The FV (Fishing Vessel) Gaul was a supertrawler with fished out of Hull, East Yorkshire. The vessel sank at an unknown time on the 8 or 9th February 1974 in the Barents Sea during an intense storm. All thirty-six crew members were lost with the ship. The official explanation for the loss of the vessel was that the Gaul was capsized by a succession of huge waves and sank before the crew were able to issue a distress call. However, as the Gaul was modern (less than eighteen months old) and specifically designed to operate in the harsh waters of the Barents Sea many people were sceptical of the official version of events. In the weeks and months after the loss of the Gaul, conspiracy theories – fuelled by the fact this happened at the height of the Cold War – began to emerge. While subsequent findings have shed more light on the fate of the vessel, many people (including members of the crew’s family) believe that the truth about the vessel has yet to be told.
Gaul was built by Brooke Marine, a shipbuilding company based in Lowestoft, Suffolk for Ranger Fishing of North Shields, Tyne and Wear. The Gaul was very large for a fishing vessel, being 66 metres (220ft) in length and having a fully-loaded displacement of around 1850 tons. This size was necessary as the Gaul was designed to fish in stormy Arctic waters for long periods of time, and also needed to process, freeze and store the fish the vessel caught.
FV Gaul set off from Hull on 22nd January 1974. The skipper was Peter Nellist who was captaining the Gaul for the first time, although he had vast experience with other fishing vessels of a comparable size. Gaul headed to the fishing grounds of the Barents Sea with its full complement of thirty-six crew on board. From the 29th of January onwards the Gaul fished continuously and without incident, making constant radio contact with other fishing vessels which were in the vicinity, and also contacted the home port of Hull a number of times.
In the early hours of Saturday 8th February the weather in the Barents Sea began to deteriorate rapidly, with a storm developing which progressed to 10 on the Beaufort Scale, meaning that the waves would be around 8-9 metres in height. Despite the weather conditions the Gaul was coping with the conditions, as the crew made radio contact with another fishing vessel in the area and also with staff at Hull at around 11am and did not report that they were in any trouble.
Initially, nothing was considered to be amiss but over the weekend of the 9th and the 10th of February concern began to mount when the Gaul first failed to report in (as was required by commercial fishing regulations) and then did not respond to radio messages. By the morning of the 11th of February an alert had been issued for all fishing vessels in the area to be on the lookout for the Gaul, and HMS Mohawk – a 2700 ton Tribal-class frigate of the Royal Navy – began to search for the Gaul. When the Gaul had still not made contact with anyone by early afternoon of the same day a full scale search was started with Norwegian rescue authorities launching a search and rescue operation, and the UK authorities sending more vessels to the area and preparing to search for the Gaul using aircraft.
The Search for the Gaul
The 2004 Inquiry reported that once the Gaul was believe to be in difficulties a search was launched on a “formidable scale” with 177,000 square miles of sea being “thoroughly searched.” The 28,000 ton Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Hermes was on its way to Norway to take part in joint exercises with the Norwegian Navy and changed its direction to join HMS Mohawk in the search. They were soon joined by a number of other Norwegian Navy and coastguard vessels. These were later joined by RFA Tideflow, a British 26,000 ton supply ship which refuelled and resupplied the other vessels and allowed them to continue the search. As well as this there were twenty-three trawlers in the area which broke away from fishing to search for the Gaul, and a large-scale air search was launched with British Nimrod and Norwegian P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft joining with Sea King helicopters to search by air. The search was called off at 4pm on 15th of February 1974 after no trace of the Gaul had been found. In the months that followed a Norwegian vessel found a lifebuoy from the Gaul, and other trawlers reported snagging their nets on obstructions which had not previously been present. Despite all of these discoveries being investigated the wreck of FV Gaul was not located.
With no wreck to analyse and no remaining crew members or witnesses it was impossible to come to firm conclusions over what had caused the Gaul to sink. The official explanation was that the Gaul sunk after being hit broadside on by a succession of huge waves which caused the vessel to take on water to such an extent it lost buoyancy and sank. However, as we will see this official explanation left a lot of questions unanswered and was rejected out of hand by a number of different group, most significantly many families of crew members.
‘Spy Ship’ Claims
With the loss of the FV Gaul had led to a number of theories being put forward to explain what had happened to the ship. The fact that the vessel had been lost in the Barents Sea – an area relatively close to the Soviet Union – during the Cold War meant that many people believed that Russia may have been involved. This was strengthened by the following factors. Firstly, the UK government refused to search for the Gaul, claiming that the initial search had been so thorough that there was little point in conducting additional searches as they would only yield the same result. Secondly, the Gaul was a brand new vessel of a modern design which had been specifically constructed to withstand the type of storm which had sunk her. Many people refused to believe that the Gaul could sink in the type of storm which its identical sister vessels has withstood without major incident and rejected the official explanation for the Gaul’s loss. Thirdly, no Mayday call was issued by the Gaul. This was considered immensely unusual as it would have been standard procedure to issue a distress call. Despite these claims and theories the British government continued to refuse to search for the vessel, putting forward the additional claim that the area was littered with the wrecks of Second World War ships which would need to be examined with complex specialist equipment to differentiate them from the Gaul, meaning that the search would be both too time-consuming and expensive. This had the effect of spreading the belief that the UK government had something to hide if the wreck of the Gaul was discovered.
However, the pressure was building on the British government with conspiracy theories and media attention eventually forcing the government to make a stunning admission – British trawlers were used to spy on Russian vessels and gather intelligence on Russian ship movements. The British government initially attempted to play this down, stating that Royal Navy personnel were sometimes present on fishing vessels, but only to gain “sea going experience.” However, it soon became clear that trawlers were used for spying. This was done by either requesting trawlers’ crews to takes notes on Russian ship movements and photograph Russian vessels, or by Royal Navy personnel actually being on board trawlers to carry out spying while at sea. The government admission led many people to believe that the Gaul was in fact a ‘spy ship’ – a fishing vessel which was used to collect information and intelligence on Russian vessels and may have even had Royal Navy personnel on board. If this was the case then there was a clear reason why the Gaul would have been the target of Soviet aggression.
The 2004 inquiry into the loss of the Gaul was highly critical of the government’s use of fishing vessels for spying, stating that the denial and then admission had led to mistrust in the official version of events and created “[an] unfortunate state of affairs [which has] festered for nearly quarter of a century.”
The Theories Begin
With the Gaul remaining undiscovered and the British government refusing to search for the vessel a number of theories began to emerge to explain the fate of the ship.
One of the main theories was that the ship’s crew had been convinced by the British government and Royal Navy to spy on Russian ship movements. The 2004 inquiry heard further evidence that there were actually thirty-eight people on board the Gaul (rather than the official thirty-six), with the additional two men being Royal Navy personnel. The conspiracy theory puts forward the idea that the Gaul was discovered conducting spying activities by a Russian vessel and escorted back to a Soviet port. All of the crew were then either killed by the Russians or imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp where they remain.
Another idea was that the Russians became aware that they were being spied on and – seeing this as an act of war – took military action against the Gaul. Other claims put forward the idea that a Russian surface vessel began to fire shells at the Gaul, which attempted to flee in a zig-zag course but was eventually destroyed. Another claim is that a Soviet nuclear submarine launched a torpedo or anti-ship missile at the Gaul, destroying the vessel instantly and explaining why it was unable to issue a distress call. Fearful that the destruction of a civilian vessel would raise the already high tensions of the Cold War over the edge the British government covered up what had happened and refused to search for the wreck of the Gaul, as its discovery would reveal the truth.
During the Cold War NATO nations used undersea SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) cables to track Soviet submarines. These cables contained hydrophones and other highly-sensitive listening devices which could listen to low-frequency sounds and therefore detect submarine movements. The theory was that the Gaul snagged its nets on a secret cable and then somehow became damaged enough to sink. Other theories purported that the Royal Navy or Americans witnessed the Gaul (accidentally) snagging on the SOSUS cables and mistook this for a Russian attempt to destroy the cables and therefore destroyed the Gaul themselves.
Another theory was that the Gaul accidentally collided with a Royal Navy submarine which was itself engaged in clandestine spying activities. This supposedly damaged the Gaul so badly that it sank, whereas more fanciful theories claim that rescuing the Gaul’s crew would have given away the Royal Navy submarine’s position and activities. The crew of the Royal Navy submarine then either left the Gaul to sink (making no effort to rescue the trawler’s crew) or deliberately destroyed the vessel themselves so that they could continue their operation undiscovered. Other claims put forward the idea that while fishing the nets of the Gaul collided with a submerged submarine, pulling the vessels under the water. This theory was given more credence in 1990 when the Royal Navy’s Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Trenchant snagged the nets of a fishing boat in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. The fishing boat was pulled under the water with all four crew members losing their lives. However, it must be noted that the fishing boat involved in this incident was substantially smaller than the Gaul.
The ‘design flaw’ claim put forward the idea that the Gaul had some catastrophic issue in its design or manufacture which was absent in its sister ships. This meant that the Gaul could not withstand the storm and heavy seas which it found itself in. Finding the wreck would expose the design flaw and there was therefore a cover-up so that the Gaul would never be discovered.
Further (almost entirely substantiated theories) included the following:
• A Danish radio station initially reported that the Gaul had been captured by Russian warships. The radio station and Danish government were then pressured by the UK to claim the report had been issued in error and withdrew the report.
• There were also claims that amateur ham radio enthusiasts in Britain had picked up distress calls from the Gaul asking for assistance. In the calls the crew of the Gaul stated they were being followed by a Russian vessel, and in the final call the crew stated that the Gaul was being boarded by Russian Navy personnel. The British government then ‘got to’ all of these radio enthusiasts ensured that the distress calls would never be made public.
• Others reports were that the crew of a Norwegian trawler saw the Gaul being escorted to Russia with two warships either side of it, but were ignored when they reported this to the UK authorities.
• These claims of a cover-up over distress and mayday calls was used by some conspiracy enthusiasts to explain how the Gaul could be tracked, boarded or captured by the Russians without any friendly vessels picking up radio messages from the Gaul.
From the loss of the Gaul in 1974 these theories swirled around, with the British government’s refusal to search constantly adding fuel to the belief that the authorities had something to hide. The mystery would continue for twenty-three years, causing anguish for the families of the crew who held on to the belief that the crew of the Gaul could all still be alive in a Soviet prison or labour camp. However, in 1997 the wreck of the Gaul was finally discovered and many – although by no means all – of the mysteries over this vessel were solved.
The Discovery of the Wreck of the Gaul
In 1997 a Channel 4 television production crew turned their attention to discovering the truth about the fate of the Gaul. The crew began to work on an edition of the Dispatches programme entitled Secrets of the Gaul. After extensive research they uncovered plenty of evidence that British trawlers were used to spy on Russian warships, with both Royal Navy personnel and trawler crew members stating on camera that spying was commonplace. Trawler crews would be issued with cameras and told to take pictures of any Soviet vessels they spotted, although they were not made aware of the danger this would place them in. There were also more sophisticated spying operations carried out with Royal Navy personnel placed on board trawlers specifically to conduct spying activities, and not simply to gain sea going experience. In the programme the former head of the British Section of the KGB, Mikhail Lyubimov, was interviewed and confirmed that a British trawler found to be spying in Russian territorial waters could be destroyed or the crew shot, although he did go on to say that this would obviously cause a huge diplomatic incident and the crew being arrested was a much more likely event. The programme also highlighted a close-call when a British trawler which was carrying specialist spying equipment and four Royal Navy intelligence operatives became stuck when its trawl nets became snagged on an undersea obstruction. While the trawler’s crew attempted to free themselves a Russian warship approached and offered to assist. A crew member was interviewed on camera and stated that the intelligence operative on board began burning papers and preparing equipment to by thrown overboard. The crew of the trawler also believed that they may be tortured by the Russians if they were discovered to be involved in spying. However, the programme uncovered no evidence that anyone on the Gaul was spying or carrying out instructions handed down to them by the British government or Royal Navy at any time.
The biggest revelation of the Dispatches programme was that they actually found the wreck of the Gaul. This was achieved relatively easily with the assistance of a Norwegian team who specialised in discovering lost vessels, despite the claims of the British government that the search would be too complex and expensive. The programme showed the Norwegian team lowering a remotely controlled submersible into the sea which transmitted a live feed back to the ship. When the submersible found the wreck they were able to examine the footage and confirm beyond all doubt that they had once and for all found the Gaul. The reporter who presented the programme, Callum Macrae, stated that the discovery led to a number of uncomfortable questions for the UK government to answer, such as why they claimed the area was littered with World War Two wrecks when the nearest one was almost forty nautical miles away, and why they had ignored Norwegian reports of the wreck (the Dispatches team found the Gaul very close to where Norwegian trawlers had been reporting snagging their nets on a previously unrecorded obstruction). One additional point which should be noted is that the side scan sonar and RV technology which the civilian search team used to locate the Gaul was either not invented or highly classified in 1974, meaning that it was much easier for the civilian team to find the wreck compared to those searching for it in the 1970s.
Further difficult questions arose when the Dispatches team interviewed a Royal Navy sailor who was involved in the initial search in the days immediately after the Gaul was lost. He stated that crew members of the frigate HMS Mohawk, which was once of the first vessels involved in the search, told him that they were 98-99% sure that they had located the Gaul a couple of days after the search began but the authorities did not act on this information. Family members of the crew were also interviewed in the programme and heavily criticised the British government, saying that their minds would have been put at rest decades ago if there had been proper searched for the wreck of the Gaul.
What Really Happened?
With the wreck of the Gaul being located some of the conspiracy theories about the vessel could be put to rest. The wreck of the Gaul was relatively intact, meaning that it had not been destroyed by torpedoes or missiles and collision with another vessel was unlikely. Furthermore human remains and clothing were found in the wreckage (DNA analysis confirmed they were the remains of crew members) meaning that the crew had gone down with the ship and not been arrested or imprisoned within Russia. It was also revealed that the Gaul was not fishing when it sank and did not have its nets in the sea, also ruling out the theories which stated that the Gaul may have snagged its nets on a SOSUS cable or been dragged underwater when its nets collided with a submerged nuclear submarine.
With most of the major conspiracy theories ruled out work could begin on working out what actually happened to the Gaul, with the findings collated in a new inquiry in 2004. Although this inquiry agreed that the Gaul had been hit broadside on by a succession of large waves it did not agree that this had been solely responsible for the Gaul’s sinking. The vessel should have been able to withstand such waves and there therefore had to be an additional factor which played a part.
The 2004 inquiry highlighted the fact that the Gaul was a factory freezer where the catch was cleaned and filleted prior to being frozen. This meant that the design of the Gaul was fairly complicated as it needed to incorporate both a factory deck where a section of the crew would process the fish and a system of duff and offal chutes where the waste products produced by filleting, and other rubbish, could be ejected into the sea. On its last voyage the Gaul was being skippered by Peter Nellist, a man who had vast experience of working on trawlers of a comparable size to the Gaul. The vessels he had skippered, however, were whole fish freezers. In these vessels fish were simply caught and frozen with no filleting or processing taking place on board. This meant that there was no factory deck or system of duff and offal chutes. Indeed, on whole fish freezer trawlers there was usually only a single fish hatch (which was visibly to from the bridge) which needed to be closed to stop the vessel from flooding in heavy seas. On the Gaul the system of duff and offal chutes meant that there were many more points which needed to be secured to ensure that water would not flood into the ship during a storm. This made the risk of the Gaul flooding, and having its stability dangerously compromised, much greater. However, as the inquiry pointed out, there had been no upgrade in training to make the crew aware of this.
Analysis of underwater footage and pictures of the Gaul at its resting place on the seabed revealed that the duff and offal chutes were in the open position – a key clue in explaining what happened to the Gaul. It was concluded that when the storm began the hatches and offal chutes were left in the open position, allowing seawater to flood into the vessel. As the storm worsened the crew attempted to turn the Gaul so that it faced the waves head on (the correct procedure in this situation). However, with potentially hundreds of tons of water inside the Gaul would have had its buoyancy seriously compromised. It was concluded that turning the vessel caused the water which had flooded into the vessel to slosh to one side, causing the Gaul to capsize and then sink rapidly.
Despite the discovery of the wreck of the Gaul and evidence of the open chutes and doors ruling out many of the theories about the crew being captured by the Russians or the Gaul destroyed by a submarine many questions remain. There has never been a convincing explanation as to why the UK government was so reluctant to search for the Gaul, and the relative ease which the Norwegian team hired by the Dispatches programme found the wreck makes the actions of the government look even more incomprehensible. Furthermore, the Dispatches programme revealed once and for all that trawlers were used for spying on Soviet ship movements and Royal Navy personnel were placed on board commercial fishing vessels. This was an extremely significant development as it was something which had been long denied by the British government.
Indeed, the British government does not come out of the Gaul tragedy at all well. At the very least they caused unnecessary anguish to the families of the Gaul’s crew by refusing to search for the vessel and allowing the conspiracy theories to emerge and then multiply. The letters written to the government (which were published in the 2004 inquiry) show that many family members held onto the belief that the crew could still be alive and held in Russia if, as many believed, the crew of the Gaul had been arrested for spying. The lack of any search for the Gaul prevented the families from getting closure on what had happened and it is unacceptable that it took a privately funded expedition from a TV channel to eventually find the wreck.
The bell of the Gaul was recovered from the wreck and was rang at two services in February 2014 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the loss of the vessel.
The Dispatches programme, The Secrets of the Gaul, won a Royal Television Society award for the best current affairs programme in 1997. The six parts of the programme can be watched in full on YouTube here.
A novel called Spy Ship was published in 1981 and was closely based on the loss of FV Gaul. A six episode BBC television series based on the novel, also called Spy Ship, followed in 1983. The DVD of the series can be purchased from Amazon by clicking here, and the novel by clicking here.
The loss of the Gaul remains the worst peacetime disaster to befall the British commercial fishing industry.