The Admiralty Regrets...
the loss of HMS/M Thetis in Liverpool Bay on Thursday June 1st. 1939
a memorial page by Steve Johnson....before endeavours fade
Jimmy Feeney, Leading Stoker
- lost on HMS/M Thetis - memories by his widow Vera and her family- as recounted in November 1999 - 60 years on
Jimmy Feeney on his wedding to Vera West and as a "Boy Sailor"
HMS/M Thetis motto: "I bide my time"
The whole sad story of the loss of the Thetis is one marked by strange and remarkable coincidences. Even now in 1999 they carry on and have come to touch me personally during my work on this memorial web page. Some years ago, during my researches into the air raids on Plymouth in the Second World War I met Len Osborn, a Plymstock man. Len's vast personal knowledge of the Plymouth Blitz was a great source of factual and accurate historical information. Over the passing years we have kept in touch but never discussed the loss of the Thetis.
Bring on the .net and one day Len's wife is surfing the .net and puts in the query "Thetis" to Altavista....my Thetis page's URL is returned and she logs on to it.....unknown to me their family was closely touched by the loss of the Thetis. As Len scanned down the page he noted my contact phone number 01752 559741....."I know that number...it's Steve Johnson's"...."I know him." Len then phoned me and I soon found out that as a young boy living in Plymstock, he had had first hand and personal experience of the Thetis story. His uncle, Leading Stoker James Feeney was lost on her.
That phone call resulted in me meeting that very rare lady - a living Thetis widow, his Auntie Vera. Here follows her story with photos from her treasured family album of a love so cruelly lost in the last dwindling fleeting days of peace before the outbreak of the hell that was to come to Plymouth's very door: the Second World War.
Had either of us mentioned the subject of the Thetis earlier this story would have been recorded years ago. Typical Thetis irony - we both were into the subject, I was looking for "truth" - he had it - but we never spoke about it; we must have spoken about every subject except the Thetis!
Len Osborn is the nephew by marriage of James Sidney Feeney, Leading Stoker on HM Submarine Thetis. My first meeting with Len.....on the subject of the Thetis saw me heading out to Plymstock to Jimmy's grave. Jimmy was laid to rest at Plymstock Church of St. Mary and All Saints on September 13th 1939. Only recently I had been in the Plymstock Inn with friends, not realising that many answers lay unknown to me...in a grave just across the road from where I was enjoying a pleasant drink.
Len took me to the grave side where on the 13th September 1939, sixty years ago so much sadness and grief had poured out as Jimmy, husband of Vera and father of little James was laid to rest in a Naval Ceremonial Burial. Back in 1939 on that sad day the coffin and burial party would have entered through this timeless gateway. The grave at the back of the churchyard was the gathering spot for many, naval and civilian. The coffin as can be seen here was exceptionally huge and deep, this being needed due to the bloating effects of immersing the body in sea water mixed with battery acid, carbon dioxide and chlorine gas. Identification of the bodies was difficult but as we shall see later in Jimmy's case it was made easy by his wedding ring. At the graveside today in the presence of Len past and present come together as the inscription to the memory of James Feeney is now brought to the world by the .net. Some of the boat's company were laid to rest individually and privately by their families while many others were buried in the communal Thetis grave at Holyhead. Even though Jimmy rests at Plymstock, Plymouth his name still appears on the Holyhead memorial. ..(different view) as this recent photo shows.
Len was just 6 years old when the name "Thetis" took on a powerful and sad and ominous tone in his family's life. Len was living at Vera's family home......she had taken-up lodgings in Birkenhead to accompany Jimmy as the Thetis trialed at Cammell Laird's. This family home was Old Home Cottage in Church Road Plymstock, (now called 52a, Carrleve) it still stands as a domestic dwelling, by the road up to the church where Jimmy was taken and the mourners marched. One cannot help but wonder if the present owners realise the little part that their cottage played in the maritime history of Britain. It was here that Len as a child heard the news of the "failure/lateness of the Thetis to surface" over the wireless as the radio was then called. All too soon this "lateness" became "loss" as the tragedy opened up among the closely knit family. Len stands here at the doorway he had once gone through so many times. Today a hedge guards it from the rush of the 21st century, keeping it's secrets safe.
Jimmy had married Vera West making her Vera Feeney on April 10th 1937 at Plymstock Church, the same church where a little over two years later he would be laid to rest. Vera was born 19.11.18 and Jimmy on 12.8.12. Jimmy is a fine and proud groom and Vera looks lovely in this hand coloured photo.This group photo is a fine snapshot of an era long gone.
Len now 65 then introduced me to Vera and Jimmy's son - James of Leigham, Plymouth. James Ronald Feeney was born on 16.12.37, so he was only a toddler when his Dad was lost. Today he lives with his partner Elizabeth Jolley yet the mark the Thetis has left on him and his family are vivid. Clearly the loss of his Father and perhaps above all - the manner of his loss will never be forgotten. James still wears his Dad's wedding ring. This ring was worn by his Dad when he died and was used by the Naval authorities in identifying his body. It was removed from his hand before burial and is now worn in every day life by his son. It is inscribed J.V.F.......James-Vera-Feeney. Rightly he is very proud of his Father's memory and is keen that the loss of the Thetis will never be forgotten.
He (James, Jimmy's son) has in his possession the order of service that was used at the memorial ceremony at the mass grave at Holyhead. All these should print out well for closer study. Here are the sections within it: Laid to Rest Privately Laid to Rest Privately Laid to Rest Privately Laid to Rest at Holyhead Laid to Rest at Holyhead Honour to Whom it is Due The Solemn Commendation The Dedication and the Hallowing The Captain of HMS Maidstone's Address The Lesson The Preparation Solemnities of the Unveiling and Hallowing of the Memorial
Also he has a copy of the Western Evening Herald of June 3rd 1940, one year after the loss of the Thetis. In the family announcements column - in Memoriam is a testimonial to Jimmy Feeney. The headlines of this day are very different than one year previous, World War II had kicked off and the British Expeditionary Force was in retreat at Dunkirk.
Vera then introduced me to Jimmy's sister Dorothy, now Dorothy Stares of Walthamstow, London and aged 84 she was happy to be interviewed by me by phone and her memories as you will see in a little while are most interesting.
Vera was working as a barmaid in the Athenaeum Pub in Plymouth's Union Street when she met Jimmy Feeney, who later would be a Leading Stoker on the ill-fated HMS/M Thetis. Jimmy at this time was serving on HMS Narwhal. Vera West married James Feeney at the Plymstock Church of St. Mary and All Saints on 10.4.37. She accompanied her husband to Birkenhead as the Thetis was on sea trials. They lived in a flat at 1, Cole Street, Birkenhead together with their very young son James. Once the trials and the "working up" was through, James had hoped to travel across to the Isle of Man to see the T.T.Races.
On that fateful day it was an "ordinary day" as James left for the docks and the Thetis. He had left early that day as he had to be on the boat by 7am.
When the news came Vera was at home in the flat with their son and doing the housework - it came across the wireless..."...submarine Thetis on trials has not surfaced yet..." She was concerned, there was concern generally but no panic. The house in which they lived was split into three flats and all the women there were wives who had their husbands on the Thetis. It was heard on the "wireless" at the lunchtime and all the wives put their children into a pram and went down to Cammell Lairds. This was only 15 minutes walk away and upon arriving they were joined by many other women and taken into a wardroom and served tea and coffee.
Vera recounts how she only had to look at the officer's faces to realise just how severe things were. The women stayed all night. Vera then contacted the family home at Old Home Cottage at Plymstock by phoning the Plymstock Inn from Cammell Lairds...(few homes had their own phones in these days) and arranged for her step sister May Cornelius (her Dad being killed in World War I) to come up to Birkenhead to comfort her. Her sister was met at Liverpool Lime Street Station by a Naval car and driver.
The news came that the rescue had failed and the chains (hawser) had slipped. Final confirmation of the loss of the crew and boat was on 3rd June and Vera and her sister May went back to the flat, collected everything, and then they both travelled back to the cottage at Plymstock, Plymouth.
Vera said "too many men (on board)."
Upon raising of the stricken vessel and the removal of the bodies Vera was asked to help provide any clues that may help identify them. Vera told the Naval authorities that Jimmy had a cygnet ring marked J.V.F. on his wedding finger. This ring as already mentioned above is worn in daily life by his son Jimmy to this day.
Jimmy was buried locally as was his known wish. Local undertaker Roy Birch collected Jimmy from North Road Railway (Plymouth) Station at 6.30pm one evening. His widow Vera had to pay for the headstone engraving. At the graveside there was a Naval Rifle Salute. Vera had been advised to "be aware that the coffin would be big" and to "be prepared for a large coffin as they drowned."
Once Vera tried to get back to "normal" life with her little son one of the many problems she faced was the fact that many locals though that she was well off as they incorrectly supposed that she had been well compensated. One local person...a Mr Wilfred Payne, a newsagent from Hillcrest at the top of Church Road, Plymstock - even asked her for a loan! Vera further recalls that for her 6 years as a widow she was awarded the princely sum of £2 guineas a month, on the first of the month.
Eventually Vera had the sum of 3s 6d returned to her - it being found on Jimmy's body when it was finally recovered from the submarine.
..........and then there was the Thetis Fund.
Vera had "access" to the Thetis Fund via an office in Stopford Place, Stoke Plymouth. The office was the local contact point for the Royal Naval Benevolent Fund. Vera and son Jimmy paid several visits to the "Thetis Fund" and all she can recall is a 5 shilling (25p) voucher for little Jimmy at Christmas in the shape of a Marks and Spencer voucher.
She describes how she must have visited the fund " two or three dozen times"...but that "they would not listen to you."
"The money is to be used for all other Naval losses, such as the loss of the submarine HMS Affray in the 1950's" she was further told.
In describing her visits to the "Thetis Fund" Vera uses the words "treated abruptly by Naval personnel"......"more frightening"......"(they) would jump down your neck"........."you!...here again!?"
SOME TREASURED PHOTOS FROM HER FAMILY ALBUM
Jimmy and Vera's Wedding Day, 10.4.37 Best man is Bill Short ...Len Osborn is the little boy on the floor, the Matron of Honour is Len's Mum (Irene Osborn) and the lady seated at left of photo is the Bride's Mother Kate West
Jimmy and his Mum and Dad
Jimmy and his Mother at Old Home Cottage, Church Road, Plymstock
Jimmy on bike at Old Home Cottage
Jimmy and baby son James on a park bench at Freedom Park, Plymouth
Jimmy and baby son James on a park bench at Freedom Park, Plymouth - CLOSE UP
Jimmy and baby son James in the back of the house he and Vera rented in Birkenhead
Jimmy centre, with his Mum at left and Mother in Law at right at Old Home Cottage
Jimmy as "Boy Sailor" at HMS Shropshire in Chatham, aged about 18
Service Memorial Card of Jimmy's Funeral at Plymstock Church
Service Memorial Card of Jimmy's Funeral at Plymstock Church, other side
James..Jimmy Feeney is the only son of Vera and Jimmy Feeney. Being so young he cannot really recall his Dad, but he most certainly does recall how badly he and his Mother were treated by the Thetis Fund that was set up to supposedly help them. Born on 16.12.37 little Jimmy was taken in his pushchair to the gates of Cammell Lairds on that fateful day. The day when he lost his Dad. Happily Jimmy today is keen to preserve the memory of his Dad and the shabby treatment met out to him and his Mum by the so-called Thetis Fund. By word of mouth he has passed this history on to his son and daughter.
When aged about 20or so, Jimmy was not able to work or do his National Service due to him suffering from TB. Visits to the Thetis Fund finally resulted in a 5 shillings being given to Vera on behalf of her son...as Jimmy says "after much argie-bargie."
His Mother Vera needed extra money for James as his recovery from TB as a young adult necessitated a richer and better food diet that she could provide on her meagre means.
One of the saddest aspects of all this is that the only "image" he has of his Dad is a photo.
Dorothy Stares, born 2.7.16 is the sister of James Feeney of the Thetis. She lives in Walthamstow, London. Talking about her brother Jimmy........
".....he had no faith in Thetis from beginning........did not like the submarine."
James's Mum, Lilian Feeney, born 28.8.1888 of Walthamstow, London had a premonition about the Thetis. Lilian belonged to a Mothers group at the local church. There was a day trip to the seaside at Hastings and she went with her daughter (Dorothy - James's sister). Upon arrival back home in Walthamstow in the evening, Dorothy, James's sister asked of her Mum if she had had a nice day. Lilian did not answer, but her friend spoke for her. "No we hadn't." Her friend then went on to say " Mother had sat on the beach all day, crying her eyes out and saying that the sea was calling her."
It was later on when they tuned in the wireless and heard that Thetis was missing.
At first Dorothy felt all would be OK......"We're going to get her up."
To this day Dorothy feels that it could have been saved but the whole incident was caught in the run up to World War II.
She sums the whole "affair" up as "a lot of red tape."
Sadly she recalls how the body of her brother was brought back to Plymouth from Liverpool by train at " a shilling a mile."
Len Osborn was just 5 or 6 when the Thetis was lost. He recalls the sadness that overtook life at Old Home Cottage, Plymstock. Although only a child to this day he vividly recalls the large size of the coffin...As Len says "it's funny how you remember little details."
It was with sad regret that I have learnt of the sudden death of Len Osborn in the early summer of 2000. My sympathy goes to his widow and two daughters.
HMS/M Thetis motto: "I bide my time"
Birkenhead produced memorial card of Thetis
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About this memorial page
The sad story of Thetis was told to me as a young boy by my ex-R.N. father and has interested me ever since. I know a little, certainly more than many, and much more than I can squeeze into this page. Therefore if any of you would like information on a specific point, or have a specific question, I will be happy to try and answer them. Phone: 01752 559741 Plymouth (UK)
Books on loss of HMS/M Thetis
" THE ADMIRALTY REGRETS......." CORGI BOOKS, by C.E.T. WARREN and JAMES BENSON, 1960 ( 1958 by GEORGE G. HARRAP )
NOW REPUBLISHED...."The Admiralty Regrets", CLICK ON THIS LINK TO e-MAIL THEM or phone 0151 645 2047 AND ASK FOR DETAILS. It is the definitive story of the disaster in Liverpool Bay and is a very moving tribute of a desperate struggle to live - one cannot say a factual book about the deaths of 99 men is a "good read" but it is a "must read" to the student of Royal Naval history and a testament to the bravery and self sacrifice of ordinary men. This new edition contains a new forward by Derek Arnold, a son of a Thetis survivor as well as previously unpublished photos and documents.
A BRAND NEW BOOK ~ HMS THETIS - SECRETS AND SCANDAL
- HAS BEEN RECENTLY BEEN PUBLISHED, CLICK ON THIS LINK TO e-MAIL THEM or phone 0151 645 2047 AND ASK FOR DETAILS. It is a new book looking into some of the still unresolved mysteries of this tragic loss - which even now some 60 years on, still weaves a spell of intrigue. It contains much new and not publicly seen information, photos and contemporary printed material. Some how in this modern world of "conspiracy theories" it all seems more obvious to the enlightened researcher, as well as a more casual one, that the Navy made error after error and then refused to admit any of it, finally covering the whole affair up in the protective shroud of the looming Second World War. Who was to blame? What did Churchill know? What of the widows left behind? Was it a "them and us" - of the upper crust versus the lower ranks?
The publication of this book and it`s revealing factual historical detail therein may well turn the expression of "conspiracy theories" to "conspiracy facts."
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