Soviet Submarines sail across the Seven Seas
In 1939 the Soviet Pacific Fleet, under command of Vize-Admiral Ivan Jumasev, had 14 destroyers, 30 minesweepers, 92 patrol boats and more than 80 submarines. The fleet in 1941 had slightly changed with 2 light cruisers, built recently in that year, each of 8,800 tons, and could do 35 knots, there were also 16 destroyers and now 94 submarines. The submarine fleet had various vessels, thirteen of Type ’L, forty-one of Type ’Shch, thirty-three of Type ‘M, six of Type ‘S and only one of Type ‘K. Of the main Soviet naval base at Vladivostok for the Pacific Ocean it was said that no other Soviet fleet in other seas had such power, which is understandable if we consider the large number of submarines and destroyers. Wartime operational activities and patrols occurred mainly during August 1938 when Japanese Army invaded the Soviet Union near Hasan Lake.
The Soviet Far East during 1941 was in constant danger since the Japanese sponsored army in Manchuria had enlarged from 480,000 soldiers up to a million men under arms, and there also existed a Japanese plan "Kantouken" to invade Soviet Asian territories, to occupy Vladivostok, Nahodka, Ussurijsk, Petropavlovsk, Habarovsk, Komsomolsk and other areas as so desired. This forced the Soviet Army to deploy in the Far East a relatively strong military force of 40 powerful divisions, even with an Non-Aggression Pact the Soviet government at all times was fearful of Japanese invasion, at least until early December 1941. On 8 December 1941, the Japanese having officially entered the world war, claimed the Straits of La Perouse, and with Korea under Imperial Japanese control four Soviet transport ships were sunk that month by "unknown" aggressive submarines.
About a year later, on 6 October 1942, four Soviet S-class submarines, S-51 under command of Lieutenant Ivan Fomich Kucherenko, S-54 under command of Lieutenant Dimitrij Bratishko, S-55 under command of Lieutenant Lev Mihailovich Sushkin and S-56 under command of Lieutenant-Commander Shchedrin, would proceed at 0700hrs out of harbour for an extended patrol, yet the Soviet submarines were actually on a mission which was known only to the submarine commanders and not the crew. During the night S-51 sent a signal "We saw a Japanese minelayer" to the other three submarines, warning the nightwatch and signal-operators to use caution during this time since soon the Soviets submarines would pass silently through Japanese warship controlled waters.
The Soviet submarines cruised through Tatar Strait near Sakhalin Island, and later through Kurile Strait, which was intensively patrolled by the Japanese Imperial Navy. On 14 October the small submarine flotilla finally reached the Soviet Naval base at Petropavlovsk Kamcatskij. The Commander of the submarine division, Commander Aleksander Tripolski, ordered to put as much supplies as is possible aboard the submarines, this made the crews a little bit suspicious about the duration to their next destination. On Saturday, 17 October 1942, Captain Shchedrin first informed his crew about their mission, they had specific orders to sail across two Oceans to the northern Russian port of Murmansk.
Previously to the Type ‘S submarine group departure, two other Soviet submarines of Type ‘L proceeded on 24 September 1942 for the same task of sailing across seven seas to Murmansk. Soviet submarine L-15 under command of Lieutenant Komarov, and L-16 under Lieutenant Gusarov who was also the eldest captain among all the six Soviet submarines commanders tasked with the redeployment sea voyage of their under water vessels. By the 5 October 1942 these two submarines reached the United States port at Dutch Harbour, part of the Aleutians chain, Alaska, where they stayed for a while refueling and recuperating. During this period both Soviet submarine commanders had some discussions with their US comrades-in-arms of how to continue their route south to San Francisco. Since unknown dangers were ever present across the whole Pacific Ocean at this time, the Soviet submariners wanted a safe passage. The Americans suggested an open radio contact frequency with the Soviets for the occasion, especially when the submarine force would be near the wartime US coast. Interesting is that Captain Komarov learned accidentally from one American soldier of his Russian origin, also that in the meantime four other Soviet submarines were heading for the Aleutian islands. It seems that neither Gusarov nor Komarov knew anything about the Type ’S submarines being on operations in the area at all.
That night of 5 October L-15 and L-16 left Dutch Harbour. Then on Sunday, 11 October, the Soviet sailors had just completed the change of the nightwatch aboard their vessels, when at about 1115hrs in the morning, Captain Komarov and signalman Smolnikov heard two big explosions and suddenly saw in the direction of the sudden noise flame and smoke. At the same time radio officer on L-15 received an open transmitted message from L-16, "We are...", but the contact was lost. In the eyes of Komarov the L-16 was gone within a few seconds, while Smolnikov saw a periscope being withdrawn under waves and informed the Captain about his observation. Komarov immediately ordered the artillery gunners to man the deck armament and open fire on the point where the watchman saw the periscope, but it would have been too late for any decisive result. Soviet submarine L-15 came near to the sinking place of L-16 to look for the survivors, but there were none to be found. Soon Komarov ordered dive to avoid any surface attack occurring. This event shocked the morale of Soviet sailors, who literally saw the death of their comrades aboard L-16, it could have easily been them. All through that day of 11 October, L-15 was in full alarm and ready at action stations.
Komarov had his ears all the time at acoustic devices to hear any propellers of the unknown submarine that attacked and sunk L-16. After five long days L-15 reached San Francisco and before that the lonely L-15 surfaced only under the protection of the nightly darkness. The L-15 was now put to the Navy Yard, about 42 km away from San Francisco. Soviet Naval Attaché Ivan Jegorishev from the Soviet Embassy in Washington D.C. had some talks with high US officials about the cause of the sinking of L-16. Americans didn't show their surprise, but was this attitude fake or real? Americans most certainly knew from their patrol planes that there is a Japanese submarine patrolling off Kodiak Islands and Canadian coast, in the same area as the Soviet L-16 was sunk, and also two transport ships on 4 -5 October went down in that area, while on 9 October a Japanese submarine was again spotted by an American airforce aircraft. The Americans claimed that the Japanese submarine sunk L-16, but Soviets complained that the periscope observed was identical to the periscope of US submarine S-31, which was seen while in Dutch Harbour on 5 October. In retrospect, authors J. Rohwehr and G. Hummelchen propose that the Japanese submarine I-25 sunk the Soviet submarine L-16 at position 46' 41'' N 138' 56'' E. And that from 28 August to 11 October I-25 was patrolling near the US west coast and sunk two transport merchants of 13,691 brt, gross registrated tonnage, total in early October.
When the other four Type ‘S submarines arrived in Dutch Harbour, only the officers were informed about the tragic loss of L-16, the lower ranks learned about the tragic loss of L-16 through rumours and hearsay. On 28 August all four Soviet ‘S type submarines left Dutch Harbour after only one day in port. They would be escorted by two US destroyers to San Francisco, USS Fox and USS Saros of the four-stack flush-deck class. On 5 November the Soviet submarines and two US warships finally came upon the American coast. The Type ‘S submarines stayed for 6 days and on 11 October would have to depart again. In meantime L-15 left San Francisco on 25 October towards Panama Canal. This time Komarov was informed that between the US city and Panama coast some Japanese submarines could be on station waiting for targets of opportunity. The L-15 passed through the Panama in November while the other four ‘S submarines were following in two groups of pairs, each escorted by one US corvette.
On 18 November the S-56 submarine signalman Niemalcev suddenly screamed, "50 right torpedoes!" The nightwatch officer Skopin gave orders immediately to drastically change course, and torpedoed whooshed passed 50 meters away from striking S-56. Shchedrin immediately came to the conning tower deck to examine the situation. Frantic radio signals from S-56 informed S-51 of the ambush while the US corvette attacked the suspected enemy submarine position with depth charges. This incident happened west of the Baja peninsula, lower California, off the northern Mexican coast. The Type ‘S Soviet submarines than successfully reached the Caribbean Sea passing uneventfully through the Panama Canal but now they would have to face a bigger and worse threat, German U-boats, which spread panic at that time all across the Caribbean Sea.
On 2 December the four S-class submarines left US naval base Coco Solo and brought with them a map of the Caribbean tropical islands with the regions purposely marked where U-boats are reported operating. They would first proceed to Guantanamo, eastern tip of Cuba, and from there pass the east coast of the United States to arrive at Halifax, British Canada. They would voyage in pairs like before, S-51 and S-56, and in the next few days S-54 and S-55 would follow, of course each group was again for safety reasons escorted by an US corvette. On 18 December the Soviet S-class submarines met the allocated Canadian escorts after travelling north from Cuba. Soon the Soviet submarines reached Halifax, where they met at last with their comrades in L-15, which arrived at Nova Scotia four days earlier from picturesque Windward Passage. The L-15 preceded first from Halifax on 28 December 1942 heading into the Arctic seas, while some hours later S-51 also followed the same heading.
On 29 December S-54 and S-55 began another long journey by sea, and S-56 followed some hours later. The L-15 and S-51 had been sent on a more northern route, to pass near Greenland Strait, on their way to Iceland and from there to Polarnij. The other three S-class submarines had been ordered to sail for the British naval base at Rosyth on the other side of the North Atlantic Ocean. The northern two travelling submarines, L-15 and S-5, reached the area of Greenland around Aiz Cap where also German U-boats patrolled intensively, plus Arctic storms made the sea journey difficult and only one submarine, S-51, successfully reached Reykjavik on 12 January 1943. Meanwhile the other three Soviet submarines reached in the British naval base at Rosyth. Worth mentioning is that during the Soviet submariners stay in this port of call, Polish officers from ORP Sokol were invited as guests of the Russian captains Shchedrin and Bratishko, along with other Soviet submarine officers. Boris Karnicki was being the main host, who was the captain of ORP Wilk on that fatal night of 20 -21 June 1940, when they hit an enemy U-boat. The Soviet sailors at Rosyth also inspected a captured German submarine, the U-570.
On Sunday, 17 January 1943, it was in Reykjavik a very cold day, same as it was in Stalingrad where the German 6th Army was besieged, and the S-51 departed Iceland that date for the final destination, back to the USSR. The single Soviet S-class submarine had to pass the convoy JW-52 and was in danger of being mistaken for an U-boat by the allied convoy escorts. On the night of 21 January, S-51 was on the Barents Sea and by 24 January was in company with the escort of the Soviet destroyer Razumnyj, eventually entering the port of Jekaterinsk at Polarnoje, USSR and became the first Pacific Fleet submarine from the original six to reach home after a long, arduous and often dangerous journey of more than 17,000 miles crossing two oceans. Vize-Admiral of the Northern Fleet, Golowko, took time to visit the brave crew of S-51 and S-56 that would arrive at the same safe harbour, if all goes well, within the next few days. The other 3 submarines in Scotland stayed until early February. From their temporary posting the Soviet sailors learnt from the BBC wireless radio broadcasts that on 3.2.1943 Field Marshal von Paulus and his decimated and frozen Sixth Army surrendered to the Soviets surrounding Stalingrad, what became one of the decisive battles of World War II. And no doubt the Soviet sailors have followed the course of the Great Patriotic War broadcasted on their wireless radio as they adventured three-quarters of the way across the world.
The Soviet submarine S-55 reached Polarnoje on 8 March, while L-15 due to stormy weather had to turn and set a course for Scotland in a condition of much needed repairs, and stayed there with S-54, S-55 and S-56. During March the Soviet submarines were tasked with patrols under the Barents Sea, and L-15 was back in operations on 29 March from Greenock. The submarine S-55 in December 1943 was lost patrolling the Barents Sea, but it is unknown if Captain Sushkin was still in command. S-54 under Captain Bratishko was lost during March 1944 in the same area, and S-56
had many successes with Captain Shchedrin who became of the most famous
of the Soviet submarine captains together with Marinesko and others.
Note Both light cruisers were laid down in 1939 in Komsomolsk Yard, which is outside of Vladivostok and had to be towed later to Vladivostok for fitting out. Light cruiser Kalinin was launched in April 1943 and completed sometime later that year. Another light cruiser Kaganovich was launched in October 1943 and completed in June 1944. Neither saw combat, keeping with the tradition as a fleet in being. All Soviet naval vessels used in the Pacific were either older types or Lend-Lease.
Note Commander Aleksander Tripolski participated in the Winter War 1939-1940 and sank one Finnish ship with his submarine S-1.
By Miltiades Varvounis. Edited by Graham Donaldson
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942