Kursk: The Last Mission

Twenty years ago, the world held it’s breath and watched an unfolding drama take place in the Barents Sea amidst the Arctic Ocean off Norway.

Russia’s most powerful, nuclear-powered attack submarine at the time, the KURSK, had suffered two cataclysmic on-board explosions – one so powerful it was detected by seismologists around the globe – and sunk to the bottom of the seabed to the relatively shallow depth of 107 metres below the ocean’s surface.

What is known is that 23 sailors amongst the crew of 118 survived the initial explosions. They lived on for as long as six days after the sub had become a crippled tomb with dwindling on-board oxygen supplies submerged in total darkness and plummeting inner-hull temperatures.

We know this with certainty due to dated, hand-written notes recovered – turns out pen-ink inscribed paper is still readable many months and years after being submerged in seawater – from the bodies of sailors who clung to life as long as they could, huddled together in the still intact, but slowly leaking and filling ninth compartment of the stricken Oscar 2 class submarine.

I’ve watched the 2018, Colin Firth-starring movie KURSK – re-titled THE COMMAND for it’s U.S release – read the book by journalist Robert Moore the film was based on – and vividly recall following every news and television report of the unfolding tragedy and failed rescue attempts I could gather back in August of 2000.

The book in particular offers up a deluge of revealing details of what went shockingly wrong in both the initial accident and the subsequent botched rescue attempts.

The Kursk was finally raised from the ocean floor in 2001. In a stunning technical achievement, Dutch contracting consortium MammoetSmit International succeeded in pulling the 155 metre sub ashore. It was the heaviest object ever lifted from such a depth.

These pictures show what the Kursk looked like BOTH before and after the disaster.

After a year-long investigation, it was confirmed that torpedo malfunction was to blame. This gave lie to several semi-official rumors at the time about a US sub downing the Kursk, or that it collided with another vessel or an abandoned World War II mine.

The Kursk had taken a decade to design, three years to build and just 135 seconds to destroy. The calamitous ticking time bomb in it’s midst was the HTP 65-67 torpedo (two of them were on-board on the day) that had been loaded into tube number four on the starboard side of the submarine’s bow compartment.

HTP stands for ‘high-test peroxide’ – a concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide (water with an extra oxygen atom). The propulsion system responsible for driving the torpedo through the water at a speed of 30 knots relied on a chemical reaction taking place within the torpedo between HTP and kerosene.

The particular HTP torpedo in tube number four had last been serviced six years previously in 1994. Over the intervening time, deep within it’s casing, corrosion had invisibly begun to weaken gaskets close to the tank that contained the HTP. It was a chemical cocktail waiting to begin a chain reaction once it came into contact with the copper-lined torpedo tube.

Britain had banned the use of HTP torpedos back in 1955 after an explosion on-board the HMS Sidon killed 12 sailors. An exhaustive investigation by the Royal Navy concluded that hydrogen peroxide was too volatile to be stored within the confines of a submarine’s torpedo room.

Never again did a British submarine go to sea with weapons that used HTP. The same could not be said for Russia’s Northern Fleet forty-five years later.

Another feature of the tragedy laid bare in the book is the fateful timeline forever associated with the rescue attempts.

The Kursk sank to the bottom of the ocean bed on August 12, 2000. It was not until five days later on August 17 that a Russian submersible attempted rescue. Despite numerous tries it was unable to create a vacuum seal with the crippled sub’s hatch.

More delays followed during which Russian military leaders and newly elected President Vladimir Putin – who had been in office only three months when the disaster unfolded – debated whether or not to accept International help.

On August 20 British and Norwegian crews arrived at the disaster site in the Barents sea. Finally on August 21 – nine days after the submarine sank – they were granted permission to attempt a hatch opening. When they did they discovered the 9th compartment of the sub – where all the survivors of the initial blasts had gathered – was completely flooded.

Kursk: The Russian Submarine Catastrophe's Game Adaptation Gets A Ton Of  New Info - theGeek.games

It was widely considered had Russia responded more promptly and accepted foreign assistance more readily there would have been a much higher chance of the sailors who survived the initial explosion having been rescued alive.

The original tower of The Kursk submarine today serves as a memorial in the Russian port city of Murmansk.

Ps. Can you believe there is now a Kursk video game? Available on PC, Mac, Sony Playstation 4 and Xbox One, the game has been released by a Polish company.

According to the developer, after the first few minutes depicting the explosion, the game should then go on to last at least 10 hours.

Players apparently not only have the opportunity to feel like a member of a submarine crew, but are also able to influence the story through their choices, including moral ones. Decisions made have a significant impact on the ending of the game, of which there are several versions.

11 thoughts on “Kursk: The Last Mission

  1. A very interesting read Glen. You have analyzed a peacetime tragedy from the recent past.
    Kursk is also a city in Russia. In 1943 it was at the heart of a major clash of arms with Hitler’s army. Ending in a Russian victory it was all “down hill” for the Germans afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very true Bryan.

    The city of Kursk during World War 2 (July 1943) witnessed the greatest tank battle in history. 50 000 German soldiers were lost and 250 000 Russians died in what Moscow called the turning point of the war against the Nazi invaders.

    So yeah, the name KURSK is imbued with military tradition and almost mythical status in Russia to this day.

    The video below isn’t set in Kursk but is included here merely to add some flavour to recall large scale, WW2-era German vs Russian tank battles.


  3. As a follow-up to our comments on your informative recount Glen. I’d like to briefly point out how political correctness is impacting history. We now hear extensively the terms nazi aggression, nazi invasion etc instead of German Forces. Youth today may think a political party was fighting on the Eastern Front. John Clease dropped the classic comedy line “don’t mention the war”. Today it has come to pass. Similarly it’s now VP Day ,we dare not offend the Japanese with VJ Day.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Historical revisionism is definitely a thing and combined with today’s PC culture one can produce whatever version of history ones biases influence one to do. Then again, when it comes to telling history, it may always have been this way to some extent.


  5. Wow. Eeech. Submarines. They’re fascinating to me, an engineering marvel, but just like roller coasters, I just wait for something to eventually go wrong, you know?

    This story reminds me of the Titanic, in that it took ten years to design, three to build….and then was destroyed, regardless, due to an unforeseen Achilles heel, which was human error (not checking up on the state of the torpedoes for SIX YEARS???! Just criminal negligence!).

    In the Titanic’s case it feels like it’s more nature at work, not human error, but in thinking back, I think human error was involved too because didn’t the captain not respond immediately to warnings or something like that…?

    I appreciated this sentence’s clever wording: “The book in particular offers up a deluge of revealing details…”

    Finally, extremely sad to hear that they probably could have saved the soldiers. A very symbolic start to Putin’s “rule” with such an insular, probably- not- listening- to- good- advice- to- get- outside- help decision. But I guess it’s also par for the course for Russia when we see all the wasted time and denial that was involved earlier in Chernobyl. I want to say I feel sorry for Russia, but considering we have the makings of a Putin-like (or just Russian-like) figure at OUR helm and considering that in under four years our country is much worse off, if not in a death spiral at this point….I guess I can’t really say anything about pity or sympathy for Russia. I need to reserve some of it for us!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Could I be cleverer than I realised?
    I had not picked up on the… ahem… ‘accidental brilliance’ imbued choice of the word ‘deluge’ regarding the book’s abundance of info. But I will happily claim it, now you’ve pointed it out, as intentional. Funny how we’re drawn to some words – subconsciously shaped in part by the subject matter we are describing.

    As to Putin, as a former KGB officer (working for 16 years as a foreign intelligence officer) and past Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) many people saw his overly-cautious and stalling response to offers of foreign assistance to rescue the survivors still alive and trapped in the submarine as typical of a person with that type of background.

    On board the KURSK were what was known as ‘Shipwreck’ cruise missiles as well as top secret encryption equipement in the sub’s radio room. The book argues that in the mind of Putin and his advisors back in August of 2000, the idea of losing sailors aboard the KURSK to protect military secrets, while tragic and embarrassing, did not constitute the far worse shame of a military disaster.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Of course. Of course that’s how priorities go, right? Far worse shame of a military disaster weighed against the lives of men.
    And I meant to say sailors, not soldiers, up above.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. What a terrible story… I cannot imagine what these poor survivors were thinking. I thought (maybe I read it somewhere) that they died quickly due to a fire in their compartment shortly after they escaped the flooded part of the submarine, which would have been a much more merciful death than waiting for 6 days there for nothing…
    Russia should have acted quickly asking for help, it was stupid on their part not to do so. Not to mention the use of antiquated torpedos banned decades ago by the Navies of other countries!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You are right about the fire – caused by one of the sailors in the flooded 9th compartment accidentally dropping a potassium superoxide cartridge (a chemical oxygen generator) into seawater. That ignited a flash fire which consumed the rest of the available oxygen. But that final mishap did not occur until several days AFTER the submarine initially sank.


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