Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared recently in the Royal Navy’s Naval Review.
During the 1980s periodically the Soviet Navy deployed significant numbers of submarines into the Atlantic to probe the West’s anti-submarine capability. This article describes one Royal Navy submarine’s part in meeting the threat of Soviet nuclear submarines deployed in the seas to the west of the UK.
HMS VALIANT -The “Black Pig”
Commissioned in 1966, HMS VALIANT was the first nuclear submarine of all British design. Whilst it had many commendable design features, the Valiant Class of SSNs suffered from very congested engine room spaces which were very difficult to access and maintain. Being first-of-class also brought its own problems and VALIANT was all too often affected by serious engineering defects. Exceedingly challenging to maintain in a sound operational state, she became known as the Black Pig.
Successions of her engineering teams held few fond memories of their time onboard her: there were too many long hours in harbour labouring in exceedingly cramped, hot conditions to repair yet another broken bit of machinery; too often there were frustrations experienced from program change caused by a major defect. And there were many instances of personal courage and sacrifice. Whilst at sea during her first commission a fire was detected in the machinery spaces. The propulsion plant was quickly shut down and the Engineer Officer, dressed in his pajamas, immediately raced into the affected compartment with a hand-held extinguisher successfully tackling the names, preventing the fire becoming serious.
During her second commission whilst in the Mediterranean shadowing a Soviet nuclear submarine, a seawater pipe burst and a flood alarm activated. The submarine was rapidly surfaced and with the reactor shut down the diesel generators were started to provide power and very limited propulsion capability. The noise of these evolutions alerted the Soviet which was observed to be rapidly closing in what appeared to be in an aggressive posture and accordingly a nearby US destroyer was called in to ward it off. It was only years later that it was established that the Russian submarine had no hostile intent and indeed its Commanding Officer, sighting smoke pouring from V ALIANT’s conning tower, thought she was in trouble and was closing to offer assistance. The smoke was in fact the exhaust from the diesel generators.
I commanded the Black Pig during the final two years of her third commission ( 1984 – 1986) and like most of her commanding officers, experienced a wide spectrum of engineering problems. For example my diary entry on the 241h February 1986, records in the deep Atlantic the separate incidents of quite a serious flood arising from the failure of a fully pressurized sea-water pipe, a major steam-leak in the engine room and a temporary loss of propulsion. Yet when the boat was at sea and the propulsion plant behaving itself, her crews could quite correctly be very proud of their notable operational achievements such as in 1967 the first Royal Navy submarine continuous dived passage from the Far East to the UK, operations under the Arctic pack ice in 1981 and very active participation in the Falklands War. For my part, during 1985 I took the Black Pig on two anti-Soviet patrols to the west of the UK where some success was achieved in hunting out submarines of the Red Banner Fleet.
Prior to my command of VALIANT, I had served on USN exchange on the staff of COMSUBDEVRON Twelve (1981 -1983). I owe much of the operational success we achieved to two New London colleagues; Captain Jim Patton USN for his tactical incisiveness and astute mentoring and Dr Bill Browning, Applied Mathematics, for developing the analytical tools required to undertake successful approaches exclusively using towed array data.
Valiant’s Spring 1985 Patrol
In the spring of 1985 the Black Pig was directed to patrol the Shetlands/Faroes Gap. We did not have to wait long before receiving intelligence of a south bound Victor I SSN which, fitted with special detection equipment, was of specific intelligence interest particularly when it reached the waters to the west of the UK. The hunt was on and after a few hours we made detection on the Soviet at long range and closure occurred to a comfortable trailing position on his quarter. Early the following morning we manoeuvred in close to achieve an accurate tracking solution before opening to a less stressful shadowing range. The close approach had the particular satisfaction of converting a faint line on a sonar display into a firm aural contact emitting a range of machinery and other noises. Besides the intelligence gained, being close to the opposition gave all the crew a real buzz.
However, after a second close approach was conducted some 24 hours later, now to the west of the UK the Victor’s mode of operation changed dramatically from steady transit to a patrolling, searching posture characterized by frequent manoeuvres. The latter were to very much test the nerves and mettle of our sonar and control-room teams and it proved very difficult to maintain the tactical upperhand. There was more than one phase of anxiety and avoidance of a potential counter-detection situation.
Meanwhile the towed-array fitted frigate HMS CLEOPATRA had been closing from keland-Faroes Gap patrol areas and we were directed to hand over contact to her. This we did on the third day of contact and range was opened to a stand-off position. However, it became evident that CLEOPATRA was experiencing problems maintaining contact and we closed the Victor’s last known position to re-establish where he was. Less than 18 hours after breaking off contact we were back behind the Soviet submarine which had resumed his transit to the south-west. Additionally we reported firm contact upon a second submarine, classified as probably a homeward bound Soviet Yankee Class SSBN tracking north. However, no one seemed to bother about this new contact. Five days after making initial contact, the Black Pig pulled off from the Soviet as it was clear he had resumed passage south for the Mediterranean.
Heading back towards the Shetlands Faroes Gap our next task was to intercept a southbound Victor II SSN. Within a couple of days this new Victor had been detected and trailing station on her quarter was achieved, with occasional close range intelligence gathering passes being conducted. This submarine proved to be a straight forward transitter of limited intelligence value and when it reached the west of Ireland the decision was made to break-off contact. However, shortly after contact faded instructions were received to pass the Soviet’s positional details via a slot communications buoy message to a RAF Nimrod on route from the Azores to Scotland. At that time RN slot buoys had a reputation for poor reliability and further more our positional data on the Soviet was somewhat stale. However, best estimates were put onto the buoy. A few hours later, a message was received indicating that the buoy transmissions had been detected by the Nimrod. But even better, immediate contact had been gained upon the Victor when the aircraft set up its first sonobuoy barrier.
Having broken off from the second Victor, the next day heading back to the Rockall Trough mid morning we encountered an outward bound ECHO II cruise missile submarine. Exceedingly noisy and of primitive, hazardous design, it was doing about 11 knots in a south-west direction and appeared to be heading across the Atlantic. We speculated that it could have been trailing its coat in response to US deployment of Cruise Missiles into Europe. A short trail was conducted with one very easy close approach. The crew found it interesting to listen to the very loud whines and thumps of machinery in this ageing submarine of the Red Banner Fleet and as we broke off to enjoy a hearty lunch could only but surmise that conditions onboard this very rudimentary nuclear submarine would be pretty tough.
Meanwhile over two weeks into the patrol the crew had well and truly settled an operating pattern which involved often being in close proximity to Soviet submarines. The routine of life onboard was interspersed by plenty of movies, eagerly awaited soccer results on Saturday evenings and short church services in the wardroom on Sundays where some crew members were tempted to come along by the prospect of a glass of sherry and nibbles afterwards. I split the command function with the Executive Officer, but sleep was light owing to awareness of the frequent ranging manoeuvres and one ear cocked to the stream of sonar reports emanating from the soundroom adjacent to my cabin. I tended to conduct the close approaches in the very early hours of the morning on the premise that the Soviet crews would be at a lower state of alertness at that time.
The final detection of the patrol was a homeward bound VICTOR III coming back from the Mediterranean. At the time the VICTOR 111 SSN was arguably the most capable operational Russian ASW platform and as we had developed a serious noise problem we did not want to push our tuck and, therefore, marked him from a reasonable range. Nevertheless, heading for the bright lights of Murmansk, he was not hanging around and keeping station on him exclusively using towed array data was very testing involving high speed sprints out of contact interspersed by periods at slow speed to reacquire him and re-establish his position. After two days of trailing and one close pass, in deteriorating sonar conditions contact was broken and with no more likely contacts we were directed to head back to base in Faslane in the Clyde.
The Summer 1985 Patrol
Two months later VALIANT was at sea in the North West Approaches taking part in a somewhat mundane sonar trial to the west of UK when a Soviet submarine build-up in the NE Atlantic became evident. In view of the potential threat posed to the on-patrol UK SSBN, we were directed to proceed at best speed to Faslane to pick up a towed array and then to return to patrol areas to the west of UK to support the detection and location of the Red submarines. Meanwhile HMS CHURCHILL operating in the same areas had made contact with and was trailing a Victor class SSN.
Underway with the towed array attached after a quick turn-around, the Black Pig proceeded on a fast transit to areas where the activity appeared most intense. CHURCHILL had been withdrawn from the operation and the trail was rapidly going cold. However, a few hours after submerging we made contact with a Victor Class SSN and proceeded to close him to get into a comfortable trailing range. He turned out to be our old adversary, the special fit unit of the previous patrol returning from the Mediterranean. Frequently manoeuvring, in a patrolling, searching mode the Russian was again a difficult contact but one good intelligence gathering close approach was achieved.
On the morning of the fourth day a second submarine of much quieter characteristics was detected in company of the VICTOR and we took up station behind both. However, in the early evening warning instrumentation indicated a potentially significant problem with the propulsion system. The previous occasion this type of warning had occurred presaged detection of a serious defect and a subsequent limping back to harbour with much reduced power. Shutting down of the nuclear plant was going to be necessary to investigate the problem.
With the reactor shut down, the trail was continued in battery power, maybe a first for a nuclear submarine but speed was constrained to five knots and the battery endurance was very limited. It was a tense time as the engineers made their investigations. However, as the investigating team emerged from aft, the news was good as the warning was evidently a false alarm. Having dropped back to a prudent range, the relatively noisy re-commissioning of the plant took place and within an hour of the plant being scrammed, the Black Pig was back in the trail with full power available.
Overnight both submarines were followed as they headed for the Shetland/ Faroes Gap but by lunch-time the following day strong Soviet surface ship sonar transmissions had been detected to the south-west, classified as emitting from an Udaloy class destroyer. There was multiple ship noise on the sonar transmission bearings albeit there was no intelligence to support the presence of a Russian surface ship force.
As sunset approached, still in the company of the two Russian submarines, at periscope depth I sighted the UDALOY on the horizon together with the masts of several other ships. It was assessed there were three or four Russian auxiliaries escorted by two or three destroyers heading north-cast probably simulating a NATO reinforcement convoy. Right ahead of the force we went deep and headed for its northern flank where the VICTOR was tracking, in the process keeping out of the way of the approaching UDALOY. As the convoy passed, we crossed to the southern flank and on turning to parallel the most southern ship a high bearing rate submarine contact, suspected as the quiet second submarine, was detected very close to the ship. It was evident that the Russian submarines were carrying out exercise attacks on the convoy and our sonar and control room teams had a real challenge in maintaining the overall tactical picture. Meanwhile in the air the Soviets were carrying out simulated air attacks on the ships whilst Soviet anti-submarine aircraft played the part of their NA TO counterparts.
After this bit of excitement the next day of the patrol, a Sunday, was to prove a bit quieter but, continuing to shadow the convoy in the morning we sighted two Soviet auxiliaries and one escorting Kotlin Class destroyer. Sunday lunch was interrupted by the VICTOR being detected going deep and at speed crossing ahead at close range, shaping up for another foray upon the convoy. During the afternoon a probable diesel submarine was detected at close range astern of the convoy and a good tracking solution achieved on him.
A day or so later now in areas to the north of the Shetland Islands, it became evident that the Soviet exercise activity was dying down and the convoy had dispersed. We had lost contact upon the two SSNs although had detected two new distant Soviet nuclear submarines to the north but these were not priority. Accordingly we returned to the west of UK to search for any submarine which might be still be lurking undetected off the North-West approaches, particularly quiet diesel types.
Whilst conducting search of the Rockall Trough area, a report was received of two homeward bound Delta Class SSBNs, transitting approximately 24 hours apart. Therefore, having moved to a position to make detection and interception, in due course the first of the DEL T As was detected at long range. A close approach and short trail were achieved but having confirmed that the DEL TA was firmly heading home we hauled off and decided to forego his consort and continued searching south, albeit the second DELTA was detected at range to the north-west later on the same day. There was discussion onboard what the British public would have thought of all the nuclear weapons firepower on board the two DELTAS only a couple of hundred miles off the UK’s shores.
A day later we moved to areas off the north west of Scotland in an attempt lo intercept an outbound VICTOR II SSN which appeared to be heading for the Mediterranean but which could have been tasked to carry out anti-SSBN operations. On this occasion the outcome was less than successful and the VICTOR was assessed to have slipped past transiting in shallower and more noisy water. We did eventually detect him but disappointingly he was well past heading south although clearly he had not dallied on the way.
The patrol was to end on a better note with the very long range detection, closure and a successful intelligence gathering approach to a homeward bound CHARLIE II Class missile submarine coming back from the Mediterranean. Intercept over, we headed home having been at sea just over three weeks.
I was to experience one more Soviet submarine encounter in the Black Pig whilst participating in a NATO submarine versus submarine exercise in the Ionian Sea -exercise Dogfish. In the Blue role throughout, in error we had received an op order copy which contained all the tracks and way-points of the Orange submarines. Thus it was all too easy nailing the opposition. However, for us the exercise was somewhat a sideshow as we were determined to detect a VICTOR II, which was known to be in the Mediterranean and had been trailed for a while by USS DALLAS but contact had been lost with it for several days. We guessed that the NA TO exercise might well be of interest to it. Sure enough a little time into the exercise we had made a couple periods of brief contact with what we had classified and reported as the VICTOR.
During the final phase of the exercise we conducted a successful approach against the Italian Submarine GUGLIELMO MARCONI which towards the end of the serial was at periscope depth about two miles to the north of us. We were also at the same depth in contact with a USN P3 when suddenly a high bearing rate submarine contact was detected about four miles to the south, tracking aft and emitting classic Russian SSN characteristics. As it was after sunset, we were very hamstrung in taking rapid action with the control room totally darkened and the need to pass locating details of the Soviet to the aircraft – not very easily as we were confined to simple NA TO word codes. The tactical situation was also confused by a high density of merchant shipping and a lot of biological noise in the vicinity.
When it appeared that the aircraft had got the message, we went deep to close the Russian but on leaving periscope depth lost passive sonar contact, albeit quickly detected a series of Soviet SSN medium range sonar transmissions coming from his direction. These were followed by brief bursts of Soviet underwater telephone communications which made me speculate that he was possibly exercising with either a warship or submarine which we had not detected or else he had decided to join in. Certainly life was confusing as surrounding us was a great cacophony of noise with a vocal Italian submarine chatting away on the under-water telephone, an aircraft dropping numerous active sonobuoys all over the place and a Soviet submarine which appeared to want to be part of the action.
The reaction of headquarters on receiving our submarine detection report in due course was quite positive. The acoustic analysis people were less complimentary claiming that we could have been much prompter in detecting the Soviet Submarine’s active sonar transmissions.
The Black Pig shortly afterwards entered Rosyth Dockyard for her third and final overhaul. Unfortunately this probably proved to be an overhaul too far and against a background of the end of the Cold War and a number of engineering problems incurring prolonged repairs, during her fourth commission she experienced few operational opportunities and was de-commissioned early