Jonty Powis served in the Royal Navy from 1974 – 2006, serving in a variety of ships from offshore patrol vessels to aircraft carriers. However, it was in submarines that he found his metier. As a junior officer he served in HM Ships SOVEREIGN and SCEPTRE before specializing in Navigation and joining HMS CONQUEROR/or the Falklands and other Cold War patrols. He then taught the art of navigation to a generation of submariners before going to HMS WALRUS (SSK) as XO. He passed the Perisher command exam in I 986 and went to HMS RESOLUTION as XO. He was then appointed to his first Command in the second of the Upholder class SSKs, HMS UNSEEN (now HMCS VICTORIA) as her first CO, then on promotion back to RESOLUTION as her last CO before again acting as the first CO of the Trident boat HMS VICTORIOUS. He also spent time in a number of other boats as supernumerary including the French SSN FS RUBIS. Coming ashore in Oct I 996 he served in the UK embassy in Washington DC for three years and the Ministry of Defense on his return to the UK. His last job in uniform was as the UK Submarine Rescue Officer. He is now employed by Rolls Royce (Marine) to run the NA TO Rescue Service (NSRS) as a civilian.
This year marked the 25’h anniversary of the strange little war in the South Atlantic over the windswept Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas to the Argentines). Their importance was easy to overlook then but the mineral rights, fisheries and access to the Antarctic are obvious now. At the time the animosity between the two countries over the territory and the unwillingness of the UK Foreign Office to commit to the inhabitants, put the kybosh on any attempt at development. The reasons for, or the results of, the conflict are not for this piece to address. This is an attempt to reflect on what happened to me. What follows is a collection of my memories about the patrol that HMS CONQUEROR conducted as part of the UK Task Group. The facts as I remember them are reproduced below. Some of them may be disputed but it is as I remember. The wider issues were best summarized for me by an American politico chum of my father who stated, .. Both countries needed it”. She was right in that the Argies got rid of an oppressive military dictatorship and the Brits rediscovered their self-confidence.
At the beginning of 1982 I was a young (26 -just) and inexperienced navigator serving in SSN HMS CONQUEROR. I was just starting to find my feet and master the several challenges of being the operations officer, pilot and watch leader. In truth I had seized the opportunity of early advancement too eagerly and I was only just starting to make myself useful to my Captain.
The mood in the UK at that time was quite different to that of today. An air of decline pervaded everything in the news. The Thatcher revolution was only just getting started and 35 years of imperial, political, military, social and financial decline and ineptitude since 1945 made people used to disappointment in international and domestic affairs. The Armed Services and particularly the Navy were facing further cuts despite being at the height of the Cold War. The RN was to lose its amphibious forces and both of its little carriers, thus to be reduced to little more than an escort force for the USN. Morale was fragile and in submarines people were looking at the Australian or Canadian Navies and the civil nuclear power program rather than staying in the service. Nevertheless efficiency was still high as we were about to demonstrate.
CONQUEROR (CONX) had been commissioned in 1971 but was un-modernized. She had the late 1950’s technology bow sonar 2001 and a crude towed array but no TMA computer and no IT to speak of. Capable of 27 knots when new, the towed array robbed her of one of those. Her deep diving depth was 750′ but we had to record all dives below 500′, to this day I am not sure why. We were inordinately proud of our SSIXS terminal and an ancient SatNav. However, during the previous running period electrical failures meant that I found myself using the periscope sextant in earnest to find Fort Lauderdale. We were all pleasantly surprised when I did. The end of March ’82 had the UK glued to its TV screens as the bizarre events in South Georgia and Port Stanley unfolded.
CONX was emerging from a short maintenance period which was made very much more enjoyable as we were told to store for war and were placed in the enviable situation of having a higher stores priority than the deploying SSBN.
We embarked so much food we had to double deck the main corridor with tins. We had a full outfit of weapons and 12 members of the SBS (Navy Special Forces) and a pile of their paraphernalia. It was regarded as intensely secret that these guys were on board. The first 9 joined in the middle of the night and were not allowed onto the casing even to exercise unless it was dark. At the last minute we were asked to embark the last 3 who drove the 500 mile length of the country in a bus and arrived in broad daylight to unload canoes, skis, guns and bombs. To confuse any Argie spies the bus parked next to the submarine was marked Royal Marines Sky Diving Team.
The passage south of over 8000 miles was conducted flat out; 21 days in the full power state reading one routine every 24hrs and devouring the news. The submarine must have woken every Atlantic sonar operator; she had two un-insulated turbo-driven feed pumps for the full power state, which screamed.
All the way south we were uncertain about what would transpire. Nobody believed that the politicians would hold their nerve and start a shooting war. After 35 years of the retreat from empire, we were sure that we would find ourselves going north soon, but not quite so fast. The new Captain and the XO kept us busy with drills and practice attacks. We had a whole new threat to learn as the Argie forces were a mix of US, UK, French and local platforms.
We arrived off South Georgia in support of the small surface task group based there. However a significant event the day before had sharpened us to the truth and drama of the situation. The day we raised the central 10,000 ft peak of South Georgia, during my forenoon watch we detected the classic signature of a submarine running diesel engines. The bearing rate was high enough for a snorting submarine to be close. The Captain was summoned and we rushed to periscope depth at action stations with tubes ready. Nothing was in sight so we assumed that the submarine was dived and snorting at slow speed just outside visual range. We returned to the depths to approach the firing position. As we left the layer we lost contact and never regained it. We tried all sorts; going shallow
again then deeper, active sonar, sprinting beyond supposed maximum range and looking back at the target actively and passively; all fruitless. We came shallow again to make a contact report having given up hope of regaining contact. The next day the Argie submarine SANTE FE (ex USS CATFISH SS 339) was caught on the surface by helicopters from HMS ENDURANCE and HMS ANTRIM which disabled her while she was entering Cumberland Sound enroute to reinforce their Grytvyken garrison. She ended up sinking alongside the jetty there. This event brought us to the realization that we were actually at war and could have fired real torpedoes at a real target full of real people. Furthermore they would probably have a go at us too if we were careless. We became sharp.
23 years later I was chairing a Submarine Rescue Meeting and the Argentine delegate turned out to have been my opposite number on that day. After an embarrassed introduction we exchanged memories. I now know that the SANTE FE had been surfaced and fast throughout that day. So we, having missed seeing her and thereby assuming that she was dived, slow and close searched in the wrong place. “What if’ I thought – perhaps he did too.
The recapture of South Georgia happened around us. We watched in disbelieve as the SAS (Any special forces) crashed several helicopters into the Fortuna Glacier while we carried out a periscope reconnaissance looking for a landing site for our SF who were Arctic trained. They were landed by helicopter later after the fall of South Georgia. We were kept out of sight of the Argie prisoners in Grytvyken. They were being returned to Argentina so that they could tell the truth about events and perhaps more importantly our conduct towards them. But they were not allowed to know that we had nuclear submarines already operating in the war zone.
The mood on board was hardening to the task. Earlier we had suffered a minor bump possibly with some ice that had damaged our VHF aerial, and so we lost SSIXS. We were also operating far outside the design coverage of NA TO VLF stations. Thus communications had become a problem. An HF broadcast from New Zealand was activated so that we could be talked to but that too was operating at its limits. Our floating VHF aerial required us to surface to deploy it at great hazard of entangling the screw. We spent 2 nervous days surfaced off South Georgia under the air defense coverage of HMS Antrim’s Sea Slug system as the radio maintainer lay along the top of the fin trying to weld the flimsy aluminum framework of the VHF aerial in windy freezing conditions. He succeeded so that we could reliably transmit but not receive SSIXS. We were reduced to literally cutting and pasting yards of paper rolls to receive barnstorms. That maintainer was deservedly mentioned in dispatches.
We were moved from the vicinity of South Georgia to an area south of the Falkland Islands. The Argentine naval strategy was developing with their small ex UK carrier and its UK designed escorts to the north, the French A69s to the West and the Belgrano group of ex-USN ships to the south.
Navigation had some chewy problems. The charting of the South Atlantic in those days was haphazard. Before departure I was given the raw survey data (collector sheets) as recent charts had not been published. They were plain black and white and I spent many happy hours on the way south coloring the land and shallows to make them useable as charts. The chart of the north coast of East Falkland had the following encouraging message added Coast reported to lie 4 miles further north and the chart of the waters between South Georgia and the Falklands bore the name of the surveyor and the date of survey as Lt J Cook Royal Navy 1774. We took appropriate precautions. We tried to keep to those areas where occasional vessels had operated their echo sounders so that I could interpret the gaps between lines of soundings. We operated the echo sounder continuously and rehearsed slowing down, coming shallow and reversing course in one motion. We met several pinnacles for which that drill proved a life saver. Lt Cook was a good surveyor but probably did not imagine a 4500T nuclear submarine at 20+ knots operating at 600 feet 208 years later when he drew up his charts.
We established our patrol to the south of the Total Exclusion Zone. We knew that the ARA BELGRANO (ex USS PHOENIX) was operating in that sector together with 2 ex USN destroyers of the same vintage. Although old, these ships were a significant threat to the UK Task Force. Their guns and missiles could only be countered by air strikes or submarine torpedoes.
One dull evening contact was gained on a diesel signature where there should not have been one; in the vicinity of Isla de los Estados near Tierra del Fuego. We sprinted down the bearing for several hours, stopping intermittently to take a look on the hull mounted sonars. On achieving broad band contact and identifying three or four ships we returned to periscope depth. The control room was tense. The Captain took a good look all around and announced four ships in sight. I was (and still am) a bit of a spotter of ships and so he called me to the periscope and invited me to say what I could see. There was BELGRANO in the act of refueling from a commercial tanker accompanied by two destroyers ARA HIPPOLITO BOUCHARD and ARA PIEDRO BUENO, (ex USS BONE DD704 and COLLETT DD730).
We detected no sonar or radar transmissions, so assumed that they were attempting to remain covert. They broke off fueling and started to head ENE towards elements of the UK Task Group. They did not go quickly, no more than 12 knots, they did not zigzag except for some very long leg gentle variations in course which might have been our own errors in course estimation. We reported our contact, went deep, tucked ourselves close astern of the BELGRANO and followed them to the ENE.
The initial detection range proved to have been of the tanker at a range of 105nm. The old and noisy propulsion systems of the warships made easy broadband targets. If anything their noisiness made for confusion. Having gone deep and closed BELGRANO (2 x 4) we came to PD the next day behind the PIEDRO BUENO (also 2 x 4). They had crossed during the night and we picked the wrong guy to trail.
The next day the three warships entered a circular exercise area to the South of the Total Exclusion Zone (TEZ). At about the same time the order came to attack BELGRANO. This was not unexpected. We had gathered earlier in the wardroom and discussed how we would carry out such an attack. It was not a long debate. We had two options; either the new Tigerfish Mod1 dual purpose ASW/ASuW wire-guided weapon or the 50 year old Mk 8 which had been the main RN submarine torpedo ofWW2. In its day its rugged design and reliability made it perhaps the best torpedo of its era. It was a 45 knot, gyro-angled unguided diesel torpedo and had an optimum range of 1500yds but would run nearly 10 times that before exhausting its fuel. It needed periscope exposure and the captain’s accurate estimations to derive the fire control solution. The wire guided and modem homing torpedo, Tigerfish, had many weaknesses. It was prone to wire breaks and had an unreliable fuse. More than 2/3 of all weapons fired suffered a wire break and control was lost. This was not a safety issue with an exercise weapon but with a warshot we were less at ease with the prospect of an uncontrolled ASW weapon meandering about nearby. Faced with the challenge of sinking a 14000T armoured ship built in 1938 that was taking no discernable ASW precautions we made the obvious choice and plumped for the contemporaneous Mk 8.
During the peace or war deliberations in London, Buenos Aires and elsewhere we continued to shadow the BELGRANO Task Group. They passed through the circle of the exercise area and reversed course making to cross it again. We by now had permission to conduct the attack and started the approach to the firing position. For the MK 8 the ideal position for discharge is on the beam of the target with an angle on the bow at discharge of 90 degrees plus an angle equal to the speed in kts at a range of 1200- 1500 yards with own course equal to the mean torpedo course. This means that the weapons have nearly a zero gyro angle and provided target speed and course are about right the solution is independent of target range. For those of you who don’t remember manual TMA techniques this happens when Weapon Speed Across equals Target Speed Across. BELGRANO was at about I 0.5 knots steering just north of west. Our Captain taking looks every three minutes or so had to maneuver the boat into a position about 3/4 of a mile to the south of the target ending up on a course of 345 at a speed of 4kts so that the periscope would not make a feather.
Three tubes were loaded with Mk8s and the other three with Tigerfish. We had closed up at action stations early and the atmosphere throughout the boat was extraordinary. Everyone had a role even if it was to sit tight and await damage to repair, we were all concentrating intently on the task in hand. The attack drill was conducted as if we were taking part in a demonstration for a training film. It was not a difficult attack, we were well practiced and the mood in the control room was tense but professional. The Captain succeeded in achieving the firing position and by happy chance this put both the escorting destroyers on the other side of the cruiser. At the moment of firing the XO surprised us all and piped up from his comer of the control room “Do not fire! – gyro angle improving”. What he meant was that the torpedo course calculator (a 1940s electro-mechanical computer) showed that the target had not quite yet reached the optimum position. The captain lowered the periscope and simply waited for things to move on by. The XO called out again a short time later “ready now sir” and the periscope slid up into the captain’s grasp and he gave the order to fire.
The three Mk 8s were fired with an interval of 3 seconds. The mean gyro angle was zero as intended. During their run we continued to plot the target and when the stop watch of the fire control officer indicated 15 seconds to first impact the captain again raised the periscope. He saw the two weapons hit, the first under the after superstructure and the second just aft of the bow. We all heard the bangs, the whole boat cheered at the first, and again at the second, the third and fourth bangs with all four at a steady interval were a surprise. We afterwards decided that we were listening to the direct path and bottom bounce, which by chance arrived at the same cadence as the firing interval.
Submarines do not hang about after attacking warships. This was a tradition that we found to be a sound practice and so we went deep and fast for a short sprint away before returning to periscope depth, possibly to have a go at the destroyers. We were confronted by the destroyers zig-zagging towards us at high speed. So we went deeper and faster for longer to put distance between us and them as well as to reload. However as there had been no sonar or radar transmissions from them even after the attack, we assumed that chance alone had sent them our way. There were a large number of bangs which we supposed were the destroyers dropping depth charges blind. During this run to the south and east I opened up the latest copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships and invited the Captain to indicate where he had seen the weapons hit. He looked down at me with the patient look of an indulgent parent- ” I don’t sink cruisers every day pilot” he whispered. I put the book away.
Standing down from the attack some of us gathered in the wardroom before returning to our beds. This was interrupted by a huge explosion about an hour after the attack and we closed up at action stations again. Nothing developed so we continued to run deep and fast and supposed that this was the death cry of the great ship.
Amongst the ships company there was a range of reactions to the events of the day. Some became rather introspective some seemed unaffected most were pragmatic. We were at war in all but name and reasoned that the Argies would have had a go at us if they had detected our presence.
The next day or two we spent patrolling the surrounding area. We were aware of the SAR effort but left it alone. However, when a 2×3 contact broke off from the rescue group and shaped course to the NE towards the UK naval group gathered around the missile-tom wreck of HMS SHEFFIELD. We set off in pursuit. We shadowed the ship at close range overnight and at first light closed up at action stations ready to fire and returned to periscope depth. Through the periscope the large red crosses on the superstructure were conspicuous. It was AUXILIARY BAHIA PARAISO, converted into a hospital ship. Why she was heading towards SHEFFIELD I do not know. Perhaps she was going to assist, perhaps she was going towards the holding area for our hospital ships. We broke off and resumed our patrol areas to the South of the Islands.
The sinking of BELGRANO was the key naval event of the war causing the departure from the scene of all Argentine ships to their 12 mile limit. They never came out again. On board we sort of knew that we had changed things so radically, however we were not idle thereafter.
Our patrol area shifted clockwise from South of the Islands to the West between the TEZ and the mainland. There we nearly came a cropper. The floating wire aerial was lost so we had to surface and stream another. In doing so we managed to get part of it wrapped around the screw. At any speed above 8 knots we cavitated freely so had to do something. We surfaced, in darkness and put two men onto the casing in dry suits: the outside engineer (a part-time diver) and one of our sonar operators, a man of colossal fortitude and physical strength. He was (and is) known as Horse, if you ever meet him you’ll know why. Horse entered the water and swam to the screw, which was of course being held on the shaft brake. In a swim that seemed endless but might have lasted 30 minutes he removed all the aerial wreckage while being thrown into the screw blades by the running sea. He was hauled out of the water drained of energy and close to being incapable of further movement. I have never seen someone so exhausted- and this was Horse. All of this was done in the certain knowledge that if any Argie plane had arrived we would have dived without him. His Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) was never so bravely earned.
We continued our clockwise circuit of the islands, never seeing them as we were biasing our patrols towards the mainland. The fighting ashore was now well underway and the four SSNs operating off the Argentine coast were acting as passive warning of air raids. We were told to operate at the 12 mile limit and like the other boats spent some time inside it. We were tasked to conduct an ESM watch from the end of the runways of the Argentine Air Bases and report air raids as they took off. Some boats got very close to the tarmac and were able to identify the aircraft by sight. One found itself being bombed inadvertently as aircraft returning from unsuccessful raids dumped armed bombs into the sea. This was an unexpected tasking and reflects the flexibility of submarines if the crews are well trained and capable of unrestricted operations in shallow water. It was all the more surprising as the older boats had a truly ante-diluvian ESM outfit UA4. Barely capable of reliable operations for a periodic return to periscope depth it was a thing of cathode ray tubes and valves. It warmed up like a 1950s television set but was not half so easy to use. More than 4 or 5 radars in a band and it was swamped. In coastal waters it was at its limit: off an airbase with 2 dozen angry aircraft testing their radar before launch it was all but useless. We knew something was coming our way but until we saw its classification, it was guesswork.
The departure of the Argentine Navy from the conflict had made things rather dull, (for us everything was dull by comparison to sinking a cruiser). However we were in the right place to be directed to find the Type 42 Destroyer ARA HERCULES which was on its way from the south to the north creeping along the coast as far inshore as it dared to go. We did not detect her but intelligence kept us close. I say that we did not detect her but I am convinced I saw her funnel smoke when she ran aground. It was the end of the day so we stayed at the extremes of territorial waters. She had been damaged in this incident so we ran ahead to the entrance to the Golfo de San Matias, a large bay which she would have to cross to reach home. The entrance is greater than 24 miles across so she would have to leave safe water unless she went around the inside. We waited but failed to see her. We assumed that she had taken the long way round inside the bay and we decided to go take a look-see. This was another interesting navigational challenge. The area of chart on which we where to navigate was a little smaller than a post card: approximately 5 miles to the inch. Depths were uncertain and the echo sounder kept us safe. We did a swift circuit keeping just in sight of land before departing and finding ourselves homeward bound, because the fighting had stopped.
The communications difficulties for the latter part of the trip had isolated us from much of the more hysterical and jingoistic coverage. On the way north we didn’t dwell much on what had happened or what the news would have been saying about us. Some had more personal things to occupy us: my first child had been born on 13 May and I was keen for a mail drop with photos of her and family news. The trip north was uneventful and spent polishing the patrol report and preparing the inevitable briefings. On resuming reliable VLF coverage the admin signals started to build up with detailed arrival plans. We were the third boat to return so interest was still huge- far in excess of our expectations. Our first clue was being met in the River Clyde while preparing the casing for entering harbour by a small training ship crammed to the gunwhales with Sea Cadets which endlessly circled the stationary submarine while they gave us three cheers about 50 times.
If you have ever visited Faslane you’ll remember the narrow entrance past a long low spit. This was covered with camera teams filming our arrival, some of whom in search for the best angle were wading knee deep. They were taking their lives in their hands as our minimum safe speed for pilotage was 8 knots and the wake at that speed was not small. From the bridge we could hear their shrieks of disappointment as our wake and that of the accompanying tug flooded their thigh boots and splashed their lenses and caused a wave of panic through the throng. We didn’t find it funny- hilarious yes, funny no.
The base was also crowded, the jetty was swathed in guests, spectators, a band, a bevy of senior officers and most importantly for me a diminutive blond figure at the back holding up a pink bundle-my 7 week old daughter. The captain gave command to the XO and went below to dress appropriately. The XO and I finished the alongside and got the boat secured with a plank across. However, there was a problem: about 500 people wanted to get on board and I 00 guys onboard wanted to get off-across a 3 foot wide gangplank. This problem was made more complicated by a gang of aggressive press who wanted interviews and a shore organization that wanted us all in a reception hall for official specifying. I wanted to go home, I rather fancy the other 99 did too.
In the event the authorities brought us ashore in ones and twos. As a new father I was one of the first and the hounds from the press surrounded my wife, daughter and I and started the usual inane questions that start “how does it feel to …. “. I remember being rude to them all except a wee lass from one of the better papers who remembered her manners and her pleases and thank-yous. We awoke the next morning (Sunday) to find that, despite my rudeness, the three of us were front-page news in every paper- I have kept some of the photos for her wedding (which I hope may be soon).
Normality returned swiftly. We were promised a long maintenance period and at least two months before we would be sent south to maintain the post-war sea dominance. However, 5 weeks later we were at 75 North chasing shadows on SOSUS.