Back in 2000 the Russian submarine the Kursk sank after an internal explosion at 1130 on 12th August while engaged in an exercise in the Barents Sea. All 118 crew on board died. This article briefly summarises the disaster and contrasts the movie with possible course of the actual events. The photograph is taken from the movie probably a rendering but impressive nonetheless. Books have been written about the event, and in 2018 a film was released said to be based on the book, A Time To Die (renamed Kursk) by Robert Moore who is an ITV journalist, and currently the station’s Washington correspondent,; he was the ITV Moscow correspondent during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Also in English a book Kursk, by Peter Truscott

who is a former MEP and now a Labour peer and an international affairs consultant. According to his Wikipedia page it was alleged that the small flat in Bath which he named as his main residence was unoccupied and allowed him to claim a total of £125,000 over four years in support of his £700,000 London residence. He was also accused of supporting lobbyists and was suspended from the Lords for six months with another of the lords, the first suspension from the house since 17th century. He is married to the daughter of a Red army colonel. The last item was all I was after, but I could not resist the other stuff. We can see that neither of these guys are seafarers, so no matter how intensive their investigations they probably missed something.

The Kursk was built between 1990 and 1994 during the upheavals in Russia, but nevertheless the class, known by NATO as Oscar II, is considered to be possibly the most advanced submarine in the world. The type is 154 metres long, which incidentally is one and a half football fields in length (not two football fields, or three football fields). They are nuclear powered and are said to be capable of 32 knots under water and the lesser 16 knots on the surface. They are able to carry 24 “Granit” missiles and 24 torpedoes of two sizes, the likely culprit in the disaster being a hydrogen peroxide powered unit. Also probably aboard were “Stallion” anti-ship cruise missiles, powered by kerosene and hydrogen peroxide. There are nine compartments separated by watertight bulkheads. No 1 being that containing the torpedoes and No 9 being that containing the propulsion motors. Within the sail, as the conning tower of a modern submarine is known, there is an escape capsule which would, in the event of a problem, allow most or all of the crew to escape. The boats (the official name for submarine vessels) are based at Vidyaevo a closed port on the Kola Peninsula providing access to the Barents Sea, where the families of the submariners also live. 

The film is said to follow the course of Robert Moore’s book, and that by Peter Truscott suggests that there are errors in it. But more of that later.

In the film the comradeship of the crew is illustrated by their pawning their watches in order to get the goodies together for the wedding of one of them. They are a close knit group, as we would think, since this is the way with seafarers. The film concentrates on the event and the aftermath, but the books take us back to previous years, as the back stories of the crew are laid out. The captain, Gennady Lychin had taken the submarine into the Mediterranean the previous year on a six month deployment during which it successfully monitored the activities of the US Navy, without being detected, and made a triumphant return to the Kola Peninsula. Necessarily the film has to choose which characters to feature and the main one selected is obviously one of those who ended up in the ninth compartment, plus those who also made it.

In the film, and in life, once the Kursk has manned up it departs from port and we see family members on a promontory as the vessel passes at sea. This is a genuinely striking moment in the drama, embodying the enormous size and sinister shape of the boat. It heads out to sea and submerges, making its way towards the exercise which it is to join, consisting of a host of navy ships. The requirement of the submarines engaged in the exercise is for some to fire a missile and some a torpedo, the Kursk is intended to fire a torpedo. In the film we see the engineer in charge of the torpedo compartment preparing one of them. This in the books is known as the “fat” torpedo and is apparently a practice torpedo which will be fired and picked up later.

No-one actually knows what happened in the submarine and so Robert Moore has taken a shot at it, and the film makers have more or less followed this. The man in charge of the compartment is seen as taking the temperature of the torpedo, describing it as “angry”. This is pure film makers licence, and describes what happens to an acetylene bottle when it has been dropped. It will keep on getting hotter until it explodes - really. But assuming it was a HP torpedo that exploded it is likely that the peroxide contacted some oil or grease and once it was going there was no way of stopping it. The fat torpedo explodes causing a fire and overpressure in the first compartment, followed a couple of minutes later by a gigantic explosion as the other torpedoes in the space go up – not the warheads - the propellant.  Probably the first explosion killed everyone in the first compartment and possibly killed or rendered unconscious those in the second, which is the control space. The explanation for this is that it was common for the door between the first and second compartments to be left open, so that the torpedo guys would not suffer from the high pressure resulting during the firing of the torpedoes. 

The second explosion blew the bow off probably killing everybody ahead of the reactor compartments which are Compartment No 5. The men in there had the instruction to shut the doors and keep the reactors safe, powering them down in the event of an accident, and it seems that in the film and in life they followed this course of action, so that a possible nuclear disaster was avoided. Aft of the reactor compartment it appears that the vent systems allowed water to percolate from the forward end, forcing those assigned to them to move aft, and eventually 23 men, everyone who was in the after compartments apart from a couple who were in the forward section, make it to the propulsion motor compartment, shut the door and wait for rescue. The senior man is Dmitri Kolesnikov who is essentially the hero of the film. It is he who listed those who were in the compartment with him, appending a date and time. This was found on his body. In a bit of film fiction he has to swim in the submerged eighth compartment to recover the tablets which produce oxygen.

In the film we follow the story of the 23 men in the compartment as they await rescue. Above them is an escape hatch which would make it possible for a rescue submarine to mate with the aft end of the craft and for them all to survive. Time passes and the men are distressed as there is some ingress of water reducing the space in which they have to breath. In the books it is described that this would also increase the pressure and that therefore if they had tried to escape using the hatch then they would have suffered from the bends. This is a bit complicated particularly because some have said that the escape hatch could not be used except as a means of access to a rescue submersible. But we must move on.

In the film obviously quite a bit of time passes between the accident and the time when it is accepted that the survivors will not be rescued, maybe days will have passed. This is more or less as described by  Robert Moore but Peter Truscott suggests that they may not have lasted more than 24 hours. This is a mite confusing since both claim to have had access to the post mortem results. However, they and the film consider that their demise was probably due to one of the oxygen tablets coming in contact with oil on the water surface, causing a flash fire, burning some of them and removing the oxygen from the space.

There are further aspects to the story, firstly the actions of the Russians both in terms of their attempts to rescue the survivors and their public declarations, and almost on the periphery, the actions of the Norwegians and the British. Central to the British response was Commodore David Russell who acted as an advisor to the film. As nothing seems to be happening the film concentrates on the emotions and actions of the wives back in the base. Out at sea, even though the sub had gone down at 1130 am, no-one actually did anything until about five o’clock when the lack of communication was reported. A surveillance aircraft was put into the air and the vessel carrying the Russian rescue submarines was put on alert. 

At 2230 an emergency was declared. It is worth noting that nothing serious has happened so far and this inaction is explained as a general acceptance that comms often went down, but in the background both the books suggest that there is a reluctance of those at the coal face to communicate bad news to those in charge back in Moscow.

On 13th August at 0030 the submarine rescue ship Mikhail Rudnitsky  left its home port of Severomorsk, carrying two rescue submarines. In the film it is seen leaving the port where the submariner’s families live, hence triggering their attempts to find out what has happened. This is film shorthand for what actually alerted them, which was an exchange of telephone calls, however the ship in the film looks very like the one actually used. Also in the early hours of Sunday a possible position of the casualty was located using the sonar on the fleet’s flagship, and at 0700 the newly elected President Putin was told that there had been an accident but that his presence was not required. 

From this point on everybody providing narrative in the public domain start quoting different figures for the sequence of events, and even what was happening. One of the narratives suggests that the survivors in the boat were already dead by the time any rescue attempts are made, which may possibly have been correct, but cynics would say that it suits the Russian government’s lack of response. Some said that the rescue ship departed on Sunday night, but lets assume that it arrived on Sunday morning at the wreck site, and went to anchor. Indeed in the film it is shown at anchor, but could it have done so? Most merchant ships are provided with about seven shackles of cable, allowing them to anchor in about 20 metres of water. Offshore vessels used to be provided with about 20 shackles of cable, but since the Mikhail Rudnitsky was a former timber ship, would the Russians have carried out the necessary modifications. All the narratives also say that the rescue ship was not provided with stabilisers, not apparently realising that such accessories only work if the ship is moving. 

The rescue ship on site, was preparing to launch a rescue submersible at 1130. So this is 24 hours after the explosion, at which time some narratives say that the guys in Compartment No 9 were already dead. The film portrays a sort of wireless submersible, controlled by joystick from a control room somewhere, but surely this has not yet been invented. One of the narratives chooses to use a secret naval submersible and another one of the two submersibles carried by the Mikhail Rudnitsky. The film then has the Priz, the second submersible trying to carry out the rescue and failing to connect with the escape hatch of the submarine and having to give up due to the poor condition of the batteries.

Here is the Normand Pioneer, here equipped with a subsea plough. The LR5 was carried in the same spot. Photo Victor Gibson

By this time the Russian military was promoting disinformation, claiming that the wreck was as the result of a collision with a foreign submarine, and that the rescue sub could not make the connection because the wreck was listing at about 60 degrees. On the periphery the British and the Norwegians were gradually pressing to provide assistance, but it was 19th August seven days after the disaster that the Norwegian owned Normand Pioneer arrived at the site with the British rescue submersible LR5on board, but it was not allowed anywhere the submarine and on 20th August the Seaway Eagle arrived with a full set of divers, equipment and saturation modules. Both of these ships were portrayed in the film by the Atlantic Tonjer, actually, in life, an ROV ship. The Seaway Eagleput divers into the water and they were the ones who after some hours, managed to open the escape hatch to find that there was no-one alive in the compartment. The British rescue sub was never launched, and later Russian divers were able to enter the submarine with the assistance of a salvage consortium.

The Seaway Eagle as it was in those days, originally built as a cable ship, but suitable for putting divers in the water.

The film covered the real life PR exercises by the Russian military who mostly told lies to the world and to the wives and other relatives of the submariners. Particularly striking was the scene at a meeting attended by President Putin where a particularly vocal woman was silenced by injection. The meeting was covered only by RTR the Russian state broadcaster, but they were using a satellite truck on loan from the German company RTL, who recorded the whole thing. At the same meeting Putin claimed that assistance from the foreign ships had been accepted on 16th August, as soon as it was offered, but he was shouted down

Later in the year the Russians continued to claim that the wreck had been caused by a collision with an American submarine, not absolutely without reason. There had over the years been many collisions as the submarine captains played cat and mouse with each other. Because of the furore the President went on to offer the families of the submariners very generous compensation, by Russian standards, including apartments wherever they wanted to live, and substantial sums of money. But this was not without criticism, the families of soldiers lost in the various campaigns asking why they had not been offered something similar. Later Putin was to accuse the media in Russia of using the event for their own advantage, and over time has pursued the owners of the TV stations and the newspapers.

Initially filming was to be allowed in Russia but the permission was withdrawn  and so most of it was done in Belgian studios with exteriors in French military dockyards. It was also intended that an actor would portray President Putin, but in the end an admiral replaced him in the film. This is an event that the Russian government would rather forget, and so this film has stirred up possibly unwanted recollections. For us, in the west, we might wonder whether there are Oscar IIs out there fully loaded with Granit missiles and secret deadly torpedoes. We can rest assured that somebody knows. In a curious meeting of vessels in 2005 the UK submarine rescue service, using a Scorpio ROV rescued the Priz which had become entrapped in fishing nets, and today the service maintains a register of vessels that might act a mother ships for the ROVs and the rescue submersibles. 


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