Operation Strikeback

Operation Strikeback was a major naval exercise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) that took place over a ten-day period in September 1957.

As part of a series of exercises to simulate an all-out Soviet attack on NATO, Operation Strikeback was tasked with two objectives. Its initial objective was the deployment of NATO's naval forces (designated the "Blue Fleet") against other NATO forces attempting to simulate an "enemy" navy that featured a large number of submarines (designated the "Orange Fleet"). Its other objective was to have the Blue Fleet execute carrier-based air strikes against "enemy" formations and emplacements along NATO's northern flank in Norway.

Operation Strikeback involved over 200 warships, 650 aircraft, and 75,000 personnel from the United States Navy, the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, the Royal Canadian Navy, the French Navy, the Royal Netherlands Navy, and the Royal Norwegian Navy. As the largest peacetime naval operation up to that time, military analyst Hanson W. Baldwin of the New York Times characterized Operation Strikeback as "constituting the strongest striking fleet assembled since World War II.


Strategic doctrine issues

Faced the overwhelming numerical superiority of Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact military forces, NATO embraced the concept of the nuclear umbrella to protect Western Europe from a Soviet ground invasion. This strategy was articulated in January 1954 by U.S. Army General and then-Supreme Allied Commander Europe Alfred Gruenther:

This strategic concept reflected the American strategy of massive retaliation of the Eisenhower administration as set forth by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles:

Previous NATO exercises

Starting in 1952, NATO undertook a number of a major military exercises to improve NATO's integration and effectiveness, including:

  • Mainbrace — NATO's first naval exercise
  • Mariner — Naval exercise involving convoy protection, naval control of shipping, and striking fleet operations in north Atlantic
  • Italic Weld — Combined air-naval-ground exercise in northern Italy involving the United States, Italy, Turkey, and Greece
  • Grand Repulse — Military exercise in Germany involving the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR), the Netherlands Corps and Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AAFCE).
  • Monte Carlo — Simulated atomic air-ground exercise involving the Central Army Group (CENTAG)
  • Weldfast — A combined amphibious landing exercise in the Mediterranean Sea involving British, Greek, Italian, Turkish, and U.S. naval forces

Operation Strikeback and the other concurrent NATO exercises held during the fall of 1957 would be the most ambitious military undertaking for the alliance to date, involving more than 250,000 men, 300 ships, and 1,500 aircraft operating from Norway to Turkey.

NATO military command structure

With the establishment of NATO’s Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT) on 30 January 1952, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) joined the previously-created Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) as one of the alliance’s two principal military field commanders. Also, a Channel Command was established on 21 February 1952 to control the English Channel and North Sea area and deny it to the enemy, protect the sea lanes of communication, and Support operations conducted by SACEUR and SACLANT. The following key NATO military commands were involved in a series of alliance-wide exercises, including Operation Strikeback, during the Fall of 1957.

Allied Command Atlantic (ACLANT)

Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

Allied Channel Command (CHANCOM)

  • Commander-in-Chief Channel (CINCHAN) – Admiral Sir Guy Grantham, RN

Operational overview


As part of the response to a theoretical Soviet attack against NATO on all fronts, Operation Strikeback would test the capabilities of Allied naval forces (Blue Fleet) by tasking them to destroy the enemy navy (Orange Fleet) and its huge submarine fleet, protect transatlantic shipping, and undertake sustained carrier-based air strikes against the enemy positions.

Operation Seaspray

Beginning on 3 September 1957, American and Canadian naval forces got underway to join British, French, Dutch, and Norwegian naval forces in eastern Atlantic and northern European waters under the overall command of Vice Admiral Robert B. Pirie, USN, the Commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, acting as NATO's Commander Striking Fleet Atlantic (COMSTRIKFLTLANT). While en route, the U.S.-Canadian naval forces executed Operation Seaspray, a bilateral naval exercises to protect Blue Fleet’s vitally-important underway replenishment group (URG) from enemy submarine attacks. The nuclear submarine and the conventional submarine completed operations in the Arctic and joined 34 other U.S. and allied submarines temporarily assigned to the Orange Fleet.

Operation Fend Off and Operation Fishplay

Operation Strikeback began on 19 September 1957, involving over 200 warships, 650 aircraft, and 65,000 personnel. To provide a more realistic simulation of protecting transatlantic shipping, over 200 merchant marine vessels, including the ocean liners and , also participated as duly-flagged target ships for this NATO exercise. Blue Fleet hunter-killer (HUK) groups centered around the carriers , , and , as well as submarines and land-based anti-submarine patrol aircraft, executed Operation Fend Off/Operation Fishplay to identify, track, and contain the breakout of the enemy Orange Fleet’s submarine force along the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap.

Carrier-based air strike operations

Operating above the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian Sea, the Blue Fleet, which included the new U.S. supercarrier and , launched carried-based air strikes against enemy positions in Norway. Time magazine provided the following contemporary coverage of Operation Strikeback:

Operation Pipedown

Following the conclusion of Operation Strikeback, U.S. naval forces conducted Operation Pipedown, involving the protection of its underway replenishment group while en route back the United States.

Naval forces for Operation Strikeback

The following is a partial listing of naval forces known to have participated in Operation Strikeback based on public sources (e.g., Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships and on-line ship histories), contemporary and archival news accounts, and historical reference works as set forth here.

Aircraft carriers and embarked air groups


  • Squadrons embarked:
    • Air Anti-submarine Squadron 32 (VS-32)
    • Anti-submarine Helicopter Squadron 1 (HS-1)
    • Attack Squadron 172 (VA-172)
    • All-Weather Fighter Squadron 4 (VF(AW)-4) Det.
    • Utility Helicopter Squadron 2 (HU-2) Det.
  • Squadrons embarked:
    • Attack Squadron 44 (VA-44)
    • Air Anti-submarine Squadron 27 (VS-27)
    • Air Anti-submarine Squadron 30 (VS-30)
    • Anti-submarine Helicopter Squadron 5 (HS-5)
    • Utility Helicopter Squadron 2 (HU-2) Det.
  • – Orange Fleet flagship
  • Naval aircraft

    United States Navy:

    Royal Navy:

    Aircraft losses

    • 24 September 1957 – An F4D Skyray jet figher crashed into the sea while attempting to land back onboard the . During the subsequent search and rescue, two S2F-2 ASW aircraft of VS-36 off the collided in mid-air and crashed into the sea. Two additional F4D Skyray aircraft crashed following a mid-air collision off Andøy, Norway. The total loss of life was 11.
    • 26 September 1957 – An A3D-1 Skywarrior attack bomber crashed into the stern flight deck ramp while attempting to land onboard the . The aircraft was lost at sea, but the three-man crew was recovered.

    Surface warships




    Destroyer Escorts:

    Amphibious Vessels: Royal Canadian Navy:

    Submarine forces

    Nuclear Submarines:

    Support Vessels:

    Diesel-Electric Submarines:

    Naval auxiliaries

    Underway Replenishment Group (URG):

    • (flagship)

    Fleet Support:

    Land-based ASW patrol aircraft

    U.S. Navy Fleet Air Wing 3

    The United States Navy deployed two patrol squadron from its Fleet Air Wing 3 (FAW-3) to participate in Operation Strikeback:

    Both squadrons flew Lockheed P2V-5F Neptune ASW patrol aircraft.

    RAF Coastal Command

    The Royal Air Force assigned two squadrons from its Coastal Command to participate in Operation Strikeback:

    Both squadrons flew Avro Shackleton patrol bombers.

    U.S. Marine Corps units

    The following units of the United States Marine Corps participated in Operation Strikeback and Operation Deep Water in September 1957 are listed below.

    Operation Strikeback

    • Regimental Landing Team 8 (RLT-8)
    • Battalion Landing Team 1/2 (1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment)

    Operation Deep Water

    Port visits

    Following the conclusion of Operation Strikeback, NATO naval forces paid visits to the following European ports.
    Port-of-call Ships
    Amsterdam, Netherlands , ,
    Belfast, Northern Ireland ,
    Brest, France , ,
    Chatham, England
    Cherbourg, France ,
    Clyde River, Scotland , ,
    Copenhagen, Denmark ,
    Dublin, Ireland
    Dunkirk, France
    Faslane, Scotland
    Isle of Portland , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
    Le Havre, France , , , , ,
    Largs, Scotland
    Milford Haven, Wales
    Oslo, Norway
    Plymouth, England , , , , ,
    Rosyth, Scotland ,
    Southampton, England

    Other NATO operations

    In addition to Operation Strikeback, which concentrated on its eastern Atlantic/northern European flank, NATO also conducted two other major military exercises in September 1957.

    Operation Counter Punch

    This air-ground exercise involved the national air-defense systems of Britain, France, Belgium and The Netherlands on the NATO’s central European front, with Général d'Armée Jean-Étienne Valluy, French Army, NATO's Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Central Europe (CINCENT), in overall command.

    Operation Deep Water

    This exercise involved protecting NATO’s southern European flank, specifically the Dardanelles, from a Soviet invasion. Operation Deep Water culminated in the landing of 8,000 U.S. Marines at Saros Gulf near Gallipoli, Turkey, from a 38-ship amphibious task force, with air support provided by aircraft carriers from the U.S. Sixth Fleet. This operation was under the command of Vice Admiral Charles R. Brown, USN, NATO's Commander Naval Striking and Support Forces Southern Europe (COMSTRIKFORSOUTH). Operation Deepwater saw the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, become the first unit of the United States Marines Corps to participated in a helicopter-borne vertical envelopment operation during an overseas deployment.



    SACLANT Admiral Jerauld Wright, USN, described Operation Strikeback as being “remarkably successful” while also noting “[that] there is considerable scarcity of both naval and air forces in the eastern Atlantic.” Wright’s Eastern Atlantic allied commander, Vice Admiral Sir John Eccles, RN, also noted:

    I am not in a position to criticize political decisions, but I say this as a professional man with over 40 years' experience — I cannot carry out my task as given to me at the moment without more forces. In recent years the submarine has, without any doubt at all, gone a very long way ahead of the devices with which we are presently equipped to sound and destroy it.

    Particularly significant was the performance of nuclear-powered submarines with the U.S. Navy's first two such vessels, the and , participating in Operation Strikeback. According to naval analyst-historian Norman Friedman, Nautilus "presented a greater threat than all 21 snorkle submarines combined" during Operation Strikeback, making 16 successful attacks against various naval formations while maintaining effective on-station tactical and high-speed pursuit capabilities. Nautilus cruised 3,384 nautical miles (6,267 km) with an average speed of 14.4 knots (26.7 kph). In addition to the Nautilus, the Seawolf departed New London on 3 September for Operation Strikeback. Before she surfaces off Newport, Rhode Isand, on 25 September, Seawolf had remained submerged for 16 days, cruising a total of 6,331 miles (10,189 km).

    Recognizing the need to meet this anti-submarines warfare (ASW) challenge, the following actions were taken:

    • Task Force Alfa was created by the U.S. Navy to develop improved ASW tactics and technology by integrating carrier-based ASW aircraft, land-based patrol aircraft, refitted destroyers, and hunter-killer submarines.
    • NATO Undersea Research Centre was established by SACLANT on 2 May 1959 in La Spezia, Italy, to serve as a clearinghouse for NATO's anti-submarine efforts.

    Operation Strikeback was the final deployment for the battleships and until their re-activation in the 1980s as part of the 600-ship program of the Reagan Administration.

    Finally, on the technical level, Operation Strikeback saw the first use of single sideband (SSB) voice communications for tactical operations by the United States Navy, and the was the first Royal Navy carrier to use a magnetic loop communication system.


    SACEUR General Lauris Norstad, USAF, noting the numerical superiority of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces over NATO ground forces, called for "about 30 divisions” to augment NATO’s central European front.

    Also, Operation Counter Punch revealed deficiency regarding NATO's air defense systems as well as air force responsiveness to theoretical Soviet and Warsaw Pact ground advances.


    To improve alliance military readiness and integration, NATO continued to hold annual alliance-wide military exercises each autumn (FALLEX) that was jointly planned and executed by SACEUR and SACLANT forces.

    600-ship Navy

    Carrier-based air strike operations in the Norwegian Sea pioneered by Operation Stikeback became the cornerstone of the forward defense of NATO's northern flank as set forth in the 600-ship Navy maritime strategy championed by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James D. Watkins, USN, during the Reagan Adinistration, and as executed by such a major NATO naval exercises as Ocean Safari '85 and Northern Wedding '86.

    In a 2008 article, retired General Bernard E. Trainor, USMC, noted the success of this maritime strategy that helped to end the Cold War:

    The 1984 Maritime Strategy that provided the strategic rationale for the 600-ship Navy program would be superseded in 2007 by A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.

    See also





    External links

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