Inquiry rules out Soviet role in Gaul sinking

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Theories that the trawler Gaul and its 36 crew were deliberately sunk by the Soviet Union or pulled down by a submarine were ruled out by the Wreck Commissioner today after a public inquiry.

Theories that the trawler Gaul and its 36 crew were deliberately sunk by the Soviet Union or pulled down by a submarine were ruled out by the Wreck Commissioner today after a public inquiry.

The official inquiry into the loss of the Gaul in the Barents Sea in 1974 was held in its home port of Hull earlier this year.

The public inquiry, led by Mr Justice Steel, followed 30 years of controversy over how the vessel sunk.

The fishing trawler went down in stormy weather off the northern tip of Norway.

As there was no distress signal and the wreck was not found for more than 20 years, theories sprang up about whether the Soviet Union had been involved in the sinking or whether it had been dragged down by a submarine.

But the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, told the inquiry there was no evidence the Gaul had been involved in spying and this was echoed by an MI6 officer who gave evidence.

The inquiry reconvened in October to hear from the chief engineer on board a bulk carrier who witnessed the final moments of the trawler as she struggled to keep afloat in mountainous seas.

Tobjorn Kirksaether, who was on board the Swedish-registered Anaris tanker, said the waves were two to three metres high as he watched the tragedy unfold from about half a nautical mile away.

When asked if a search for the Gaul was launched by his crew, he said: "There was no vessel to search for."

Former Royal Navy chief petty officer Derek Barron claimed he overheard a Polaris submarine officer say his vessel had become entangled in the Gaul's nets.

The wreck was located in 1997 and in 1999 Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered the reopening of the 1974 inquiry into the Gaul's loss, which concluded it was overwhelmed by mountainous seas.

In 2002 a survey team using remotely-operated vehicles found remains of four of the crew.

The inquiry has also taken on the role of a coroner's inquest into their deaths.

Mr Justice Steel said he had come to the "firm conclusion that the cause of the loss had been clearly established" as the trawler's factory deck being flooded during a storm.

He said that the probable cause of this was water entering the deck through the "duff and offal chutes" which had been left open.

The judge also carefully rejected in turn a range of six other explanations which had been put forward over the last 30 years including seizure by the Russians and waves caused by nuclear explosions.

He said: "First, it has been possible to rule out seizure by the Russians (or any other hostile force), scuttling either by third parties or by the crew, fire, explosion, icing, cargo shift, structural failure, grounding, machinery failure and knock down by large breaking waves.

"Second, it has also been possible to exclude collision, in particular collision with a submarine as promoted by various television programmes."

The judge said there was no evidence on the wreck for this theory.

The third theory the judge rejected was that the vessel had been fishing at the time of its loss and had snagged its net on an obstruction on the seabed.

He said there were also no grounds for concluding the Gaul had become snagged on any kind of telecommunications cable.

He went on: "A later suggestion that the Gaul had been dragged astern and sunk after having its nets become entangled with a Polaris submarine can also be rejected.

"Once again there is no substance in the suggestion that the Gaul was fishing at the time of her loss.

"No Polaris submarine was within a thousand miles of the position of the wreck."

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