the US succeeded. A main focus of the British activity was high-quality intelligence collection, including from British Oberon class submarines and Australian submarine services. According to some authorities, however, the patrols may have acquired special urgency following the New Zealand Government decision in 1984 to exclude nuclear-armed American warships, and indeed all nuclear-armed vessels, from NZ waters.

The Americans responded to what they saw as a major crisis in the Western alliance by excluding New Zealand from what was known at the time as the ‘Five Eyes’ – the intelligence-sharing arrangements between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and the US. The group was known secretly as ‘AUSCANNZUKUS’. It held annual conferences with plenary, working and top-secret sessions.

The US eventually agreed that New Zealand could remain a member of the Five Eyes, but that it could not continue to receive the top-level information. At the time, despite its opposition to the NZ nuclear-ship policy, Australia found itself disadvantaged by regional association with New Zealand. Australian delegates at the 1984 and 1985 conferences, held in Washington and Ottawa, sensed that they too were being excluded from what one authority called “the really sexy stuff”.

They were certainly excluded from the top-secret sessions. The result was a more intense Australian effort to regain US favour and full Five Eyes access by producing more and better intelligence information from its O-boat patrols. It was a gambit that worked to Australia’s great advantage.

Mystery boats selectedBut long before these developments Australia had selected Orion and Otama to be its ‘mystery boats’. They were given a specialised fit with, among other things, upward-looking cameras, detuned hydrophones to record unfiltered noise, and other sensors. Initially, however, the program did not have strong political or even navy support. “A lot was done by blokes on an ad hoc basis,” RADM Clarke remembers. “The Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the Defence Signals Directorate worked on bits and pieces and so did some navy boffins. It was good stuff, done on a wing and a prayer. They did outstanding work.”

Otway rests in Holbrook, NSW, (left), so Ovens rests alongside the West Australian Maritime Museum.
Another former CO remembers that Orion, at least, was worked up for its role as a ‘mystery boat’ before it left the UK for Australia. “The Royal Navy were very good to us,” another CO says. “They took out a lot of old gear and we got better cameras.” A typical O-boat patrol would last from six to eight weeks from its beginning to its end at HMAS Platypus.

The first eight to 10 days would be a fast surface transit at about 12 knots. Then a surface-dive transit would follow at seven to 10 knots before a so-called ‘discreet transit’ into the area of operations. During three to three-and-a-half weeks on station – listening, recording, watching – the O-boat remained submerged, with only masts raised, operating in what was called ‘ultra-quiet’ state.

The vessel might move out to sea from its offshore position at night in order to perform noisy tasks, including discharging wastes and charging batteries. On its return home, the boat’s performance would be affected by the drag created by barnacles that grew quickly in the warm South China Sea waters, clinging even to periscope lenses. Some O-boat commanders surfaced and scraped the barnacles at sea before entering port; others preferred to remove them with high-pressure water hoses once they were docked.

Primary interest: Atlantic

Despite the dangers they faced and the extraordinary intelligence they collected, there seems a consensus among former O-boat commanders that their patrols into the Pacific, South China Sea and the Indian Ocean were relatively less intense and less important than the US and British patrols in the Atlantic, Arctic and Northern Pacific region. “For Washington,” a former commander says, “the primary interest was the Atlantic. It was more politically sensitive. Washington and London saw the Atlantic threat as more immediate than the Pacific threat.”


British O class submarines in the UK.

“I think we were always up against the second eleven,” says another. “Russian technology was never as good as ours. The Russians out of Cam Ranh Bay were not built for the tropics. They relied on petty officers and a crew of conscripts who knew very little. Their operations in the Pacific were at the lower end of the scale. They may have been better in home waters.”

None of this diminishes in any way the Cold War contribution of the O-boats. Senior figures in the US administration acknowledge the importance of their role and estimate that the Collins class submarines now boost US naval capability in the Pacific by 20 per cent. At the very least, as one O-boat commander puts it, the secret patrols admitted Australia to one of the biggest big games in the Cold War and demonstrated the capacity of the Australian submarine arm at a time of high international tension.

And where are they now? Onslow is at Sydney’s Darling Harbour; Oxley is in a park at Holbrook in southern NSW; Ovens is in Fremantle, WA; Otama is being prepared for display at Hastings, Victoria; Oxley‘s fin is on display at HMAS Stirling, WA; and Orion will be scrapped.

Mystery boats no longer, the O-boats are now museum attractions, climbed over daily by children and parents who marvel at the equipment and machinery packed into their claustrophobic narrowness. They ask how more than 70 human beings managed to exist for nearly two months at a time inside these cramped and dangerous spaces far below the surface of the sea. The answer is simple: they were brave and balanced men who knew they were doing vital work for their country.

RAN Oberon disposals (RAN website)

1957 Oxley 27/3/67 – 13/2/92. Scrapped
1959 Otway 23/4/68 – 17/2/94. Scrapped. Fin &  upper surfaces used for “waterline”land based exhibit at Holbrook, N.S.W.
1960 Onslow 22/12/69 – 3/99. Gifted to the National Maritime Museum, Sydney.
1961 Orion 5/6/77 – 1996. Scrapped.
1962 Otama 27/4/78 – 15/12/00. Gifted to the town of Hastings, Victoria for use as a dry exhibit.
1970 Ovens  18/4/69 – 1/12/95. Gifted to the Western Australian Maritime Museum.


Sportsman Reports

HMS Sportsman

Reports by Captain (S), First Submarine Flotilla to Flag Officer Levant and Eastern Mediterranean

Forwarded by Stephen Dearnley, a “very junior Sportsman fourth hand” at that time.

HMS Sportsman, Ninth Patrol Report 20 March — 4 April 1944 (LEUT R.G. Gatehouse DSC RN)

Sportsman completed her refit at Port Said and sailed for patrol on 20 March. She passed the Aegean through the Kaso Strait and on 23-24 March patrolled the Piraeus-Suda route between Andimilos and Ananes without sighting anything.

The remainder of the patrol was spent in the vicinity of Monemvasia where she had been informed that considerable enemy activity could be expected both in and near the harbour.

Sportsman‘s area of operations.

On 25 March, a daylight reconnaissance of the harbour revealed the presence of a German motor lighter MTS (about 450 tons, length 200 feet) berthed inside the net defences.

On that day Sportsman lay in wait for this vessel to sail. A 100-ton caique entered the harbour but was not molested in order not to spoil the chance of getting the bigger target. On 27 March a strong wind blew all day and the next day the MTS was observed either to have shifted berth or to be stranded on the north shore of the island. At about noon, 28 March, a salvage tug of about 1000 tons escorted by two UJ Boats (Ed. note: anti-submarine vessels) approached the harbour from seaward, presumably to go to the assistance of the MTS. Sportsman commenced an approach but was detected by one of the escorts. The attack was foiled by violent avoiding action on the part of the enemy that forced the submarine deep. They afterwards entered the harbour.


At dark that night, Sportsman decided to attack the ships in harbour by torpedo in the last of the moonlight. She approached close to the net defence, found the range clear through the boom gate both to the tug and the MTS, but the former obstinately kept bows on to him. At 2226 one torpedo was fired through the gate at each of the targets. The tug was missed and the MTS was hit and disintegrated with a 40-ton caique lying alongside her. Sportsman was then driven off by gunfire from the shore defences firing tracer shell.

I consider that the sinking of this vessel, which though small, is known to be of considerable value to the enemy, was an extremely fine effort. Though stranded, she could almost certainly have been salvaged by the enemy.

Radar plot

Sportsman continued her patrol off Monemvasia for the next two days during which another lighter entered harbour unobserved. On 31 March, as darkness fell, the motor lighter left the harbour unescorted and proceeded southwards. Sportsman gave chase and for the next 45 minutes obtained an accurate radar plot of the enemy course and speed. At 2120 she achieved a position on the beam of the target at very close range and fired two torpedoes that both hit and blew the lighter to pieces. Eight survivors (seven German and one Dutch) were recovered from the water. They disclosed that the vessel was the Grauer Ort (200 tons, length 130 feet), bound for Kalamata from Piraeus-Athens with a mixed cargo of explosives and food.

sportsman model
A much-modified S Class Submarine model (WA Maritime Museum)

After this, Sportsman returned to Monemvasia and was upset to find that the salvage tug had sailed. She left patrol on 2 April, dived under the Antikythera minefield and arrived in Malta 8 April.

I consider this was an exceptionally satisfactory and well-carried out patrol. In these days it is useless to wait for a very few large targets in the Aegean and it is of greater importance that the smaller ships supplying the enemy outer islands are sunk. Sportsman could not possibly have shown more enterprise in despatching the two vessels that she met.

Precision attack

I wish particularly to draw attention to her attack on the Grauer Ort, as it appears to me to be a classic example of intelligent shadowing of the enemy at night, enabling an accurate estimation of the enemy course and speed by radar plot to be obtained, culminating in a close range attack by torpedo with perfect precision. I cannot recall a finer example of so intelligent and successful an attack on such a difficult target, whose length was only 130 feet.

The torpedoes on this occasion were set to run at eight feet and were fitted with CCR non-contact pistols. (Ed. note: the CCR or Compensated Coil Rod, was an improved magnetic pistol that replaced the unsatisfactory magnetic pistol Duplex Coiled Rod, DCR in 1943.) The target drew about seven feet and I think the explosions were undoubtedly non-contact. It will be noted from the report that the guaranteed life of the non-contact circuit had expired and it was therefore essential that the torpedoes should pass very close to the bottom of the target.

Verbal information has been obtained from the prisoners of war taken by Sportsman. By a curious coincidence, several of them were in the German Capo Prio when she was sunk off Suda Bay by Sportsman in her previous patrol. These men have also given interesting information about that attack.

HMS Sportsman, Tenth Patrol Report 18 April – 6 May. (LEUT R.G. Gatehouse DSC RN)

Sportsman sailed from Malta 18 April and entered the Aegean through the Antikythera Channel 21 April to patrol in the West Aegean.

On 22 April Sportsman was ordered to cover the approaches to Candia, as the Luxemburg was reported to be in Piraeus and about to sail for Crete. Sportsman arrived off Candia on the 23rd and patrolled close to the 100 fathom line NW of Standia Island for the next six days. She was withdrawn during the nights of 25-26 and 26-27 April to keep her clear of our own surface forces. On the night of 26-27, a large armed caique was encountered but wisely left alone to avoid compromising the patrol. It was again seen in daylight 27 April, off Candia.

The PRU (Ed. note: Photographic Reconnaissance Unit) on 28 April showed Luxemburg departed from Piraeus a.m. At 1230 on the 28th, three escort vessels left Candia and proceeded westwards, presumably to meet Luxemburg. At 1505 she was sighted approaching from the west very heavily escorted by aircraft and with a surface escort of three destroyers, one torpedo boat and three UJ boats. Luxemburg was well laden and the size of the escort and the fact that additional escorts were being sent out to bring her in would appear to indicate not only the great value of the ship, but also that Sportsman’s presence was strongly suspected if not known.

The electric propulsion room of an S class submarine

Sportsman correctly anticipated a navigational alteration of course by the enemy and, as asdic conditions were perfect and the sea calm, LEUT Gatehouse decided that his best chance was to fire from outside the screen, particularly as he was reasonably sure of the enemy course and speed. Accordingly torpedoes were fired at 1634 on 115 degrees track at a range of 5000 yards.

The attack, as LEUT Gatehouse is the first to admit, was far from perfect as an attempt was made to swing the ship against the direction of the target while firing in order to shorten the interval, with the result that this was done overfast and only two torpedoes were fired before the DA (Director Angle of Attack) had passed. One was fired a third of a length ahead and the other amidships. It had been the intention to fire six spread over two lengths but, as the Commanding Officer observed “an enormous splash of discharge”, he decided not to fire any more and went deep.

Nevertheless, the estimations must have been excellent and torpedo running accurate as one torpedo was heard to hit after the correct running interval. The pistols used were CCR and set to 22 feet. The draft of the target is difficult to estimate but must have been at least 20 feet as Luxemburg is 4800 tons and was laden, so the hit may or may not have been non-contact. Luxemburg did not reach Candia, has never been seen since and is considered sunk. A short and accurate counter-attack followed in which fortunately no damage was done.

Considerable ASW activity

On the next day there was considerable A/S activity by enemy air and surface forces and in the evening Sportsman withdrew to the northward in compliance with orders to patrol on the Piraeus-Crete route off Ananes Island.

At 1138 on 2 May a convoy was sighted approaching from the southward which turned out to be Gertrude and Suzanne, escorted by four UJ vessels with numerous aircraft. After the sinking of Luxemburg the escorts appear to have been very much “on their toes”, as Sportsman was detected while her attack was developing and was forced deep. Six minutes later she returned to periscope depth and was again forced down and this time kept down for two hours during which 32 depth charges were dropped, the first pattern being unpleasantly close. Sportsman finally shook off the pursuit and nothing was in sight when she returned to periscope depth.


The Chatham-built HMS Sportsman, P229, was one of the “improved 1940 program S class” submarines. A total of 62 S class were built between 1930 and 1935, with variations ranging from displacement tonnage and engines to armament. Sportsman carried a crew of 39 and displaced 670 tons (surfaced) on a 63.4 x 7.3 x 3.2 metres hull. Her two 960 hp diesel engines drove her at 13.75 knots surfaced and electric motors gave 10 knots submerged. After WW II, HMS Sportsman was transferred to the French navy as Sibylle (above) in 1951, but was lost with all hands in exercises 40 miles east of Toulon , 23 September 1952.

Sportsman left patrol on 2 May and arrived back at Malta 6 May without further incident.

The sinking of the Luxemburg was of very great value and must have been a great blow to the enemy in his efforts to keep his outer islands supplied. In spite of the aiming error it is considered that the success of this attack is attributable to accuracy and skill and not to chance.

Arrangements are being made for Sportsman to fire a full salvo of torpedoes with blowing heads to investigate and cure the excessive splash of discharge.

The Collins Class

The Collins class

It was disappointing to see negative publicity from Canberra, especially around 1999-2000 about our new submarines and other RAN ships, such as “rust bucket Manoora“. Certainly there have been problems. Every undertaking generates problems. However, other than dealing with overly optimistic contingency factors (only 2.3 per cent or $115 million was allowed initially for the entire Collins class), no “problem” seems too difficult. Furthermore, the “rust buckets” have certainly proven themselves money well spent as we look at their brilliant record in The Gulf and islands closer to home.

Waller SSG75 at speed. (RAN photo)

What has not been discussed recently by practically anyone other than RADM Briggs, is the massive and marked achievement of building a highly successful submarine design and construction industry from bare earth in Australia. Compared with contemporary Royal Navy frigates and some US Navy submarines, the Collins class is going like a dream.

Peter Wallner, a defence procurement expert, said in The Advertiser, 12 May 2008,

  • From its inception in 1978 the project was seldom far from controversy and it was mercilessly attacked by the media and the Howard government for a myriad of technical failings – real, exaggerated and imagined. With problems overcome through some remarkable defence science and assistance from the U.S., the submarines were delivered close to budget and an average of 26 months behind schedule.
  • This is one of the shortest delays with any military purchase and remarkable for the largest systems integration project in Australian history.
  • The persisting failure has been the combat system, a testament to both the inadequacies of some of the world’s major arms corporations and the unchecked ambition of Australian submariners.

Even this disaster was salvaged by the expertise and ingenuity of Australia’s project engineers and defence scientists, cobbling together a system to provide an acceptable performance. Highly regarded defence commentator Norman Friedman visited the Australian Submarine Corporation in 1999 and wrote a very positive article. “The Collins class seems well on the road to recovery, with a real operational capacity already in place,” he says. He shows how Australia built, through a defence procurement and building arrangement largely insulated from uniformed RAN influence, a viable state-of-the-art machine. “Despite this reality, the public and, apparently, the political leadership have associated the Collins-class problems with the Royal Australian Navy,” he adds. (Norman Friedman, Fixing the Collins class, United States Naval Institute Proceedings, 126/5 May 2000, pp 98-102.)

Problems and solutions

The problems, Friedman reports, lay chiefly in hull and machinery noise, a combat direction system prone to data overload, and a “double dove” error with periscope vision. Other minor problems, such as salt water fuel contamination, seem easily fixed.

Noise problems are relative. First, the old Oberons were remarkably quiet at any speed, therefore the follow-on type had a difficult standard to better. Second, while the Collins class was quiet enough at slow speeds, they were noisy at full power, especially on the surface. This was due primarily to vibrations from the diesels, other machinery, hull, snort mast and propeller. All these have been corrected or permanent fixes identified.

LCDR Andrew Keogh, CO of HMAS Waller, who successfully “torpedoed” an American carrier in a big RIMPAC 2000 exercise, reportedly said of his submarine, “My periscopes are better, my diesels are better, the Collins class has got streamlining and new propellors, all within the space of 12 months,” according to a Weekend Australian, September 9-10, 2000, p5, article.

Combat direction system

The computerised combat direction system, based on the RAN-designed Oberon Submarine Weapons Update System (SWUP), looked good on paper back in the 1980s, but fell prone to data processing overload during multi-tasking, which in turn slowed the entire system.

The $266 million interim Fast Track modification, initially to Dechaineux and Sheean, looks like correcting this. Conversely, the computer-aided submarine control systems and the sonar system are working as intended. Instead of eight to ten in the Oberons, only two people are required to operate the Collins machinery control panel.

three subs
Collins, Rankin and Waller head seawards. (RAN photo from

 A “double dove” gray band effect plus focus loss when changing periscope power was due perhaps to the RAN wanting more electronics than usual in the head. “As of February 2000, a solution was under test in the manufacturer’s plant in Glasgow,” said Friedman.

Importantly, Friedman praises our links with the Australian DSTO and overseas laboratories. He sees this ease of access as “the major lesson for other navies”. The Collins class has problems, but none seem insurmountable or intractable.

Manning the submarines is another matter, with major problems identified across the board ranging from recruiting to retention. Extra submariners’ pay has ameliorated but not solved the problem.

Type VII U-Boats vs Convoy ONS-5

The ONS-5 Convoy and U-boat battle

By Mike Downes

Paper presented to the Company of Master Mariners, Sydney Branch, 24 November 1993, reprinted with permission.

Type 7

The chief ONS-5 adversary was the Type VII U-boat. The most common variant, the Type VIIC, was 67 x 5.85 x 4.37 metres (220 ft x 19 x 14 feet) and displaced 770/865 tons surfaced/submerged. Two supercharged four-stroke Germaniawerft six-cylinder diesels delivered 2800-3200 bhp to twin propellers and, with fully charged batteries, the two electric motors produced 750 SHP. Maximum speeds were17 knots surfaced or 7.6 knots submerged. Armament typically included six torpedo tubes with nine reloads, but some Type VIIs were specialist minelayers, flak-ships, milch-cows, etc.The Type VIIs usually carried one 88 mm deck gun and multiple variations of 27 mm and 20 mm AA guns. Crew numbers might vary from 44 to 60.

The fiercest convoy/U-boat battle of WW II, indeed one of the major turning points of the war, was the defence of convoy ONS-5. Until that point, U-boats had almost succeeded in starving Britain into submission, with all that that implies. This was the scrap that finally turned the corner (Syrett 1994, Roskill 1956).

Priority: U-boats

In 1939 Germany did not have very many U-boats, but they soon proved to be a very effective weapon. As the war went on, Admiral Döenitz, who had been in charge of the U-boat arm, was made operational head of the German navy in late 1942. The three big ships, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had made their successful dash up the English Channel in early 1942 and were now bottled up in German ports. Döenitz paid them off to provide the sailors to man the 17 U-boats that he was building every month. At the time of this battle there were some 400 U-boats in commission, building or working up.

These U-boats were fitted with torpedo tubes and a decent-sized gun for surface attack. To detect shipping they relied on visual lookouts and on good quality hydrophones. Their greatest asset was speed. They only did two knots under water with bursts to seven knots, but they usually travelled at between 14 and 16 knots on the surface.


Once a convoy was detected, they would shadow it, reporting directly to Döenitz and to other submarines in the pack. Then they would try to get ahead of the convoy, where they would lie in wait. In daylight hours with good visibility they would tend to go deep and try to attack from inside the convoy itself. Their favourite tactic was to attack down-wind and down-sea on the surface at night, submerging as soon as the torpedoes had been fired.

They did not have radar but did have a radar detector geared to the 10 cm wavelength. Unfortunately for them, we were using a three cm wavelength radar, which they could not detect. Another weakness was that they had to report daily by radio to Döenitz, who closely controlled them, but their signals were detected by direction finders from shore and a few British ships. In some cases the signals could be decoded and read by Ultra, the secret British signal decoding section.

The British Escort Groups at this time comprised older destroyers with one boiler removed and replaced by additional fuel tanks to give greater range, as well as new frigates and corvettes.

Radar and Asdic limitations

We all had good radar but this did not have the modern display. We had only a single small cathode ray tube that gave a distance and a hand-trained aerial that indicated the bearing. Asdics, the underwater detection system, was similarly hand-trained and effective in most conditions out to about 1500 to 1800 yards. However, because of water noise it became pretty useless in really heavy weather and at any speed over 16 knots. The asdic beam worked basically in and just below the horizontal plane, with the result that a submarine echo could only be tracked down to some 100 to 150 yards in front of the ship. It was then guesswork as to what the submarine was doing until we were in position to drop our depth charges from the stern.


So the Admiralty started fitting some ships with hedgehog. Hedgehog is an ahead-throwing weapon firing off 24 bombs with contact fuses. These formed a circle some 24 metres in diameter, about 220 metres in front of the ship. Any bomb that exploded against a submarine’s casing was powerful enough to blow a hole in the pressure hull.


Hedgehog was a 24-barrel mortar. Each round carried 13.6 kg (30 pounds) of TNT or 16.3 kg of torpex.

Finally, one or two ships of every Escort Group were also being fitted with a high frequency direction finder (H/F D/F). This was a rather inaccurate instrument but could detect submarine radio transmissions and gave an indication from which direction the attack was likely to come and the very approximate range (either groundwave or distance from the U-boat making the signal). Our own ship, Tay, was the only ship so fitted in the B7 Escort Group.


So much for the protagonists. I was a lieutenant and the navigator of HMS Tay, which was the Number Two ship in the B7 Escort Group. My job was to plot the information coming from the asdics, radar, etc. on a track chart. My station was in a small hut next to the anti-submarine cabinet at the front of the bridge, where the skipper could look down from above and see the display. I also had the job of monitoring the signals from the other ships.


HMS Tay K-232, commissioned in 1942, was the fourth of 151 River class frigates built in WW II. The class displaced 1370 tons, on a 91.8 x 11 x 2.74 metres (301 x 36.5 x 9 feet) hull. Two boilers fed two four-cylinder VTE engines that developed 5500 ihp and could push the ships along at 20 knots. These specialist ASW ships carried two 102 mm (four-inch) and 10 x 20 mm guns, one hedgehog mount and 150 depth charges. Crew size might vary between 107 and 140.

Our boss in B7 Escort Group was CMDR Peter Gretton. He was a brilliant commander and worked up B7 to become the ace of the Close Escort Groups in the same way that CAPT Johnnie Walker was the ace of the Support Groups. The Close Escort Group operated as the close escort to the convoy, usually taking station one mile clear, whereas the Support Groups were fairly fast free-roaming ships whose function was to close any convoy under attack and provide additional support. When they detected a submarine, they could sit on it for perhaps 24 hours until it surfaced and could be killed. The Close Escorts had to remain with the convoy and while we did detach for single submarines when there were none others threatening, we usually only concentrated on putting the submarine down until the convoy had gone past.


CMDR Peter Gretton commanded HMS Duncan D-99, a D class destroyer leader, 1400 tons, 97 x 10 x 1.37 metres (318 x 33 x 4.5 feet) with four 120 mm (4.7 inch) one 77 mm (3 inch) guns and eight torpedo tubes. Commissioned in 1933, her 38,000 hp engines gave a handy speed of 36 knots (later 25 knots). In a 1940 modernisation refit Duncan lost one main gun and four torpedo tubes, but bolstered her ASW armament and range.

Convoy ONS-5

ONS-5 was a medium-size slow convoy, west-bound from Liverpool for Halifax and North American ports. The convoy speed was officially 7.5 knots, but in practice was nearer six knots and maybe half that in heavy weather. The 44 ships formed up in 12 columns of four or less, having a front of about 5.5 nautical miles. The escorts were zig-zagging approximately three-quarters of a mile further out.

There would be a fast ship sweeping across the front, the slower but very effective corvettes protecting each side, and one or two faster ships astern, ready to reinforce or take over an attack as necessary.

The battle started on 27 April when we beat off attacks by eight submarines during the night. This kept up and our first loss was during the following morning. This was to set the pattern for the next few days, with many attacks being made and a number of ships sunk. The battle lasted eight days, fought in gales with wind force between six and ten or more, with very heavy seas that frequently scattered the convoy. In fact, ten ships became detached and formed their own convoy escorted by the corvette Pink. Strangely enough, that group did not get attacked again. The rest of us battled on, beating off attacks, frequently in ice and constantly bitterly cold. During the heavy weather, our asdic transducer in Tay jumped its support bearings and became jammed, so that we were impotent against submerged submarines.

German records suggest that four wolfpacks were involved in the ONS-5 battle: Wolfpack Star comprised 18 U-boats, Amsell I and II contributed 13 and Fink had 28.

Then, Peter Gretton in Duncan began to run out of fuel and the weather was so bad that he was unable to refuel from the tanker provided for this purpose. In those days, when we refuelled at sea, the tanker paid out perhaps 150 yards of hose, the end of which we picked up on the fo’c’sle head. The bight of this hose was always dragging in the water and the strain, with both ships pitching in heavy seas, would often prevent it being connected. If and when this was done, the hose could break, even before any oil was pumped. Eventually, Duncan had to leave to refuel in Greenland, and Tay, with our skipper Bob Sherwood as Acting Senior Officer of the escort, was left in charge for the final three nights.



Three ships hit almost simultaneously

I clearly remember being on afternoon watch on 5 May looking around towards the convoy just in time to see three ships hit almost simultaneously. The first was Selvestan, which sank stern first. Gharinda sank bow first and the little ship Bonde broke in two. All three sank within two minutes. It was a sight I’ll never forget. These were the last of our ships sunk and at this point the score was 11 ships to one U-boat. We had a rescue ship, the trawler Northern Spray, which was full, having picked up 146 survivors. Tay picked up some 143 other survivors from those three ships and this also made us very crowded, as our own crew was only 126.

The Admiralty had instructed the Third Support Group to come and assist us and they joined on 2 May, but most of them had to leave a few hours later because the weather was still too rough for them to refuel and they were running out. Only the destroyers Offa and Oribi remained until the final night. On the evening of 5 May, we received a signal from the Admiralty saying “25 U-boats in contact with your convoy, 40 in the immediate vicinity closing, 70 in general area.” In fact, we now know, from German records, that 51 submarines were deployed to trap ONS-5 and that Döenitz had called for an all-out effort. One of the U-boat skippers who survived the war has since said that the U-boats thought that they could wipe out the entire convoy during that night, but at last the weather changed in our favour with near-calm conditions and thick fog.

HMS Pink K-137, was one of the four Flower class corvettes working with the destroyers HMS Duncan and Vidette and the frigate HMS Tay in Escort Force B7. The group also included two designated rescue ships, the trawlers HMS Northern Gem and Northern Spray. Pink and sister ships Sunflower, Snowflake and Loosestrife displaced 940 tons, on a 62.5 x 10 x 3.5 metres (205 x 33 x 11.5 feet) hull. Two boilers served a four-cycle triple expansion reciprocating steam engine that delivered 2750 ihp to a single shaft, giving a maximum speed of about 16 knots. They carried one 101 mm (four-inch) gun, two depth charge throwers, two sets of depth charge rails and 40 depth charges.

This meant that the U-boats on the surface had trouble finding the convoy, whereas we could pick them up easily on radar. But now we only had Vidette, Loosestrife, Sunflower and Snowflake as effective close escort vessels. Tay was in control but had no asdic. Offa and Oribi were all that were left of the support group and they were stationed five miles further out on each bow. We were all running out of depth charges.

Oribi ramming

The signals coming in were exciting. Oribi: “Ramming.” Vidette: “Sank one U-boat with hedgehog.” Loosestrife: “Three contacts am engaging.” Then, “One dived. Dropped five-charge pattern.” Finally, “Third contact dived, dropped 10-charge pattern. U-boat surfaced alongside and blew up.” Snowflake signalled: “Three echoes bearing 185 degrees.” Then, “U-boat sighted, turned away.” Then, “Second U-boat sighted, engaged with four-inch gun until dived.” Then, “Third U-boat sighted, dived, dropped one charge. No charges left.”

Although this left Snowflake largely impotent, she was not yet finished. She came across the U-boat that had been rammed by Oribi, but which had not yet sunk, and both vessels had a brief gun duel. The U-boat eventually sank or scuttled herself but, in the confusion and fog, Snowflake turned to ram a radar echo which she thought was a submarine. She almost rammed Sunflower, who was coming to assist her.

Snowflake then made the signal, “Lights in water, interrogative save?” To which we had to reply “Negative, resume station,” because we were so short-handed. And that turned out to be the end of the battle as far as B7 was concerned. Four hours later the U-boats withdrew.

That night, we escorts claimed seven U-boats sunk, four very probably sunk, two probable and many damaged. In fact, the Germans later confirmed that they had lost 11 U-boats (one by aircraft attack) in that 24 hours. Döenitz called off the attack and thereafter the German skippers seemed to have lost their nerve. B7’s next convoy, eastbound, was attacked by 20 U-boats but the attacks were not pushed home. We did not lose a single ship, but we sank five of the attackers.

Harold Chesterman

Incidentally, many Master Mariners know the skipper of Snowflake. He was Harold Chesterman, who lived in Caloundra, and was for years in the Queensland Lighthouse Service ships. He sent me a photograph of his empty depth charge rails, with a notice, “Sold out”.

At the time, Britain was the forward base for the second front and troops were pouring into the country. We lost 97 ships in the Atlantic in the first 20 days of March 1943. Britain was nearing starvation levels and the navy, while their ready-use tanks were full, had a reserve supply of only 30 days of oil fuel. Quite clearly, we could not have sustained these loss rates, but in May 1943, a total of 41 U-boats were sunk for the loss of only 17 ships.

Our own escorts were increasing in numbers and skill, whereas the U-boats had lost their ace skippers and their ability to attack on the surface, due to radar and H/F D/F. They lost the initiative and never regained it. The massed wolf packs, which were so nearly successful, had failed and were never really tried again. The main reasons for our success in the late spring of 1943 were the increased numbers of escorts being commissioned and, for the first time, the formation of the Support Groups together with very intensive training of all ships and crews. New tactics were being worked out and practised by the groups.


Air support

Hedgehog was being fitted to frigates and sloops and this made a big difference. H/F D/F was being carried in one or two ships of every escort group and that also helped, but the main help came from the air.

In 1940 and 1941, 35 CAM ships were fitted with a rocket-powered cradle on a 22.8 metres (75 feet) long track. The first successful Hurricane launch was from a similar-looking RN-manned “Fighter Catapult Ship”, HMS Maplin, when LEUT R. Everett RNVR shot down a shadower, 3 August 1941. The first CAM ship launch, 1 November 1941 from the SS Empire Foam “frightened the shadower away”. In two years’ service, CAM ships launched only eight aircraft in anger. They shot down six enemy and lost one RAF pilot. Unfortunately, the conspicuous CAM ships became prime targets and 12 of the 35 were lost to enemy action.

cam ship

First of all there were Catapult Aircraft Merchantmen ships (CAM ships). This Heath Robinson contraption comprised a Hurricane aircraft mounted on a catapult on the bows of the ship. The aircraft could be flown off to attack shadowing Focke-Wolf Condor aircraft, which was very useful on the Gibraltar run. Of course the aircraft could not land and had to be ditched near an escort so that the pilot could be picked up.

Escort carriers

Then there were the small escort carriers, (see: Emergence of the escort carriers) aircraft carriers built on merchant ship hulls, which initially carried four Swordfish aircraft, sufficient to force a submarine to submerge so that it could not keep up with the convoy. If a gale blew up quickly, when these 80 knot aircraft were astern, the carrier had to turn back to pick them up. And finally, there was the bridging of the air gap between the USA, Greenland, Iceland and Britain by Liberator and similar long-range aircraft, although some of those airfields were often closed by bad weather.

tracker and 816

HMS Tracker, seen here with 816 Squadron Swordfish embarked,  was a Bogue class escort carrier built in the USA. Her aircraft, together with those of HMS Activity, sank U-288 during the passage of convoy JW-58 in April 1944.

I knew Peter Gretton very well as he frequently sailed in Tay, before getting his own ship Duncan. Later he rose to become VADM Sir Peter Gretton, KCB, DSO, OBE, DSC and Chief of Naval Staff, but in those days he was the youngest confirmed Commander in the RN.

Kept in touch Bob Sherwood, my captain for three years in Tay, came from the Holyhead/Dublin Ferries and subsequently returned to the ferry service. He eventually became Marine Superintendent for the ferry services running out of Britain to the continent, Ireland, etc. Ray Hart in Vidette was a Canadian and Harold Chesterman in Snowflake an Australian. The other two skippers were British. I still keep in touch with four officers from the Tay, even after all these years. She was a very happy ship and B7 was an extremely efficient Escort Group. Those eight days were some of the most hectic of my life.


Roskill, S.W. History of the Second World War: The war at sea, 1939-1945, Vol II. HMSO,1956.
Syrett, D. The defeat of the German U-boats: The Battle of the Atlantic. Chap III, The Battle for Convoy ONS-5. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994.
The Battle of the Atlantic: The official account of the fight against the U-boats, 1939-1945. HMSO, 1946.


Kursk: A time to die (Book)

Kursk book cover

The Kursk disaster

Book review by John Ellis

Moore, R.  A time to die: The Kursk disaster. Transworld Publishers Ltd.: London, 2002. 271 pp. $32.95.

When you are in need of a book that you can’t put down, reach for Moore’s account of the Kursk disaster. The name is taken from a poignant poem by Captain-Lieutenant Dmitri Kolesnikov to his wife. Moore, a television journalist, starts the story with USS Memphis monitoring the tactical scene across the Barents Sea in August 2000 as the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy was exercising in the largest summer war games since the collapse of the USSR.

Evolution of the SSBNs

It was a time when the capability of the Russian Navy had been reduced to coastal protection from a major naval power. Only the SSBNs possessed global importance and Kursk was one of them. The seventh of the Oscar II class, she was planned under communism, approved during the glasnost/Gorbachev period of reform and laid down under Yeltsin. In the three years she had taken to build, the nation she was designed to defend had self-destructed.

Kursk sailed for the exercise with 24 Shipwreck cruise missiles and a mix of 18 Starfish and Stallion torpedoes. She was, according to Moore, 155m long and displaced 23,000 tons submerged. Janes, however, gives the submerged displacement as 18,300 tons.

At 1130 on 12 August 2000 two massive explosions roared through the shallow waters of the Barents Sea. The Kursk, pride of the Northern Fleet and the largest attack submarine in the world, was hurtling towards the bottom. The author vividly recreates this disaster minute by minute. Venturing into a covert world where the Cold War continues out of sight, he investigates the military and political background to the tragedy. But above all he tells the nail-biting and poignant human story of the families waiting ashore, of the desperate efforts of British, Norwegian and Russian rescuers and of the Kursk sailors, trapped in the aftermost of nine compartments, waiting for rescue, as a horrified world follows their battle to stay alive.

Kursk in dry dock
The salvaged Kursk, lying in dry dock in October 2001. (ITAR-TASS photo)

Moore’s sources include the dive supervisor in Seaway Eagle, British and Norwegian submariners, anonymous Russian naval officers, the families of two of Kursk‘s officers and defence analysts in Moscow, Washington and London.

Ship’s company

The ship’s company of Kursk is interesting. There were 118 on board. Fleet staff included a captain, three commanders and a lieutenant commander. The crew comprised a captain, three commanders, eight lieutenant commanders, 31 lieutenants, a medical officer, 37 midshipmen, nine chief and petty officers, 22 seamen and one techrep from the torpedo manufacturer. Janes gives the crew as 107 of whom 48 are officers.

Although Moore does not suggest that midshipmen under training had replaced seamen in Kursk, that could be an explanation for their high number. Moore suggests the cause of the disaster was an explosion of the training torpedo’s fuel, kerosene and high test peroxide, that ignited following a leak. This, in turn, ignited the warheads of the remaining torpedoes in the local vicinity.

Other Kursk reviews

There are other reviews of the Kursk disaster that might be of interest. For instance the book by Moore (above) and Peter Truscott’s (2002) Kursk: Russia’s lost pride, Simon and Schuster: London, are reviewed by CAPT R.B. Brannon USN, a naval attache in Moscow at the time of the accident. This review may be found in the April 2003 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol 129/4 pp 92,93.

Brannon makes the strong points that despite claims to the contrary, and despite initial Russian reluctance to seek help, it would have been most unlikely that any help from any country would have made any difference in saving the lives of the survivors of the explosions. He also judges Moore’s book the better of the two because it was better researched and written without recourse to imagined conversations and thoughts.