ENIGMA 2000 Newsletter - Issue 1

November 2000
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ENIGMA 2000 article

MV Gaul H243. An Intelligence Gatherer?

On 13thMarch, 1998 the Ministry of Defence issued a press notice 068/98 entitled « British Trawlers Help in Intelligence Gathering: Information made Public. »

The document described how the Armed Forces Minister, Dr John Reid, made public a paper describing the contribution of British Trawlers to Intelligence during the Cold War period, explaining the advantage of using fishing vessels as low-level intelligence gatherers in the North Cape and Barents sea.

Dr Reid stated that intelligence gathering involved little more than reporting the position of any vessel of interest and a photograph taken if possible. He further stated that this action represented a long tradition of support by the fishing fleet to the Royal Navy; by following their business of fishing and volunteering such information they though right to report. Dr Reid also mentioned that junior Royal Navy officers were allowed to gain valuable sea going experience by embarking on Merchant vessels and deep-sea trawlers. This scheme, he said, provided an added dimension in the low-level intelligence gathering activity.

Twenty seven years earlier, prior to the issuing of document 068/98, a Stern trawler, the Ranger Castor SN18 [later renamed MV Gaul] was completed and launched on 6th December 1971. The vessel was of « all welded steel construction », had an overall length of 66 metres, a breadth of 12 metres, weighed 1,106 tons and a capacity to hold 478 tonne of mixed load. The vessel, it was stated, had one of the best constructions, including a reinforced bow, made to specifications above those required by Lloyds, capable of resisting the harsh Arctic conditions of the Barents Sea.

It was, by definition, a super-trawler, and one of the best ever manufactured of that type.

On 27thJanuary, 1974 MV Gaul left Hull for the fishing grounds in the North Cape area.

Aboard the trawler Stallo an eyewitness to this last voyage claimed that the Gaul was steaming at speed into the middle of an Arctic storm and remembered the colours of the ship as it sped past his position into one of the most ferocious storms he had ever seen. He noted that the Gaul was not fishing, had no nets out and that all hatches were closed. He also noted that the Gaul had no damage and no obvious steering or engine problems.

It has been suggested that the Gaul was lost sometime between 1109 and 1630 hours on 8th February, 1974. The receiving of routine radio traffic from the Gaul just before 1109 and the absence of a scheduled report at 1630 used as the yardstick. No distress message was ever received and all 36 crew aboard perished. A series of emergency calls to all vessels in the area were made during the two days after the Gaul failed to report and any sightings were requested to be reported. The first reports that the trawler was missing were made on 11thFebruary, 1974. A search of the area started three and a half days after the loss. A full-scale search was made, involving the Royal Navy, Norwegian Emergency Rescue Centre and the Norwegian Navy and Coastguard service. The Royal Air Force and that of Norway were also involved, as were 23 trawlers in the area. Ships involved in a nearby NATO exercise, code-named « Clockwork », made their way to assist. The entire search operation at sea was co-ordinated by HMS Hermes, an aircraft carrier. The search operation at sea was eventually called off at 1600 hours on 15thFebruary, 1974 although RAF Nimrods continued a little longer. The weather during the search was bad and visibility poor. Nothing was found to indicate the position of the Gaul or give witness to its fate.

Rumours abounded in Hull that the Gaul was involved in spying. The subsequent discovery of a small life buoy marked « Gaul Hull » on 8thMay, 1974 by a Norwegian fisherman did nothing to allay those fears. The life buoy was returned to Hull for close examination and was found to have samples of a marine growth found only in fresh water areas. The opinion of the investigators being that the life buoy had not been in seawater for some three months.

The fisherman who found the life buoy was the subject of a book written later. In the book he is mentioned as stating that it was not only the British trawlers who were used in « spying » activities. He indicated that Norway, and other Western Intelligence agencies, involved their fishing vessels for that purpose whilst fishing.

Despite the location of the Gaul being unknown a Formal Investigation ended in October 1974 by concluding that the Gaul had capsized and foundered in heavy seas.

In November 1975 the Norwegian vessel « Rairo » reported the position of MV Gaul to HM Government.

Twenty two years later, on 6th November 1997, a British television company, Channel 4, screened « The Mystery of the Gaul, » and included footage from an expedition to locate the wreck of the Gaul made in August 1997.

Revelations made in the Channel 4 programme suggested that a Commander John Brookes « ran an elaborate spy network » from the White Sea Fish Authority, based in Hull. The earlier rumours that had persisted were further boosted by this disclosure and Hull Members of Parliament called for a public enquiry to raise answers about the vessel found approximately 70 nautical miles north of Norway, from Hammerfest, and 280 metres down on the seabed.

The Gaul, apparently too difficult to find, according to HM Government, had been located by a Channel 4 television crew using commercial Sonar equipment and an underwater camera.

On the seabed next to the Gaul was a cable that could be clearly seen. At its discovery it was believed to be part of a submarine location network, SOSUS, used during the Cold War.

The television crew followed the cable in a loop to nearby Soray Island. Damage to the strengthened bow of the Gaul was also discovered during the survey.

On 22nd November 1997 a Rear-Admiral Michael Kyrle Pope revealed to the Hull Daily Mail newspaper details of a spying network using Hull trawler men at the height of the Cold War. He explained that it was « common and acceptable » to use trawler crews to gather information on Soviet submarines off the Russian coast and around the Norwegian Cape. He further revealed that radio and photographic equipment, would have been passed on by the Secret Service, MI6.

He also mentioned that Commander Brookes would have been given the task of approaching skippers and crew if he knew that they were going fish in any areas of interest. He acknowledged that Hull played an important part in these operations, the trawler men serving their country well.

An official survey of the Gaul was held up due to inclement weather but in early August 1998 the survey ship Mansal 18 slipped its moorings with relatives of the lost crewmen and a BBC television film crew aboard. During the short delay in sailing the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, warned relatives about talking to the media enforcing that such statements could hamper any future enquiry.

As the survey ship made its way to the site of the Gaul a former skipper revealed the use of Hull trawlers for intelligence gathering. He said that he was requested to take his trawler, the MV Invincible H96, to an area of the Barents Sea known as the Duck's Back, about 50 miles from the Soviet Northern Fleet base in Murmansk. That mission took place in 1972. The skipper said that special satellite equipment was fitted to the Invincible and that a naval officer, a commander, joined the ship to operate it. He was told that the purpose of the mission was to locate a lost Soviet underwater camera, but later discovered that he had been misled, the real purpose being the discovery of the location of a Soviet test missile.

The First Mate aboard the Invincible for this mission was also First Mate on the Gaul on her last tragic voyage.

The official survey by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch [MAIB] started on 10thAugust, 1998.

Subsequent claims by MAIB suggested that new and important evidence had been found which supported Model experiments that were made up to January 1999.

Three bodies had been discovered on the coast of Northern Russia shortly after the loss of the Gaul. DNA samples were later taken and compared with samples offered by relatives of the lost crew.

Positive matches were not forthcoming.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch report 4/99 indicated that the Gaul « was lost due to down flooding through open weather tight doors and hatches after being « knocked-down » by several very large breaking waves. »

The Channel 4 television survey film showed that the four windows on the bridge were intact, despite the vessel having been « knocked down ».

Damage to the Gaul »s strengthened bow has fuelled further speculation about Cold War involvement. According to one independent view the damage is believed to have been caused by collision with a semi-submerged object at speed, leaving at least one gaping hole in the bow, although the MAIB describe it as pressure crushing damage.

The NATO exercise, « Clockwork », was taking place west of the position where the Gaul went down.

There would have been monitoring by Russian and NATO submarines and it is envisaged that the Russians would have placed their « Trawlers » in the area for intelligence gathering.

Independent experts have suggested that the Gaul could lie on top of a secret monitoring device, the cable being visible on C4's video footage.

The other immediate mystery is that of the three unidentified bodies washed up on the Russian shore and described by Russian investigators as « English ».

In a Press Notice of UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions [DETR],

DETR News Release 459, 5thJuly, 2000, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott said that he would not risk diver's lives on an expedition to investigate the loss of the Gaul. Mr Prescott said that experts had advised him that it was too dangerous, the proposed dive being at the very limit of current certification of saturation diving equipment.

The depth involved appears well beyond recent diving experience in the North Sea. He went on to state that nets surrounding the wreck and a fairly constant sea current would pose further risks.

The Gaul Families Association solicitor wrote a letter, dated 27th July 2000, to them in answer to DETR Press Notice 459. In the letter he indicates that Experts who have advised the solicitor say that a manned dive is possible and safe.

In September 2000 the Gaul Families Association approached the diver who salvaged gold from HMS Edinburgh, over 240metres down, in an attempt to force the governments hand on a manned dive.

The original recommendation for a manned dive on to the wreck was made by the wreck Commissioner, high court judge Sir David Steel, in June 2000, suggesting that the dive be made that summer. Mr Prescott, however saw fit to suggest to the Court that the use of a remotely operated vehicle may offer a way forward but admitted that technology would need to be developed to achieve the aims of the dive. Such a dive would require the search to be postponed until the summer of 2001. [Twenty-seven years after the loss of the Gaul].

Three Hull trawlers named by Dr Reid as having been involved in intelligence gathering in the mid 60's and early 70's were: MV Arctic Galliard H195, MV Invincible H96 and MV Lord Nelson H330. A combined total of five specific intelligence gathering missions were made by those trawlers, the last being in September 1973.

Information in the public domain documents the arrest of a British trawler, the Swanella, on 26thSeptember, 1950. The trawler was held for 5 days, the Russian investigator noting that the vessel was in a prohibited zone, the Kola Sound.

A further report from the then Head of Intelligence [Russian] Northern Fleet made note that during October 1950 65 British trawlers were seen in the Barents Sea, occasionally approaching the shore and violating territorial waters.

During February, April and July 1952 another trawler, the Lord Ancaster H573, was noted in the Barents Sea by Russian observers. It was seen photographing a Russian submarine. The observers noted that the trawler's call sign was MSZX and that it was equipped with dish radar.

At one stage as many as 12 trawlers were found to be within 3 to 4 miles of the Kildin Island area where mine laying exercises were being made by Northern Fleet squadrons. Later a submarine was « hampered » by a British trawler. Despite being ordered to leave the « military base exercise area », which the trawler ignored, it apparently prevented the submarine from completing its operational requirements.

A letter to a Soviet Defence Minister, in 1952, outlined that many English trawlers possessed high power transmitters and radar equipment and were designed more for intelligence gathering rather than fishing.

On Saturday 30thSeptember, 2000 a British newspaper carried an article concerning a statement made by a Royal Naval Commander serving in the Defence Intelligence Staff.

His statement concerned the investigation of the use of fishing trawlers in the activities of gathering intelligence and in particular the Gaul.

He stated that information given in his statement was obtained from Ministry of Defence [MoD] records and had no knowledge of other records that may be held by other departments.

He confirmed that some trawlers had been used for low level intelligence gathering and on occasion specialist personnel were carried aboard trawlers for passive listening whilst the vessels fished.

Up to 40 trawlers were used in this way as confirmed by government information released in 1998. The Commander said that he had seen references to Cdr Brookes as an intelligence liaison officer with fishing crews in Hull but also understood that he was a member of the secret intelligence service until his death in 1971.

Concerning the use of the MV Gaul or its crew being engaged on intelligence gathering, a confirmation was made that none of the crew had been briefed on intelligence collection, or issued with radio or photographic equipment, in the 12 months prior to the loss.

No record, he said, was held by the MoD of any member of the Gaul who was, or had been, involved in intelligence activities for the Royal Navy and therefore could not state with any certainty that no member of the crew had been involved in intelligence.

In the body of the report the Commander made reference to the cable, possibly connected to SOSUS equipment, and confirmed that it was not, because he had consulted MoD staff who had access to such information on SOSUS.

A layer of water exists where sound propagates to good effect, It is this layer that SOSUS [sound surveillance system] exploits, looking for sounds in the 25 to 200Hz range, with peaks at 100Hz using long acoustic sensors [hydrophones] installed across ocean beds.

Documentation in the public domain states that the SOSUS arrays were set in oceans at depths of 300 to 600 metres. Channel 4's television crew made no mention of having seen a SOSUS array, although they followed the cable some 140 miles to Soray Island. The statement, from the Commander, may well be accurate that it not a part of the SOSUS system. It could of course be another totally different system, perhaps based on a magnetic anomaly caused by the passage of a large vessel, such as a submarine, within its field of influence. Commercial induction sensors are available with a frequency band from 1Hz to 1kHz and have been used for submarine detection. It is obvious that any SOSUS records would make no reference to a totally different system.

Former Hull fishermen had previously made testimony to the First Mate and Skipper of the Gaul as having been involved in intelligence gathering in the Barents Sea on other vessels. Another skipper aboard Channel 4's survey ship demonstrated an actual camera, issued by Cdr Brookes, as being capable of taking 48 frames in quick succession. He also disclosed a vessel identification book also given to him as containing outlines of various vessels, including submarines.

The original question, asking if the Gaul was involved in intelligence gathering, still remains unanswered.

Or does it?

Paul Beaumont.
ENIGMA 2000


Morse stations | New station profile : M83 | Voice stations | Oddities
MV Gaul H243 | Book review : Blind Man's Bluff
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