Russian Navy

Swedish vacation

“...On the night of October 28 of this year Soviet diesel-driven submarine #137 in the process of a practice cruise in the Baltic Sea due to the malfunction of nautical instruments resulted in position fixing errors in the foul weather run off the course and run aground at South-Eastern coast of Sweden…”
(According to TASS “An incident of the Soviet submarine” published on November 6, 1981)

In early February 1993 Swedish prime-minister paid a formal call to Russia. Among other things at the meetings with Russian officials there were addressed an issue of unauthorized visits of the Soviet submarines to the Swedish coast in the seventies and eighties. Boris Eltsin expressed his understanding of the Swedish part’s concerns to cross t's and dot i's. It was announced that the Russian part is to provide for all the required materials and do their best to settle this unpleasant remnant of the past once and for all.

TV report covering the meeting’s results came to quite an intriguing summary. As per the mutual consent neither fact of Swedish border’s trespassing by the Soviet submarines was actually recorded. The only fact that indeed “had taken place” was the Soviet submarine’s running aground (mentioned above report of TASS). Quite a juicy scandal broke out in the world that time and the echo of that scandal in spite of all he efforts of the Soviet counterpropaganda one way or another crept into the USSR.

The Soviet bureaucracy reacted promptly and keeping with the best traditions managed to camouflage (admittedly that was done quite skillfully) a serious blunder of so colorfully declared principles of international cooperation and blowing-up of country’s reputation in the world under propagandist crackle.

The classical slogan “they would not understand us” again served the bad turn playing into the enemies’ hands and providing grounds for uncertainty in friends’ minds.

The response of ordinary Soviet people was quite inert in view of their status far from the Navy routine. Nobody actually believed in navigational error and the common attitude was about “Caught the spies and so what as if they do no spy on us!” The case was usually recalled when they wanted to scold the beloved Soviet system once again.

The Western press though lived on this soup yet a long time. While the Soviet officials tried to hush up the affair all more or less significant Western mass media had managed to provide detailed reports with lengthy commentaries, numerous photographs, and diagrams. At the moment when the Soviet people were allowed to learn about the fact of the incident the Western readers already estimated the real value of peaceful claims of Moscow. However the sensation lost its relevance in the length of time being shadowed by the new burning issues.

The talks in the USSR had faded even earlier. The appropriate committees had work out the question published orders relevant to the that day situation and gravity of the case, read them in the troops, squadrons, batteries and ships and instructed not to recall the incident any more.

Many years have passed before in the course of disclosure of many blind-spots of the recent Soviet history it became possible to tell the story of those ten days on the rocky Swedish coast.

How did it happen?

In October 1981 diesel-driven submarine S-363 (side number 137) of the decorated twice with the Order of the Red Banner Baltic Sea Fleet under captain III rank N.Guschin was carrying out and ordinary practice cruise. These submarines were classified in NATO as class W (reporting name WHISKEY), in the Soviet Navy they are known as project 613. The origin of these submarines can be traced to the World War II German Type XXI U-boats. Yet at the engineering stage the designers used all the tactical and technical experience of submarines usage accumulated in the course of war. The development of the project was performed by Central Design Bureau #18 MSP (today Central Design Bureau MT Rubin (Ruby) in Leningrad. The building of the series comprised of 215 units the largest in the Soviet Navy’s history was carried out at shipbuilding plants in Leningrad, Nikolaev, Gorkiy, and Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the period of 1950-56. At different times 39 submarines of this class were handed over to the navies of Albania, Bulgaria, Egypt, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Poland and Syria.

By the way in charge of the construction of the 613th at Krasnoe Sormovo plant was appointed deputy chief engineer of the plant, captain II rank, engineer ret. M.I. Lerner who repatriated in Israel in 1990. In 1995-96 I succeeded to visit him twice in his apartment at Ein-Gedi street at Karmel mountain with a view overlooking Haifa (Isn’t it the best place of living for a old tar?). Mikhail Isaakovich told me a great deal of twists and turns of 50 years ago matter.

According to the participants of that cruise the troubles emerged almost from the very start. Yet in the first half of the cruise the 137th run into a trawl net. The trawling gear remained undamaged but the submarine had her direction-finding antenna displaced. And there came the golden rule of the Navy meaning every item of regulations and instructions was to be followed and required steadfast compliance as all of them figuratively speaking had been written by blood. The words “pre-cruise preparation” for the navigation officer of the submarine senior lieutenant A. Korostov appeared to be a mere name. It is difficult to say what were those “maybes” he had relied upon but later already on the rocks it came to light Anatoliy was not aware of any other position finding means except for angular position measurement and reckoning. Sextants were not calibrated as for the Pirs receiver-indicator that used the signals of the fixed radio beacons of the International Association of Lighthouse Authorities the navigation officer could not make use of it. The outcome is unique for the Baltic: 2 weeks of cruise and 57(!) miles of dislocation. The results were yet to come…

On the night of October 28 the submarine made it to the surface and started traveling in a “screw – charging” mode meaning the diesel engines rotating the screws charge the batteries simultaneously. At about midnight when everybody at submarine’s bridge assumed being in the sea with open waters for many miles around the submarine at a speed of 7.2 knots suddenly run aground.

The moment was literally knocking down. The bow was taken up and the submarine listed 15 degrees to port. Everybody on the bridge fall and nearly went by the board. Not yet recovered from pain the commanding officer gave orders “Stand by for action!” and “Full stop!” The attempts to refloat the submarine were not crowned with success the submarine just turned a little bit although the list was decreased slightly.

The spotlight allowed glimpsing in the darkness an outline of white boulders of some kind. The first officer and the boatswain not deserted by the presence of mind even joked “Aren’t we on the North Pole?” Fortunately compartments check-up revealed no damage, leaks, or short circuits.

The former deputy commander for political affairs at that time lieutenant commander Vasiliy Besedin later recalled:

"...I run down immediately into the compartments to see the crew. The most awful thing in the submarine in an emergency is the lack of information. Another thing was to be considered that time it was that only a week and a half left till the end of the cruise. As they speak – the bow was aimed home. In other words people were on the verge of fatigue both physical and psychological. There was a decline in alertness, working ability and so on and so forth. The panic and nervous breakdown was not a distance of a step but half a step. The uncertainty is most energetic catalyst in such case.

The hit, rasp and listing of the submarine was naturally heard and felt by everybody in the submarine. But the fellows kept a stiff upper lip although you could read a question in their eyes “What happened?” I told them what I knew: hit the ground, not known yet how and where. Would try to sort it out and refloat using our own forces. The crew settled a little bit, the strain started to subside…

Further on started the attempts to get afloat. Until 6 a.m. all thinkable and unthinkable was tried but as in the darkness the situation was evaluated wrongly the submarine got locked on the rocks even tighter from the bow to conning tower. Much later at the base a stone from that very bank was found inside the pierced sonar nacelle. That was the only Swedish souvenir…

The morning twilight gave the possibility to look around but at the same time the visual clearness gave way to increasing perplexity. Dead ahead was a land-based radiolocation station.

About the same time the navigation officer gave mouth. He finally succeeded to identify the position. The reaction of the crew can be imagined when Korstov at last writhed out that the submarine was aground at the South-Eastern coast of Sweden right off the naval base in Karlskrona. According to Besedin the commander articulated a lot of “warm” words not subject to publishing with regard to navigation officer himself and the academy trained such a specialist.

The deputy commander for political affairs takes the floor again “Frankly speaking I was not as affected by the off-the-wall news as was afraid for the commander and navigation officer. They both were under severe stress. The only way for them to recover from it was to divert them to work. As for the commander he had a full load of such work so I addressed the navigation officer with the words “Look, Tolya, look for an error when and where it appeared. It is a must for you to track it down not somebody else.”

Already later while the incident walk-through with all the related documents on the table and the chain of events was lined up even Besedin who was an atheist felt an irresistible desire to make a cross. Other than tricks of Madam Fortune it could not be called.

Fact of the matter was the only inconceivable concourse of circumstances could explain the fact that 2 hours prior the incident the submarine raised to the periscope depth for several minutes thus skipped the underwater bank that she would have hit if remained on the previous depth. Or how could it happen the submarine running on the surface with diesels roaring for half the Baltic was not pinpointed by any Swedish radar. And this was off the main naval base of the country with the Staff of the Southern Military District located there. And the more so what but a blind luck could make the man at the wheel to steer the submarine right through the waterway (artificially made and secret by the way) with the width not exceeding 12 meters, yet in a pitch-black darkness without any reference-points. Should the submarine have turned for 1! meter to the left several minutes before the impact the submarine could have find herself at the piers where the ships with the yellow cross on the blue field flag usually moor.

The total count (when “sitting” on the rocks the officers of the submarine tried to make “a back run through the events”) made up not less then 10 situations when it was possible to get a clue the 137th was traveling the wrong way. For instance a record in the log book states that instead of fishing crafts dry-cargo ships started coming in sight. Or the report of the radar operator “Swedish land-based radiolocation station is right ahead!” The commander relying upon the reports of the navigation officer reacted adequately “Think what you are talking of! We’re in the open waters.” The operator obeyingly “reclassified” the target but the reality did not change its essence though.

Almost everybody on the bridge immediately saw the light in the darkness dead ahead. “A fisherman crawling, full ahead!” Guschin ordered. In several minutes a signaler reported of a dark spot. At the bridge it was taken for spilled fuel, not for the ledge as it was…

The Scandinavians enter on the scene

As soon as the consequences of the incidents fall behind the crew was long yet astonished the carelessness of the Swedish scouting service. Well okay, missed the submarine in the night (although such carelessness is also inexcusable). But how was it possible for the submarine under the Soviet flag after dawn to “sit” in the neighborhood of the foreign naval base as if it was quite natural. The more so the commander was no near to keep radiosilence mode.

Only at about 10 a.m. appeared a fisherman in a motorboat. Having seen the scene he made a quick turn and took a heel. Supposedly his report caused a real shock as only in 40 minutes appeared a patrol boat. After it came close to the submarine an officer on board asked in English “What happened?” He was answered “Navigation error”. After the officer obtained the name of the submarine’s commander he asked if any help was needed. Of course the assistance was necessary but there political and economical factors came to force. For instance the commander did not know how to deal with article 2 of SH-78 (Ship Regulations of 1978 edition), which highlighted in bold “The ships and vessels of the USSR Navy keep in with the USSR laws only…wherever they are. Not a single foreign vessel is entitled to interfere in the actions of the USSR naval ship. Any attempts hereof shall be suppressed in the most determined way and by force of arms as a measure of last resort”.

At first no one of the Soviet officers was aware of how such an assistance was to be legally formalized and the main thing who and how much to be paid for this.

By that time the Navy Staff knew all about the situation but there were no instructions from there. Apparently the Staff was “digesting” the news. Eventually Guschin strongly refused the assistance and as it turned out lately absolutely to no purpose. The case took an official turn and the 363rd was refloated by the Swedish wreckers. But It happened in a week only and a pretty hefty sum of money was to be paid for this (600 thousand was announced but it was not clear of what currency rubles, dollars or krones).

What happened on board

Of course it is easy to analyze the circumstances and provide recommendations at the distance of time. And that moment the commanding officer received orders to wait for the own rescuers and be ready to repel the attempts to capture the submarine. Later it became known that along with the rescuers there was a squadron of naval ships at the edge of the Swedish marginal waters that had been ordered to battle through and reconquer the sub in case of capture attempts. That was the time of plenty peaceful claims that were not in a hurry to be fulfilled…

Sure the atmosphere on board of the sub was quite tense but to the deputy commander’s for political affairs credit it should be said he managed to do his best to keep in order the everyday routine in the sub. The watches were kept accurately; professional training was carried on as well as daily meetings. Though there was no pretending as if nothing happened, everything Besedin had been aware was delivered to the crew. The people prized the confidence and understood the situation and not a single claim was produced with regard to commanding or navigation officer who brought them into such a situation. The more so there was not even a hint on limpness or slightest misbehavior.

It is easy to understand what the cost of that composure was. The battle task was failed; the sub was sitting in such place that sleeping and moving inside the sub was a real trouble. It was clear that the awaited awards for the cruise were not to be obtained although the crew was not guilty. The foreign guns were aimed at the sub at a distance of only 30 meters. And everybody was aware in case of capture attempt the sub was to be blown up.

As for the conduct of the Swedes the first 3 days the S-363rd was guarded by frontier troops from the shore. Their relief was usually performed at about midnights. In the evening of the 3rd day aground a motor boat made the land gathered all six frontier guards and put away. About 70 meters off the shore the boat was capsized by a wave climb. The signaler on the sub’s bridge floodlighted the location of the boat immediately and the watchman relayed the report to the Swedish patrol craft off the board of the sub. The Swedish seamen acted promptly lowered the launch and in several minutes the rescued frontier guards were on board of the patrol craft. Besedin later recalled “…And so they sit all wet and pitiful but giving us more kind looks”.

Yet next morning the frontier guards were replaced by a unit of marines dressed up fit to kill with faces painted by dark color, M-16 rifles with scope sights, 2 machine guns, 100mm gun, radio set… Everybody on the upper deck or bridge was drawn on bead by a marine.

The everyday communication with the Chief of Naval Base Staff Anderson was not adding optimism. While the crew was not in touch with the native country Anderson from time to time told the crew what a rush of surge of anti-soviet spirits appeared in Sweden in connection with the incident. The Swedish mass media allocated their prime time and pages for this case.

However the crew left a good memory about Anderson. He responded immediately on all appeals that by the way were quite numerous. For example it was required to take away the garbage from the sub, the potable water run short and so on and so forth. The later fate of that officer shaped sad namely for “having muffed” of the “spy” submarine he was displaced…

”The Swedish vacation” came to an end on the 6th of November the same very day when the Soviet newspapers finally announced the incident. The refloated 137th in spite of the heavy storm started the home bound trip under its own power. In the morning of the 7th she already called at the harbor.

Right at the moment the military display on the occasion of the 64th anniversary of the Great October Revolution at the Red Square was ready to begin...

Source:, author: Roman Kazachkov
Translated by:

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