The Cold War at Sea: Behind The Naval Clash You've Probably Never Heard Of

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The US Navy and the Soviet Union played games with each other during the Cold War, where one wrong move could've resulted in mankind's destruction!

In March of 1972, the United States Navy played a harsh game of cat and mouse with their Russian counterparts through the Western and Central Mediterranean Sea. The 'football' of this game was the recent deployment of a half dozen Foxtrot-class submarines as well as a Juliett-class, which were replacing a similar group already in the Mediterranean. The game was simple. The Americans hoped to keep tabs on the Soviet submarines, and in the event of war, eliminate the threat they posed. Meanwhile, the Soviets had to play a high-tech game of 'keep-away.' A month earlier, NATO forces had picked up the column of submarines on the surface transiting the Strait of Gibraltar. Following close behind the Soviets, the multinational force tracked the submarines as they dove and followed them overnight.

When the group surfaced the next night, the NATO task force was still in position to shadow the Soviets. Crowing over his success, Rear Admiral Robert Hilton reported back to the American commander of Sixth Fleet, "Happiness is going to bed with Juliett and waking up in the morning to find she's still there." However, Admiral Hilton would soon realize that the Juliett he went 'to bed with' was not the same one that he had woken up to. In actuality, the two subgroups had switched positions in the night, and the replacement group had managed to shake loose of its American tail. In this game, the Soviet's had won the first round.

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A Cold War Clash

Juliett right where they left her. Credit: Wikipedia
Juliett right where they left her. Credit: Wikipedia

The Cold War played out at sea radically different than any other conflict in history. There were no great battles, no legendary fleet actions, and no great heroes like Jellico, Halsey, or Nimitz. But that’s not to say that there weren’t clashes between the two navies. But, instead of scouring the sea with precision-guided munitions or vaporizing fleets in nuclear fire, this conflict was quiet and occurred out of the sight of most citizens. But these battles were no less dangerous for the sailors involved, and each skirmish carried the risk that one mistake could spark Armageddon. The objective of the belligerents was simple: to find, track, and observe enemy assets. When these operations were successful, they provided a treasure trove of intelligence about enemy capabilities, intentions, and habits. But despite their benign name, 'bystander ops,' these exercises were often raucous, as one side tried to shake their assets loose and the other tried to stay in position.

Towards the end of March, Sixth Fleet had located one of the escaped Foxtrot subs. A Soviet task force had been located off the coast of Tunisia and was preparing to conduct Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) exercises. A destroyer and two support ships, as well as one of the prized submarines, had assembled. In response, Sixth Fleet deployed the destroyer USS William V. Pratt and the frigate USS W.S. Sims to observe the Soviet exercises. Arriving on station in the early hours of March 26th, the Sims and Pratt immediately sighted the Foxtrot on the surface in the center of a Soviet formation.

For three days the Americans circled the formation and observed the Soviet crews performing regular maintenance, resupplying stores, and swimming in the warm Mediterranean waters. Late on the 29th of March, the Foxtrot slipped under the water and attempted to sneak away from the American ships, but was forced to return to the Soviet formation when it was clear the Americans had detected their escape.

On the 30th, the entire Soviet formation formed a column and set sail out of the exercise area. This night, like the last, the Foxtrot submerged and attempted to slip away from the Americans. This time, the Soviet destroyer which was accompanying the formation aggressively maneuvered against the American ships. Maneuvering erratically, constantly accelerating and decelerating, the Soviet destroyer made several close passes, sometimes passing 50 feet or less off the bow of American ships. But despite these aggressive 'shouldering' maneuvers, the two American ships, with the help of a P-3 Orion ASW plane, kept up with the Foxtrot. By morning, the submarine had surfaced and returned to the formation.

Red vs Blue

Soviet Frigate ramming USS Yorktown
Soviet Frigate ramming USS Yorktown. Credit: Wikipedia

That morning, the Soviets were reinforced by two more destroyers and a frigate. Outnumbering the Americans two to one, the Soviet forces conducted increasingly aggressive shouldering maneuvers, pushing the Americans away from the Foxtrot, which again submerged and attempted to shake loose. This time the P-3 Orion played a key role, dropping a series of flares over where the Foxtrot submerged. It also kept the Foxtrot on sonar thanks to its arsenal of sonar buoys. In response, the Soviet ships began to fire flares at the Orion hoping to drive it off.

But thanks to the bravery of the Orion crew, as well as the skill of the American surface ships, the Soviets were unable to force away the Americans, despite several close calls. The Foxtrot was forced to surface and rejoin the fleet. After several abbreviated exercises, the Soviet fleet dispersed and the Foxtrot sailed towards the Black Sea and friendlier waters. Not only had the Americans kept up with the Foxtrot and had interfered with the Soviet exercises, but the captains of the Pratt and Sims had recorded several videos of the Soviet ships that were immediately sent to Sixth Fleet headquarters in Naples.

These exercises were often seen as games between both American and Soviet crews. In a series of high-tech cat-and-mouse encounters, the crews of both navies would test their equipment, training, and skills against each other. However, these skirmishes were not without danger and risk. In May 1967, the American destroyer USS Walker collided with a Soviet destroyer, causing no casualties but punching a hole in the Walker's bow above the waterline. And in November 1970, the British aircraft carrier, HMS Ark Royal was struck by another Soviet warship. This time seven Soviet sailors went overboard, two of whom were never recovered.

Each one of these incidents carried with them a tremendous amount of risk. Any slight mistake would be paid for in millions of dollars' worth of damage, or in the lives of crew members. And while the unthinkable never happened, each confrontation carried the risk that one malfunction could open a Pandora's Box at sea that neither superpower could close.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.