This month is the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the US nuclear submarine base at Holy Loch on the Clyde. The event was not without controversy. While it brought prosperity to the Dunoon area it was also the focus of protest until it was closed and the submarines sailed away.
The base was established as a NATO operation to maintain a ‘nuclear deterrent’ to the Warsaw Pact. It complemented the nearby Royal Naval nuclear base and both attracted the presence of Soviet Navy (and Warsaw Pact) vessels to counter them.
The result was a period of frenetic undersea activity in the waters around these Islands in which the Irish sea was a major factor.
Celtic League which had been monitoring military activity in the Celtic countries from the mid 1970s in 1981 also expanded this to include monitoring this new threat. We soon discovered a disturbing picture and over twenty years documented almost 200 incidents involving sinking, snagging and disappearances of commercial craft. Approximately ten percent of these were unexplained disappearances of Motor Fishing Vessels.
We led a vigorous campaign lobbying the International Maritime Organisation. We collaborated with other groups and individuals such as the Faslane Peace Camp (still active) and Irish CND. I personally addressed conferences on the issue in the UK and Ireland. We also mounted a campaign of global publicity. We sought and gained the support of sympathetic parliamentarians (notably Hugh Byrne in Ireland and George Foulkes in Scotland) in both the UK and Irish parliaments. During the period there was obfuscation and evasion from the MOD. The MOD and USN owned up when they were caught out as with ‘Antares’ and ‘Sheralga’. They paid compensation when their submarines were so entangled that they had to surface. However for the most part they stayed silent not least on the growing tally of losses.
Eventually the IMO did move after the direct intervention of the Irish Government and adopted resolutions addressing the issue.
When the Holy Loch closed Celtic League arranged for a wreath to be deposited in an area to the South of the Isle of Man designated as a submarine exercise area. On a stormy morning League member Mark Kermode (then AGS) laid the wreath with the names of a number of MFVs which had simply disappeared with their crews. He recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The Holy Loch nuclear submarine base is not just a footnote from history; it had a human dimension – in many instances still not properly investigated.
After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact the problem waned. However it never ended and recent incidents off Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall show it has not gone away!
BBC (NI) Report mid 1987 (includes Celtic League interview):
Image: The USN Submarine Tender HMS Proteus based on the Clyde – Inset (Top Left) The submarine ‘motorways’ 1980s Inset (Lower Right): A ‘youthful’ J B Moffatt interviewed by the BBC 1987.
Celtic League Military Monitoring (8th March 2021)