The other day, I was chatting with my Swedish friend, Anders, about Cold War history. He brought up a forgotten incident that happened in the neutral nation’s waters. Anders remembered that in late October, 1981 that a Soviet submarine became stranded in southern Swedish territorial waters. He said the incident caused quite a ruckus between Stockholm and Moscow, that Autumn, and that a very serious conflict had been nipped in the bud.
Anders told me that a friend of a friend of his father’s was stationed at the Karlskrona Naval Base when news of an offending Soviet submarine was reported. About 10:00 in the morning, a fisherman noticed a large submarine with Soviet markings afloat near the Karlskrona base. The fisherman immediately headed for the base and reported his find. Anders repeatedly laughed while he gave me the outline of the “crisis”.
I later looked up the incident and found out that it indeed happened on October 27, 1981. There are various versions of what happened. One account says that the submarine, designated by NATO as a “Whiskey Class” sub, was identified as U-137.
A secret plan by the Soviet Navy to send in a tugboat to dislodge the stranded sub was aborted after the Swedish Navy craft arrived at the U-137, first. It was later discovered that the Soviets had been ordered to blow up the submarine if Swedish forces attempted to capture the vessel. It’s unclear why that order was disobeyed.
The crisis escalated after a Swedish investigator discovered that nuclear weapons were probably aboard the submarine. Swedish Prime Minister Thorbjorn Falldin announced the allegations to the world press.
Despite claims by Moscow that the submarine “suffered navigational errors”, it seemed obvious to most observers that the Soviets were serveying the main Swedish naval base when the Russians became the victims of carelessness on their part. The media soon dubbed the incident, “Whiskey On The Rocks”.
Threats and counterthreats went back and forth between Stockholm and Moscow. Sweden issued the most strident protests, when they demanded to interrogate the captain and to review the logs and charts. Soviet officials continued to stonewall those demands.
Swedish coastal artillery remained locked onto the Soviet ships that had come to rescue the stranded submarine because the Soviets were within the 19 kilometre territorial waters of Sweden. Swedish targeting radar was engaged, the Soviets reacted by turning around to position themselves in International waters. Also, Swedish torpedo boats forced the Soviet tugboat back to the International boundary.
Eventually, the Russian captain was removed from the submarine, after being guaranteed immunity. He was interviewed in the presence of Soviet embassy officials. The Swedish military secretly measured for radioactive materials outside the sub with gamma ray spectroscopy and detected Uranium-238.
During the interrogation, a storm system arrived on the coast. The U-137 sent a distress call. Two ships, believed to be from the Soviet fleet, were then detected within the 19 kilometre limit with a bearing on Karlskrona harbor. Artillery guns were manned, anti-ship missiles were readied, and the Swedish Air Force was scrambled. After half-an-hour, Swedish interceptors rendezvoused with the ships. The “invaders” turned out to be West German freighters.
The stand-off between Sweden and the Soviet Union finally came to an end after about ten days. November 5th, the U-137 was dislodged from the rocky sholes by Swedish tugs and a torpedo boat. It was pulled into international jurisdiction and returned to the control of the Soviet Navy.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the Swedish coastal artillery turned out to be bluffing the Soviets. As it turned out, the Swedes had not yet received the ammunition for the brand new cannon that were aimed at the invaders. The guns’ state of the art target radar is what frightened the Soviets.