On 27th January 1968 the French submarine S647 Minerve sank in the vicinity of Toulon naval yard during exercises along with the air force. The investigation established that S647 foundered in four minutes.
For two days the area was surveyed by a motley fleet comprising naval vessels and civil units chartered or requisitioned by the authorities. It is important to remember that 1968 was an eventful year for France. Students were protesting on the streets and a workers’ strike paralysed the entire country. Fuel was restricted, with diesel only available in case of an emergency. Every single fuel tank onboard civil vessels was empty. A replenishment tanker had left Toulon and called at several ports on her way west to deliver fuel for the commissioned merchant vessels to participate in the search for the submarine. Investigations would last for two years. Back then, General Charles de Gaulle was president and he stated the words “Some of our sailors died at sea. They were volunteers, it is to say they accepted the sacrifice before coming aboard.”
Five decades later, all parents of the 52 crew members had passed away. But wives and children keep on expecting answers to their questions surrounding the tragedy. It was their will that led to the reopening of the case following the imminent declassification of secret archives. The CEA (french alternative and atomic energy commission) and the SHOM (the Admiralty’s counterpart in France) have committed to resume the search. Improvements in reckoning and better knowledge of currents at depth proved that the initial survey was conducted in the wrong zone.
In fact the fuel spotted at the surface was coming from a position located further south. Moreover, recorded subsurface signals have been reconsidered with up-to-date technology.
On Febuary 2019 the search operations began under the auspices of the French Minister of Defence Madame Florence Parly and the command of the navy. The Norwegian-flagged ship Seabed Constructor owned by Swire Seabed, and operated by Ocean Infinity, was commissioned. It was the Seabed Constructor that, last year, located the Argentine submarine San Juan which sunk with 44 souls on board. On 16th July, operating it’s Hugin 6000 drone, the Seabed Constructor’s crew succeeded to reveal, identify and produce pictures of the wrecked Minerve. Located 28 miles south of Cape Sicié, in 7,775 feet of water, it was broken in three parts.
Over the years several hypotheses have been made to explain the cause of the sinking. Some suggested a collision with a cargo ship, rudder problems, torpedo failure - or a defect on the diesel engine affecting the air supply system. This device know as schnorchel (snorkel), is presumed the cause of similar events under similar conditions. The Minerve suffered bad weather at sea on that fateful day, with recorded winds of 70 mph coming from a northerly direction. This well-known wind, blowing in fierce gusts, and inducing a substantial drop in temperature, is the Mistral, and affects all the southern coast of France, it regularly results in severe storms around the centre of the Mediterranean. Conspiracy theories for the sinking have included torpedoing by a foreign submarine - specifically Soviet - but these have been widely discarded.
The Daphné class S647 Minerve, 190ft long, 800 tons displacement had been launched on 31st May 1961 and was one of the 11 units of the Daphné class delivered between 1950 and 1960. According to Wikipedia she was laid down in May 1958 and launched on 31st May 1961, she undertook a shakedown voyage in 1962 and was commissioned in 1964. The Minerve was one of the four submarines lost during 1968, including the Israeli INS Dakar, the American USS Scorpion, and the Russian K-129.