Peter Mitchell

Plymouth Wreck Diver

A Union Jack Flag Flies on the Wreck of the A7 Submarine Boat off Plymouth

(click to enlarge)

L-R: wrecks of James Egon Layne, the Elk, clipper ship- Hertzogin Cecilie, the Persier, the James Egon Layne

My first dive was to the bottom of Worthing Pier when I was 14. I nearly died of the cold, and only saw a hermit crab, but I was hooked. In those days, training was almost non-existent, and I was lucky that after joining the Royal Marines the Navy taught me to dive properly and then sent me first to the Persian Gulf and then to the West Indies.

It was there, diving on the remains of the pirate stronghold, Port Royal, that I first encountered the joys of wreck diving. Twenty years on I am still learning and still diving on all the many wrecks down here in the West Country of the U.K.

Shipwrecks are often dismissed as undersea scrapyards. But I have found that if you know something of their stories, you enjoy diving on the wrecks that much more, and soon you begin to realise, that in their way, wrecks are a sort of living maritime museum.

I record all my dives on video and film, and take written notes, so that others may one day share in my enjoyment and learn from my research.


A Union Jack Flag Flies on the Wreck of the A7 Submarine Boat off Plymouth

Steve Johnson "Cyberheritage" brings you the images and words of Peter Mitchell as he dives on the A7 wreck.

a Union Jack flag is attached to the periscope of the A7 on the anniversary of her loss and as fish swarm around it as if it were a beacon (click to enlarge)

Developed from the basic Holland design, the A class of submarine was the Royal Navy's first attempt at an all British submarine. Among its innovations was a proper conning tower which prevented the submarine being swamped when running on the surface. Additional torpedo tubes were also added, and the whole boat lengthened by about forty feet, which made it more stable and seaworthy. Unfortunately, these new submarines retained the Holland's worst defect which was a pitifully small reserve of buoyancy. Although still largely experimental, the A boats were relatively successful, and some even saw active service in 1914 if only in a training role. However survival became of crucial importance for the crews of these submarines, because at one time or another every single one of them sank at least once, usually with fatal consequences. The A l, rammed by the Berwick Castle, sank with all hands off the Nab, near the Isle of Wight, in March 1904, and although she was raised a month later she was never recommissioned but sunk later as a target. The A 2 was wrecked whilst on the "for sale" list, and the A3 was rammed and sunk by the aptly named Hazard in February 1912 with the loss of all hands. The submarine A4 perished during a collision in Porstmouth Harbour in 1905 when she sank like a stone and drowned all her crew, and on the 8 June 1905 the A 8 suffered an explosion whilst running on the surface and sank just off the Knapp Buoy a few hundred yards from Plymouth's Breakwater. The A 8 was successfully salvaged and after undergoing a complete overhaul she served all through the Great War and ended her days being sold for scrap. Ironically the A 7 had been her escort on that fateful day, and nine years later, in January 1914 the A 7 was once again in the same area exercising in Whitsands Bay. This time she was engaged in carrying out dummy torpedo attacks on H.M.S. Pygmy in company with a flotilla of six other submarines. On the morning of January 16, the flotilla assumed their attack positions and were ordered to dive to a predetermined depth and then resurface. It soon became apparent that the A 7 was in difficulties, when a large stream of bubbles appeared on the surface over the area where she had submerged.

All the other submarines returned to the surface safely, but for the A 7 disaster had finally struck. The flotilla Commander on board H.M.S. Pygmy sped towards the scene and ordered tugs and salvage lighters despatched from Devonport with all possible speed. For some reason however, nobody bothered putting a marker buoy down, so when the tugs arrived with sweeping gear they could not locate the stricken submarine. In the end the Navy spent five days continuously dragging the sea bed before they found the A 7. By the time the divers were ready to go down to the submarine, everybody knew that it was a futile gesture. The A 7's crew had all perished. The news of yet another submarine disaster shocked the people of Plymouth and they set up a public fund for the widows and orphans of the unfortunate crew.

The Navy was roundly condemned on all sides for its incompetence, and suffered huge embarrassment at the hands of the National Press who made sarcastic remarks about the inability of the Navy to salvage their own submarines. Meanwhile in Whitsands Bay, the struggle to lift the A 7 from the clutches of a muddy sea bed continued. Wires had been passed underneath the submarine and fixed to salvage lighters on the surface. Using winches and the strength of the sea itself in a tidal lift had so far failed to make any impression. The vessel remained firmly lodged in the mud. In the end the Navy, by now in danger of being buried by the abuse hurled at it by a vitriolic press, decided to leave well alone and contented themselves by holding a memorial service over the wrecksite, with a Royal Marine guard firing a salute, and wreaths being tossed upon the calm, silent waters.

Thus the A 7 became a fitting tomb for all her officers and crew and today, many years later, that is how she still remains. Of all the wrecks that I have dived on this has to be the most poignant. The phrase "a war grave" conjures up neat rows of white crosses, somewhere in a foreign field half forgotten. The A 7 is much, much more immediate than that. As you fin down the rope 135 feet to the bottom of Whitsands Bay, the A 7 suddenly and completely presents itself, almost as if she is still sailing towards a new destination. To all intents she is still completely intact, lying upright in the mud, down to what would be her surface marks. Her periscope is up, and her conning tower and nearly all her fittings are still in place. She is instantly recognisable from her photographs, and as you hover above her to stop the mud swirling up and obscuring her, you can on a good day see the whole length of the A 7 laid out pointing into the Bay, as if sailing quietly on to oblivion.

Locked inside forever are her Captain and crew. May their souls rest eternally in peace.

The memorial service held at sea over the sunken submarine

The conning tower and periscope seen from bow looking aft....different shot

The periscope seen from bow looking aft

The conning tower looking aft

A long periscope

Fish swim around the periscope of the A 7

A diver at the wreck

Fish swim around the hull.......more fish............more.......and more

Most of these images were taken as "video grabs" off one of Pete`s videos.

More material on the loss of the A 7 submarine may be found on my page about the loss of her sister vessel the A 8. Click on this link: Memorial to loss of Submarine Boat A8 off Plymouth in 1905

e-mail Steve Johnson "Cyberheritage"

some other sites from Steve Johnson