Operation Strikeback

Operation Strikeback
Operation Strikeback
Part of Cold War (1953–1962)
GIUK gap.png
The "GIUK Gap".
Type NATO multi-lateral naval training exercises
Location North Atlantic Ocean, GIUK Gap, Norwegian Sea
Planned by Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT)
Objective Deployment of NATO anti-submarine warfare and aircraft carrier strike forces
Date September 3–12, 1957
Executed by Vice Admiral Robert B. Pirie, USN, Commander Striking Fleet Atlantic (STRIKFLTLANT)
Outcome Exercise successfully executed.

Operation Strikeback was a major naval exercise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that took place over a ten-day period in September 1957.

As part of a series of exercises to simulate an all-out Soviet attack on NATO, Operation Strikeback was tasked with two objectives. Its initial objective was the deployment of NATO's naval forces (designated the "Blue Fleet") against other NATO forces attempting to simulate an "enemy" navy that featured a large number of submarines (designated the "Orange Fleet"). Its other objective was to have the Blue Fleet execute carrier-based air strikes against "enemy" formations and emplacements along NATO's northern flank in Norway.

Operation Strikeback involved over 200 warships, 650 aircraft, and 75,000 personnel from the United States Navy, the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the French Navy, the Royal Netherlands Navy, and the Royal Norwegian Navy. As the largest peacetime naval operation up to that time, military analyst Hanson W. Baldwin of the New York Times characterized Operation Strikeback as "constituting the strongest striking fleet assembled since World War II."[1]

Operation Strikeback and the other concurrent NATO exercises held during the fall of 1957 would be the most ambitious military undertaking for the alliance to date, involving more than 250,000 men, 300 ships, and 1,500 aircraft operating from Norway to Turkey.[2][3]



Strategic overview

Faced with the overwhelming numerical superiority of Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact military forces, NATO embraced the concept of the nuclear umbrella to protect Western Europe from a Soviet ground invasion.[4][5][6][7] This strategy was initially articulated in January 1954 by U.S. Army General and then-Supreme Allied Commander Europe Alfred Gruenther:

We have... an air-ground shield which, although still not strong enough, would force an enemy to concentrate prior to attack. In doing so, the concentrating force would be extremely vulnerable to losses from atomic weapon attacks... We can now use atomic weapons against an aggressor, delivered not only by long-range aircraft, but also by the use of shorter range planes, and by 280 mm. artillery... This air-ground team constitutes a very effective shield, and it would fight very well in case of attack.[6]

This strategic concept reflected the American strategy of massive retaliation of the Eisenhower administration as set forth by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles:

We need allies and collective security. Our purpose is to make these relations more effective, less costly. This can be done by placing more reliance on deterrent power and less dependence on local defensive power... Local defense will always be important. But there is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty landpower of the Communist world. Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power. A potential aggressor must know that he cannot always prescribe battle conditions that suit him.[8]

NATO military command structure

NATO military command and areas of responsibilities (1954)

With the establishment of NATO’s Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) on 30 January 1952, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) joined the previously-created Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) as one of the alliance’s two principal military field commanders.[9] Also, a Channel Command was established on 21 February 1952 to control the English Channel and North Sea area and deny it to the enemy, protect the sea lanes of communication, and Support operations conducted by SACEUR and SACLANT.[10][11] The following key NATO military commands were involved in a series of alliance-wide exercises, including Operation Strikeback, during the Fall of 1957.[12][13]

  • Allied Channel Command (CHANCOM)
  • Commander-in-Chief Channel (CINCHAN) – Admiral Sir Guy Grantham, RN

Operational history

As part of the response to a theoretical Soviet attack against NATO on all fronts, Operation Strikeback would test the capabilities of Allied naval forces (Blue Fleet) by tasking them to destroy the enemy navy (Orange Fleet) and its huge submarine fleet, protect transatlantic shipping, and undertake sustained carrier-based air strikes against the enemy positions.[14]

Beginning on 3 September 1957, American and Canadian naval forces got underway to join British, French, Dutch, and Norwegian naval forces in eastern Atlantic and northern European waters under the overall command of Vice Admiral Robert B. Pirie, United States Navy, the Commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, acting as NATO's Commander Striking Fleet Atlantic (COMSTRIKFLTLANT).[15] While en route, the U.S.-Canadian naval forces executed Operation Seaspray, a bilateral naval exercise to protect Blue Fleet’s vitally-important underway replenishment group (URG) from enemy submarine attacks.[16] The nuclear submarine Nautilus and the conventional submarine Trigger completed operations in the Arctic and joined 34 other U.S. and allied submarines temporarily assigned to the Orange Fleet.[17] USS Mount McKinley was based in Portsmouth Naval Base as the command communications base for the Orange forces controlling Comsuborangelant/Comphiborangelant for the duration of the Exercise.

Operation Strikeback itself began on 19 September 1957, involving over 200 warships, 650 aircraft, and 65,000 personnel. To provide a more realistic simulation of protecting transatlantic shipping, over 200 merchant marine vessels, including the ocean liners Queen Mary and Ile de France, also participated as duly-flagged target ships for the exercise.[17] Blue Fleet hunter-killer (HUK) groups centered around the carriers Essex, Wasp, and Tarawa, as well as submarines and land-based anti-submarine patrol aircraft, executed Operation Fend Off/Operation Fishplay to identify, track, and contain the breakout of the enemy Orange Fleet’s submarine force along the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap (GIUK gap").[18][19]

Operating above the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea, the Blue Fleet, which included the new U.S. supercarriers Saratoga and Forrestal, launched carried-based air strikes against enemy positions in Norway. Time magazine provided the following contemporary coverage of Operation Strikeback:

From somewhere southeast of Greenland came the crackle of an urgent radio message: "Being fired on by Orange surface raider. Inchcliffe Castle."[20] With that alert from a famed but fictitious merchant vessel, simulated hell broke loose in the North Atlantic. Out to punish the "aggressors," a six-nation Blue fleet totaling nearly 160 fighting ships began steaming toward Norway. In the Iceland-Faeroes gap, 36 Orange submarines, including the atom-powered Nautilus, lay in wait. The U.S. destroyer Charles R. Ware was "sunk"; a "torpedo" slowed down the carrier U.S.S. Intrepid, and H.M.S. Ark Royal had a hot time beating off the assaults of Britain-based Valiant jet bombers. But by early afternoon, Blue carrier planes got through to make dummy atom attacks on Norway's ports, bridges and airfields. Into the midst of this earnest make-believe strayed a Russian trawler - a real one. The Russian, being overtaken, had the right of way and held it, passing diagonally through the entire NATO fleet as the big ships refueled and moved beyond her.[21]
USS Nautilus
U.S. Navy ASW Task Force Alfa (1959)

Following the conclusion of Operation Strikeback, U.S. naval forces conducted Operation Pipedown, involving the protection of its underway replenishment group while en route back the United States.[22]

SACLANT Admiral Jerauld Wright, United States Navy, described Operation Strikeback as being "remarkably successful" while also noting "[that] there is considerable scarcity of both naval and air forces in the eastern Atlantic."[23] Wright’s Eastern Atlantic allied commander, Vice Admiral Sir John Eccles, RN, also noted:

I am not in a position to criticize political decisions, but I say this as a professional man with over 40 years' experience — I cannot carry out my task as given to me at the moment without more forces. In recent years the submarine has, without any doubt at all, gone a very long way ahead of the devices with which we are presently equipped to sound and destroy it.[24]

Particularly significant was the performance of nuclear-powered submarines with the U.S. Navy's first two such vessels, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) and USS Seawolf (SSN-575), participating in Operation Strikeback. According to naval analyst-historian Norman Friedman, Nautilus "presented a greater threat than all 21 snorkel submarines combined" during Operation Strikeback, making 16 successful attacks against various naval formations while maintaining effective on-station tactical and high-speed pursuit capabilities. Nautilus cruised 3,384 nautical miles (6,267 km) with an average speed of 14.4 knots (26.7 km/h).[25] In addition to the Nautilus, the Seawolf departed New London on 3 September for Operation Strikeback. Before she surfaced off Newport, Rhode Isand, on 25 September, Seawolf had remained submerged for 16 days, cruising a total of 6,331 miles (10,189 km). Recognizing the need to meet this Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) challenge, the following actions were taken:

  • Task Force Alfa was created by the U.S. Navy to develop improved ASW tactics and technology by integrating carrier-based ASW aircraft, land-based patrol aircraft, refitted destroyers, and hunter-killer submarines.[26][27][28]
  • NATO Undersea Research Centre was established by SACLANT on 2 May 1959 in La Spezia, Italy, to serve as a clearinghouse for NATO's anti-submarine efforts.[29][30]

Operation Strikeback was the final deployment for the battleships Iowa and Wisconsin until their re-activation in the 1980s by the Reagan Administration. Finally, on the technical level, Operation Strikeback saw the first use of single sideband (SSB) voice communications for tactical operations by the United States Navy,[31] and HMS Bulwark was the first Royal Navy carrier to use a magnetic loop communication system.[32]

In addition to Operation Strikeback, which concentrated on its eastern Atlantic/northern European flank, NATO also conducted two other major military exercises in September 1957, Operation Counter Punch involving Allied Forces Central Europe on the European mainland and Operation Deep Water involving NATO's southern flank in the Mediterranean Sea.[21][24]

Naval forces for Operation Strikeback

The following is a partial listing of naval forces known to have participated in Operation Strikeback.[33]

Aircraft carriers and embarked air groups

Naval aircraft

United States Navy:

Royal Navy

Aircraft losses

Surface warships




Destroyer Escorts:

Amphibious Vessels:

Royal Canadian Navy destroyers

Submarine forces

Nuclear Submarines:

Support Vessels:

Diesel-Electric Submarines:

Naval auxiliaries

Underway Replenishment Group (URG):

Fleet Support:

Land-based ASW patrol aircraft

U.S. Navy Fleet Air Wing 3

The United States Navy deployed two patrol squadron from Fleet Air Wing Three (FAW-3) to participate in Operation Strikeback:

Both squadrons flew Lockheed P2V-5F Neptune ASW patrol aircraft.

RAF Coastal Command

The Royal Air Force assigned two squadrons from RAF Coastal Command to participate in Operation Strikeback:

Both squadrons flew Avro Shackleton patrol bombers.

U.S. Marine Corps units

The following units of the United States Marine Corps participated in Operation Strikeback in September 1957 are listed below.[43]


Carrier-based air strike operations in the Norwegian Sea pioneered by Operation Stikeback became the cornerstone of the forward defense of NATO's northern flank as set forth in the U.S. Navy's Forward Maritime Strategy, as published in 1984, championed by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James D. Watkins, USN, during the Reagan Administration, and as executed by such a major NATO naval exercises as Ocean Safari '85 and Northern Wedding '86.[44][45][46][47]

In a 2008 article, retired General Bernard E. Trainor, USMC, noted the success of this maritime strategy that helped to end the Cold War:

By going on the immediate offensive in the high north and putting the Soviets on the defensive in their home waters, the Maritime Strategy not only served to defend Scandinavia, but also served to mitigate the SLOC problem. The likelihood of timely reinforcement of NATO from the United States was now more than a pious hope.
With the emergence of an offensive strategy in the 1980s, a change in mindset was energized by concurrent dramatic advances in American technology, especially in C4ISR and weapon systems, that were rapidly offsetting Soviet numerical and material superiority in Europe. No lesser light than the USSR Chief of the General Staff, Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov warned that American superiority was shifting the "correlation of forces" in NATO's favor. He called the phenomenon a "military technological revolution." By the end of the decade the military threat from the Soviet Union was consigned to the dust bin of history and with it, the Cold War.[48][49]

The U.S. Navy's Forward Maritime Strategy provided the strategic rationale for the 600-ship Navy program, and it would be superseded in 2007 by A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.[50][51]

See also


  1. ^ Baldwin, Hanson W. (22 September 1957). "100 Fighting Ships in Vast Exercise". New York Times. http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F40F16F83F5D157A93C0AB1782D85F438585F9. Retrieved 2009-09-28. 
  2. ^ Key Jr., David M. (2001). Admiral Jerauld Wright: Warrior among Diplomats. Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press. pp. 333. ISBN 0-89745-25-8. 
  3. ^ "Emergency Call". TIME. 30 September 1957. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,891351,00.html. Retrieved 2008-09-27. 
  4. ^ "Chapter 3". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/chapters/3.htm. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  5. ^ "Chapter 7". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/chapters/7.htm. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  6. ^ a b "Chapter 9". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/chapters/9.htm. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  7. ^ "Chapter IX-B". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/annexes/b5.htm. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  8. ^ John Foster Dulles (12 January 1954). "The Evolution of Foreign Policy". Department of State, Press Release No. 81. Archived from the original on 1998 - 2011 Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/cold-war/strategy/article-dulles-retaliation_1954-01-12.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-04. 
  9. ^ "Chapter 7 - The Military Structure - Atlantic Command". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/chapters/7.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-03. 
  10. ^ "Chapter 7 - The Military Structure - Channel Command and Channel Committee". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/chapters/7.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  11. ^ "Appendix 1 — Chronicle". NATO the first five years 1949-1954. NATO. http://www.nato.int/archives/1st5years/appendices/1.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  12. ^ "Who is who at NATO" (PDF). NATO. http://www.nato.int/cv/ace-k-p.pdf. Retrieved 2008-10-03. 
  13. ^ Key, Jr., David M. (2001). Admiral Jerauld Wright: Warior among Diplomats. Manhattan, Kansas: Sunflower University Press. pp. 329–331, 334–335, 338–342, 357. ISBN 0-89745-251-8. , hereafter referred to as Warrior among Diplomats.
  14. ^ Warrior among Diplomats. p. 333 - 334
  15. ^ "USS Saratoga (CV-60)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/s6/saratoga-vi.htm. Retrieved 2008-10-03. 
  16. ^ USS Wasp Veterans Association (1999). U. S. S. Wasp CV 18. Nashville: Turner Publishing Company. pp. 119. ISBN 9781563114045. , hereafter referred to as USS Wasp
  17. ^ a b "The day Nautilus came to Portland". Archive. Dorset Echo. October 5, 2007. http://archive.thisisdorset.net/2007/10/5/129888.html. Retrieved 2008-10-03. 
  18. ^ USS Wasp, p. 118
  19. ^ "Norwegian subs during the Cold War". Warships1 and NavWeaps Discussion Boards. http://warships1discussionboards.yuku.com/topic/5748. Retrieved 2008-10-03. 
  20. ^ Inchcliffe Castle is a fictional ship from the Satevepost Glencannon stories by Guy Gilpatric.
  21. ^ a b "Emergency Call". TIME. September 30, 1957. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,891351,00.html. Retrieved 2008-10-03. 
  22. ^ USS Wasp, p. 119
  23. ^ Warrior among Diplomats, p. 334
  24. ^ a b "All Ashore". TIME. 1957-10-07. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,809962,00.html. Retrieved 2008-11-07. 
  25. ^ Friedman, Norman (1994). 'U.S. Submarines Since 1945: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis Maryland: Naval Institute Press. pp. 109. ISBN 0-7869-1850-8. 
  26. ^ Bendict, John R. (Spring 2005). "The Unraveling and Revitalization of U.S. Navy Antisubmarine Warfare". Naval War College Review: 98. 
  27. ^ "The Goblin Killers". Time. September 1, 1958. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,863701,00.html. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  28. ^ "Antisubmarine Boss". Time. April 7, 1958. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,863224,00.html?iid=chix-sphere. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  29. ^ Warrior among Diplomats, p. 357
  30. ^ "History". NATO Undersea Research Centre. http://www.nurc.nato.int/about/history.htm. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  31. ^ Chronological History – U.S. Naval Communications, p. 16
  32. ^ "HMS Bulwark". Fleet Air Arm Archives. http://www.fleetairarmarchive.net/Ships/Bulwark.html. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  33. ^ Based on public sources (e.g., Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships and on-line ship histories), contemporary and archival news accounts, and historical reference works cited in the References section found below.
  34. ^ "Loss and Ejections: F4D-1 Skyray". ejection-history.org. http://www.ejection-history.org.uk/Aircraft_by_Type/Skyray/douglas_skyray.htm. Retrieved 2008-10-03. 
  35. ^ "Sea Stories". USS Essex Association. http://www.ussessexcv9.org/Sea. Retrieved 2008-10-03. [dead link]
  36. ^ "United States Navy Crew Crashes While On NATO Maneuvers In The Atlantic 24 September 1957". Arlington National Cemetery. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/aircrew2.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  37. ^ "A-3 Skywarrior aircraft lost with crew lists, p. 2". A-3 Skywarrior Association. http://www.a3skywarrior.com/Memorial/AccRep_Crews/A-3%20AccidentsPage2.html. Retrieved 2008-10-03. [dead link]
  38. ^ "HTML List of Accidents by BuNo Reprt". A-3 Skywarrior Association. 2003-11-10. http://www.a3skywarrior.com/Memorial/AccRepwithBuNo_full/HTML%20List%20of%20Accidents%20by%20BuNoPage2.html. Retrieved 2008-09-03. [dead link]
  39. ^ "Second VP-8" (PDF). Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons Volume 2, Chapter 3. Naval Historical Center. http://www.history.navy.mil/avh-vol2/chap3-2.pdf. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  40. ^ "Third VP-10" (PDF). Dictionary of American Naval Aviation Squadrons Volume 2, Chapter 3. Naval Historical Center. http://www.history.navy.mil/avh-vol2/chap3-3.pdf. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  41. ^ "Ballykelly's Shackleton Era 1952-1971". http://users.bigpond.net.au/Shackleton/balkela.html. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  42. ^ "History - No. 269 Squadron RAF". http://www.oca.269squadron.btinternet.co.uk/history/squadron_history/chronology/1952-1963.htm. Retrieved 2008-09-03. 
  43. ^ Donnelly, Ralph W.; Gabrielle M. Nuefield, and Carolyn A. Tyson (1971). A Chronology of the United States Marine Corps, 1947–1964 Volume III. Washington, DC: United States Marine Corps. pp. 35. ISBN 19000318200 (PCN). 
  44. ^ Trainor, Bernard E. (March 23 1987). "Lehman's Sea-War Strategy Is Alive, but for How Long?". New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DEFDF163DF930A15750C0A961948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  45. ^ "Ocean Safari '85: Meeting the Threat in the North Atlantic" (PDF). All Hands (826): 20–29. January 1986. http://www.navy.mil/media/allhands/acrobat/ah198601.pdf. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  46. ^ Connors, Tracy (January 1987). "Northern Wedding '86" (PDF). All Hands (838): 18–27. http://www.navy.mil/media/allhands/acrobat/ah198701.pdf. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  47. ^ Tangen, Odd F. (1989). "The Situation In The Norwegian Sea Today". CSC. Globalsecurity.org. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1989/TOF.htm. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  48. ^ Trainor, Bernard E. (February 2008). "Triumph in Strategic Thinking". United States Naval Institute Proceedings 134 (2). p. 42. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/archive/story.asp?STORY_ID=1352. 
  49. ^ For a brief overview on the Soviet concept of correlation of forces, see Major Richard E. Porter, USAF. "Correlation of Forces: Revolutionary Legacy" Air University Review, March–April 1977
  50. ^ Allen, Thad; Conway, James T., Roughead, Gary (November 2007). "A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower". United States Naval Institute Proceedings 133 (11): 14–20. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/archive/story.asp?STORY_ID=999. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  51. ^ Lehman, John (November 2007). "A Bravura Performance". United States Naval Institute Proceedings 133 (11): 22–24. http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/archive/story.asp?STORY_ID=1017. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 



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