It’s a July evening in 2019, and the crew of search vessel Seabed Constructor control underwater drones almost 9,000 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean. The team are looking for the French submarine Minerve, which disappeared without trace in January 1968 along with its 52-strong crew. Then one of the drones seems to hit the jackpot, coming across some wreckage with the clearly visible letters “MIN.” Finally, the long-lost sub has been found – more than half a century on from the mysterious events surrounding its disappearance.
Back in 1968, however, Minerve had been engaged in a naval training exercise in which she was working in tandem with military planes. And on January 27 that year, the submarine was on her way back to the port of Toulon. Located on southern France’s Mediterranean coast, Toulon was – and is – the country’s principal naval base.
Minerve was cruising through stormy weather, however, and she traveled just below the surface of the sea in the Gulf of Lion with her snorkel raised. Then, at 7:55 a.m., the submarine’s radio operator contacted one of the aircraft flying as part of the exercise – a twin-engined Bréguet Atlantic. The message was an acknowledgement that part of the endeavor had been canceled owing to the poor weather conditions.
But that would be the last radio transmission to ever come from Minerve, as she was never heard from again. And just a few minutes after that final broadcast, seismographs operating in the area of the sub’s last known position recorded a tremor. Sinisterly, the anomaly was consistent with the implosion of a submarine.
With no further word from Minerve, a large-scale search operation was thus mounted in the ensuing days. Some 20 helicopters, planes and ships were involved in the desperate hunt for the missing submarine, in fact, but all crews would sadly draw a blank. And while subsequent searches were conducted from 1968 through to 1970, they also proved fruitless – leading the authorities to ultimately give up on finding Minerve. Nobody knew why the sub had sunk, then, or where it now was.
And it would be nearly 50 years before the inquiry into the whereabouts of Minerve was resumed. But before we get to the story of the renewed quest for the stricken sub, let’s find out a bit more about the craft herself. Most notably, Minerve was one of 11 Daphné-class vessels built by the French for their own navy between 1958 and 1970.
It’s worth knowing, too, that the French also constructed Daphné-class submarines for sale to other countries such as Spain, South Africa and Pakistan. The sinking of Minerve in 1968 and the loss of another French Navy Daphné sub, Eurydice, in 1970 put an end to the craft being made in France, however, although Spain took delivery of four more vessels up until 1975.
Yes, the Eurydice catastrophe was the final nail in the coffin of the Daphné submarines as far as the French were concerned. On March 4, the vessel was sailing in fair-weather conditions in the Mediterranean 35 miles from Toulon when she disappeared. And as had been the case with Minerve, a seismograph subsequently picked up a signal that indicated an underwater tremor.
Search teams then scoured Eurydice’s last known position. And, ominously, they would go on to find oil on the sea surface along with some floating pieces of wreckage. Worse still, one of the fragments had the name Eurydice on it. The only possible conclusion, then, was that she had sunk along with the 57 submariners who had been aboard.
In contrast to the Minerve tragedy, however, the wreck site of the Eurydice was identified relatively quickly. An American ship, USNS Mizar, found the remains of the Eurydice on April 22, 1970 – just seven weeks after the submarine had sunk. Various fragments of debris were scattered on the sea bed at depths of between around 2,000 and 3,600 feet.
But let’s get back to the story of Minerve. That vessel, as previously mentioned, was a Daphné-class sub – examples of which were also categorized as second-class craft. This put Daphné-class submarines between the larger Narval-class subs – which were able to traverse oceans – and the smaller Aréthuse-class vessels. The Aréthuse-class models were dedicated anti-submarine craft, in fact, and they provided the basis for the Daphné-class design.
The Daphné-class vessels, however, were intended to be stealthy, low-maintenance and highly mobile while being crewed by a minimum of submariners. And two diesel engines and an electric motor provided power for Minerve and her twin propellers.
Minerve was an impressive craft, too, measuring 190 feet from bow to stern and 22 feet across her beam. She also possessed a displacement of 883 tons and a range of 5,200 miles, while her maximum speeds were 18 mph underwater and 15.5 mph above the waves. Her armaments, meanwhile, consisted of eight torpedo tubes mounted at the front and four more at the rear.
And French naval authorities made the initial order for Minerve in 1957, with venerable shipbuilders Chantiers Dubigeon starting construction in May of the following year. The submarine was put together at the company’s shipyard on the Île de Nantes – an island on the River Loire in the city of Nantes.
Then, three years after work had begun on Minerve, she was launched on the last day of May 1961. Following that, the sub would embark on what mariners call a shakedown cruise, which in itself serves two principal purposes. Firstly, such a journey allows a crew to learn about their new craft; secondly, it offers the opportunity to identify and remedy any snags in a vessel’s equipment and operation.
Minerve’s shakedown cruise took place in November 1962, upon which she first sailed to Londonderry in Northern Ireland. From there, she traveled on to Bergen on Norway’s west coast and then to the Swedish port city of Gothenburg. And after the completion of that trip, Minerve berthed at the naval port of Cherbourg on France’s Atlantic coast.
Finally, from Cherbourg, Minerve sailed to her home port of Toulon on the Mediterranean. In fact, she would spend the rest of her days sailing exclusively in that sea. And as we saw earlier, on January 27, 1968, the sub was cruising in the Med around 30 miles from her home port.
That day, Minerve was under the command of Lieutenant André Fauve. Fauve was a career naval officer who had followed in the footsteps of his father, as Fauve senior had been captain of the battleship Strasbourg. The French had deliberately sunk that vessel – along with the rest of their fleet – at Toulon in 1942 to avoid her falling into the hands of the Germans.
Born in 1935 in the northwestern French city of Ploërmel, Fauve became a submariner after graduating from naval college in 1958. And he went on to rack up a considerable amount of experience in various vessels before taking command of Minerve in 1968 at the age of 32. That new position effectively sealed his fate, however, as on board Minerve he would lose his life – along with the 51 other men of the crew.
And after Minerve disappeared on January 27, 1968, another French naval officer, Commander Philipe Bouillot, described Fauve’s submarine service. Fauve, he said, had spent four years – encompassing some 7,000 hours of diving – aboard Daphné-class submarines. Furthermore, during all that time, the lieutenant had never encountered any problems. So, it seemed that, in general, this class of vessel was not known for being unreliable – and nor was Fauve.
All of this made Minerve’s complete disappearance after her final radio message all the more baffling. The only factor that seemed to serve as a possible explanation for the sinking of the submarine was bad weather. In the area of the Mediterranean where Minerve was sailing, you see, winds were blowing at up to 70 mph.
Nevertheless, the plane that had received the last broadcast from Minerve tried repeatedly to raise her again for the next 15 minutes. Ultimately, this was to no avail. And although the stormy weather had made radio communications patchy, meaning no alarm was subsequently issued, anxiety grew when the submarine had not returned to Toulon as expected by 1:00 a.m. on January 28.
Then, when Minerve had still not appeared at her home port of Toulon by 2:15 a.m., the alarm was finally raised and a search mission was launched. And as we heard earlier, around 20 helicopters, ships and planes took part in the hunt for the missing submarine. These craft included a mini-submarine used by the famous undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau.
Yet the best efforts of the searchers turned up absolutely nothing. Of course, back in the late 1960s, diving technology – including the use of remotely operated vehicles – was nowhere near as sophisticated as that available in the 21st century. And it didn’t help, either, that the area of sea in which Minerve had been sailing was between 3,300 and 6,600 feet deep.
Further searches continued over 1968 and 1969, but again no trace of Minerve was found. The American ship USNS Mizar – which would later find Minerve’s sister vessel, Eurydice – embarked on one such hunt in 1969. And despite the use of a mini-sub, Archimède, this search too drew a blank. For the next half a century, then, it may have appeared that Minerve had been lost forever.
Before we hear the tale of how the wreck of Minerve was finally located, though, it’s worth pausing a moment to hear about other events that took place in 1968. And it seems that that year was a hideous one indeed from the point of view of those who crewed submarines around the world.
Just two days prior to Minerve’s sinking, you see, the Israeli Navy submarine INS Dakar was lost in the Mediterranean. Then in March 1968 Russian sub K-129 also disappeared in the North Pacific. And in the following May, an American nuclear submarine, USS Scorpion, sank in the Atlantic.
What’s more, these tragedies all had two things in common. Heartbreakingly, each resulted in the deaths of the submarine’s entire crew. That was 69 men lost in the case of INS Dakar, while 52 perished on board Minerve. Even greater numbers passed away in the USS Scorpion and K-129 catastrophes: 99 and 98 submariners, respectively.
The second common factor in these four 1968 submarine disasters was that they involved some kind of mystery. The first vessel to go down, the Dakar, was actually an adapted British submarine from World War II. She had been sailing through the eastern Mediterranean en route to Israel when she disappeared on January 25, 1968.
And it took more than 30 years of painstaking searching before the Dakar’s wreck was located in 1999. Ultimately, she was discovered by a joint Israeli-U.S. team to br lying 9,800 feet or so beneath the waves between the Mediterranean islands of Crete and Cyprus. The cause of her sinking has never been pinned down.
After Minerve, the next 1968 submarine disaster came on March 8. On that day, the Soviet submarine K-129 went down with all hands. Then, in August that year, the American USS Halibut discovered the sub’s wreck in 16,000 feet of water to the north-west of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. And believing that there were nuclear weapons aboard the vessel, President Nixon therefore ordered a secret salvage attempt.
The recovery operation yielded something gruesome, too: a piece of wreckage with the bodies of six Soviet submariners inside. These human remains were so radioactive that they were ultimately sealed inside a steel container before being buried at sea with full military ceremony. Whether the salvagers also recovered nuclear weapons, however, remains classified information to this day.
Meanwhile, the American sub USS Scorpion was on a surveillance mission in 1968 somewhere near the Portuguese Azores islands. Her task at that time was to keep an eye on Soviet naval activity in the region. And after Scorpion completed her mission, she then headed back to her base in Norfolk, Virginia.
Scorpion failed to arrive in Norfolk as expected, however, and so she was declared missing on June 5, 1968, with her crew presumed deceased. Disturbingly, she had last been heard from on May 22. Finally, the search ship Mizar went into action and found the wreck at a depth of more than 9,800 feet – and about 460 miles from the Azores. Scorpion’s loss was ultimately described as an “unexplained catastrophic event.”
But let’s get back to the story of Minerve. Although the search for the submarine had ended in 1969, some of the loved ones of those who had perished had never given up hope of one day finding the remains of the vessel. Prominent among that group was Hervé Fauve – the son of Minerve’s last commander.
And in October 2018 Fauve led a group of relatives of the lost submariners in a media campaign to renew the search for the wreck of Minerve. By that time, the French submarine was the only one lost by the Allied powers during World War II whose whereabouts remained unknown. Fortunately, though, the public pressure that Fauve and his group exerted on the French government eventually bore fruit.
Yes, after a 50-year period of inactivity, the French authorities renewed their search efforts for Minerve in early July 2019. In that month, the search vessel Seabed Constructor – operated by American firm Ocean Infinity – began to comb the area of the Mediterranean where it was believed that Minerve had gone down. And on July 22, a momentous announcement came: the long-lost submarine had been found at a depth of 7,700 feet.
It seemed, too, that the improved undersea search technology of the 21st century had yielded the breakthrough, as Seabed Constructor had found the sub using underwater drones. And for Fauve, this news was overwhelming. Speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde, he 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.”
And, naturally, the news evoked mixed emotions in others, too. Therese Scheirmann-Descamps, whose husband Jules had been aboard Minerve told AFP, “It’s extraordinarily soothing – for my children, too. It’s such a surprise, such a joy.” The son of another of the lost submariners, Jacques Dannay – who was two when his father perished – said, on the other hand, “I know it’s stupid, but for me my father isn’t really dead for as long as we haven’t found the wreck.”
Following the momentous discovery, then, the French government declared that the site of the wreck would henceforth be a marine sanctuary. Yet questions still remain about the sinking. You see, although the submarine was lying on the seabed in three separate sections, investigators are no closer to truly understanding why she was lost. And despite speculation in some quarters about possible issues affecting Minerve’s rudder, bad weather remains the principal explanation on offer for the incident. Yet regardless of how the craft ultimately met her doom, the tragedy she experienced – along with the other submarine disasters of 1968 – is a somber reminder of the peril that submariners routinely face.