From Cold War Warrior to Depicting the Fury of WW2

His experiences as a Cold War submariner must surely have influenced Hollywood movie director David Ayer when it came to writing and directing the gritty WW2 drama ‘Fury’.

David Ayres Brad Pitt

Movie director and former USN submariner David Ayer (left) on the set of ‘Fury’ with Hollywood star Brad Pitt. Photo: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures.

It features a young, virgin soldier plunged into the brutal world of savage tank warfare as the conflict reaches its bloody, desperate end. His surly comrades are tough guys in the tight confines of a Sherman, surrounded by complex machinery. Their lives depend on him not cocking things up.

USS Hado

USS Haddo at sea during the Cold War. Photo: US Navy.

Ayer was plunged into a similar environment as a teenage sailor, serving as a sonar man aboard the US Navy nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Haddo. During a recent interview in the UK’s Guardian newspaper Ayer pondered his fledgling submariner days, comparing them with the baptism of fire he gave to the young soldier at the core of the narrative in ‘Fury’.

“It’s very difficult to show up as a new guy because you don’t have a job, you don’t know the equipment and you’re training for life and death,” Ayer told the Guardian. “You could make a mistake that could kill people, so you won’t be trusted until you are tested.” Ayer revealed that it is an “incredibly intimidating” situation to be in and a lonely place to be where there are no sentimental words of encouragement to take the edge off the harshness.

The needs of the unit, in his case a Permit Class SSN going up against the Soviets in the cold, dark ocean during the mid-1980s, overruled any personal weaknesses he might fear and so he measured up to the mission. After an honourable discharge from the USN, Ayer began writing movie scripts and while one work, entitled ‘Squids’, drawing directly on his time as a submariner, has not yet been produced, his ‘U-571’ was filmed.

To write it Ayer drew not only on his Cold War submarining experiences but also adapted true-life episodes involving the Royal Navy’s legendary WW2 secret captures of German Navy Enigma encryption machines and other materials. The only problem was that with ‘U-571’, Ayer’s script transformed these British exploits into daring deeds by the US Navy. This was something that (bearing in mind he was an American working on a Hollywood movie primarily for US audiences) he felt he had to do.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4 in 2006, Ayer confessed that the ‘U-571’ storyline was “a distortion”. Furthermore, he explained, it was “a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience.” However, there were efforts by Ayer and the movie makers to draw on the firsthand experiences of the men who carried out the secret captures, especially those involved in taking U-110 off Iceland in May 1941.

U571 Captain

In the movie U-571 a German U-boat captain (Thomas Kretschmann) ponders where his enemy lurks while a shipmate awaits his verdict. Photo: Universal Pictures.

Ayer told the BBC: “I met with the Royal Navy officer who actually went down into the U-boat and recovered the Enigma machine in 1941.” This veteran, David Balme, who was a junior officer in the destroyer HMS Bulldog, understood that it was necessary for a movie such as ‘U-571’ to Americanise things. “He seemed OK with it,” said Ayer, “he was a great guy, but I understand how important that event is to the UK, and I won’t do it again.”

Even Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened, complaining the movie was an affront to the British war record. Eager to offset the storm over their story, the movie’s makers took Mr Balme to Malta to act as a technical advisor during filming. There he met the stars, including Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel and found them congenial company. Balme felt the end result was a pretty good effort and as a gesture to the British origins of Ayer’s tale the end credits included a tribute to the Royal Navy and its capture of U-110 and the Enigma material.

This year during the promotional tour for ‘Fury’, which stars Brad Pitt as war grizzled tank commander ‘Wardaddy’ and fresh-faced Logan Lerman as novice tanker Norman Ellison, it was clear attention to detail had been important.

Sherman Tank

Combat action in the WW2 tank combat movie ‘Fury’. Photo: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures.

Before filming began in the UK ex-US Navy SEAL Kevin Vance and former British Army tank corps soldier David Rae put the principal cast members through a gruelling boot camp. Rae later explained the rationale behind this: “The cliché is ‘no rank in a tank’ – we all know who the boss is, and we know where the line is and wouldn’t cross it, but we’re very, very close to each other. You know everything about each other. You look after each other. It’s a brotherhood, within a tank.” That all sounds very similar to the working life of submariners, which I delved into for my book ‘Hunter Killers’ of course.

See the forthcoming December 2014 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine for a hard copy version of this article. Out from November 21 and available from branches of W.H. Smiths or direct from HPC Publishing.

Cold War Rewind (Have Phantom Submarines Come Back to Haunt Sweden?)

A drama worthy of the worst periods of tension during the post-WW2 standoff between the Soviet Union and the West has been unfolding in the Baltic, for Sweden has revealed it is hunting a mystery vessel.

It really is an extraordinary case of Cold War rewind, plunging the Swedes right back into a nightmare they hoped to have left far behind. During the 1980s the issue of foreign submarines allegedly making forays into its waters became intensely political for Sweden. It even stoked paranoia of forces within the country itself favouring one side or the other in the East-West confrontation.

Swedish Visby Corvette

HSwMS Nykoping, a Visby Class corvette of the Royal Swedish Navy, a type of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capable vessel said to have been searching for the mystery submarine. Nykoping is pictured here sailing in shallow coastal waters off Karlskrona. Photo: Guy Toremans.

Despite Swedish military forces stopping just short of an all-out public accusation that this new intruder is a Russian, nobody would be surprised if it is a Baltic Fleet submarine. The Kremlin has already sent its aircraft to spy on Western maritime exercises in the Baltic and surface warships to shadow them closely, so why not submarines to keep an eye on the Swedes or NATO?

Swedish officials have admitted they are looking for something in a massive “intelligence operation” but are denying a submarine hunt as such. They do say that a radio message in Russian was picked up on a frequency normally used for submarine distress calls.

At the time of writing the Swedes claim to have detected evidence of submarine activity three times – and the Swedish Defence Ministry has published images of a small, dark shape moving on the surface close inshore. There are even supposed sightings of dark figures wading ashore.


An image released by the Swedish military, which was taken by an amateur photographer. It supposedly shows a mystery craft making a wake close inshore to Sweden. It has been speculated this may be a surfaced mini submarine. Photo: Swedish Defence Ministry.

Moscow has denied there is anything unusual going on, besides the usual operating patterns of Russian Navy submarines, and there are no emergencies to report. If it is a conventional Russian submarine, then it is likely to be an elderly Kilo Class boat. Even in the Cold War the Baltic Fleet did not get receive front line submarine types – the top models were, and remain, reserved for the Northern and Pacific fleets.

A new generation of diesel boats is, though, being built in St. Petersburg at the top end of the Baltic. Could one of these be on sea trials and have gotten into trouble? Or maybe it was sent to try out its stealth qualities for real?

An alternative explanation is that a mini submarine used for shallow water insertion of Special Forces and offshore surveillance is the guilty party and has become stranded somehow. There have been reports of a Russian merchant vessel, rumoured to be the craft’s mother ship, loitering just outside Swedish territorial waters and cruising in random patterns. Three warships from the Royal Netherlands Navy were reportedly shadowing this vessel in international waters.

The mystery undersea craft will not be a nuclear-powered or armed submarine. The Baltic is too shallow and tricky navigation-wise for SSN or SSBN operations. The nuclear-armed diesel-electric Golf Class boats of the Cold War based at Kronstadt are long gone.

The dilemma of what to do was, and remains, extremely tricky for Sweden. It was neutral during the Cold War and these days, while it works very closely with NATO naval forces, is still not part of the alliance despite having a newly aggressive Russia glowering at it from the other side of the Baltic.

We have already seen Russian troops annexing the Crimea, waging a so-called covert war in eastern Ukraine and even airliners being shot down, so why not mystery submarines in Swedish waters? There is an eerie parallel here with the most notorious such incident, the so-called ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode, as related in ‘Hunter Killers’.  In late October 1981, an old Whiskey Class submarine of the Soviet Navy ran aground just off Karlskrona Naval Base. When some local fishermen reported they had discovered a Russian submarine perched on some rocks the Swedish military thought they were drunk, until, that is, they sent somebody out to take a look and found out it was true.


A Whiskey Class diesel-electric submarine of the Soviet Navy cruises on the surface during the Cold War. In 1981 one such vessel became stranded off a Swedish naval base, in the notorious ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ episode.  Photo: US DoD.

Throughout the 1980s the Swedes frequently detected what they suspected were foreign submarines in their territorial waters. They sent out helicopters and surface vessels to hunt them down, dropping depth charges in some instances during pursuits that lasted for days.

When it comes to the “credible source” the Swedes say they are relying on to indicate submarine activity, this must mean a sonar contact of some kind, whether seabed sensors, a maritime patrol aircraft, surface craft or even one of their own submarines.

The Swedes will be very wary of going too hard on what exactly it is they believe they have detected and also of saying who exactly is down there. For it is not easy to gain a positive contact of a submarine in the Baltic. It could well be a phantom that Sweden is pursuing or even ‘a biologic’ (as it was termed in the Hollywood Cold War submarine drama ‘Hunter for Red October’). In other words, a marine creature rather than steel boat. In the Cold War days, the Swedes may well have chased porpoises or even flatulent herring rather than submarines.

If it was submarines in the old days, they could have been NATO diesel-electric submarines rather than Russian boats. Those same uncertainties apply today, though the Royal Navy – which ran numerous covert missions using submarines into the Baltic during the Cold War – is no longer in the business since going fully nuclear-powered, which also applies to the US Navy.


The Russian Navy continues to operate Kilo Class diesel-electric patrol submarines in the Baltic. Photo: US Department of Defence.

Would the Germans or Norwegians send their extremely capable conventional submarines on covert missions into Swedish waters? Not likely, as they work very closely with the Royal Swedish Navy already and surely know all they need to about the Swedes? Russian suggestions that it is a Dutch diesel submarine that was exercising off the Swedish coast recently look very much like Moscow deploying its usual obfuscation. The Swedes say they have intercepted Russian language communications and another transmission (this time encrypted) sent to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave in the southern Baltic that is host to a major naval base. Additionally, submarine water space management as operated by NATO means that any Western submarine would only be dived in clearly delineated waters, to safeguard against accidents and also to enable unauthorised intruders to be identified and countered. NATO member Poland, the other Baltic diesel submarine operator, is unlikely to risk one of its ancient diesels. Therefore, if the contact the Swedes have made is a real submarine rather than a phantom, it is almost certain to be Russian, returning to the old underwater espionage game of the Cold War era.

‘Hunter Killers’ was recently published in paperback by Orion Books and is available from Amazon or direct from Orion. Iain Ballantyne is also the editor of the UK-based global naval affairs monthly magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review.


Brothers in Treachery

Gaining the edge in the Cold War submarine contest stretched from the deep oceans, in which the boats of both sides jousted with each other, to espionage ashore. Several traitors to the West over the decades spied for the Soviets but nothing was more shocking than the betrayal effected by the Walker-Whitworth spy ring in the USA. Their deeds gave the Russians an advantage at sea they would never have otherwise possessed. The recent deaths in prison of two key players in the spy ring makes it worth looking at the scale of treachery they were involved in, especially as the espionage game is still being pursued by the Russians as a means to gain advantage in submarine operations

John WalkerTwo brothers at the heart of arguably the greatest ever betrayal of their nation’s defence secrets, died in prison within weeks of each other during the summer of 2014.

Retired US Navy Lieutenant Commander Arthur J. Walker was part of a spy ring led by retired Chief Warrant Officer submariner turned private investigator John Walker that was busted in the mid-1980s.

American naval traitor John Walker. Photo: FBI

Arthur died at the age of 79 on July 7 at a prison in Butner, North Carolina, the suspected cause being kidney failure. John Walker died on August 28, aged 77, at the same location. No cause of death was disclosed though one US-based newspaper reported John Walker had contracted throat cancer. The Walker brothers were to have been released from prison in May 2015.

Recruiting John’s son, Michael, a sailor serving in surface fleet aircraft carriers, and a fellow senior rating named Jerry Whitworth, the Walker-Whitworth spy ring sold very important information to the Soviet Union.

As explained in my book ‘Hunter Killers’, which has just been published in paperback, it was reckoned the secrets passed to the Russians could well have given their navy a winning edge in any hot war with NATO. Some experts believe that even today the Russians are benefiting via advanced technology in their submarine fleet.

Walker class

One of the Soviet Union’s so-called ‘Walker Class’, a Victor III nuclear-powered attack submarine. Photo: US DoD.

During the 1960s John Walker served in the ballistic missile boats (SSBNs) USS Andrew Jackson and USS Simon Bolivar. In October 1967, while he was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force headquarters, John Walker visited the Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. to offer photocopied documents as evidence of his willingness to spy for the Soviet Union. Walker retired from the Navy in 1975 but then suborned Whitworth and members of his family into feeding him secrets to pass on to the Soviets.

USS John s Jackson

USS Andrew Jackson, one of the US Navy ballistic missile submarines John Walker served in during his naval career. Photo: US DoD.

It was a woman who figured large in Walker’s downfall, his ex-wife Barbara, who had accompanied him on a few secret drop-offs but did not actively participate in the acts of spying. Barbara contacted the authorities and was visited by an FBI agent in late 1984. Her claims were treated with suspicion because it was suspected she was acting out of pure animosity towards her former husband.

However, the FBI agent’s file did not lie ignored in a filing cabinet for long, as one of his supervisors decided it warranted further examination. A surveillance operation, including telephone taps, was ordered. Interrogated aboard the USS Nimitz, Michael confessed to his crimes and by May 1985 not only was John Walker under arrest – with plenty of incriminating documents found at a dead-letter drop and in his home – but so, too, were his brother and also Whitworth.

John Walker received two life sentences (running concurrently) in the spring of 1986. Whitworth was sentenced to 365 years in prison and fined US $410,000, while Arthur was fined $250,000 and given a life sentence, eligible for parole the same year as his brother. Michael Walker was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The scope of betrayal that had taken place over the course of 18 years was breath-taking. What the Walker-Whitworth spy ring had given away enabled the Russians to make an astonishing technology leap, not only for their Akula and Sierra classes of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) but in the earlier Victor III (dubbed unofficially by the US Navy as ‘the Walker Class’).

From the late 1960s, John Walker also passed to the Soviets information that gave them insights into NATO submarine operations, signals codes, the seabed Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) and US plans in the event of war. When it came to SOSUS, reports containing key information on the movements of friendly submarines were thought to have been intercepted by the Russians and decoded thanks to the Walker-Whitworth spy ring.

It has been claimed this enabled the Soviets to send Victor Class SSNs to certain chokepoints, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, in an attempt to detect American SSBNs. Walker’s spying let the Russians know how noisy their own submarines were, enabling them to achieve higher levels of stealth. A Russian admiral would later claim some Victor Class SSNs were able to slip undetected past SOSUS or NATO submarines and this was partially made possible by the Walker espionage product.

The information Walker provided enabled the Russians to finally appreciate the worth of quieting measures – and that civilian technologies could be adapted to serve the purpose of submarine stealth. They obtained machinery and computers from Japanese and Norwegian firms to better mill submarine screw edges, so ensuring there was less cavitation. The KGB worked hard to secure the equipment despite Western export embargos (by pretending it was for civilian use). The Soviets also introduced better shock mountings for submarine machinery rafts to absorb the vibration and, again, increase stealth.

Former British SSN captain Doug Littlejohns got to see the deep impact of the Walker-Whitworth betrayal when he visited the USA to meet American colleagues in the Pentagon. “They went from ‘We’re Americans, we love our country’ to ‘Holy cow, we have our traitors, too.’ The entire American people were in disbelief. It was incredible … suddenly they were finding all these spies in their own ranks.” Littlejohns thought it explained quite a bit: “In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was a lot easier to gain the advantage over Soviet submarines than it was in the late 1980s, by which time they were harvesting the benefit of the spying. They always had good weapons but their platforms had been basic, agricultural. They were progressing but were battling up a steep curve. Suddenly they made a giant leap forward, gaining about 10-15 years.

The Akula was a stealth submarine on a par with the US Navy’s early Los Angeles Class boats, though not the later ones. It equalled the new Trafalgar Class SSN the UK was introducing into service in the early 1980s.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own verdict on the impact of the Walker-Whitworth spy ring’s activities was as follows: ‘The information passed by Walker and his confederates would have been devastating to the US had the nation gone to war with the Soviets.’

With John and Arthur Walker expiring in prison, only two members of the spy ring remain. Michael Walker was released from prison in 2000 while Jerry Whitworth remains incarcerated. The Russians, meanwhile, have continued with their efforts to steal submarine secrets from NATO.

Headlines were made last year (2013) when Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle was sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling information to a foreign government. While the Canadian administration declined to identify the government in question four Russian diplomats had some time earlier allegedly been expelled from Canada though Moscow denied this was the case.

Article partly based on material from the true-life Cold War epic ‘Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne, which tells the story of British submarines and submariners during their confrontation with the Soviet Union. It has just been published as a paperback (Orion Books, £9.99). For more information visit Orion Books or try Amazon .

This article is also published in the November 2014 edition of WARSHIPS International Fleet Review magazine.


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