The Soviet Spy Who Built British Warships

The Soviet Union’s top spy in America during the 1950s used the cover name Rudolf Abel but was in truth William August Fisher. Born on Tyneside, in the north east of England, in 1903, Fisher worked at Swan Hunter as a teenage apprentice draughtsman when the shipyard was constructing both warships and merchant vessels.

In 1957 the FBI apprehend Fisher in a New York hotel after busting into his room, bringing to an end his bid to set up a spying network seeking out intelligence on American nuclear weapons, including the Polaris Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

The parents of ‘Colonel Abel’, as he was known in the USA during his trial, were anti-Tsarist political activists who returned to Russia in 1921 after the communists seized power. Fisher worked in signals intelligence for the Soviets during WW2 before utilising his British upbringing to successfully insert himself undercover in the USA in the late 1940s.

At one stage he worked alongside Konon Molody, who, as ‘Gordon Lonsdale’ in the early 1960s would run the notorious Portland Spy Ring in the UK, stealing secrets of the Royal Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought.

Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Bridge of Spies’ begins by masterfully plunging us into ‘Abel’s’ humdrum life in late 1950s USA as he tries to go about his espionage as unobtrusively as possible. The spy, a talented artist, takes an easel and paints with him for some landscape work to cover a visit to a dead letter drop.

Berlin-wall
An East German policeman stands guard over a worker constructing the Berlin Wall, to ensure he does not try to escape to the West. Former US Navy officer turned lawyer James Donovan had to cross from West to East Berlin to negotiate for the spy swap on the so-called ‘Bridge of Spies’, as featured in the Steven Spielberg movie. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

‘Abel’ (Mark Rylance) is later arrested in his underpants back at the hotel and put on trial (fully clothed). He is defended by insurance lawyer, and former US Navy officer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who had also been an advocate at the post-war Nuremberg war crimes trials. Despite public outrage Donovan manages to get Abel sentenced to prison rather than receive the death penalty.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

Fast forward to early 1962, and Donovan plays a pivotal role in springing shot-down U-2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) from imprisonment in the Soviet Union in exchange for ‘Abel’. The swap takes place on the Glienicke Bridge, which spans a stretch of cold water lying between West and East Berlin. At Checkpoint Charlie – one of the controlled gateways through the newly constructed Berlin Wall – another release takes place simultaneously, of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) earlier arrested by the East Germans for being a spy.

A picture is worth a thousand words: In October 1961, the shadows of two West Berliners waving to friends across the East-West border fall symbolically upon the concrete of the newly-built wall in a frame of barbed wire. Photo: U.S. Information Agency.

That, in essence, is the core story of ‘Bridge of Spies’. It does play fast and loose with some of the facts but succeeds in powerfully and movingly conveying the big moral issues of the time as well as plunging us convincingly into the places where it all happened.Despite its simplistic boiling down of a complex story it still presents a multi-layered yarn, never resorting to histrionics or pompous moralising. It never gives in to the temptation of having Hanks’ character indulge in ludicrous action man antics or gunplay.

Mark Rylance’s subtle performance preserves the enigma of ‘Abel’ (who during his trial did not reveal his real British identity) while still conveying the inner paradoxes of a cultured man working for a brutal totalitarian state.

‘Bridge of Spies’ (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) will be released on DVD and Blu Ray formats this spring.

This is a version of a review to be published in the forthcoming March 2016 edition of WARSHIP IFR magazine (due out on February 19). www.warshipsifr.com

Iain Ballantyne is the author of ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books) which tells the story of the Royal Navy’s submariners and submarines during the Cold War.

Among other things, ‘Hunter Killers’ looks at the activities of the Portland Spy Ring and certain aspects of Soviet espionage in the UK that sought to snatch Royal Navy submarine secrets. Iain is currently writing ‘The Deadly Trade’, a history of submarine warfare from Ancient times to today, for the same publisher.

A cult techno-thriller

The Polish edition of ‘Hunter Killers’ has been published by Rebis. It has garnered attention across a range of blogs and on various web sites, not least an article in the Polish edition of ‘Newsweek’.

Polish Newsweek

Reporter Mariusz Nowik suggested that had ‘Podwodni Myśliwi’ (or ‘Underwater Hunters’, as the Polish edition has been re-christened) been published decades earlier, ‘it would have ended up creating an international scandal.’

According to his ‘Newsweek’ piece ‘Underwater Hunters’ manages to ‘reveal scenes of Cold War operations mainly in the Atlantic and the Barents Sea, which until recently were known mainly [only by] retired officers of the Royal Navy and the Soviet submarine forces.’

PolishMag1However, the star turn for raising awareness of ‘Underwater Hunters’ has to be Piotr Wloczyk who interviewed me for an expansive Q&A interview on topics related to the Cold War under the sea. This was published in ‘Historia do Rzeczy’ – a serious major military history magazine, of 100 pages, aimed at the national market – whose production values are exceedingly high.

In his blog, posted at the end of July, Tomasz Borówka asked if ‘Underwater Hunters’ was the ‘historic book for the summer?’ His answer was: ‘With the greatest pleasure!’ Observing that it is ‘a fascinating story about British submarines during the Cold War’ Mr Borówka also related: ‘When I spotted this book on the shelf in the supermarket and recognized the author’s name on the cover, I made the decision to purchase in a split second. Iain Ballantyne is a writer few people in Poland have heard of (as far as I know “Underwater Hunters” is his first book translated into Polish). This author is, though, widely known elsewhere, and for dealing with the history of the Royal Navy at war.’

Mr Borówka mentions one of my other books (‘Warspite’), which he has read and also recommends to anyone with an interest in such things. This leads him on to mention that the ‘modern submarine’ successor of the WW1 and WW2 battleship Warspite (main player in the above book) is featured in ‘Underwater Hunters’.

After observing that Cold War era British submariners ‘often rubbed shoulders with death’ Mr Borówka suggests ‘Underwater Hunters’ reads like ‘a cult techno-thriller.’

It is though, he remarks, ‘one hundred percent based on facts, established through relationships of people who over the years risked their lives in hostile depths of the ocean.’

Magazine spread

According to the ‘HISTORIAXXWIEKU’ blogUnderwater Hunters’ is a book that ‘deserves the attention of all those who are interested in such Cold War, and the history of naval warfare.’

Meanwhile my friend, and fellow UK-based author, Richard Hargreaves – while on a recent research trip for his next book in Poland – found not only copies of his latest book but also ‘Underwater Hunters’ (in a shopping mall bookshop in Lublin, in the south-east of Poland).  Richard’s excellent, visceral epic of the final days of the Third Reich is in the UK called ‘Hitler’s Final Fortress – Breslau 1945’. In Poland it’s ‘Ostatnia Twierdza Hitlera. Breslau 1945’

HK in Lublin‘Underwater Hunters’ on sale in Lublin

The fact that some of the Polish reviews and articles have referenced ‘Killing the Bismarck’ is appropriate. The German battleship set out on her ill-fated maiden voyage from Gotenhafen (the Polish port of Gdynia, captured and renamed by the Nazis in 1939 only assuming its previous name again at the end of WW2). I visited Gdynia in 1999, to report on a NATO exercise, staying aboard the US Navy cruiser USS Hue City.

‘Killing the Bismarck’ tells the epic story of the Kriegsmarine flagship’s breakout into the Atlantic, the destruction of HMS Hood and her subsequent destruction at the hands of a Royal Navy battle group.

Bearing in mind the hunger in Poland for military and naval history, I have often thought that  ‘Killing the Bismarck’ deserves a Polish edition, too. Should ‘Underwater Hunters’ prove a success maybe someone will come knocking to put a Polish edition of ‘Killing the Bismarck’ on the market, too?

Is the way forward for the UK’s hard-pressed Submarine Service a case of going back to the future and buying in German technology?

In 1910, the intrepid Captain Roger Keyes, who had as a young naval officer participated in operations against slave traders off east Africa and helped quell the notorious Boxer Rebellion in China, found himself in command of the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy.

A surface fleet outsider with no specific technical skills or even sea-going experience related to submarines, Keyes nonetheless delegated well. He also quickly assessed that development of Britain’s submarines was being hampered by the monopoly that Vickers held over construction of the vessels and provision of their equipment, including periscopes and engines.

Keyes went overseas for better periscopes and diesel engines and even bought in French and Italian submarine designs. The off-the-shelf engines and designs were not necessarily a success. The procurement of French and German retractable periscopes – soon copied and improved on by British firms – represented a huge step forward. Rather than a fixed scope on the outside of the hull – elevated via a knuckle pivot, with the submarine porpoising to poke it above the waves or withdraw it – the new style periscope could be extended and retracted mechanically from inside the submarine (which could keep a steady depth). Keyes’ efforts were not the first, nor would they be the last instances of the British fleet copying and improving on German technology.

1903-A-Class-HMS-A3

An early A Class submarine of the Royal Navy, which did not have a German or French origin retractable periscope at the time (1903). Photo: Used by kind permission of BAE Systems.

The three prime protagonists in the undersea contest at the core of the Cold War – the USA, Russia and Britain – all based their 1950s and 1960s diesel-electric patrol submarines on advanced technology U-boats produced for the Nazi regime during WW2.

The Royal Navy also had to move into nuclear-powered submarines to stand a chance of competing, even in a minor way, with the immense efforts of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the massive nuclear submarine fleet Moscow built played a key role in bankrupting the USSR and handing victory to the West.

Today nuclear-powered submarines are more expensive and complex than ever – a bigger challenge than the Space Shuttle to manufacture – with the Royal Navy’s new Astute Class attack submarines costing between £1.6 billion and £747million each (they get cheaper the more you build). The latest comparable Russian vessels cost well in excess of that.

As a consequence, any nation without deep pockets (or a willingness to bypass state provision of Social Welfare and universal healthcare) finds it really hard to afford more than a few nuclear-powered submarines, if any.

In an age of economic austerity, with the UK’s Conservative government beginning its new term of office with an instant £500 million sliced off the defence budget, can the UK afford to stay in the business of nuclear-powered submarines? Does building just seven Astutes offer value for money in terms of global presence and operational capability?

There have been claims the Astutes are too slow to keep up with the new aircraft carriers they are meant to protect and have suffered from other technical problems, though the Navy insists the teething problems are being ironed out.

AstuteStateside

The Royal Navy nuclear-powered submarine HMS Astute arrives at Naval Station Norfolk in the USA for combat exercises against an American attack boat. Photo: Todd A. Schaffer/US Navy.

At the moment – with the older generation Trafalgar Class submarines based at Devonport being decommissioned and the Astutes slow to come on line – the UK is lucky if it can get two attack submarines on deployment.

Yet there are a wide variety of jobs for British submarines to do around the world, including intelligence gathering, protecting the UK’s Trident submarines and hunting other vessels. Last year, at the Undersea Defence Technology (UDT 2014) conference in Liverpool, the current head of the Submarine Service, Rear Admiral Matt Parr, suggested modern navies are perhaps pushing their people too far and destroying their quality of life. It is no secret that fewer British boats are spending more (and longer) periods away from home and it is placing a huge strain on the home lives of the submariners.

Rear Admiral Parr, who in the 1990s commanded a Devonport-based submarine and is a former deputy boss of Plymouth-based Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST), last week told the UDT 2015 conference in Rotterdam there is increased demand for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Special Forces operations. Rear Admiral Parr revealed the Prime Minister himself decides the nature of modern British submarine operations.

Even so, there is a feeling that the current government is afflicted with incoherence in foreign and defence policy and it doesn’t really know what the Navy is for (or it wouldn’t cut defence spending, drive down warship numbers and make highly skilled sailors redundant).

With the strain on submariners and the mission portfolio for the smaller numbers of vessels as broad as ever, is it time for a revolutionary idea to be considered? Is it time to buy German again?

Having gone all-nuclear in the early 1990s, by abandoning diesel-electric ‘conventional’ submarines, might Britain be better off ditching the nukes and going back to the cheaper, greener and much-easier-to-build diesels?

Should it buy lots of U-boats? The Germans make excellent submarines that offer capabilities undreamed off during the Cold War. Their Type 212A U-boats are cutting edge and proven – quieter than a nuclear-powered submarine, small enough to more easily carry out Special Forces operations in shallow waters and with powerful submarine-detecting sonar. Their weapons load is impressive, though it does not currently include cruise missiles or Anti-Shipping Missiles (ASM). 

U35-Trials

The new Type 212 U-boat U35 undergoing tests and trials. Photo: Björn Wilke/German Navy.

TYPE-212-SURFACING

The Type 212 German submarine U32 surfacing. Photo: Björn Wilke/German Navy.

The Type 212A’s Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) means it can stay submerged (and hidden) for up to three weeks. It is capable of crossing the Atlantic without once surfacing, or even using its snorkel system, to take in fresh air and expel fumes. The Achilles Heel of previous generation conventional submarines was potential exposure to an enemy when expelling fumes or sucking in fresh air.

Each Type 212A costs 370 Euros (£260 million, around a third of the cost of a single Astute). If even bankrupt Greece can build a variant of the most modern U-boat (the Type 214 export version), could the Type 212A not be built at Devonport, the UK’s primary submarine refit yard? Babcock does still construct small surface warships, although at Appledore rather than in Plymouth, so why not conventional submarines? Submariners with long and deep experience of submarine operations will tell you that if the UK wants to remain a serious global player it does need the sheer power, huge endurance and reach of nuclear-powered attack submarines.

They are many times more capable and better armed than any diesel, the battleships of today. Why not save the Astutes for the long-range missions and use the U-boats closer to home and for specialist missions such as landing Special Forces?

That way submariners could be rotated through a less gruelling work routine and Britain would have the force levels necessary to counter the rising Russian threat and handle a lot more besides. This would include the job of training warships receiving ASW training with FOST, a task currently undertaken by the diesels of the German and Dutch navies. The new British U-boats could even be based at Devonport. It will have empty submarine berths once the last Trafalgar Class submarine has been decommissioned in 2022.

 

For more news and analysis of modern naval issues see WARSHIPS International Fleet Review . In addition to being the founding and current editor of WARSHIPS IFR, Iain Ballantyne is the author of the true-life thriller ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion), which tells the dramatic story of British submarines and submariners in the Cold War, including how the two sides in that long confrontation developed submarines from WW2 German technology.
An edited version of this article was published a commentary in the Western Morning News on June 15.

 

 

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