The Hunt For The Storozhevoy: when Soviets nearly nuked one of their own warships after it was involved in a mutiny

The Hunt For The Storozhevoy: when Soviets nearly nuked one of their own warships after it was involved in a mutiny

By Dario Leone
Jun 23 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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The mutiny of the Storozhevoy

On Nov. 8, 1975, Lieutenant Commander Valeriy Sablin led his crew in a mutiny on the Soviet warship Storozhevoy. The ship was then located in Riga, Soviet Latvia. Sablin’s avowed intention was to foment a new communist revolution by taking the warship to Leningrad, where he expected to receive the support of the navy and the masses. However, the Soviet leadership thought that Sablin intended to defect to Sweden, bringing with him a warship of modern design with all its armaments, electronics, communication devices, and code books. As a result, Soviet supreme leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered the destruction of the warship.

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After several dramatic, but ultimately failed, Frontal Aviation Yakovlev Yak-28 attacks on the Storozhevoy, Colonel General Sergey Gulyayev, commander of the Naval Aviation of the Baltic Fleet, personally ordered a missile launch against the Storozhevoy, employing the special protocol for the launch of nuclear missiles. The purpose of the launch was to destroy the warship.

As told by Michael Fredholm von Essen in his book The Hunt For The Storozhevoy, The 1975 Soviet Navy Mutiny in the Baltic, Gulyayev took the task seriously. On Nov. 9 at 10:00 a.m., the ships of the pursuit force were ordered to move away from the Storozhevoy and seek a safe distance, as a group of Tu-16K bombers were on their way. It was Colonel Arkhip Savinkov’s small force of Tu-16K bombers which now made a new approach towards the Storozhevoy. All ships pursuing the Storozhevoy were instructed to position themselves at least 10km behind the Storozhevoy.

The special protocol for the launch of nuclear missiles

Each Tu-16K bomber carried only one anti-ship missile, the nearly ten-metre-long Kometa K-10S Luga-S. In order for the missile to carry out the final dive towards the target vessel, the radar was required to be locked on target. To that end, a Tu-16K bomber after launch would keep its radar locked on the target. In addition, the missile must be launched at least 110km from the target, or the onboard steering mechanism would not have time to aim it correctly.

Colonel General Gulyayev had ordered Colonel Savinkov only to launch an anti-ship missile on his direct order. Gulyayev may have decided to lead the attack from the front. During the morning, a dedicated command and control aircraft had taken off from Khrabrovo Air Base outside Kaliningrad, where the Baltic Fleet’s headquarters was located, and Gulyayev’s orders were either transited via or sent directly from this aircraft. It is quite possible that Gulyayev himself was onboard.

By all accounts, he was a man who would lead from the front, and this time, the situation was critical. At 10:16 a.m., Gulyayev personally ordered Colonel Savinkov and his unit to prepare for weapons launch against the Storozhevoy from an altitude of 4,000 metres at a range of, as far as can be ascertained, 160 km.

Immediately afterwards, still at 10:16 a.m., Gulyayev gave the order ‘use the weapon.’ In addition, he executed the special protocol for the launch of nuclear missiles. This protocol necessitated a mutual confirmation of the launch order so as to avoid any chance of error. On his side, Gulyayev confirmed the launch order at 10:27 a.m., in a communication in part transited by radioman Yuriy Kargin on Captain Anatoliy Grishkin’s Il-38 maritime partrol and anti-submarine warfare aircraft.

Abort the attack

Savinkov now only had to place his aircraft in position and at the right distance to launch his missile.

The Hunt For The Storozhevoy: when Soviets nearly nuked one of their own warships after it was involved in a mutiny
A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat of Fighter Squadron VF-1 “Wolfpack” escorting two Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 aircraft (NATO reporting “Badger”). 

At this very moment, in the command post of the headquarters of the Baltic Fleet, Vice Admiral Anatoliy Mikhaylovich Kosov (commanding officer of the Baltic Fleet), sat with one telephone receiver in each hand. In one, he received instructions from Defence Minister Andrey Grechko. In the other telephone receiver, Kosov forwarded Grechko’s orders to Colonel General Gulyayev. The Tu-16K bombers were on course for the target, and the three men were well aware that the nuclear launch protocol had been confirmed.

Then, suddenly, the head of the Operations Directorate, Rear Admiral Yakovlev, ran into the room. According to an eyewitness, Yakovlev shouted: ‘The Storozhevoy has halted, Comrade Commander. We must abort the attack on her!’ We do not know what Kosov reported to Grechko or what he said to Gulyayev, but certainly men at the command post at this point began to issue orders, down along the various chains of command, to abort the attack.

Meanwhile, Rassukovannyy’s pursuit force was not far from the Storozhevoy. Probably at 10:37 a.m., its commander either received countermanding orders from higher up in the chain of command, or he realised that something was amiss. At 10:44 a.m., the moment before Savinkov was to launch his anti-ship missile, frantic radio messages from the Komsomolets Litvy and her sister ship, the SKR-14 which had set out from Riga 45 minutes after the Storozhevoy, ordered ‘everyone in the air’ to ‘suspend the use of weapons.’

The mutiny of the Storozhevoy inspires The Hunt For Red October

But either Savinkov did not hear the order, because of the use of different radio channels, or he interpreted it as not intended for him but for the Yak-28 pilots, to make them leave the area. After all, he had received his order to launch directly from Colonel General Gulyayev.

Still, Savinkov did not launch his anti-ship missile. At 10:45 a.m., he explained to the others in the group of three that his radar had malfunctioned. The magnetron had failed, Savinkov reported. Without an operational magnetron, a high-power vacuum tube then used in radar systems and notorious for the time it took to start up, Savinkov’s missile was blind. Otherwise, Savinkov appeared to be in position, but since the anti-ship missile had to be guided by radar, he could not launch. Savinkov therefore ordered the other two bombers to attack the Storozhevoy independently.

For another 60 seconds, the remaining two Tu-16K bombers prepared to launch their anti-ship missiles. At the same time, various Soviet radiomen frantically tried to convey the order to suspend the attack to the Tu-16K bombers. Finally, the order for ‘everyone in the air’ finally went through. At 10:46, Savinkov ordered his men to abort the attack. No missile was launched.

However, by then the crew had already detained Sablin and announced their intention to surrender. The mutiny was over.

The mutiny of the Storozhevoy inspired the book and movie The Hunt For Red October.

The Hunt For The Storozhevoy, The 1975 Soviet Navy Mutiny in the Baltic is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Frigate
The Storozhevoy in February 1975

Photo credit: Lt. Azzolina and PH1 Jeff Hilton / U.S. Navy


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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