HM/SM Untamed was built on the Tyne at Vickers Armstrong’s Walker Naval Yard. She was one of ours. Built to endure the worst the enemy could throw at her. Yet not only did she never fire a torpedo or a shell in anger, she came to an ignominious end, having made just one wartime patrol. After all, Untamed had joined that unloved and much feared knot of vessels – submarines which had killed their crews. It had all started off so well. Untamed was one of the second group of ‘U’ class submarines, the design built upon knowledge and experience gained from the first group of consisting of Ursula, Undine and Unity (Ursula being the sole survivor by 1941).
The emergency war programme submarine order of July 12, 1941 was awarded to Vickers of Barrow. Capacity issues forced the Barrow yard to farm construction of Unsparing, Usurper, Universal, Untiring, Uther, Unswerving and Untamed out to Vickers Armstrong’s High Walker Yard.
The specifications of HMS Untamed were as follows:
Broken up as HM/SM Vitality on 8 July 1947
Type: Group II ‘U’ Class coastal patrol submarine Pennant No: P58
Builders: Vickers-Armstrongs, Walker Naval Yard, Newcastle-on-Tyne
Ordered: 1941 War Emergency Programme Yard No: 46
Keel laid: on 9 October 1941
Launched: 8 December 1942
Completed: 14 April 1943
Hull: Admiralty saddle-tank Surface displacement: 545 tons Full/L: 658 tons U/Dt: 740 tons LBD: 59.99m (196ft/10in) × 4.87m (16ft) × 4.41m (14.5ft) Machinery: 2 × Davey-Paxman 6 RXS diesels, each rated @ 400bhp, coupled to a 275kw generator (diesel-electric-drive)
Props: 2-bronze S/Sp: 11.25kts. Op/R: 5,000-n.miles @ 10kts. Sub/R: 120-n.miles @ 2kts.
U/Power: 2 × Metro-Vickers electric motors rated @ 412bhp gave 9kts Batteries: Exide lead/acid. Fuel/Cap: 55-tons.
Armament: 4-bow 53.34cm torpedo tubes (no external tubes) Torpedoes: 8 × 53.34cm (21in). Guns: 1 × 3in/45 QF Mk I deck gun mounted just in front of conning tower & 3 × 0.303in Lewis, or Vickers machine guns
Ammo: 160 rounds Diving: max-depth 60.96m (200ft)
Spring 1943. It had taken just over a year to build the submarine and a few more months to fit her out. Now Untamed was ready to take on a crew. The man appointed to command was twenty-five years old Lt. Gordon Noll. Lt. Noll had joined the Submarine Service in 1940, standing by Usk and later serving as Third Hand (Navigator) on Oberon. By February 1941 he had been appointed First Lieutenant of H33 at Rothesay, followed by a spell on the Blyth training boat Tribune. Brief appointments to P 511 and HMS Unruffled at Blockhouse followed. In September 1942 Gordon Noll passed the submarine commanding officer test infamously known as ‘the perisher’. His first independent command was the training boat H34. In February 1943 Noll was appointed to the new Untamed under construction on the Tyne.
Unlike many of his brother officers, Noll was completely at ease with the lower deck. He made a point of learning the strengths and weakness of his men and encouraged those with potential to study and further their careers within the Service. When circumstances allowed he addressed his men individually by their first names. All told, Noll was an immensely popular high-flyer who had risen to command by virtue of his own abilities.
The crew now gathered around Lt. Noll at Walker in March was the usual 1943 combination of veteran and novice selected by Captain (S) Five at Blockhouse. Several of the engine room personnel had experience in General Service but none in submarines. CERA ‘Chaff’ Challoner conversely had served in submarines since 1935. Challoner’s previous boats included Narwhal, Thames, Talisman, Seawolf and Snapper. Interestingly Untamed was to benefit from a ready made esprit de corps forged on the little training boat H34, which Noll had commanded since November 1942. This knot of experience included Coxswain Tippett, ‘Spo’ Ball, LTO German and Leading Signalman Gilliland. The H34 contingent was dismayed when popular TI Tom Sutton was taken ill at Blyth shortly befor Untamed was due to sail. Sutton’s place was taken by PO Welfoot, who was given the proverbial ‘pier head jump’ (last minute draft) from Blyth.
Although an unknown quantity as far as the others were concerned, Welfoot had served in submarines since 1935 and his boats included Seahorse, H43, Otway and, Parthian. The remainder of the crew were mostly Hostilities Only men (HO) with this their first experience of an operational submarine. Some, like Telegraphist ‘Abysinnia’ Smith, who had served on Sealion Porpoise and Undine in the interwar years, were seasoned submariners. At this juncture it was not unusual to find public school men on the lower deck, drafted as HO men. Thirty-six year old AB George Arkright, an Oxford-educated old Etonian (and descendant of the inventor) was trained as an ASDIC operator.
On March 29, 1943, under joint control arrangements, Untamed left Walker for the short journey to the Blyth exercise zone for gun, steering and full power trials. In readiness the officers’ luggage was loaded at Blyth. According to Dennis German, Hank Hunter, the Third Officer, insisted in bringing his motorbike. As the bike had to be dismantled before the components could enter the fore-hatch, several pieces were allowed to accidentally slip over the side by the disgruntled rating charged with the task. Upon completion of these trials on April 10, Untamed departed Blyth for Holy Loch via Dundee and Lerwick, arriving at her destination on April 13.
Next day Untamed moored at her berth alongside HMS Forth in Holy Loch. A series of dives took place on April 13-14 in Gareloch culminating in the formal signing of the necessary, ‘Acceptance for Service’ document on 14 April 1943. In view of what transpired, the signing of this document is not without significance. A period of routine training and working up practices followed. On 25 April Untamed left Holy Loch for ‘Derry and a further series of exercises before the boat returned to Campbeltown on May 29 . That evening Gordon Noll reported to OC Campbeltown, Cdr. Jenks that he was ‘generally well satisfied with his crew and his submarine‘. A routine AST6 exercise was scheduled for Sunday 30 May involving the anti submarine yacht Shemara and the warships of Tobermory based 8 Escort Group. Two men missed the trip. LTO Dennis German and Leading Signalman John Gilliland were declared too ill to take part . Leading Signalman Arthur Read and Leading Seaman Beard from Forth‘s spare crew pool were given pier head jumps in their place.
An Incident off Kintyre
Untamed left her berth in Campbeltown Harbour at 08:00 on May 30, half of the crew having spent the previous evening at The Royal Hotel. Preliminaries involved the boat making rendezvous with Shemara (Cdr. H. Buckle) in Kilbrannan Sound before proceeding to the designated exercise ‘Zone Z’ off Sanda Island, South of Kintyre. At 09:50 Untamed dived on schedule off Sanda and the ASDIC tracking commenced. At 13:00 (and on schedule) Untamed resurfaced. A second three hour dive (part of which involved the boat being subjected to a barrage of dummy Hedgehog mortars) had been arranged for the afternoon. In preparation fishing boat buffs were secured to the superstructure to indicate the boat’s position to the vessels above. Just before diving Lt. Noll reported a minor periscope leak to Buckle, requesting him to to re-send a signal advising Captain (S) Three Ionides.
At 13:48 Untamed dived again. As per the time-table two Hedgehog salvoes were fired at 14:00 and 14:12. Six minutes later a smoke candle was spotted. This was not unusual as such candles were routinely fired by submarines at the end of an exercise run to mark an actual position measured against the ASDIC trainee’s deductions. Buckle was unsure what to make of this but ordered his telegraphists to use Fessenden equipment to determine if Untamed was seeking permission to surface. The tapping drew no response from the submarine. Far more alarming to Cdr. Buckle was the inexplicable appearance of swirl of water nearby at 14:18. It was not the familiar pattern of a boat blowing tanks. At 14:30 a second smoke candle was sighted. Shemara stood off but retained contact. Three grenades, the signal to surface immediately, were fired. At 15:00 there was a second swirl of water.
By 16:02 there was still no sign of Untamed breaking surface. Buckle required no further evidence that all was not well with the submarine. Buckle immediately anchored Shemara then adopted a watching and waiting game. The water disturbance was logged at a position four and a half miles from the Ship Light.Meanwhile the Shemara trainee telegraphists were dismissed and the seasoned ASDIC instructors took over monitoring the submarine.
A coded signal was sent to NOIC Campbeltown, Cdr. Jenks, informing him of the situation. Still Untamed failed to surface at 17:00 the time the exercise was due to end. At 17:05 Buckle confirmed to Jenks that Untamed had failed to surface and that an accident must be suspected. Jenks wasted no time in ordering HMS St. Modwen and the submarine Thrasher, both exercising nearby, to the area. By 17:15 Flag Officer (Greenwich), Captain (S) Three, Captain (S) Seven, Captain (S) Campbeltown, RNAS Machrihanish had all been informed of Untamed‘s plight.
The Admiralty diving vessel Tedworth was summoned from its anchorage at Ardrossan. Jenks followed the example of Ionides by defying Fleet Orders to request ‘all possible assistance’ from the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association. Because the Company was engaged in searching for Vandal at that time, two camels, specialised personnel and a full range of diving gear were embarked at Rothesay following receipt of Jenk’s request . Captain (S) Campbeltown ordered Wolfe to the scene. HMS Boarhound with her state of the art ASDIC gear and medical personnel, also set course. Three Clyde boom vessels left for Pladda. Jenks, Ionides and Captain (S) Campbeltown raced to the scene by fast launch.
Back at the scene of the accident, Buckle and the men on Shemara had every reason to expect the submarine crew to resort to DSEA escape, the procedure laid down in Admiralty Fleet Orders. Buckle’s hydrophone operators could confirm that at least part of Untamed‘s crew was alive, sea conditions were reasonably good and the locality depth of 160’ (48.8m) rendered DSEA escape viable, if a major challenge for such an inexperienced crew. While Buckle watched and waited, noises emanating from Untamed indicated that Noll and his crew had plans other than a DSEA escape. From 17:06 Shemara‘s ASDIC operator detected intermittent hydrophone effect (HE) and had little difficulty locating Untamed. From 17:16 the operator picked up the continuous sound of a submarine attempting to blow its tanks. At 17:21 the noise of submarine motors was noted along with the venting of tanks. A slight but steady stream of oil was observed rising to the surface. HE was intermittently registered until 17:45 when all fell silent. All little Shemara could do was remain at the buoyed position and maintain her lonely vigil in steadily worsening weather. There were no DSEA escapes.
The gold braid arrived around 21:00. Ionides agreed to take command of the rescue operation. At 22:17 a series of air bubbles broke surface. At 22:43 Tedworth puffed into view, followed shortly afterwards by a small flotilla of Salvage Association vessels. Of course it was now dark and the sea was rising with a fearsome undertow. The Tedworth men were eager to make a descent but the anxious faces of the kitted-up divers betrayed the knowledge that no operations were possible on account of tide and current. Admiralty could not countenance placing more lives in danger. The dive was postponed until dawn but the weather forecast was bad and the Kintyre currents proved fiercer than ever. When dawn did break on May 31 it was clear that any diving attempts would risk the lives of the divers. Acutely aware that all life would be extinguished on Untamed by 09:45 at the latest, Admiralty reluctantly suspended all diving operations on the grounds of safety. Untamed was lost with all hands.
Conditions abated sufficiently for Tedworth divers to descend to Untamed at 11:15 on June 1. Divers found the boat undamaged, lying upright on a sandy sea-bed. All hatches were shut but tellingly, the after escape hatch was not secured. The task of raising the boat was placed in the hands of the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Company that same day. Admiralty appointed Lt. Arthur Pitt, the much respected Commander of HMS/M Taku, to act as their representative charged with liaison with the Company and in drawing up a report into the accident. Following some unfortunate delays, lifting wires were affixed to Untamed. Despite unseasonal weather and hostile currents, Untamed was gradually drawn into shallower water. In the course of external examinations, divers were able to ascertain that both bow and stern compartments were flooded (although air locks were present) but the control room sandwiched between, was dry.
High pressure air was forced through the boat to identify any weaknesses likely to delay salvage. A stream of air bubbles was observed leaking from the fore-ends underside near the keel. All agreed this was evidence that the Ottway Log sluice had not been properly closed. Thus at an early stage the salvors had established that the Log housed within the auxiliary machinery space lay at the heart of the accident. Taken with the evidence of the unsecured engine room escape hatch, the salvors deduced that the fore-ends had been abandoned and the bodies of the crew lay in either the control room or the stern compartments beyond.
On 5 June the divers eased open the after hatch to find a contorted tangle of dead men directly below, reminding one of the divers, CPO Nick Pearce of a mediaeval Last Judgment painting . Before the hatch could be lowered, one body at the apex of the death-pyramid floated clear. It was CERA ‘Chaff’ Challoner. The position of the Chief’s body was significant. Evidently he had been detailed to open the hatch in readiness for an escape which never took place. The hatch was temporarily re-sealed while a net boom enclosing the submarine was installed. The body was subjected to a post-mortem where it was established that death was due to drowning. It was assumed the remainder had either slipped from the desperate crush of humanity under the hatch, to drown like the Chief, or had succumbed quietly from carbon dioxide poisoning. Thomas Challoner was subsequently buried in the small Naval Plot in Campbeltown.
Formally establishing the cause of the accident could wait for the moment. First came the essential but profoundly unpleasant work of recovering the dead. Convention governed that wartime submariners should be spared the horrors of removing bodies from submarines but Captain (S) Three disregarded this. Petty officers, including senior Telegraphist Norman Drury, were invited to volunteer but ratings, including HO men from new submarines attached to the Flotilla, were ordered to assist. PO Norman Drury witnessed the scene:
‘the crew was crammed like a pyramid immediately beneath and around the twill trunk. Looking down through the hatch, the bodies looked like so many hard boiled eggs wobbling in a pan. One by one we wrapped them in disinfectant-treated tarpaulins then hauled them up through the hatch… We found Lt. Noll. At least they told me that was Lt. Noll. All hair and some of the ears and noses had fallen away from the victims. Up top, a couple of coxswains went through the clothing sorting for anything that might identify an individual. Captain (S) ordered the ‘HO’s to help lift the bodies and sort through the personal effects. One of them was given a sack and told to pick out body parts from the bilges. Can you imagine the effect this had on the young lads new to submarines ? The Unity business aside, forcing those kids to clear out the bodies must rank as the most stupid act of authority I ever witnessed in my entire career in submarines ‘
No further post mortems were carried out. The bodies were all individually identified but it was decided to bury them together as a crew. With insufficient space available beside Challoner at Campbeltown for a crew burial, a mass funeral took place instead at Dunoon on July 6 .
Fatalities of Untamed:
Acworth, Peter Sub-Lt. (20)
Arkwright, John AB (36)
Ball, George, Stoker PO (29)
Bates, Jack AB (21)
Beard, Robert L/Seaman (25)
Bothams, Peter AB (20)
Bowyer, Hugh AB
Clayton, Peter, Sub-Lt. RNR (20)
Cole, Herbert, Stoker 1 (20)
Cooper, Joseph, AB (22)
Danks, George ERA 4
Dow, James, Tel.(24)
Duncan, John Lt.(23)
Flinn, Alfred, AB (23)
Floyd, Gordon AB (20)
Gates, Norman L/Seaman (21)
Gibson, John, AB (24)
Green, Henry AB (25)
Hickson, William, AB (26)
Higgins, Geof. Sub-Lt. RNVR (21)
Male, Peter, O/Seaman (20)
Miles, Frederick L/Stoker (26)
Nichol, Henry, ERA.4 (28)
Noll, Gordon, Lt, (25)
Pendleton, Roy, Stoker1(20)
Playfair, Peter L/Tel
Read, Arthur, L/Sig
Smith, Leslie, PO Tel.(24)
Spencer, Albert Stoker 1 (32)
Tippett, Wilfred, PO (22)
Walker, Robert, Stoker 1 (29)
Welfoot, Clarence, PO (32)
Wheeler, Ronald, AB (22)
Wishart, Robert L/Stoker (23)
CERA Challoner, his body recovered before those of his crew-mates, is buried in Campbeltown (Kilkerran) Cemetery in the small Naval Section (Lair 4, Grave 610) alongside ABs Rhodes and Whiting, killed when L26 suffered a battery explosion on October 8, 1933.
With Untamed now supported in shallow water enclosed by the boom, the boat was raised partially pumped out on June 19. As soon as the partially flooded fore-ends was entered early suspicions about the Ottway Log sluice being at the heart of the disaster were confirmed. The investigators realised that two crew members were missing from the engine room. When the compartments forward of the control room were cleared, the bodies of PO ‘Clarrie’ Welfoot and Sub-Lt. Acworth were discovered sprawled on bunks in the petty officers’ mess. They had evidently been overtaken by carbon dioxide poisoning, with little, if any warning. On June 26 Untamed was ready to be towed inside the Campbeltown boom defence. Lt. Pitt and his team scoured through the boat for clues over the next three days.
On July 16, Churchill sent Rear Admiral (Submarines) Claude Barry a memo, ‘to complete this tragic picture let me know, a) the depth at which the submarine bottomed, b) time between first accident and probable death of crew’. Barry responded with a provisional estimate that ‘the crew probably died at about 08:00hrs on May 31st, that is about 18 hours later.’ With Churchill now peering into dark corners it was time for some hard facts to emerge.
The Inquiry, presided over by Captain P. Cazalet, was held on July 23 onboard HMS Wolfe. The role of the Inquiry was twofold: firstly to investigate why Untamed had foundered ? and secondly to establish why the crew had died ?
Arthur Pitt presented a credible, albeit necessarily speculative narrative with regard to the first requirement, one that must have made for difficult listening. Pitt sketched a picture of Untamed participating in a routine, undemanding exercise in the morning and early afternoon of May 30, 1943. The boat was submerged and operating at a depth of ninety feet.
At this stage it is necessary to divert the narrative to consider the nature and roll of the Ottway Log. Named from its manufacturer, W. Ottway Ltd of the Orion Works, Ealing, the Ottway Log was a variant of the earlier Chernikeef Log (named after its inventor, a Russian naval officer). The Log was designed to measure the speed of a vessel as it travelled through water, thus enabling a navigator to calculate the position of the vessel. It proved a most useful device at times when a fix could not be obtained because of bad weather. The device consisted of a tube containing small propeller on the end of a shaft. The flow of water over the propeller (or more correctly impeller) transmitted an electrical impulse commensurate with the speed of the boat. The aperture was fitted with both an inner and outer sluice operated by rod gearing controlled by a hand-wheel. In a ‘U’ class boat this sluice was fitted in a cramped area, below the floor of the tube space usually close to the keel. It is not without significance that the patent logs fitted in all submarines built before the Summer of 1943 belonged to a pattern manufactured by the firm of Ottway to a standard Royal Navy specification. In other words the 1932 patent log had been designed for surface ships without the slightest modification for submarines.
Removal of the Ottway Log required the mechanism to be withdrawn up into a cylindrical watertight chamber. The outer sluice valve was then shut, the inner sluice opened then the chamber top unbolted and the Log removed. The operation of an Ottway Log represented a major weakness in a submarine because it required an aperture running through both pressure hull and casing. This operation, which was detested by submariners, was always carried out by an officer and a senior petty officer.
After 14:00 someone entered the machinery space below the fore-ends to ‘withdraw examine or possibly repair‘ the Ottway log which had been extended earlier that day. The most obvious candidate for this task was the experienced PO Welfoot, the Torpedo Gunners Mate. It is unclear whether Welfoot was alone or accompanied by Sub-Lt. Acworth or some other crew member at this initial stage . It was clear to the investigators that ‘Clarrie’ Welfoot (or whoever was responsible) had wound the cylindrical tank housing the log up through its well and back within the pressure hull.
Once the cylinder tank had appeared to be clear of the sluice, the operator had duly turned the hand-wheel to close the open outer valve. So far so good. Once the hand-wheel would turn no more, the operator must have assumed that the tank was home and the sluice safely closed. He apparently did not pause to check the tank cap indicator as drill demanded. Had he examined this indicator, the operator would have immediately realised that the Log tank had not in fact been withdrawn, rather the sluice had merely closed against the cylinder. The sluice was open to the sea. Now all that lay between the fore-ends of Untamed and the sea beyond was the hinged tank cap and the three bolts which secured it to a raised cross-head designed to keep it in position. As one by one these bolts were unscrewed by the unsuspecting operator, so the tank started vibrating violently. Suddenly the Log shot back from the tank. Behind it came the Firth of Clyde in the form of an unstoppable jet of water.
The torpedo stowage chamber had been quickly, too quickly, evacuated by the seamen who evacuated the fore-ends to take refuge behind No. 54 bulkhead. Although the hatch above the rapidly flooding auxiliary machinery space below had been secured, crucially nobody paused to shut and clip the starboard bulkhead door between the torpedo chamber and the torpedo stowage room. However before the auxiliary machinery space was abandoned, someone, probably in a vain attempt to drain water, had opened the bilge drain. This had been logical, if fruitless. Leaving the drain open once the compartment had been evacuated, was not. Likewise, drill demanded that the ventilation valves and communication cocks fitted to bulkheads be shut in just such an emergency but investigators later found them open. Nor did the seamen linger to collect the fourteen DSEA sets which still in lay in their boxes within the torpedo stowage chamber. The significance of these omissions will be explained later. The image Pitt described from the evidence was one of panic in the fore-ends. What of the two men left alone while the rest took refuge behind the shut and clipped No. 54 bulkhead door leading to the control room ?
As mentioned previously the bodies of Sub-Lt. Acworth and PO Welfoot were discovered sitting opposite each other in the petty officers’ mess. Welfoot, who was naked except for a blanket, was wearing a DSEA set, while Acworth had a set close to hand. It was clear from the position of their bodies that they had been overcome without warning. The twill trunk was lashed and the DSEA hatch clipped. They had made no attempt to escape.
To Pitt and the Submarine Service at large, it seemed unthinkable that these two men could have been simply abandoned by their crew-mates. According to Pitt’s interpretation of evidence, the probability was that Welfoot and Acworth had initially retreated with the rest into the control room. The crew was aware that No. 40 watertight bulkhead door at the forward end of the petty officers’ mess, was distorted. Although this door initially appeared to have been closed, it was found later to be slightly bowed outwards in the lower section and this distortion was sufficient to prevent wedges fitted in the lower part of the door from riding into their allotted housing. Noll may have held the failure to secure this door as having been responsible for his failure to arrest the dive in the initial stages of the accident. After digesting available information, the probability was that Noll expected an air lock to form in the partially flooded fore-ends once in-rushing water had sufficiently compressed air within the compartment.
The arc of water entering the boat would naturally subside then cease. It is highly debateable whether Noll, as Shelford suggests, planned that the two men in the fore-ends should then proceed to re-enter the auxiliary machinery in order space to close the sluice, once internal and external pressure had equalised. With the sluice closed, Shelford reasoned, the water in the fore-ends could be pumped out. It is more likely that as the necessary prelude to an intended salvage blow, Lt. Noll likely decided that the faulty door must first be repaired and secured. Interestingly the investigators discovered that had this door been held shut by hand for a short time, as the pressure in the fore-ends built up, so the door would have been naturally forced back on to its coaming and held shut, irrespective of whether the locking mechanism was operative.
Pitt concluded that Thomas Welfoot and Peter Acworth had remained behind to work on No.40 bulkhead door while the rest of the fore-endsmen remained in the control room. The presence of a block and tackle near their bodies coupled with evidence of heavy force having been applied to this door, supports Pitt’s thesis. Pitt discerned two distinct phases to the activities of these two men, an initial phase in which PO Welfoot and Lt. Acworth remained in contact with the control room and a later phase when all communication was lost. Tank vents two, three and four had all been cottered, an action that could only have been executed by the two men acting in co-ordination with the control room.
Lt. Pitt was not invited to explain why Welfoot, presumably soaked and exhausted from his earlier attempts to staunch the flow of water in the auxiliary machinery space, should have been selected/allowed to participate in this further effort. At some stage the two men entered the petty officer’s mess, possibly for a rest. Carbon dioxide poisoning is an insidious enemy, attacking thought processes as well as physical ability. Both men were overcome, probably simultaneously, without having completed their work on the door. Oblivious to their fate, Noll and Duncan weighed up their options . Admiralty Fleet Order 568/34 prescribed procedure onboard a submarine in the event of a crew becoming trapped:
‘…Experience has shown that except in very special circumstances salvage of a submarine in time to save life is impracticable.
Even in special circumstances such as a submarine sinking in sheltered water, escape by DSEA would probably be the most efficacious. It has been decided therefore that this apparatus with which all submarines are equipped, is to be relied upon for the escape of the crew in all circumstances. Local organisation should accordingly be directed to vessels proceeding with the utmost dispatch to the scene of a disaster to locate the submarine and pick up any men who have made, or may be about to make their escape and subsequently be provided medical attention as necessary. As soon as the submarine has been located, or when, in the opinion of the Senior Officer, her position is sufficiently accurately known, twelve half pound charges are to be fired in the vicinity. This is to signal to any men imprisoned in the submarine that surface vessels have arrived and that escape by means of DSEA can be attempted with every prospect of rescue.’
The lesson of the Thetis tragedy might be summarised as, get out of a sunken submarine and get out fast. The sinking of Umpire in 1941 had not only reinforced this view, it had partially vindicated DSEA as viable means of escape (whatever may have later transpired on the surface). The Umpire crew had taken the decision to abandon the boat immediately, irrespective of the consequences. Gordon Noll and his men had the consoling knowledge that Shemara was overhead standing ready to receive escapees. Unlike Umpire, Untamed was undamaged. There was sufficient oxygen to support life until the following morning. Noll was not a man to give up his boat to the sea without a fight. In what seems on the surface to have been a direct contravention of Fleet Orders, DSEA escape was put on hold, as Noll opted to save his command by means of a salvage blow.
The proposed salvage blow involved directing compressed air into the flooded fore-ends to firstly pressurize it and so halt the ingress of water. A second phase would have required forcing water from the fore-ends while retaining sufficient reserves to enable a return to the surface. It follows that as a preliminary to this operation, the submarine must be made as light as possible. The salvors found that No. Five main ballast tank, which had formerly been full of fuel, had been duly emptied. Because the state of the ballast tanks had been compromised during the salvage process, it is of crucial importance to appreciate that Pitt found it impossible to reconstruct either the sequence or the nature of what had taken place. He found direct evidence that One and Six main ballast tanks had possibly been blown but the kingston valves of tanks two, three, four and five remained firmly closed. Lt Pitt:
‘...Now considering the crew who were in the control room; there was no evidence either way as to whether they tried to blow the flooded compartments through the salvage blows. It seems they did not. Presumably they were not quite sure as to the condition of the next compartment, ie whether it was flooded or not, whether the officer and rating were in there or not. If they had tried to pump out Two and Three main ballast [tanks] they would not have been successful unless they had done it before shutting the [control room] bulkhead door. Also if they had tried to blow them before shutting the bulkhead door, this being necessary as two and three master blows and kingstons [valves] were shut, they would still have had no success as the blower drain was found to be open and there would have been no way of shutting this in the auxiliary machinery space as it was one of the first to be flooded and was thus, ‘unget-able’.
It must also be recalled that the hydrophone operators on Shemara detected the sounds of blowing tanks in conjunction with motor noises from 17:00 until 17:45, pointing to a sustained effort at this juncture. There had probably been several attempts to dispel the water from the fore-ends but all ended in failure due to that open blower drain in the auxiliary machine space and to a lesser extent because the crew had also neglected to secure No. 24 watertight door in the tube space in the initial stages of the flooding.The implications of Pitt’s evidence were clear. Noll had gambled is his disregard of AFO 568/34. He had squandered three and three quarter hours of precious time over a salvage blow, which Noll’s knowledge and experience should have informed him, must be doomed from the outset. Pitt listed a catalogue of failures culminating in the following:
‘Failure to realise that as soon as the flooding of the crew space was out of control and communication with the control room severed, all possibility of saving the submarine was at an end. At this point every effort should have been directed to escape from the submarine’
By 18:15 hopes of saving Untamed were as exhausted as the air reserves. Pitt’s report described how the actions of the crew now switched to a concentration upon DSEA escape. Although a critical situation, it was not yet a fatal one. The boat was flooded at the fore-ends but it was otherwise undamaged. Untamed had been dived since 13:48. Carbon dioxide had not yet reached critical levels, Shemara was overhead. Noll could rightly assume that authority was aware of his plight and help was standing by. Prospects of DSEA escape must have seemed reasonably good, although fourteen sets lay in the abandoned fore-ends and ten men would be forced to escape without the benefit of a DSEA breather set. One set was found untouched, still within its box in the control room. This was surely the clearest of proof that carbon dioxide was steadily debilitating the trapped crew. Air samples from the dry control room, preserved in the same state when the crew took the decision to abandon it, indicated carbon dioxide concentrations between four and five percent. Easily enough to seriously undermine mental capacity. The failure to even attempt an escape from the control room escape hatch may be further evidence of carbon dioxide poisoning undermining thought processes. Although a blueprint detailing escape fittings within the control room was discovered on the wardroom table, the twill trunk remained stowed. For reasons unknown the control room escape was rejected in favour of the engine room escape hatch, a move which doubtless compounded the problems facing the escapees.
With the exception of Acworth and Welfoot, isolated in the crew space and quite possibly dead by this stage, the remainder of the men now entered the engine room. The forward bulkhead door communicating with the control room was shut and clipped. The twill trunk was lowered, the ladder was rigged. DSEA sets were distributed. The cramming of thirty-four men into a chamber the size of a ‘U’ class engine room hardly eased conditions, while crowding prevented access to vital equipment necessary to effect the escape. Moreover once the control room had been abandoned, the primary source of lighting was gone too. The level of carbon dioxide in the foetid engine room expanded alarmingly, as confidence among the escapees increasingly gave way to fumbling despair.
Pitt described the unfolding endgame with clinical precision. In order to effect a DSEA escape, first the compartment had to be sealed then flooded to equalise pressure. Then and only then could the hatch be lifted. The crew of Untamed responded by sealing off all ventilation/communication means with the control room and the stern. In a mirror image of the earlier failure to shut off the blower drain in the auxiliary machinery space, a small underwater drainage valve running at through the aft engine room bulkhead was inadvertently left open. Because of this omission the stern compartments now had to be flooded as well as the engine room in a process that would take hours. And the trapped, increasingly insensible men no longer had time on their side.
What happened next has all the hand-wringing irony of a Greek tragedy. Scrabbling around through the crammed compartment in faltering light, the crew located the the engine room rapid flooding valve. The hand-wheel was duly turned to read ‘Open’. Then the crew waited for the flood. Instead of the anticipated torrent of cold water, there was a mere trickle instead. In fact the emergency flood system valve indicator read ‘Open’ when was actually shut. The flap valve was immovable. Salvors later found that the valve had been correctly fitted but the lever spindle had been incorrectly placed. As we shall see there were conflicting views as to who had been responsible for this. As Pitt pointed out, had one of the ERAs simply removed the access cover, this alone would have been sufficient to kick-start the flooding process. Technicians were clearly succumbing to carbon dioxide. Even the least experienced ERA knew that removal of the ballast pump valve box cover or the circulator weed trap flap would have greatly speeded up the flooding process but there was no evidence these were considered.
Next the crew tried to flood the engine room via the main-line hose connection suction valve. This met with more success but flooding was still excruciatingly slow. Pitt estimated that the process took well over an hour. With thirty-four men crowding in under the hatch with ultimately only two feet of head-room, it is sufficient to observe that conditions must have been unspeakable. The engine room air-lock samples taken by the salvors provided valuable information regarding the extent and composition of air contamination. At the end the pressure had been six atmospheres with carbon dioxide levels between twenty-four and twenty-five per cent. In short, lethal. Two men were found to have vomited into their DSEA sets. They almost certainly died of oxygen poisoning. Of course not all had DSEA sets but it seems those unfortunate enough not to have them were placed directly under the hatch in the hope of improving their chances of survival. One by one the men fell victim to carbon dioxide poisoning. Some slipped down into the water to drown but others were wedged tight in the pyramid of bodies straining to stay alive. CERA Challoner was detailed to open the hatch. Lt. Pitt:
‘I consider that the final thing that defeated their efforts to escape was that the drain of the underwater gun was open, so that up to the time taken to flood the engine room there was also the time taken to flood up the after ends, of which the crew were unaware, through a very small pipe and this would have taken a considerable time. It is probable that until this after end was nearly flooded up there would not be any chance of the CERA pushing open the engine room hatch and that they began to drown or die before it was open. It had been made complicated for the CERA to open the hatch by the fact that people were crowding up behind him. On getting into the engine room, we found the head of the next man after him only six inches from the coaming, then only two feet below the coaming were two other bodies jammed absolutely tight trying to get out’
Perhaps, as Arthur Pitt implied, panic took hold of the men before the hatch could be opened. It only remains to add that the engine room clock stopped at 22:07 while the crew’s watches were found to have stopped at various times between 21:30 and 22:00. It seems likely that the attempt to raise the hatch resulted the stream of bubbles detected on the surface at 22:17. Thus Pitt’s presentation and interpretation of the evidence came to an end.
Having duly considered the evidence, the Cazalet Inquiry arrived at the following conclusion:
“It is considered that the loss of the submarine is directly attributable to the failure of the crew to take immediate, obvious and adequate steps to prevent unrestricted flooding. The fact that such an obvious measure as the shutting of a watertight door was neglected, proves that a temporary panic must have prevailed in the submarine.
Their failure to escape from the submarine can also be attributed to poor drill, ignorance and lack of leadership, which was accentuated towards the end by physical and mental weakness due to carbon dioxide poisoning, the danger of which had not been fully realised. Efforts to save the submarine were continued long after it should have been clear that these efforts were futile. This indicates a complete lack of appreciation of the situation and deficient technical knowledge. This must be partially attributable to the comparatively short time which can now be devoted to training and the consequent inexperience of a proportion of submarine crews”.
A couple of recommendations emerged from the Inquiry regarding the design of the standard flood valve spindle (henceforward to be ‘D’ shaped in section rather than round) and a suggestion that interlocking device be fitted to the Ottway Log. At no stage during proceedings was the name of Vandal mentioned. HM/SM Vandal had disappeared on February 24, 1943 while exercising off Lochranza in ‘Area Quebec’, a sector used by working up submarines to calibrate equipment, specifically to take Ottway Log readings. At the time there was a general suspicion that Vandal‘s loss had been due to an Ottway Log accident. This belief was reinforced in 2003 when the wreck of Vandal was found. Evidence pointed to an overwhelming catastrophe having unfolded when Vandal was on the surface. Thus reinforcing the theory that Vandal too fell victim to an Ottway Log accident.
Rear Admiral Barry added his own observations to the Inquiry findings:
‘I fully agree that on this occasion it appeared that much was not done that should have been done and what was done was apparently attempted too late and too half- heartedly. It is possible too that there may have been a panic forward. I make to excuse for what occurred but desire to point out that in a war such as this, where expansion has been great and dilution intense, the youth of officers and ratings coupled with the very slight general submarine experience of the majority (in comparison with peace standards) is bound to make accidents such as this more prone to occur than hitherto .In spite of this there are only two known cases of submarines being lost during the war by anything but enemy action or collision [Vandal and Untamed]; though there is of course, no guarantee that some of the unknown losses were not in fact caused by errors of personnel
The general high standard of morale, presence of mind and steadiness under grave difficulties of the submarine personnel has been established beyond questionably their conduct in the face of the enemy. Since this accident I have caused a further review of training to be carried out, and only detailed alterations have been considered desirable by my Chief Staff Officer (Administration) and the Captains (S) of the training flotillas. The length of the working up periods of new construction submarines and the general scope of this training has been progressively increased throughout the war to meet the ever decreasing drop in age and experience of the submarine crews. The time that now elapses between a new submarine leaving the builders and commencing her first fully operational patrol (having on average already done two to three working up patrols)is five months. It is seldom less but may be longer to cope with more backward crews.
I have taken the necessary steps to rectify the technical shortcomings that came to light as a result of the investigations into this accident. In all the circumstances I consider that Their Lordships need not feel unduly concerned over what occurred on this occasion
CB Barry 19 August 1943′
The Report made for uncomfortable reading and it was time to move on but the implications of the Cazalet Inquiry were clear. Captain and crew out their depth. A largely inexperienced crew padded out with too many Hostilities Only ratings, with insufficient time to develop a binding esprit de corps, had spelled disaster. And that was that. Or was it ?
Two observations may be made about the Cazalet Board. Firstly, it was remarkable for its narrow remit in that only the forensic evidence of the wreck was taken into consideration. The second factor is that it comprised solely of senior officers drawn from General Service who depended upon Lt. Pitt for technical interpretation. With this in mind let us now revisit the accident.
Was everything done that could have been done by the rescuers ?
The alarm was given in a timely fashion, outside help, including salvage gear, was summoned immediately, even though this contravened the governing AFO. Everything that could have been done to rescue the trapped men, was done. Nor was there in any sense, a cover up. It will be recalled that the victims were buried in the local cemetery at Dunoon and Campbeltown without any attempt to hide the fact of a submarine accident. The regional press were aware of the affair but respected a request from Admiralty not to break the news, lest it bring succour to the enemy. Only one indirect reference appeared in the press. The last week of June 1943 was declared ‘Wings for Victory Week’. On June 25, the day before Untamed was towed back to harbour, the Dunoon Herald archly observed that it would have been more appropriate if the campaign that week had been for submarines, rather than aeroplanes. First and foremost this was not Thetis Mk II.
Was Untamed the victim of Sabotage ?
Admiralty had initial suspicions following the loss of Vandal leading to the commissioning of a high level investigation detailed in ADM 1/15478. A spate of incidents at Barrow and especially Vickers High Walker Yard on the Tyne pointed to systematic sabotage of submarines under construction. The Walker Yard suffered from tiresome bouts of militancy during the War years but no worse than any other shipyard. Communist sympathisers were suspected. No arrests were ever made. Following the German launch of Barbarossa, the incidents subsided, lending some weight to the communist theory. In a memo attached to the file, Captain (S) One put the blame not on sabotage but on skill dilution within the Walker Shipyard:
‘..a more intimate liaison between the experienced Barrow Yard and the Tyne Yard …might well have lessened these early troubles’
All of which begs the question:
Was the High Walker Yard up to the job ?
Armstrong Whitworth had built twenty two submarines for Admiralty at High Walker during the First World War. Following the merger with Vickers in 1927, the Firm had henceforward concentrated submarine building in Barrow and no further submarines were built on the Tyne. The War Emergency Programme of 1941 brought a change of heart when Vickers Armstrongs was handed the contracts for the ‘U’ II Group. With Barrow capacity stretched to the limits, it was decided to build a number of these boats at the Tyne Walker Yard. As the old skilled pool of submarine builders had passed into retirement at Walker, so Vickers Armstrong had commenced cycling submarine technicians backward and forwards between Barrow and High Walker. Fred Matthews, Principal Ship Overseer of Vickers Walker Yard, who gave evidence at the Untamed Inquiry, being one of them. In response to the point raised by Captain (S) One, an intimate liaison already existed between Barrow and Walker yards.
The High Walker Yard was equal to the task as the wartime records of the boats built at the Yard testifies but the workforce was inevitably subject to skill dilution due to unprecedented expansion, something it had in common with every other ship building yard and every branch of the Royal Navy, including the Submarine Service itself, as Rear Admiral Barry himself was forced to concede.
Was sub-standard quality of workmanship at Vickers Walker Yard responsible for the loss ?
In his post-war book ‘Submariner’, the outspoken John Coote (RN rtd.) ex Totem commander and latterly fulminator-general for Beaverbrook newspapers, offered his perspective on the Untamed affair, declaring the Inquiry a ‘whitewash’. Coote had been a junior officer on Untiring. His boat had suffered a battery explosion at High Walker on 23 April 1943 . This setback, together with wildcat strikes, merely served to confirm Coote’s prejudices concerning organised labour. The explosion had delayed the boat’s departure for a month. Lt. Coote undoubtedly felt more sanguine about the Untamed affair because his crew had been detailed to assist with the ‘evacuation’ of the bodies. Coote doubtless spoke for many within the Submarine Service (including rear Admiral Barry who was also critical of standards pertaining at the High Walker Yard) when he wrote of :
‘the appalling quality of workmanship at Vickers Walker Yard…with that all important flap-valve …being marked ‘Shut’ for ‘Open’. The official explanation that a rating opened the operating lever to clean it and then replaced it the wrong way around is simply incredible. Why didn’t the Board ask the crew of Untiring about shoddy work from the Walker Yard ? ‘
A similar conflict had played out publicly in the courts following the Thetis disaster. Faced with inconclusive evidence the Submarine Service instinctively blamed the shipbuilders, while the shipbuilders invariably pointed a finger back at the submariners. During the Untamed Inquiry the standard of installed equipment and fittings came under close scrutiny, in particular No 40 bulkhead door and the incorrectly assembled DSEA flood valve in the engine room.
Engineer Captain Frew, technician on the staff of Flag Officer (Submarines) and along with Pitt one of the key Submarine Service personnel working in liaison with the salvors, offered his professional view that both door and valve had been faulty since the day the Yard installed them. Frew’s opinion went unchallenged and he was not asked to explain his reasoning. Frew did however concede that if his interpretation was correct, the faulty workmanship ought to have been discovered by the Admiralty Senior Ship Overseer and his staff in the course of the Acceptance Trials in the Gareloch, not to mention the submarine crew who were supposed to comb through the boat looking for faults.
Against the professional view of Captain Frew, we must set that of Fred Matthews, Principal Ship Overseer at Vickers Walker Yard. Matthews had carried out tests both at the Yard and on the short trip up to Blyth. He testified clearly and unequivocally that No. 40 bulkhead door had been sound when tested. This evidence was corroborated by the notes of the Admiralty Inspection Officer who had carried out the official inspection dive and had tested the door at a depth of sixty feet (to a tolerance of twenty-five pounds per square inch). The signature of the Director of Naval Equipment’s representative added on April 14, 1943 was decisive evidence that the door had not been deficient when the boat had left the shipyard. The Board held that the damage had occurred after the boat had left the Yard. So what had caused damage to the door ? The Inquiry concluded that between April 14 and the date of the accident, some object had fallen between the moving wedges and the lower coaming. As Cdr. Newton of the Royal Corps of Naval Construction pointed out, there was evidence of a considerable force having been applied in an attempt to shut the door against this obstruction, hence the relevance of the block and tackle found in the petty officer’s mess. No trace of this obstruction was ever found, though it may possibly have floated away when the chamber flooded. What of the defective DSEA flap valve ?
The valve in question had been manufactured at Vickers Armstrong’s Engineering Works at Elswick on the Tyne. Mr Rhodes, Mechanical Manager of Vickers, described to the Board how component parts were made in the factory then assembled. The valve was tested for pressure at the factory by the Company Ship fitting Overseer then stamped with the word ‘Tested’ providing the valve proved satisfactory, then dispatched to Barrow or Walker to be fitted by a specialist. Mr Rhodes hammered home the point that it would be impossible to construct the valve to receiving pipework connected if the valve had not been correctly assembled during installation. The Admiralty DSEA Inspector had examined the valve on behalf of the Royal Navy once Untamed arrived at Blyth. A further battery of tests was carried on the valve after Untamed returned to Blyth dockyard following her sea trial on March 16, 1943. CPO Norman Watson, as representative of Captain (S) Five had been responsible for installing and checking all DSEA equipment, including flood valves at this time. Watson had walked through the boat with First Lieutenant Peter Duncan. He checked the DSEA flap and found it ‘working one hundred per cent’. Watson left the flap in the ‘Open’ position in keeping with procedure. Watson and Duncan both signed off the DSEA gear, including the valves. Crucially a further examination of this valve had been carried out just one week before the accident by CPO Procter while Untamed had been day running between Campbeltown and ‘Derry.
CPO Procter (drafted to another boat days before the accident) testified on oath to the Inquiry that he had examined the DSEA flap valve on May 23 and found it to be in a satisfactory condition. The Board accepted that the weight of evidence pointed to the flap valve having been assembled and installed correctly by the High Walker Yard. The Cazalet Inquiry held that the valve flap mechanism had been dismantled by a rating, probably for routine cleaning (evidence given to the Inquiry suggested that the inner casing was prone to the appearance of rusting) some time after May 23. The valve had been re-assembled incorrectly with subsequent disastrous consequences . The Cazalet Inquiry concluded that Vickers Armstrong was not at fault, blame lay entirely with the submariners. Henceforward the design of the DSEA flap valve was modified to incorporate a spindle of ‘D’ section instead of the square model, in future leaving no option for incorrect placement of the flap valve in future.
The finding that the crew had died because of ‘poor drill, ignorance and lack of leadership’ was a harsh judgement. Was it justified ?
The Cazalet Inquiry handled the forensic evidence in a commendably dispassionate and even-handed manner but some evidence was given more weight than other factors by a board consisting of General Service personnel. For the most part Pitt provided the necessary guidance but there were misinterpretations. For a start the Inquiry Report highlighted, ‘Failure to blow all main ballast immediately uncontrolled flooding was apparent‘, as being one of the key ‘mistakes’ made by Noll and his crew.
A glance at his career history would have revealed that Lt. Noll could have arrested an unscheduled dive in his sleep, having spent the Summer and Autumn of 1941 sea-training accident-prone new entrants in Tribune at Blyth. Indeed Noll had competently handled an impromptu dive in Untamed as recently as May 3, 1943 . Arthur Pitt had stressed to the Inquiry that the only real chance Noll ever had of saving his boat had been in blowing Nos. One and Six ballast tanks immediately after the flooding had started. As the spring-loaded accumulator mechanisms had failed during the time the boat was on the bottom and the ballast tanks had subsequently flooded during the salvage process, the forensic evidence was simply absent, as Pitt reported. The Inquiry just assumed the tanks had not been blown but the strong probability is that Noll had indeed blown tanks One and Six, that he had succeeded in bringing the boat to within fifty feet of the surface, only to look on helplessly as the weight of water in the flooding fore-ends forced the bows back down again.
The Inquiry was perhaps more remarkable for the evidence it did not hear as much as the evidence considered. For instance there was no reference in the Report to the background and experience of Noll and his men. Nor was there any examination of factors moulding the decisions taken. This will now be addressed.
Poor Drill and ignorance ?
The crew of Untamed had served together for two months at the time of the accident. Apart from the knot of moderately experienced men drawn from H34, most had come directly from six weeks of sea-training at Blyth, although several had significant experience in General Service. As has already been noted, this was a standard complexion of new-build submarine crews of the period. Captain (S) Five, charged with crew selection was acutely aware of the vulnerability of new crews during the working up/first patrol phase, which normally lasted for five months before a boat was considered ready for operations. Blockhouse placed emphasis on the selection of appropriate petty officers to instill the necessary combination of discipline, backbone and best practice among their charges. Noll himself was an emphatically safety-conscious commander, having seen first hand the effects of battery explosion in a confined space when the Norwegian submarine B1 blew up in Blyth South Harbour on the morning of August 8, 1941. Gordon Noll had been one of a number of Tribune men who had volunteered to go on board in an effort to save the boat. The experience impressed upon him the imperative to instill safety consciousness at all levels of his crew. Those who served with Noll testify he was not a man to take chances, even so he had to play with the cards he had been dealt.
Of the fifteen seamen we might reasonably expect to have been in the fore-ends of Untamed on the afternoon of May 30, the average age was twenty-three, somewhat above average for the period. Further analysis indicates that just seven of these men were classified as Hostilities Only. In five cases the simulated DSEA escape had been waived. It is significant of the two leading seamen, one had joined Untamed directly from General Service (one on a pier head jump) without the benefit of prior service in submarines . With PO Tippett in the control room supervising the hydroplanes, LTO German hospitalised, PO Welfoot down in the auxiliary machinery space wrestling with the Log, it was unfortunate that experience was absent at the very time it was most needed in the fore-ends. With no old hands to, in naval parlance, ‘button down’ the fore-endsmen, some level of panic could easily have ensued once news of flooding spread. As instinct for self-preservation overwhelmed the superficial values taught by scratch training, watertight doors predictably went unsecured and DSEA sets left uncollected.
On 19 August Rear Admiral Barry wrote the following response to the poor drill and ignorance charge leveled by the Cazalet Inquiry:
‘The length of the working up periods of new construction submarines and the general scope of training had been progressively increased throughout the War to meet the ever increasing drop in age and experience of submarine crews…I make no excuse for what occurred but desire to point out that in a war such as this, where expansion has been great and dilution intense, the youth of officers and ratings coupled with the very slight submarine experience of the majority (in comparison with peace standards) is bound to make accidents like this more prone to occur than hitherto’.
The new entrant to life in wartime submarines was immediately confronted with a short, viciously sharp learning curve. Combine this factor with sheer bad luck in the form of absent leading hands, include malfunctioning equipment, bewilderment, natural fear. Add carbon dioxide poisoning undermining the most concentrated of minds and the reader has the seeds of the Untamed disaster. Inexperience does not explain everything away. The Petty Officer who, it can be reasonably assumed, carried out the log examination in such a cavalier fashion, had been one of the most experienced men on the boat. Moreover the salvors discovered the Ottway Log to be perfectly operable condition, hence the focus on ‘poor drill’. Now we have arrived at the salient factor. While poor drill and inexperience were salient factors underlying this tragedy, the reluctance of authority to recognise the dangers posed to submarines by the standard pattern Ottway Log was perhaps a more substantial issue.
The fact remains that had Admiralty contracted for a purpose-designed patent log specific to submarines instead of recycling Ottway Logs designed for General Service, human error/poor drill/ misuse could not have occurred in the first place. A log accident had been widely suspected to have caused the loss of Vandal now it was confirmed as having been behind the loss of Untamed. As a direct result of the Cazalet Report, the Directorate of Naval Construction at long last submitted a log design to W. Ottway Ltd with a simple interlock mechanism fitted between the sluice valve and the tank cover. Given the weight of anecdotal evidence that the Ottway Log was an accident looking for somewhere to happen, it was about time.
Lack of Leadership ?
Junior leadership having been dealt with , we must now turn to the motivations of Gordon Noll in waiting so long before permitting DSEA escape at a time when a rescue vessel lay practically overhead. These motivations must of course remain speculative. Whether Noll acted upon incorrect information about the state of the fore-ends we can only guess. It is highly improbable that Noll was made aware that the blower drain had been left open in the auxiliary machinery space before he took the decision to gamble all on a salvage blow. Unaware of the extent and rapidity of the flooding, in the initial stages of the accident at least, hopes of saving the boat must have seemed well founded. Either way, blame for the fatal delay lies squarely with the submarine commander and an officer of Gordon Noll’s calibre would have had no quarrel with this verdict. The question remains however, what made Noll risk all on saving his boat ?
While Noll would have been acutely aware that the accident might well spell the end of his promising career, we can dismiss from the outset any thoughts that this most conscientious of commanders placed saving his career before the lives of his crew . Rather we must seek the real reasons for Lt. Noll’s actions in the the esprit de corps instilled in all who joined the Submarine Service. As we have seen, Fleet Orders unambiguously stated that a trapped submarine crew must immediately resort to DSEA escape. Yet significant anecdotal evidence indicates this was directly contradicted by values deliberately and systematically inculcated into trainees at Blockhouse and later at Blyth. This indoctrination is a leitmotif in interviews with wartime submariners in the author’s experience. Captain Michael Lumby was one such commander forced to make that decision between immediate escape or delaying to save his boat:
‘There was an absolute unwritten rule that one did not abandon the boat except in extremis, and even then only when all else had failed. You will not find it in orders or memoranda but it was something they absolutely burned into young officers. You see the boat isn’t just your home or your protective shell, rather it is your animus… In my case the order to abandon [Saracen] was straightforward enough …the damage was such that we had no chance of reaching the surface. But what if the damage had not been apparent? In those circumstances I would have opted to stay and try to save the boat… One is constantly evaluating the situation, making contingencies, making sense of reports but the judgement is very fine. I do wonder about those gallant crews who fought to save their boats in hopeless situations only to end up dancing the Valhalla quickstep with carbon dioxide. I only know that reason informed my actions but it went against everything I valued. I felt I had betrayed my boat. I still feel ashamed that I just left her on the bottom. Former members of my crew have written to me expressing the same guilty sentiments. Ludicrous, really, but there you are ‘
It was a credo understood at all levels of the Service. PO Val Wragg survived Triumph‘s brush with a mine on 26 December 1940 in which the boat lost the greater part of her bows .
‘There was really very little chance of escaping by DSEA. On the very few occasions when this might have been possible, priority was always given to saving the boat. Eventually someone might have had the presence of mind to say, ‘Right lads, its time to go !’ but if you have been deprived of oxygen and forced to breathe air heavy with carbon dioxide for hours, it is going to be too late for chaps who can’t think straight or are too weak to follow the drill’
While Noll prioritised saving his boat before ordering immediate DSEA escape, he did so largely in obeisance to this unspoken credo of the Submarine Service. We will never know how many submariners who might otherwise have been able escape, died as a result of this indoctrination.
This said, Noll and his crew were not mere brain-washed automatons singing the Blockhouse tune. Other factors surely entered the decision to delay a DSEA escape. The dismal litany of losses with all hands during wartime (in cases where escape was viable) speaks eloquently of the shortcomings of the DSEA set. By 1943 all but the rawest submarine recruit knew DSEA to be an abject failure in its primary purpose of saving life but discussing such failure was an understandable taboo within the Submarine Service. Noll recognised that DSEA was of highly questionable efficacy, he knew that ten of his men had no sets and on the evidence of the Umpire affair alone, that their chances of survival were minimal. Moreover he would have been acutely aware that several of the Hostilities Only men had not made simulated DSEA escapes during training. Noll likely reasoned that the best, if not the only chance of saving all the crew lay in a salvage blow rather than immediate individual escape. Add to this the uncertainty regarding the fate of the two men sent to repair the faulty door. If these men remained in the fore-ends a salvage blow would surely kill them. In this scenario the reasons why Noll ordered a delay become clearer but having taken this decision, we can observe with the benefit of hindsight, he was tragically mistaken.
The Later Career of P 58 – HMS/M Vitality
Admiralty was not about to waste a wartime submarine . In August 1943 Untamed was towed down the West coast to Vickers Barrow Yard. Water damage aside, the boat was intact. Untamed was internally stripped then refitted. In March 1944 Lt. K. Renshaw RNR was ordered to stand by the boat. On July 19, HMS/M Vitality, the new incarnation of Untamed, sailed for working up exercises in Holy Loch. Her name chosen with just a touch of black humour as direct riposte to the boat’s tragic history. Diving trials took place between July 21 and 22 culminating in the award of a ‘satisfactory’ rating. On 14 August Vitality sailed for Tobermory. A successful deep diving test took place on August 28.
Between 12 and 29 October 1944, Vitality embarked on her first and only patrol. This was an anti-U-boat patrol between the Orkneys and Norway. It was without incident.
On November 4, HMS/M Vitality was designated for Anti Submarine training at Rothesay. The remainder of her career would be spent sea training with the Seventh Flotilla along a routine triangle between Rothesay, Larne and Tobermory. While Admiralty was doubtless conscious of morale factors surrounding Thetis/Thunderbolt‘s demise, the fact was that there were now simply more than enough modern submarines available in theatre, was a more potent factor behind the sidelining of Vitality. The expansion in personnel meant that a training boat was always welcome. Vitality sailed for Blockhouse and the reserve list on August 7, 1945. The boat was later laid up at ‘Derry while Admiralty decided her future. Unwanted, Vitality arrived at Troon on February 24, 1946. Scrapping was complete by July 1947.
There are a few reminders of Untamed/Vitality today. The White Ensign recovered from the flooded boat is held at the Submarine Museum. As previously mentioned, Untamed is remembered with Vandal both on the Sandbank War Memorial and the Castle Gardens tablet in Dunoon. The Scottish Submariners Association holds an annual commemoration of both crews on May 10 . The most enduring reminder of the accident is that line of graves in Dunoon Cemetery. A crew for just two months in life but united as a crew for eternity in death.
The author finds in difficult to see these men as anything but victims. Victims of inexperience, victims of errors of judgement, victims of malfunctioning equipment, victims of bad practice. They were victims of a cynical and complacent authority which saw no contradiction on the one hand in paying lip-service to Fleet Orders demanding immediate escape while on the other, indoctrinating its young crews to prioritise saving the submarine before saving themselves. That same authority knowingly installed an inappropriate patent log designed for surface vessels into its submarines, then expressed surprise to Churchill when the inevitable transpired. By 1944 the new patent log was introduced to all new build submarines as a direct result of the Untamed affair, while Ottway commenced fitting an interlock mechanism into all existing submarine patent logs. This was the one real legacy of the Untamed affair and in future it undoubtedly saved many lives.
Perhaps above all the crew of Untamed was a victim of sheer bad luck because despite the protestations of Barry that undue concern over the accident was unnecessary, the fate which befell these men could in reality have overtaken any one of the new submarine crews.
ADM 1/15066, ADM 173/19419-20322, ADM 173/18433
Plans of Untamed, National Maritime Museum Greenwich, Box VAWB0001, Item 46
Distance run : a history of the patent ship-log , AJ Sharp 1999
© P Armstrong