Recurring spectres of U-137

On 27 October 1981 a Soviet submarine, often referred to under the designation U-137, ran aground in the Swedish archipelago near Karlskrona, the main Swedish naval base. The event shocked many Swedes, and it became one of few occasions during the Cold War when Swedish and Soviet naval forces actually met. The fear of an enemy attack from the opposite shores of the Baltic had been strong in Sweden since the late 1940s. U-137 turned these fears into a material encounter with the enemy.

Ever since, the spectre of Soviet and Russian submarines has continued to haunt the Swedish naval forces and the people who live in or visit the archipelago. The Swedish military has, on numerous occasions, stated that it has spotted one or the other submarine in the country’s territorial waters. But the borderline between reality and imagination has always been thin, being shaped by the lingering memories of U-137.

Today’s Svenska Dagbladet tells the story of how the Swedish navy on 21 October 2014 intercepted a coded radio signal in the outer Stockholm archipelago of Stockholm, in the sea just east of Huvudskär. At that time the navy was already active in the area, following earlier indications of enemy activity in Swedish waters. The navy had received calls from locals who had spotted unusual movements in nearby waters. Inevitably, anyone old enough to have experienced the U-137 events back in 1981 associated any strange appearances in the archipelago with a possible Russian submarine. In the 2010s the return of such vessels to Swedish coastal waters did not seem that far-fetched, because diplomatic relations between Sweden and Russia had been notoriously frosty for some time, and Russian military activity in the Baltic Sea was clearly increasing.

The signal from Huvudskär was taken as unambiguous evidence of a foreign submarine operating in the archipelago. Head of Sweden’s armed forces Sverker Göransson called a press conference, telling stunned journalists that he was 100% certain that “a smaller submarine has violated the integrity of Swedish territorial waters”. Swedish Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist commented: “The violation that has occurred is brutal and serious”. Both Göransson and Hultqvist, both born in the 1950s, had been young men back in 1981, and they still remembered the shocking images of U-137 on ground off Karlskrona.

However, it subsequently turned out that the coded signal came from an advanced meteorological buoy located in the waters off Huvudskär. As it happened, the Swedish weather service SMHI was in the midst of a mission to repair it. In this connection its repair ship, M/S Fyrbyggaren, communicated with the buoy through radio signals of a kind that were very similar to the ones that the Swedish navy was just listening out for. Two Swedish submarines were at the time hidden in the southern reaches of Stockholm’s outer archipelago, actively listening and looking day and night for any signs of the enemy, which they thought was hiding in Swedish coastal waters.

Events of this kind are likely to recur in the years to come. They are immensely popular in the Swedish media, mysteriously capturing the Swedish imagination in a way that few other things do.

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