The United States of America pioneered in development and building of the first nuclear-powered submarine. In August, 1945 atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In March 1946 Dr. Abelson completed the study Atomic Energy Submarines. In August 1951 the first nuclear submarine, USS NAUTILUS, was ordered from Electric Boat Company and on 17 January 1955, she was underway on nuclear power for the first time in history.
Designing of the first nuclear submarine in the Soviet Union began a little bit later. But initial plans about creation of a native nuclear ship power plant were developed at the end of 1940. Then Moscow’s Institute of Atomic Energy under leadership of Academician Igor Vasilievich Kurchatov began developing the reactor AM with 5,000 kW power for the first in the world nuclear electric power station in Obninsk, near Moscow. Kurchatov and his assistants believed that their uranium-graphite reactor would be suitable for ships. The letter M in its name meant marine.
On the initiative of nuclear physicists, the USSR Counsel of Ministers on September 9, 1952, issued the decree about beginning of works for creation of the first native nuclear submarine. General management of the program was authorized to Vyacheslav Alexandrovitch Malishev-USSR Counsel of Ministers Deputy Chairman who was responsible for development of nuclear technology (his previous job was the Shipbuilding Minister}. Anatoly Petrov itch Alexandrov, Deputy Director of the Moscow Institute of Atomic Energy, was appointed as chief scientific leader. Two working groups were organized in the Moscow Institute of chemical building machine (NIIchimmash) for designing the submarine and her power plant. Vladimir Nikolaevitch Peregudov, Deputy Director of the Leningrad Shipbuilding Ministry’s Central Scientific Research Institute # 45 (CSRl-45) was appointed as chief submarine designer. Nikolay Antonovich Dollezhal, Director of NIIchimmash became chief designer of her power plant (later a new Scientific Research Institute II 8 was established in Moscow under auspices of the Medium Machine-building Industry-SRI-8 headed by Dollezhal which was designing nuclear reactors).
Appointment of Peregudov was a deeply thought-out decision. A graduate naval architect of the Shipbuilding Division of the Naval Engineering Academy, which in September 1998 celebrated its 200111 anniversary, he was an active-duty officer, Captain-Engineer 1 Rank, had research and design experience both in the Navy and the shipbuilding industry. In the 1930s, being a researcher of the Navy’s Institute of Military Shipbuilding in Leningrad, he participated in designing of IX series (class C) submarine and was sent abroad to the Deshimag company which collected in Holland some German submarine designers under its roof and participated in designing of that Soviet submarine. After that, staying as a naval officer, he was sent to the Shipbuilding Ministry. In 1941-194? he worked in the Central Design Bureau # 18 first as head of hull division and as Chief Designer of Project 613 mass production (215 units) middle diesel-electric attack submarine. In 1947 Peregudov went to CSRI-45.
For preliminary designing of the atomic submarine, Peregudov invited in his Moscow’s project group specialists with which he worked earlier and which he knew personally as reliable professionals. The backbone of the group were: deputy chief designer of Project 611 newest diesel submarine V.P.Funicov (Central Design Bureau# 18 – CDB-18) who became the right hand of Peregudov, CDB-18’s departments heads A.V.Basilevitch and N.V.Anutchin (general design questions, general arrangement, sub’s systems), deputy chief designer of Project 617 steam-gas-turbine submarine from Special Design Bureau # 143 (SDB-143) V.P.Goryatchev (electrical equipment and radio-electronics), SDB-143’s department head P.D.Degtyarev (main power plant) and CSRI-45’s department head B.K.Razletov (hull’s strength and structure).
As project development moved forward, the group increased up to 35 designers. Taking into account extreme secrecy, the circle of invited specialists was very limited. Even navy representatives were not allowed to participate in preparation of tactical-technological requirements (1TR} of the first nuclear submarine.
To get a departure point for the beginning of the design, Alexandrov, Peregudov, and Dollezhal had agreed about the horsepower of their power plant, its approximate sizes, and weight. It allowed the both groups to begin design works.
In March, 1953 the Peregudov’s group had finished a submarine preliminary project. According to the designers’ idea, the submarine had to accomplish the absolutely nontraditional task of a nuclear strike (indeed she had to be a double nuclear and strategic submarine) against shore targets (naval bases, ports, and so on) by one super large-caliber huge torpedo (1,550-mm caliber and length 24 m) with a nuclear warhead. The traditional weapons, 533-mm torpedoes, were accepted only in limited quantity for self-defense. The sub had to have speed up to 25 knots and a test depth of 300 m.
The next stages of the submarine designing were made in Leningrad’s SDB-143 under leadership of its Head and Chief Designer Peregudov. The Project was designated #627. Its pre technical stage was finished in October 1953 and technical project was completed in June 1954.
But excessive secrecy backfired. When the technical project was presented to the Government’s approval it was at last decided to enlist Navy’s specialists. The expert group headed by WWII experienced submariner Rear Admiral A.E.Orel analyzed the project materials and elicited serious deficiencies, the main of which was that the submarine’s mission was wrong. It was determined without proper analyses of military-geographical and tactical situation and without taking into consideration the antisub-marine capabilities of a potential adversary.
The Navy required another mission: actions on sea and ocean communication lines against warships and transports of a potential enemy. Instead of one huge torpedo tube, it proposed to install six to eight 533-mm torpedo tubes with double or triple the number of reserve torpedoes. An additional reason for canceling the ridiculous 1,550-mm torpedo was near possibility of creating 533-mm torpedoes with nuclear warheads.
Corrected working project (blueprints and specifications for shipyard) was finished in July 1955, but the submarine was laid down in Molotovsk (later Severodvinsk) Shipyard #402 yet in May 1954.
From 1954 to 1956 the author of this article participated in the building of this submarine (shipyard #254) as a junior navy supervisor, naval architect, Lieutenant-Engineer.
Several words are appropriate about those days, the situation in the country, and about Molotovsk.
It was after Joseph Stalin’s death and Lavrenty Beria’s execution. The Soviet Union had a little more freedom, economic conditions were not bad and people had some hopes for better life.
Molotovsk was a town with a population of about 100,000 some 30 miles west from the old Russian city Archangelsk (something like Groton or Newport News) connected with it by only railway and river boats in the summertime. The shipyard building began before World War II for building battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. Stalin’s prisoners participated in building of that shipyard. Even in 1954, I saw them on trucks when they were transported to work.
The climate in Severodvinsk is not severe and is not extremely cold. Winter is dry and sometimes in summer, it was possible to swim in the White Sea from a nearby beach with white sand. But all the shops the yard were big buildings and ship construction occurred inside of them.
The town had one theater, two small hotels, a couple of cinemas, one public restaurant, and three professional clubs: shipyard’s, civil engineers and naval officers’. For a young naval officer, it was enough.
The shipyard was very modem. It had a dozen shops, including (from east to west) #5-steel plates and small section processing, #7 -block sections production, and #50-huge covered shed for assembling ships with adjacent flooded basin. About 25,000 engineers, technicians, and workers worked on the yard, including some 50 naval supervisors. The Director of the shipyard was Evgeny Pavlovitch Egorov, Chief Engineer-Vladimir Ivanovotch Dubovitchenko, and Head of navy supervisors-Captain 1 Rank-Engineer Kuznetsov.
At first, I worked in #7 and #50 shops supervising the building of Project 611 diesel attack submarines and the first in the world Project V611 ballistic missile diesel sub but at the end of 1954, I was shifted to the super-secret shop #42 on the western part of the yard where I first saw the first Soviet nuclear submarine and began inspection of her hull structures including testing of her hull, bulkheads, and tanks by water pressure.
Although I was not a sentimental person, my impression of the submarine was futuristic. It was amazing to know that I was participating in building of Captain Nemo’s/Jules Verne’s NAUTILUS. Unlimited underwater speed of 25 knots was a really revolutionary step. And the ship’s architectural form as a torpedo-like body of revolution was also futuristic.
In that time I worked with Chief Builder of the submarine Vladimir Ivanovitch Vashantsev and met with Vladimir Nikolae-vitch Peregudov.
At the beginning of 1956, I was sent to Murmansk to the Rosta naval repairyard to participate in testing the first Project V611 ballistic missile submarine with her missile tubes by diving to her test depth (200 m) and measuring her hull penetration parts stresses.
After that in the summer of 1956, I was appointed to the Leningrad’s Central Research Institute of Military Shipbuilding as a junior research fellow to work on preliminary design of new Soviet nuclear submarines.
The second time I was involved in the building of Project 627 A submarines series production from beginning to end, including sea trials, in 1961-1963 when I was sent again to the Severodvinsk shipyard as a naval supervisor, Lieutenant-Captain-Engineer. The most memorable impression of that time was steaming underwater on a Project 627 A and other nuclear submarines with high speed and watching nuclear reactors control devices through transparent boxes. The impression combined admiration and some fear of nuclear radiation.
But let us continue the story about building the first Soviet nuclear submarine.
She was launched in August 1957. In September her mooring line tests began on which main attention was directed to the nuclear power plant. Physical starting of ship’s reactors on minimal controlled power took place 14 September. Chairman of USSR Council of Ministers Commission on military-industrial questions D.F.Ustinov, Navy’s Commander in Chief Admiral S.G.Gorshkov and other high officials were present on that event on the shipyard.
The first commanding officer of the submarine which got the tactical number K-3 was an experienced submariner Captain I Rank Leonid Gavrilovitch Osipenko. His executive officer was Captain 2 Rank Lev Michilovitch Zhiltsov and commander of electromechanical department – Captain 2 Rank Boris Petrov itch Aculov.
Sea trials of K-3 took place in the White Sea from 3 July to 1 December of 1958. On July 4, 1958, at 10 hours 3 minutes AM, for the first time in history of the Soviet, fleet the submarine was underway on nuclear energy. Academician Alexandrov had written in the sub’s log: “For the first time in country’s history steam was produced without coal and oil”.
In those sea trials, K-3 made 5 sailings and was at sea 25 days. She did 29 dives, went underwater 3,801 miles in 450 hours, including 860 miles underwater with an average speed of 15 knots, and dived to depth 310 meters. The sub reached 23.3 knots with 60 percent power from nominal.
It is interesting to compare characteristics of the first Soviet and American nuclear submarines:
|First underway||July 1958||January 1955|
|Surfaced displacement, t||3,065||3,533|
|Submerged displacement, t||4,750||4,250|
|Number of compartments||9||6|
|Reserve of buoyancy, %||30||16|
|Test depth, m||300||210|
|Number of reactors||2||1|
|Number of turbines||2||2|
|Underwater speed, knots||30||23|
|533-m torpedo tubes||8||6|
So, generally, the first Soviet nuclear submarine had better tactical-technological characteristics with one crucial exception: her nuclear power plant was initially unreliable and was used with only 60 percent of its power providing speed 23 knots. The major problems were her steam generators and reactors’ active zones which had very short time of life. And another problem was absence of Kingston in all of her main ballast tanks.
But NAUTILUS also had her shortcomings. With 16 percent reserve buoyancy and 6 compartments, she had a less degree of surface unsinkability with one flooded compartment. On K-3 surface unsinkability with one flooded compartment had been provided.
The advantage of the Project 627 submarine was that she, under Project 627 A with minor improvements, became a sub of series production. From 1959 to 1964 the Severodvinsk shipyard built 12 such subs and modernized K-3. In one of 30 knots speed had been reached.
On 11 July, 1962 K-3 left her North Fleet base and under command of Captain 2 rank L.M. Zhiltsov and leader of voyage Rear Admiral A.I. Petelin steamed to the North Pole and on 17 July had reached it but without surfacing because of unfavorable ice conditions.
In September 1963 K-15 Project 627A submarine under command of Captain 2 Rank P.I. Dubyaga accomplished the first transactic cruise from the Barents Sea to the Pacific Ocean. She left her North Fleet base on 3 September and on 11 September she was in the Chukotsk Sea and soon arrived at her new base on Kamchatka.
Another of this class submarine, K-181, under command of Captain 2 Rank Y.A.Sisoev (the leader of the voyage was Commander of the North Fleet Admiral V .A.Katasonov) left her base on 25 September 1963 and surfaced at the North Pole 29 September.
Unfortunately, service of the first Soviet nuclear submarines was not without heavy accidents.
One of them happened 8 September 1967 with K-3 which was returning from an autonomous sailing. On the 561k day of steaming and in the Norwegian Sea, 950 miles from her base. At 2 AM the fire erupted in the hold of the first compartment and penetrated to the second compartment. It resulted in 39 submariners dying but the sub reached her base by herself.
The more serious accident happened in April 1970 with K-8 (Commanding officer – Captain 2 Rank V.B.Bessonov). From 17 February she was in the Mediterranean and at beginning of April had to return to her North Fleet base but instead got the order to participate in the widely publicized Ocean exercises. She sailed to the Atlantic.
On the night of 8 April, she was in-depth 120 m, 750 km from Spain’s shores. At 22 hours 30 minutes in her 3rd and 7th compartments a fire started, probably from electrical short circuits. The sub increased speed and surfaced at 22 hours 36 minutes.
In the 3rd compartment, the fire had been extinguished by the air-foam system but the compartment was heavily smoked and filled by carbon oxide and it forced the Commanding Officer to evacuate sailors to the sail.
In the 7th compartment, fire was fed by oxygen from air regeneration cartridges. The personnel from 7th compartment had to go to 8th compartment, but smoke and carbon oxide began to penetrate it. In that stress situation, submariners could not open the hatch and had broken its handle. The emergency party opened the hatch from outside at 2 AM on 9 September. Fifteen men had been carried out by hand. Soon after they died.
In desperate situation were submariners in the 4th, 5th, and 6th compartments. They had been cut out by fire from both sides in smoked area. After surfacing of the sub, the system of emergency defense stopped the left board reactor. The right board reactor had been stopped by the control group. The emergency party was able to take out only three sailors from the middle compartments.
On the morning of April 9, K-8 was drifting without power in open ocean. Diesel generators worked only one hour and had been stopped because of failure of their cooling system. Radio communication means were destroyed by fire. Of 125 submariners 30 had perished. The fire in stern compartments was continuing and sea water began to penetrate them.
By the evening sea roughness and tossing were increased and stern began sinking. Nevertheless, the crew was continuing to struggle for the sub’s life, periodically blowing the stern ballast tanks.
On 10 April, in the morning, the Bulgarian vessel AVIOR approached the submarine only by chance. With her help, the senior officer on the submarine Captain 1 Rank V.A.Kashirsky went to the vessel and sent the radiogram about the accident to Moscow. In the meantime, weather was worsening. Wind had reached 7. Bessonov transferred to the Bulgarian vessel 43 worn-out, exhausted sailors.
On the night of April 10 the Soviet steamers KOMSOMOLETS of Lithuania and KASIMOV and later the Navy’s hydrographic ship CHARITON LAPTEV approached K-8. At day time on 11 April KASIMOV three times tried to fix the towing rope to the submarine but stormy sea tore the rope.
To risk, all the crew Bessonov decided to organize two shifts staying on the damaged submarine. In the first shift at night to 12 April he and 20 submariners were onboard. Going from the sub by his order Commander of electric-mechanical department Captain 2 Rank V.N.Pashin warned him about dangerous increase of draft differences because of stern compartments flooding and the critical condition of the submarine. But Bessonov did not considered the situation as such dangerous.
The denouement of tragedy happened near to the morning of April 12. Just preceding dawn, K-8 lost longitudinal stability and perished. Nobody from those submariners remaining onboard escaped.
In conclusion, it is necessary to say that, in those times, the Soviet press almost did not report about the first loss of a nuclear submarine. Ocean exercises were phrased as successful. Nobody was punished although Navy’s leadership was mistaken to use this submarine which was such a long time at sea before the exercises, and the level of submariners’ training for damage control was insufficient. Instead, the Brezhnev’s Government decided to award the survivors and honored Captain 2 Rank Bessonov title of Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously. No serious investigation of the tragedy took place.