Midget Submarines at Kalbådagrund

The following chain of thoughts started when a strange place name appeared in a blog post by Swedish defence blogger Jägarchefen. Further research led to a theory, the reasoning behind which is detailed below.

The CIA file

The open archive of CIA FOIA files include a large number of documents dealing with Soviet vessel movements in the Baltic Sea. Most of these are rather unspectacular, doing little but dispelling the idea that intelligence work is anything like a Bond-adventure. There are however exceptions, like file number CIA-RDP80-00810A007600280010-0, dated 13 October 1955.

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‘Kalbod Shallows light’ likely refers to Kalbådagrund lighthouse southeast of Helsinki, where a caisson-type lighthouse was erected on a dangerous shoal in 1952. Here, a flotilla of 10 to 12 midget submarines passed by under tow in the evening of 27 May 1955. But where did they come from, and why were they outside of Helsinki in 1955?

The War Trophies

In the closing years of World War II the surface units of the German Navy faced pressure from ever increasing numbers of Allied aircraft and naval ships. The logical answer was to start using the submarine force also for missions closer to shore. This called for smaller vessels, capable of manoeuvring in the more confined waters of the Atlantic coastline.

Probably the most successful of the host of different craft created was the Typ XXVII B, better known as Seehund. The 12 meter (~40 feet) long submarine had a crew of just two man, and as opposed to most midget submarines it wasn’t fitted for operations with limpet mines or divers, but was armed with two G7e torpedoes, the standard weapon of the German submarine force. As the submarine was so small, these were strapped on externally. They were sighted through a fixed periscope, located in the forward part of the tower.

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Source: Uwe Ernst/Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet captured a number of these vessels, though exactly how many remains unclear. Some sources claim that only a very limited number was in use[1], but most list a significantly larger force. The British Royal Navy’s Director of Naval Intelligence in 1952 commented that the Soviet Navy “acquired some 50-70 ex-German, Italian and Japanese midget submarines after the war, but it seems likely that they have produced their own post-war version, which, from reports, seems to incorporate parts from the design of all above. There are also reports which indicate training in midget S/Ms in the Soviet Navy at the present time.”[2] The CIA is also looking at a similar number, stating that the Soviet Navy had “at least 70 midget submarines” in service in November 1953, of which around 20 are ex-German Seehund vessels, the rest being an “improvement on the previous type and made use of German SEEHUND plans”. These Soviet improved Seehunds were built after 1947. Notable is also that CIA has no information “regarding specific bases for these submarines”, but they also concede that they can be operated from “any existing base”, or from a properly equipped support ship.[3]

Other sources support this picture. The Swedish intelligence service was also on the trail, with the so called T-office reporting in 1946 that “On pier in Kronstadt harbour lies some midget submarines, probably ex-German”. Russian naval historian Vladimir Shcherbakov notes that the Seehunds “were used rather intensively”. Swedish historians von Braun and Gyllenhaal puts the confirmed number of complete Seehunds captured as “at least two”.[4]

But how did the Soviets manage to build up a sizeable force from war trophies and modified designs?

The Shipyard

The majority of the Seehunds were built at Schichau-Werke in what was then Elbing in East Prussia (today the Polish city of Elbląg). The yard escaped relatively unscathed during the war and the immediate post-war, and in 1947 it was one of few factories listed as being in service, having just delivered the first new built vessels postwar (these being torpedoboats).[5] In the same year, it was reported that Soviet (and Polish) companies tried to recruit former “technicians, employees, and workmen” of the yard in East Germany. Most refused, but “a certain number” accepted and left for East Prussia, presumably to work at the former Schichau subsidary at Contienen, which had produced parts for submarines and minesweepers during the war. The Contienen yard as well was reported to have seen relatively little damage during the war, and escaped dismantling after the Soviet forces occupied it.[6]

In 1949, the operations at Schichau-Werke in Elbing was reported to have risen back to 80 percent of its wartime capacity. Around 120 German prisoners of war were still employed as “skilled workers”, pointing to the fact that the earlier attempts to recruit workers hadn’t produced enough volunteers. The yard featured a modern welding current distribution system, and an expansion program of the yard was planned, the aim being to double the capacity by spring 1951. Interestingly, the CIA file reporting this includes a comment that the recent information “essentially confirms” other information on the shipyard, and that “it appears likely that no vessels other than small submarines are now being constructed there”.[7]

To remember is that during the last six months the yard was in operation during the war, the number of Seehunds produced in Elbing seems to have been over 100. If the CIA report was correct, even at 80 percent production the yard would have built 50 new vessels in a matter of months. But where did they go?

The Peninsula

When the Continuation War ended, amongst the Soviet demands was one which prime minister Paasikivi described as “horrendous”. The Porkkala peninsula was to be leased to the Soviet Union for 50 years, i.e. until 1994.

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Detail of the map from the armistice agreement showing the area to be leased to the Soviet Union. Note Helsinki in the upper right corner. Via Wikimedia Commons

 

This replaced the earlier deal under which the Soviets had leased the Hanko peninsula further west after the end of the Winter War, and included a very favourable transit agreement. Under this, the Finnish customs authorities had no right to inspect the cargo holds of trucks or trains transiting  between the naval base and the Soviet mainland. Soon it became apparent that foul play was involved, as sometimes the trucks could make the trip in four hours, while sometimes the time on the road stretched to up to ten hours. A SIGINT station for listening to Finnish radio communications was created at the Majvik mansion, today a meetings and convention hotel, and suitably located on top of a large hill close to the shore. In the early 1950’s the station was manned by 24 NCOs and four officers, working in three shifts to maintain a constant surveillance of the Finnish radio networks. The station was not part of the naval base’s chain of command, but instead reported directly to the intelligence section of the Leningrad Military District in all matters.[8]

In addition to being a naval base, the most well-known vessel of which was the monitor Vyborg (former Finnish coastal defence ship Väinämöinen), the base also played a significant role as an intelligence hub. A number of arrests were made and dead drops uncovered in connection to the transit traffic mentioned above, including that of air force captain Martti Salo of the aerial photography unit in Tikkakoski. It appears that the main responsibility for intelligence gathering in Finland was placed upon GRU, likely in part due to the heavy use of the military trucks travelling to and from Porkkala.[9]

Amongst the most important units of the bases was its intelligence unit. In a report covering the third quarter of 1945, the unit had not only counted and identified the nationality of all vessels sailing  past the base (1 371 vessels in total), they had also, as a collaborative effort between the “officers of the base’s staff and units situated in Finland”, gathered information and systematically categorised this into a file covering multiple aspects of Finland, including:

  1. Much information on the Pansio naval base
  2. Information on the Army and Coastal Artillery units located in the Turku region
  3. A description of the oil depot being built in Naantali
  4. A description of Finland’s coastal defences
  5. Information regarding the Finnish coast guard and all its bases

The information gathered also went down to the individual level, covering 96 Finnish officers, including their service records and personal evaluations.[10]

The continuous building of trenches and bunkers as well as the naval activity came to an abrupt halt in 1955. In September, Khrushchev suddenly informed Finland that the base would be returned. This doomed the heavily fortified base, and all defensive works were demolished, including the almost-finished command bunker Los which stretched over 100 meters through the mountainside. The personnel, numbering over 15,000, was transferred away, as was the tens of naval vessels and small crafts that were stationed there.

But did the intelligence gathering extend to other methods as well?

The Theory

My theory is that the convoy sighted on an easterly heading south Helsinki in May 1955 indeed did consist of Seehund-type submarines (either ex-German or modified new-builds). I further believe that they were in transit from Porkkala naval base to Kronstadt, either due to a unit transfer (possibly due to having received early notice of the upcoming closure) or after a finished exercise/mission.

In other words: in addition to the surface and land-based units known to have been stationed there, Porkkala played host to a unit of midget submarines in the first half of the fifties.

These have been either exercising or permanently stationed there. Considering the unique nature of the Finnish archipelago, it isn’t far-fetched to conclude that any exercises held there were made with an eye towards either the Finnish or Swedish coast. Furthermore, considering the extensive intelligence work done by the GRU out of Porkkala, it is likely that the submarines would have participated in covert intelligence gathering against Finnish targets. Especially as the intelligence work is known to have in part been directed against naval and other coastal sites

Are there alternative explanations? Certainly. The submarines might have been misidentified barges, or they might have come from Tallinn and turned north to get around heavy weather. However, the most likely explanation in my opinion is that the vessels were transiting from Porkkala to Kronstadt:

The sketch captures the general outline of the Seehund well, including the approximate location and general shape of the conning tower and the location of the fixed periscope. Riding high would be explained by the lack of torpedoes, which are unlikely to have been carried during transit.

It is assumed that the Soviet Navy operated a number of Seehund-type submarines, including of an improved design. The Soviets did capture one of the main production sites of the Seehund, and this resumed operation relatively soon after the war, with part of the workforce being German. The ability to produce the improved design appears to have been there.

The Seehunds were sighted in Kronstadt, as well as in other parts of the Baltic Sea during the time frame in question.

Porkkala held an important dual role as a naval base and intelligence gathering hub. The later was led by GRU, with some units being directly subordinated to the Leningrad Military District. Amongst the targets for the intelligence gathering operation were Finnish Navy, Coast Guard, and harbour locations. Using midget submarines for covert intelligence gathering would fit that pattern.

The location in the northern half of the Gulf of Finland also seems more likely for a unit coming from a Finnish port than from a location on the southern shore of the Gulf.

Sources

A special ‘Thank you’ to Jägarchefen and Lars Gyllenhaal!

[1] http://www.hisutton.com/Secret%20History%20-%20the%20Soviet%20submarine%20gap.html

[2] Register No. P.D. 054/52

[3] CIA file CIA-RDP80-00810A002800340004-3

[4] All quotes in paragraph from: J. von Braun and L. Gyllenhaal, Ryska elitförband och specialvapen, 2nd edn., Stockholm, Fischer & Co, 2016

[5] CIA file CIA-RDP82-00457R001100020007-4

[6] CIA file CIA-RDP82-00457R000800070004-6

[7] CIA file CIA-RDP82-00457R003300540006-7

[8] J. Leskinen, ‘Porkkalan tukikohta 1944-1956’, in J. Nieminen (ed.), Porkkala – Tapahtumien keskellä, Maanpuolustuskorkeakoulun Sotahistorian laitos, 2009

[9] K. Rentola, ‘Porkkala ja tiedustelu’, in J. Nieminen (ed.), Porkkala – Tapahtumien keskellä, Maanpuolustuskorkeakoulun Sotahistorian laitos, 2009

[10] L. Amirhanov, ‘Neuvostoliiton Porkkala-uddin laivastotukikohta kylmässä sodassa 1945-1956’, in J. Nieminen (ed.), Porkkala – Tapahtumien keskellä, Maanpuolustuskorkeakoulun Sotahistorian laitos, 2009

Red October Revisited – Yes, there was a foreign submarine

Let’s repeat as the info currently spreading gives the wrong impression:

Swedish defence forces collected as well as received from the public multiple pieces of evidence for the underwater intrusion in autumn of 2014. Of these roughly 300 reported issues, around half were written off immediately, with half being analysed further. In the end, 21 were deemed “particularly interesting”, leading to the conclusion (after a year of analysis) that there was proof “Beyond all reasonable doubt” that there had been a foreign underwater intruder in Swedish waters during the Red October-incident. The Swedish defence forces never based this on any single crucial piece of evidence, but on the analysis of the collected information. This was made public last September, and again confirmed yesterday.

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Fresh tracks left by the submarine on the bottom, one of the pieces of evidence still valid. Source: Försvarsmakten.se

The sound recording now attributed to a Swedish source was not amongst the 21 “particularly interesting” pieces of evidence, despite it having featured prominently in the discussions during and immediately after the incident, as it had been disproved during the more thorough analyses done during the year following the incident. This was also revealed already in September 2015, though the true source was not given back then.

Anyone spreading versions of the story that there was no submarine, either hasn’t read particularly much on the so called Red October-incident, or is knowingly spreading false information that hurts the reputation of the defence forces. The big question is why?

Interesting thing is that the original SR-piece (Swedish national radio) is on the whole rather correct, though it uses the term “crucial evidence” in an unclear/misleading fashion. Still, e.g. reputable Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, citing this article with a link, reported the news in a fashion that makes it possible to easily misunderstand the importance of the evidence, and one could even get the impression that there was no intrusion at all!

There are also those claiming that the submarine’s identity was given as Russian back when the operation was ongoing, which is another lie. No official Swedish spokesperson or agency ever did so. The theory that it indeed was Russian does remain popular amongst the larger crowd, based on a combination of history, current threatening behaviour, available capability, and the Russian media reporting of the incident being full of outright lies trying to lay the blame on everyone else.

Exactly how (and why) this change in tone and message happened is unclear to me, but while some have pointed at malice on the part of SR, as noted their original article is not that far off. A more plausible explanation in my opinion is the one given by Editor-in-Chief for News at the Finnish News Agency STT, Minna Holopainen, who reasons that a combination of journalists retelling the news too quickly coupled with lack of fact-checking and the Swedish submarine hunts being an easy target all added up to a “Chinese whispers”-situation. STT also did a proper second article, in which they laid out the background in further details.

 

In the end, this is just another warning of the danger of skipping proper source checking in an age of ever increasing media, and of the need of proper quick responses by government agencies to swiftly terminate any hurtful rumours developing.

Korean Sabre Rattling

It has probably escaped no-one that things are heating up along the 38th parallel in Korea. All began when earlier this month (04.08.2015) two South Korean soldiers were wounded by landmines placed by the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea (which certainly doesn’t warrant any of those titles, except ‘Korea’). Last Thursday (20.08) the DPRK fired artillery over the demilitarised zone, DMZ for short, aiming on propaganda loudspeakers set up by the Republic of (South) Korea, which promptly answered with a few salvos of 155 mm long range artillery. This evening (24.08) there seems to have been some sort of agreement reached, but the situation remains tense. This warrants a few observations.

North Korea is quite possibly the most militarised country on the planet. A large part of its equipment, including vehicles and weapons, are old bordering on antique. This includes fighter jets developed in the 50’s and apparently tanks that saw service in WWII (if rumours about T-34’s and Su-100’s still being active are correct). Still, while the main force would rely on numbers more than quality in any renewal of fighting, there are a couple of branches that may make things nasty for the South.

170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. This is an ex-Irani gun captured first by Iraq in the 80’s and later by US forces. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Albert F. Hunt, U.S. Marine Corps

The first is the North Korean artillery. The number of artillery pieces, calibres ranging from 3’’/76.2 mm up to 170 mm, are unknown, but is measured in thousands, possibly up to 10,000. Some of these are stationed in hardened shelters dug into the mountains along the DMZ, reportedly with pre-determined targets on the Southern side of the border, including Seoul in the case of the mighty (but slow-firing) 170 mm Koksan self-propelled gun. Added to these are a few thousand (4-5,000?) multiple rocket launchers, as well as thousands of light, medium, and heavy mortars. The lethality of these are somewhat overrated, with graphic descriptions of Seoul being levelled by a wall of fire during the first hour of a possible conflict. In practice, only the heaviest systems, 200 mm rocket launchers and the 170 mm guns, have the range to reach Seoul, and due to their size they have a very long reload time. Also, the use of fixed positions makes them easy targets for the sizeable air force and artillery units operated by South Korea and the US forces on the peninsula, the main mission of the latter being counter-battery fire. However, the sheer number and protection of these gun emplacements mean that their destruction will take time, and while a Dresden-style complete destruction of Seoul is out of the question, they will still cause considerable damage during their short life spans.

Another much reported arm of the DPRK forces is the submarine fleet, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. It is mainly made up of old Chinese copies of the obsolete Soviet Project 633 ‘Romeo’-class diesel-electric submarines, around 20 of which are currently in service. These are then backed up by a plethora of smaller vessels of the Sang-O/Sang-O II, Yugo, and Yono-classes, which are either used for insertion of Special Forces or for “traditional” ship-hunting missions. The latter was demonstrated when a Yono-class submarine fired a torpedo that sunk the South Korean corvette Cheonan back in 2010, becoming only the third submarine to have sunk a surface vessel since the Second World War. The US Naval Institute claims that as many as 90 of these smaller vessels might be in service, but also notes that serviceability is poor and many vessels are in reserve. Yesterday (24.08.2015) South Korean sources reported that 50 submarines of unspecified classes have gone to sea in an unprecedented move, and that these make up 70% of the entire submarine force (i.e. the ROK places the number of active submarines at 71 compared to USNI’s ~110). In response, South Korea has stepped up its air patrols to try and locate the submarines.

Sang-O class submarine which ran aground while attempting to insert commands into South Korea in 1996. Source: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Forces Korea

While the submarine force is severely outdated, the Romeo is largely based on a hull-design pioneered by the Germans during WWII in the form of their Type XXI coupled with early-Cold War Soviet technology, they should not be underestimated. Diesel-electric submarines are extremely quiet, and as such hard to detect. If the submarines are able to take up positions before a conflict erupts, as their sheer number means that it is impossible for South Koreas 16 anti-submarine aircraft to keep track of them all. Even many of the lighter submarines feature heavy 533 mm torpedo tubes, being able to load a number of different Chinese and indigenous torpedoes, including wake-homing and passive/active seekers, making them extremely deadly if they can lie silently in ambush and wait for a target to pass by, as was evident in the case of the sinking of the Cheonan.

All in all however, the South Korean armed forces should be able to make up for their smaller size by vastly more modern equipment and training. There are uncertainties, such as the morale of the conscripts serving long times in remote (and unpopular) locations, and the whole system of conscription has been questioned. Still, in a fight for the survival of the country, one would assume that morale would not be an issue.

The big problem with Korea is that it is next door to China. And that there are a considerable number of US troops in the country. As was evident in 1950, while China might not be overjoyed by the seemingly dicey behaviour of their neighbours in Pyongyang, they vastly prefer it to having an US ally on the border. In fact, the response during the Korean War was so strong, it was one of the very few instances since the Second World War in which an US force have been decisively beaten on the battlefield. Still today, it is hard to imagine Beijing letting Pyongyang fall, no matter their opinions of Kim Jong-un and his regime.

Obviously, there is also the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons. They don’t have many, but even a single warhead aimed at Seoul, or any other target on the peninsula for that matter, would in a stroke transform the conflict. Some have stated that the treat of the US nuclear arsenal and a retaliatory attack by Washington makes this option unlikely, but I am less than certain. To begin with, Obama has so far proved to be a leader that likes to err on the side of caution in matters of foreign policy. Also, whether there would be a popular opinion in the US supporting even a defensive nuclear war on the Korean peninsula is highly dubious, especially with the possibility of the Chinese being dragged into it with their nuclear arsenal.

It might however be that Washington has no choice. With the amount of US troops in the area, there is a very real risk that they will be dragged into the fighting, and suffer casualties, before Obama even has time to gather his aides to discuss the war.

There are also a couple of interesting developments in the general area, none of which are by themselves really worrying, but they deserve to be taken into consideration:

  • China has apparently moved PTZ-89 tank destroyers to the border. These are specialised vehicle, featuring light armour but powerful guns, meant to take out massed tank units,
  • China and Russia are conducting a joint marine/naval exercise in the area, the highlight of which will be a joint amphibious and air landing,
  • The US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, normally features the sole US aircraft carrier to be permanently forward based, i.e. having a non-US homeport. Currently, we are in the short window of time where no such carrier is in place, as the USS Georg Washington (CVN-73) which has been homeported in Yokosuka since 2008, has left Japan for San Diego. She arrived in the US two weeks ago (10.08), and her replacement, USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) has yet to leave for Japan. In other words, the US forces that rapidly could take part in a conflict in Korea is missing the equivalent of a decently sized (larger than Finland’s) air force,
  • An explosion occurred late yesterday at the US Army base close to Yokosuka, Camp Zama. While the reason behind this latest incident is unclear, a suspected attack on the base by Japanese extreme-leftist was investigated earlier this year. This incident also places further strain on the relations between local Japanese authorities and the US forces in Japan,
  • This was followed by a huge fire at a nearby steel plant, which closed Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

Ocean X Team and the Midget Submarine that wasn’t

The mysterious submarine found inside Swedish waters this week (27.07) has turned out to be the Imperial Russian submarine Som, lead ship of its class. The vessel sank in a collision with the Swedish steamer Ångermanland (also reported incorrectly as being named Ingermanland). In a bizarre twist of fate, Ångermanland was coming from the port of Mäntyluoto, Pori, in what was at the time the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, carrying packages for Russian POW’s held in Germany. The Som was originally laid down as the Fulton by the legendary Electric Boat Company, and served as the prototype for one of the US Navy’s first submarine classes, the Plunger-class, . The details of the sinking have been known [1, 2, 3], but the exact location of the wreck has so far not been determined.

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Som during happier times. Photo via Alexey Loginov / Timothy Choi

During the first few hours after the find was publicised there was a host of speculation about the location, origin, and age of the wreck. This was largely created by the fact that the Ocean X Team gave very limited info to media:

The submarine looked “modern”, but could be from the 80’s, it was found roughly 1.5 nautical miles (2.75 km) from the coast, clearly inside Swedish waters, and the hatches were closed. No to very little damage was visible externally. The vessel was roughly 20 meters in length, and around 3 meters wide. And there were what looked like Cyrillic signs on the wreck.

Added to this, a small amount of video clips were released, without any comments regarding which part of the hull was in picture at any given moment. A single multibeam sonar picture of the wreck in its entirety was also released.

All in all, the original picture given was that the submarine was a midget submarine, dating from the time of the great Swedish subhunts, or newer. This, coupled with the Cyrillic lettering, made the wreck politically sensitive.

However, things soon started to fall apart for Ocean X Team.

Age, identity, and origin

Submarine designs have varied greatly over the 100+ years they have been in active service. The early submarines had usually a somewhat cigar-shaped hull, with the conning towers being either completly absent or very low (the terms ‘sail’ and ‘conning tower’ are often used interchangeably in English, although this is technically incorrect). The leading designer of this time was John P. Holland of the abovementioned Electric Boat Company, which either directly through exported designs or indirectly by influencing other designers set the pattern for these early vessels. Som is an example of the former, with Hajen, Sweden’s first submarine, is an example of the latter. Hajen was designed and built in Sweden, but clearly patterned after Holland’s designs. It currently resides as a museum ship in Marinmuseum in Karlskrona.

Sweden’s first submarine Hajen next to the modern-pattern Neptun. The boat-like bow on Hajen was added during a refit in 1916, with the new part being easily distinguishable as having been simply welded on. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Daderot

In the years leading up to and during the WWI, the hull form started to evolve, with the top of the hull becoming flatter and the bow and stern becoming more ‘shiplike’, first with straight plumb bows, and later with different kinds of raked or angled bows. The submarines started growing larger, and the sails became higher and more pronounced. The large amounts of railings used on the early designs started to be replaced by removable railings mainly used when the vessels lay at anchor. Welding also started to be used more and more instead of traditional rivets, until eventually the submarines became of all-welded construction in the years leading up to WWII. These boats, optimised for performance on the surface, would reach their climax in the early 40’s. The classic German U-boats of the Type VII and Type IX classes belong to this group.

The German U-boat U-995 of the Type VII-class in Kiel. Note the large tower, boat-like bow and level upper deck. Suorce: Wikimedia Commons/Darkone

During the war and in the immediate post-war period, advances in propulsion for submarines, and in search radars for the submarine’s adversaries, meant that the focus shifted from surface to sub-surface operations. As such, the hull forms started to shift yet again, with the decks becoming smaller (relative to the hull size), and everything started to become rounded to lower drag and avoid turbulences. All kinds of fixed railings disappeared.

USS Albacore, launched in 1953, pioneered the drop-shaped hull which gives superior underwater performance compared to earlier slender hullforms. Note the complete absence of sharp angles and pointed features. Source: Wikimedia Commons/US Navy

As a general rule of thumb, midget submarines (which started to appear during WWII) have followed roughly the same pattern as the conventional submarines, but are smaller.

In other words, in the same way as a car-enthusiast finding the remains of a rusted car in a backyard would have no problem in telling whether it’s a fifties American muscle car or an eighties Japanese compact, no one with even a basic knowledge of submarines should have any problem with determining the wreck of a Holland-type submarine such as Som from that of a post-WWII midget submarine. Especially if the hull is “largely intact and not showing any signs of damage”.

With regards to the lack of vegetation and sediments, several people, most notably Ola Oskarsson, noted that more or less all wrecks in the Baltic Sea that are found at depths deeper than 40 meters shows very little growth or sediments, and as such this is not an indication that the wreck is new. Who is Ola Oskarsson then? He’s the founder, member of the board, and Market Developer of MMT, a Swedish diving and sea survey company that has found numerous wrecks, including submarines of varying age and the Swedish Air Force DC-3 downed by Soviet fighters in the fifties (however, unlike Ocean X Team, MMT have never found an UFO…).

Within hours of the discovery it was soon clear that the most likely candidate for the wreck was Som. It was one of relatively few submarine-classes ever built to measure around 20 meters in length (Som having an LOA of 19.3 m), with even WWI submarines often measuring 30 meters and above, and midget submarines usually (to the extent that one can generalise a midget submarine) being 10-15 meters in length. Several details also matched, and the Som was supposed to have sunk in Swedish waters west of the Åland Islands. As it was a Tsarist-submarine, the pre-1918 spelling, “Сомъ”, would also have included the hard sign ‘Ъ’, which was visible in the videos released from the wreck.

The scam is revealed

The really interesting part was when it started to become clear that Ocean X Team had deliberately been searching for the Som for at least a year.

In July 2014, Peter Lindberg (confirmed to be the same Peter Lindberg that’s part of Ocean X Team through cross-matching e-mail addresses used) asked for details about the fate of Som, and received the general story and the location of the wreck “between SwartklubbenArholma”. In both Finnish and Danish news, iXplorer Ocean Research, the Russian/Icelandic team that was revealed to have been the source which found the coordinates in a Russian archive before handing them to Ocean X Team, confirmed that they had been looking for the Som:

“We’ve been looking for it for about two years now. Ocean X Team is one of the companies we have been working quite a lot with.”

Did Ocean X Team know that it was the Som you were looking for?

“Yes.”

Kristján Eldjárn Jóhannesson in DR.dk

 

“Maybe some in our team decided to conspire a bit, I don’t know why. Anyway, it is clear that this is a Russian vessel, but it is far from being a modern one.”

Alexey Mikhailov (aka “Max Rite”) in Helsingin Sanomat

Of added interest was the fact that the videos shown had the date stamp 15.07, i.e. the Ocean X Team had twelve days to shift through the material before presenting it to media. Note that while we do not know the full scope of the material available to Ocean X Team, it is most probably far longer than the short second clip shown publicly, and includes video of the nameplate.

Ocean X Team’s response when faced with the allegations that they had knowingly concealed the age and identity of the submarine to get added publicity, was to state that they thought Som would be “much further south”, that they haven’t been able to compare the sail with any pictures to be certain of the ID of the class (the Som had an extensive rebuild in 1914, and there are apparently no detailed drawings of the final outcome), that the picture of the nameplate found by Peter Krantz had evaded them (a fact Lindberg admitted was “embarrassing”), and that they had received “very limited information” from iXplorer.

Peter Lindberg is trying to tell us that a professional team with years of experience diving in the Baltic Sea:

  • Didn’t know about the special conditions in the Baltic Sea that preserves old wrecks really well,
  • Were so sure of the reported position of where the Som went down, that they, despite the relatively primitive navigational aids found on board a coastal steamer in 1916, didn’t even consider the possibility it could be wrong,
  • That Ocean X Team during almost two weeks of analysing the material and comparing it to their research, wasn’t able to come up with a plausible ID of the wreck,
  • That the above is true despite them capturing the nameplate of the ship on film,
  • That iXplorer is lying when they affirm that Ocean X Team knew that the coordinates sent should lead to Som,
  • That when they themselves were unable to confirm what wreck they had found, they didn’t ask iXplorer what they thought the coordinates should lead to,
  • That they did not find it odd that the the damage of the wreck (some “pipes” in the sail being bent, the vessel otherwise looking intact) exactly matched the damage Som suffered according to the master of S/S Ångermanland (“[T]he submarine [probably] received a light push, damaging the periscope, but not the vessel itself”, article in DN 24.05.1916, found by historian Lars Gyllenhaal),
  • That they were not able to distinguish the classic lines of a Holland-type vessel from a modern midget submarine despite the team having researched the Som for at least a year and having twelve days to go through the pictures of the wreck,
  • Despite knowing there was a submarine confirmed to have sunk in the general area, they still found it more likely that the wreck was from an unknown “modern” midget submarine, even when there were no indication that any midget submarine would have sunk in the area,
  • And finally, they didn’t even care to mention the Som in the opening speculations, despite it fitting the description of the wreck on numerous points.

Except for the point about iXplorer lying about whether or not they had forwarded the info that the coordinates given should lead to Som, I find all of the bullet points above highly questionable. I am no diver, but I find wreck hunting extremely interesting, and have a general picture of how this is usually conducted. Any diver looking for a wreck will tell you that the lion’s share of the work is the background research, spending hours and hours in archives and scanning old newspapers and official reports. This also seems to be the case here, with at least a year, probably more, of background work going into this project before the wreck was actually found. That they during this year would have missed such basic facts as the name Som being spelled with a hard sign, or the general shape of a Holland-class submarine, means that the Ocean X Team is either sloppy, incompetent, or lying. In light of their earlier successes, I find the first two rather unlikely.

John P. Holland in the tower of one of his designs. Notice the small size of the submarine. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A far more likely explanation than ineptitude is that the whole thing is a PR-stunt made to bring publicity and hard cash to the team, something that is supported by the poor financial state of the company. The sums taken for publishing the material might also be of interest: 10 seconds of video goes for 35,000 SEK (~3 700 EUR), while still pictures go for 10,000 SEK (1 055 EUR) a piece according to DR.

Info-ops?

Much has been made about the Russian connections, and how the borderline hysteria the initial reports created has been used by Russian state-controlled media to discredit the Swedish subhunt which last year was able to confirm foreign underwater activity deep inside Swedish waters.

Still, to say that Ocean X Team is on Putin’s payroll is to jump to conclusions. It may well be that the idea of presenting the find as a potential modern-day intruder stemmed from Russia, and was proposed to Ocean X Team by iXplorer as a great way (or so it seemed at the time) to get more publicity out of an otherwise very niched find. If this is the case, one can safely assume that Ocean X Team believed iXplorer would support the story, and not throw them under the bus at first opportunity. It may also be that the idea came from Ocean X Team themselves, and that Russian state propaganda simply decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

Wherever the idea originated, it was ruthlessly used by the Kremlin for their own purposes. I find it entirely possible that Mikhailov, having served as a diver in the Russian Northern Fleet, was sincere in wanting to find the submarine and the last resting place of his brothers in arms, and that either he or someone closer to one of Kremlin’s intelligence agencies somewhere along the way realised that the project could also provide an opportunity for a propaganda coup as well. This would be supported by the time scale: we know that Ocean X Team, and presumably iXplorer as well, has worked on finding Som at least for a year, probably longer. The need for a submarine-based propaganda story aimed at Sweden was far smaller/non-existent last July, not to mention two years ago in the pre-Crimean age of European security.

At this point, the best Ocean X Team could do is probably to come clean, admit they tried to enlarge the public interest in the story by leaving out certain details, and apologies to the media, the public, and the experts they misled. Admitting to having been outsmarted by iXplorer might hurt, but trying to stick with a story that’s basically telling the world that they don’t know how/didn’t care to do proper research will probably hurt even more in the long run. Naturally, if there have been undeclared money transfers involved as some has hinted at, coming out might not be possible unless they are prepared to have a talk with the Swedish tax agency (bad case) or SÄPO (worse case).

…And on a lighter note, it seems Finnish media has greater trust in the amazing powers of crowd-source information gathering than Swedish 😉

Sunken Midget Submarine in Swedish Waters

Edit: This was a very early post, written during the unfolding of the event. If you are looking for information regarding the true nature of the submarine, and how the Ocean X Team cleverly played the media, possibly with Russian backing, see this post.

Swedish underwater survey company Ocean X Team has today announced that they’ve found a midget submarine in Swedish waters. This has raised a number of questions, which has been met by more or less informed speculation. The information released so far is very limited:

  • Ocean X Team received a location from an Icelandic company, and when searching there they found the wreck,
  • The wreck has seemingly very little damage, none of which seems to indicate that it has been damaged in combat,
  • It has very little growth on it, some have speculated that it has been on the bottom for around a year or less,
  • In size, the vessel is around 20 meters long, and around 3 meters in width,
  • There seems to be Cyrillic signs on it, namely the letter ‘Ъ’ (jer, the hard sign), and what looks like a ‘I’ in front of it,
  • The hatches are closed, leading to speculation that the crew is dead inside.

To take it from the top, it is an open guess how the Icelanders knew about it, but there are certainly contacts between Icelandic and Russian companies. With regards to the amount of growth, this is hard to judge, as the rate of growth is dependent on a number of different factors, such as water quality, depth, salinity, temperature, and so forth. A number of submarines have spent long times under water in similar conditions in the Baltic Sea, such as a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine that spent roughly 20-25 years on the bottom outside of Gotland, as well as Swedish submarine Springaren that was raised after 11 years on the bottom as a training item. Both show surprisingly little growth.

Ex-German, ex-French, Seehund-class midget submarine. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Rama

With regards to type, midget submarines are usually built in small numbers, and their very existence is often a state secret. The aft part of the coning towers of German WWII-era Seehund midget submarines shows a surprising similarity to some of the pictures seen. However, the Seehund is shorter in length (12 m) than the reported length (20 m). Of interest is that a number of Seehund submarines, as well as a number of ex-Italian CB-class submarines, are reported to have been in Soviet service post-war.

The Cyrillic writing might be some kind of hull letter, but this is pure speculation. Whether the crew is inside or not is an open question so far. Until more information is released, there exist a few major possibilities:

1) The submarine sunk during WWII, when a number of submarines disappeared without a trace,
2) The submarine has been out on a covert operation that went wrong, hence no emergency signal,
3) Some readers will recall the rumours last autumn that a submarine had sent an emergency signal to a station in Kaliningrad. However, Ocean X Team has stated that they do not believe this submarine is connected to last year’s Red October incident.

Edit: While writing, a more credible source than the small Seehund has appeared: Nameship of Imperial Russian Som-class sank in a collision with a Swedish steamer in 1916. Its measurements are very close to those given by the survey team. Credits to Skipper.

Red April – The Harmaja Subhunt

Finnish territory apparently was intruded upon yesterday and today (27-28.04.2015). It is only logical to compare this to the so called Red October-incident that took place within Swedish waters last autumn, and while I am aware that others have already done so, I decided to have a go at it anyway.

The Intrusion

First a recap of the events: Yesterday an underwater listening station picked up a “loud and clear” sound that indicated the presence of underwater activity outside of Harmaja, at the outskirts of Helsinki. The vessel on call, mine ship FNS Uusimaa, was called to the scene. Sometimes later, the second vessel on call, fast attack craft FNS Hanko, was alerted, and the Finnish border guards were informed. The border guards responded by sending the patrol vessel VL Turva. Of note is that the most competent ASW-ships in the Finnish navy, the Rauma-class fast attack crafts, are all temporarily out of service since February, due to hull cracks. Of the three vessels involved, only Uusimaa can be said to have a serious anti-submarine capability, with Turva not being armed in peacetime and Hanko lacking in search equipment.

VL Turva, the brand new flagship of the Finnish border guards. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Cha già José

Still, contact was renewed around 01:30 in the early hours of today (28.04.2015), and after the “underwater object” had been tracked for around an hour and a half, the Commanding Officer of Uusimaa decided to fire warning charges. These are not depth charges per se, but rather small handheld charges that detonate underwater, their aim being to tell the submarine “We know you’re there, and we don’t like it. Please move on!”

At around 03:00, six charges were dropped by Uusimaa, the result of which was that “no further warnings, or depth charges, were needed”. In other words, the underwater object left Finnish waters. Later today the naval vessels left the scene of the operation, while the border guards have started an investigation into the incident. The investigation includes going through all acquired material, and may take weeks. Obviously, major parts of the investigation will probably never be released to the public, due to the sensitive nature of the information, e.g. the location and capabilities of the underwater listening stations.

To note is that so far the nature of the “underwater object” has not been confirmed, but a small submarine seems to be the most likely culprit. However, this gives Finland and Sweden an opportunity to “compare notes”, and check if it was the same intruder, and what can be learnt from these two incidents.

Similarities

To begin with, the obvious case is that both non-aligned nations in northern Europe have seen their waters intruded upon by an unknown nation within the time span of less than a year (curiously enough, none of the NATO-states have reported the same thing). In both cases, it happened during the interregnum after parliamentary elections. In Finland’s case, today was the day Juha Sipilä officially got the mission to form a government.

If this is a message aimed at scaring Finland away from NATO by a show of force, I believe it will fail. Most probably, it will not have any major effect on the Finnish opinion, and in the case it does, it will most probably only give the pro-NATO side a small push forwards.

FNS Uusimaa (05). Suorce: Puolustusvoimat
FNS Uusimaa (05) firing ASW rockets. These are the probable weapon of choice if the order to destroy the intruder would have been issued. Suorce: Puolustusvoimat

In both cases, the navy responded in force, and was rather open with information about the event (and in both cases, the press was happy to fly over the area with their helicopters to provide live feeds). I would especially like to express my appreciation of the open and straightforward communication with the public that the navy initiated, something that has not always been the case.

The Differences

There are, however, notable differences. First and foremost, while the Swedish operation was deep inside Swedish waters, the Finnish contact was on the edge of Finnish territory. This meant that the Finnish operation was of a very different nature, with the main aim seemingly being to chase away the intruder. As far as I know, there was never any use of either alert or depth charges during the Swedish operation, which might be an indication of the Finnish vessels acquiring a better fix on their target (the other alternative is that the Swedish vessels were trying to fire for effect, which naturally requires a higher degree of target identification than alert charges).

An interesting detail is that while the Finnish navy described similar incidents as “rare”, with the last two taking place in 2004, the Swedish navy stated that similar incidents had indeed taken place earlier. Edit 29042015: Finnish officials today confirmed that with “similar incidents”, only incidents when alert charges were dropped are counted. They refused to comment on the issue whether underwater intruders were as rare. No exact numbers exist from either country, but the question whether this was a one-off incident, or whether someone will start testing Finland’s defences more often remains open for now.

A noteworthy feature is the reaction of Russian media. When Sweden started their subhunt, it took a few days for Russian national media before they got their propaganda machine going and started to create new theories. In this case, the news reports started coming instantly from Russian sources. RIA Novosti quoted Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov, who commented, negatively, about “reports of alleged appearances by Russian submarines in the territorial waters”. So far, no official Finnish channel has identified the object as a Russian submarine. Sputnik (which opened their Finnish service earlier this week) drew parallels with the Swedish operation, where “Sweden accused Russia of operating a submarine in its waters, later found to be a Swedish vessel”. As far as I know, no Swedish official channel identified the submarine as Russian, and contrary to the article, the main incident was later confirmed to have been a midget submarine, while another reported sighting was downgraded to have been of a Swedish vessel.

The operation also highlights the differences in ASW-tactics between the Finnish and Swedish navies. While the Swedish navy employs a more traditional approach centred on vessels equipped with both sensors and weaponry, supported by helicopters and some underwater listening stations at strategic places, the Finnish tactic is based around the fact that our coastal waters are shallow and broken up by numerous islands and shoals. Thus, the underwater listening stations function like an early warning system, which locate intruders, and based on this information surface vessels can then be alerted to the scene to get a better picture of the situation, and if needed either chase away or destroy the intruder. Of note is also that the Finnish border guards were heavily involved in the operation, unlike their Swedish colleagues. Partly, this is due to the small number of surface vessels in the Finnish navy that are capable of an operation like this, a number that is set to diminish even more with the replacement of three mine ships and four Rauma-class FAC with an unknown number of MTA 2020-corvettes.

The Finnish operation seems to have been a text-book example of how the Finnish ASW-machinery is supposed to work, and based on open sources all involved rightfully deserves credit for this. Some media have praised the Finnish operation as an example of resolute action, in which the enemy was driven away by the use of arms, and put this into contrast with the more modest (or even haphazard) Swedish way of chasing submarines.

I do not share this view.

The Finnish navy did not “bomb” anybody, and never fired with the intent to kill or damage. Dropping alert charges is the closest one can come to communicating with a foreign underwater vessel, and the step to actually making an attack run with full-size depth charges is rather long. Also, while the concentrated effort of three (for Finland) large vessels is impressive, it is dwarfed by the Swedish armada of corvettes, mine hunters, helicopters, and marines with their landing crafts, that spent the better part of a week hunting through the archipelago. The Swedish helicopters might lack dipping sonar, but so does the Finnish ones, and unlike Sweden, Finland has no plans to acquire a heli-based ASW-capability. While the Finnish operation was well executed, the same can be said about the Swedish.

Where are the Finnish Submarines?

Where are the Finnish Submarines?

Submarines have naturally been something of a hot topic in Sweden during the last year, with Saab buying ThyssenKrupp’s Swedish submarine division, the design stage of the new A26 submarine well under way, and last but not least, the incursion by a foreign midget submarine deep into Swedish waters. During all of this, the related question as to why Finland doesn’t operate submarines has been raised more than once.

The Finnish Submarine Force that Was

The first submarines that almost served in the Finnish Navy were a number of ex-Russian AG-class (Holland) submarines that had been scuttled when the Imperial Russian Navy retreated from Finnish ports in 1918. There were plans to return one or two of these to service, but the cash-strapped navy of the interwar years found the cost of the associated works to be too big, and as such the project was abandoned.

Instead a number of new-built submarines were acquired during the years leading up to the Second World War. This small but potent force consisted of three Vetehinen-class (500 t) boats, as well as the single-ships Saukko (114 t) and Vesikko (254 t). Of these, Saukko has the distinction of being the only military submarine purpose built for service in a lake (although in the end it was never used as such), while Vesikko was the prototype for the Kriegsmarine’s wartime Type II-class. Vesikko is the only one remaining of these, as well as being the sole survivor of all 51 Type II’s built.

The Finnish submarine service that was: light submarine Vesikko surfacing sometime during the war years. Source: SA-kuva
The Finnish submarine service that was: light submarine Vesikko surfacing sometime during the war years. Source: SA-kuva

With the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947 came restrictions regarding what kinds of “offensive weaponry” Finland was allowed to operate, and Article 17 states that “Finland shall not possess, construct or experiment with any […] torpedoes capable of being manned, submarines or other submersible craft, motor torpedo boats, or specialised types of assault craft.” The demands of the treaty were loosened over time, with e.g. “defensive missiles” being allowed in the 60’s when Finland bought the first batch of MiG-21F fighters with associated air-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union. Finally, after the reunification of Germany, Finland in 1990 unilaterally took the decision that the restrictions of the treaty did no longer apply (with the nuclear weapons ban being the sole exception, as Finland is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). Thus, the possibility of operating submarines was again open for the Finnish Navy.

A New Generation of Submariners?

The question about whether or not to get submarines was a hot topic during the 90’s, especially as Sweden offered a number of older submarines cheap. These would probably have been of the Sjöormen-class, which in the end were instead sold to Singapore as the Challenger-class in 1997. Although the Sjöormen-class was a 60’s design, they were very advanced for their day, which, together with the extensive half-life modification carried out before the transfer, makes them viable even today. The Singaporean Navy was apparently happy with the arrangement, as they in a similar deal bought two retired Västergötland-class submarines in 2005, which were accepted into service as the Archer-class in 2011 and 2013.

The Finnish submarine service that could have been: R.S.S. Chieftain (ex-HMS Sjöhunden II) of the Sjöormen/Challenger-class in Singaporean service in 2007. Souce: Wikimedia Commons/Erik Sevilla Estrada

Still, while the submarines themselves would have been cheap (a relative term when discussing submarines), the creation of a submarine service wouldn’t. The new training and basing facilities, a whole new logistics chain, as well as the day-to-day operating costs of running a fleet of three to four submarines, was deemed prohibitively expensive, and the rebirth of the Finnish submarine service was called off. As the basic premises have not changed since the late 90’s, the question has not been brought up again since.

The discussion whether this was the right decision or not pops up from time to time, but with the current budget an expansion in the number of naval vessels seems unlikely. On the contrary, with the arrival of the MTA 2020, the number of surface combatants is to be reduced. With the current funding of the navy, getting submarines would mean retiring at least an equal number of major vessels, corresponding to e.g. all four Hamina fast attack craft. Coupled with the upcoming decrease in the number of hulls with the introduction of the MTA 2020, this would mean slicing the number of surface combat vessels of the navy to half of its current level.

The Capabilities

As I noted in an earlier post, the Finnish Navy should be able to make certain that the NW corner of the Baltic Sea is safe for friendly merchant shipping, but from there on out to the North Sea, we would have to rely on friendly states (including at least Sweden and Denmark, and to a lesser extent, Norway, Germany, and Poland). In this planned area of operations, submarines are of a somewhat limited value, due to the shallow waters and cluttered archipelagoes that dominate both the Gulf of Finland and the Archipelago Sea. Here, the current combination of mine fields and FAC’s capable of countering enemy air and sea threats provides a good basis upon which to build a layered defence together with supporting ground and air units.

In such a scenario, where the main mission of the wartime fleet is to escort own merchant shipping to Swedish waters, as well as to counter enemy naval movements trying to enter our waters, a Finnish submarine fleet would in my opinion be of secondary value. Tactically, the submarines would be able to intercept, shadow, and attack enemy warships heading for our shores while they are further offshore than what would be the case with the FAC’s. Their presence would also dictate that the enemy make adjustments to meet the threat, i.e. deploy anti-submarine ships and air assets to protect own units. Still, it is hard to justify the acquisition of submarines from a purely tactical perspective if the trade-off is an equal number of surface units that could also offer protection from airborne threats.

The largest benefits of a submarine force would instead come in the strategic field, where modern AIP submarines could loiter in the southern/central parts of the Baltic Sea, and as such provide early warning of enemy sorties, gather intelligence, and even insert special forces if that was deemed necessary.

The Finnish submarine service that could be: Next-generation Swedish submarine of the Kockums A26-class. Source: Saab/Kockums Naval Solutions.

There is no denying that the acquisition of three modern submarines would significantly increase the intelligence gathering capabilities not only of the Finnish Navy, but of the Defence Forces and the Finnish intelligence community as a whole. They would also provide new capabilities in taking the battle closer to the enemy’s home ports, and as such giving greater defensive depth in the maritime scene as a whole. Currently, the Swedish A26 or the slightly smaller German/Italian Type 212 are the obvious candidates.

As an indicator of the price level, for the current Italian program of four Type 212/Todaro submarines a total project cost of 1.9 billion Euros is given, with a unit cost of roughly 350 million Euros per boat. While the total project cost include a certain amount of research and development that wouldn’t be included in an export order, the Italian Navy has a long tradition of operating submarines, and as such the investments in basing/logistics/training are considerably smaller compared to those needed if Finland was to acquire a handful of submarines. With the current situation, this cost is far too large for the Defence Forces to bear, let alone the Navy in itself. Unless they were to form part of a (very unlikely) vast multi-billion increase in the defence budget, which would also cover a number of more pressing deficits/ageing materials, I do not believe that submarines have a place in the Finnish Navy.