As the last Corsairs and Prowlers were trapping on board Forrestal, Eisenhower’s air crews went through last minute pre-flight preparations for their upcoming missions over the Kola. CVW-7’s targets were the long-range surface-to-air missile sites located farther inland closer to the main Northern Fleet naval bases of Severomorsk and Polyarny. These included three SA-5 Gammon sites, two confirmed SA-10 Grumble locations, and four long-range radar sites. The air wing’s A-7s and A-6s would be involved in these attacks, with Tomcats and Prowlers escorting them. The Intruders would be armed with AGM-67 Standard anti-radiation missiles. The SA-5 sites were the responsibility of the Intruders. The Corsairs, carrying HARMs and Shrikes would target the radars and SA-10s. Unlike the strikes flown earlier in the day, CVW-7s attacking aircraft would not follow their ARM shots in and drop ordnance directly on the SAM and radar sites. These missions were intended to be stand-off only. If the air defenses in these areas were sufficiently degraded, Kitty Hawk’s air wing would finish the job in the evening. If all went according to plan, by midnight the door would be completely open to Severomorsk, Polyarny, and the Backfire airfields. On D+15 all of these would be visited in strength by Strike Fleet Atlantic’s air wings. While Eisenhower’s squadrons suppressed the air defenses, Intruders from Forrestal were slated to hit the naval docks at Pechenga.
Soviet air defenses on the Kola still appeared to be formidable. Despite the attention NATO aircraft had given them in the last 24 hours, Strike Fleet Atlantic’s first missions of the day had lost four aircraft to SAM’s. This told the air planners in Kolsas, and on the carriers that a second heavier effort might be required before the defenses were fully neutralized. At 1430 hours Eisenhower turned into the wind and began launching aircraft. Forrestal did the same and started launching her Intruders. When the launch cycle was complete, the strike aircraft, and their escorts formed up over the powerful collection of warships and headed east.
This time it was different. While the Soviets were not as coordinated as they’d been earlier in the day, the SAM and long-range radar operators were more wary this time around. Radars were kept in stand by mode and then only activated for brief periods at irregular intervals. When the first signs of jamming were picked up, the radars went down entirely. This complicated things for the inbound Intruders and Corsairs. They continued in, searching for signs of the now elusive radar locations. The air crews were focused almost entirely on this, and were not paying attention to other threats that might be lurking. Like SAM and flak traps…..
The North Atlantic sea lanes remained secure and in NATO control. The threat posed by Soviet attack submarines was diminishing more and more as the days went on. Those submarines still on station were now running critically low on weapons. Maintenance was becoming a major concern now. Even under the best of conditions, the structural integrity of Soviet subs, and the equipment aboard them always seem to be in need of close monitoring, and frequent repair. In wartime conditions it was even worse. Equipment was malfunctioning at the worst possible times, causing noise shorts that were not difficult for nearby NATO warships, ASW helicopters, or circling patrol aircraft to pick up. Soviet submarines were being lost because of instances like this. Now, with the majority of submarines in the North Atlantic now made up of older, less well-constructed boats, lack of maintenance proved fatal for a number of Soviet attack sub crews.
This is not to say the convoys were getting a free ride. Hardly the case. The Soviet subs weren’t entirely out of business. Torpedo and cruise missile attacks still took place. But not as frequently as they had earlier in the war. Nor were results of the attacks anywhere near as effective. The NATO navies were developing new tactics, and new capabilities to contend with the threat posed by enemy subs in the Atlantic. The Soviet sub captains still alive, and with weapons remaining were rolling with the punches, and developing their own unorthodox methods and tactics to survive, and sink merchant vessels carrying war materials from America to Europe.
Curiously enough, the approaches to the United Kingdom and Europe were becoming the most dangerous portion of the convoy routes to Europe over the past week. Twelve merchant vessels and escorting warships had been sunk or heavily damaged by enemy subs here since D+7. Torpedoes and cruise missiles remained the major threat in these waters, but mines also were responsible for some ship kills. Before the war, and in its early days, Soviet submarines laid a number of minefields in the approaches, and North Sea. NATO minesweeping efforts neutralized a number, but even one missed mine could cause untold damage days or weeks after being laid.
In spite of this, the convoys continued to get through with losses far below what would be deemed unacceptable. In pre-war times a potential Battle of the Atlantic was frequently theorized by maritime strategists to be centered on NATO’s ability to keep the sea lanes and air bridge across the Atlantic open. In the larger picture, this campaign would directly affect the outcome of the battle going on in Europe.
Once theory became practice, those predictions became solid fact. NATO was winning the Battle of the Atlantic.
Author’s Note: Mixed things up here a little because I felt the recent North Atlantic entries were becoming a little too Strike Fleet-centic. In the next entry we’ll wrap up the carrier air attacks in the Kola, and look around the rest of the theater. –Mike