HMS ONYX was one of the smaller cogs in the complex fighting machine that responded to the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. However, she did complete what is probably the longest wartime patrol by a diesel submarine ever - 116 days from April to August.
HMS ONYX 26TH APRIL - 18TH AUGUST 1982
HMS ONYX was one of the smaller cogs in the complex fighting machine that responded to the Argentine invasion of the
Falkland Islands in 1982.
However, she did complete what is probably the longest wartime patrol by
a diesel submarine ever - 116 days from April to August. The detailed story of what took place during
that patrol remains untold, subject to
the demands of the Official Secrets Act. Nonetheless, there was a proliferation
of speculative articles in the national press about what ONYX, together with
her more powerful nuclear-propelled sisters, might have done. This
certainly indicates the potential that submarines have for causing alarm and
confusion, simply because others do not know their movements and intentions.
The particular value that ONYX contributed to the Task Force was the ability to work undetected close inshore, for reconnaissance or special force insertion and withdrawal. ONYX took nearly a month to reach the Falklands from
at a speed comparable with
that of a modern ocean racing yacht. As
a result, various other vehicles were used initially for these specialist
tasks, with varying degrees of success.
The time heading South was, nevertheless, used to good effect. The first few days were spent sorting out the
avalanche of equipment and stores which had been thrown on board in the five
days prior to sailing. The remainder of the transit was spent exercising,
training, testing and tuning equipment and people, to make sure we were ready to
take on whatever might come our
way. Not very different from the
routine in any submarine at sea, where
the elements and ‘Murphy’s law’ combine to make every minute of every
patrol a professional challenge. U.K.
There were certain differences. We, like many at home, depended largely on the daily news bulletins to learn of events in the
Atlantic. Like many at sea,
we expected to get no farther than Ascension Island
before a peaceful compromise was
achieved. However, as we continued farther South we heard reports of air
raids and sinkings. We had time to
reflect on the unpleasant realities of
wartime life in the armed forces.
There was little anyone could do to turn back the clock, but there was a
growing determination to make sure we could, and would, survive. As General Patton once said, “The aim in war
is to make the other guy die for his country”. There was also a degree of nervous anticipation.
At last we were to have the opportunity to do some of those things we
had so often only practised. Would the
tactics work? Would we be good
enough? A comparison might be that
adrenaline burst experienced by players in a changing room before a big
competition. However, it lasted much
longer, and the consequences of failure were decidedly unappealing!
ONYX’s prime advantage lay in remaining undetected. Therefore, any rendezvous to collect personnel and equipment, or obtain a briefing, took place at night. Before the submarine could surface, we had to establish the identity of our escort, generally in pitch darkness and rough seas without the assistance of radar. Once on the surface, ONYX would set off on a mad dash behind the escort. Freezing, salt-laden air funnelling down the conning tower and through the boat to feed the roaring diesels was everywhere. There was then the tricky business of getting alongside a darkened ship that could only be seen with the naked eye from a few tens of yards. The first attempt was rarely successful. We arrived at briefings numbed, swaddled in layers of coats and sweaters, blinking like moles in the bright light. On one occasion, a well-known and frequently quoted correspondent witnessed our arrival. So much for secrecy we thought - but the ensuing silence in the media indicated a suitably Nelsonian eye had been adopted! All work had to be finished in time for an equally frantic and freezing dash back to the obscurity of the open ocean before daylight. This also ensured ONYX was spared the fury of the daily air raids - there were no complaints on that score.
An effort to complete a reconnaissance mission at short notice nearly ended the patrol. Many of the charts used to navigate in those waters had not changed significantly since James Cook had first drawn them. The occasional soundings he made at that time were undoubtedly adequate for his small sailing vessel. They scarcely matched the requirements of a 2,500 ton submarine two centuries later. In consequence, ONYX discovered an uncharted pinnacle of rock in a most dramatic fashion - by running in to it whilst dived. Although everyone reacted admirably and control was quickly regained, it is probably safe to say the only people on board who appeared really calm were our ‘guests’ from special forces. Not entirely due to their steel nerves - no-one had time to explain to them what had happened! This piece of ‘impact hydrography’ put two out of the six forward torpedo tubes out of action. This was serious enough in itself, but was made worse since the two affected tubes were those used exclusively for wire guided torpedoes. As a result, the fore-ends' crew had to reorganise our full torpedo load. This was akin to playing solitaire. However, they first had to make a free ‘hole’ by moving tons of additional equipment out into the rest of the submarine. Even then there were still weapons weighing tons suspended in mid-air as the reshuffle continued.
The closeness of her escape was not fully revealed until ONYX was examined in a dry dock at
. One of the torpedoes in the damaged tubes had
cracked open like an eggshell. The salt
water had activated the battery and over the weeks, the motors had slowly
turned, possibly running down the safety devices. A small team of naval engineers and dockyard staff, helped by some of the boat’s
crew, ripped the torpedo out in little
pieces. Commercial traffic in the dockyard halted, and the area around the dry
dock evacuated whilst particularly sensitive work was done. Those involved were probably at greater risk in
that dry dock than at any time when ONYX
was in the Portsmouth South Atlantic.
Conditions on board were unpleasant, even by diesel submarine standards. A ‘false deck’ of stores covered passageways and messdecks, reducing headroom from an optimistic six feet to something nearer four. Eighty-four people lived in a space designed for sixty-eight, without the peacetime luxury of using unoccupied weapon stowage space. Showers were commandeered for extra storage, limiting all the crew to bath in a bucket - and that only occasionally to conserve electricity used in the distilling plant. Despite this, the special forces visitors were soon integrated into daily life onboard. It was not unusual to discover one of them cooking in the galley, helping with a spot of ‘scrubbing out’ or sitting in with a watchkeeper at their station. The ship’s company took great interest in the clandestine activities of their guests as well. In fact, we became quite possessive about “our people”.
Much of the patrol comprised surveillance operations amongst the myriad of islands which make up the
Falklands. Frequently, the only sign of life would be a
few sheep on the bare hillsides. Even
finding features on which to take bearings
for navigational fixes was a challenge.
This led to a new notation in the
log book - ‘TOYAH’- standing for “top of yet another hill”. The old adage about “.....99% unadulterated
boredom interspersed with 1% sheer terror”
was certainly true in our case.
Certainly, many more operations were conceived and prepared than were
ever carried out. The satisfaction came
from knowing we could help, and that our special capabilities gave the command
ONYX was not in the first flush of youth, and despite careful maintenance and wonderful support prior to leaving
Gosport, the time at sea took its toll on the
equipment as well as the men. Both
mechanical and weapons engineering
staffs had their own private battle to keep everything running. An engine overspeed off Ascension Island
demanded a virtual rebuild of one main engine at sea. The hasty fitting of certain electronic
equipment just prior to sailing resulted in an epic struggle of human ingenuity
over technical recalcitrance which lasted the complete patrol. The total failure of one main generator while
still South of the Equator on the homeward transit reminded us all of the
relative vastness of the ocean and our own insignificance. We tried everything possible to make repairs
and increase speed - even sails were rigged when the wind was favourable. Unfortunately, this failure resulted in the
support ship STENA SEASPREAD spending an additional two weeks at sea as our
escort. Even our arrival back at Gosport was dogged with mechanical problems. Having anchored in the Solent
in early morning, we made ready to enter harbour on a typical August day -
force eight gale and horizontal rain!
The anchor winch disintegrated,
temporarily collapsing the hydraulic system thereby immobilising the rudder. Horror of horrors! - Adrift and not under
command within sight of home, after 20,000 miles at sea. What ignominy! Luckily, order was quickly restored and the
‘triumphal entry’ completed without the anchor and cable.
The abiding memories are, not surprisingly, of the people, not the events. One ‘lucky’ electrician joined by helicopter off Lands End at about two hour’s notice as we steamed past. He left by the same method on our return, in time to be present at the birth of his first child. The Engineer Officer, on the trim and therefore responsible for the main broadcast at Action Stations; unable to get the word “Gemini” out correctly; they instantly became “Jeremys” or “Those blasted rubber boats”. The sonar maintainers who spend hours sealed in a small external chamber carrying out repairs whilst the submarine was dived. The divers who fought to fill a hole in an external fuel tank as the escaping diesel fuel destroyed the rubber seals on their suits, allowing them to fill with water. The whole crew, who single-mindedly got on with whatever they were asked in most difficult circumstances, confident that if everyone did their bit, we would get the job done. The final word goes to the stoker who, at a reunion some years later simply said “Thanks for bringing us back”.
Author: Lt Cdr Andy Johnson Submarine Commander HMS ONYX in the Conflict Malvinas / Falkland 1982.