After serving two years on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, I went from serving on one of the largest ships in the world to one of the smallest, as I was assigned to a 100-foot Navy harbor tugboat at the American nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch, Scotland.
The two tugboats at the floating naval base in the middle of the loch were the workhorses of Submarine Squadron 14. In addition to towing submarines and barges in the loch, the tugboats were also sent out to rendezvous with submarines at sea. The tugboats engaged in naval exercises with the submarines and performed medical evacuations and intelligence missions.
I recall the American, British and Soviet submarines playing dangerous cat and mouse games in the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic, and had the Cold War turned hot, as Trevor Royle states in his book “Facing the Bear: Scotland and the Cold War,” Scotland would have been a prime target for destruction by the Soviets.
The Cold War, which lasted roughly from the end of World War II in 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, saw the US and NATO allies poised and ready for war with nuclear-armed missiles aimed at the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc nations.
“For much of the period Scotland was on the front line, mainly due to its position on NATO’s “northern flank” — the waters of the north-east Atlantic and the Norwegian and Barents Seas with the vital Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap through which Soviet nuclear-armed submarines and strategic bombers would have attacked in the event of an outbreak of hostilities,” Trevor Royle writes. “That made Scotland the first major obstacle: it would have been in these northern seas and over Scottish skies that the first battles would have been fought. That accounted for the build-up of sophisticated antisubmarine warfare facilities and air defenses in Scotland and it was from the American and British bases on the Clyde that the strategic submarines would have launched the response by way of Polaris and Poseidon missiles, each of them capable of destroying Hiroshima several times over.”
In Mr. Royle’s history of the Cold War era in Scotland, he notes that not everyone was happy with the American Navy creating a nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch near the Clyde. The 1960 US-UK deal to allow the Polaris-equipped submarines to locate in Scotland became a focal point for anti-nuclear protests. Mr. Royle explains that the movement attracted pacifists, environmentalists, trade unionists and leftist politicians. Yet many Scots welcomed the Yanks and were thankful for the defense partnership, as well as the infusion of dollars into the local economy.
As Mr. Royle, a broadcaster and military historian, tells us, Scotland played a key role in NATO’s forward maritime defense operations, which helped contain the threat from the Soviet Bear. During this period, 10 per cent of the British air and naval forces were based in Scotland, including a submarine base at Faslane. The American presence in Scotland, in addition to the Holy Loch submarine base, included top secret satellite stations. The British and American military bases not only provided for the defense of Scotland, the rest of the U.K. and the NATO partners, but the military also brought huge economic boosts to the region.
Although there were events that nearly led to World War III during the Cold War, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U.S.-USSR standoff during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, kept the Cold War from turning hot. With MAD, even if the Soviets totally destroyed the U.S., the UK and other NATO partners in a surprise missile attack, the nuclear-armed aircraft in the air and the nuclear-armed submarines under the sea would launch a counterattack that would totally destroy the Soviet Union. The USSR was also equipped with this deterrent.
According to Mr. Royle, the MAD strategy was based on the “special relationship” which had come into being during World War II and which was cemented in the late summer of 1958 by the signing of the Agreement for Co-operation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes. This agreement enabled both countries to exchange classified information with the objective of improving atomic weapon design, development, and fabrication capability.
The U.S. and U.K. military bases in Scotland helped keep the Soviet Bear in check during the Cold War.
The book also covers the Scottish regiments that served in the Korean War and in West Germany, as well the Scottish cultural aspects of the Cold War. The book even mentions briefly my old Navy tugboat, the USS Saugus, YTB-780.
“Facing the Bear” is an interesting look back at the Cold War era in Scotland.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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FACING THE BEAR: SCOTLAND AND THE COLD WAR
By Trevor Royle
Casemate, $40, 368 pages