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.

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.


High Impact Tasters for the forthcoming WARSHIP IFR magazine

(and also ‘WARSHIPS IFR Guide to the Royal Navy 2014/15’)

Below is the first of three previews from the forthcoming WARSHIPS IFR June 14 edition, which I have just seen away to the publisher. This is our rather nifty centre spread from ex-RN top phot Ian Arthur, who is a total professional and not bad at the old smudges.

Aboard RFA Argus

The RN were surprisingly positive to getting Ian aboard the RFA Argus…it was almost like the good old days. Easy access to naval vessels/units for the world’s only (independent) naval news magazine of its kind!? Whatever next!? This spread also advertises our forthcoming ‘Guide to RN 2014/15’, which has more excellent RFA Argus/Ian Arthur work in showcased, alongside other things.

Next up is the middle bit of four pages on the newly refurbished HMS Alliance, with a few words by me, also in the forthcoming edition. It is a good showcase for the talents of Jonathan Eastland, whom I have been on many adventures with journalistically, from the shipyards of Scotland to the sandy wastes of the Middle East.

HMS Alliance

Jonathan was working to a very tight deadline on the internal shots (some also used/to be used elsewhere), which shows you what a brilliant operator he is. More on this in the ‘WARSHIPS IFR Guide to RN 2014/15’ also.

My thanks to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum for giving us such great access to produce our photo essay (and GTRN article) not least to RNSM Director Chris Munns and PRO Bill Sainsbury, not forgetting Terry Fearnley and Cdr Rob Forsyth (ex-Alliance submariners who played their part in various set ups).

And finally, an illustration of the benefits pinging out news images as soon as they happen – or posting them to an easily [instantly] accessible web site – as part of the democratic process of showing us what all that kit taxpayers pay for does.

It enables news magazines such as WARSHIPS IFR to provide newsy pic essays, and also to highlight happenings ignored, or given only slight mention, by most bigger media outlets. The RAF got all the headlines for shadowing Russian bombers, while the RN’s efforts at sea were not given much space in the print nats (if at all) – their web sites did better of course.

HMS Dragon shadows Russians

In this case we have HMS Dragon shadowing a Russian frigate – the defence picture desk did a superb job here (well done Panay T. and Neil H. at MoD – and Steve S. on the Navy side). And also well done to the RN phot in question, not forgetting the USN guys whose work also features (aboard ships facing down the Russians in the Black Sea). This also spread features in the June edition.

Some Other Content in Next Edition of WARSHIPS IFR Magazine  – on Sale from May 16

WIFR June 2014

An early look at the cover of the forthcoming WARSHIPS IFR June 14 edition.

NATO BEEFS UP – The West’s primary defence alliance vows to increases its presence at sea, on land and in the air to deter further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

THE US AIR FORCE IS DEAD…LONG LIVE USN & USMC AIR – The relevance and effectiveness of independent air forces is being seriously questioned. In this provocative article it is suggested the USAF should be abolished.

ANGLO-FRENCH FLEET ON THE HORIZON? – The navies of France and Britain are edging closer to each other as they address mutual threats, so will an Anglo-French global maritime force one-day form Europe’s primary maritime partnership?

THE RISE AND FALL OF POMPEY’S POWERHOUSE – Editor-at-Large Jonathan Eastland continues his look at the history of Solent shipbuilding as a final salute to centuries old skills.

SPAIN’S LEADING FRIGATE – One of the headline units at DIMDEX 2014 was the Spanish frigate SPS Cristobal Colon, command platform for the current boss of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2) Rear Admiral Eugenio Diaz del Rio.  Special Correspondent Guy Toremans talks to the frigate’s Commanding Officer, Capitan de Fragata Enrique Nunez de Prado Aricio.

For more on WARSHIPS IFR visit the website

Ian Arthur’s work can be seen here.

Jonathan Eastland’s work can be found here.

Visit the Royal Navy Submarine Museum web site

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