From the Depths: 8 of the Most Daring Submarine Missions of the 20th Century

Naval Technology

Submarines continue to be one of the most valuable parts of a country’s Navy. Even today massive submarines with unparalleled technology are being built in such a way that they could spend decades beneath the surface if need be. During the cold war, they were unmatched in their ability to carry out spy missions or take out targets without ever being seen. As airplanes rule the sky, there is little doubt that submarines rule the sea.

Operation Barmaid

The HMS Conqueror was a nuclear-powered fleet submarine that served in the British Navy from 1971 until 1990. She became famous for being the only nuclear-powered submarine to have sunk an enemy ship with torpedoes, bringing down the General Belgrano during the Falklands War. She was built as a response to the Soviet threat at sea and was meant to not only attack other ships but carry out spy missions on Soviet submarine movements.

It was one of the HMS Conqueror’s most daring missions that was finally revealed in 2012. Just weeks after sinking the General Belgrano, the submarine would be given a mission that was much riskier and more difficult. In August of 1982, the HMS Conqueror was sent to the border of Russia’s territorial waters, sailing as close to the border was legally allowed. Though at times the submarine might have been even closer to the Russia than what was permitted.

HMS Conqueror with the Jolly Rodger raised after sinking the General Belgrano. Pinterest

Captain Wreford-Brown had been sent to find a spy trawler or AGI (Army General Intelligence). These ships were known to be filled with interception and detection equipment and would often tail NATO exercises or lurk around Naval bases. The ship that the HMS Conqueror was after on this mission was even more than just a spy trawler, it was pulled a two-mile string of hydrophones that was known as a towed array sonar. This sonar was the best in Soviet submarine detection technology and the HMS Conqueror was on a mission to steal it.

Stealing a two-mile long cable that is three inches thick, attached to a ship and made to detect submarines is not as easy as it sounds. The HMS Conqueror was fitted with two electronic pincers (provided by the Americans) in order to cut through the cable. The submarine would have to come up from below the array’s blind spot and edge toward the cutting point that was only a few yards from the tow ship. The TV cameras used to operate the pincers would not be able to see anything until a few inches from the target since the water was so black, so the rest had to be done with mental arithmetic.

The mission was a success, though some believe it took place in Soviet waters just three miles from the coast. Once a safe distance away the HMS Conqueror surfaced and pulled the severed array on board.

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  • Bill_S

    You skipped U47 and Klt Gunther Prien sneaking into Scapa Flow and sinking HM Battleship Royal Oak, then getting his sub out alive from the most heavily guarded harbor in the world.

    • Neil Robertson

      That’s what I came here to say. They did a magnificent job, too bad it was for the other side.

  • Wade Spaulding

    So I guess sneaking into Scapa Flow wasn’t a daring enough mission? I know there are a lot of great missions of extreme daring carried out by submariners around the world, but Prien’s attack inside Scapa Flow is the undisputed champion of that category. It really should be mentioned.

  • pauline2

    The name McCain was raised twice, Senator John McCain is the son of Admiral John McCain Is the Senators father, and why JR was still a pilot when he crashed in Vietnam. I think that SR may have had a more interesting life than JR. JR almost sank a aircraft carrier, one of ours. Now he is trying to sink Trump. Not doing well at that either. But regardless He did serve his country and was a POW for many years. He still serves us.

  • Lawrence Brach

    No kidding, Prien attack on the Royal Oak was the most masterful submariner event ever. Who ever made these sections was not through enough.

  • Leftykook

    What about the American skipper who snuck into Tokyo Bay?
    I think he had the crappy Torpedos that bounced off their target without exploding too….

  • ZweiSystem

    You also failed to mention the British midget submarine attacks against the Tirpitz and a Japanese cruiser.

  • Anthony Burgess

    I can’t believe they left out Operation Ivy Bells, that was an enormously successful operation that gave us a massive amount of information on Soviet naval operations in the Pacific.