-- The Ghostly Wreck of a French Submarine Found 51 Years After It Mysteriously Vanished With 52 Crew Members on Board

 

The Search Resumes After Fifty Years

The year is 2020, but under the warm surface of the Mediterranean sea, who can tell? Certainly not the crew of the Seabed Constructor, who are all currently gazing at images sent back from the watery depths. These guys are on a mission. They're trying to travel back in time.

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They are manning a search vessel, and they have launched underwater drones to help them in their quest. The target? An underwater wreck, frozen in time back in 1968. It's the French submarine Minerve, which vanished with a full crew of 52 people on January 27th of that year.

"MIN"

She had been carrying out simple training exercises when she disappeared, under the noses of military planes. Minerve was a naval submarine, on her way back to her homeport of Toulon.

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Toulon has always been the main naval base of France, and Minerve worked locally for the most part. In their search, the Seabed Constructor crew knew she had to be relatively close to that area. Suddenly, one of the drones saw something amazing - a piece of wreckage emblazoned with the letters MIN.

Stormy Weather

The weather on that fateful day was stormy, causing difficulties for Minerva and her aerial collaborators. She had been cutting through the waters just under the surface with her snorkel raised.

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They were in the Gulf of Lion, one submarine and one contingent aircraft, including a twin-engined Bréguet Atlantic. It was this plane that Minerva eventually contacted at 7:55 a.m., acknowledging that the weather was too bad to carry on. The training exercise was canceled.

Disappearing Into the Void

And, just like that, she was gone. Some minutes later, local seismographs recorded a tremor. It came from the last known position of Minerve, and it looked very much like a submarine imploding.

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The aircraft repeatedly tried to reestablish contact with her but to no avail. She simply didn't seem to be there anymore. The cancellation of the training exercise would be the last time anyone ever heard from the doomed submarine.

A Frantic Search

In the following days, a large-scale search operation was launched to try to find the naval sub and her 52-man crew. That first search included 20 vehicles; helicopters, airplanes, and ships. With so many lives at stake, it was a desperate endeavor.

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But it was all for naught. None of the search efforts could turn up the slightest hint as to where the craft lay, not then or in subsequent searches carried out in the next two years. In 1970, the hunt was canceled. It seemed that Minerve was lost forever.

Raising Red Flags

Authorities might have abandoned Minerve, but surely this incident could represent a danger to other subs. What kind of vessel was she? Was there anything known about her make or model that could give us a clue as to how and why she disappeared?

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And equally important, could Minerve be hiding a trait that should be watched out for in other craft of a similar design? Let's have a look.

The Daphné-class

Minerve was a Daphné-class vessel. French-built, she and ten others were constructed specifically for the French navy. The production period for that class was 12 years, from 1958 until two years after Minerve's demise.

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The Daphné-class submarines, both the Daphné design and the subclasses based on it, were also marketed by the French government for international sales. They sold them as far afield as Spain, Portugal, South Africa, and Pakistan.

Ranking Second

This class of submarine was a larger version of the Aréthuse-class vessels. It was categorized as a second-class craft, as it was smaller than the Narval-class.

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The Narval-class was designed for long-distance underwater travel. They constantly redrew the known limits of submarine capabilities. The Aréthuse-class was a smaller, nimbler, attack sub designed for operations within the Mediterranean Sea.

The Middle Ground

Sitting between these two vastly different types of craft with diverse purposes, the Daphné-class was intended to represent the best of both worlds.

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They were designed to be stealthy and low-maintenance. They also only needed a minimum of human crewmembers to operate.

Little but Fierce

Minerve herself carried a set of vital statistics. She was 190' (58m) from bow to stern and 22' (6.7m) across her beam. She displaced 883 tons (801 tonnes) of water. Her range was 5,200 miles (8,400km).

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Powered by two diesel engines and an electric motor, Minerve's twin propellers could push her along at a tidy 18mph (29kph) underwater, and 15.5mph (25km/h) on the surface. And to top it off, she was the proud owner of twelve torpedo tubes, eight at the front and four at the rear.

Daphné Disasters

Why did the French stop building the Daphné-class? They sold 15 of them on top of the 11 that they kept. One of them was still in commission just ten years ago!

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Well, it turns out that Minerve wasn't the only unexplained disaster of the class. On March 4th, 1970, the Eurydice did exactly the same thing. She was another French navy sub, and this time the disappearance was in calm seas, under blue skies.

Eurydice

Eurydice was a scant 35 miles from her home at Toulon when she vanished. Once again, the local seismographs recorded a tremor consistent with an underwater implosion.

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Unlike Minerve's case, when the search teams combed the waves, there was no shortage of evidence to point to Eurydice's fate. Slick oil on the sea's surface, along with debris from the craft, told a silent story. One fragment bore the sub's name.

Extensive Damage

With the floating signposts pinpointing a ground zero area, it didn't take long to find the wreckage. Now the watery tomb of her 57 crew members, Eurydice was found on April 22nd, a mere seven weeks after her demise.

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The USNS Mizar was the one to make the discovery. At depths of up to 3,600 feet (1km) under the sea, the site was strewn with debris. Scattered across the seabed were fragments of the ship and her contents.

Who Was Responsible?

Back to the Minerve. She was commissioned back in 1957, and construction started in May 1968, making her one of the first of the class to be built.

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The contractors were Anciens Chantiers Dubignon, a French outfit that had been founded in its original form in the 1700s. Their shipyard was on the Île de Nantes, situated on the river Loire in Nantes city center.

Northern Waters

It took three years to put her together, and Minerve touched keel to water on May 31st, 1961. It wasn't until November of the next year, however, that she would undergo her maiden voyage.

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Nantes is on the Atlantis coast, in the Bay Of Biscay, so Minerve's first cruise was to Londonderry Port in Northern Ireland, then on to Bergen, Norway and Gothenburg, Sweden.

The Shakedown Cruise

That first voyage, known as a shakedown cruise, is a learning exercise for the new crew. During this time, they will get used to working with their craft. It's always necessary, even for an experienced crew of similar vessels.

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It's paramount to know your craft and how she works inside out. Every vessel is different. This cruise is also used to work out any glitches in the new systems or faults in the equipment that needs to be worked on before entering service.

A Mediterranean Home

When she arrived back in France, Minerve docked at Cherbourg on the north coast of the country. Then, on December 22nd, 1962, she sailed to Toulon on the Mediterranean coast.

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It was the last Atlantic trip that she would make. As we know, Minerve was a Daphné-class, made for patrolling the Mediterranean sea. And that's what she did for the next six years.

Tactical Sinkage

That brings us back to January 22nd, 1968. The day it all ended for Minerve and her submariners. Her commander on that trip was Lieutenant André Fauve.

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Fauve was no stranger to a sinking ship. He was the son of a French naval captain who commanded the battleship Strasbourg. The Strasbourg was part of an entire naval fleet that sunk in Toulon in 1942. That time, however, it was deliberate. The navy was trying to keep the vessels out of enemy German hands.

A Grand Heritage

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Fauve Junior, although not yet a captain like his father, was an experienced seaman in the navy. He was born in 1935 in Ploërmel in northwestern France. He was 32 years old when he took command of Minerve.

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He left a young son at home when he set out on that simple training mission early on in his command. And along with his craft and his crew on that fateful day, he disappeared without a trace.

Highly Recommended

In the ensuing investigation, Fauve's commander, Philipe Bouillot, stepped forward to endorse the lieutenant's skills. The young commander of Minerve had spent 7,000 hours submerged in Daphné-class vessels previous to taking the post.

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His experience with the class spanned four years. During that time, no issues had been reported with Fauve's performance or that of the Daphné-class.

Heading Home

So what could possibly have caused the submarine to disappear, taking all of her crew with her? Her last communication ended with a heads up that she would be back at her port, safe in Toulon, within the hour.

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It seemed the 46 sailors and the six officers in command had nothing more on their minds than what to have for dinner that evening. The only thing that was slightly out of the ordinary was the 70mph (113km/h) wind that had ended the training exercise.

Over and Out

The Bréguet Atlantic that had been communicating with Minerve did try to contact the sub after she made her last broadcast, but everything had gone quiet. They persevered for another 15 minutes.

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As the storm was interfering with the radios, making reception intermittent, the plane wasn't too worried about their lack of success. However, 1 a.m. on January 28th came and went without Minerve docking as expected.

Raising the Alarm

As the clock crawled past 2 a.m, however, people started to get concerned. At 2.15 a.m, the alarm was finally raised. The first search and rescue crafts were sent out soon after.

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These crafts included the SP-350 Denise, the mini-sub invented and manned by Jacques Cousteau, and the mighty Clemenceau, one of the mainstays of the French navy. But by the 2nd of February, they had still found nothing. The navy called off the search.

Operation Reminer

Not everyone gave up, however, and the search went on into 1969, under the name Operation Reminer. This time, the submersible Archimède joined in. This was a pioneering sub, which had made some of the deepest dives on record at the time.

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Also working the search was dedicated search and rescue craft USNS Mizar, the ship that found the Eurydice when she disappeared in 1970. She wasn't to be so lucky here...

Limited Resources

There were, and still are, limits on what a manned vessel can accomplish. One big item does not cover ground as well as lots of small ones. The seabed around the area in which Minerve was last heard from varies from 3,300" (1km) to 6,600" (2km) below sea level.

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Science and engineering, not to mention computing technology, just weren't on the same level as they are today. It's the invention of the unmanned drones, boldly going where no man has gone before, that have changed the search and rescue scene so radically.

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Pushing Past the Limits

This was an age of pioneering engineering and exploration. Fresh from World War II, every effort was being made to protect borders. The fastest, the deepest, the furthest: Records were being broken across the board.

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But not everything was going well. Minerve was not the only unexplained tragedy. In fact, in 1968 alone, there was a slew of submarine disasters.

The Doomed Subs of 1968

There were four submarines lost that year, the first just two days before Minerve herself. That was the INS Dakar, on her voyage from Britain to her new home in Israel.

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In March, the Russian vessel K-129 vanished. She had been patrolling in the North Pacific at the time. Lastly, in May, a U.S. nuclear craft, the USS Scorpion, was lost in the Atlantic.

318 Lives Lost

If the fact that there were four naval submarines lost in the space of five months wasn't terrifying enough, these incidents all had key aspects in common.

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Firstly, in all four cases, the crew perished with their vessel. Minerve, being of a class designed for its minimal crew, lost a comparatively small number at 52. The INS Dakar's brand new crew numbered 69. The USS Scorpion and K-129 were bigger subs, and 99 and 98 died in their respective tragedies.

INS Dakar

Secondly, all the incidents seemed unexplainable. Nobody knew why these four subs went down.

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The INS Dakar was not the first name this sub had borne. She was a British navy vessel, HMS Totem, that had been sold to the Israeli navy. Her new commander, Major Ya'acov Ra'anan, was taking her to her new home of Haifa when she disappeared.

An International Effort 

Units from Israel, the US, Greece, Turkey, Britain, and Lebanon took part in the ensuing search. Interestingly, the sub was reported missing by the Britsh navy. The Israeli government wouldn't admit that they had lost her.

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It was to be more than 30 years later that she was finally discovered, 9,800" (3km) under the waves. She was resting on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea, between the islands of Crete and Cyprus. And we still don't know why it happened.

K-129

The Soviet sub, K-129, was next to vanish. She was a ballistic missile craft, based at Kamchatka under the command of Captain First Rank V.I. Kobzar when she sunk. This time, it took nearly two months to raise the alarm.

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The Soviets found nothing, but the U.S. staged their own search afterward, wondering what they were looking for. They couldn't use the USNS Mizar this time, though, as the Soviets would recognize her! They found a wreck in August 1968.

Sealed Evidence

President Nixon then commissioned a secret salvage operation in 1974. The K-129 was 16,000' (4.9km) deep. This would be the deepest wreck to be raised at the time, although they only got part of her up. He was looking for nuclear weapons. History remains silent on whether he found them or not.

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What the salvage crew did find was disturbing enough. Six Soviet submariners. Part of the doomed crew, they were given a full military burial-at-sea. However, their bodies were so radioactive that they had to be sealed inside a steel container first!

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USS Scorpion

Last but not least, the USS Scorpion met her demise. Now, this is a story worthy of publishing, and six books have been written about it. She was two men down in her crew when she sunk, having just dropped them off in Spain.

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She had been out keeping an eye on Soviet submarine activity and was just starting out for her home base in Norfolk, Virginia, according to her last radio communication.

Mizar Searches Again

When she still hadn't arrived back in Virginia, the Scorpion was declared missing on June 5th. It had been two weeks since her last transmission.

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It was nearing the end of October when once again, USNS Mizar was out searching. She had a camera sled combing the seabed when finally, the USS Scorpion was found. She was about 460 miles (740km) from the Azores. Her demise, like the other three, remains unexplained.

The Last Lost Sub

Three of those fated four sub wrecks were at least found, if not explained away, by the end of the century. But what about Minerve? Searching had ceased back in 1969. For the families of the crew, there was no closure.

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It was the son of Lieutenant Fauve, Minerve's commander, that spearheaded a French media campaign. The aim? To reopen the search for the remains of the vessel.

Building Pressure

It was October of 2018, 19 years after the salvage of the INS Dakar, that Hervé Fauve gathered together the families of those lost with Minerve. They aimed their campaign at the French government.

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Minerve was the only submarine lost by the West since WWII that had not yet been found. The public pressure on the government to do something about it built steadily.

Seabed Constructor

Finally, in July 2019, the government reauthorized the official search. It was to be without Mizar this time as, after a distinguished career, she was withdrawn from service in 1989 and finally dismantled in 2005.

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The search vessel Seabed Constructor took over operations. She is a private vessel, run by American firm Ocean Infinity, and laden with modern search technology. It took her just a few weeks to pinpoint Minerve´s remains.

The Rise of the Drones

How were the men and women of Seabed Constructor able to find what had eluded so many before them? What was it that made the difference? It's simple: Time and technology. The craft was equipped with underwater drones, and they were the instruments of the discovery.

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Fauve and the families were overwhelmed and a little astonished. In an interview given to French newspaper Le Monde, Fauve said, “Many people told me they were supporting me during the search because they didn’t want me to feel alone, but they didn’t believe [the submarine] would be found.”

Mixed Emotions

Therese Scheirmann-Descamps was a member of the group pushing for the renewed search. Her husband Jules had been aboard Minerve. “It’s extraordinarily soothing – for my children, too," she told AFP. "It’s such a surprise, such a joy.”

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Not everyone felt the same, however. Jaques Dannay had been two when his father disappeared with Minerve. “I know it’s stupid," he said, with emotion. "But for me, my father isn’t really dead for as long as we haven’t found the wreck.”

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The Hostile Depths

So finally, the last of the lost subs have come to the light. Minerve and her crew will rest in peace, as the site of her wreckage has been declared a maritime sanctuary. Unfortunately, we are no closer to knowing why she perished than we are with any of the other mystery wrecks.

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Minerve, in her silent sanctuary. Dakar, with her conning tower standing guard outside the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa. K-129 and her sealed and buried crew. Scorpion, in her lonely, secret grave, monitored for radioactivity. Together, they bear witness to the dangers that underwater exploration hold, and the bravery of the men and women who plow those infinite depths.

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