Through thirty-eight years of multinational naval exercises from the Barents Sea to the Bahamas, naval conferences, and spending innumerable hours at sea, NATO naval officers had developed a staunch respect for the significance of the North Atlantic to alliance plans. Senior officers especially recognized it as the lynchpin of the alliance in a time of war. Its importance inextricably linked it to every other theater. Norway, the Mediterranean, and especially Western Europe could not be reinforced unless NATO maintained control of the North Atlantic. Now that the balloon had gone up, SACLANT’s naval and air forces, as well as those of his counterpart in Murmansk were maneuvering and positioning themselves for the monumental battle both sides knew was coming within the next 24-36 hours.
In the Barents Sea there were ten NATO SSNs present. Three were staking out the homeports of Soviet SSBNs watching for telltale signs that the missile subs were preparing to sortie. Another three were evaluating the ASW defenses in the area or, in the case of the converted ballistic missile submarine USS Sam Houston, laying Captor mines along the routes Soviet SSBNs and their attack sub escorts were expected to use in the event of a sortie. The remaining four were tasked with acquiring the Soviet surface groups steaming south and tailing them, transmitting periodic location reports. As events in northern Norway played out, one of the subs, USS Minneapolis-St Paul, was diverted to take up station from a position where she could provide raid warning of Soviet bombers coming south.
SACLANT had a fairly accurate idea of where the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s surface action groups were located. Everyone already knew with certainty what direction they were steaming in. The time would come when sufficient NATO sea and air power was on hand to contend with these seaborne threats before they wrestled control of the Norwegian Sea and effectively cut off Norway from seaborne reinforcement. Regrettably, that time was not going to be soon in coming. The primary objective for NATO navies in the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic on 10 July were, respectively, to ensure the safe arrival of the first convoy carrying the equipment of 3 Commando Brigade and forming an impenetrable ASW barrier along the GIUK gap to defeat the main group of Soviet submarines as they transited the gap.
The first convoy carrying war material to Norway from England was under twelve hours from reaching port when it was attacked by a two Soviet Foxtrot diesel subs. The RFA Sir Lancelot suffered a torpedo hit that severely reduced her speed. HMS Brave, a Type 22 class frigate was less fortunate. A torpedo impacted directly amidships broke her back and she sank in under twenty minutes, taking over one hundred men with her. Lynx helicopters managed to localize and sink one of the Foxtrots as it attempted to depart the area. Sea Kings from HMS Illustrious spent hours hunting for the second diesel sub but came up empty.
Submarines were the greatest danger to the convoys bound for Norway on 10 July. Russian fighter bombers, Backfires, and Badgers did not venture that far south to engage the groups. Their attention was focused primarily on northern Norway, and air cover from land based fighters and the Illustrious’ air wing would make any effort a costly one. Over the coming days, the threats would expand somewhat.
In the early afternoon STANAVFORLANT was ordered to detached from supporting Norway-bound convoys and ordered to head southwest towards the GIUK gap. The multinational group of destroyers and frigates were not the only NATO warships heading in that direction either. HMS Invincible and her escorts, in the North Sea at the same time, received similar orders. Simultaneously, P-3s from Iceland and RAF Nimrods operating out of Scotland were increasing their tempo of operations, and SACLANT was querying his submarine commander as to the availability of attack boats in the vicinity of the Iceland-Faroes gap.
As previously mentioned, the focus in the North Atlantic was to establish an impenetrable ASW barrier along the extent of the GIUK line. The first group of Russian subs was expected to begin approaching the area before midnight.