The naval side of the 1982 Falklands War is most remembered for the sinking of the cruiser ARA General Belgrano, the Exocet missile, and the first combat uses of atomic-powered submarines and V/STOL fighter planes. One less-studied episode was the final use of a WWII submarine in combat.
(The launch of USS Catfish (SS-339) at Groton, CT during WWII.)
(The wrecked ARA Santa Fe – the former USS Catfish – after the 1982 Falklands War.)
USS Catfish (SS-339) was a Balao class submarine launched 19 November 1944 and commissioned 19 March 1945.
The Balao class was a workhorse of the WWII US Navy, responsible for much of the carnage dished out onto Japan’s merchant marine. As built during WWII, the Balao class measured 311’6″ x 27’3 with a 16’7″ draught surfaced. The displacement was 1,550t surfaced / 2,463t submerged. The WWII complement was 10 officers and 71 enlisted sailors.
The Balao class’s diesel-electric propulsion scheme used four diesel engines which, during WWII, could only be run on the surface. There were two propeller shafts turned by either four high-speed electric motors or two low-speed electric motors. Underwater, the motors were powered off of two 126-cell Sargo I lead-acid batteries.
Surfaced, the maximum speed was 20 kts. Submerged, the absolute maximum was 8¾ kts but that could only be maintained for several minutes. Like many WWII submarines the Balao‘s underwater power was limited and even at a minimal 2 kts creep, the submarine could only go about 90 NM before the batteries exhausted.
The Balao class had ten 21″ torpedo tubes; six forward and four aft. A total of 24 straight-running Mk14 torpedoes could be carried. There was also two 5″ deck guns and two AA guns, either 20mm or 40mm.
(The stern of ARA Santa Fe – the ex-USS Catfish – drydocked in Argentina showing the aft tubes.)
USS Catfish departed Connecticut on 4 May 1945 and arrived in Hawaii on 29 June 1945. The submarine’s first mission of WWII was supposed to have been mapping a Japanese minefield off Kyushu. However while en route to Japan, Emperor Hirohito announced his intention to surrender and on 15 August 1945, USS Catfish‘s mission was scrubbed. USS Catfish returned to port two days after WWII ended on 2 September, having seen no combat.
(USS Catfish visiting Portland, OR in 1946. The sub is still in full WWII configuration including the original conning tower, both Mk17 deck guns, and both 40mm AA guns.) (photo via navsource website)
USS Catfish and GUPPY
For several years after WWII, the US Navy evaluated the advanced German Type XXI u-boat U-3008. This stressed the importance of increasing the underwater speed, range, and power of diesel-electric submarines.
The United States retained many of the Balao and Tench classes built during WWII; these were rugged, well-proven submarines with a lot of life left. During the late 1940s, approval was given to start a project called Greater Underwater Propulsive Power, or GUPPY, to keep them competitive now in the Cold War era.
There were seven mods of GUPPY, dictated by what Congress would fund. USS Catfish, the future ARA Santa Fe, was a GUPPY II.
One objective was to streamline the Balao class to minimize hydrodynamic drag underwater. All the WWII guns were deleted. As much as possible all protrusions, fittings, etc topside were eliminated or made retractable. The hard-chine “boat bow” was rounded off. The WWII conning tower was replaced by a tall thin structure nicknamed the “sail” (the term still used by submariners today) which held “dry” and “upper” bridges, and smoothly encased the periscopes and masts; along with the new snorkel.
(Identical views of USS Catfish, showing the high degree of streamlining.)
As designed during WWII, the Balaos lacked a snorkel and had to surface to recharge the batteries. A snorkel would allow the diesels to run while submerged, with only the top of the mast above the waterline. Combining American and captured German technology, a post-WWII snorkel was tested on USS Irex (SS-482) in 1947. It was adapted for the GUPPY II.
A GUPPY II could only snorkel two of the four diesel engines due to the required volumes of air vs the size of the snorkel. Therefore if the situation allowed it was still preferable to recharge batteries on the surface.
(USS Catfish exercising with the Royal Australian Navy during 1962.)
The greatest improvements were mechanical. The GUPPY II battery size was increased dramatically. A new liquid-cooled battery type, G1, was 40% lighter than the WWII Sargo Is. With this, USS Catfish‘s two 126-cell batteries of WWII were replaced by a 504-cell unit split into two sections in new battery wells. The G1s output higher voltage, matching the 415v of the diesel-generators on the surface, so the electric motors performed the same surfaced or submerged.
The top speed underwater increased from 8¾ kts to 16 kts, which could be held for 34 minutes. Battery depletion was now non-linear, meaning that for every knot lowered, a disproportionate amount of charge was saved, for example at 14½ kts the battery would not deplete for over 1 hour and at 5 kts the submarine could travel over a day without a recharge.
(USS Catfish making a friendship visit to Canada in 1963, with the final sail form. This also shows the rounded “butterknife” bow of the GUPPY II that replaced the hard-chine style of WWII.)
The US Navy kept improving USS Catfish after the initial GUPPY II rebuild, including refining the sail form and additional air conditioning. The WWII sonars were replaced by a “chin array” containing AN/BQR-2 passive sonar and AN/BQS-4 active sonar, with a combined range of about 6 NM. The AN/WQC-2 UWC (underwater communications system) was also installed. A SS-2 radar replaced earlier types. The fire control system was upgraded so post-WWII torpedoes could be used in the forward room (the aft room remained limited to WWII-built Mk14s.)
(A model of ARA Santa Fe showing the “chin” sonar position.)
(AN/SRD-7 ESM was installed inside a dome atop a retractable mast. The captain could raise it prior to the snorkel or periscope to detect naval radars transmitting in the area.)
Contrary to what is still repeated today, GUPPY didn’t offer much in the way of stealth. A GUPPY Balao was a bit more quiet underwater than a WWII Balao due to the streamlining. Compared to 1950s / early 1960s Cold War diesel submarines, a GUPPY II was not really better or worse at low speed underwater. At high underwater speeds it was louder, while snorkeling it was much louder, and when surfaced it was like a floating freight train. The 1940s machinery and hullform had been designed minding simple Imperial Japanese Navy short-range active pingers. By the 1980s, modern solid-state passive sonar arrays could scan wide swaths of ocean and simply outmatched the upgrade.
(USS Catfish in 1969, the final configuration as it passed to Argentina as ARA Santa Fe.)
USS Catfish had a good US Navy career and was still in commission when transferred to Argentina in 1971.
The first ARA Santa Fe was a simple patrol submarine of Italian design which served from 1933 – 1956.
(The first ARA Santa Fe with the battleship ARA Rivadavia.)
The next ARA Santa Fe was the ex-USS Macabi (SS-375), a WWII Balao class which had never been upgraded. Via loan from the USA, this submarine served from 1960 – 1971. It was then used as a parts hulk and finally scrapped in 1974.
(The second ARA Santa Fe.)
The third was the USS Catfish.
By the end of the 1960s, Argentina needed more modern submarines and as the US Navy was phasing out the GUPPY-upgraded WWII units, they made an attractive option.
USS Catfish was transferred on 2 July 1971. Following a quick “once-over” at Mare Island Shipyard, the submarine was formally turned over to the Argentine crew at San Diego, CA.
A slightly lesser-capable GUPPY IA, USS Chivo (SS-341), was transferred at Charleston, SC four days later as ARA Santiago del Estero.
Included free aboard ARA Santa Fe were 14 WWII-built Mk14 torpedoes. Additional Mk14s were purchased later.
(After fuze problems were corrected, the Mk14 became a highly lethal weapon during WWII. This torpedo had a maximum range of 4½ NM and was straight-running, for use against surface ships only. The USA built so many during WWII that some were still in storage when President Reagan was elected in 1980.)
in Argentine service
ARA Santa Fe and ARA Santiago del Estero were only ever intended to be “temporary placeholders” in the Argentine navy. In 1973, Argentina bought two brand-new, top-line Type 209 submarines from West Germany to join the two old second-hand GUPPYs.
(Argentina’s then-new Type 209s were considered dangerous foes at sea in the late 1970s. During the 1982 Falklands War, the Royal Navy logged 6,847 flight-hours by ASW aircraft looking for ARA San Luis, but never found it.)
To round out the fleet, it was planned in 1980 to buy six TR-1700 class submarines to replace the two GUPPYs between 1982 – 1985. This was part of a larger naval buildup including new destroyers, frigates, naval aircraft, and additional Exocet missiles.
As far as ARA Santa Fe, the submarine had an uneventful 1970s, being a reliable if somewhat obsolescent partner to the Type 209s which had significant teething problems early on.
(ARA Santa Fe at Puerto Belgrano Naval Base in 1972.)
(ARA Santa Fe at sea.)
(Some of ARA Santa Fe’s masts. From left to right, the #1 Mk4 periscope with 8B needle antenna and fairing, the #2 Mk2 periscope, the obsolete AN/APR-1 jammer partially obscured by the raised port AT-818 “dog ear” aerial, and the snorkel topped by the navigation light, IFF bar, and radio UHF whip antenna. Not raised is the starboard “dog ear”, the AN/SRD-7 ESM, the SS-2 radar, or AN/BRR-3 VLF radio transceiver.)
(ARA Santa Fe performing an emergency surfacing drill.) (photo via histarmar website)
After the 1980 decision to get the TR-1700s, there was little impetus for long-term upkeep of the GUPPYs so their condition declined. By 1981 ARA Santa Fe was having problems with the batteries which dated to the 1960s. Some of the cells had “gone dead” and the rest would not accept a full recharge, meaning ARA Santa Fe needed to snorkel or surface more often than desired. The test depth was lowered to under 400′.
In early 1981, ARA Santa Fe struck a sandbar destroying the chin sonar assembly. Both ARA Santa Fe and ARA Santiago del Estero were drydocked, with the entire assembly (transducers, mounts, and sonardome) of ARA Santiago del Estero being removed and grafted onto ARA Santa Fe. This restored ARA Santa Fe‘s combat ability but left ARA Santiago del Estero a “blind deaf man”.
(ARA Santa Fe in drydock in Argentina. The sonardome was a free-flood structure which merely streamlined the array in the water. In this photo the anchor has been removed from its embrasure and the bow diving plane is in the down position. The eight holes above the torpedo tubes are free-flood limbers for the bow buoyancy void.)
During this drydocking, a master bolt from WWII that controlled movement of ARA Santa Fe‘s diving planes was removed and misplaced by the shipyard. It was learned that the United States had zero spare parts of this type remaining, and there were even problems locating a set of WWII blueprints for the bolt. Eventually Argentine machinists reverse-engineered it and ARA Santa Fe was declared combat-ready again in the autumn of 1981.
the Falklands War
This 1982 war’s start was determined by politics and not strategy, and came at an unfortunate time for the Argentine navy. As planned, 1982 was supposed to have been a transition year. With new modern destroyers and frigates under construction in West Germany, several major units: the doomed cruiser ARA General Belgrano and the Gearing class destroyers (all ex-WWII US Navy ships) were near their scheduled decommissionings and thus were understandably receiving minimal upkeep.
(The Falklands War destroyer ARA Bouchard had been USS Borie (DD-704) during WWII and had taken a kamikaze hit in 1945.)
Particularly for the Argentine submarine force, 1982 was the worst possible timing. Of the two modern Type 209 submarines, ARA Salta was in drydock and completely unavailable, while ARA San Luis fought the war with defective electronics and torpedo problems. Meanwhile of the two ex-WWII GUPPYs, ARA Santiago del Estero had no sonar and was already written off, while ARA Santa Fe was to decommission later that year and was in poor mechanical condition. Many of the best submariners were training on the TR-1700 class in West Germany and unavailable for the war.
During March 1982, ARA Santa Fe participated in “Cimmarón”, a previously-scheduled exercise with the Uruguayan navy. It was anticipated aboard that this would be ARA Santa Fe‘s final major use before decommissioning. While “Cimmarón” was in progress, the submarine was ordered to return to Argentina immediately after its conclusion and make ready for actual combat.
Once back at Mar del Plata naval base, only four WWII-vintage Mk14 torpedoes were loaded into ARA Santa Fe‘s forward torpedo room. The rest of the space, and the entire aft torpedo room, was assigned to a 14-man commando team, along with their rubber boats and weapons.
Of operation “Goa”, the overall Argentine war plan, the first opening move would be “Rosario”. This operation by ARA Santa Fe‘s embarked commandos had two objectives: “Zulu” was to secure an airstrip near Stanley and San Felipe Lighthouse. “Roja” was to place beacons on the planned amphibious assault beach.
(San Felipe Lighthouse still exists in 2020.)
On 27 March 1982, ARA Santa Fe departed Mar del Plata with “Rosario”s H-hour set before daybreak on 2 April. En route to the Falklands, “Zulu” was scrubbed with the airfield objective cancelled altogether and the lighthouse now a secondary goal of “Roja”. Around 21:00 on 31 March, ARA Santa Fe crossed submerged into British territorial waters near East Falkland.
Contrary to perception today, the Argentine invasion was not a complete surprise. During March 1982 the islanders followed world news with increasing concern and at 15:30 on 1 April, the governor in Stanley was notified by London that Argentine military action was probable overnight. By then, little could be done.
Around 22:00 on 31 March, a small British merchant, M/V Forrest, was spotted very close to ARA Santa Fe‘s periscope. The Forrest was not there by accident; the ship’s civilian captain had been following world events and decided to mount his own private one-ship picket patrol. ARA Santa Fe‘s captain felt it was likely that his periscope had been seen but elected to press on with “Rosario”. (In fact, Forrest had not seen it.)
At this time, ARA Santa Fe‘s radio failed. The submarine still had limited ability to receive, but could not transmit anything. The crew worked around the clock on 1 April to fix the transmitter. At 01:53 on 2 April, communications were restored.
ARA Santa Fe was by now behind schedule and felt that they had been counter-detected by the merchant, but were instructed by Argentine fleet command to still proceed. However the commando insertion point was moved further away from populated areas, to a spot about ¾ of a mile from uninhabited Kidney Island.
At 02:25 on 2 April 1982, ARA Santa Fe surfaced and launched the commandos in their boats. As soon as they were away the submarine immediately submerged. Around 03:00 the commandos began to place beacons on the beach, completing “Roja”. They then took the lighthouse without incident. “Rosario” was a success and around 06:30 two Argentine infantry companies began coming ashore at the marked beach.
This success almost turned into a disaster. During the brief time ARA Santa Fe was surfaced to launch the commandos, the submarine was detected on radar by the missile destroyer ARA Hercules in the invasion fleet. As ARA Santa Fe was behind schedule and not at the original insertion point, ARA Hercules assumed it was a Royal Navy vessel and was preparing to engage it. No radio protocol between the sub and the surface invasion fleet had been established, and catastrophe was only averted when ARA Santa Fe used the UWC to “call” the sonar of ARA Hercules in Spanish, who then passed word to the bridge that the contact was friendly.
Following a 5-day journey back to South America, ARA Santa Fe arrived at Mar del Plata on 7 April 1982.
As the two available submarines were viewed as force multipliers by the Argentine navy, ARA Santa Fe was “turned around” as quickly as possible for further use. The WWII submarine was not in great shape. Besides the preexisting issues and patched up radio; now ARA Santa Fe‘s RATT (the machine which automatically teletypes coded messages) broke, the diesels were burning through lube oil, the drain pumps could only clear the bilges at periscope depth or surfaced, and the batteries were taking charges at an even worse rate. Including the wargames with the Uruguayans, ARA Santa Fe had been in constant hard use for a month and a half now which was a lot to ask of a 40-year old submarine.
the South Georgia mission
At Mar del Plata, ARA Santa Fe was selected for a two-part, 60-day max mission. The first part was to transport a dozen marines to South Georgia to reinforce the garrison there, along with several tons of weapons and supplies for troops already there. The second part was a classic submarine patrol against the approaching Royal Navy battle group.
The tiny British possession of South Georgia is a small spit of land in the Atlantic 784 NM southeast of the Falklands, about 1,300 NM east of South America, about 2,600 NM west of Africa, and about 720 NM north of uninhabited Antarctica. Sough Georgia is a desolate, cold, wind-swept island 31 miles long but only 9-12 miles wide. There is only one little village, Grytviken. After the worldwide whaling ban, South Georgia lost whatever importance it had ever had to anybody.
(Two 4″ coastal defense guns from WWII were still on South Georgia in 1982. The breeches were non-operational and neither the UK nor Argentina had ammunition of this caliber any longer anyways.)
A petty 1982 dispute between the UK and Argentine scrappers dismantling the old whaling station served as the junta’s convenient, if flimsy, excuse to start a war with the real objective being the Falklands. On 3 April 1982, a battle was fought between an Argentine infantry company and a 22-man Royal Marines detachment, resulting in Argentine occupying South Georgia.
For the South Georgia reinforcement mission, a variety of supplies and weapons were selected, some (a recoilless rifle) being quite difficult to load inside a WWII submarine. For the patrol mission, ARA Santa Fe received 23 torpedoes: twenty of the WWII-vintage Mk14s and three modern Mk37s. All were reserved for the second part of the mission; for the South Georgia part ARA Santa Fe was instructed to attack no ships and to try breaking contact instead of counterattacking anything which might hunt it.
(An exercise Mk14 preserved at an Argentine museum. These WWII anti-surface torpedoes were sold cheap by the USA by the 1970s and were common in allied navies.)
(The Cold War Mk37 was a homing torpedo with a 5 – 10 NM range depending on the speed setting, and could be fired against both surface warships and submarines. Because of a GUPPY II design quirk the port side forward tube bank could not house reloads of the longer WWII Mk14; so aboard ARA Santa Fe, Mk37s were used in those three tubes.)
The whole operation is controversial in that the three-man junta ruling Argentina had agreed beforehand not to attempt reinforcement of the South Georgia garrison and instead concentrate everything on the Falklands. However Adm. Jorge I. Anaya, the naval member of the junta, decided on his own to do so anyways.
For the attack part of the mission, use of a WWII-vintage submarine at all was questionable but even at that, ARA Santa Fe was not tasked with striking the main British carrier force (ARA San Luis, the Type 209, was). ARA Santa Fe was instead to seek out the task force’s “tail”, supply ships or transports which might be following it and maybe be less-defended against submarines.
Because of constant breakdowns in the fire control system, it was estimated that 2,000 yards (about 1 NM) was a realistic envelope for the WWII Mk14s. The three Mk37s, which had a degree of autonomous guidance, would be reserved for self-defense against counterattack.
On 16 April 1982, ARA Santa Fe departed Argentina for what would end up being the final time.
Just east of South America, ARA Santa Fe encountered a heavy storm which forced it to submerge. It had originally been planned to proceed on the surface, where ARA Santa Fe was faster, as long as the submarine was under friendly air cover.
(via Bing Maps)
At sunset on 24 April 1982, ARA Santa Fe neared South Georgia and surfaced. The operation’s plan was to approach Grytviken after nightfall on a moonless night, unload at the main pier as fast as possible, and get back out to sea and submerge before the next sunrise. However now, ARA Santa Fe‘s captain felt this unsafe. There was only one night-vision scope aboard, a primitive Vietnam War-era system, and crewmen were having trouble making out coastline features with it. Obviously radar could not be used as it would certainly be counterdetected by the distant British. The captain felt the danger of running aground outweighed the risk of more time on the surface.
Therefore, it was decided to instead proceed only a bit into King Edward Cove, and then use a captured science boat of the British Antarctic Survey to ferry the troops and supplies to Grytviken.
Belatedly, it was realized that no radio protocol had been established to allow a submarine to contact the South Georgia garrison or vice-versa. ARA Santa Fe resorted to the “international channel” (an unsecure frequency) to contact Grytviken. The two parties spoke in “jeringozo”, or semi-jibberish Spanish, to try disguising what was being discussed. The radio risk was realized but considered minimal to do one time. However the after-action report of HMS Antrim indicated that the destroyer had foreknowledge of a submarine in Grytviken, meaning the transmission may have been intercepted.
At 23:45 on 24 April 1982, the small boat arrived and unloading began, requiring three boat trips. This was not an easy task. Some heavy items, like the recoilless rifle and Bantam missiles, had to be maneuvered through the small personnel hatch by hand and then into the bobbing boat. The unloading was supposed to have been completed no later than 03:59 on 25 April and preferably sooner. However because of the change of plans, it did not finish until 05:00.
Immediately ARA Santa Fe turned north and headed back out to sea. The first outbound leg had to be done slowly and carefully again, and took until 05:44. Once in clear water, the captain ordered maximum surface speed.
Now it was a race against the clock. ARA Santa Fe had to clear a shallow area north of South Georgia to reach ocean deep enough to safely submerge. The captain estimated this would take 70 minutes. This meant ARA Santa Fe would certainly still be surfaced at 06:14, “nautical twilight” (enough sunlight to make out the horizon and big objects in the sea) and possibly at 06:56 which was true daybreak.
Around 06:00 the passive sonar aboard the destroyer HMS Antrim, about 50 NM away from ARA Santa Fe, picked up sounds of a WWII American Balao class’s diesel engines. Overnight the captain of HMS Antrim had already decided on doing an ASW helicopter sweep at first light, so a readied Wessex HAS.3 was in the air less than 10 minutes later. The confidence in the passive sonar classification was so good that HMS Antrim ceased active sonar pings as not to alert the target.
(HMS Antrim with a Wessex on deck in 1982. The large object aft is a Sea Slug missile launcher. This destroyer served from 1970 – 1984 in the Royal Navy and then until 2006 in the Chilean navy.)
The basic Wessex was a 1960s aircraft and even the upgraded HAS.3 model was, by 1982, largely obsolete. Nicknamed ‘Humphrey’ by its crew, this particular HAS.3 was still aboard HMS Antrim as the destroyer’s helipad was too small for a Sea King but big enough for something larger than a Wasp.
The helicopter’s approach was aided both by the fading darkness, and by very low (estimated 500′ – 1,000′ by the pilot) morning clouds which reduced visibility from the sea to ½ of a mile.
ARA Santa Fe was detected on radar at 5 NM distance by HMS Antrim‘s Wessex at 06:55…..only five minutes before the submarine’s captain planned to dive. The helicopter actually detected it from the south, to the submarine’s stern. ARA Santa Fe was on a northerly course of 310° at an estimated 8 kts per the Wessex pilot (it was probably going faster than this).
‘Humphrey’ directly overflew ARA Santa Fe at 150′ and dropped two Mk.XI Mod3 depth charges fuzed for their minimum depth. The placement of the depth charges varies between eyewitnesses: some say they straddled the sub, while others say they were both on the port side with one actually bouncing off the deck into the water.
(The Mk.XI depth charge replaced a variety of leftover WWII designs in the Cold War-era Royal Navy. It had a 124 lbs warhead.)
Either way the attack was picture-perfect: the depth charges detonated simultaneously. The aft end of ARA Santa Fe was momentarily lifted out of the water and the submarine careened off-course, indicating it had lost directional control.
aboard the submarine
Not surprisingly the damage was heavy. The port side propeller shaft broke, which mattered little as the propulsion train on that side was also destroyed. An oil tank ruptured and a ballast tank on the port side was damaged. Internally some electronics were destroyed by shock and other electrical gear grounded out. The condition of the batteries is unknown but almost certainly they took damage. The high-pressure air line used to blow ballast tanks underwater was severed. Amazingly, nobody was injured.
Clearly the war was over for ARA Santa Fe. Once control was regained, the captain turned the submarine around back towards South Georgia, trailing an oil slick. Several options were considered. The first was to head directly to Grytviken, tie up there and take the crew off, and hope for the best. The other was to sail completely around South Georgia and intentionally run the submarine aground on the island’s southern coast. Here, ground clutter would mask it from radar and the British might never even think to look there. After a hoped-for victory, peacetime salvage ships could tow it on the surface back to South America.
A Lynx ASW helicopter from HMS Brilliant was already in the air. It was armed with a Mk46 sonar-guided torpedo.
(The Lynx was the best naval helicopter on either side during the war.)
Here a coincidence of technology happened. The Mk46 was designed by the USA during the Cold War to fight deep-diving Soviet atomic submarines. Its seeker had a “depth gate” set deep at 1,200′ (where the weapon would probably be crushed anyways) and shallow at a preset limit below the surface. The latter was to prevent the active sonar seeker from confusing the ocean surface with a solid plane and endlessly locking onto it. So many years had passed since WWII that it was never really envisioned that a future war would include a submarine fighting while surfaced.
The Lynx dropped the Mk46 aimed towards the damaged ARA Santa Fe. The Balao class only has a 16′ draught which was less than the seeker’s shallow limit. It passed harmlessly under the Argentine submarine.
Out of ordnance, the Lynx began strafing the Argentine submarine with its door machine gun. For their part, sailors in ARA Santa Fe‘s bridge began to return fire with rifles from the small arms locker.
At the same time, Wasp helicopters armed with AS.12 air-to-surface missiles took off from HMS Plymouth and HMS Endurance. They reached ARA Santa Fe as the submarine was near South Georgia again.
(The Wasp was an older, very lightweight helicopter which none the less performed well in 1982.)
(artwork by Daniel Bechennec)
For certain four, and maybe five, AS.12 missiles hit the sail of ARA Santa Fe. The GUPPY sail was fiberglass and light alloy, and the AS.12 was designed for use against steel armor. One AS.12 was a “through-&-through”, exiting the other side of the sail without detonating.
Another hit the rear of the sail, where the snorkel mast was lowered. Another (the last hit) was more tragic, as it penetrated the fiberglass skin but then clipped the metal bridge trunk (the vertical ladderway from the pressure hull to the top of the sail). This missile wounded several Argentine sailors, one very severely resulting in partial amputation of his leg.
(The large missing portion of fiberglass was a weak point in the GUPPY II sail, as it had shipyard access covers for the induction valve and snorkel behind it. The two blown-out doors were for the refuel-at-sea system which Argentina rarely used. The vertical line top-to-bottom from the periscope was part of the Prairie Masker silencing gear which was useless on the surface. ARA Santa Fe was marked off limits by the master-at-arms of HMS Endurance.)
The Argentine occupation garrison on South Georgia had no AA assets but began to fire at the Wasps from ashore with small arms. An innovative attempt was made by firing a wire-guided Bantam anti-tank missile at a Wasp, but was unsuccessful. The British were not sure what else the Argentines might try and ended the helicopter attacks.
After the Wasp attacks, ARA Santa Fe‘s captain proceeded directly to Grytviken, where wounded sailors could be treated in the infirmary of the occupied British science station.
(photo by Pedro Silva)
After tying up, the XO of ARA Santa Fe suggested having a skeleton crew take the submarine a short distance to sea and scuttling it, but the captain elected to wait for nightfall before making a decision. As badly damaged as the submarine was, ARA Santa Fe still had limited surface mobility and he felt there was a possibility of departing just after dark on the 25th and getting far enough away from South Georgia by dawn on the 26th that the submarine might make a run for it and limp back to Argentina on the surface.
There would be no chance for this as the British had already started operation “Paraquet”, their retaking of South Georgia. At 17:00 on 25 April 1982, the commander of the occupation garrison notified the captain of ARA Santa Fe that he intended to surrender to the British. It is hard to blame him as his small force was short of weapons and ammunition, had no air support, no hope of further resupply, no hope of evacuation; and was facing a huge Royal Navy flotilla offshore.
(Clipping from the 26 April 1982 Wall Street Journal newspaper.)
in British hands
After the surrender of South Georgia, an EOD specialist from HMS Brilliant placed a small demolition charge on ARA Santa Fe‘s rudder to ensure the submarine would never be used again.
(photo via Daily Mail newspaper)
(The listing ARA Santa Fe being boarded by the British.)
A Royal Navy officer conferred with ARA Santa Fe‘s captain, Cpt. Horacio Bicain, and advised him that the enemies would need to work together to move the submarine from the main pier to a former whaler quay about 2,000 yards away. Almost certainly the batteries had been damaged by the depth charges and if cracked plates began arcing residual charge in the presence of seawater, explosive hydrogen gas would form. Almost anything – static electricity, an errant spark – could set this off. Obviously this was not safe as ARA Santa Fe still had 23 torpedoes aboard and was moored directly in Grytviken.
This would lead to the most tragic moment of the submarine’s final voyage.
loss of PO Artuso
To accomplish the move, it was planned to use the starboard electric motor on ARA Santa Fe in conjunction with a tugboat, to reposition the submarine. This would also entail what submariners call a “LP Blow”, the gentle explusion of water from the ballast tanks while already surfaced to keep it positively buoyant on an even keel.
This would also be a perfect opportunity to scuttle ARA Santa Fe, as if it was “done backwards”, the tanks would ingest rather than expel seawater, slowly sinking the submarine. The British were aware of this and assigned guards to the Argentine sailor executing the sequence, PO Felix Artuso.
What happened next is subject to some confusion and conflicting accounts. Artuso had to quickly manipulate several ballast tank valves at the same time a machine called a rotocompressor was started and lined up to blow into them. By one account, the soldier guarding Artuso was briefed on the way this was done on a Royal Navy submarine, which was reversed of the way it was done on a WWII American submarine. When Artuso began moving the handles and dials in that order, the soldier assumed he was sabotaging the submarine and shot him. Another version is that the soldier was correctly briefed, but simply panicked at Artuso’s rapid manipulation of the valves and opened fire. Either way, Artuso died on the scene.
ARA Santa Fe‘s captain, who was also aboard with British officers and guards, flew into a rage and the move was cancelled with the submarine being tied back up to the pier.
The incident is still understandably a sour subject in Argentina. The UK investigated and cleared the soldier of wrongdoing. PO Artuso was buried with military honors by the British in Grytviken.
A bitter irony was that the LP Blow, which was interrupted, had the opposite to desired effect. Now not only did the ballast tanks not clear but the unfinished evolution allowed more seawater to ingress. By the afternoon of 27 April 1982, ARA Santa Fe had sunk pierside with the keel resting on the seafloor and only the sail still clear of the water.
(The sail access door after ARA Santa Fe sank pierside.)
(The rectangular door was blown open by the AS.12 hit beneath it. In the original GUPPY II blueprints it is labelled “Machine Gun Hatch” with no elaboration. Sailors of the 1960s US Navy ridiculed this as the thought of submariners firing small arms on the surface at aircraft ever again was considered absurd and the port & starboard doors were viewed as a pointless feature.)
after the war
The Falklands War ended on 14 June 1982. The crew of ARA Santa Fe had been moved as POWs to Ascension Island, from where a Red Cross-chartered airliner flew them to neutral Uruguay, where an Argentine naval ship retrieved them.
The half-sunken submarine remained moored at Grytviken, still with 23 torpedoes aboard. It was now an annoyance to British civil authorities as it blocked the pier for resupplying South Georgia’s science station, which lacks an airstrip.
During June 1982 tugs dragged ARA Santa Fe about a mile from Grytviken to a shallow inlet called Moraine Fjord.
In 1983, a first attempt was made to dispose of the submarine. Unfortunately a sudden storm appeared during the operation and the tug lost control of the tow. ARA Santa Fe sank in slightly deeper water, now again closer to Grytviken.
By late 1984, there was increasing concern about the now fully-sunken submarine. Beyond the ordnance still aboard, there was oil leaking from it, acidic electrolyte in the batteries, and lead-based paint flaking off. None of this probably thrilled the nature scientists on the island.
Final disposal of ARA Santa Fe was arranged by the British Ministry of Defense and named operation “Okehampton”. This would not be easy. The WWII submarine’s aft half had already been partially covered by silt and sand on the seafloor. This would have to be cleared before the ballast tanks could be accessed. Internally, all watertight doors were still open from the commotion following PO Artuso’s death in 1982. So there would be no chance of segmenting the dewatering. Finally the sea itself in South Georgia is bitter cold and even in drysuits, the time divers could spend in the water was limited.
“Okehampton” would be done by the government-owned RMAS Goosander and M/V Salvageman, a specialist ship of United Towing Company in the UK. The Rimeralco company supplied a portable high-volume oxygen system for all the underwater welding and cutting that would be needed.
On 9 November 1984 RMAS Goosander precisely located ARA Santa Fe and anchored above. It was determined that six of the eight GUPPY ballast tanks could be blown from an external source. At the same time an incision was made to the diesel fuel tanks, which were pressurized to 4psi above sea pressure and then emptied via a suction hose onto a barge, to lighten the submarine by 90 tons deadweight. Also, some damage from the depth charging in 1982 was sealed with fixingrum patches or direct welding.
A system of Genflo Subsea Ltd. used pressurized air to clear the silt around the submarine; with a 1,500′ portable pipe depositing it in deep water so it would not affect navigation in the future.
In November and December, scuba divers entered the hull and did additional work. This was incredibly dangerous as they risked getting stuck and dying. Several valves were moved into optimal positions, and steel plates were welded in to seal off the forward torpedo room and one of the engine rooms.
The next part of “Okehampton” was to raise and beach the submarine. For this, externally blowing the ballast tanks would lower the already-reduced lifting deadweight from a little over 1,800 tons to somewhere between 100 – 200 tons. This remainder would be countered by physical lifting, via airbags and a 8¼” steel cable attached to ARA Santa Fe‘s starboard propeller shaft and Goosander‘s 100t winch, and some smaller supporting cables. The raised submarine would be captured by a jaws-type object Salvageman had set onto the coast.
On 8 February 1985, the raising began. Ten airbags each generating about 5 tons of buoyancy were attached to ARA Santa Fe and at 10:50, Gooseander began blowing air into the ballast tanks and slowly operating the winch. After 72 hours of blowing, ARA Santa Fe broke the surface on 11 February. Salvageman shoved the submarine aground into the jaws.
(The airbags helped lift ARA Santa Fe.)
(The raised ARA Santa Fe with blowing air lines and lifting cables still attached.)
(ARA Santa Fe leaned up against Salvageman’s hull. The sail bent from the submarine’s weight.)
(Salvageman and Gooseander push the raised submarine to the beaching point.)
The next eight days were spent unhooking all the salvage attachments and preparing for the final step of “Okehampton”. It was planned to dispose of the submarine in a very deep, remote part of the Atlantic.
(ARA Santa Fe being towed off the beaching point.) (photo via John Rich)
(The last known photo of ARA Santa Fe as it started to sink. The “wake” in the ocean is the tow cable.) (photo via John Rich)
On 20 February 1985, a line was tied onto ARA Santa Fe for the final tow. However north of South Georgia, the submarine foundered, sinking about 5 miles out in 1,176′ water. With that, the story of USS Catfish, built to fight the long-gone Imperial Japanese Navy, came to an end.
the forgotten sister-ship
ARA Santa Fe‘s sister-ship, ARA Santiago del Estero (the USS Chivo (SS-341) of WWII) played a minor role in the 1982 war.
The British were aware that Argentina’s second Type 209 was in drydock but had uncertain intelligence about the second GUPPY. In actuality, ARA Santiago del Estero had not participated in exercises since 1980, had not been combat-worthy since the sonar was removed in 1981, and had not even left the pier since September 1981. Now in April 1982, ARA Santiago del Estero could not fight or even submerge, but it could still move itself on the surface.
Argentina (correctly) felt that the USA was passing satellite intel to the British. In a bid to make the Royal Navy waste time and resources hunting for “another” submarine around the Falklands, a ruse was planned to make it seem as if the submarine had sailed for combat.
(ARA Santiago del Estero’s daybreak arrival as detailed below.)
An American satellite was thought to pass over Mar del Plata during daylight on 22 April 1982. At 00:20 on 23 April, ARA Santiago del Estero departed on the surface, arriving at Puerto Belgrano at 05:40 as the sun was rising. Here, the submarine was quickly tied up between two merchant ships in a way that it would only be visible from the pier at sea level, and in a way that shadows from the merchants might obscure it from above during daylight.
(The USA did in fact notice ARA Santiago del Estero at Puerto Belgrano a month later, only 16 days before the war ended, but was unable to determine if it was combat-ready.)
The effectiveness is unknown but after ARA Santa Fe‘s loss, the British were not 100% certain if one or two Argentine submarines were now still at sea. Difficulties for the British were thus compounded as they had to be absolutely sure of what they were attacking underwater, for fear of a blue-on-blue incident against one of their own submarines, and uncertainty of whether the neutral USSR had a submarine in the war area.
After the junta was overthrown following the war, ARA Santiago del Estero decommissioned and was scrapped in 1983.
In HMS Antrim‘s after-action report, it was noted that ARA Santa Fe had been well within one Mk.XI depth charge’s lethal (single-blast catastrophic hull failure) radius of 15′-20′ so it was surprising that ARA Santa Fe survived two that close. Either the ordnance estimates were wrong, or the WWII employees of Electric Boat Company had built an exceptionally tough nut to crack in USS Catfish.
This was the final time a WWII submarine saw combat.
As mentioned, Argentina planned six TR-1700 submarines to replace the two GUPPYs. Of these, ARA Santa Cruz and ARA San Juan commissioned after the Falklands War. The third hull was to be named ARA Santa Fe around 1985 as the GUPPY of that name would be decommissioned by then.
As it turned out, Argentina ran out of money and construction of the “new” ARA Santa Fe halted when the pressure hull was 70% finished and the submarine overall was roughly halfway done. The fourth hull was abandoned and the fifth and sixth never started.
(The never-finished “next” ARA Santa Fe in the early 2000s.)
The incomplete would-be fourth ARA Santa Fe still existed in the early 2010s but was increasingly unlikely to ever be finished. ARA San Juan sank with all hands on 23 November 2017 so the TR-1700 design does not have a particularly great reputation in Argentina now, making it even more unlikely.
Going back to 1982, had ARA Santa Fe‘s captain got out of Grytviken a bit faster and managed to dive, it is hard to imagine a scenario where his aged WWII submarine could have successfully attacked a British fleet, evaded all ASW counter-attacks, and made it home to Argentina. A more likely scenario is ARA Santa Fe being torpedoed by the Lynx while underwater and being sunk with all hands.
None the less, the Argentine crew deserves credit for undertaking two very high-risk missions (“Rosario” to open the war and then South Georgia).