The public inquiry into the sinking of the trawler Gaulin the Barents Sea 30 years ago opened yesterday with the Government denying that it was involved in a spying mission against the Soviet Union.
Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, in a highly unusual move, appeared in person at the hearing to insist that investigations by Britain's intelligence agencies had found no proof that the Hull-based boat was involved in espionage when it disappeared on 8 February l974 off Norway.
The Attorney General's claim is due to be forcefully challenged by lawyers acting for the families of the 36 missing crew, who have alleged that there was a cover-up and that the Gaul was part of an operation that used the fishing fleet to gather intelligence on the Russian navy. They will question officers from MI6 and Defence Intelligence Staff, who have given affidavits to the inquiry and are due to give evidence.
The inquiry, which is chaired by Mr Justice Steel, the Wreck Commissioner, is also expected to examine extraordinary accounts from branches of the intelligence community apportioning the responsibility for spying operations that use fishing boats on each other.
Lord Goldsmith made his opening address at Europa House, Hull, after a year's delay. Mr Justice Steel asked at the start of proceedings for a minute's silence in memory of those who died.
The Attorney General admitted that MI6 had confirmed that a Royal Navy commander was based at Hull during the 1960s to gather intelligence on Russia using the trawlers. But he maintained that the practice ended when the officer retired in 1971. He said: "The scheme was not in operation by the time the Gaul was built, nor during the time she was in service." Lord Goldsmith also acknowledged that the Royal Navy employed two trawlers - the Lord Nelson and the Invincible - on secret missions in the Barents Sea in the early 1970s. They had tried, unsuccessfully, to recover a lost Soviet prototype missile in 1972 and 1973.
There had also been speculation that the Gaul had sunk after becoming enmeshed in a secret American communications cable, said Lord Goldsmith. But he said that the Ministry of Defence in London and the United States authorities had denied that such a cable existed. A piece of cable spotted by a survey of the wreck of the boat has since gone missing, the Attorney General said.
A formal investigation held in November 1974 concluded that the Gaul, just 18 months old and built to the highest Lloyd's standards for operating in the Atlantic and Arctic, was capsized by bad weather. This was despite the fact more than a dozen trawlers, far less robustly built, in the same stretch of the sea at the same time had ridden out the storm.
Michael Spurgeon, the son of Maurice Spurgeon - who was the first mate on the Gaul - said yesterday: "We have had the Government denying the existence of evidence. The cable was found by an independent survey and since then ... disappeared.''
He added: "There were people on board, including my father, who had previously carried out recovery operations for military equipment from the sea.
"Who trained them and who was using them? These are the questions we need answered.''Reuse content