On October 27, 1981, the Swedish government was served some Whiskey on the Rocks. A Soviet submarine, possibly carrying nuclear warheads, ran aground in the southern archipelago of Karlskrona.
It was an early Wednesday morning when Ingvar Svensson and Bertil Sturkman set out to empty their fishing nets off the coast of the small island of Sturkö. The first sign that something wasn’t quite right was a thin film of oil they noticed on the water. They worked their nets and sailed home, but something – maybe it was thinking about that oil slick – made Sturkman go back. A few hours later he saw it: a submarine, stranded on the rocks off the coast of the neighboring island of Torumskär.
Sturkman could make out some men on top of the vessel’s tower, who seemed to be looking through binoculars in his direction. He ventured a little closer, and saw not just binoculars pointed at him, but machine guns. He turned around, went home, and quickly called the naval base in nearby Karlskrona. When they arrived a couple of hours later, Sweden had a full-blown international incident on its hands.
The submarine was Soviet, of a class in the West called “Whiskey”, from code names based on the NATO phonetic radio alphabet. This particular sub class was a “W”.
In 1981 the Soviet Union and the West were still in the throes of the Cold War, and Soviet submarines in Swedish territorial waters were not entirely unknown. But one running aground so close to a major naval base was something different. A 10-day standoff ensued.
At first the Soviets refused to let the Swedes interrogate the captain, but they eventually relented. The captain claimed “navigational error”, and that they believed themselves to be somewhere off the coast of Poland. Given the nature of the vessel and experience of the captain and crew, as one of the Swedes remarked, if that was true it would be a navigational blunder for The Guinness Book of World Records.
The big question, and ultimately the urgency, was about whether there were nuclear weapons onboard. The Soviets said Nyet, but the Swedish Coast Guard said Ja. Based on spectroscopy testing (a device used to measure radioactivity), the Swedes were sure there was uranium on board, but a definitive answer was never agreed by both sides.
Eventually the submarine was hauled off the rocks by Swedish tug boats and given permission to head back to international waters, putting an end to the sticky, rocky stalemate. But how and why the Whiskey ended up on the rocks in the first place, that is a 35 year old mystery.