Russia has announced that it will scrap the world’s two largest submarines, the Severstal and Arkhangelsk Typhoon-class subs. A regular of the Soviet and Russian navies since the early-1980s, these submarines are a symbol of both prestige and martial superiority and their demise will be mourned in naval circles.
So it is with vessels of all kinds, which have a tendency to capture the public’s imagination in a way other means of transportation cannot. One need only look at the persisting Titanic hysteria, over a century since the ocean liner sank, to determine the awe-inspiring capabilities of fantastical vessels.
The shipbreaking process is almost as significant as the original construction of a vessel. All reusable parts are salvaged for future service. Such an undertaking is hazardous, particularly on large naval ships where unremoved ordnance, radioactive waste, asbestos and other potentially deadly substances keep workers on their toes. Because of the regulations imposed on shipbreaking by the developed world, most of the biggest shipbreaking yards are in South Asia where safety measures and competitive wages are overlooked for maximum profit.
This was not always the way and, until WWII, it was the industrialised countries of the West that dominated shipbreaking. During the 19th century, ships were even broken up in yards along the River Thames, in the heart of London. As early as 1839, J.M.W. Turner‘s immortal painting, The Fighting Temeraire, depicted the famous 98-gun vessel of the Battle of Trafalgar making its final journey along the Thames to Baltic Wharf where it was dismantled.
The great battleships of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries remained predominantly wooden constructs and the shipbreaking process was potentially very lucrative for furniture wholesalers and timber merchants. Hughes Bolckow were perhaps the most successful shipbreakers in Britain, establishing a works at Battleship Wharf, Blyth, Northumberland in 1911. By WWI, both wooden and steel vessels were flooding into the slipways of the small north-eastern port for breaking.
Profits soared as ordinary people snapped up lawn chairs made from the hull of HMS Southampton or steel plates rescued from the dented casing of a German U-Boat. Sentimentality and exoticism were synonymous with naval vessels, perhaps more so in Britain than most places given its unique naval history.
The Russians are no strangers themselves to Battleship Wharf. In the 1980s, a set of Whisky-class submarines belonging to the Soviet Navy were taken to Blyth for scapping and salvage.
Whilst Hughes Bolckow are no longer operating, their products remain collector’s items. Whether the Russians will let anyone get their hands on a piece of the Typhoons remains to be seen but the queue will be a long one indeed.