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.