Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Editorial note: CAPT Tom Smith has written a submarine memoir UNDERSEA STEALTH: Submarining in the Cold War, from which this chapter has been excerpted. Publishing an excerpt, vice having a book review done, is an experiment in getting a work before our readers so they form their own opinions.

Capt. Smith graduated in 1953 from the U.S. Naval Academy. He served aboard two destroyers, four submarines (including Executive and Commanding Officer tours) and was Executive Officer of a deployed submarine tender (Holy Loch, Scotland). He served on submarine squadron and group staffs and also on the staffs of the Chief of Naval Operations, the Secretary of Defense and the Naval War College. He retired from the Navy in 1979. He and his wife, Eleanor, reside in Williamsburg. VA.

Area: Mediterranean Sea
Fleet: Sixth
Mission: Covert Soviet Surveillance
Area of operation: Gulf of Hammamet, Tunisia
Fleet unit assigned: USS BLENNY (SS-324)
Date: November 1966

General Area of Operation Environmental Data

Depth of water: 120 feet (average)
Wind velocity and direction: 15- 18 knots, 270 degrees (west)
Sea state: I (three feet, slight chop)
Visibility: Unlimited, morning haze
Sunrise: 06:30 (mean time)
Sound velocity profile: Isothermal to periscope depth

Own Ship Data

Submerged: Periscope depth (56 feet)
Speed: 5 knots
Course: 270 degrees (west)
Battery Capacity: 90%
Weapons Readiness Data: Warshots, Forward Torpedo Room:
Tube loaded Four MK14-5A, Two MK37-l
Warshots, After Torpedo Room: Tube loaded Two MK14-5A,
Sixth Fleet Operational Intelligence: Minimal (initial only); None
provided after deployment
Sixth Fleet Guidance: None provided after deployment
Rules of Engagement (ROE): None

USS BLENNY (SS-324) has been on its own for almost three weeks, covertly surveying three Soviet naval vessels. During this period of time, we have received no intelligence data as to the possible purpose of the three Soviet warships, no specific guidance, and no rules of engagement (ROEs) that would guide our actions. We have been told simply to “gain all possible intelligence and to remain undetected.” This is really all the guidance we need, but based on our observations, we have developed our own ROEs for contingency planning, which we call “What Ifs”: What do we do if the Soviets do something?

This is not the first time that BLENNY has been on this type of covert operation, but this one makes us feel somewhat abandoned from a support aspect, especially earlier, when we had to evade an Italian warship that entered our assigned surveillance area unknown to us. Why weren’t we told that he would be in our area? Which raises another obvious question: Who is in charge of this operation?

In a covert deployment such as this we are under strict radio silence, which precludes us from transmitting at any time and for any reason. Strict radio silence needs no interpretation and we don’t attempt any. We have been told in general terms what we’re to do. We, therefore, assume that we have all the information we need and that if there is anything of significance, then it will automatically be passed on to us. Having said the above, then why weren’t we informed about the Italian warship that entered the area and that we had to evade?

We do have authorization, however, to break radio silence and transmit on one condition and one condition only, and that condition has not been met in the three weeks that we have been closely watching the three Soviets in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Hammamet off the east coast of Tunisia in north-central Africa.

Through the number 2, or attack, periscope, I looked at a Soviet warship that we named BORIS. As Commanding Officer of BLENNY, I have ordered my crew to battle stations, and during our current periscope approach we were simulating the procedure for firing two warshot torpedoes at BORIS, which would easily send him to the bottom.

Why were we making this simulated torpedo approach? Simply because it would sharpen our skills with a real potential adversary as a target- and we might have had to take him on at some future date.

Our tactics and fire control solution for attacking BORIS were textbook and simplicity in itself. Four basic unknowns need solving before a submarine can successfully attack a ship with torpedoes. The target’s speed, course, and range, or distance from the firing ship to the target, plus the true target bearing from the firing ship to the target must be detennined. These data are not always easy to obtain, but BORIS ‘slack of movement simplified the data-gathering and solution process significantly. BORIS had no way on, which meant that he was not moving. Therefore, target speed was zero. The first unknown was solved.

We solved his course, or direction of movement, by applying his angle-on-the-bow to his true bearing from us. Angle-on-the- bow (AOB) is the aspect the target was presenting to us, measured in degrees from his bow to his stem, or from 0 degrees to 180 degrees. The number of degrees is preceded by port or starboard, depending on which of the target’s sides we were looking at. Tradition calls a 0 AOB a down the throat shot. Conversely, a 180 AOB is an up the kilt shot. We were slowly closing BORIS on a course of 270 degrees (due west). We maneuvered so that BORIS’s AOB was starboard 90. This position presented his whole starboard side, his full hull length, to us, thus providing the largest possible target to shoot at. We were now dead on his starboard beam. With this aspect, BORIS
had a heading or course of 000 degrees (due north). The second unknown was solved.

An accurate target range was readily and covertly obtained through an optical range finder (stadimeter) built into the attack periscope. An optical range can be obtained during a three-second periscope observation. The third unknown was solved.

True bearing to the target was automatically provided by the attack periscope when the crosshairs were centered on the target. It was obtained at the same time as range. The fourth and final unknown was solved.

Data received were entered into the MK4 Torpedo Data Computer (TDC). A green light winked, indicating that the inputs had generated a proper firing solution. We were ready.

The TDC then computed an input to the torpedo known as torpedo gyro angle. A gyro controls the torpedo’s course, and the appropriate gyro angle was fed electrically into the torpedo. When the torpedo is launched, it runs straight for a short distance and then turns left or right to the value of the computed torpedo gyro angle. Torpedo gyro angle was thus the lead angle the torpedo took in order to intercept a moving target. Torpedo gyro angle in this case was zero as, again, BORIS was not moving and we could shoot along the target’s true bearing to hit him.

We were deliberately approaching BORIS from seaward, or from the east. It was morning, and an hour-old sun was still low in the sky and to our advantage-behind us. If BORIS had glanced in our direction, he would have been looking directly into the sun’s glare. Three-foot waves and a light chop also helped mask our attack periscope. BORIS’s two companions at this time were not close by, which was very much in our favor. We were ever mindful of them, and they bore continual watching, but they did not represent a threat as they were currently quite distant and our present course increased or opened our range to them.

The shallow water in our area (about 120 feet) was, however, a constant worry as we had essentially lost a prized capability of a submarine: being three dimensional. We had lost our ability to go deep and rapidly get away from potential problems-or, for that matter, real problems.

BLENNY was ready to shoot from a fire control solution aspect, but we needed to get a little closer to BORIS in order to be within effective torpedo range. At 5 knots we were slowly closing and would be within range in about a mile, or 2,000 yards. At this speed we would traverse the 2,000 yards in 12 minutes. An ideal firing range, in this case, was 1,500 yards, or three quarters of a nautical mile.

There was obvious tension in the boat. Conversation in the conning tower consisted almost solely of my periodic command to raise the attack periscope to take an observation on BORIS in order to update range and bearing. A quiet fire control party indicates an efficient and knowledgeable organization. BLENNY had that organization. A periscope observation took about three seconds once the periscope was fully raised until it was on its way down. The verbal commands were necessarily terse and simple. “Observation number 2 scope, up scope! Bearing, mark! Range, mark!” Then slap up the periscope handles as a signal for the periscope assistant to lower it and lower it smartly. Three seconds- or you need more practice. As we closed the range and BORIS filled more of the periscope’s field of vision, we increased our depth a foot at a time in order to minimize the amount of periscope exposed above the surface. Stealth is a submarine’s trademark, and we used stealth to the fullest.

We could sink BORIS from our current position with a MK.37-1 relatively long-range wire-guided torpedo, and we were prepared to do so; but our weapon of choice was an old-time, reliable, heavyweight MK14-5A torpedo, which was faster and had a much larger warhead, but was hampered by a shorter range. We thus continued to move closer and to shorten the range to 1,500 yards.

BORIS had an opportunity to detect our presence but he would have had to be constantly in a high state of alert readiness, which was not generally the norm or a posture he would have had in effect in his current role. Opening the outer door of a torpedo tube in preparation to fire was a relatively noisy evolution. We were close enough to BORIS that he could have detected this transient and identifiable noise and perhaps have rightfully concluded that he was not alone and was, in fact, in harm’s way. A torpedo tube outer door can be opened in less than five seconds- not much time for BORIS to react even if he had detected the evolution. But regardless of any action on his part, the next thing he would hear, almost instantaneously and very loudly, would be two torpedoes heading toward him at 45 knots and dead on his starboard beam. He would hear them running for exactly 63 seconds and then he would be deaf forever. He had no chance for survival.

I ordered the helmsman to come right, change course to 045 degrees, and increase speed, but only slightly, as we had no desire at our shallow depth to make noise by a physical phenomenon known as cavitation, which is produced by a propeller rotating at high speed and at shallow depth. Cavitation, like a torpedo tube outer door opening, is a dead giveaway as to what produced the noise. We obviously chose to remain anonymous and thus headed away from BORIS to the northeast and out into the Mediterranean and deeper water. I had the word passed to secure from battle stations and there was an almost audible sigh of relief throughout the boat, and rightfully so.

This was the second attack that we made on BORIS, and perhaps the reality of what we could do and what the consequences would have been permeated our thoughts.

As previously stated, we had received no guidance as to what to do if BORIS decided to take action- and he was capable of some pretty impressive action. It was also not logical for a covert-on-the scene U.S. submarine to ignore the potential that BORIS possessed. Something either was not right or had been poorly managed, and we were right in the middle of it. We were 99.99 percent convinced in our own minds that BORIS was a flag-waver. He wanted the Sixth Fleet and NA TO to know that he was a relatively capable entity and that he was sitting smack-dab in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea for everyone to look at- hopefully, from his perspective, in awe.

On BLENNY and without the niceties of rules of engagement, we had carefully formulated that BORIS would have had to meet six of our self-developed rules before we would deal him a critical blow- and then we would possibly still have a great amount of doubt. In our last two practice torpedo approaches, BORIS at both times violated only two of our six self-designed rules. Far from enough reason to pull the trigger. Had we perhaps been overreacting? Some would say that we had, but is it wrong to be prepared? Absolutely not. Is it wrong to be prepared and overly react? Absolutely yes. We had been 100 percent prepared, but our common sense and judgment factors had also been running at 100 percent, and we were pretty much convinced in our own minds as to BORIS’ s purpose. Or were we? A flicker of doubt, but not much more. History tells us, though, about the Trojan horse. History also tells us that there was no possibility of Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, but the events of 7 December 1941 happened anyway. History tells us of any number of events that were thought to be improbable but occurred nonetheless.

Who was BORIS and what was he doing? What was his potential? Why were we on BLENNY concerned about him and why was the Sixth Fleet similarly concerned?

We have to cover a 36-year period of time before these questions can be answered, and then only partially

LCDR Willinm F. Ruoff, Ill, USNR(Ret)
CAPT Wayne Chesley, SC, USN(Rct)
VADM Daniel L. Cooper, USN(Rct)
Mr. James M. Phalen
Mr. Clinton L. Phillips
CAPT USMS Arthur C. Bjorkner, USN(Rct)
CDR Kevin H. Ross, USNR
RADM John F. Paddock, Jr., USN(Ret)
LCDR William B. Crowley, USN(Ret)
LCDR R.F. Randall, USN(Rct)
LCDR Mnrtin S. Sullivan, USN(Rct) ADM R. W. Mies, USN(Rct)
CAPT Zui Yanai, IN(Ret)
CMDCM (SS/SW) Peter S. Thielen, Sr., USN(Ret)
MMCM(SS) N.D .. “Shorty” Garoutte, USN(Rct)
CAPT Ted A. Hamillon, USN(Ret)
CDR Allen 1. Standish, USN(Ret)
ETCS(SS) Robert M. Conner, USN(Ret)
Mr. Dennis L. Leland
Mr. Gregory W. Stitz
Mr. Teny Schroeder

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League