Espionage mystery as riddle of sunken trawler unravels

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The Independent Online
An `unsinkable' trawler went down 23 years ago with all 36 hands on board in mysterious circumstances. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, reports that the Government will pay for an underwater survey which could solve the enigma of the Gaul.

After a cover-up lasting nearly a quarter of a century surrounding the mysterious disappearance of the Gaul, an "unsinkable" high-tech factory trawler, ministers have decided to fund an underwater survey which could solve the mystery of how and why it went down with all hands on board.

Relatives of the 36 crew who lost their lives have been fighting since the ship was lost in 1974 for successive governments to find the sunken trawler and discover why it sank almost without trace, and without issuing a distress signal.

They suspect it may have been on a spying mission, during which it was sunk by a Soviet torpedo. Successive governments denied that trawlers were used for spying, although it was common knowledge around the port in Hull, where the deep sea fleet was based, that crews were routinely asked to report on Soviet submarine sightings. Just before Christmas, the Government admitted that there had been a cover-up.

Alan Johnson, one of the Hull MPs - who include John Prescott, now the Secretary of State responsible for shipping inquiries - who has campaigned for the Government to act, told the Commons in December that Lord Rogers, then Labour's defence minister, wrote to the relatives in 1974 saying: "I can assure you that the British trawler fleet is not involved in any way in any intelligence gathering." That assurance was repeated in 1992.

The cover-up over the use of trawlers for spying ended when defence ministers admitted in written Commons answers last month that trawlers had been used "for specific intelligence gathering operations against the former Soviet navy" in the 1960s and early 1970s. Lord Rogers says he was misled.

"At the time there was also a scheme whereby Royal Navy officers gained sea going experience in merchant ships, including deep sea trawlers. All RN personnel were encouraged to report back any opportunity sightings of interest as indeed were the trawlermen," said John Reid, the defence minister.

There was a suspicion among some of the Gaul families that ministers in previous governments had been reluctant to authorise the search for the Gaul because they feared its discovery would disclose the truth about its secret spying mission.

The only trace of the ship was a lifebuoy which was found some time after the trawler went missing. Ministers insisted that it would be too expensive to locate the vessel, and they refused to carry out a search. The families campaigned in vain until last year a survey was carried out for the Channel Four programme Dispatches at a cost of less than pounds 50,000. Using reports of where the ship might have gone down and sonar technology, it was located in two days 270 meters down on the seabed in the Barents sea, 60 miles off the coast of Norway.

An inquiry into the loss of the Gaul found that it was probably overwhelmed in heavy seas in a storm.

But in a Commons debate to plead for Government intervention last month, Mr Johnson said the Gaul was only two years old when it sank. Its safety features included a dual radar system, automatic steering, high quality radio and telegraphy equipment. It had an experienced skipper and crew, and the vessel and crew were familiar with Arctic conditions.

Underwater cameras found the Gaul almost intact, with all its windows in place, and it was facing into the direction of the prevailing weather at the time it disappeared.

Glenda Jackson, the transport minister, said there was no evidence that the Gaul had been sunk by enemy fire. "The fact that panes of glass were still intact and the absence of damage to the other parts rule out an explosion, high-impact damage or attack by any form of weapon," she said.

The Ministry of Defence said that the use of trawlers for counter-espionage ceased in 1973 - a year before the Gaul went down. Ms Jackson told the Commons the Gaul "played no part in intelligence-gathering activities".

The minister hinted that she would agree to a further survey of the vessel in the spring, when the weather improved.

The Independent has learned that the Deputy Prime Minister has authorised a new camera survey, costing around pounds 100,000, of the Gaul. It will concentrate on the stern, where nets prevented the Channel Four cameras from a thorough search. The fresh survey may find that the stern "door" was left open and the vessel was overwhelmed by inrushing seas, like the ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise.