WWII equipment in Soviet nuclear tests: part 2

(part 2 of a 2-part series)

The “Snezhok” test (described in part 1) illustrated the effects of an atomic bomb on land and air systems of WWII vintage and the first generation of Cold War gear. A year later, a naval nuclear test involved WWII-era warships.

The Soviet Union’s 21 September 1955 nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya is sometimes compared to the USA’s 1946 “Crossroads Bravo” test at Bikini. There were similarities (both were the first underwater nuclear detonation by the respective countries) but also many differences.

Novaya Zemlya is a large island (it is actually two islands, split by a narrow channel) in the Russian arctic. It is cold, barren, and uninhabited.

map

(Novaya Zemlya with the naval test site marked in red.)

As the Cold War started, both sides naturally sought more powerful atomic bombs than the WWII devices 20 -25kT yields. But at the same time, work was also being done on less powerful nuclear weapons, more practical for delivery methods and more relevant to land or naval combat. In some ways, scaling down proved even harder than scaling up.

Early nuclear weapons were big in a physical (size, shape, and weight) sense. To fit an implosion-style warhead into a smaller shape, yielding a smaller blast,  meant reducing the size of the lensed HE detonator, and thus, the sphere of uranium or plutonium inside it. There were doubts that at a certain level, the critical mass of the nuclear portion of the device would not be enough for prompt fission to fully manifest. The Soviets wrestled with this issue during the early 1950s and during 1953, ran a series of three test blasts in one week of the then-lowest yields ever done in the USSR. These had “nuclear packages” less than 6 lbs in weight and yielded between 1½ to 5¾ kT detonations.

The Soviet navy was interested in this breakthrough, as it wanted to field nuclear-tipped torpedoes. Two uses were envisioned. The first was strategic and crude, to simply shoot one from a submarine towards an American port city.

The second was tactical. During WWII, US Navy and Royal Navy convoy escorting had been perfected and it was increasingly difficult for German u-boats to penetrate the ASW screen of destroyers, frigates, and shipboard aircraft; close enough to fire torpedoes at merchant ships. The Soviets envisioned “Objekt 233”: an unguided torpedo with a low-yield warhead and a range of around 40 NM. Here, any unsophisticated submarine could simply be alerted via radio of a convoy’s path, and while still far from the ASW screen, time a shot so that the torpedo’s path and the convoy’s path eventually met. It would not be necessary to hit a ship or even be exactly timed; as even a miss would still sink some ships and contaminate others. The warhead for this project was RDS-9.

assembly

(RDS-9 external mounting features.)

The RDS-9 was first tested ashore at Semipalatinsk on 19 October 1954. This was a failure, resulting in “fizzle fission” with just a 0.001kT yield, or the equivalent explosion of 2,000 lbs of TNT. Besides the disappointment, the area was severely contaminated as the “fizzle”s small blast still expelled a huge amount of radioactive fission byproducts along with radioactive pieces of the warhead.

After a study, three fixes were developed and consequently, three “new” RDS-9s were tested at Semipalatinsk during the summer of 1955, yielding 1.3kT, 12kT, and 1kT. The design which yielded the highest was approved and rushed to the next step, an underwater test; scheduled for the autumn of 1955.

comparisons between “Crossroads” 1946 and the 1955 Soviet test

In 1946 the US Navy detonated two atomic bombs against a target fleet at Bikini in the Pacific: “Able”, an airburst; and “Baker”, an underwater blast.

The USA invited media from countries allied during WWII to the “Crossroads” tests, including the USSR. The Americans were not dumb and knew in all likelihood that Soviet naval intelligence personnel would be posing as TASS journalists, but it was a diplomatic decision taken and accepted. Media access was naturally limited to the most unclassified of aspects, but it did give the Soviets at least a general understanding of what happened when an atomic bomb goes off underwater. Thus, the Soviets in 1955 would not be surprised by things like the “base surge” phenomenon as the Americans had been in 1946.

The first difference between “Crossroads” and the 1955 Soviet test, was that in 1946 the USA knew for certain the underwater “Baker” device would work – it was simply an encapsulated Mk3 a-bomb identical to the one dropped on Nagasaki. In 1955, the Soviets were still unsure if the RDS-9 would even detonate at all. Secondly, in 1946 the USA did not know what to expect as far as effects on military hardware, while by 1955 the Soviets already had a decent idea of how steel plates, radio antennas, gun barrels, etc would perform based on land test blasts. So the overall focus of the two tests was reversed.

arkansascrossroadsable

(USS Arkansas at Bikini in 1946, prior to test “Able” with WWII US Army vehicles on deck. The two lattice items pointing towards the expected ground zero were scientific instruments. This battleship was later sunk by “Baker”, the underwater blast.)

Of the 1946 “Crossroads” target fleet some warships, like USS Arkansas (BB-33) or IJN Nagato were old, hopelessly obsolete, foreign, or all of these. Others like the Sims class destroyers were not cutting-edge but still potent warships in 1946; and finally examples like USS Parche (SS-384) and USS Dawson (APA-79) were current-generation, first-tier types at the time and very young hulls.

In 1955 the Soviets made no attempt to balance their targets this way, as they were more interested if the RDS-9 even worked rather than how it would affect different naval technology tiers. While the Soviet target vessels were in theory seaworthy, none other than Gremyashchy still had any realistic war capability by the mid-1950s.

set-up

The test was held at Guba Chernaya, a bay on the southern side of Novaya Zemlya’s south island, with the exact site being 70°70’N 54°60’E.

map2

(2020 map via Copernicus satellite)

The map above shows the exact location. The ♦ is where the monitoring fleet was centered, about 4¾ NM away but obviously shielded by land. The outlined area is where a crude semi-temporary base camp, nicknamed Kushny’y, was built to support the event. It had a dozen or so simple buildings, some tents, and a small pier. “A-6” was the code name for a fallout monitoring station which also had a crude seaplane ramp. The × marks denote later blasts, the northern one being for airborne blasts against ships and the eastern one a single test to gauge the effect of a land detonation on offshore vessels. The 1955 site was itself used twice more for later underwater nuclear tests.

This site was extremely remote and hard to access, even to prepare for the test. The ground is hard rock and permafrost, and the bay itself ices over 4′ thick during winter. At the peak of summer, temperatures hover betwen 32°F – 39°F and colder at night. Everything came by ship; the nearest military airbase is on the eastern coast of the south island and not linked by road.

test plan

The “trigger” was an immobilized Project 253L light minesweeper, the Okhaotnik. Designed while WWII was still in progress, a total of 33 of these 128t displacement warships were built in 1946; a year too late for WWII use. They were not considered a great success.

pce2

(The ex-Okhaotnik “floating trigger” with two radio antenna masts, being towed by an American-built Soviet warship as described further below.)

For the test, the ex-Okhaotnik (renamed T-392) was stripped down and fitted with two large antennas to receive the radio command to detonate the warhead. The RDS-9 warhead itself was inside a watertight metal capsule shaped similar to a torpedo. It was connected by waterproof cables to the radio receiver on the “trigger” ship above.

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The test’s expected yield was 5.5kT. The criteria’s failure threshold was 1.3kT and the RDS-9 had an estimated upper possible theoretic maximum of 11- 15 kT. This huge span illustrated continued uncertainty with the RDS-9 design.

Lend-Leased warships still in the mid-1950s Soviet navy

Not related to the test per se, but still interesting today, is the Soviet warship pictured below alongside the “trigger” vessel. It is an American Admirable class minesweeper; now 10 years after WWII ended and still in full US Navy WWII configuration but flying the hammer & sickle.

pce

(An ex-American WWII warship alongside the “trigger” vessel in 1955.)

During WWII the United States lend-leased Admirable class minesweepers, along with other types, to the Soviets. After WWII ended in September 1945, Josef Stalin saw little benefit to either returning them or paying for them. Still technically American property, the Soviets did not even formally acknowledge them. For example T-118, the ex-USS Armada (MSF-145), was sunk by U-365 during WWII but the USA was not notified until years after WWII ended.

MSF138advocate

(Senior Lieutenant Lekarev, the ex-USS Advocate (MSF-138), was another Admirable class lend-leased minesweeper never returned after WWII. In 1956 it was converted into a torpedo transporter and was scrapped in 1963. The USA did not learn its fate until the 1990s.)

Per federal law these WWII warships technically remained on the Naval Vessels Register and the US Navy was periodically required to report on them to Congress. During the Cold War, token inquiries were made to the USSR as to when the ships would be returned or paid for, to no avail.

In 1982 President Reagan felt that common sense dictated these WWII ships were now all long gone, one way or another. As a goodwill gesture, Reagan ordered each deleted off the NVR as “transfer to USSR, no cost, effective 1 January 1983”. Thus they finally left the US Navy’s books, 38 years late.

target ships

There were eleven warships selected as targets (the “array”). About twice as many served in the safely-distanced support flotilla, centered around the requisitioned merchant steamship Emba. Regardless of type or where they had previously been based, all were reassigned to the 241st Experimental Ships Brigade of the Northern Fleet prior to the exercise. It was not necessarily desired that target ships be sunk, but it was acceptable if any or all were.

Water depth in the test area was between 114′ to 231′ deep, depending on where the target ships were anchored. It should be noted that the nuclear device and much of the target fleet were close to the shoreline, and to that, given the expected yield of somewhere around 5- 6kT, objects ashore were also expected to be affected by the base surge and seismic transmission of the underwater shockwave when it reached the shore.

Compared to the American “Crossroads” tests in 1946, there was less scientific staging for the 1955 Soviet blast but there were cameras and dosimeters set up on the target ships, and ashore, and on the two dozen or so vessels in the support flotilla safely away from the expected blast zone.

submarines

There were four submarines in the target array, two of them ex-Kriegsmarine war prize u-boats and the other two WWII-veteran Soviet subs.

ex-German Type VII class

S-81

suspended

(S-81 visible above the bow of the “trigger” vessel.)

S-81 had been Germany’s U-1057 during WWII. A Type VIIC, it displaced 871t submerged. U-1057 had been a training u-boat up until nearly the end of WWII, and was surrendered intact to the British in Norway three days after the overall German surrender. It was allocated to the USSR as a war prize by the Trinational Commission in December 1945 and was used for training and snorkel trials prior to the nuclear test.

The ex-S-81 was surfaced for the test, 547yds from ground zero.

S-84

s84afterww2

s84

(Top: S-84 after being awarded by the Trinational Commission with temporary name “N-25”. Bottom: S-84 on the morning of the nuclear test.)

S-84 had been U-1305 during WWII. A Type VIIC/41, this submarine differed only in minor details from the ex-S-81, the VIIC half-sister also at the nuclear test. During WWII U-1305 had sunk one Allied ship. It surrendered intact at a British port two days after the overall German surrender. It was allocated to the USSR as a war prize by the Trinational Commission in December 1945. From 1947 to 1951, S-84 was a frontline operational patrol submarine of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Thereafter it was a “second-tier” asset but still in commission.

S-84 was broached (partially submerged) for the test, 871yds from ground zero.

K class

b9

(B-9 prior to the 1955 test.)

B-9 had formerly been named K-56 during WWII, where it served in the Baltic Fleet, sinking two merchant ships during the war. It was a “K” class submarine displacing 2,104t and armed with eight torpedo tubes. At 320′ long, these were the largest Soviet submarines of WWII with only twelve built. Of these twelve, five were sunk during WWII.

Following WWII, B-9 had been part of an experimental 1949-1951 “big submarines” squadron. In April 1955 B-9 decommissioned and was delivered to Severodvinsk naval shipyard for preparations to be a nuclear target. The deck gun was removed and certain other minor changes were done.

For the nuclear test B-9 was submerged to 27′ depth, sited 874yds from ground zero. As the submarine had negative buoyancy, four barrel pontoons were tethered to it. It had test animals aboard.

Type X / IS-bis

s19

novzem

(S-19 while still in active Soviet service, and fitted with instruments prior to being submerged for the test.)

S-19 was a WWII Soviet Type S / IX-bis class submarine of 1,084t submerged displacement. In early 1945 S-19 had a docking accident which kept it out of action for the rest of WWII.

After WWII, S-19 continued in use as a coastal patrol submarine. It was refit in 1953 and decommissioned in June 1955 for conversion into a target submarine.

For the nuclear test, the ex-S-19 was submerged to periscope depth with data recording gear installed on the conning tower, positioned about ¾ of a mile away from the nuclear warhead.

surface warships

Six surface warships were in the target array. A seventh, the WWII escort ship Kern, was sited most distant and was completely unaffected due to the test’s lower-than-expected yield. It is not discussed further here.

Orfey class destroyer

novzem2

(Taken from aboard the “trigger” vessel itself during the set-up of the target array, this shows how close Reut, the ex-Uritski, was to the detonation.)

Reut, the renamed long-serving Uritski, was an obsolete Orfey class destroyer of 1,700t displacement which served in both world wars. During WWII this destroyer shot down three Luftwaffe aircraft.

As Uritski, this ship had been a dated holdover from what the original “destroyer” concept once was: a seagoing ship to screen dreadnoughts from torpedo boats. It was obviously unsuitable for Cold War naval concepts.

For the nuclear test, the Reut was the closest of all target vessels, only 987′ away, with the starboard side facing the blast.

Gnevny class destroyer

grem

(Gremyashchy late in WWII.)

Gremyashchy was one of 29 Gnevny class destroyers of the WWII Soviet navy, a successful 370′ long, 1,612t displacement destroyer class with excellent (38 kts) speed. They were well-armed, reliable, and equipped with radar.

Although Gremyashchy had received refits late in WWII (when it was also a popular warship with the general Soviet public) and again after WWII, now in 1955 the Soviets viewed the Gnevny class of limited Cold War viability. Their riveted construction limited what future systems could be retrofitted. To avoid any “dishonor” to this popular WWII destroyer, it was reclassified as as “research ship” and renamed OS-3 prior to the test.

For the nuclear test, the OS-3 / Gremyashchy was anchored 1,313yds from ground zero with the aft starboard quarter obliquely facing the blast. OS-3 was the only ship in the target array with boilers in operation during the blast.

Lieutenant Ilyan class destroyers

Valerian Kuibyshev

kuibyshev

Valerian Kuibyshev was an obsolete Lieutenant Ilyan class destroyer ordered under the czar during World War One but not finished until 1927. Of 1,720t displacement, this destroyer had been hit by a torpedo from U-571 and then damaged by a severe storm during WWII.

By the late 1940s Valerian Kuibyshev was obsolete in a combat role and was fitted with three prototype designs of abeam stabilization fins, a feature which became common on destroyers of the Cold War and up to the present time. With these tests done, there was little remaining use for the ship in the 1950s Soviet navy.

For the nuclear test, this destroyer was ¾ of a mile away from the blast, with the starboard side facing it. Valerian Kuibyshev was actually the same exact linear distance away as the submarine S-19, but was anchored in deeper water.

Karl Liebknecht

karl

One of Valerian Kuibyshev‘s sister-ships, Karl Liebknecht, was also in the target array. By the end of WWII this ship was already in poor mechanical shape and probably even worse so by early 1950s. It is surprising that the ship was still in use at all.

Karl Liebknecht was 1 mile away from ground zero, anchored to face the blast directly head-on.

Fugas class minesweepers

nov2

(One of the two minesweepers. The dash marks aided in determining list or trim changes through binoculars after the test.)

Two WWII Fugas class small minesweepers of 500t displacement were used in the test. Of the 44 built of this class, 16 were lost in battle during WWII. For the 1955 nuclear test, one of these two small minesweepers was 875yds away from ground zero facing it head on. The other was 1 mile away with the starboard side facing the blast.

the test

target

(This photo of the “trigger” vessel was probably taken about two hours before the blast and after the RDS-9 had been lowered by the crane aboard, when the last people of the support flotilla left the area.)

Once all was in position, the test device was submerged to 37′. The radio command detonation sequence went fine and the nuclear device detonated with a 3.5kT yield. This was quite below what the Soviets had been expecting but still within the “successful” criteria window.

novzem3

The above photo shows the water column forming. In a shallow underwater nuclear detonation, there is no “mushroom cloud” strictly speaking, rather a similarly-shaped output of seawater and steam which then falls back down.

blast1

Taken by an Il-28 “Beagle” jet bomber, this overhead view shows the shockwave expanding outwards, including to the shoreline in the lower left. On the right side, directly perpendicular to the blast and about halfway through the shockwave front, is believed to be Valerian Kuibyshev.

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This photo, a few seconds later, shows the water column blossoming out and beginning to come back down, as the base surge forms.

basesurge2

The Soviets planned that one side of the base surge (a rolling wall of radioactive water and seaspray) to cross the shoreline and actually expected it to move deeper inland, as the test was expected to  be a higher yield. This photo shows the base surge moving onto dry land. The Soviets placed test animals and reportedly, a pair of WWII seaplanes, in this area. During the USA’s “Crossroads” test in 1946, the base surge phenomenon had been unpredicted by pre-test modeling and was a nasty surprise of the underwater “Baker” test, as it coated the Bikini target fleet with radioactive water in every nook and cranny. Now almost a decade later, the Soviets knew to expect it.

results

novzem5

(The last moment of destroyer Reut, the ex-Uritski, as the shockwave reaches it. The objects in the foreground are distance marker buoys.)

The destroyer Reut was the only ship sunk outright (other than the floating “trigger”, which was obviously obliterated). Only a few hundred feet away from the detonation, Reut suffered total structural failure a second after the blast and was then smashed by tons of seawater as the blast column rained back down. The Soviets found the destroyer broken into three sections on the seafloor.

suba

The submarine S-81, one of the former WWII German u-boats and the closest of all submarines to the blast, was severely damaged. One compartment completely flooded out, the battery was destroyed, the outer hull was crumpled against the pressure hull, and internal components were heavily damaged by shock. Taking on radioactive seawater following the test, it was judged beyond saving and allowed to just sink on its own. The hull was subsequently raised and reused for a later nuclear test in 1957, where it was sunk for good.

S-84, the other former u-boat, was undamaged despite being only marginally further away than S-81. The official Soviet account of the test stated that S-84 would have survived an actual wartime blast of this yield and distance with no degradation of combat abilities.

After the test, S-84 rigged a makeshift hose apparatus and donor-refueled S-19. Apparently the Soviets did not expect that submarine to survive the test, as it did not have sufficient fuel remaining to reach the mainland USSR afterwards. This was no doubt a first; one submarine refueling another after a close-aboard atomic blast.

In late 1955 it was briefly considered to return S-84 to the fleet, to illustrate to sailors that nuclear weapons were not an invincible force. In December, that idea was cancelled. S-84 was later expended as a target during a 1957 weapons test.

after

OS-3, the former destroyer Gremyashchy, took very limited damage, mostly shock destroying internal components including much of the below-decks lighting. The fuel tanks were contaminated with seawater. Hull deformations on the starboard side popped many rivets which, while not really serious in its own right, made full repairs uneconomic.

When the base surge cleared, OS-3 seemed to be enveloped in a cloud of black smoke. Having ships on fire was not part of the test plan and would be an unwelcome surprise, as all of the scientific data from that ship would be lost. One vessel of the support flotilla was dispatched to extinguish the blaze but found that the “smoke” puff was actually just stack soot expelled by the overpressure of the shock wave.

Unlike the American target ships at Bikini in 1946 which were first “scorched” by the airborne Able test before the underwater Baker shot, none of the Soviet target warships here had any heat damage as the flash and thermal pulse were absorbed by the ocean. The discoloration to OS-3 above was just paint flaking from weather showing the darker primer below and soot as mentioned above.

This beloved WWII destroyer was finally scuttled in 1957 after cumulative damage in later naval wargames.

The submarine S-19 had denting to the outer hull and conning tower, but little other damage. Per the test plan one torpedo muzzle door (the seaward-side hatch of the tube) had intentionally been left open. The shock wave caused the cork seal of the breech door (the submarine-side hatch) to fail and the submarine took on 15 tons of seawater. Otherwise the submarine was undamaged and was towed to Molotovsk in the mainland USSR, where it was repaired in only two days. This submarine participated in two later naval nuclear tests in 1957, surprisingly surviving but heavily damaged. In 1957 S-19 was finally allowed to just sink on its own.

The destroyer Valerian Kuibyshev was undamaged but heavily radioactive. It was scrapped at Arkhangelsk in 1957.

Valerian Kuibyshev‘s sister-ship Karl Liebknecht should have, per pre-test planning, fared the best as it was distant and moored in deeper water, with the bow facing the blast which typically is better than taking the shockwave fully on one side or the other. However Karl Liebknecht sustained serious damage and was flooding when Soviet sailors reboarded it after the blast. The Soviets attributed this to the poor condition the destroyer was already in by 1955. A possible aggravating factor was that at its distance and position, it may have caught not only the direct shockwave but also a jolt refracted horizontally through bedrock under the seafloor and then back up vertically through the ocean. The ship had to be shoved aground to prevent its sinking altogether. It was patched up and converted into a moored service barge for later nuclear activities at Novaya Zemlya.

after1

(Close-up of the amidships area of submarine B-9 after it was resurfaced following the test, with the side facing ground zero having the sheet metal outer hull crumpled in. A hatch is open topside. Behind it is the OS-3 / Gremyashchy and a few hundred yards further, one of the two ex-minesweepers.)

The big submarine B-9 took on 30 tons of seawater but not all at once, with the ingress via many leaks over 30 hours. The electric motors were damaged but B-9 was made seaworthy again in under a week. The submarine was judged sufficient to sail on the surface under its own power. While traveling back to the mainland USSR both diesel engines, the battery, and the electrical lineup all again failed and B-9 was adrift for three days before a naval search plane found it. The captain was relieved from duty, presumably for being overconfident in the post-test repairs.

Never fully repaired, this submarine was reused in a later nuclear test in 1957, where it was sunk.

Of the two small minesweepers T-219, the one closest (875yds) was massively damaged and heavily radioactive, but to the amazement of the Soviets, was still somehow barely afloat. A complete wreck and now inundated by the radioactive base surge, it had been planned to just allow it to sink on its own but the wreck stubbornly refused to go down. It was later taken under tow and sunk in a later nuclear test.

The other small minesweeper, T-218, which was a mile away, had minimal damage (minor flooding to the propeller shaft alley) which was quickly repaired on-site. Given the distance the radiation aboard was higher than expected; this was attributed to small droplets of the dissipating base surge coming to rest on it. T-218 was reused in a later weapons experiment and sunk.

determination of yield and radiation

There was debate in the monitoring team afterwards as to what the weapon’s yield had actually been. One group based its findings on the physical damage inflicted upon the target ships and the visible above-water characteristics of the blast. These men determined it yielded somewhere between 3.5kT to 3.99kT. Another group based its findings on the measured radioactivity; these men determined it had been around 5kT, possibly slightly higher. The 3.5kT rating was made official without commentary or explanation why. In either case, the explosion was smaller than had been hoped.

By calculation, the team determined that the base surge’s radioactivity at its point of origin was 300 R/hr, which is astonishingly high. The highest actually-observed radiation was 80 R/hr. It was concluded that with an underwater nuclear blast, the base surge was the primary radiation hazard, rather than raw distance from ground zero. Aboard target ships with animals aboard, the worst radiation sickness symptoms were animals that either got wet from the base surge or inhaled it as mist; whereas animals in enclosed compartments had lesser symptoms. Likewise, after the base surge dissipated, animals deep below decks fared better than those in compartments just below deck or near hull sides, where lingering radioactivity was weakened but not stopped by one layer of metal.

A filmstrip of the test was released to the Soviet public two years after the event. Heavily edited, it omits any mention of radiation exposure and also edited out footage of the test animals. The filmstrip also had some creative embellishments; for example the cascade of little splashes after the test was described by the Russian narrator as pieces of smashed warships flying about; in actuality the splashes were radioactive pebbles gouged out of the seafloor falling back down.

basesurge

outcomes

The weapon being developed at the 1955 test was eventually perfected as the T-5 torpedo, using the RDS-9 warhead and a modified Type 53-57 torpedo body. The whole operational weapon was test-fired by a Cold War-era submarine in October 1957, also at Novaya Zemlya.

t4

(photo via atrinaflot.narod website)

The RDS-9 warhead may have had fundamental problems. Altogether the warhead’s final design was tested five times: the 12kT land test, the 3.5kT underwater 1955 exercise described above, and three later underwater tests of 10kT, 16kT ,and 4.8kT. There is no easy explanation for the same warhead design offering such widely different and unpredictable outcomes.

It was determined that during the 1955 test, the few hours the RDS-9 warhead had been in the water caused degradation due to cold. This was confirmed in later laboratory work. How this was addressed in operational patrol submarines, which kept the T-5 in an unheated torpedo tube for weeks or more, is unknown.

The T-5’s in-water performance was a far cry from what had originally been envisioned in the early 1950s, with just a 5½ NM range. None the less it was put into low-scale production in 1958. The last T-5 was withdrawn from service in 1990.

As warhead design was perfected later in the Cold War, the Soviets went on to design more efficient and potent atomic-tipped torpedoes, a nuclear depth charge, and surface-to-sub nuclear rockets. None of these really owed anything to the RDS-9 design, which was considered an evolutionary dead end.

fate of the test area

In Guba Chernaya bay itself, there were two more underwater blasts in following years (they were exactly sited over the 1955 test), one ground test, and two airborne tests. Later, a short distance inland north, several deep shafts were mined and at least half a dozen atomic bombs were tested underground.

Outside of Guba Chernaya, on Novaya Zemlya’s south and north islands there was a multitude of nuclear tests over the years. Guba Chernaya was apparently designated Zone A, as all test-related structures have an “A” prefix. On the eastern coast of the south island is Zone B, which saw much more testing over the years, and on the northern island is Zone C, which also saw more testing including the famous 50mT Tsar Bomba air-dropped weapon.

Of interest, during the Cold War, the United States made use of WWII Luftwaffe reconnaissance photos of Novaya Zemlya as an aid to tracking Soviet nuclear tests there. The old WWII photos were compared to ongoing U-2 and satellite imagery to observe new rockslides, craters, etc indicating a possible test.

Some later Soviet underwater tests, including the late-1950s “Koral” series, were even more intricate and loosely simulated actual battle formations, with operational submarines deploying the weapon. The Soviets ceased these types of exercises in 1962 and did not conduct any aquatic test of any type anywhere from 1964 onwards.

The 1955 test was unique in that except for the Il-28 “Beagle” photography plane and the RDS-9 itself, everything involved was of WWII vintage. Later exercises used some WWII equipment (including survivor target ships of the 1955 test) but in declining percentage to Cold War-era vessels and systems.

Overall, the two islands of Novaya Zemlya are “dirty” in a radiation sense even today, from all the tests there; about 130 known in all. Additionally, over 700 radiocative machinery pieces and vehicles from both Soviet industry and the military were dumped ashore or into the water.

All of Novaya Zemlya is in a closed border zone of the Russian Federation which takes special permission to enter for Russians and is almost impossible to obtain by foreigners. The Guba Chernaya bay area itself is under special control by the Russian Federation navy. Originally designated Objekt 700, it is now referred to as the 6th State Test Site and is a restricted area within a restricted area. There are three black & white, 19′ beacon markers at the site. The bay has heavy average cloud cover which makes even clear satellite photos of it uncommon. In early 2020, one captured the crumbling buildings of Kushny’y, the base camp built to support the tests.

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(Guba Chernaya in the spring of 2020.) (image via Bing Maps)

Based on anecdotal statements from Russia, the area is not closed off solely for sentimental reasons. Apparently one of the underground tests north of the bay was botched and off-gassed radioactive steam into the area. Any radiation from the 1955 underwater test, which was a very low yield, would be negligible to non-existent today.

Compared to the “Snezhok” test described in part 1, or the two American naval tests at Bikini in 1946, extremely little is known about the after-effects of the 1955 test on personnel or the measured radiation aboard each ship. Compared to either, far fewer people were involved and compared to “Snezhok”, there were no civilians involved or affected so the Soviet navy had little reason to be forthcoming.

(part 2 of a 2-part series)

2 thoughts on “WWII equipment in Soviet nuclear tests: part 2

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