April 6, 2023

23. Access Denied: The Kursk Submarine Rescue Story

23. Access Denied: The Kursk Submarine Rescue Story

In August 2000, the Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kursk sank in the Barents Sea, resulting in the loss of all 118 crew members. At the time, the UK Royal Navy's submarine rescue team was one of the best-equipped in the world, and they offered their services to help save the trapped crew. Access was denied. Today’s guest, Mark, was part of that team. 

Mark has led a colourful life, which has generally involved putting his life in danger for a cause.  He tells his story with unnerving candour and humility. Many of us will remember holding our breath for a week or so, hoping for good news from the tragedy of the Kursk. Unfortunately, it never came. Mark witnessed it all.

I am delighted that we will feature Mark again in a future episode with a completely different submarine story, but equally riveting. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Mark.

You can reach out to Mark on Instagram at @buck_taylor_.

Last week's episode
[Episode 22] Gough Whitlam Was Out To Lunch - It was a mad moment in Australian political history;  The 1975 Australian Constitutional Crisis - but don’t let that title put you off!  It’s a story of double-crossing, conspiracy theories, the CIA, Australia - a mature world democracy - without a government, demonstrations, dissent and a country in crisis.  And all, perhaps, because Gough Whitlam was out to lunch. 

Next week's episode
[Episode 23] Vietnam War: The Trail - The story of the Vietnam War has been told many times in many different ways. But how often have you heard what it was like on the ground for infantry soldiers walking The Trail - that daily grind of cutting through the jungle in pursuit of the enemy?  The unbearable heat, leeches, C-rations, booby traps, ambushes and counter ambushes. It’s a gripping and terrifying story which my guest Robin, a Vietnam Veteran, tells with passion and surprising humour. It’s a story that must be told over and over again so that we never forget. Welcome Home, Robin.

- We love receiving your feedback - head over to www.battingthebreeze.com/contact
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Thanks for listening!



[00:00:00] Mark Taylor: There was a call for help but it didn't come from government level It came from an admiral within the Russian fleet to an admiral in the British Navy.  [00:00:20] [00:00:40]


[00:00:54] Mark Taylor: School for me was a chore, which made life slightly difficult later on. I [00:01:00] loved the ocean. I think as many people of my generation, I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough, and it was those sort of documentaries that just started my love of the ocean.

[00:01:15] Steve: This is Mark Taylor. His is a story of an [00:01:20] infatuation with the ocean, which has taken him on an incredible life journey to witness human nature and the natural world at its very best, and its very worst.

[00:01:31] Mark Taylor: You could find me annoying the local dive shop from about 10 years old, trying to convince them to take me [00:01:40] diving, which eventually they did. That was the start of it. I moved to Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and pretty much every weekend, rain, shine, summer, winter, you could find me bobbing around the rocks and to me it just opened up a whole new world.

Becoming a bomb disposal diver

[00:01:57] Steve: It was a natural [00:02:00] progression for Mark to join the Navy. As it turned out, long before he could enjoy those underwater marvels of nature, he had to train with explosive ordinance. To you and me, that's bomb disposal.

[00:02:14] Mark Taylor: Yes, you are going be trained as a highly skilled diver, but the job there [00:02:20] is to dispose of mines while you're underwater. So that changed things and obviously it was a very exciting career. I did 14 years. I wasn't too bad 'cause I'm still here. And managed to travel all over the world diving, doing land-based and sub-sea mine and bomb [00:02:40] disposal.

Typical day in bomb disposal

[00:02:40] Steve: I was expecting to talk a little more David Attenborough than improvised explosive devices, but as it turns out, it's rather interesting.

[00:02:51] Mark Taylor: The UK is split into three areas. There's two teams in each unit. One is doing 'UXB' which [00:03:00] is unexploded bombs, which is the historical bombs that wash up on beaches. And then you also do 'IED' which is the terrorist type of bombs which is all surface stuff. So, having joined the Navy thinking I was going be Jaques Cousteau, I was screaming around the country with blue lights going, blowing [00:03:20] up used munitions and finding terrorist bombs and... disposing of those.

[00:03:26] Steve: It was slightly unnerving to be made aware that we have teams around the country continuously deployed in terrorist bomb disposal activity.

[00:03:36] Mark Taylor: You'd have to be from your phone going to [00:03:40] being on the road within 10 minutes. So you basically lived in the unit for a week at a time and then you'd get called wherever to do that sort of thing. You probably get one or two call outs a week. Many of them are hoaxes or false alarms, but there are still legitimate threats out there which the [00:04:00] guys still now today are... out dealing with.

A typical bomb disposal call-out

[00:04:03] Steve: So give me an example of a typical callout.

[00:04:06] Mark Taylor: An example was a..hotel in Plymouth. There was a bomb threat made. There was some bags in reception that had been dropped off. The procedure is to try and gain access remotely. So we [00:04:20] we had all the robots where we could drive them in with cameras and they have weapons on and you can go and... inspect. Now, they're good to a point but sometimes you can't gain access with those. So you suit up, [00:04:40] you carry a weapon under your arm and helmet on and you'd either go in and x-ray them, see what's in there so that you are not damaging goods for no reason. But if it was a legitimate threat and there's a time scale on it, you would basically just vaporize whatever [00:05:00] that was and then go back in, move on and clear the areas . A little bit naughty but we'd go in, cause chaos very often, pack up, wipe our hands and leave it for the police to sort out - obviously quite frustrating when it's a... hoax and you've made a [00:05:20] bit of a mess.

[00:05:21] Steve: And in this particular case?

[00:05:23] Mark Taylor: There was a legitimate threat and we went in, we fired two weapons into bags. We absolutely destroyed the... reception. One wall was all mirrors, they'd all gone. All the computers behind the reception were [00:05:40] smashed. There was toothpaste and shoe polish up all the walls. And it turns out it was a hoax. Half an hour after we left, the people came to pick up their bags. So it does happen, but it's... when you've got a legitimate threat like that and it's been called in, it has to be dealt with. And you are trying to [00:06:00] keep the general public safe and you have to act on the intelligence you've got. So, sometimes there's mistakes.

Land-based unexploded bombs

[00:06:07] Steve: Okay. That's the terrorist threat sorted. So let's talk about land-based unexploded bombs.

[00:06:14] Mark Taylor: Very often we'd blue light to North Wales or Liverpool all the way from Plymouth to [00:06:20] go and dispose of munitions on beaches and things like that. It's still so busy. There was so much munitions dropped or fired during the wars, and there are also many ranges around the UK that they use to test weapons, that it is constant. Mines and bombs washing up on a daily [00:06:40] basis, fishermen trawling up different weapons and things so yeah, it's... a busy, busy job.

[00:06:46] Steve: We're talking World War II?

[00:06:48] Mark Taylor: Yes, mainly World War II...

[00:06:50] Steve: Any World War I?

[00:06:52] Mark Taylor: Very occasionally. I did an exchange once over to Belgium where one of the [00:07:00] fronts were. It was a front during World War I and World War II. It was quite a long time ago but they were still digging up a ton of explosives a day. Many people who join the Navy or Army and get into bomb disposal, when they retire from the forces they'll go out and they'll work for [00:07:20] humanitarian groups and they just fly all over the world going to ex-conflict zones and just clearing up. Kids will be out playing in fields and find landmines and, yeah, it's... a huge huge problem.

Water-based mines

[00:07:34] Steve: And what about UXB's in the water?

[00:07:38] Mark Taylor:  Everybody [00:07:40] pictures a mine as this round thing with horns on. Nowadays there's so many variants of these mines. There's ones that look like torpedoes and they'll actually move around the seabed. So they'll listen to ships and they'll know the signature of certain ships. So if they hear a mine hunter coming they'll move out the way, let the [00:08:00] mine hunter come through and they'll move back into the area. So it's all autonomous. When you're a diver and you're trying to deal with those, your equipment is very, very state of the art. It has to be non-magnetic because some of the mines are set off by magnetics. It has to be completely silent, so you're [00:08:20] rebreathing your own gas, you're breathing a helium oxygen mix because you're at times you're going deep and as you go down there's certain protocols that you adhere to so that you... do not disturb what's going on. And then depending on what you find, you'll either put a counter [00:08:40] charge next to it to get rid of it or, if it's something new that they want to... ... look at and get the intelligence from, there's certain set procedures to disarm or lift to the surface.

[00:08:53] Steve: And how do you bring a live mine to the surface safely?

[00:08:56] Mark Taylor: So a lot of these mines, if you pull 'em up to the [00:09:00] surface they'll just detonate because they know they're getting tampered with. But they have... certain threshold in them so that they can compensate for the tide going up and down, so small pressure changes. So you basically have a system that lifts it a tiny bit, drops it, lifts it and it may take one or two days to bring it to the surface [00:09:20] but that system will automatically bring it to the surface without the mine realizing that it's being dragged to the surface.

VSW - 'very shallow water' missions

[00:09:26] Steve: There's another type of water-based bomb disposal too. It's known as VSW, short for 'very shallow water'.

[00:09:36] Mark Taylor: So you'd fly all over the world to different conflict [00:09:40] sites and you would go in to survey beaches without anybody knowing you were there. So you'd get dropped off by airplane, submarine. You'd go in, you'd survey the beaches to see if they were suitable for landing craft and amphibious assault. And you'd also make sure that there weren't any [00:10:00] munitions there or if there were, deal with them discreetly.

[00:10:03] Steve: For his last three years in the Navy, Mark was attached to the UK submarine rescue team. I asked what that comprised.

Submarine rescue team

[00:10:12] Mark Taylor: It was a standby system where a small submersible could lock onto a big military [00:10:20] submarine if it was having issues and couldn't get back to the surface, and we could transfer 14 to 16 people out at a time. And my role there initially was to be a chamber operator in the back of the small submersible to open hatches and get the people out and then transfer them into the big chambers,[00:10:40] and the people will transfer under pressure, remaining at pressure. You can shut the hatches again and then relaunch and keep going. Depending on the class of the submarine: military submarines I guess with about 15 people on and there's large submarines with in excess of 150 people on. When you're talking [00:11:00] 14 to 16 people at a time, multiple journeys and depending on the conditions down there, it can take quite a long time.

[00:11:08] Steve: As it turns out, the British are pretty good at this. The old submersibles have given way to what they call 'free swimming vehicles', small submersibles [00:11:20] specifically designed for rescue.

[00:11:22] Mark Taylor: There's two companies in the world that produce these. One's in Glasgow and the other one's in Yorkshire. And so, for that sort of vehicle they are cutting edge and they're selling these vehicles all over the world. We'd go and exercise with different nations and you'd [00:11:40] practice, sort of thinking that you'll never be called, but you were their insurance which was good for those guys to know that we existed.

The Kursk

[00:11:55] Steve: Well, on the 12th of August 2000, they did get called. [00:12:00] Things got very real. The Kursk, a nuclear-powered Russian submarine, reputedly unsinkable, sank in an accident during exercise in the Barents Sea.

[00:12:13] Mark Taylor: I got a... call recalling me immediately. Within several hours we [00:12:20] were mobilizing all the equipment, putting it into Antonov aircraft. All of the rescue equipment needed to be air transportable because you could be called anywhere in the world. So we mobilized our equipment, we ended up flying out of Prestwick in Scotland. And [00:12:40] as we were heading towards Northern Russia, even though we were in Russian aircraft,  at the last moment we were denied Russian airspace . It had got to government level and they got very paranoid that we were there to do other things rather than humanitarian aid. And so we got [00:13:00] diverted back into Norway.

Plan B

[00:13:02] Steve: 118 men helpless underwater, a rescue team within moments of reaching the scene with all the equipment and expertise to attempt a rescue, and they were turned back. Time for Plan B.

[00:13:18] Mark Taylor: We managed to find [00:13:20] another ship that we dragged from the North Sea. All the training we've done over the years, you know, you bring a ship in, you build the big A-frame which is a crane, you put the cradle on, you put the sub on, you put all the chambers on - to see it happen at full speed in real life, it was [00:13:40] amazing. We must have had 50 welders on the back deck of the ship. Everything needs to be inspected, classed, so that's all going on at the same time.

[00:13:51] Steve: The ship, the Normand Pioneer, the rescue submarine the LR5, and the rescue team were ready and [00:14:00] set sail for the Kursk. But sea journeys are slow and by the time they arrived it was seven days after the initial accident. On arrival, there was another problem.

Again, denied access to the Kursk

[00:14:12] Mark Taylor: When we got there, we were met by the Russian fleet in the Barents Sea who... [00:14:20] in no uncertain terms told us to keep out the way. There were lots of heated discussions and despite multiple requests to give it a go we were never allowed to go in. We know that when we arrived, based on some of the [00:14:40] letters that they found in the Kursk, that people were still alive... so so frustrating.

[00:14:46] Steve:  All 118 men on the Kursk perished. It's difficult to find [00:15:00] any positives in a situation like this But after the event, Mark's team put on a major exercise in Norway to demonstrate the capability that they were so upsettingly denied from deploying for the crew of the Kursk.

[00:15:14] Mark Taylor: We invited some of the Russian admirals and commanders to this [00:15:20] exercise. And we put on a simulation almost identical to the Kursk, with a Norwegian submarine sat on the seabed. And we vented, we locked on. The Russians in the back were very stiff-lipped and looking at us like we didn't know what we were doing. And within [00:15:40] seven minutes, at exactly the same depth which was about 120 meters, we were locked on and opening hatches.  

[00:15:46] Steve: There was a silence. The Russian admirals and commanders were contemplating the enormity of their recent actions and decisions in the Barents Sea.

[00:15:58] Mark Taylor: Two or three of these [00:16:00] guys had completely broken down. They realized that that's what we did. We weren't there to spy. We weren't there to gain intelligence. And they'd obviously lost some very close friends which could have been avoided.

[00:16:14] Steve: The Kursk disaster changed the course of Global Submarine Rescue.

[00:16:19] Mark Taylor: [00:16:20] Many nations realized that they had no rescue capability for submarines. And in this day and age the media, if you lose a submarine with its whole crew, you're gonna get crucified. And so the company in Scotland started to get orders globally [00:16:40] for submarine rescue vehicles.

Kursk memorial

[00:16:42] Steve: The experience of the Kursk still lives with Mark some 23 years later. One final point that we didn't mention. Once all hope for the Kursk's submariners had been lost, Mark's team were finally allowed onto [00:17:00] the site.

[00:17:01] Mark Taylor: We had a small service on the back of the ship. I guess there were 30 people . The Russians allowed us to sail over the site .We knew at that point there were no lives, they'd actually opened the hatch and the Kursk was flooded, and we lay a reef over the site. All [00:17:20] of us had tears. It was hugely emotional, and... sad because we never got the opportunity to try. [00:17:40] [00:18:00]