Cold War Warriors
Whiskey on the Rocks - A Window on the1981 Cold War Era
Captain Edmond D. Pope, USN Ret
It was a typical dark, dreary fall day with continuous light rain and drizzle the entire drive from Stockholm to Karlskrona, some six hours of driving south from the Swedish capital and our first trip outside the confines of Sweden’s largest city since our posting to the U.S. Embassy several months earlier.
Captain Dave Moss, the Naval Attaché, and I (the Assistant Naval Attaché and a Commander) and our families, had become close friends during the several months of language training and cultural studies in Washington D.C. before arriving in Sweden and assuming our posts.
This relationship could and did make a significant difference in our adjustments to surroundings in which we felt isolated even if not posted to assignments like many of our classmates who had been sent to Soviet, East European, Middle East or other hostile countries. Indeed, eighteen months after our arrival in Sweden, one of our classmates,
US Army LTCOL Charles Ray, was assassinated on the streets of Paris by a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist.
I vividly recall Dave and I joking with the third person making that trip, our Swedish Navy escort officer, during the drive in late October 1981 about the impact this depressing weather must have on the well-known Scandinavian suicide rate in the winter months. Years later, I often wondered if Dave and Joan Moss and their family had chosen to
move to the Seattle, Washington area after the Sweden assignment to maintain the normalcy of dreary weather in their lives.
We had chosen the trip to Karlskrona as our first in-depth look at the Swedish Navy at the invitation of Commodore Lennart Forsman, commander of the Karlskrona Naval Base. Lennart had been the Swedish Naval Attaché in Washington D.C. during our preparatory months and we had become friends with him immediately.
Keeping with diplomatic regulations, we had requested and been approved for the visit by the Swedish government weeks before the planned travel. The depressing weather never let up as we arrived in Karlskrona and checked into our hotel for a good night’s rest before the next day’s visit. In our wildest imaginations, neither Dave nor I could
have guessed at just how tumultuous and memorable a day that would be.
We were anxious and up early the next morning, downing several cups of strong Swedish coffee before the short walk to the Naval Base entrance. They were prepared for our arrival as expected and ushered us directly to Commodore Forsman’s office. That is when we noticed the seeming confusion and hint of chaos among the normally calm and
well-prepared Swedes. Lennart and part of his staff greeted us and offered more coffee. After a short while, disrupted by Lennart being distracted and having to leave the office for a few moments, he then returned and proceeded to present an overview of his assets, strategic and tactical operations and area of operations.
During the first hour of this presentation, Lennart was interrupted on several instances for "private" discussions, which we found out of character. At this point in the morning, Lennart’s second-in-command, Karl Anderson suddenly made an appearance, briefly apologizing to us and then engaging Lennart in a short, hushed conversation. The look
on Lennart’s face immediately indicated a serious problem to us so we remained passive thinking it must be a sensitive personnel problem or operationally urgent issue that required his attention. Lennart then invited us on a tour of certain base facilities but clearly appeared distracted and unable to concentrate on his tour.
Finally, Karl Anderson once again appeared and engaged Lennart in a short whispered conversation. At this point, Lennart invited us into a small office space for a "discussion". Our interest in the distraction causing Lennart to be so off-balance then became a serious concern about what it was we were to be told. Lennart immediately proceeded
to tell us that his staff had "…just confirmed the presence of a stranded Soviet WHISKEY-class submarine in a restricted area near the confines of the naval base!!"
The ceiling falling on our heads could not have had a greater impact. Was he joking? After all, we had become good friends with him. After letting the impact of this statement settle in, Lennart went on to inform us of the little additional detail he knew at that moment and then whispered to Dave "I know what this means and you are welcome to
use my phone if you want to call your embassy". He told us that they had a report during the night of strange noises, primarily loud, straining diesel engine noises, but were unable to investigate until first light of day.
He had indeed been told of the first report indicating that a submarine was stranded on a rocky outcropping in the restricted area early in our meeting that morning but had been skeptical of such a seemingly ridiculous possibility and had dispatched his executive officer to investigate and report back to him. Even with this incredulous
revelation, we all remained somewhat in doubt wondering if the submarine might not be a Swedish boat or had otherwise been misidentified.
In short order, we were allowed a brief discussion with Karl Anderson and the detail he had obtained from his personal observation only half an hour ago. We were then allowed to use a phone that had been offered by Lennart and contact the American Embassy in Stockholm to report this explosive bit of news. Similar to Dave and my first
impressions, the Defense Attaché asked if we had enjoyed a bit too much Swedish aquavit the night before. We gave him our assurances of the high confidence we now had in this burgeoning incident.
Our day’s planned schedule then changed like yesterday’s burned coffee being thrown out a window. Confusion and excitement were the tone of the entire base, town and indeed the country almost immediately.
During our second call to Stockholm, the Defense Attaché informed us that the press was already reporting the incident and that the Swedish capital city was quickly being transformed into a worldwide center of attention. The US Charge D’Affairs (the new US ambassador had not yet arrived in Stockholm) was already in touch with Washington DC and
had instructed the Defense Attaché to order Dave and I out of Karlskrona as soon as possible and to "keep our heads below the gunnels".
Somehow, the Department of Defense learned of this order and in short order; this dictate to us was reversed. For the remainder of that day, we were relegated from one department head to another to maintain some continuity with our planned purpose but the day was also interspersed with frequent updates from Commodore Forsman, Karl Anderson and
many others on what they understood the situation to be. We had to carefully weigh the information that was coming to us so as to avoid further confusion in the fast moving chain of events. We were also informed later in the day by our Swedish Navy escort officer that, since we had been approved for a full two day visit and departure after that, we should maintain that
schedule and not plan on departing Karlskrona for two more days; this suited us just fine.
He would, he informed us, seek authority for us to then return to Stockholm when departing Karlskrona, rather than sticking to our originally scheduled visit to Navy facilities in nearby Malmo. Having a background in Soviet Naval operations and systems, I mentioned to the escort officer that night that they might want to take some measurements
of the submarine as they were believed to sometimes carry nuclear weapons when on operational patrols.
Within the first two hours of that morning following the actual grounding (27 October 1981), the international press quickly and unanimously dubbed the event "WHISKEY-ON-THE-ROCKS"; the name stuck to the great chagrin of Moscow. Keeping within its’ routine doctrine of the times, the Soviet Union initially denied the report but that became
impossible for them when the first photographs began to appear in the press later that day.
We sat in our hotel rooms that evening watching world press reports describe what was known as well as what was conjecture. Listening to one "expert" after another from around the world describe what was going on seemed unworldly to Dave and I. All that day and the next, we had frequent contact with various Swedish Navy officials as well as
with the Embassy in Stockholm and worked diligently trying to sort fact from fantasy. The adrenaline levels were high and we were fairly exhausted by the third morning as we prepared to depart and return to Stockholm.
Outside the direct excitement of the actual grounding of the submarine itself, a humorous event did transpire during that trip that Dave and I will never forget. During the third and final evening we spent in our hotel there, we walked into the bar to find the recently arrived Soviet Naval Attaché, Captain 1st Yuri Prosvirnin sitting with a
senior civilian official from the Soviet Embassy. We had seen Yuri the previous evening with his Ambassador on Swedish television; they had little to say other than to demand that they be allowed to travel to Karlskrona immediately but were being inhibited by Swedish authorities.
As events transpired, Yuri was given permission and the second day of our visit, he arrived in Karlskrona. When he turned and spotted Dave and I that evening in the bar, it appeared to us that he might choke on his olive. Yuri was a combination of Soviet/communist dogma and Scandinavian physique: thin, athletic-looking, blond hair and
features, arrogant, cold, always ready to exhibit his prowess whether asked to or not, but most obvious to us, always the first to complain when he perceived that his position or person was not given it’s due respect. He wasted no time in raising a loud cry about the two American naval officers presence. To further compound matters, Yuri had worn his uniform and in the
confusion of seeing us and his haste to exit the bar, he had placed his hat somewhere and it had been stolen. He immediately blamed Dave for this.
Later on in private, numerous Swedish officers gave us insight into their dealing’s with Yuri and the great delight they took in rebuffing his protestations; even to the point of providing him with copies of our original request for the visit and it’s approval. They would take further delight by citing very strict rules of diplomatic protocol
to Yuri that prohibited them from accelerating his own travel to the scene. Over the duration of our two plus years in Sweden together, Yuri never had a kind word for Dave or I; this of course gave us great delight as well as the entire foreign attaché group which would never allow Yuri a moment’s respite on those few occasions we would encounter him after that event.
Following the ten-day ordeal of the submarine’s "visit" to Sweden, it was a full six months before any of us attaches saw Yuri. During this period of absence, many of the attaches would question the other Soviet attaches about Yuri’s absence. Invariably, we would get the response "Yuri in Moscow; mother died." We were certain after several
exchanges of this nature that Yuri’s mother was at least part feline.
Yuri’s first return to normal functions of the attaché group occurred during a Swedish organized trip to the Gulf of Bothnia and an overland cross-country ski march above the Arctic Circle. After arriving at our beginning point of this ski trip, it was discovered that most of the attaches had never been on cross-country skis before so
naturally Yuri volunteered his services to demonstrate the technique to the entire assembled group.
With the group of approximately twenty foreign military attaches and six or eight Swedish hosts assembled to watch, Yuri climbed a nearby slope, put on his Swedish issued wooden skis and preceded down the hill. Unfortunately for Yuri, he was directly in front of the assembled group when he hit a rock hidden in the previous nights powder, which
sent him tumbling, and broke his ski tip. Indignant and furious at being made a fool of by the events, Yuri stomped down the hill and immediately started a loud argument/complaint with Swedish officers.
While Yuri was thus occupied, I walked out to where his accident had taken place, dug down into the snow, retrieved the broken ski tip and held it high into the air as a trophy. The assembled attaches raised a chorus of cheers and laughs. This, of course, further outraged Yuri and he demanded of the Swedish hosts for weeks afterwards that the
ski tip be returned to him. Again in private, most of the Swedish officers who had been on that trip have recounted the great delight in watching Yuri rage on about the indignity he suffered. They of course professed lack of authority in forcing me to return it and, to this day, that ski tip hangs on my office wall and brings a smile to my lips.
Nineteen years later, as I sat in a Russian prison charged with espionage by Vlaidmir Putin’s secret police, Dave Moss expressed the possibility that my ordeal might be concocted by Yuri to even the score with me for taking his ski tip. That certainly was not the case, regardless of how one may have perceived Yuri’s anger. I seriously doubt
that Yuri has much authority in today’s Russia.
To this day, the truth of what resulted in the grounding of that WHISKEY-class submarine is not definitively known. The Soviets, now Russians, continue to claim that it was a simple navigation error in the poor weather conditions of that dark day over the Baltic. Unfortunately for them, I have seen three separate locations identified by them
as to where they thought they were.
Additionally, before departing Sweden, I was shown a copy of the submarine’s navigation logbook, which clearly revealed erasures and changes on the night of the grounding. Additionally, I was aware that secret Swedish torpedo testing had been underway off the coastline of Karlskrona during the time of the WHISKEY’s grounding.
One book published in Swedish does go so far as to suggest, after discovering that Dave and I were present in Karlskrona during the first days of the event, that we were responsible for using a secret American device to spoof the navigation system and thus "lure" the submarine into Swedish territory.
Maybe Ian Fleming or another fiction writer might consider using such a ploy in a fictional novel but it is inconceivable in the real world, certainly back then. The fact is that, based on the precise location where the submarine ran aground, they had to have known where they were or to have been incredibly lucky to navigate the shallow
channel to arrive at the grounding site.
The subsequent determination and announcement by Swedish officials that the submarine was carrying nuclear-armed torpedoes fanned the emotions and outrage of the Swedes and produced a plethora of denials by the Soviets at the time. It has been subsequently confirmed by a former Soviet Navy officer that the accusation was factual.
Probably the one most significant thing that did transpire from the 1981 Whiskey-on-the-Rocks event was the radical change in Swedish public opinion regarding the then two super powers. Up to that date and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, only 8 percent of the Swedish populace felt the Soviet Union was a direct threat to their peace,
while afterwards Swedish public opinion changed to 34 percent seeing Moscow as a direct threat and a full 71 percent saw Moscow as an unfriendly nation.
Captain Edmond Pope was the Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché in Sweden from 1981 to 1984. He retired from the Navy in 1994 after twenty-five years of service. Upon retiring, he accepted a job at Penn State University.
He had been closely engaged in former Soviet science and technology cooperation for the last three years of his active duty. During his 27th trip to Russia in 2000, he was arrested and charged with espionage by the newly elected Vladimir Putin government.
After being held in Moscow’s infamous Lefortovo Prison for close to a year, he was convicted and given a twenty year hard labor sentence in Siberia in an event that can be characterized as nothing but a "kangaroo court". His "conviction" and sentencing was delayed until the outcome of the US 2000 election was finally announced. Within one
week, he was "pardoned" and allowed to return home. He has since authored the book TORPEDOED.
Captain Pope is a close friend of Commander John Murphy a regular contributor to the Cold War Warriors column. He assisted Edmond Pope during his early travel to the USSR and Russia as a Russian language interpreter and translator.
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