ARA Santa Fe
As early as 18 April the British had (correctly) concluded that the Santa Fe had departed the mainland on 9 April. On assumptions about what they would do if in the Argentines’ shoes, they assessed that the submarine was on the way to South Georgia, and by 20 April it was estimated that she might arrive as early as 22 April; this suggested a purpose for the unknown operations which, according to a report, she was due to conduct on 23 April. 8 Although the British were concerned that the Argentine Navy might plan to pull some sort of stunt prior to the scheduled meeting of the OAS on 26 April, such as simulating evidence of an oil slick to claim a British attack against one of their submarines, it was also clear that by 23 April the Santa Fe would have been warned of British intentions to recapture South Georgia, and required to carry out its mission as soon as possible. It therefore constituted a threat. In fact papers subsequently captured in the submarine, and discussions with her officers, indicated that she had been instructed to sink any British ships that she found off South Georgia.
On 23 April Endurance picked up emissions from a submarine’s radar, which though not precisely locatable enabled the warning to be issued that `a submarine might be in or approaching the S Georgia area’. Conqueror was ordered to return to the area and to take up an ASW patrol 70 miles to the west of the island, to intercept the Santa Fe. Unfortunately a defect to Conqueror’s communications mast meant that it could not receive or transmit easily, and by the time it received this order it was 24 April and the Santa Fe was already past any line it could patrol. Young ordered Plymouth, about 60 miles to the east with the two tankers, and Endurance, to break off the pump-over and withdraw south to clear the area in which the Santa Fe might be operating. The Argentine air surveillance of 23 April was now seen in a new light, as possibly directing the submarine to engage with the Task Group.
Every aspect of PARAQUET now looked different. Disastrous reconnaissance insertions meant that no intelligence on enemy dispositions had been gained except at Leith. Both of the group’s Wessex 5s had been lost, reducing Young’s lift capacity drastically, the force was under surveillance from the air and now there was the Santa Fe threat. The group’s ASW capability was very limited, particularly since the sonar equipment had been removed from Antrim’s Wessex 3 in favour of troop lift capacity. Brilliant, commanded by Captain John Coward, with two Lynx helicopters was supposed to be providing reinforcement, and though steaming as fast as possible, would not arrive until the morning of 25 April. On 23 April both Young and Sheridan received urgent communications from their superiors on the lack of progress. That afternoon they conferred on their options. Could they manage a landing before the Santa Fe was in threatening position the next morning? Their remaining helicopter lift was insufficient to enable them to re-dispose their forces in time to make a viable landing at Grytviken. With this in mind, on the night of 23/24 April, Young instructed Plymouth, Brambleleaf and Tidespring to clear the Falklands MEZ to the north-east overnight, complete pump-over during 24 April and rendezvous with Brilliant. Antrim was to enter Stromness Bay to land troops at first light to take Leith, to provide naval gunfire support as required and, on completion, withdraw at best speed to rendezvous with the main group. Endurance was to proceed to Hound Bay to recover the SBS reconnaissance party and then withdraw to the east and remain covert in the shelter of the ice. The group would then assume an ASW posture to detect and attack the Santa Fe.
Shortly before Antrim was to detach it appeared that it had again been spotted by an Argentine Hercules and its position might be passed to the Santa Fe. The risk of being trapped while conducting the landings was unacceptable and so this operation was cancelled. Instead Antrim proceeded north with the Replenishment at Sea group. By now Northwood was getting concerned at the complete lack of progress. The carrier battle group was ordered to hasten south and be prepared to support the PARAQUET force if required. There was now reason to suppose that not only was the Santa Fe operating off South Georgia, but that it would engage without warning. The Santa Fe captain later claimed to have had Endurance in his sights, but not to have attacked as this was not the destroyer he had been ordered to attack. (Those who have seen the positional data of the submarine question whether this was so.) The Argentine submarine, it was supposed, was either lurking in the South Georgia area to attack ships or else, possibly, preparing to disembark some personnel. The bad weather affecting British forces would undoubtedly also have had its effect on the Argentines.
London was reluctant to begin all-out submarine warfare, but with Pym having now left Washington without any diplomatic breakthrough in sight, and evidence of an Argentine readiness to attack British vessels, Nott instructed the SSN Splendid, then in the Falklands MEZ, to proceed in the direction of the area in which the main Argentine force was patrolling. This would create the option of being able to execute retaliation should ministers so decide following an attack upon a British ship in the South Georgia area. This indicates that politically the critical consideration was where, when and against whom the first shots were to be fired rather than the second shots.
By now Young accepted that, given the precautions that had been taken to remove all ships from the approaches to Grytviken and Leith, the Santa Fe would probably arrive unchallenged, possibly to land troops, perhaps even during daylight on 24 April. With Leith covered by the SAS reconnaissance team, Young ordered Endurance, recovering the SBS reconnaissance party from the Hound Bay area, to conduct covert surveillance of Cumberland Bay and Grytviken during daylight hours with his Wasp helicopters, armed with AS12 missiles. This would be in the hope of catching the submarine on the surface as it entered. Approval was given to attack a surfaced submarine, even though Conqueror was still in the same area. It was hoped that Conqueror did not have to surface in an emergency! Young was also wary about the possibility of mounting an attack on a friendly submarine, yet ASW capabilities would not improve until Brilliant arrived. He therefore decided to get the Brambleleaf/Tidespring pump-over out of the way and then to replenish Antrim, Plymouth and Brilliant on its completion, so that the warships could return south to carry out operations against Santa Fe on 25 April. The plan was to operate clear of, but adjacent to, Conqueror’s area in the hope of forcing Santa Fe to snort or provide other detection opportunities for the SSN. Tidespring, with the main elements of M Company RM embarked, would remain clear of the exclusion zone to the north, while Endurance would take shelter among the icebergs on completion of operations in Hound Bay.