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The Royal Swedish Navy seemed to be chasing underwater phantoms for years.
But catching the W-137—under the Soviet hammer and sickle—on their rocks in 1981 was the navy’s living proof of intruders. Was the W-137 affair a “seven-day wonder,” or are the Swedes still haunted by other such potentially dangerous specters?
On 28 October 1981, “Whiskey on the Rocks” summarized the plight of Soviet Whiskey-class submarine W-137, discovered firmly aground in Swedish territorial waters near the naval base at Karlskrona. Most Swedes reacted to the news with anger, shock, or dismay, but within the Royal Swedish Navy, the news was received with a measure of satisfaction.
For some years, Swedish naval units had detected inexplicable underwater contacts well inside territorial waters, and, although they maintained that these were foreign submarines, they had never secured positive identification. A pattern of detections had begun to emerge around September during the fleet’s annual major exercises. Because this period precedes the Swedish Parliament’s annual debate on the defense budget, some commentators claimed that the navy was emphasizing these “ghost” detections to increase its appropriation. Thus by 1981, the detections had become derisively known as “Budget Boats.” The indisputable presence of the W-137 was therefore taken as a vindication of all the previous navy claims.
The W-137 had run aground in Gasefjarden late on 27 October—probably ten hours before she was discovered by fishermen—and had spent the night vainly trying to float herself off the rocks. The fishermen had some difficulty at first in persuading others that they were not perpetrating a hoax, but soon Commodore Lennart Forsman, naval base commander, was informed and he ordered several warships into Gasefjarden. An international crisis developed as a formidable task force of Soviet Navy ships assembled during the day, just outside the 12-mile limit off Karlskrona. From a coast guard cutter laid alongside the W-137, Captain Karl Andersson opened negotiations with Captain Second Rank A. M. Gushchin, who explained that he had arrived in Sweden “because of a navigation error.”
While an error had definitely put the W-137 aground, most experienced seamen would agree that it had required some skillful and daring navigation to approach Gasefjarden at night. The rocks, shoals, and islands which guard Gasefjarden and form this part of the beautiful archipelagoes, extend along most of the Swedish and Finnish coasts. This geography is quite different from the Norwegian fjords and the almost featureless southern shores of the Baltic. Antisubmarine operations in the archipelagoes are very difficult. Sonar detection is bedeviled
111 ®j| i
stretch of water in the Stockholm archipelago that is rounded by Sweden’s largest naval base installations.
eluding the underground headquarters and ship-repair
by the numerous pinnacles and shallows, compounded by highly variable salinities and temperatures. The Baltic is far less salty than the ocean, and large areas freeze every winter. Furthermore, magnetic detection is hampered by anomalous lodes, and false visual detections are likely among the numerous rocks and the surface wave patterns they generate.
The Swedish Cabinet met several times on 28 October and produced conditions for the W-137's release. The Swedes required that the Soviet Government issue a full apology, that salvage operations be conducted solely by the Swedes, with the Soviets paying the costs, and that the submarine captain was to cooperate in an investigation. Radio communications by the W-137 were restricted and attempts to use unauthorized frequencies were suppressed by mobile jammers deployed to the area. After a prolonged exchange of transmissions between the W-137 and Soviet Baltic Fleet headquarters, the Soviets agreed to the conditions, while still maintaining their excuse of navigational error.
On 2 November, Captain Gushchin, smartly dressed in full shoregoing uniform, boarded a Swedish fast attack craft for questioning by Captain Andersson. During this inquiry, the weather deteriorated rapidly and the crew of the W-137 fired distress flares. Swedish naval units responded quickly and pulled the submarine off the rocks to anchor in clear water. Captain Gushchin returned on board the W-137 to receive the Swedish investigators on 3 November. To their surprise, they found a Soviet Navy Captain on board. His position is still unexplained but, of course, his presence fed rumors that something unusual was afoot. Subsequently, the investigators reported that everything on board seemed normal including the old- fashioned but adequate fitted navigation equipment.
As the weather improved all seemed set for the release of the W-137, but there was one more discovery to be made. On 5 November, Prime Minister Torbjom Falldin announced on television that radioactive material, probably Uranium-238, which is used in nuclear reactions, had been detected on board the W-137. Suddenly all the jokes about “Whiskey on the Rocks” seemed sour as the Swedes realized the implications. In reply to a diplomatic protest, the Soviets said that the submarine was “appropriately armed for its mission.” Finally, however, on 6 November, the W-137 was towed out to sea and allowed to join her waiting Soviet escorts offshore to proceed on the surface back to her base at Leipaja.
Foreign Ministry international law expert Bo Johnson later explained the Cabinet’s decision not to intern the boat and her crew. Because a warship is regarded as a piece of sovereign territory, the W-137 could not be legally interned unless it could be unequivocally proven that a hostile act had intentionally occurred. This very gentlemanly argument surprised many Swedes who remembered how two of their air force’s planes had been shot down over international waters while approaching Soviet territory in the early 1950s; they were convinced that had a Swedish submarine run aground in Russia, her crew members would have been tried and imprisoned like U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was in 1960. Nonetheless the Swedish decision to release the submarine can be seen as a pragmatic solution to an unprecedented situation which avoided a number of consequential problems, not the least of which would have been the need to enter the boat and capture the crew by force.
By the following spring, the W-137 affair to most Swedes seemed destined to the history of seven-day wonders. Complacency was shattered, however, when peR" scopes were sighted off Holmogadd on 3 June and Sundsvall on 4 June 1982. In response, Sweden began a large-scale antisubmarine operation in the Gulf of Bothnia involving reconnaissance sorties by supersonic Viggen jets, and naval patrol boats and helicopters which set up an antisubmarine barrier across Sodra Kvarken at the exit to the Bothnia. Depth charges were dropped at this choke point, but the operation wound up without any clear result on 15 June. It was possible that the intruding submarines might have left the Bothnia by creeping through Finnish territorial waters at the eastern side of Sodra Kvarken.
Public indignation and press speculation, amplified by further reported sightings along the entire east coast, rose to a high pitch. In September, the Swedish Defence Department announced that a special group led by Commander Emil Svensson, an antisubmarine veteran, ha been set up to analyze the reports. Many sightings com be discounted, but about 50 were inexplicable except as foreign submarine contacts. Besides two “probable” submarines detected in the Gulf of Bothnia in June, and a third probable near Stockholm in July, the Swedish Defence Department said that “certain” submarines ha been detected in the Stockholm Archipelago, two in June and two in August. Thus, in the first nine months of I98r’ seven certain or probable submarines were sighted in Swedish waters, compared to previous whole-year figlireS of one in 1979, five in 1980, and four in 1981.
On 1 October, public discussion of this report was over taken by news of an antisubmarine operation in Horsfja^ den which began after two conscript servicemen sight® periscopes and unusual surface wakes. Horsfjarden is
facilities at Musko. The navy immediately began to set up barriers at all the exits to Horsfjarden and over the ne
ew days, more than 30 depth charges were dropped on Underwater contacts by helicopters and patrol boats.
Soon most of the Swedish Navy was active in Horsfjar- er>, and the Swedish Army set up antiaircraft batteries on nearby islands. On 7 October, there were indications of a reakout at the northern exit and seven depth charges were dropped there. Later in the day, three controlled mines "'ere detonated off Malsten, further out toward sea. That gening, Swedish Vice Admiral Bror Stefenson, Chief of Jaff to the Commander in Chief Armed Forces, explained ^ese detonations as a deterrent action against a possible mother submarine in Mysingen. This report correlated j"mh the daily navy press releases that referred to the . rsfjarden intruders as “underwater vessels,” an indica- ‘°n that they were considered to be smaller than a conven- ll°nal submarine.
The Horsfjarden operation continued until 1 November, m without any obvious clue as to the intruders’ identity, hen Olaf Palme and his Social Democratic Party re- Ufned to power after the September election, one of his lrst actions was to set up a parliamentary commission, led y former Defense Minister Sven Andersson, to investi- §ate the incident and Sweden’s antisubmarine defenses as * "'hole. On 26 April 1983, the commission reported—in lexpectedly strong terms—that recent violations of ''mdish territorial waters by foreign underwater vessels . ere of an extremely serious nature with deep implica- ?ns for Sweden’s security. The commission was con- jjced that six foreign submarines, three of which were of hitherto unknown type of minisubmarine, some or all of hich were capable of crawling along the bottom of the a’ had operated in the Stockholm archipelago during Uctober 1982.
^ideo film of tracks apparently left on the sea bed by including two minisubmarines, had penetrated Horsfjarden, while two vessels had operated in Mysingen. The larger submarines had left Horsfjarden after the initial 1 October detections, but at least one minisubmarine had remained there longer. In addition, it was stated that one of the minisubmarines had returned to the area in November after the termination of the main operation. While noting there was no “concrete” proof of identity, the commission concluded that, based on the evidence available to it, these foreign submarines were “from the Warsaw Pact, essentially the Soviet Union,” and emphasized that there was absolutely no evidence suggesting that a NATO nation’s submarine was involved. Not all the evidence available to the commission was publicly released, and on television, Defense Minister Andersson hinted at unpublished evidence from “radio intercepts.”
The commission believed these extensive intruder operations were intended to test new technology and to recon- noiter Swedish waters as part of a large-scale plan for a possible future superpower confrontation. To counter the threat, the commission recommended the immediate allocation of an additional 250 million crowns (about $50 million) to antisubmarine defense, changes in the rules of engagement to allow weapons to be used without warning against submarine intruders, and changes in intruder incident public relations policy so that the nation’s expectations of a positive result would not be raised unjustifiably.
Upon publication of the commission’s report, the Swedish ambassador in Moscow was called home, and a diplomatic protest was made to the Soviet ambassador in Stockholm, B. Pankin. This protest, alleging that Soviet submarines were the intruders, was rejected flatly by Pankin. Meanwhile, as the Parliamentary Commission’s report was being announced, new intruders were detected off Sundsvall, and the next day, mines were detonated and depth charges dropped.
Detections and minor antisubmarine operations continued through the summer, but press coverage was markedly reduced as the navy began to dampen media exposure. The Swedish Defence Department, however, did produce reports in October and December 1983 on the year’s antisubmarine events. The reports said that of more than 2,000 reported sightings and other detections received and analyzed, 63 could not be explained except by the presence of foreign submarines. Major antisubmarine operations, including the certain detection of at least one submarine in each case, had been conducted at Sundsvall in April, at Karlskrona in August, off Ostergotland in September, and at Sandhamn in November. A new video film of tracks discovered on the bottom after the Sandhamn incident was shown during the press conference announcing the December report. At this conference, Defense Minister Anders Thunborg stated, “We will not become habituated to these incidents. We will continue to hunt these submarines until we are masters in our own house.”
The report also explained how Sweden was spending the additional funds voted for antisubmarine defense. Nearly 350 million crowns (about $70 million) had been allocated to the procurement of new sensors and “incident weapons,” or weapons with minor damage capabilities, to convert more helicopters to the antisubmarine role, and to develop a new light fixed-wing antisubmarine aircraft. The 250 million crowns recommended by the Parliamentary Commission would be spent on additional new sensors and on training and operations.
This latter attention to training and operations revealed an understanding that more money to buy new equipment would not in itself solve the problem. The navy’s level of experience, which had been run down to dangerously low levels in the years when the guiding policy had been “submarines cannot invade territory,” would be as important in the long campaign as the quality of equipment.
Because of the rules of engagement, the Swedish Navy was inhibited in using its war antisubmarine weapons against intruders and therefore had to detonate its mines and depth charges beyond the killing range of possible targets. The Swedes, therefore, developed special incident weapons. One such weapon is Elma, a small bomb designed to be deployed from helicopters or small ships in sufficient numbers to form a spread pattern over a submarine, like the old ahead-thrown Hedgehog antisubmarine weapon. As the pattern sinks, at least one bomb should hit the submarine. The base of the bomb is magnetized to attract to steel, enabling a shaped charge to explode and bore a hole the size of a penny in a submarine’s pressure hull. It was envisaged that the ingress of water through this small hole would be enough to force an intruder to surface.
Another incident weapon is Malin, similar to Elma, but rather than containing a charge, it incorporates an acoustic transmitter radiating pulses at a frequency easily detectable by Swedish sonars. The aim is to ensure subsequent tracking of a detected intruder in the archipelagoes’ difficult sonar environment.
A third such weapon is the incident torpedo, an adaptation of the standard Swedish TP42 antisubmarine torpedo, in which the warhead is replaced by a small charge, calculated to be sufficient only to damage submarine screws or rudders. The Elma and Malin have been deployed from early 1983, but without success to date. There have been no reports of the use of the incident torpedo.
With the number of incidents charged to 1983 beginning in April and ending in November, the 1983 intruder season was extended from earlier years. The first incident of 1984 occurred during the night of 8-9 February in the inner sound of Karlskrona, located beside its important naval base, where three independent sensors (radar, active sonar, and magnetic bottom loop) detected an intruder submarine. In response, the Swedish forces began yet another long antisubmarine operation which proved to be as fruitless as its predecessors, but which was to include new mysterious features. There was no hiding this operation, and on 14 February, television viewers watched patr° boats drop a total of 22 depth charges within a few hundred meters of civilian spectators on the town quay.
The major part of the Swedish Navy became involved, and on 26 February, the submarine rescue ship Belos, while in the main exit channel, detected an attempted breakout when tracking on sonar correlated with a magnetic loop detection. Regrettably, the armed antisubmarine helicopter called in to take over the hunt failed t° make contact, and by the time surface ships arrived, the contact had been lost.
Extraordinary measures were then employed. Merchant and fishing vessels that were at first only allowed to enter or leave the commercial harbor under naval escort, even' tually were prohibited altogether. Nets were laid across a exits to the sound. Civilian access to the islands was restricted and residents were convoyed to and from then homes by military police. The civil police were also m volved, and this included security branch investigation into possible support to the intruders by agents ashore- Several hundred soldiers were deployed into the area as sentries and lookouts, many equipped with night vision devices. After reports were received on 29 February ma frogmen had been seen coming ashore from the sound, army’s patrols were intensified. In one bizarre incident, funeral party coming from one of the islands was stopPe and the coffin searched by soldiers to ensure that it c°n tained nothing but the corpse.
On several occasions at night between 3 and 6 Mate • small arms were fired to prevent what appeared to be fr°g men coming ashore in a presumed attempt to escape acte Almo, one of the western islands. This was the first ti Swedish soldiers had fired for effect on Swedish territeO since 1809. Sweden’s long peace seemed to be ending- this point, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed FoteeS’ General Lennart Ljung, broadcast the following stateflte
...A frogman-vehicles (small underwater vehicles on
minisubmarines (like those detected at Horsfjar-
‘We have two choices, either we can disregard what °ur men report seeing or detecting on their equipment, and do nothing, or we can take action to direct the use °f weapons to trap and identify an intruder. If we take tne first course of disregarding reports and there is actually an intruder there, then the foreign power concerned knows it has free run of our waters. If we take action and there is no intruder, then at the very least we demonstrate our determination to repel intrusions. In other words, we have no choice but to act. . . . ”
After nearly seven weeks of high-level activity, the .skrona operation was reduced at the end of March to a Pa,nstaking search of the whole sound’s sea bed by mine- keepers and divers looking for any evidence of a subma- Ones presence. General Ljung set up an investigation °ard headed by retired Rear Admiral Soren Kierkegaard,
lers had been involved, namely conventional subma-
lch frogmen could ride or be towed from), and frog- tjQn- His report went on to say that more than 600 detec- ^ **s> mainly visual, sonar, or magnetic loop, had been (]C[ e during the operation and the volume and rate of veect*°ns had at times overwhelmed the command, pre- tk ln8 coordinated and effective countermeasures. Of preSC ^etecti°ns, 70 remained inexplicable except by the Sence of intruders. Of these 70, there had been seven certain detections of intruders in the sound and three of conventional submarines outside the sound, but still within Swedish waters.
More than 1,000 men and all naval antisubmarine resources had been involved in the operation. A total of 23 depth charges, 1 mine, and 18 shock charges had been expended, and on 78 occasions, small arms and hand grenades were used.
In his examination of command and control, Admiral Kierkegaard noted that ground and sea forces’ operations were never fully coordinated, and recommended considerable improvements in this area. Other recommendations concerned improvements in tactics, rules of engagement, and weapon safety rules. It was apparent that weapons were still being used over-cautiously, despite the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission and the introduction of incident weapons.
Occasional reports of other submarine sightings appeared in the press throughout 1984 and 1985, including mention of an apparently prolonged antisubmarine operation off Hamosand during a fleet exercise in August 1984, another near Horsfjarden in November 1984, and the firing of Elma weapons off Karlshamn on 12 April 1985. Whether these reports were of actual incidents or .purely training events, a January 1985 Swedish Defence Department press release stated that of all the reported detections in 1984, 20 were inexplicable, except by the presence of foreign submarines, and that a “few” of these were “particularly clear.” From this, General Ljung had concluded that it was most probable that foreign submarine activity had continued in Swedish territorial waters during 1984. He emphasized, however, that it had not been possible to
'•ngs / March 1986
identify the nationality of the intruders.
Assuming that it is the Soviet Union that is responsible for the intrusions, a possible explanation was delivered in a January 1985 interview of Vice Admiral Per Rudberg, who was Chief of the Swedish Navy from 1978-1984. According to Admiral Rudberg, Soviet Navy doctrine is based on three protection zones around the Soviet Union’s borders. In the nearest zone, total control is required. In the second zone, the Soviet Navy counts on being able to deny the enemy total control, while in the third distant zone, the Soviet Union hopes to be “troublesome” to the other side. He explained that the limits of the innermost zone had gradually been moved forward since World War II, and today “there is not much of the Baltic over which the Soviet Union does not aspire to control. A global power demands dominance on its own doorstep.”
Despite all the activity just described, numerous doubts remain in some quarters regarding whether or not there were ever any submarine intruders in Swedish waters- Foreign Minister Lennart Bodstrom allegedly expressed his doubts about intruders to some journalists in February 1985, and, as a result, received a vote of censure from the parliamentary opposition. It is easy to understand how such doubts arise, however, as the evidence available to outside observers is far from definitive. Unless one has actually seen a periscope or personally observed the unambiguous characteristics of a submarine on a sonar dispirit is only possible to examine second-hand reports an make a judgment.
In addition, balanced against the certain detections made each year is the fact that the great majority of other sightings are made by untrained civilians. (Even the “cerj tain” detections are made by a navy which itself admits requires more training.) Also there is the fact that, asm
Soviet Subs in Scandinavia: 1930 to 1945
The misfortune of Captain Second Rank A. M. Gushchin and his Whiskey-class submarine W-137 which maneuvered onto the rocks off Karlskrona in 1981 had a variety of consequences. The grounding apparently brought an abrupt end to several Soviet naval careers, but more important, it focused world attention on a problem that Scandinavian navies had long dealt with in isolation: the possibility of Soviet submarine intrusions into territorial waters of NATO and neutral nations on the European Northern Flank. Since the W-137 incident, numerous press reports of possible Soviet submarine sightings in Norway and Sweden have combined with a history of sporadic incidents extending as far back as the 1960s to stimulate interest and controversy in naval circles.
In most of this discussion, the historical data on Soviet submarine operations in Scandinavia prior to and during World War II have been overlooked. Historical data are generally more accessible and more easily verifiable than reports of most modem submarine incidents, because of existing detailed, declassified Allied and German records and voluminous Soviet histories and memoirs. This relatively large amount of available records and analyses also provides, in depth, the perspectives of the participants at the time. The historical data also provide an improved perspective for examining and evaluating the more recent incidents.
The Early Thirties: It is impossible, based on current knowledge, to identify a specific beginning date for Soviet submarine operations in the coastal waters of Scandinavian nations. By the early 1930s, however, the Soviet Union had begun to feel that its freedom of navigation in the Baltic Sea was constrained by Western nations, and a decision was made to establish a flotilla, including submarine forces, in the Arctic Ocean. To facilitate transportation to the north and the transfer of fleet units from the Baltic to the White Sea, the Stalin Canal was built in record time (using prison labor).1Dekabrist- class long-range submarines were transferred through the canal to the newly-established Northern Flotilla in the spring of 1933, in two “special purpose submarine expeditions.” In 1936, Northern Flotilla submarines made an exploratory voyage to the Kara Sea and No- vaya Zemlya.2 In February 1938, a Dekabrist (D-3) sailed to Jan Mayen Island to assist in the rescue of a Soviet scientific expedition drifting on an ice floe.3 Given this ability for long-range operations, short-range reconnaissance operations may have been undertaken along the Barents coasts of Fin Ian and Norway during the mid-1939s- In the Baltic, some submarine reconnaissance may have been con ducted at least by the middle 1930s, if not earlier, against Sweden and Finland. Such reconnaissance was a necessary prerequisite to the operations carried out by 1 0 Soviets against Finland during tl>e 1939-1940 “Winter War.”
Operations in the Winter Waf- The first positive Soviet histories references to operations in Scanui navian waters come during the Winter War with Finland, 1939— 1940.4 During this period, Baltic Fleet submarines operated in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Aland Sea. and along the Finnish coast in t Baltic and Gulf of Finland, whi e Northern Fleet (the Flotilla was upgraded to a Fleet in 1937) sU ^ marines cruised along the Baren coasts of Finland and Norway- During the period between the Winter War and the 21 June 19 Nazi attack on the Soviet Un'°n’ submarines of the Baltic Fleet began to conduct more extensive submarine operations througho the Baltic (see Figure 1). *nC*U. n(j, patrols along the coasts of Fin , East Prussia, Nazi-occupied P° Denmark, and Sweden.3 At th|S.^ time, the Soviets apparently 013