North Pole Submarines

HMS Tireless and USS Pargo rendezvous at the North Pole in 1991. The submarines remained on the surface for 24 hours during which the crews played a cricket match.

A List of the Underwater Transits of the Canadian Northwest Passage 1958 to 2009

by John MacFarlane (1990 - Revised 2010, 2011)


Now a new and different type of ship regularly passes under the Arctic Ocean ice pack, often travelling from ocean to ocean. Nuclear–powered submarines have been making this voyage for years on missions cloaked in secrecy for many years. Submarines of at least three nations (the United States, the UK and Russia) have surfaced at the North Pole using special sonar technology to facilitate the point of breakthrough in the ice.

Curiously, a Passage to China via the North Pole was proposed to King Henry VIII by Robert Thorne saying that "sailing northwards and passing the Pole, descending to the Equinoctial Line, we shall hit the Spice Islands a shorter way than the Portuguese." Adding "There is no land uninhabitable nor no sea un–navigable." From the experience of US nuclear submarines in the area Thorne’s statement seems not too far from the truth. The USS Nautilus, in 1958, sent ripples of excitement to the world when Captain William Anderson revealed that his submarine had passed under the North Pole traveling from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

Captain James Calvert in the USS Skate subsequently surfaced at the Pole in 1960 during a winter cruise emphasizing the strategic significance of the polar waters to the world's navies. That same year two other United States submarines surfaced at the Pole (USS Sargo and USS Seadragon) signalling that the area at the top of the world had become a regular patrol route. The last part of the Northwest Passage was explored and utilized.

Not to be outdone, the Soviet navy nuclear submarine Leninskiy Komsomolets surfaced at the North Pole but it is unclear whether this is a capability which is routinely practiced. I was not able to find other records of surfacing Soviet submarines surfacing but presumably this has happened at other times. Although the tradition of submariners being the "silent service within the silent service" has kept the details of these voyages shrouded in mystery we have been able to track down some of the records. More than 60 under–ice voyages are publicly known to have been made either through the Passage itself or to the North Pole (often from ocean to ocean.) Rumors of even more intensive activity abound.

Under the Sector Principle, Canada claims Arctic waters from the Canada - Alaska Boundary in the West to the Greenland-Canada Boundary in the East in straight lines converging on the North Pole. This claim gives Canada authority to the sea contained within that sector. It is generally felt, by Canadians, that there is considerable under–ice marine traffic in the Canadian Arctic waters. Nuclear-powered submarines of several nations are probably transiting Canadian waters there on a regular basis. Little official public data is available to verify the basis for that attitude, but the existing records lead us to believe that this is probably an everyday occurrence.

Photographs of Nuclear Submarines from different countries surfaced at the North Pole confirm that some foreign submarines are present, from time to time, in Canadian waters. There is unlikely to be regular economical commercial surface navigation through the Passage in the near future. Navigation conditions are too formidable under prevailing economic and strategic conditions. However the global strategic positioning of the Passage continues to make it an important operational area for nuclear submarine fleets. Undoubtedly, control of the Northern Hemisphere will hinge upon the ability of submarines, with missiles, to operate undetected under the icecap. With the ability to surface through the ice to launch, or to launch through the icecap will make a submarine in that area a very strategic platform. The search for opposing submarine forces presents special challenges to skippers operating in those waters.

A List of the Underwater Transits of the Canadian Northwest Passage 1958 to 2009
Year Vessel Captain Country Details
1958 USS Nautilus CDR William R. Anderson USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-571) First vessel to reach the North Pole. Full transit (Pacific Ocean to Atlantic Ocean under the North Pole)
1958 USS Skate CDR James F. Calvert USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-578) Partial transit (Greenland Sea to North Pole and return. She surfaced at the North Pole on 12/08/1958.)
1959 USS Skate CDR James F. Calvert USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-578) (She was the first submarine to surface at the North Pole, and undertook the first winter polar cruise.)
1960 USS Sargo LCDR J. Nicholson USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-583) Partial transit from Bering Sea and return. She remained under the ice for 31 days and surfaced at the North Pole.
1960 USS Seadragon CDR George P. Steele USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-584) Full transit, Parry Sound and Lancaster Sound (She surfaced at the North Pole where crew played baseball. She was the first vessel to make an east to west transit of the Northwest Passage.)
1962 USS Skate CDR Joseph Skoog USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-578) Partial transit from Groton CT and return. She rendezvoused with the USS Seadragon at the North Pole.
1962 USS Seadragon CDR Charles Summit USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-584) Partial transit from Pearl Harbour HI USA and return. She rendezvoused with USS Skate at the North Pole.
1962 Leninskiy Komsomolets (K-3) Captain L.M. Zhiltsov USSR On July 17, 1962, the K-3 surfaced near the North Pole and passed under the pole twice. The Captain was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for this feat.
1969 USS Skate CDR Phoenix USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-578). Polar transit.
1969 USS Pargo CDR Steven White USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-650) Partial Transit via North Pole (surfaced.) She spent 24 days under the ice and surfaced 20 times in ice.
1969 USS Whale CDR M. Wolfe USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-638) Partial transit. She surfaced at the North Pole 60 years to the day and hour of the arrival there of Robert Peary and Matthew Henson in 1909.
1970 USS Queenfish CDR Alfred McLaren USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-651) Full transit via the North Pole. She surfaced at the North Pole and retraced the route of the USS Nautilus. She also undertook Siberian shelf operations.
1970 USS Hammerhead CDR Powell F. Carter USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-663) She reached the North Pole
1971 USS Skate CDR David A. Phoenix US USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-578). Polar transit.
1971 H.M.S. Dreadnought CDR A. Kennedy RN UK Nuclear Submarine, (S-101) Partial transit. She was the first British submarine to reach the North Pole.
1971 USS Trepang CDR D.R. Sackett USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-674). Polar transit.
1973 USS Seadragon CDR Thomas Jacobs USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-584). Polar transit.
1973 USS Hawkbill CDR Thomas E. Ross USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-666). Polar transit.
1975 USS Bluefish CDR Frank B. Kelso USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-675) She reached the North Pole (with Greenland operations)
1976 USS Gurnard CDR Ralph W. West USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-662) She reached the North Pole, (Beaufort Sea shallow water operations)
1976 H.M.S. Sovereign CDR M. G. T. Harris RN UK Nuclear Submarine, (S-108) She reached the North Pole.
1977 USS Flying Fish CDR Thomas A. Meinicke USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-673) She reached the North Pole.
1978 USS Pintado CDR J.J. Jack McDonald USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-672) She reached the North Pole.
1979 USS Archerfish CDR Galen R. Plummer USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-678) She reached the North Pole, (Baffin Bay, Nares Strait operations)
1981 USS Silversides CDR Merrill H. Dorman USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-679) She reached the North Pole.
1982-3 USS Tautog CDR Philip G. Klintworth USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-639) She reached the North Pole.
1982-3 USS Aspro CDR F.P. Gus Gustavson USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-648) She reached the North Pole.
1983 USS Tautog CDR Thomas R. Kent USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-639). Polar transit. She was the 3rd vessel to surface 3 times at the North Pole.
1983 USS L.Mendell Rivers CDR H.W. Holden USN USA Nuclear Submarine, (SSN-686) She reached the North Pole.
1984 USS Grayling CDR Wm. A. Bill Evans USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-646). Polar transit.
1984 USS Spadefish CDR George P. Bardsley USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-668). Polar transit.
1984 USS Gurnard CDR Cliff A. Wiese USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-662). Polar transit.She was with the USS Pintado to be the 3rd pair of vessels to rendezvous at the North Pole.
1984 USS Pintado CDR Richard P. Dick Vidosic USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-672). Polar transit.She was with the USS Gurnard to be the 3rd pair of vessels to rendezvous at the North Pole.
1985 USS Trepang CDR Woolrich USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-674). Polar transit.
1985 USS Seadevil CDR Mies USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-664). Polar transit.
1985 USS Queenfish CDR J. Harvey USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-651) She rendezvoused at the North Pole with the USS Aspro.
1985 H.M.S. Turbulent CDR Lightoller R.N. UK Nuclear Submarine. She made a polar transit.
1985 USS Aspro CDR M. D. Martin USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-648) She rendezvoused at the North Pole with USS Queenfish.
1986 USS Hawkbill CDR Arndt USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-666). Polar transit. She surfaced at the North Pole with the USS Archerfish and the USS Ray.
1986 USS Archerfish CDR Riegel USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-678). Polar transit. She surfaced at Pole.
1986 USS Ray CDR Johnson USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-653). Polar transit. She surfaced at Pole.
1986 USS Seahorse CDR Winn Harding USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-669). Polar transit.
1987 USS Pintado CDR Vidosic USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-672). Polar transit.
1987 H.M.S. Superb CDR J. A. Collins RN UK Nuclear Submarine. She coordinated the transit and surfacing at the North Pole with the USS Billfish and the USS Sea Devil
1987 USS Billfish CDR Jones USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-676). Polar transit. She surfaced at the North Pole with HMS Superb and the USS Seadevil.
1987 USS Seadevil CDR Napior USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-664). Polar transit. She surfaced at the North Pole with HMS Superb and the USS Billfish.
1987 USS L.Mendell Rivers CDR Bagaglio USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-686). Polar transit.
1988 USS Lapon CDR Mackin USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-661). Polar transit.
1988 USS Archerfish CDR Shalles USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-678). Polar transit.
1988 USS Queenfish CDR Joslin USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-651) Partial transit via the North Pole 30 years after the USS Nautilus passed under the North Pole.
1988 H.M.S. Turbulent CDR I. S. H. Richards R.N. UK Nuclear Submarine. She coordinated the full transit and surfacing with H.M.S. Superb.
1988 H.M.S. Superb CDR J. F.Tuckett R.N. UK Nuclear Submarine. Full polar transit, she surfaced at North Pole.
1989 USS Sturgeon CDR Cocolin USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-637). Polar transit.
1989 H.M.S. Tireless CDR T. P.McClement R.N. UK Nuclear Submarine. Polar transit.
1989 USS Silversides CDR Samples USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-679). Polar transit.
1990 USS Gurnard CDR Espinosa USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-662). Polar transit.
1990 H.M.S. Spartan CDR Hiscock R.N. UK Nuclear Submarine Polar transit.
1990 USS Puffer CDR Kyle USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-652). Polar transit.
1991 USS Seahorse CDR James Alley USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-669). Polar transit.
1991 USS Pargo CDR David Hearding USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-650) Partial transit. She rendezvoused with H.M.S. Tireless on the surface at the North Pole.
1991 H.M.S. Tireless CDR T.P.McClement R.N. UK Nuclear Submarine. Partial transit. She rendezvoused with the USS Pargo on the surface at the North Pole. She remained on the surface for 24 hours and the two crews played a cricket match.
1991 USS Archerfish (SSN-678) n/k USA Nuclear Submarine. Partial transit. She surfaced at the North Pole.
1992 USS Grayling CDR Robert P. Dunn USN USA Nuclear Submarine surfaced at the North Pole.
1992 USS Pintado (SSN-672) CDR Gary L. Graf USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1992 USS Spadefish (SSN-668) CDR Richard B.Williams USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1992 HMS Trenchant (S-91) CDR Shawn Turner RN UK Nuclear Submarine. Conducted operations in the Arctic.
1993 USS Spadefish (SSN-668) CDR Richard B. Williams USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1993 USS Puffer (SSN-652) CDR Richard A. Rick Wright USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1993 USS Pargo (SSN-650) CDR Brian J. Wegner USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1994 USS Whale (SSN-638) CDR Kenneth S. Scott Pugh USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1995 USS Cavalla (SSN-684) CDR Charles J. Joe Ledig USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1996 USS Pogy (SSN-647) CDR James T. Reilly USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1996 USS Sandlance (SSN-660) CDR George H. Bud Baker USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1997 USS Archerfish (SSN-678) CDR Steve R. Kremer USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1998 USS Billfish (SSN-675) CDR James G. Stevens USN USA Nuclear Submarine She surfaced at the North Pole.
1999 USS Hawkbill (SSN-666) CDR Robert H. Perry USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She surfaced at the North Pole.
2001 USS Scranton (SSN-756) CDR Clarence Earl Carter USN USA Nuclear Submarine (SSN-756) She conducted operations in the Arctic.
2001 USS Connecticut (SSN-22) CDR Frederick Fritz Roegge USN USA Nuclear Submarine She conducted operations in the Arctic which included the first SSN 688I Class submarine to surface at the North Pole and the first Arctic operations by a SSN-21 Class submarine.
2003 USS Honolulu (SSN-718) CDR Charles Harris USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted first high-Arctic operations by first-flight 688 and first first-flight 688 to reach the North Pole.
2004 USS Hampton (SSN-767) CDR Robert P. Burke USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted first multi-national North Pole surfacing with HMS Tireless since 1991.
2004 HMS Tireless (S-88) CDR Philip J. Titterton RN UK Nuclear Submarine. She conducted first multi-national North Pole surfacing with USS Hampton since 1991.
2004 USS Alexandria (SSN-757) CDR Thomas J. Kearney USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2004 USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723) CDR Chris Williams USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2005 USS Memphis (SSN-691) CDR B. Merz USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She twice conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2005 USS Charlotte (SSN-766) CDR Dennis E. Carpenter USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic and surfacing at the North Pole.
2005 USS Salt Lake City (SSN-716) CDR Tracy L. Howard USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2006 USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) CDR Steve Perry USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2006 USS Seawolf (SSN-21) CDR Robert S. Hopkins USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2006 USS Boise (SSN-764) CDR Rodney Mills USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2007 USS Connecticuit (SSN-22) CDR Daniel Christofferson USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic.
2008 USS Providence (SSN-719) CDR Michael Holland USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She conducted inter-fleet transfer transiting through the Arctic, surfacing at the North Pole to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the historic transit of USS Nautilus (SSN 571) in 1958.
2009 USS Annapolis (SSN) CDR Michael O. Brunner USN USA Nuclear Submarine. She surface at the North Pole to commemorate the 109th Birthday of the United States Submarine Force, the 100th Anniversary of Admiral Peary's and Mathew Henson's expedition to the North Pole.

Sources:

  • MacFarlane, J.M. (1992) Northwest Passage Challengers. In Resolution. Spring Issue. Maritime Museum of British Columbia;
  • Sale, Richard (2002);
  • Lalor, William G. (1959) Submarine Through The North Pole. In National Geographic. Vol. CXV, No. 1 January 1959;
  • Storrs, A.H.G. and T.C. Pullen. (1970);
  • Robertson, O.C.S. (1964);
  • Pullen, T.C. & C. Swithenbank (1990);
  • Pharand, D. (1984);
  • Nuligak (1966);
  • Canadian Coast Guard Northern Arctic Operations Division (1991);
  • http://www.csp.navy.mil/asl/Timeline.htm

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2012) Underwater Transits of the Northwest Passage. Nauticapedia.ca 2012. http://nauticapedia.ca/Articles/NWP_Transits_Underwater.php

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