HMS Onyx returns from the Falklands with special ops daggers on Jolly Roger
Save HMS Onyx – a guest post by John Tait on the diesel sub used by the SBS during the Falklands war
Nothing quite prepares you for entering a submarine down the main access hatch. The common visitor catchcry is ‘You would never have got me in one of those things!’ or ‘I couldn’t believe there was so little room.’
Such statements sum up the general reaction of ordinary visitors as they clamber with difficulty through a succession of bulkhead openings and stare at the narrow bunks and peer into the cramped messes and wardroom, the tiny galley from which the cook fed upwards of sixty men, and the miniscule cabin that passed for the skipper’s quarters. They pull faces at the cramped toilet facilities, look bewildered at the innumerable pipes, hand wheels, levers and gauges in the Control Room, and file past the huge diesels, now mercifully cold and silent – all wondering how any crew could have coped with 6 to 8 weeks at sea in a steel coffin like this.
The visitors have never been privileged to see the boat ready to sail either, with every space crammed full of food, torpedoes and other stores, nor hear the order from the Coxswain for ‘Diving Stations!’ that precedes the shutting of the Conning Tower hatch to seal the crew in their narrow cylinder as the submarine submerged with the familiar smell of sweat, sewage, diesel, damp clothes and cabbage.
The submarine community is a great club, into which no one can buy his way. Membership can only be earned, and once a submariner you are always a submariner and they see themselves as a breed apart, an elite. Its characters, stories and personalities are legend. Winston Churchill described operational submarine life as the most dangerous of all occupations: “Of all the branches of men in the armed forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than submariners.”
HMS Onyx an Oberon Class submarine, was built in 1966 at Cammell-Laird in Birkenhead and was considered a leap forward from the previous Porpoise Class who were the first post-World War 2 submarine design. Noted for their clean welded hulls, and for the first time in a Royal Navy submarine, plastic and glass fibre was incorporated on part of the bridge superstructure and casing. She was fitted with improved detection equipment and the ability to fire homing torpedoes. This class of boat was known for their reliability and quietness and many Oberons were sold to overseas buyers including Australia, Chile and Canada.
Onyx was decommissioned and listed for disposal in 1992 after some 26 years service. She was purchased by the Warship Preservation Trust in Birkenhead and was on public display and ran at a profit. Then she was subsequently sold to a Barrow in Furness businessman Joe Mullens in 2006 as the basis for a Submarine Heritage Centre. This venture failed to get off the ground because of grant funding reasons and Onyx was then sold to a Mr Peter Davis and the boat has sat in Barrow awaiting towing to the scrapyard. However Maritime Coastguard authorities have not been happy with her sailing condition under tow, and she has therefore remained alongside in Barrow for the foreseeable future. Lying forlornly at Buccleuch Dock she looks externally a bit shabby and rusty, but internally it is good condition. With some tender, loving care it could be the centrepiece of a maritime museum.
Onyx saw active service when she was the only diesel submarine sent to the Falklands in 1982. The 116 day war patrol began with the 8,000 nautical mile trip from Portsmouth to the Falkland Islands. This was a feat in itself including what was probably the first submarine refuelling at sea from a tanker in forty years. A complete ‘false deck’ of canned food and stores throughout the submarine reduced the headroom from six to four feet in some places. Even the showers were full of stores. A 16-man team of Royal Marine Special Boat Service (SBS) plus a mountain of their equipment were also stored onboard. Onyx was deployed to undertake covert insertion and extraction of Special Forces plus intelligence gathering reconnaissance and SIGINT operations.
Because of their stealth, Oberon’s like the Onyx were regularly used for “sneakies” or “mystery trips” as they were colloquially known. This was the trailing of Russian submarines leaving their bases in the Barents Sea and transiting the Iceland-Faroe Gap to their assigned patrol areas in the Atlantic. “Under-hulling” of new Soviet warships was also a strategic objective. Similarly, trailing Soviet AGI spy trawlers who were always a ubiquitous presence in NATO exercises and who loitered near operational ports was carried out. Cameras were fitted to the submarine periscopes to record close encounters with the enemy and communications monitoring equipment fitted to record radio traffic. Submarines were also deployed to follow the arms trail from Libyan sources to the IRA.
Boats like the Onyx would take over from patrolling RAF Nimrod aircraft in the SW Approaches and follow the gun-runner to its drop-off point off the coast of Ireland whilst reporting position and situation reports back to UK authorities. The most famous of these was the ‘Claudia’ incident in 1973 and the ‘Casmara’ and ‘Villa’ incidents’ in mid 1980’s. Covert and clandestine submarine surveillance was an ideal operational implementation in tracking the arms smugglers.
This is the secret work of Britain’s submarine Fleet. HMS Onyx is one of the boats that undertook such deployments.
As she now languishes in Barrow with her future uncertain, a considerable number of former crew members have begun to lobby for her preservation. It is understood Onyx may be up for sale for $100K. From social media sources, it would appear that many former submariners are individually willing to contribute a considerable amount of money towards the purchase and ensure the preservation of this unique warhorse. It was considered by former crew members that she was always a “happy boat”.
There are also rumours of a Naval Heritage Centre to be built on the Clyde in two years time commemorating submarine history in the UK under the stewardship of Inver Clyde Council. HMS Onyx would provide an appropriate centerpiece as she has operated from the Clyde Submarine Base in Faslane. It is essential that the profile of HMS Onyx be raised by the UK media. Preservation of this submarine offers a marketing opportunity to an enterprising organization that would be willing to protect a unique piece of British History. HMS Onyx needs to be rescued now and not turned into razor blades.
Source – The Telegraph