Above: Underside of HMCS Okanagan from HMCS Ojibwa's Periscope
From Able Seaman on HMCS Ojibwa's Commissioning Crew in 1965 until his retirement in 1997 as Fleet Chief Petty Officer, Maritime Forces Atlantic – the senior NCO in Canada's Atlantic navy, Jim 'Lucky' Gordon took the sea to heart and lived the life to the fullest. Highly respected as a Chief, he is also a gifted story teller. He has generously contributed both 'dits' and humorous explanations about the life of a submariner to our website.
Always, just under the surface, his dedication to standing on guard shines through - the Silent Service is serious business. The following introduction to Cold War Operations outlines the task; the stories are for later - except for the ones that can never be revealed.
Photo: Jim Gordon, Opening Ceremonies
HMCS Ojibwa July 6, 2013.
Hard to Imagine
It is probably very difficult to imagine how exhilarating it was to serve in HMCS Ojibwa during height of the cold war, spending weeks underwater on covert missions defending against the Great Red Tide of Communist Aggression. That was just fictional movie stuff that made James Bond famous.
The Right Stuff
But, it was really serious stuff requiring stealth and proficiency in submarine operational procedures. In the cold war era, several submarines were mysteriously lost, on both sides, with all hands while engaged in those cat and mouse operations. The Oberon class conventional submarines were among the quietest in the world and were tasked with some of the most ominous inshore operations.
During my time in Ojibwa we might have to slip into hostile harbours and remain undetected while gathering audio and visual intelligence on military facilities, warships and submarines. Or we might quietly surface to land special agents in small folding boats, or lock them out though the one man escape trunk while still dived, (think 007), always in the cover of darkness to carry out clandestine activities ashore. Then we would rendezvous with them for the recovery. They would paddle or swim out to deep enough waters and lower a small noise maker into the water for us to home in on with our sonar. We would raise the attack periscope and pass close enough for them to hook on. Once we towed them into safer waters we would surface to recover them.
Under Water Photography
Tasked with an underwater look in open waters we would move stealthily under soviet warships close enough to photograph their hulls and underwater equipment through our periscopes, again, without being detected or, above all, rammed by them. The 'look' at the right is of the underside of HMCS Okanagan taken from the periscope on HMCS Ojibwa in 1977.
(There is a story about getting rammed by a ship doing this. But that story is for another time)
In the approach to an operation the entire crew would be closed up at action stations, everyone responsible for essential input or backup for the overall mission success. It didn’t matter what trade you were, you had a station to man, vital to the achievement of that mission. You would find a cook on the torpedo fire control panel, a steward at HQ1 emergency response station, and the medical assistant on the contact evaluation plot. They were all trained and proficient at whatever they were tasked to do.
The Thrill of Detection
I was a sonar man and enjoyed the thrill of detecting, analyzing and reporting information required by command to strategize procedures for conducting the mission. The atmosphere would be electric. Absolute silence, (ultra quiet), throughout the submarine unless required to make reports.
The Exhilaration of Life at the Edge
During an underwater look eyes would glance upward as if they could penetrate the pressure hull and see the heavy Soviet Warship’s hull cutting through the water mere yards above. There was always some breath taking anticipation for the sudden crash, screech of metal on metal and violent shaking as the bow of the target vessel made contact with the submarine and brutally rolled it on its’ side. Then as her huge bronze propeller blades ripped through the pressure hull the entire submarine would shudder in tempo with the turning screw. The lighting would flash off and on and finally go from brown to black as sea water rushed in to smother all the life that had just been so highly charged. But in the end, audible exhalations would be heard throughout the boat as it gently heeled slightly to port and then silently assumed the down angle that would lead them, like a ghost, to the sanctuary of depth. Mission accomplished. It was exhilarating.
Not all James Bond
However, life in submarines was not all James Bond. There could be days and weeks of mundane patrol routine leading up to a few minutes or hours of spine-tingling action.
Even the Unwinding was in Secret
Then there are the memorable events of the ‘sneaky‘era - the post op wind down runs upon returning to port. We often called on a remote location or secure military base where we could be watched and controlled and not embarrass our Navy or our country. The common objective for these post operational visits was to unwind. For instance, Faslane, the submarine base in Scotland, had a cinder block room with a bar. Nothing much to break; but, beverage sufficient for effect. Now, that’s all about coming back down to earth, or up to the surface in our case. There are many amusing stories made of those mind bending occasions. So, more to come!