‘K-19 the Widowmaker’ is a feature film (movie) released in 2002 with actors Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.
It is based on an incident that happened on the real Russian submarine K-19 submarine in 1961 – one of the many that befell the boat*.
The post below is about something that happened almost 11 years later to the same vessel.
THE SEA CAN BE FICKLE TOWARDS MAN AND HIS VESSELS. It can hide a ship or cloak a submarine.
It provides for mankind and can demand the lives of men in return.
It is never tamed much less conquered.
On the morning of 24 February 1972 a Russian Project 658M class nuclear-powered submarine – known to the West by the NATO reporting name HOTEL II and capable of launching nuclear ballistic missiles – suffered a fire 800 miles (approximately 1300 kilometres) north east of Newfoundland. (1)
It started in an auxiliary machinery compartment while the submarine was 120 metres beneath the waves and returning to Russia at the end of a patrol.
Through a series of mishaps the fire – partly fuelled by escaped compressed air – and acrid smoke spread.
The emergency diesels were flooded by tons of water and poisonous gases built up.
The nuclear reactor was shut down and with it the boat’s ability to get underway.
The submarine – armed with such destructive weaponry – was at the mercy of the sea.
Despite everything the boat managed to surface and send a distress call that would be answered by Russian naval units, their arrival – and the assistance they could give – being hampered by a tremendous storm that was forming.
THE DISABLED RUSSIAN submarine with heavy seas breaking over it. The boat was photographed by a Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft from No. 201 Squadron RAF based at RAF Kinloss in Scotland. Image copyright © Crown copyright. IWM catalogue A 35391. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205165190
The image above is interesting.
As seen on the IWM Collections web page it is reversed left to right. The give-away is that the large dark mast (the communications mast behind the SNOOP TRAY surface surveillance radar) was mounted on the starboard (right) side of the boat and folded down when not in use. (2)
The periscope (towards the centre of the image) is up – no doubt watching the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod RAF maritime reconnaissance aircraft from which the photograph was taken. The type was the world’s first jet-engined maritime patrol aircraft and entered service in October 1969. (3)
Behind the periscope are the nuclear missile launch tubes.
The IWM online caption gives the location of the boat as the ‘North Sea, March 1972’.
Given the submarine’s likely identity (K-19), its starting point and destination for the return journey this location seems very unlikely.
Other sources gives a location of 700 miles off the west coast of Ireland and the date of 11 March 1972 which would match K-19’s route home. (4)
Eventually members of the crew were transferred to waiting Russian ships by helicopter or by block and high wire transfer.
A cable can be seen attached to a point on the submarine’s sail or fin (conning tower) near the periscope – indicating that even in these violent weather conditions a personnel or supply transfer was being attempted – a testament to the bravery of those involved.
A NIMROD MARITIME PATROL AIRCRAFT from No. 206 Squadron RAF over a North Sea oil platform. Image copyright © Crown copyright. IWM catalogue reference CT 484. Original sourcehttps://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205018982.
THE SUBMARINE with a Russian tug in attendance. Note the swell of the rough sea, how the tug is heeling over and a large item trailing from the tug’s port side forward of the bridge superstructure. Also note the communications mast has been dismounted and other sensors have been retracted on the submarine. Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference A 35392. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205165191.
Besides taking the original crew off the submarine, the Russian Navy sent men aboard to assess the damage and carry out initial repairs.
Not all the crew could be rescued this way. Twelve men were cut off in the rear torpedo compartment with little food and water.
Eventually the rescuing ships rigged electricity cables and air lines to the submarine easing the conditions aboard.
On 4 April – after more than a month being towed in a rescue operation involving thirty Russian ships – the submarine arrived at it home port of Severomorsk in northern Russia.
Under its own power K-19 would have completed the 3100 miles or 5000 kilometre journey – the distance from the United Kingdom to Iran – in eight days. (5)
The fire and its aftermath would cost the lives of thirty men.
Astonishingly all twelve men in the torpedo compartment survived.
They had eaten the tinned food they had sparingly and drunk the condensation that formed on the inside of the submarine. (6) (7)
Although the captions on the IWM Collections web pages for the images used in this post only identify the submarine as a ‘H’ (HOTEL) class boat and not ‘K-19’, the correlation of the March 1972 date on the IWM images with the references used here indicate that this is very likely the submarine’s identity.
K-19 was the prototype for all HOTEL class submarines. A very accident-prone boat, it suffered a number of deaths even before it was completed. In service fires and reactor problems resulted in casualties. (8)(9)(10)
It was scrapped in 2003. (11)
NATO reporting names are a quick and easy way to identify a Russian submarine quickly and clearly amongst members of NATO – particularly those whose first language was not English. It was based on the NATO phonetic alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta etc and used words that would be unlikely to be misheard on radio communications.
* Early submarines were known as ‘boats’ as they were often carried on board ships. Although modern submarines can rival surface vessels in size and tonnage the convention continues.
(1) https://fas.org/nuke/guide/russia/slbm/658.htm – retrieved 16 March 2019
(2) http://russianships.info/eng/submarines/project_658.htm – retrieved 16 March 2019
(3) https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/science-and-technology/nimrod-xv241/ – retrieved 16 March 2019
(4) https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/the-russian-hotel-class-nuclear-submarine-k-19-pictured-700-news-photo/56895934 – retrieved 16 March 2019
(5) https://www.distancefromto.net/distance-from-united-kingdom-country – retrieved 16 March 2019
(6) http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2017/ph241/lowet2/docs/nks-rak-2-96-tr-c3.pdf – retrieved 16 March 2019
(7) https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/crypto-almanac-50th/Widowmaker.pdf – retrieved 16 March 2019
(8) http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2017/ph241/lowet2/ – retrieved 16 March 2019
(9) http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2017/ph241/lowet2/docs/nks-rak-2-96-tr-c3.pdf – retrieved 16 March 2019
(10) http://www.pravdareport.com/history/83000-submarine/ – retrieved 16 March 2019
(11) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3136111.stm – retrieved 16 March 2019