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Saturday, 26 July 2014

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Ken proud of subs’ war role

MONDAY will mark the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Falklands War. The Evening Mail spoke to veterans who fought to protect the British colony from Argentine troops. Former submariner Ken Collins spoke to JOHN SIMPSON about his role

SUBMARINE veteran Ken Collins helped to keep the whole Argentine navy pinned down in port and frightened “to come out to play” during the Falklands War 30 years ago.

He revealed to the Evening Mail how his submarine, HMS Courageous, had earlier saved the famous passenger liner turned troopship, the QE2, with thousands of troops on board, from a possible torpedo attack by a lone Argentine submarine hundreds of miles from the Falklands.

Ken also revealed how the Barrow-built Courageous got Argentina’s only aircraft carrier in its sights for sinking with a Sub-Harpoon missile – but was refused permission to fire.

Today, aged 65 and deeply proud of the role his and other British submarines played in the retaking of the islands after the invasion by Argentina, he is one of the band of ex submariners working as contract “partners” at Barrow shipyard to help ensure the new Astute-class hunter/killer subs will be even more deadly than ever.

Ken was a 36-year-old chief marine engineer aboard Courageous when war broke out.

The submarine was in transit back from the US, where the sub had been trialling and fitting out with new Sub-Harpoon missiles. Fired from submarine tubes, the missiles were the forerunner to today’s cruise missiles.

Ken said: “We thought it was going to escalate. The general feeling was, ‘hey, great, let’s go, this is what we were trained for’.“

Courageous lurked menacingly under the icy waters of the South Atlantic during the war in 1982.

But first it had to escort the QE2, running submerged to the front of the great liner with its towed sonar array systems, used to detect other vessels, extending all the way under and behind the ship.

The sub went to action stations when it picked up the unmistakable sonar signature of an Argentine Guppy-class submarine.

Ken said: “One of their propaganda things was to sink the QE2. They had actually threatened that they would sink the QE2 and the Canberra, but they only had Guppy-class submarines, which were the old World War Two American ones.

“We found one and we chased her and we shook up the rams, which is a noise you make inside when you are ready to fire torpedoes, and she surfaced and ran. You don’t sink a surfaced submarine. She doesn’t want to play anymore.”

He added: “Her sonar operators will have heard – they know what the noises are and the minute you shake up the rams you are actually preparing to fire a torpedo so they probably thought ‘hey, someone has locked on to us and they are going to fire torpedoes’ so they surfaced and ran. They can go faster on the surface.”

If not detected, the Argentine boat could have got within range to fire a passing shot at the great liner, although she would not have been fast enough to follow the rapidly-moving QE2.

With the QE2 safely delivered to the Task Force, Courageous switched to working with other British nuclear submarines playing a vital game of cat and mouse to protect the British task force and its two crucial kingpins, the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes and their Harrier jump jets.

The Argentine cruiser the Belgrano, whose giant 15-inch calibre, long-range guns were a direct threat to the British carriers and other vessels, had already been sunk by the submarine HMS Conqueror.

Now the British subs formed a picket line between Argentina and the Falklands waiting to torpedo any enemy warship that ventured out of harbour, and keeping a periscope watch for aircraft leaving the Argentine coast. Courageous was tasked with sinking the enemy’s aircraft carrier.

Buenos Aires docks were surveyed by the Courageous crew by periscope and the enemy aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo was in port.

Ken remembered: “We did get to one point where we could have sunk her when she was in harbour. Remember, Harpoons (missiles) can go a long way. They are fired up and then they come down to sea level and they skim the sea. They can go round (corners) just like a cruise (missile).”

Courageous, which was around 10 miles away, asked for permission to sink the carrier, but the request was refused by the Task Force commander Admiral Sandy Woodward, possibly because of the potentially great loss of life if the ship was sunk.

“Our submarines kept their fleet penned in. They knew that if they came out they were going to get sunk so they didn’t want to chance it,” recalled Edinburgh-born Ken, who has long since made Barrow his hometown and who lives in Ormsgill Lane with his wife Lillian and family.

While on picket, the sub spotted three different squadrons flying out to attack the Task Force and quickly warned the ships that “bogies” were on the way.

Submariners in the war worked six hours on and six hours off instead of the usual four hours on and eight off.

He said: “Because you are on a war footing you have six hours off to eat sleep, do your maintenance, washing and so on. You try and get maybe a couple of hours sleep in six hours as opposed to a good eight hours so really you are on the boil all the time.

“The adrenalin is there, you’re up for the fight, you’re just waiting for someone coming out so you could fight them.

“Your nerves are jingling but you know you have a job to do. Every time we went to action stations the adrenalin would be pumping, that’s for sure, but you weren’t scared, sitting there thinking what was going to happen.

“I am not saying we were superior because we were submariners, it’s just that you always trained for that situation.

The crew of Courageous – who had seen through their periscope the British ship HMS Antelope burning in her death throes – felt victory was just a matter of time once British troops had landed and begun to advance and British Harrier jets and rockets had picked off many enemy planes.

Ken said: “The shore side was not a problem because of the superior training of our soldiers and marines

“The military we had were second to none. I think the British forces could have been outnumbered by at least 10 to one and still have won because of the inferior (Argentine) weapons.”

If Argentina had been able to keep up the air attacks it could have been different, he says.

“There is nothing we (submarines) can do against aircraft. Luckily, the Harriers were there but another few weeks and it could have been squeaky-bum time, that’s for sure!”

Ken’s prize possession from his 23-year naval career is a commendation from the then Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Fieldhouse, for showing “outstanding qualities as a leader and manager of men in HMS Courageous”.

Another proud possession is the pewter ship’s bell surrounded by dolphins specially made for him as a retirement gift when he left Courageous and the navy.

 

Of the war, he says: “It was another chapter in my submarine career and I hold it dear because of the loss of life we had, but to me it was a necessity.

“We couldn’t allow what Argentina did, it was like someone coming in and saying ‘we are taking Scotland or Wales’.”

“The Falklands have never belonged to Argentina. They are British. The people on there are British and want to remain British, so I think we have got to do all we can to ensure the freedom of the people down there to be who they want to be. Whether we could mount a challenge to any sorties to the Falklands, I am not too sure. I think they have gone too far with the cuts.”

Barrow’s Astute-class subs would be crucial if such a thing ever happened again.

Ken, who joined the navy as a stoker at 16, and was chairman of the Barrow Submariners Association for 13 years, said: “Astute is a formidable submarine because of the technology she has got, the weapons she can carry and the whole technological aspects of the boat itself. She is quieter, faster, deeper. She has got everything on her side.”

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