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Soviet submarine secrets surface in Balaklava

Update: November, 10/2013 - 15:36

Out in the open: A beautiful view of the once mysterious Balaklava bay as it is today.

by Tran Mai Huong

For nearly half of a century, this small town seemed to not exist. All roads to this place were blocked. To enter it, a special pass was required.

Half a century later, in July 2002, Balaklava became known to the world and turned into a branch of Ukraine's Military Museum. It has since been opened to visitors from all corners of the globe.

Balaklava, the secret submarine base by the Black Sea, not far from Sevastopol, was owned by the former Soviet Union Navy during the Cold War. In the middle of last century, after the Second World War, the confrontation between the two blocks led to the Cold War and ignited an arms race involving the US and NATO's nuclear deterrence programme against the Soviet Union, hence the latter's retaliation programme.

The Mediterranean, the buffer zone between the two blocks, became an important strategic post.

At the time, the US Navy's 6th Fleet had some 50 warships carrying hundreds of war planes. All in all, the NATO Navy had about 500 warships and 850 aircraft of various types. The Soviet Union deployed its own forces to the region, hence the formation of the Black Sea Fleet. Its defence system was enhanced and Balaklava was one of such bases.

The base was underground, next to the Black Sea in the Tavros mountain. It housed facilities for submarines, ship repairs, armament stockpiles and services; built in 1953. The 14th division of the Black Sea Fleet once had its headquarters here, and there was a time when the base housed dozens of submarines, hundreds of torpedoes, rockets and many other types of weapons.

Taking advantage of a small bay to build the base, many underground tunnels were built inside the mountains to prevent outside attacks. To build the 15,000 sq.m base, an enormous investment was put in, both in terms of manpower and capital, for years. It was estimated that some 350 million roubles were spent on the latest technologies the Soviet Union had at the time. Of course, it was kept top secret.

The bay base was cleared and tunnels were built to lead submarines into the underground facility. The arsenal and even nuclear warhead storages were created in top secrecy. Many generations of commanders and sailors of the Soviet Union's Black Sea Fleet lived and served here to help defend the country for a long time.

What lies beneath: Visitors explore the base's intriguing past.

We visited Balaklava one morning from Sevastopol, making the half an hour drive. The Black Sea teased us with views from behind the hills, houses and woods. There are clear road signs showing the way to this interesting place.

Nguyen Tan, a Vietnamese living in Ukraine for the past 30 years, told us 'in the past, all the sign posts never mentioned Balaklava. Vehicles could only enter this region after clearance from the military check-posts. Foreigners were completely prohibited."

After a hill, our car stopped on a high slope. Balaklava appeared in front of us in full view. The Tavros mountain was just nearby behind a small bay where many yachts anchored. The houses ran one after the other, from the top of the hill to the water line. A small and peaceful town showed nothing of the past. Tourist coaches lined up at the bridge leading to the former base. This 250-tonne bridge could move up and down to allow submarine's entrance to the underground base.

There was a large entrance to the underground base by the bridge and visitors can walk in or take a ride on a small canoe.

We decided to borrow a boat from an old Russian couple living right there. Mikhail Oksanchuk and his wife, Oksanchukova, have been tour guides here for quite a few years. Both were excited to know that we had travelled from Viet Nam.

He said to us, "We are friends. I have a brother who went to Viet Nam to help build the military facilities during the war. To our generation, Viet Nam remains ever a close nation."

We followed them down into the underground base. The boat carved through the water, bringing us into the huge cave. A quiet and gloomy atmosphere dominates here. We could see vast channels leading to separate zones where hundreds of people worked in the past in complete isolation with the outside world.

The most advanced weapons of the time and the submarines used to be hidden here. A channel capable of allowing the movement of small and medium size submarines was built inside the cave. Further inside was a concrete platform for the ships running along the cave's length, the branches running from one section to the other.

Oksanchuck told us that during the construction, 200,000 cu.m of rock was removed to build the channels, which were 608m long, 8m deep and 10-24m wide. The northern gate weighs 120 tonnes while the one at the southern side is amassive 150 tonnes. Hydraulic systems were built to support these equipments and a separate section stored nuclear weapons.

The gates are designed to withstand high pressure and are 0.6-3m thick, weighing dozens of tonnes. The temperature inside the area is always kept at 10-15oC and humidity does not exceed 50-60 per cent. After its independence from the Soviet Union, Ukraine developed its new diesel-class submarine fleet which can no longer use the base. Most of the equipment was therefore removed.

Okshanchuck and his wife, a small yet enthusiastic woman, brought us to all the places inside the base. Sometime we had to climb uphill to the tunnels. This is indeed a complete and perfect system that operated a mega-structure hard to detect from outside.

From the entrance to the sea, we were amazed at the beauty of the place. The water is clear and we could even see fish swimming below the surface. From this entrance, the submarines travelled in and out for decades, carrying with them their secret missions.

Many visitors like us have tried to relive the memories of this hidden, historical base.

"Visitors are still coming from all over the world to see one of the symbols of the Cold War and learn the lessons of history," said Oksanchukova. — VNS

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