Lost trawler: victim of storm or sub?


British investigate claims that the Gaul was spying on the Soviets

The British government reopened a public inquiry into the 30-year-old sinking of a fishing trawler, hoping to put to rest once and for all suspicions that the trawler and its 36 crewmembers were lost on a spy mission.

The inquiry opens a window to an era that today seems like ancient history, when intelligence services enlisted patriotic British fishing crews to watch for Soviet submarines gliding silently in and out of a remote Arctic naval base in Murmansk on the Barents Sea.

“Some of the families still believe that the [trawler] Gaul was involved some way in covert intelligence work,” said Aubrey J. Bowles, a chief engineer in the British Merchant Navy, in an e-mail interview. His younger brother, Ronald, who was a second engineer on the 215-foot Gaul and just 22 years old, was among those lost on the trawler.

“There aren’t many parents of the families left,” he said. “Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters aren’t getting any younger. Grandchildren, nephews and nieces shouldn’t have to continue with this burden.”

The families of the crew suspected almost from the outset that the Gaul, a state-of-the-art stern trawler home-ported in Hull, England, was spying on Soviet submarines when it went down Feb. 7, 1974, with all hands in Force 10 conditions off Norway. Designed to withstand the buffeting of Arctic storms, Gaul sank without so much as a mayday.

The first investigation of the sinking, in 1974, concluded Gaul capsized and foundered in heavy seas. Yet 23 other trawlers fishing North Cape Bank that day survived the fierce wind and waves, fueling speculation that a Soviet submarine crew had stopped and boarded Gaul, captured its crew and scuttled the ship. For years, families wondered if loved ones were imprisoned in a gulag forced-labor camp.

After the Cold War’s end, they kept demanding a more thorough investigation of what happened to the Gaul, a stout ship scarcely 18 months old when it went to the bottom of the icy sea. In 1998-’99 — finally acceding to the families’ demands after more than two decades — government investigators found and surveyed Gaul’s wreck with a remotely operated vehicle and camera. They found the remains of four crewmembers, and videotaped several open watertight hatches on deck. The new evidence, along with tank tests of models, led investigators to surmise that huge seas knocked Gaul down, causing water to flood through the hatches, and sinking it.

Still, relatives were not convinced they had heard the whole story.

Decades of uncertainty

Bowles, who manages a Web site for the Gaul Families Association, an organization representing families of the crew, said the British government’s early denials that fishermen spied on the Russians during the Cold War — though many in Hull’s tight-knit fishing community knew friends or relatives recruited for low-level intelligence work — reinforced suspicions that it was hiding something. And its refusal for years to reopen the case added fuel to the fire.

“The original Labour, the Conservative, and now the new Labour governments have consistently misled, deceived and even lied to the GFA,” Bowles said. He hoped this latest inquiry would set the record straight and finally give the families some peace after 30 years.

“Sir, for the families, the tragedy unfortunately, as you know, has not been confined to the loss in itself,” Tim Saloman, GFA’s counsel, told Wreck Commissioner Justice David Steele in his opening statement before the inquiry Jan. 13 in Hull. “When people now refer to the Gaul tragedy, they speak not only of the events of 8th February 1974, but also of their sequel, the anguish and uncertainty which the families have endured as to what happened to their ship and to their men, compounded by the refusal of successive governments to look for and inspect the wreck, or to tell the families that they knew or confidently believed that they knew the location of the wreck.”

He said surviving relatives had endured for decades this uncertainty; many others took that anguish to their graves.

The government for 20 years said it would not reopen the investigation because it didn’t know where the wreck was, though several Norwegian trawlers reportedly had snagged nets on it and knew it was there. At the January hearing, government spokesmen said the Marine Investigation Board was reluctant to pursue the investigation further because the information they could glean from the wreck would not justify the cost of finding it and diving on it. In 1997 a television crew forced the government’s hand when it found the Gaul wreck 70 miles off Norway’s North Cape in 900 feet of water. It broadcast a documentary that showed footage of the wreck, and told of a spy network of British fishermen being run out of Hull, England.

Under renewed pressure from the families, the government sent a ship to survey the wreck with a remotely operated camera, performed tank tests of models, and confirmed its earlier findings that the Gaul sank in a vicious storm. The latest — and, the government says, its last — inquiry into the sinking is the first to explore extensively and publicly suspicions that the trawler was on a spy mission.

“Tradition of support”

Early testimony confirmed that British trawlermen did work from time to time for British intelligence during the Cold War, but in a dramatic turn a British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) officer identified only as “witness EB” spoke over an audio link to the inquiry. He denied that the Gaul was on any kind of intelligence mission when it sank, and said that it never had been involved in any intelligence activities.

“There is nothing in SIS records to suggest MV Gaul, or the Ranger Castor [Gaul’s previous name], was used for any purpose other than fishing,” he said. “I can confirm from SIS records that neither skipper [Peter] Nellist nor mate [Maurice] Spurgeon or any other member of the crew had at any time engaged in an intelligence task for the SIS.”

The witness did confirm a previously known project known as the Trawler Skippers’ Briefing Scheme, which used Hull trawler skippers to photograph and log the courses and positions of Soviet military ships they encountered while fishing. He said this project was terminated in 1967 because it did not produce enough useful intelligence.

In June 2000, after a trawler skipper told reporters Gaul’s skipper and mate had been involved in intelligence gathering on other fishing vessels, Cmdr. Timothy Hubert Vian Clark, of the Defense Intelligence staff, finally acknowledged the trawler program. He denied that any of the Gaul’s crewmembers ever were involved in intelligence work, and refuted speculation that a cable photographed near the site of the Gaul wreck was an electronic tracking device used to detect submarines. He did confirm, however, that during the Cold War 30 to 40 British trawler skippers had been engaged in gathering low-level intelligence — photographing and reporting sightings of Soviet ships and aircraft, “listening” for Soviet radio traffic, and carrying aboard their vessels intelligence specialists who also listened for naval radio transmissions.

Clark also confirmed the operations of a Cmdr. John Brookes, first identified publicly in a 1997 television exposé that reported the retired naval officer “ran an elaborate spy network” from the White Sea Fish Authority in Hull. Nigel Meeson, counsel for the British government, told the inquiry that trawlers occasionally were tasked with specific intelligence missions. He said that in 1972-’73, the trawler Invincible and then the Lord Nelson were sent to the Barents Sea with a Royal Navy officer and satellite navigation gear aboard, ostensibly to find a camera lost off a U.S. submarine. The skippers later learned they really were searching for a Soviet test missile.

“The Norwegian North Cape and the Barents Sea were areas of intense defense interest [during the Cold War], given the presence of Soviet Naval bases in north Russia and NATO’s strategic interest in the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic,” Meeson said. “The advantage of engaging fishing vessels as ‘intelligence gatherers’ was recognized very early in this period.” However, he said the Soviet Navy also maintained a large fleet of “trawlers” whose sole purpose was gathering intelligence on NATO ships. “These trawlers were often stationed in strategic waters around the British Isles and made no pretense of fishing,” said Meeson. “This activity continued into the 1990s.”

Meeson said British fishermen’s service to their country represents a long tradition of support by the fishing fleet to the Royal Navy. “While going about their business of fishing in international waters, trawlermen volunteered such information as they thought right to report,” he says.

Was she sound?

The public airing of this espionage activity didn’t alter the testimony of government witnesses that the Gaul wasn’t engaged in any intelligence mission at the time it sank, and a former mate on the vessel said it was unlikely that a Soviet submarine could have come alongside in the winds and seas the day the trawler was lost. The skipper of another trawler in the vicinity that day reported snow, winds of nearly 60 mph, and waves 25 feet high and occasionally 40 to 50 feet.

“We had continuous snow over these two days, which was very heavy indeed and making visibility extremely reduced,” Alfred Eagle, skipper of Farnella, told investigators. “Thus it was not possible to see what seas were approaching the vessel until they almost hit the ship. I should also emphasize, of course, that at that time of the year it is almost constantly dark through the greater part of the day.”

Saloman, the families’ counsel, asked former mate George William Petty if there was any realistic possibility of the Gaul being boarded by the Russians, considering the weather conditions at the time.

“To me, that’s a ridiculous story,” Petty replied. “Are you going to tell me a Russian sub came to the surface in that weather, got men aboard the Gaul, took men off the Gaul … and then sank it?”

Though he often had seen Soviet naval ships while fishing, a former skipper on Gaul seconded Petty’s objections to the theory.

“To be honest, I think it’s ridiculous,” said retired seaman Ernest Suddaby. “In those conditions, on a high-sided ship like the Gaul?”

Suddaby thought Gaul might have been knocked down by waves after being caught with her beam to the wind. “I think she would have gone through anything, that ship, heading into the wind.” he said. “I thought she had maybe fell off the wind. She was a very high-sided vessel. … If you got the wind on her back she could have fallen over and then you can’t get her back.”

Other testimony raised questions about whether the Gaul’s owner, British United Trawler, adequately maintained the vessel. Marine surveyor Malcolm Scott testified that massive oil leaks shut the trawler’s engine down from time to time, and water on the factory deck below sometimes reached waist level because workers left hoses running when the pumps that were supposed to dewater that deck were clogged with fish.

Scott said he inspected Gaul sister ships Kurd, Kelt and Arab after the disaster, and found that watertight doors and hatches wouldn’t close properly because of rust and paint buildup, and were permanently secured open. He said he had no reason to believe Gaul didn’t have the same problems with its hatches and doors.

“It is appalling. Terrible. The maintenance was awful,” Scott testified.

Several scenarios for the sinking came to the fore during the inquiry’s first days. One was that the Gaul crew had continued to fish despite bad weather, and had just dumped a load of fish down the hatches to the factory deck when waves overwhelmed the trawler, filling the factory deck with water through the open hatches. This could account for the open fish hatches on the wreck. Another was that huge waves knocked Gaul partially down, letting water pour into the factory deck through two chutes on the side of the vessel that were used to dispose of fish offal, unusable fish and non-fish material. In Gaul’s sister vessels, both of these watertight chutes wouldn’t close because of paint and rust buildup. In both scenarios, the ship could have been unstable initially if the factory deck pumps were plugged and water there was high. Once seas had breached that deck, they could have flooded to the engine room if poorly maintained watertight doors wouldn’t close.

For Bowles, a clear answer to what happened to his brother may remain forever elusive, but as the six-week inquiry began he was hopeful it would be exhaustive. Finally, he could know that nearly all that could be done to answer that question had been done.

“Both of our parents are now dead, our father only last January,” he said. “So whilst we will never forget, surely it is time to move on.”

Inquiry hearings were winding down as of late February, with a report due out some time this summer.