- CLOSE ENOUGH TO TOUCH
sixty-odd years the Thetis disaster
has not lost its power to shock and I hope it never will. However events did not
unfold in a vacuum and the disaster must be seen in the context of submarine
salvage. Two earlier
submarine accidents had a major effect upon Admiralty thinking; K13
and Poseidon. It is not possible to
understand the decisions that were taken by the authorities in relation to Thetis,
without some knowledge of these two preceding incidents. Into this
scenario we must add a third submarine accident, M2.
First it is necessary to sketch an outline of submarine rescue techniques, as
they existed prior to the Thetis
story of submarine rescue prior to the Great War is a very short book indeed.
The grim litany of ‘A’ boat accidents demonstrates that even in cases
where a submarine had been located quickly, technological shortcomings and the
difficulties of raising a submarine in the open seas, meant that outside
assistance was rarely (if ever) able to rescue trapped submariners. The
‘salvage blow’ remained the only tool at the trapped submariners disposal
and it was not always possible to attempt this in a damaged submarine.
salvage (i.e. outside help) remained the primary rescue means, some thought was
given to a device which might enable submariners to save themselves by effecting
escape from a crippled boat. Resources were channelled into experimentation with
escape suits such as the Rees Hall helmet but the results were too bulky and
there simply was not the space for storing these suits in the tiny submarines of
the period. It should be pointed out that while German U boats were equipped
with Drager breathing sets from 1914, British submariners had no such escape
sets until 1932. Throughout the Great War, trapped British submariners simply
died without entertaining any hope of escape.
However there were exceptions. Now we must briefly examine what was
possibly the most successful submarine escape in British maritime history.
are stunning parallels between the sinking of K13
and the Thetis incident. Both vessels were on diving trials, both submarines
carried a large number of shipbuilders in addition to their crew.
There is one important difference which should be noted from the outset
however, whereas Thetis sank in the open waters of
engine room ventilator intake was mistakenly left open. As the boat dived at
1510, the engine room flooded resulting in the deaths of all within the stern
compartments. Forty-eight men were trapped in K13
(it will be recalled that Thetis
contained one hundred and three men). The boat lay stern-down in 55’ of water.
(Thetis lay in 150’ but was later raised to a few feet beneath the
surface) It was late January and Cdr Herbert recognised that the trapped men could not expect any
assistance until dawn at the earliest. Now,
it was extremely fortunate that a second submarine E50
(Lt Cdr K Michell) was also carrying out trials in the Gareloch at this
time. The crew of E50
witnessed bubbles rising to the surface and at 1600, Michell raised the alarm.
two salvage vessels arrived. In the meantime, Michell and his crew worked
feverishly, searching with lead lines. At
0200 on the following morning, K13 was
found. At 0800 on the 30th
January the first diver went down. As
the day dragged on, it became apparent that the trapped men were increasingly
suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning.
feared that Admiralty would prioritise saving the submarine above rescuing the
trapped men. He planned to send a
volunteer to the surface in order to direct rescue efforts.
That volunteer was fellow submarine commander, Lt Cdr Goodhart and at
on the 30th, he made his escape bid with the help of Herbert.
Again the parallels with Oram of Thetis,
are striking. However matters went
tragically wrong, Goodhart was killed and it was Godfrey Herbert who was
accidentally propelled to the surface. His first words on regaining his senses
were, ‘Air…give them air…right
had been equipped with a 5” high-pressure airline. By 1500 it was already dark
and the divers were uncertain as to where the air line should be fitted.
The submariners set about instructing them. As the crew of E50
worked on throughout the night, Michell and Herbert listened to the plaintive
hull tapping through their hydrophones, ‘GIVE US AIR, GIVE US AIR, GIVE US
1800 on Tuesday 30th January, the divers found the valve they were
looking for. The HP air line was
duly fitted into a valve in the gun ammunition hoist by the divers. However
partly because the line became blocked by ice and partly because of the
debilitation of the trapped men, the transfusion of air did not take place until
0155 on Wednesday 31st January. By this stage the men had been
trapped for thirty-five hours. Divers and submariners had worked to the very
limits of human endurance but their efforts had paid off. Michell in particular
had taken command of the situation. He had argued, bullied and pleaded with the
divers until the airline was in place.
was not the end of the K13 story. An argument
now developed between Michell (who
advocated hauling the bows up as quickly as possible, then cutting through the
fore-ends) and Captain Young who favoured an approach more protective of the
submarine pressure hull. The
had great altercations. Captain Young said it would be an example of bad salvage
to damage the hull but that by continuance of the lifting operation we should be
able to raise the boat high enough for the men inside to get out through the
torpedo loading hatch. This was to me highly improbable and I do not think it
could have been done…”
we have parallels with some of the accusations that later raged over Thetis. Certainly
Herbert and Michell believed that sections of the Admiralty not only knew little
about submarines, they were indifferent to the fate of the trapped men.
Both Herbert and Michell had agreed a pact that placed saving the trapped
men above their personal career prospects. In the face of opposition from
Captain Young, the
spending a staggering fifty-six hours trapped on the bottom of Gareloch, despite
the muddle, despite the confusion and the argument, all forty-six men were rescued.
does all this get us? Outside
salvage worked as long as suitably equipped vessels were at the scene quickly
enough. An injection of HP air will
keep trapped men alive, until rescue can take place. The K13
rescue also demonstrated that the expertise and guidance of submariners was
invaluable. It might be thought that
lessons learned from the K13 rescue
might have been codified in the form of guidance notes or training programs for
salvage teams or submariners but the event was simply forgotten. No exercises
were carried out to determine how long it would take salvage ships to steam out
to the site of an accident. The
entire subject of submarine rescue remained taboo in both submarine and general
a crippled submarine proved the most difficult task in the 1920s.
L24 in 1924 and M1 in 1925
took their last dives without a single survivor.
Bad weather prevented the location of the former while the latter was
simply too deep. By November 1929 a handful of submarines was equipped with the
cut a long story short, Poseidon was
accidentally rammed by a Chinese
vessel. Thirty men managed to scramble out in time but the boat sank to 130’,
taking eight men with her. The boat was equipped with DSEA although specialised
flooding valves were lacking. Eight men managed
to leave the boat. Two failed to reach the surface and one of the escapees later
died. The implications of
successful DSEA escape were to mould Admiralty thinking over the next decade.
1931/32 Admiralty introduced the policy of Subsmash.
Firstly, organisational procedures were tightened up. A submarine engaged
on exercises was required to transmit details of diving time and location to
been the first British submarine to be fully equipped under the new Subsmash policy. The sixty-strong crew were trained in its use,
indeed AB Morris had been one of the POSEIDON
Fort Blockhouse became aware that Thetis
was missing at 1820 on 1st June 1939 Captain Macintyre, acting CO in
the absence of Captain Oram (who
was of course trapped in Thetis)
transmitted code 971/35 Subsmash
throughout the Royal Navy. A massive sea an air search unfolded.
Although three flying boats were allocated to the operation and landed at
Holyhead, crucially no attempt was made to fly in the elite Royal Navy divers on
exercises at Inveraray with the specialist diving vessel, HMS TEDWORTH.
These divers were acquainted with working in depths of 300’. TEDWORTH
weighed anchor, unfortunately she was forced to head for the Clyde to bunker
coal before making the journey to the
at 0255 on the 2nd June the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board salvage
vessel, VIGILANT (Captain H Hart) responded to calls from Admiralty and
sailed for the scene. Until the
closing stages of the drama, VIGILANT
would be the only salvage vessel present. She was poorly equipped for the role
she was about to play. She carried
no compressor, only a hand pump dating from the 1890s.
This hardly mattered because the short length of high pressure air line
she carried, would never reach the submarine lying in 150’.
Evidence from the diary of Rear Admiral (S) Bertram Watson suggests that
Admiralty were unaware just how ill-equipped VIGILANT
actually was. There is no indication
that any checks were made as regards the capabilities of this vessel.
The one advantage that the vessel has was that Captain Hart, as Marine
Surveyor, knew these waters better than anyone.
0754 Thetis was located. It
is of crucial importance for the reader to understand that Rear Admiral (S)
Bertram Watson immediately requested that Admiralty send salvage pontoons known
as ‘camels’ to the scene without delay.
We now know that Admiralty failed to respond to this request. An
impressive array of vessels now converged on the position.
Who was in overall charge? Subsmash laid down that the officer commanding was the senior
officer at the scene, in this case Lt Cdr Mills of BRAZEN. Submarine experts Rear Admiral Bertram Watson and Captain
Macintyre were in transit on HMS WINCHELSEA.
There had been no attempt to fly them from Lee on
PLAN ‘A’ - DSEA
Mills followed the Subsmash procedures to the hilt. All vessels but VIGILANT
were kept away from the stern in readiness for DSEA escapes from THETIS.
Lt Cdr Mills was not thinking in terms of salvage and so did not send for
a second, better-equipped vessel. When
Captain Oram and Lt Woods made their DSEA escape at
0800 the Subsmash policy seemed to be
paying off. Despite being
debilitated by carbon dioxide poisoning, Oram further warned Mills to keep his
warships away from THETIS in
preparation for more DSEA escapes. Captain Nicholson of the 6th
Destroyer Flotilla arrived at 1040 to take over command of the operation from Lt
Cdr Mills. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for Nicholson.
Now in overall command of a desperate situation, rapidly spiralling out
of control, by his own admission, Captain Nicholson knew little about
submarines. He found himself directing an operation which required the active
co-operation of civilians who had no intention of unquestioningly obeying
orders. All Captain D (6) could do was follow Subsmash guidelines.
PLAN ‘B’ – SALVAGE BLOW
this stage Hart realised the true state of affairs and concluded that the
trapped men must be incapable of escaping with DSEA. Only salvage could save the
men now. At 0855 he sent this
message back to Liverpool Docks:
SEND OUT WITH A TUG FOR URGENT DISPATCH, PORTABLE MOTOR AIR COMPRESSOR
CONNECTIONS FOR AIR PIPE TO COMPRESSOR, BURNERS AND BURNING GEAR, FOREMAN FITTER
AND FROM CAMMELL LAIRDS 400' OF AIR PIPE FOR AIR COMPRESSOR WITH SUITABLE
CONNECTIONS TO ATTACH TO THE HOSE CONNECTIONS ON GUN RECUPERATOR. SEND FOREMAN
FITTER BLACK ALSO SEND DIVER AND TENDER FROM THE LIVERPOOL AND
had brought a message from Lt Cdr Bolus containing instructions for attaching an
HP line. Valve locations were given together with an imperative to attach
strongbacks to the forward torpedo loading hatch.
It was clear that at the time this message was penned, Lt Cdr Bolus was
seeking to carry out a ‘salvage blow’ - i.e. an injection of high pressure
air, used to force water out of the flooded compartments.
Bolus could then harness the air in the tanks to blow Thetis
back to the surface. The torpedo loading hatch posed something of a problem
in that it had been designed to withstand external rather than internal
pressure, hence the imperative to fix strongbacks. It is evident that all
concerned underestimated the debilitating effects of carbon dioxide.
Confirmation of the now desperate conditions within the submarine came at 0955
when Stoker Walter Arnold and engine fitter Frank Shaw made their escape. Given
that a salvage blow would have required the active participation of the trapped
men, Captain Hart realised that it was too late to consider this option. Only an
immediate transfusion of air could save the trapped men now.
diver was required to fix an air line. The reader should be aware that the
vicious tides of
PLAN ‘C’ –BURN THROUGH THE STERN
trapped men were clearly too debilitated to escape using DSEA. The opportunity
to fix an air line had been missed. Only one avenue of potential salvation
remained. By cutting into the
exposed stern, it might be possible to puncture the stern bulkhead and attach an
airline directly. Hart faced four
fundamental problems. Until
stern was hauled out, inch by inch until the dripping screws emerged. Then, at
1510, catastrophe. Captain Hart’s predictions proved all-too accurate as the
supporting cables snapped under the strain.
The stern of HMS/M Thetis
spiralled, then slipped away beneath the surface.
It is now known that some of the trapped men survived until at least
, but the slipping of the stern marked the effective end of any hopes of
there we have it. K13
showed that salvage could save lives. Following
the partially successful escape from Poseidon, Admiralty placed total reliance in the DSEA set, despite
the evidence surrounding the loss of M2,
which, at the very least, raised doubts over DSEA as the solution to the
problems of submarine rescue. Salvage
and salvage equipment played only a minor role in Subsmash
operations, as Admiralty understood them from 1932.
With the advent of DSEA, a crew had its means of salvation within its own
hands. And so it was that when
Admiralty learned that Thetis was
missing on the afternoon of 1st June, no attempt was made to procure
these ubiquitous salvage pontoons from the
author concludes that no individual should be blamed for the Thetis
disaster. The abundant failings were systematic and institutional. In the final
analysis, the Thetis victims were not
murdered by a ruthless Machiavellian Admiralty which prioritised preserving the
integrity of the submarine pressure hull above rescuing the men trapped within,
rather they perished because their lives had been entrusted to an incompetent
naval hierarchy, operating an inadequate system of submarine rescue.
P Armstrong 2006
MANY THANKS TO MS P ARMSTRONG FOR SUBMITTING THIS ARTICLE
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