A hot event in the Cold War

In October 1981, Sweden and the Soviet Union came close to a naval shootout. A Soviet Whiskey-class submarine, carrying nuclear-tipped torpedoes, on some sort of recon mission ran aground inside the naval exclusion zone of the Karlskrona archipelago in southern Sweden. She was snooping around a war-time anchorage for Swedish MTBs and fast missile craft in a heavily mined bay. (The mines were inactivated in peacetime.) I remember the incident quite well, at that time being a university student that followed the live news broadcast on TV every afternoon after the lectures.

Today, the Svenska Dagbladet morning paper has a multi-page feature on the incident. Some ex-Soviet officers have now told their part of the story and it appears that twice the Kremlin was ready to send in the military to liberate the sub.

When a Soviet military salvage flotilla approached the Swedish territorial sea at the beginning of the crisis, the Karlskrona coast artillery, not yet fully mobilized, activated its war-time radar protocol, indicating to everyone that live ammo was being loaded. It was actually a bluff, because the guns would not to be ready for combat until a few hours later. The Soviet ships stopped because the flotilla commander was uncertain how to handle the development: on paper at least, his soft-skinned ships were outgunned.

A few days later, the Soviets prepared to dispatch a few hundred naval infantrymen to get the “beleaguered” sub out before she was inspected by Swedish officers. However, that nightly mission was scrubbed half an hour before the planned go-ahead, because the Swedish shore and air assets had been strengthened significantly. Our air force was ready to blast the Soviet flotilla with anti-ship missiles.

In the end, cooler heads prevailed and the matter was resolved peacefully. The Swedish navy inspected the sub and interrogated her senior officers. Her nuclear warheads were identified by radiation detectors. The Soviet navy had to take the humiliation of being caught pants down.

But it was an close shave, much closer than we citizens believed in those days. If matters had turned foul, it would not have caused a full-scale war, but it would have been many dead for both nations to bury. The political repercussions of a Soviet commando raid on a neutral neighbor would also have been significant. It was Ronald Reagan’s first year in the White House and he was already raising the stakes in the final round of the Cold War.

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