The incident came just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis pushed the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. It involved HMS Warspite, the third British nuclear-powered submarine and the second of the Valiant class. After entering service in 1967, the vessel was involved in a collision in the Barents Sea just one year later, which could have ended in disaster.
According to official comment 10 days after the event, Warspite collided with an iceberg, but Ian Ballantyne, the author of ‘Hunter Killers,’ claimed during an appearance on the ‘Cold War Conversations’ podcast that he has uncovered more concerning details.
He told host and producer Ian Sanders: “It was one of these icebergs that is black, moves through the water and has a red star on it.
“I was able to present the inside view of that from the Executive Officer of the submarine at the time, the second in command.
“And also one or two of the other people whose account I picked up, including the guy in charge of the Sonar room at the time.
“Everybody knows that it was a Russian submarine that they, unfortunately, had a coming together with in the Barents Sea and in this case, it was an Echo 2 submarine armed with missiles, that could fire nuclear-tipped weapons.
“It was sailing through the Barents Sea and HMS Warspite was trailing her – trying to pick up and record the sound signature of the boat and gather any intelligence possible.”
Mr Ballantyne explained how he believed the event unfolded, including the bold decisions taken by those on board to avoid a catastrophic incident at sea.
He added: “What happened was the Echo 2 had two screws (propellers) and they shut one down which meant Warspite suspected the submarine was turning.
“In fact, she just shut the screw and was still going straight, so as Warspite thought she was about to turn she came in contact with her and rolled straight over.
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“They knew pretty quickly that something serious had gone wrong – they could hear the sounds – but fortunately in the controller’s room the engineer officer instantly knew what had happened.
“He decided to counteract the automated safety measure design to prevent a nuclear accident and make sure the reactor did not shut down when the boat rolled.
“They decided they had to get the submarine on the surface and they needed to have the power to do that to make sure it didn’t hit the seabed.”
The gravity of the situation was detailed by Mr Ballantyne, explaining how he believed disaster was averted thanks to both crew’s nerves of steel.
He continued: “They kept control of the submarine and came to the surface, but then there was this very tense moment where the damaged Warspite and slightly damaged Echo 2 were both on the surface looking at each other through periscopes wondering what was next.
“It turned out in that instance that they just looked at each other and then the Echo 2 moved off.
“The Warspite limped back to Scotland, but they dived and took it safely out of the area.
“Whoever the captain was of the Echo 2 was a pretty cool customer – we can be grateful that he didn’t lose his nerve and the same goes for the commander of HMS Warspite.”
The events of November 9, 1968, remain classified by the Ministry of Defence, but several members of the crew on board HMS Warspite have echoed the story told by Mr Ballantyne in the years since.
Rear-Admiral John Hervey, who was in charge of the submarine, received a letter expressing the Navy’s “severe displeasure” after the event, but he went on to take Warspite on its next patrol.
He was also awarded an OBE in 1970 and CB in 1982.
A mechanical failure associated with the submarine’s nuclear reactor in 1991 led to the boat being laid up at HMNB Devonport where she awaits disposal.