The fraying remains of dozens of smoke trails still crisscrossed the sky. Fragments of chaff blooms floated down through the air like metallic flurries. Closer in, more menacing columns of black smoke announced points where the Kingfish and Kitchens had broken through the multi-layered defenses of Strike Fleet Atlantic and scored hits. The battle was over, but evidence of it would linger for some time.
For the sailors, and officers of the two carrier forces this was not a time to reflect. There was still much work to be done. The surviving carriers started recovering the Tomcats, and other aircraft at once. Foch’s Crusaders trapped on board Kitty Hawk and would end up being attached to her airwing. On Blue Ridge, damage reports from around the formations were coming in. The strike fleet commander turned his attention to the condition of his stricken ships.
Forrestal was intact, but a Kingfish had been exploded by a Phalanx just under 500 yards off her starboard quarter. The force from the missile’s detonation caused damage. Two Mk 91 fire control directors were shredded by fragments from the Kingfish. Also inoperative was the Number 3 elevator on the starboard side. Repairs were underway, though it was unclear when, or even if, the elevator would be back in service. The hangar and flight decks were undamaged, however. Even more important, the arresting gear was intact. This meant Forrestal could recover her aircraft safely. Flight operations weren’t going to be disrupted.
John Hancock was gone. The Spruance-class destroyer took a Kingfish hit forward of her ASROC launcher. The impact of the 2,200 lb high explosive warhead detonated the forward magazine almost at once. A massive explosion rocked the ship from bow to stern. Within a minute what remained of her was going under, a widening pool of oil, and twisted sections of her superstructure atop the waves marking her grave. Search-and-rescue operations were underway, but the possibility remained high that Hancock had been lost with all hands.
USS Virginia’s fate was yet to be decided but for the moment things did not look good. A Kingfish detonated 200 feet above her deck, forward of her aft 5 inch mount. There were fires raging and at the moment they were out of control. She was dead in the water and starting to list to starboard. Dahlgren, and HMS York were moving in to aid with the fire, and rescue operations. The chief engineer aboard the cruiser had scrammed the reactor seconds after the Kingfish detonated. His actions removed the prospect of radiation leakage or worse.
Two of Task Force 21.3’s escorts had been lost. USS Vandegrift, a Perry class frigate and the Dutch Kortenar class frigate Jan van Brakel suffered direct hits from AS-4s. Both ships were still afloat, and blazing. Damage control and fire-fighting efforts by their crews were concentrated on keeping them above water long enough to transfer casualties off. However, it was clear neither would last for much longer.
Similar actions were going on aboard Foch. The French aircraft carrier was struck by two Kitchens amidships. The Soviet missiles pierced through the flight deck as if it were cellophane and detonated in the hangar. The explosions caused fires that rapidly reached the aviation fuel, and armament storage areas. She was essentially a bonfire now, and it would only be a matter of time before she sank. Her crew, what remained, as well as two other task force ships were desperately trying to contain the fire while the wounded, and survivors were offloaded.
Soviet losses were nothing short of murderous, with the overwhelming majority of them coming at the hands of F-14 Tomcats. Over sixty Badgers took off from their airfields just before midnight. Twenty had lived long enough to launch their Kingfish. Of the twenty, just twelve survived to make it home. Of the fifty-three Backfires, the launch percentage was more favorable. Forty-three managed to launch their Kitchens, however just ten survived the Tomcats. Along with the bombers, four Badger Jammers, two recon Badgers, and ten Bears would not make it home. Out of over 100 bombers less than two dozen would return to the Kola.
The damage inflicted on the NATO carrier force was not worthy of the losses sustained by Soviet Naval Aviation, and Long Range Aviation. The loss of Foch was a tragedy, but the stark truth was that Strike Fleet Atlantic could get along without her. The objective of the massive attack had been to prevent the NATO force from launching offensive missions against the Soviet Union. The only way to achieve this objective was to sink one or more of the US carriers that were a part of the force. But it was not to be.
The three American supercarriers, and their airwings were undamaged, and unbowed. Later in the day it would be their turn to launch attacks against military targets in the Kola region. The ramifications of the air-sea battle in the southern Barents Sea would be felt around the world through the rest of D+13 and beyond.