On the morning of D+22 one of the very few remaining Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean struck gold. A Kilo class diesel-powered attack sub came across a US Navy auxiliary ship southwest of Crete. The ship was the USS Butte, a Kilauea class ammunition ship returning to Naples. During an underway replenishment of the Saratoga battlegroup, she suffered an engine casualty and was heading back to the Sixth Fleet homeport for emergency repairs. The Kilo detected her not long after dawn steaming unescorted. After spending seventy minutes tracking Butte in the hope she would lead them to a US carrier group, the sub’s skipper finally lost patience. He ordered his boat to move in and attack. Three torpedoes were fired and two of them found their target.
Four minutes later, Butte was dead in the water, burning with a 15-degree list to port. Distress calls went out at once and in minutes P-3s and Vikings were converging on the area to start the hunt for the enemy sub. Two Greek warships also departed from Crete and steamed towards Butte’s position to conduct rescue operations. The ASW hunt intensified as the morning went on. Aboard Butte damage control efforts intensified with each passing minute. The enemy torpedoes had impacted on the port quarter. The ammunition ship was taking on water and her captain knew his sailors were fighting a losing battle. The sea would claim Butte at some point. Priority now rested in keeping the ship afloat long enough for her crew to abandon ship safely. Rescue operations continued into the afternoon. With none of her ammunition magazines near the fire or damaged areas, time was on her side for the moment.
The Kilo responsible for dealing the AE her death blow eluded detection and escaped for the time being. NATO navies in the Eastern Mediterranean had not seen the last of the sub in this conflict, however. The incident, though tragic, did not change the naval picture in the Mediterranean though.
NATO commanders in Napes continued debating the shape that counterattacks against Soviet and Pact forces in theater would take. Saratoga and Kennedy remained at sea in the Aegean, their battlegroup commanders anxiously awaiting orders. For their opponents, it was a similar story. The Soviet Black Sea Fleet commander was growing anxious about the presence of enemy carrier groups so near the doorstep to the Black Sea. He had a powerful force of Badgers and Backfires ready to go at a moments notice. Thanks to the drama off Crete earlier in the day, the Soviets now had a fairly good idea of where the carriers were most likely positioned. Unfortunately, nothing could be done without permission from above. This order had come directly from the Kremlin and initially made little sense to the Black Sea Fleet’s commander Admiral Viktor Kravchenko. As the day continued, however, and events in other parts of the world became known along with some rumors, the order became more reasonable and sensible.
Author’s Note: Short post to close out D+22 on the Southern Flank. This will set the stage for what’s to come in the Mediterranean. Baltic Approaches up next.