Earlier today I mentioned to Cos Cobber the story of the British sub HMS Conqueror’s snatching a top-secret listening device from its Soviet counterpart. I Googled around a bit and found the article that caught my eye. It’s a fascinating tale and well worth reading while awaiting election results and learning the fate of the world. Here’s a brief sample:
Cutting a towed-array cable and making it look like an accidental loss was no easy task. Before Conqueror was fitted with the television-guided pincers, her sister ship HMS Churchill had tried to steam through an array to sever it from the towing ship. She was damaged and depth-charged for her pains. Conqueror made two attempts to use the pincers, in the Barents Sea and the Mediterranean, before her final attempt in August.
“When crews heard about these pincers, everybody thought it was absolutely crazy,” says Prebble. “Their use demanded the most brilliant seamanship, coming up from below into the array’s blind spot and edging towards the cutting point only a few yards from the tow ship. The pincers were designed to gnaw rather than slice cleanly to give the impression that the array had snagged on an underwater obstacle and been torn off.”
There, then, was Wreford-Brown, staring though his periscope that August night. The TV cameras were useless until a few inches from the target, so black was the Arctic water. Wreford-Brown and his officers had to fall back on mental arithmetic to calculate their distance from the target.
“That was the genius of the exercise,” says Prebble. “There is a way of approaching the blind spot that involves going deep and then coming up at an angle, literally below the vessel.”
The trawler’s propeller was feet away from Conqueror’s hull. A momentary miscalculation and a collision was inevitable. But nerves held and a connection was made. The pincer blades gnawed, and in seconds that seemed like hours the array was freed. Clamps held on to the cable as Conqueror dropped away to a safe depth, trailing the array by her side.
“Everyone in the control room was tense,” says one of those present. “We were expecting at any time that we would be discovered and were ready to run, if necessary.”
None of the crewmen who spoke to Prebble was prepared to confirm Conqueror’s position but the suspicion is that the operation took place inside Soviet territorial waters, just three miles from the coast. If discovered, the sub would have faced attack from Russian air and naval units. Once Conqueror reached a safe distance, divers were sent out to secure the array. The submarine later surfaced so that they could swim out again to haul the device aboard and bundle it in the hull.
Did the crew of the AGI know what had happened? Even if they suspected foul play it would not have been in their interests to admit it to their superiors. A sojourn in the gulag might have followed.
Immediately after Conqueror reached her base on the Clyde, the array was put on to an aircraft and sent for analysis in the United States. It is said that the name Conqueror was whispered with a certain reverence in the Pentagon for some time afterwards.