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UNDER PRESSURE – The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five


CDR Edward Ellsberg, USN
Flat Hammock Press, 2002
243 pp -$34.95, ISBN 0-9718303-0-4


The Untold Story oftbe KURSK Tragedy
Robert Moore
Crown Publishers, 2002
273 pp-$25.00, ISBN 0-609-61000-7

Reviewed by CAPT C Miclrael Garverick, USN (Ret.)

The Naval Submarine League 2001 Symposium featured a banquet address by Peter Maas, the award winning author of The Terrible Hours, telling the story of the raising of the USS SQUALUS and a presentation by John Smith and John Eidsnes of Brown & Root Services on the KURSK Recovery Operations. I had recently read The Terrible Hours and became acquainted with Admiral Momsen and his role in salvaging the SQUALUS, and was privileged to speak with one of the survivors of SQUALUS at a showing of .. SUBMERGED” prior to its showing on national TV. I had also been introduced to the ASR and ARS association and through their organization made aware of the Master Diver program and the Diving and Salvage School. Herrie ten Cate, producer of the Discovery Channel video Raising the KURSK, spoke to the 2003 Symposium. All of this peaked an interest in the men who have earned the title of Salvage Master, and in particular, the recovery of submarines. If this is your interest, these three books are worth your time.

Under Pressure introduces you to Lieutenant Commander Charles M. Savvy Cooke, Jr., Captain of the new submarine, S-5, on her shakedown cruise to Baltimore. During this transit the ship was completing some sea trial test including a full power run followed by a crash dive. Dr. Hill, a former anesthesiologist, Navy physicist, and research biologist, meticulously follows the events that happened during that crash dive giving us a picture of men under stress and an analysis of how men react in a time of crisis.

Savvy Cooke has earned his nickname at the Naval Academy, having completed college in two years, and entering the Academy at age 19, graduating second in his class of 1910. His classmates appreciated his common sense and practicality as well as his academic brilliance. In his I 0th year of service, S-5 was his third command and he was well prepared for this assignment Savvy had been an assistant inspector at a shipyard where he was responsible for the construction of more than twenty submarines. He would take more than a professional interest in the completion of S-5, as the submarine construction yards were in intense competition to produce a quality product. Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was the Navy’s effort at demonstrating how a quality submarine ought to be built. There were still a lot of problems to be solved in achieving the desired results and Savvy intended to be a part of the solution.

Savvy Cooke commissioned S-5 in March 1920, completed sea trials, and started her shakedown cruise on August 30, 1920. She had some remaining sea trial deficiencies that were deemed acceptable for going to sea. including a class problem with the main induction valve that was hard to operate. The four-week shakedown cruise was designed to complete some remaining trials and to show off the Navy’s newest submarine in multiple east coast ports to attract ex-servicemen to the growing Submarine Force. At I :53 PM on September l, Savvy received the reports that the full power run data collection was complete, hatches secured and vents closed. He removed the stopwatch from his pocket and shouted “Dive! Dive!” and started the watch. At full speed, S-5 was submerged in less than a minute. Two and a half minutes later, still traveling at high speed, S-5 plowed into the ocean bottom, 180 feet below, bouncing once, then buried her bow in the bottom.

Dr. Hill continues a narrative that involves the reader as an active participant in determining what happened and the formulation of a corrective action plan. Savvy Cooke displays his genius as he directs the damage control of his ship, and eventually identifies a way to bring the stem of the sub above the surface where the crew can cut a hole in the tiller room to allow fresh air to enter the ship and to attract attention of passing ships. Fighting against the clock, the story tells in dramatic detail how Savvy determines how long they have before running out of air, the assessment of how they crew can cut through the hull with the toots available. and the ultimate rescue of the crew.

At 1445 on September 2nd, the S.S. Alanthus, which had sighted the submarine stem with a white skivvy shirt waving in the breeze, sent a small boat alongside S-5 and through the hole, Captain Earnest A. Johnson asked the classic questions, “What ship are you?”, “What nationality?”, and “Where are you bound?” Savvy’s sense of humor responded with, “S-5!”, “United States!”, and “To Hell, by compass!” Captain Johnson returned to the Alanthus to organize a rescue effort, but was hampered by the lack of a radio. Nevertheless, he sent his engineers and what tools they had to enlarge the hole from the outside and to provide fresh water and air to the crew. Thus started another saga; getting the proper tools, equipment, and manpower to complete the rescue of the entire S-5 crew.

Help was quick to come with the arrival of S.S. General George W. Goethals about 1700. Captain Johnson briefed Captain E. 0. Swinson on the situation and the rescue started in earnest. Additional drills were available as well as manpower to rotate on the drills. Captain Swinson sent medical personnel to set up an infirmary on Alanthus, and sent messages to the Navy informing them of the disaster. Additional assistance would be forthcoming from Norfolk and Philadelphia. The hole was punched in about 0100 on September 3rd and the first man was helped out at 0120. The Executive Officer, Lieutenant Charles Grisham and Savvy were the last to leave S-5 at 0334.

The Navy arrived about 0400 and started planning on how to rescue the submarine. By 0900, the battleship USS 01-IlO, five destroyers and a tug, were on station relieving some of the other ships that had stopped to offer assistance. As a first attempt, the Alanthus would use her current moor with a towing cable replacing the wire harness to tow the S-5. However, even under full power, the submarine did not move. It was then decided to transfer the crew and allow Alanthus to proceed on her journey to Newport News. As the news of her role preceded her, she received a grand reception as she steamed by the fleet in Norfolk.

The salvage effort of the Navy team, however, was not successful. Hill discusses most of the meetings and decisions that shifts the tow to OHIO and the subsequent abandonment of the S-5 about ten miles from the nearest shoal water. The towing cable broke and it was decided to mark the submarine with a buoy using the original line left by the Alanthus. The crew was transferred to a destroyer that would take them to Philadelphia. A salvage master arrived on Friday, September 5th and stated nothing further could be done. Continued work by the Navy through the winter and again in the spring when USS FALCON arrived was not successful. On August 29, 1921, the Navy called off the salvage effort and struck the S-5 from the records. USS FALCON, however, started a succession of submarine rescues that are legends in the salvage arena. S-5 remains about 48 miles southeast of Cape May in 160 feet of water. Sport divers visit it regularly. The hole punched out of the S-5 tiller room hull is now in the Navy Museum.

Dr. Hill summarizes the Court of Inquiry and disposition of the crew. Savvy Cooke suffers from personal tragedies, but continues to serve in positions that use his intellect and is Com-manding Officer of USS PENNSYLVANIA during the Pearl Harbor attack. Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1942, he is a strategic planner during most of WWO. As a classmate stated, of all those unsung heroes who helped with the war, “his name was at the top.” Savvy commanded the Pacific Fleet from 1947-1948 and retired to his home in Sonoma, CA as an Admiral. He died in 1970 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. In the words of James Michener’s “The Bridges at Toko-Ri”, “Where did we get such men?”

Commander Edward Ellsberg is another one of these men. In his book, On the Bottom, he describes in detail the trials of salvaging the S·5 I that was rammed by the S.S City of Rome shortly after 2200 on September 25, 1925 and sank with 28 of the 36 crew members still on board. Ultimately only three would be rescued. This particular volume is the first of a new venture by Flat Ham· mock Press of “salvaging the maritime classics of the past”. The book contains two additional recordings, a CD of an oral interview with Edward Ellsberg and a DVD of the newsreel clips filmed during the salvage effort with narration by Ellsberg in 1979, four years before his death. Ellsberg’s own statement on why he wrote On the Bottom continues my thesis ” … So On the Bottom finally came to life not the recital of an engineering feat, not a tale of scientific marvels, but the stark battle of a band of men in desperate combat with the overwhelming forces of the sea.”

Captain Ned Beach has written a fresh introduction to accompany this new edition of the book that is a great read on its own. He reports his own fascination with the salvage of the S·5 l and Ellsberg’s style of writing. He reviews much of Ellsberg’s career including much of the frustrations between the line and the Construction Corps, the prejudice he experienced as a Jewish naval officer, and his personal drive for excellence starting with his graduation as number one in his class of 1914. What follows this introduction proves that Ned’s assessment of Ned Ellsberg is indeed correct and exciting reading.

The salvage of S-51 started almost immediately. Ellsberg was on board USS FALCON when she got underway on September 26 from New York and steamed to the site of S·5 l, now located by some other ships out of Newport. S·51 was about 14 miles east of Block Island and 15 miles southeast of Brenton Reef Lightship off Point Judith in 22 fathoms of water. FALCON arrived at 2200 and anchored clear of the assembled ships until morning. S·50 was anchored over S-51 pumping air into the stricken sub while continuously calling the ship on the underwater telephone.

After a brief meeting on USS CAMDEN Ellsberg learned that a wrecking crew had already been hired and was enroute with two large derricks. The plan was to lift the stem of the S·51 and quickly recover any survivors that might be in there. Ellsberg concluded there was nothing left for him to do so he returned to New York. However, further events would prove him wrong.

The wrecking crew was unable to life the S-51 and concluded that the submarine was flooded and therefore all hands on board were dead. The rescue efforts were discontinued and the wrecking crew discharged. The Navy was left with the problem of how to salvage S-51. The original wrecking crew was willing to attempt to do the job only if the Navy provided all the resources, assumed all the risk and paid them whether they were successful or not. This contract was on the verge of being signed when Ellsberg went to Admiral Plunkett, Commandant of the New York Navy Yard, with his proposal on how to raise the S-51. Plunkett was enthusiastic and called the Navy Department recommending that he be charged with the salvage of the submarine. The Navy was not interested but agreed to allow Ellsberg to come to Washington to explain his method. Ultimately, Ellsberg’s recommendations prevailed and he was designated the Salvage Officer.

On the Bottom has a detailed first person account of how the submarine was raised and taken to New York Naval Shipyard. The DVD and Oral History provides some insights on how Ellsberg had to make critical decisions on his own to complete his task. He was fortunate to have Captain Ernest J. King, Commandant of the Naval Submarine Base, New London, designated as the Officer in Charge, Salvage Squadron, and John Neidermair, a draftsman at the Navy Yard but ultimately the top civilian engineer in the Bureau of Ships, as an engineer. Lieutenant Harry Hartley, Commanding Officer, USS FALCON, used this experience to support the salvage of S-4 in 1927, established the Navy Deep Sea Diving School in Washing-ton, DC in 1928, and supported the rescue of the SQUALUS in I 939. This team designed a number of innovative solutions to raising sunken submarines including the use of stabilized pontoons, the Ellsberg underwater cutting torch, the Ellsberg (actually Waldren) Jetting Nozzle, and improved underwater lighting to assist divers underwater.

The successful raising ofS-5 I facilitated the improved training of Navy divers, the development of additional rescue capabilities, and ultimately was responsible for the successful salvage of USS SQUALUS under the direction of Swede Momsen. Clearly Ellsberg and Momsen are two more representatives of these men who think way outside the box in the salvage of submarines.

The Raising the KURSK video documents the engineering feats that were proposed by Brown & Root and successfully mastered in salvaging the submarine, but A Time to Die provides the details behind the scenes that allowed this event to occur. Robert Moore, chief U.S. correspondent for Britain’s ITN News, was able to access many internal documents and personal interviews about the early days of KURSK tragedy that highlight the internal difficulties of accepting the offers of assistance from the interna-tional community and the poor state of Russia’s own recovery resources that essentially doomed the 23 sailors known to be alive in the rear compartments of the ship.

The documentation of the cause of the sinking of KURSK has been the subject of much press and video documentaries that are recorded in this book, but the political process that did little to serve the survivors and prevented available recovery resources to even proceed to the scene are important to this sad event. One important fact to understand about KURSK is that her external weapons we still considered to be live rounds, subject to detonation during any recovery operation, and the ship displaced over 23,000 tons, more than twice the size of any U. S. submarine except 01-llO class at some 18,000 tons. Salvage masters never had to lift such a large load off the ocean floor before. But there is much that happened before recovery could ever begin.

The Russian Navy summarily rejected initial offerings of support to rescue any remaining submariners in KURSK. Several ships in the Russian fleet heard the explosion but discussed reasons why KURSK would not have fired her torpedoes and discounted its importance. Submarines had routine communications problems and that was considered one of the reasons that KURSK had not informed the fleet that they were having some problems. She was due to report at 2300 at the end of the exercise, and that would be the time they wou Id worry.

At 1700, the Fleet Commander communicated to the Fleet Headquarters ashore to begin a systematic effort to communicate with KURSK, advising them they she may be missing. The duty officer received the report and at 1800 ordered an ASW aircraft to conduct a surface search of the operating area during the last few hours of daylight. The head of the Fleet’s search and rescue forces also received the 1700 report and he ordered the Russian submarine rescue ship, RUDNITSKY, with her two submersibles to be ready to go to sea in one hour.

To complicate the matter, US resources on scene at the time of the accident were also confused as to what had happened and were reluctant to report the incident to higher authority. The Norwegian seismologists also studied their data attempting to define what had caused the two explosions in the middle of the Barents Sea about two minutes apart at 1129 that morning. The lack of any immediate Russian response to the explosion further confused the US resources and therefore gave some credence to their decision to delay their initial report.

At 1900 the Fleet Commander issued orders to redeploy the fleet to search for KURSK. The ASW search plane returned at 2000 and reported nothing found. Shortly thereafter, a signal was sent to the submarine KARELIA, which was operating in the proximity of KURSK, to report any contact or communications she may have had with other submarines. The Captain immediately sent back that he had heard the two explosions about 40 minutes before their scheduled missile launch that they now considered related to the Fleet Commander’s request. Their response triggered an immediate request to collect all data associated with the explosion and send it in.

At 2330, after KURSK failed to make contact, the Fleet Commander sent the emergency message to all naval facilities -“The submarine KURSK, tactical number K-141, commanded by Captain 1st Rank Gennady Lyachin, is missing. A search-and-rescue operation is being launched.” At 0500 on August 13 the Duty Officer at the Navy’s Moscow Command Center called the Head of the Russian Navy’s Search and Rescue Forces. At 0700 the Defense Minister notified President Putin of the situation but evidently toned down the seriousness of the problem, as later events proved. Moore summarizes the internal political situation as “a sorry one.” “The president was on a holiday, the defense minister suspected he was being mislead by the Navy as part of an internal political battle, and the head of the search-and-rescue forces was first notified a full seventeen and a half hours after KURSK was lost.”

The RUDNITSKY arrived in the operations area at 0839 Sunday morning, August 13. Their first task was to locate KURSK, which had been tentatively identified as an “acoustic anomaly” by the cruiser PETER TIIE GREAT. RUDNITSKY confinned that the anomaly was probably KURSK and makes preparation to launch her submersibles. Moore postulates that a highly classifies submers· ible was the first underwater vehicle to be deployed and brought the first information on the destruction of KURSK to the Fleet Command. He surmises that video pictures taken by the DRONOV minisub showed the shattered bow and collapsed bulkhead into the second compartment. It probably reported the reactor compartment and aft parts of the submarine appeared intact and that ifthere were survivors, their only escape route was through the ninth compart-ment escape tower. Since the DRONOV had no rescue capability that job was turned over to the RUDNITSKY’s submersibles.

The two submersibles were poorly equipped to make the recovery. One was over 20 years old with severely depleted batteries and had not been configured to attach to the escape hatches on the new KURSK. The second was properly equipped but their batteries were also old, limiting its endurance on the bottom. The first dive lasted an hour and ten minutes, never successfully mated with KURSK, and on breaking away ran into the rudder and almost destroyed the only hope of evacuating the crew. The second submersible made descent to further survey the damage to KURSK and spent several hours trying to find the sub. With their batteries nearing exhaustion, they made a cursory pass of KURSK before returning to the surface. While both submersibles were charging batteries, the weather report also turned for the worse.

On Monday, August 14, the international community started reacting to the incident. The Fleet Exercise had been announced, the explosion monitored and reported, but not analyzed. Now the exercise had come to an abrupt halt and many ships were concen-trated in a small area. Commander North Norway wondered what was going on. He had not been briefed on the explosions, or any of the other activity that had happened over the weekend. The analysts, on summer vacation, were returning to their offices and recognizing that something had happened. A quickly called staff meeting revealed that they had a lot of indications but no real assessment of what was going on. A P-3 reconnaissance plane was dispatched to the area and directed to survey the area and ensure that it was seen. The real time photos and radar images relayed back to headquarters allowed the staff to realize that either an emergency or a very realistic exercise was in process. The Commander placed a call to the Russian Fleet Commander on a secure dedicated phone. The staff officer answered the phone and reported that the Fleet Commander was at sea. The Commander requested a report of the situation in the fleet exercise area and stated he was authorized to offer assistance, if required. After a brief pause, the call was transferred to the Fleet Commander and a staff officer responded that the situation was under control and no assistance was needed.

In Northwood, UK, the acting Flag Officer Submarines took an early call from their intelligence resources indicating there was a problem. After listening to the status report of the Russian exercise, he requested another update as soon as additional intelligence was available and noted that it was 0800 in London -1100 in Moscow. At 1103 the Russians issued press releases to the government and media that KURSK was down, they were in communication with the crew using special tapping signals, and that the Norwegians were inquiring about the incident and offering assistance. The Navy had kept the incident from the media for 48 hours and was actively seeking to hide the first 24 hours. The Russians were discounting the efforts of the Norwegian seismologist who was puzzling over the seismic waves on Saturday morning. Shortly after reading this press release, the seismologist reported his findings and opinions that the Russians were not being entirely honest about the situation to his headquarters. The word was out about the incident and the Russians attempts to cover it up.

In America a different concern was the primary focus. USS MEMPHIS was known to be in the vicinity of the fleet exercise and there was a possibility that she may have been involved in the explosion. Once clear of the area, MEMPHIS reported her status and that concern was relieved, but replaced by another one of how any offer of US assistance might be received. It was decided that after a nominal offer of assistance, the US would defer to the UK and Norway who were in a better position to respond.

The Russian response to these initial offers was anticipated, and expected. However, the Russians also suspected that the cause of the explosion might have been the result of a collision with another submarine. There had been precedents to this suspicion over the years and it was another resource to the Russians to further subvert the reporting of the incident. Monday evening the Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Navy made his first public comments on the accident. His announcement dampened the hopes of a quick recovery reporting that KURSK was buried deep in silt and listing as much at 30 degrees to port. He also reported that a collision might have been the cause of the incident, without further details.

This official report also started KURSK wives incident that was a significant embarrassment to President Putin and the Navy. Moore reports the disinformation given to the wives throughout the early days of the incident based on hopeful thinking, confused analyses of reports of sounds that might have been tapping, and now the weather was taking its toll. RUDNITSKY was unable to launch the submersibles in the high sea state further frustrating the Fleet Commander and the crews.

On Wednesday, August 16, the offers of assistance still laid unanswered on the desk of the Russian Navy’s Commander-in-Chief. The US offer was dismissed out of hand, however the Norwegian and British offers split the staff down the middle. The internal political struggles between the Navy and the General staff, and the paralysis in reporting factual information to the President was going to cause further delays and embarrassment. At 1400, the Fleet Commander on scene assessed the situation and finally picked up the dedicated telephone to the Norwegian Commander. In humble recognition that the entire KURSK crew could be lost, he asked for divers to help connect the submersible to KURSK. The Commander said he would respond within a few hours. The Commander recogni7.ed that his Navy had no saturation divers and that this capability was totally resident in the commercial industry. A suitable resource was found and the call was returned with a report that in order to effect a rescue the team would need access to the engineering design detail of KURSK hatch. The Russians agreed.

This was not an isolated action on the Fleet Commander’s part. Inside the Navy staff, another team was assessing the availability of British rescue assets. A can to the British Naval Attache was made about the same time and he immediately went to a meeting with the Russian officials. The British LRS rescue submersible was the first state of the art resource to reach KURSK, but first the attache needed to know the truth about the state of the submarine. Armed with only the official reports, he was quickly advised that much of the information was wrong and that KURSK was listing no more than eight degrees, with visibility at depth of about I 0 meters. He learned that the forward escape hatch was utterly destroyed along with the whole bow section, and that the escape would have to be through the after hatch. Russian naval officers also made a parallel approach to the British at NA TO headquarters during a visit. They were immediately connected to Flag Officer Submarines in Northwood and he advised them of the capabilities of the LRS. He did not tell them that he had ordered its preparation to go to a port in Norway using a Russian cargo plane he chartered on Monday and that NORMAND PIONEER was ready to proceed to the rescue site as soon as the LRS was loaded. The Russians never asked how the British were able to respond so quickly.

The Norwegian response was also quick and thorough. SEAWAY EAGLE was already at sea servicing oil wells for Stat Oil. She was a vessel specially built for undersea operations and her Captain was well qualified to perform tasks that required quick thinking with the resources on hand. He had heard of the KURSK incident on satellite TV in his cabin on Monday and wondered if there might be a job for his crew there. He recognized that he was the closest diving support vessel to the disaster site and started planning for the additional resources he would need to perform a rescue mission. He would need extra divers and rations and would have to travel about 800 miles to reach the scene. The Captain was prepared when the call arrived from his office asking if he could respond to this emergency. Stat Oil had agreed to release SEAWAY EAGLE for this mission and the Captain placed the necessary calls to marshal his resources that he would pick up on the way. The ship left the Stat Oil field at 2320 on Wednesday. The rescue capability was now identified•and enroute after a four day delay.

Russian and British submariners had estimated that any survivors would have no more than seven days air and life support capabilities under the best of circumstances. The Russians had to admit that the incident occurred on Saturday, not Sunday that had been officially released. This news exacerbated the relationship with KURSK wives, but they were heartened that there was still hope. On Thursday, however, the Russian Navy Commander-in-Chief declared that emergency supplies in the submarine were sufficient to keep the sailors alive for at least one more week. The source of the information was never identified, but the families seized it with hope that surely their loved ones would be rescued. It also raised questions about Russian leadership. Where was President Putin in this time of national disaster? The response that he was still on holiday on the Black Sea coast a full five days after the accident was not received well. In fact. he was scheduled to meet with other heads of Russian states on Thursday in Yalta. The press initiated the attack. The Komsomolskaya Pravda paid $600 to buy a list of the crew from a well-positioned naval source and published it on Friday.

The Russian submersibles made additional dives starting on Thursday after the weather abated but none were successful and the crews were frustrated. MEMPHIS arrived in Norway on Thursday and offloaded her sensitive cargo and crew. Requests by the Russians to examine the hull of the ship were refused. Upon receipt of her data in the US, it became clear that the explosions and the resulting sounds were the death of a submarine.

SEAWAY EAGLE arrived in Tromse, Norway on Friday to pick up her divers and extra supplies. Three and one half hours later she was underway again. It would take 36 hours to get to KURSK site, arriving Saturday evening. The Captain spent that time gleaning infonnation from the Russian riders, news stories, the Internet and their own estimates of the situation. NORMAND PIONEER with the LRS was about an hour ahead of SEAWAY EAGLE. The British had sent a delegation ahead to meet with the Russian leadership but had met a roadblock at Bode when the Russians denied permission to continue on to Murmansk. The delegation then joined NORMAND PIONEER as she rounded the cape and started their coordination. A joint meeting of the two rescue crews was held aboard SEAWAY EAGLE with the Russians and British participants.

This meeting was full of surprises for the Norwegians and the British. Instead of listening to how the international crew could participate in a rescue, the group was frustrated by the Head of the Russian Navy’s Search and Rescue Forces who insisted on making a long protocol introduction and then said all the Russians wanted was ” … for a diving bell to land on the submarine, and for the divers to gain entry to KURSK to confirm that it is fully flooded.” He also stated that the Russian resources would be used for the next 24 hours and only at midday on Sunday would the decision be made regarding the use of the international assets. The Russian Admiral was continuing to stall for time as his nation’s leadership including the President struggled with the issue. While the Fleet officers wanted the assistance, the national commanders were concerned about lose of face and naval secrets. One newspaper reported “an official” stating that even if one sailor was saved from the submarine with international assistance, for the Admirals, this would be a political catastrophe.

The Russian Admiral returned about 2240 Saturday evening and started negotiating what the rescue fleet could do to assist. Graham Mann, SEAWAY EAGLE’s Captain, started working on a plan to survey KURSK using Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV), and then send divers already in saturation down to the submarine to establish the condition of the after hatch. After much discussion and explanation, Mann made a final appeal to the Admiral -“Admiral, we’re all trying to achieve the same goal. We’re all humans. We all want to try to bring people out of KURSK alive. Let’s work together. Let’s agree on a way forward right now.” After another review, the Admiral leaned toward Mann and said, “OK, let’s do it. Let’s go ahead.” The dive was now on.

At 0810 SEA WAY EAGLE was in position astern ofKURSK and lowered a ROV into the water to find KURSK. This was not anticipated to be a problem, but the rubber coating on the submarine was absorbing the ROV’s active sonar, finally the propellers reflected a return that resulted in locating the sub. After surveying the ship and recording its precise location, the divers descended to the sub, leaving the diving bell at 1 106. A series of four taps, three times were struck against the hatch without response. Their next task was to inspect the hatch for damage and some scratches as well as a bent positioning pin, probably from the Russian submersibles attempting to dock, were noted. Next they would try to determine if the escape hatch was flooded, by opening the equalization valve and noting if there was flow in or out. The Russians had told them that the valve opened counterclockwise, and took 11 turns to be fully open. After no success in opening the valve it was decided to tum it clockwise, and it opened. After four turns, they noted a slight flow inward, indicated that the tower was flooded. Their next attempt would be to open the hatch, but that would be another problem.

Admiral Oleg Burtsev, Commander of the First Submarine Flotilla that included KURSK, arrived on the NORMAND PIONEER to assess the operation of the British submersible LR5. He offered to fly out a KURSK engineer to discuss technical matters with the British team. However, as soon as he left the PIONEER was the principal motivation of the internationals. Feeling the frustration, the Russian Admiral in charge of Search and Rescue Forces ordered Captain Mann to rip the hatch off the KURSK using his cranes. Mann refused, knowing that he still had an opportunity to find the ninth compartment dry. He also countermanded an order to leave the equalizing valve open, allowing full sea pressure to remain on the lower hatch.

The Fleet Commander came to the EAGLE later in the day for an assessment of the situation. Taking issue with Captain Mann’s performance on accessing the submarine, the Fleet Commander asserted that the divers were ill-suited to recover any corpses that may be found. He also took issue that the divers were not trained in the submarine systems and therefore unable to operate the hatch. Mann took issue with this insult and reported that the Russians had incorrectly told them how the valve operated and provided no diagrams or sketches of the hatch or any related rescue system. The Fleet Commander reflected on what he heard and then offered to take two divers to a sister ship, ORYOL, which was in drydock in Severmorsk 70 miles away. Two divers were dispatched immediately.

Upon arrival at ORYOL the Fleet Commander greeted them and granted the divers access to the hatch, escape trunk. and lower hatch. They were permitted to take pictures of the equipment and sketch the mechanisms and piping systems. The verified the clockwise operation of the equalization valve, the operation of the hatch and the piping systems to flood and drain the hatch. They noted the small space available to the crew on the upper deck under the hatch for the crew to prepare to escape. This meant that the survivors would be forced to stand in the passageways by the machinery, making access to the compartment from above difficult.

However, when the divers were ready to return to the EAGLE, the Engineer of ORYOL quietly passed on one additional piece of information that would change the entire focus of the disaster. The Engineer reported that whenever OSCAR lls are stationary, water leaks into the ninth compartment through the stem glands around the propeller shafts. The submarine has clamps to stop the leaks in port. However, at 350 feet, the leakage would be excessive. Therefore the crew in the ninth compartment would be subject to increasing pressure as the water flooded into the compartment. If the crew had attempted to escape in their saturated condition, they the crew had attempted to escape in their saturated condition, they would have suffered the bends and probably death. It made sense, then, for the crew to wait for rescue rather than a free ascent from 350 feet in the cold water.

On Monday morning, the upper hatch on KURSK opened without further assistance as the pressure equalized and the airbags that were left by the divers were able to lift the hatch. The lower hatch was now visible using the cameras left by the divers, and they noted some gas bubbles escaping from the hatch. This effect was due to the wave action crossing over the hatch causing some small differential pressure across the hatch, allowing some air to escape. They concluded the compartment was flooded and that nine days after the disaster, there was no life aboard KURSK. The Russian Admiral in charge of Search and Rescue Forces could also see this effect and all were quiet. There was no reason to not go ahead and open the lower hatch using one of the ROVs. Divers then went down and lowered a camera into the compartment to examine the area. What they found was the effects of a fire – a fire whose cause was not readily defined, but perhaps due to a chemical reaction with the seawater and the C02 canisters. They also saw at least one body float by and therefore confinned that there was no life in the compartment.

In the next few months, Haliburton would be tasked to retrieve 12 men from the compartment. as discussed by our speakers at the June 2001 Symposium. President Putin had the extremely unpleasant task of telling the families of the fate of their sailors. The Russian Admirals were fired or reassigned. The Russians agreed to Raise the KURSK and ultimately destroy it using funds provided by the United States for demilitarizing nuclear weapons and facilities. On October 8, 2001, GIANT 4 raised KURSK from the bottom after cutting off the bow and took it into drydock. The engineering feats needed to accomplish this task are fascinating and clearly in a class by themselves. However, in Moore’s words, the lesson learned by the loss of KURSK was the value of people -” … the assets really worth fighting to protect were not the secret weapons aboard KURSK but the young sailors themselves.” That is where we find such men!


THE SUBMARINE REVIEW is a quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League. It is a forum for discussion of submarine matters, be they of past, present or future aspects of the ships, weapons and men who train and carry out undersea warfare. It is the intention of the REVIEW to reflect not only the views of Naval Submarine League members but of all who are interested in submarining.

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