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1948; The Year the Russians Came

The “forward deployment” of the Soviet Navy away from home waters is commonly dated back to the mid-1960s, and Moscow’s decision to do so is usually attributed to two events: first, the Soviet debacle at Cuba in 1962 along with Soviet recognition of the need for a “blue water” fleet, and secondly, the u.s. Navy’s deployment of the Polaris strategic missile submarine. Soviet forward deployment is also usually associated with the most visible component or the Soviet fleet the surface combatants, even though Soviet submarines operated in the Mediterranian Sea, from Albanian ports, for a number or years during the 1950s and early 1960s. There is also evidence that Soviet submarines forward-deployed, if not year-around, then certainly on a fairly routine basis, almost 20 years before Admiral Gorshkov ordered his ships to overseas areas. Moreover, there is at least one documented sighting or a Soviet submarine off Norfolk, Virginia as early as 1948 – 14 years before the Cuban missile crisis when, according to some sources, “the Soviet underwater fleet made its first appearance in Western Atlantic waters.”

A report prepared in 1949 by the Office or Naval Intelligence, “Recapitulation  of Soviet, Satellite and Unidentified Submarine Contacts”, a then top secret but since de-classified document — provides an intriguing insight into the pattern of early post-World War II Soviet long-range submarine patrols and the apparent strategic military interests that prompted them.. The general impression is that even while the Soviet naval posture as a whole in the late 1940s was dominated by close-to-home defense, Soviet submarines participated in systematic patrols of key U.S. strategic areas possibly approaching to within visual distance of the u.s. coastlines.

It is useful to note that no Soviet submarine in 1948, with the exception of the ex-German boats the Soviets had appropriated, carried snorkels. The first snorkel-equipped boat of Soviet design was the Whiskey class that made its appearance in 1952. The implication is obvious: Soviet submarines in 1948 had to spend most of the time on the surface and were therefore quite susceptible to detection by ship or aircraft. The most capable Soviet long-range submarine at the time was estimated to have a maximum underwater endurance of 160 nautical miles at a speed of 2.9 knots before exhausting its batteries. This constraint, and considering that the Soviets could not benefit from friendly overseas ports of call, makes the geographic span of their submarine patrols in the late 1940s all the more remarkable.

U.S. West Coast Sightings

A rash of unidentified submarine sightings was reported in 1948 up and down the California coast from as far north as the San Francisco peninsula to south of San Diego. None of the 16 individual contacts are confirmed as “positive”; in fact, all but six “possibles” are registered as “doubtful.” Commenting on the large volume of West Coast sightings, ONI cites “inexperienced observers;” it is indeed difficult to take seriously, for example, the sighting of a submarine off the Monterey peninsula by “2 soldiers from porch at service club at Fort Ord.” Not all of the observers were inexperienced, however. One alleged sighting or a submarine periscope on June 23, for example, was made by the submarine~ BLQWER (SS 325). Nevertheless, the apparent pattern of the contacts is an intriguing one that, taken as a whole, may be more creditable than the individual reports. The figure shows the geographic distribution and dates of the reported sightings orr the southern California coast. “Doubtful” contacts are marked •xn, and “possibles” with “O.”

The Soviets would certainly have had good reasons for their submarines to have a closer look at the area. Besides the important u.s. Pacific Fleet bases at San Francisco, Long Beach and San Diego, the northernmost islands in the Santa Barbara Islands chain were (and are) a part of the Fleet’s southern California operating area, and were used extensively for naval gunnery and mine warfare exercises. The southern California coast was also rapidly becoming the center for the Navy’s missile experiments. The Naval Air Missile Test Center at Pt. Mugu, north of Los Angeles, was where the ~ ~ (SS 348) made the first submarine-launch of the Loon missile (a copy or the German V-1 “buzz Bomb”) in December 1947. A second launch from the waters off Pt. Mugu occurred on May 5, 1948, at the height of the local sightings.

U.S. East Coast Sightings

If the validity or the West Coast sightings remains in doubt, the same is not the case on the opposite side of the continental United States. A total of ten contacts were documented off the East and Gulf Coasts – five “doubtfuls,” tour “possibles” and one “positive.” Most sightings were reported in the Gulf of Mexico, usually by civilian shipping and airliners. One sonar contact was made by a Navy submarine chaser in the Key West operating area, and was rated as “possible.”

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The single reported “positive” identification occurred on October 31 off Norfolk, Virginia, and was based on a sonar contact and the sighting or a periscope by the destroyer ~ gHEBABDI (DD 637) and the minesweeper/escort ~ TQWHEE (AM 388). The report comments that this was “the first and only positive contact on any coast of the U.S.” It also suggests that two subsequent “probable” sightings off Block Island may have involved the same “single Soviet submarine on reconnaissance patrol.”

The Eniwetok Sightings

Eniwetok, a tiny atoll in the Marshall group of islands, is situated some 200 nautical miles from the even smaller Bikini atoll that was the site of the first U.S. post-war nuclear weapon tests, in 1946. Eniwetok Proving Grounds had been established for the second series or nuclear detonations in 1948. Three shots with yields varying from 18 to 49 kilotons were held: X-ray on April 14, Yoke on April 30 and Zebra on May 14. Preparations, including the construction of the 200-root towers that beld the devices, began months ahead of time.

The ONI report shows that the activities on and around Eniwetok were closely observed by at least one Soviet submarine. One “doubtful” and three “possible” sightings were made between February 20 and 24, with the latter credited to destroyer sonars, and the single “doubtful” based on a shore-based observation. The presence of the uninvited visitor was confirmed on March 3 with a visual sighting by a Navy aircraft. No further contacts are reported during the next two weeks, but another series of three “possible” and “doubtful” sightings by aircraft and surface ship radars are logged over the following week.

Looking Back

The presence or Soviet submarines off the u.s. coast is common knowledge today. When Moscow warned, earlier this year, that the stationing of cruise missiles and Pershing IIs in Western Europe would prompt deployment of additional Soviet strategic missile submarines off u.s. shores, the common reaction in Washington was “so what” – they have been doing that for almost 20 years. Similarly, few people raised eyebrows when the television news reports showed a Soviet Victor III class nuclear attack submarine wallowing in the seas between the Bahamas and the u.s. East Coast in the fall of 1983. The year 19~8 was different; knowledge of the activities of the Soviet submarine fleet was tightly guarded while U .S. defense planners tried to fathom Stalin’s international intentions. It was the year that the deteriorating relationship between the Soviet Union and its erstwhile wartime allies plunged into the Cold War — with the Berlin Blockade, the dispatch of “nuclear-capable” B-29 bombers to Western Europe, President Truman’s signature of the Marshall Plan, and the adoption of the Vandenburg Resolution with its promise of u.s. military aid to the free nations of the world. War with the Soviet Union seemed one step closer, and fresh memories of the battle of the Atlantic against the U-boats underscored the apparent threat or the Soviet Union’s huge submarine fleet.

It is not known what, if any, influence the upsurge in the activities of the Soviet submarine fleet in 19~8 bad on U.S. defense policy. What is known, however, is that preparations for antisubmarine warfare became a much more serious issue with the Congress and the U.S. Navy shortly thereafter. One important undertaking that followed, in 1950, was Project Hartwell – the formulation of a long-range u.s. Navy program to counter the Soviet submarine threat based on the recommendations of a group of prominent antisubmarine warfare scientists and approved by Admiral F.P. Sherman, the Chief of Naval Operations. Many of the U.S. Navy’s antisubmarine measures today can be traced back to the endorsements contained in the Hartwell report: the installation of the sound surveillance system (SOSUS) arrays on the ocean floor, the creation of underwater nuclear weapons, the continued development of the dipping sonar helicopter, and the nuclear attack submarine.

Jan s. Breemer

Naval Submarine League

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