Inside harrowing real-life submarine murders and disasters as Vigil makes waves

Telly thriller Vigil is making waves with its gripping tale of underwater intrigue.

The fictional BBC series stars Suranne Jones as a police detective and Martin Compston as a Navy sonar operator.

The show, which continues at 9pm on Sunday on BBC One, charts the mystery of a missing Scottish fishing boat and a murky death on board a Trident nuclear sub, HMS Vigil.

But over the years there have been plenty of harrowing, real-life dramas on the underwater vessels of the real world.

Here James Moore submerses himself in some of the most shocking of all time…

Trawler tragedy

The Vigil series has sparked controversy thanks to its echoes of a real catastrophe.

At 2.20am on November 22, 1990, the four-man crew of the fishing boat Antares perished when the vessel suddenly sank.

Its nets had become tangled up with a Royal Navy nuclear sub, HMS Trenchant, on exercise in the Firth of Clyde. But the tragic result was not discovered until the next morning.

An official inquiry blamed members of the crew and found the sub’s delay in surfacing may have contributed to the tragic loss of life.

Now some relatives of the dead men – skipper Jamie Russell, 33, Stewart Campbell, 29, Billy Martindale, 24, and Dugald Campbell, 20 – feel screening Vigil is insensitive.

Another British trawler FV Gaul had sunk in 1974 with the loss of 36 men resulting in various conspiracy theories including the notion that a Cold War Soviet sub might have been involved.

Sabotage at sea?

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On the evening of April 16, 1951, HMS Affray set out on a war simulation mission from Portsmouth – but failed to resurface.

A huge rescue mission was launched but the craft was only found after two months, 300ft down in the English Channel off Alderney. It became the last Royal Navy sub lost at sea, taking 75 lives.

What caused the sudden sinking has been hotly debated as there was little damage. An official inquiry concluded it was probably due to a defective snort mast flooding the vessel.

Other theories include the sub suffering a battery explosion while author Alan Gallop found chilling evidence that one man on board, Steward Ray Vincent, had committed sabotage on a previous ship. Yet the possibility of foul play was never investigated.

Bullets on board

Before taking up guard duty on April 8, 2011, able seaman Ryan Donovan had downed 20 pints of booze.

And minutes after boarding HMS Astute, docked in Southampton, the 22-year-old suddenly opened fire with his SA80 assault rifle in the nuclear sub’s control room.

Lieutenant Commander Ian Molyneux was shot in the head and killed and another officer injured, before the culprit was overpowered by visiting council officials.

Donovan, who had a poor record and had been refused a transfer, later admitted murder and three counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to serve a minimum of 25 years behind bars.

Crazed inventor

On August 10, 2017, Swedish journalist Kim Wall, 30, went to interview Danish inventor Peter Madsen on board his privately-built midget sub Nautilus near Copenhagen.

But the sub sank and only he was rescued. Madsen at first said he had dropped Kim off on land, then that she had been killed accidentally.

Police believed he had purposely scuttled the 56ft sub and, when her body parts were recovered revealing multiple stab wounds, it became clear that she had been brutally butchered on the vessel.

Madsen, who had a history of watching violent videos, was sentenced to life in jail in 2018 where he remains despite briefly escaping in 2020.

Trapped below

Explosions aboard a Russian nuclear sub, the K-141 Kursk, on August 12, 2000, crippled the 508ft, 20,000-tonne vessel sending it to the floor of the icy Barents Sea.

The blasts, caused by a faulty torpedo at the front of the sub, led to exploding warheads and the deaths of 95 crew although 23, including the sub’s commander, survived.

But delays and blundering meant by the time divers arrived they were found dead from suffocation in a stern compartment.

Colin Firth played Commodore David Russell, who led a thwarted British rescue mission, in a 2018 movie of the sinking. The Kursk was later recovered by the Russians.

Heroic sacrifice

The 2002 movie K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford, told the story of the dramatic tale of heroism on a Soviet ballistic missile nuclear sub.

On July 4, 1961, during K-19’s first voyage, its nuclear reactor suffered a critical loss of coolant while off the coast of Greenland, potentially leading to a total meltdown.

Some of the crew sacrificed their lives to successfully set up a second system.

Though the craft survived, 22 of the 139 on board would die of radiation exposure, while many more later suffered illness.

Scorpion's deadly tale

The first nuclear sub lost at sea was the US Navy’s USS Thresher, which sank off the American coast in 1963 with all 129 men aboard after suffering a fault.

But the cause behind the sinking of another, the USS Scorpion, on May 22, 1968, in the Atlantic Ocean with the loss of 99 lives, remains baffling.

Theories include the firing of a malfunctioning torpedo that circled back to hit it, to a collision or clash with a Soviet submarine.

Weirdly there were several more puzzling sub sinkings that year including the Soviet sub K-129 and its 98 crew.

Other submarine tragedies include the April 2021 sinking of Indonesian navy submarine KRI Nanggala off Bali, killing 53 crew, which may have succumbed to a freak undersea wave.

Wartime rescue

In 1942, during World War Two, British ship RMS Laconia was in the Atlantic carrying nearly 3,000 crew, soldiers, POWs and passengers – including women and children – to Britain.

On September 12, it was torpedoed, 600 miles off the West African coast and sunk by a German submarine.

But instead of making his escape, the commander of the U-156, Werner Hartenstein, decided to surface and pick up survivors.

Despite a mistaken attack by US bombers on the vessel, more than 1,000 people were rescued, though the Nazi high command later callously banned other U-boats from following Hartenstein’s lead.

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