Cresswell holds its secrets as close as any wartime Admiralty file marked ‘Top Secret’. A casual visitor gazing out to sea from the car park could not begin to imagine the drama that once played out within sight of Cresswell Skerries. As a tale of moral fortitude its right up there with Grace Darling and in more recent times, those men of the Tynemouth lifeboat Henry Vernon who one night in 1914 put their lives on the line to sail all the way down to Whitby to rescue the men trapped on the hospital ship Rohilla. Yet the visitor will search in vain for any memorial to this event. In fact it is fair to state that hardly anyone in or out of the North East knows about it. Even so, there was courage in the air that cold night of April 29, 1940.
The career of the Submarine is provided elsewhere on this site but it can be observed that Unity had been based at Blyth (HMS Elfin) since August 1939. By late April 1940 the Boat had carried out nine wartime patrols, some of them deep inside the Helgoland Bight. The crew of Unity had brought back valuable intelligence. Torpedo attacks had been made, although none was successful and the crew had discovered what it was like to be depth-charged for real. The crew was growing in expertise and confidence with every patrol and Lt. Brown had every reason to be proud of his command.
In the wider theatre the war was not going well for the British. The German invasions of Norway and Denmark had been successful. On April 28 all allied forces would be withdrawn from Norway. The Germans would quickly total establish air superiority over the Norwegian coast, the Kattegat and the Skaggerak thus adding immeasurably to the problems already faced by British submarines operating within Scandinavian waters in long daylight hours. At this juncture Admiralty was unaware that B/Dienst had broken most Royal Navy codes including the submarine code. The Germans did not know precisely which British submarine was heading where but they could make a shrewd and frequently accurate guess. They laid their minefields and planned their air and sea patrols accordingly. The Royal Navy had fought back ferociously. Both general service and the submarine wing had suffered great losses but it return they had inflicted serious and consequential damage on the enemy but the direction of travel was clear to all. Norway and Denmark were lost. The Blyth submarines battled on but the thin grey line was about to get a little thinner.
The FD series of submarine mining operations based upon Blyth and Rosyth were still going ahead though. The Nazis could not claim that the Royal Navy had been defeated and driven away as long as German supply vessels were blowing up on mines laid by Narwhal, Seal and Porpoise. Captain (S) 6 Jock Bethell knew full well these patrols were suicide missions for the crews involved. He resolved to visit Northways in London, headquarters of the fearsome Rear Admiral (S) Max Horton in an attempt to persuade him to call a halt to these missions or at least suspend them before the next lot were due to get underway. Bethell was equally aware that given Horton’s personality, such temerity would likely cost him his job. He was absolutely right. Following a frank exchange of views, Horton sacked Bethell on April 28.
These events seemed far removed from the lives of the Blyth submariners. Lacking reliable alarm clocks the submariners had adopted the ‘knocking up’ system of the miners. One previous morning a young spare crew member, unfamiliar with the layout of HMS Elfin, the shore base at Blyth, had failed to rouse the Engine Room Artificers (ERAs) hut. The ERAs including Rob Roy McCurrach had raced down from the base to No. 5 Dock only to see Unity reversing out into the River Blyth. The normally benign First Lt. John Low was glaring at them from the bridge.
In theory the crime of being absent without leave during wartime when a warship was at harbour stations was punishable by death. However practice was governed by pragmatism and the fact was that the Royal Navy was fast running out of trained submariners. To be ‘adrift’ was nevertheless the most heinous sin any self-respecting submariner could commit. Stoppage of pay or leave or even a spell in the ‘rattle’ was on the cards. Rob Roy was far more concerned at any thought that he had betrayed the much respected Chiefy (Chief ERA or CERA) Alf Potter than any breach of kings regulations. The ERAs were duly ‘crimed’ by Lt. Low but the nature of the punishment depended upon the judgement of the Captain. A particularly hazardous patrol off the Norwegian coast lay ahead and for the moment the patrol took precedence over punishing defaulters. Unity would undertake this mission without her Skipper. Lt. Brown was ill. He would miss this patrol. Lt. Brown’s place was taken by Lt. Francis Brooks, the spare commanding officer at HMS Elfin. Francis Brooks (31) had previously commanded L23 (see entry) but to the crew of Unity, he remained mysterious..
Fog stubbornly curtained the NE coast on the morning of April 29, 1940. With Unity under sailing orders, conditions were so dreadful it was widely anticipated that sailing times would be postponed as the local coastguard and SNO (Senior Naval Officer) Tyne advised. The sea lanes were simply not safe. The decision was taken to postpone Unity’s departure until 17:30hrs in the hope that the fog might clear but visibility actually deteriorated. It will be recalled that Captain (S) 6 Bethell had been sacked the previous day and none of the senior naval officers present at the base felt able to step in to further postpone the mission.
As usual the Signals Distribution Office at the base was buzzing with activity that afternoon. Teleprinters tapped out intelligence gleaned from submarine patrols, vital minefield updates (QZHs) from Dundee, Rosyth and Harwich as well as last minute communications from Horton’s Northways HQ. Each submarine had its own message tray in the office. It was the responsibility of the senior telegraphist on the submarine to check each tray before sailing. A wren messenger sat poised on a motorbike outside the office. In the event of a last minute message coming through, the wren would ride at speed down to the South Harbour to intercept the boat before it sailed. Staff Officer (Ops) was on hand to advise a captain in the event of last minute queries arising from any communication.
Submarine crews about to depart on patrol were routinely ferried down to the South Harbour from the base in the back of a Ferguson’s lorry, RAF style. The commissioned officers and petty officers usually arrived several hours earlier to run through their duties and check equipment.
The responsibility of ‘letting go’ a submarine in the South Harbour, Blyth normally fell to the duty petty officer. On April 29, 1940 this was PO Telegraphist Norman Drury of HMS Sturgeon, a submariner of vast experience. Norman was unable to see from one side of the South Harbour to the other. He was appalled to learn that Unity was to sail at 17:30 as scheduled. Let go forward and let go aft, the small submarine was immediately out of sight as she rounded the harbour wall.
Submarines operating in Home Waters were routinely ordered to ‘Proceed with Dispatch’ during this period. This was universally interpreted to mean that a submarine must travel on the surface, harnessing the power of its diesel engines. Lt Brooks, who took up position on the bridge, was keen to maintain a steady eight knots. Lt. Trickey.
“At 17:50 Unity rounded the fairway buoy and a course of 070 degrees was set to make a position in the centre of the main swept channel. By 18:30 the marker buoy coded 20 R was located signifying the Boat had now entered the main East Coast Swept Channel and a course of 345 degrees was set”
From this point onward the Boat would travel up the Swept Channel until St. Abb’s Head was reached. Having reached this location Unity would adopt a NNE course to approach the coast of Southern Norway. Independent merchant ships and convoy stragglers might be anticipated in the main East Coast Channel but Brooks did not order the siren to be sounded. After all he had received no warnings of convoys or any other vessels likely to hazard the Boat’s progress. At 19:00 Lt. George Hunt, Unity‘s Navigation Officer and three relief look-outs stepped out onto the bridge. The men they were about to relieve were straining their eyes looking for Buoy 20 F. Under the pressing circumstances (and the lack of room on the bridge) the ratings were sent back down the ladder. Relief was postponed until the Buoy was located but Lt. Hunt remained on the bridge to join the search.
All of a sudden at 19:07 the silence was pierced by a low mournful wail and the men on the bridge knew its significance only too well,
‘Christ, a ship and she’s close !’.
Yet more wails signified that Unity was sharing the Channel with a convoy. Should that convoy be sailing South, there was every possibility of a collision. Lt. Brooks acted quickly, ordering down the voice pipe that the wheel should be put hard over, sounding Unity‘s own feeble siren in the process. The look-outs stared through the fog, willing the outline of the ship to emerge from the fog-bank so that avoiding action could be taken. A second wail boomed out, this time so close it was deafening. Looming out of the fog like some monstrous apparition reared the bows of a merchantman. The ship was an estimated 50 metres (165’) away. Collision was inevitable and the impact was but seconds away. The men on the bridge were momentarily transfixed with disbelief but Brooks ordered Trickey to call out down the voice-pipe,
‘COLLISION STATIONS. PREPARE TO ABANDON SHIP !’
Lt. Trickey, “At 19:09 I saw a merchant ship about 25 degrees on the port bow, about 30 yards distant, which seemed to be steering across the bow. The engines were put full astern and three short [whistle] blasts were made. At 19:10 the merchant struck the port bow about the bulkhead in the fore-ends. The speed of the other ship appeared to be 4 knots. The impact was gentle. I estimate our position to have been 55° 13.5′ N 1° 19 W”
Unity was struck in the vicinity of the port forward hydroplane. Both casing and pressure hull were sliced through. The North Sea was already flooding into the auxiliary machinery space below the floor. ERA (Engine Room Artificer) Rob Roy McCurrach was enjoying a cigarette in the ERA’s mess when the incredible order reached him. Concluding it was nothing more than an exercise a collective groan broke out in the engine room, for the sailors resented any interruptions of their otherwise ordered lives.
“I felt a bump up for’rard – no worse than coming alongside with an inexperienced boat handler. Chiefy Potter galvanised into action. he shot through the control room to grab the engine room bulkhead door just as a sprog seaman was about to shut it“
Had Leading Seaman Hare (an experienced sailor but a newcomer to submarines) closed the door before the men in the engine room had a chance to shut down the diesel engines, they would surely have been asphyxiated. Down in the motor room, Leading Seaman William ‘Pusser’ Hill scarcely remembered the impact.
“I received the order, ‘Full speed astern both’, and it was carried out at once. We were still going astern when the First Lieutenant opened the door and gave the order, ‘Abandon Ship’ both of us, myself and Miller, made to move forward to obey that order. Miller had preceded me slightly when I received the order to ‘Stop starboard’, I went back and stopped starboard then I picked up two life-belts, throwing one to Miller”
One by one the crew filed into the control room then up the ladder onto the bridge, where Brooks and Trickey directed them down to the aft casing. Not all were aware that the emergency was for real,
“Sitting in the mess watching all the activity and fearful of being in someone’s way I heard Nat ask, ‘You staying Bob ?’ I heard the engines being stopped and shut down. Charlie Foster and ‘Dusty’ Miller came into the control room from aft. The First Lieutenant stood at the foot of the control room ladder,
‘Can we take a couple of DSEA sets ?’
‘Take anything you like’ replied Lt. Low. Anything I liked ? I looked round quickly. I’d like a sextant, a pair of binoculars and a telescope. I wouldn’t mind the engine room clock. After all it had governed my life night and day, awake or asleep”
As Rob Roy dithered over his choice of souvenirs, he became aware of the wardroom steward urging him up the ladder,
‘Up you go Bob’ ‘No, no, up you go. You were here first‘
‘Six feet of water showing on the guage’, called out Lt. Low‘ I glanced around quickly. Nothing looked wrong. All lights on, the mess neat and tidy. Curtains a bit off centre and we were slightly bows-down. I went up to the bridge and heard the Captain shout,
‘I MUST HAVE THE MAIN MOTORS STOPPED !’
But of course, those propellers would mince us. Knowing how to stop them I shouted, ‘Right Sir, I’ll go’ and turned to re-enter the boat, nearly treading on ‘Dusty’ Miller’s head. Having heard the last order he said, I’ll go Bob, I’m better placed'”
As ‘Dusty’ clambered back down the ladder to join Lt. Low, Rob Roy stepped down from the bridge to the aft casing,
‘Water filled my shoes so I kicked them off. Through my stockinged feet I felt the propeller vibrations stop. I knew I could now swim away to safety. The sea was bitterly cold – so cold it took my breath away. Silly thoughts
ran through my head such as, ‘I bet I catch a chill’ or ‘what i really need is a piece of my mother’s blackberry and apple pie’ . I wanted company. ‘Pusser’ Hill was lying on his back, ears underwater, so I reached out and pulled his hair, ‘Pusser have you got a lifebelt ?’ ‘No’, ‘a DSEA set ?’, ‘No, not a thing. You ok ?’
We trod water and saved our breath. The bow was well underwater now and lacking the restraining power of the motors on full astern”.
Without warning at 19:29 the stern swung up to a near vertical position, it remained motionless for a few seconds, then with her White Ensign still flying, HM S/M Unity plunged to the bottom of the North Sea taking John Low and Henry Miller with her. There was no time for the men in the water to dwell upon matters. Rob Roy McCurrach,
“There was no break in the waves just a strong oily swell. At the top of one I saw a lifeboat. I grabbed ‘Pusser’ and yelled, ‘Come on !’ ‘Swim !’ We headed for the direction of the lifeboat and were making progress when it altered course. This was quite demoralising”
Rob Roy and ‘Pusser’ had drifted dangerously far from the main knot of swimmers. All around miniature acts of heroism were being played out. A man was drowning, his hands raised in a final act of resignation when Stoker Burville swam over to support him, risking his own life in the process. As the last man had jumped from the conning tower, Unity had lurched over trapping Charlie Foster against the bridge telegraphs. CERA Potter had spotted his predicament, refusing to leave him even though the Boat was gathering speed in her plunge to the bottom. Potter managed to pull Foster’s DSEA set over his head as he frantically set about freeing him from the repeater bar. Both men were dragged down some distance before the formation of an air bubble allowed Potter to unhook Charlie. Both men surfaced together but Foster was in a bad way, having failed to follow DSEA drill by opening the valve on his set. Meanwhile Burville and the drowning man had reached the safety of a lifeboat and were heading towards Potter and Foster when a third man in serious difficulties was spotted. Without hesitation Burville clambered back into the frigid sea. He swam over to the man and hauled him back to the lifeboat. Lts. Hunt and Trickey chose to remain in the water until every last man was safe. This was a particularly courageous decision on the part of Trickey who could not swim. Eventually Rob Roy and ‘Pusser’ caught up with the rest
“At last we made it to a lifeboat and clung onto the gunwales. Whacked. To my right and in an equally sorry state bobbed the Captain. ‘Give us a hand !’ shouted ‘Pusser’ but they just sat there like numbed frozen effigies. Exhausted.’ I can’t hang on much longer, Mac. Can you pull me up ?’ I shook my head, ‘No’. ‘Look, push my left foot up and hook my heel over the gunwale’. ‘Pusser’ did this and with a great effort I managed to scramble into the boat. Then I turned and pulled him. Between us we did the same for the Captain”
They found themselves opposite CERA Alf Potter and Charlie Foster, who although not yet dead, appeared to be on the brink.
“Charlie Foster lay in front of me, slumped in a heap, out cold, unconscious, a flat DSEA set strapped on his chest. A green slime was oozing from his open mouth. He looked near to death. Suddenly a tin of Grey’s cigarettes was thrust under my nose and someone asked me, ‘Smoke?’ I took one gratefully. Now that was clever. How did he keep them dry ? The matches too ! I puffed away luxuriously”
Even Charlie Foster had revived. Following a deep draw on a cigarette he was observed to be, ‘full of beans’.
The 1,173 ton Atle Jarl (Master: Baltzer Thorsen) had left the Fife port of Methil that morning, sailing in Convoy MT61 bound for North Shields. Ship and Submarine had been mutually oblivious to the presence of the other until moments before the impact. Thorsen had glimpsed the White Ensign and decided it was his duty to turn back. Turning within a convoy took considerable nautical skill as did estimating the likely position of survivors from the drift of the current viewed through a curtain of fog and darkness. Nevertheless within fifteen minutes Atle Jarl did return to the scene and lowered boats in an effort to rescue the men in the water, her searchlights stabbing through the darkness. It took twenty-five minutes to rescue the men in the water. Atle Jarl was not fitted with a radio and all touch had been lost with the other ships in MT 60. Thorsen was unable to alert the authorities until the Ship anchored in the mouth of the Tyne. All told four men were missing, Lt. John Low (29), Stoker Miller (39), Leading Seaman James Hare (25) and Stoker Cecil Shelton (21). All are remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. The last two were known to have purchased boots sold off at a bargain price by Blyth fire station. They had been observed to be wearing these boots when they entered the water. Alf Potter had also bought a pair but discarded them prior to slipping over the side. The survivors solemnly concluded that the waterlogged boots were responsible for dragging the missing men under.
Eventually a bus arrived to ferry the survivors back to Blyth but CERA Alf Potter did not join them. Instead he embarked on a fast RAF launch to the main Swept Channel off Cresswell to the estimated position of the collision. Here for several hours he used powerful hydrophones to listen for any sign of tapping, desperate for any indications that Low and Miller were trapped but alive. Potter knew however that in these circumstances the men would have reverted to immediate DSEA escape. Even if they succeeded in reaching the surface there would have been nobody to pluck them to safety. The fruitless vigil ended in the early hours. Lt. Brooks personally broke the bad news to Marjory Low, then serving as a Wren Officer at HMS Elfin. A telegram was dispatched to Mrs Miller too, advising that the Submarine Service had claimed yet another of her sons, his birth caul having failed to protect him. Next day Rob Roy McCurrach attended a compulsory medical check up.
“The M.O. asked me ‘How do you feel ?’ I was tempted to say tired, jubilant, sad, cross…that I had become enormously attached to that little boat and its people, that I had lost a significant part of that which makes me tick. That I had survived a brush with death and there’s nothing like it for making you aware how good it feels to be alive. As it was, knowing that survivors automatically get fourteen days leave, I replied ‘Fine Sir’. I was in two minds to add, ‘Ask me when I get back'”
A needless catastrophe had cost the lives of four trained submariners and the loss of a sorely needed modern submarine. Someone was responsible for this needless tragedy, but who ?
On May 23 Admiralty held an Inquiry into the loss of Unity at HMS Elfin. Each witness was examined and cross-examined. It rapidly became clear that Lt Brooks had been totally unaware of the South-bound convoy. This was odd because there was evidence that a signal warning of this convoy had been received by the Elfin Signals Distribution Office well before Unity was due to sail. There were two key questions; why had Lt. Brooks not been informed of Signal 1428/29/4 And if the Skipper had not known about its contents, had anyone else ?
The Chief Yeoman of Signals at Blyth, Christopher Reading recalled watching the signal come tapping through the teleprinter and he made sure of placing it in the appropriate pigeon hole ready for collection by Tom Moon (25) Unity’s Signalman. Signalman Walter Warren remembered seeing the signal awaiting collection at 16:00hrs when he came off duty. Warren’s relief, Telegraphist Percy Marks however maintained there was no sign of the signal when he took up station in the Distribution Office. When a submarine was at harbour stations at Blyth it was the signalman’s responsibility to collect all signals from the pigeonhole then to hand them to the first lieutenant prior to sailing. The evidence of Thomas Moon was therefore of crucial importance to the Inquiry. Moon’s career to date had been exemplary. ‘Shiner’ Moon was insistent that he had no knowledge whatsoever of Signal
428/29/4. He was certain it had not been among the bundle of ‘Q7’ messages he had collected from the Signal Distribution Office then handed to Lt. Low. Obviously the Inquiry was at a major disadvantage in that all the hard evidence had gone down with the boat, as had that other key witness, Lt. Low. Without Low, Moon’s evidence could neither be confirmed nor disproved. Yet not all available evidence was considered.
Only officers and selected ratings were called to give evidence. The court did not hear the disturbing stories of signals regularly being found in the wrong pigeonholes or messages ending up on the wrong submarine. Signals warning of convoy movements frequently went astray (as the crew of Spearfish, Sturgeon and Swordfish discovered in the course of their own near misses with convoys while operating from Blyth). In fact the court was remarkably selective in terms of the evidence it chose to consider. A civil court would likely have reached an open verdict but this was not a civil court. Rear Admiral Max Horton summarised the conclusion;
‘It appears most probable that the signal was in fact read by Leading Signalman Moon, who failed to show it to the Commanding Officer. I consider however that the probability of obtaining a conviction of this rating for the offence is remote and that the assembly of a court martial is not justified under present conditions’ Max Horton 567/SM172
That was not quite that. Lt. Francis Brooks was censured for his failure to discuss last minute developments with the Elfin staff officer prior to sailing. It was also noted that Unity had been sailing at eight knots at the time of the collision in bad visibility. This was considered to have been too fast under the circumstances. Yet every submarine commander in the Royal Navy faced with patrol instructions to ‘proceed with dispatch’ knew full well that order required the boat to travel at the highest speed its engines would allow. At no stage did the Inquiry see fit to question why the Boat had been allowed to sail in the first place in such atrocious conditions.
Captain J. Voelcker had assumed command of the Six Submarine Flotilla and duties of Naval Officer in Command, Blyth on the previous day but he had not been present at HMS Elfin on April 29. No officer had intervened to halt Unity‘s departure. While there was glowing praise for the way in which the crew had conducted themselves, among the lower deck at least there was a lingering suspicion that the proceedings had been a whitewash. By deflecting the lion’s share of blame onto a rating, it did not go unnoticed that Admiralty had deftly sidestepped some potentially embarrassing questions. The wardroom was rather more circumspect in its opinions.
As the old Unity crew was broken up and dispersed to stand by two submarines Upright and Utmost, then under construction. Lt. George Hunt went on to command Ultor, one of the most successful of British submarines and he survived the War. Thomas Moon would be drafted to Utmost where he served with distinction under the ace, Lt. Cdr. ‘Harmonica Dick’ Cayley. Both men would lose their lives when the Boat was lost with all hands in early 1943. Following a spell in command of both Upright and Utmost, Francis Brooks was transferred to the Admiralty Operations Division Staff. Lt. Cdr. Brooks died in a Mosquito crash on June 3, 1943, aged 32.
As for Rob-Roy McCurrach, he was handed a draft-chit for Fort Blockhouse, Gosport. Rob Roy would ultimately join the crew of Tigris and later, Safari. He would earn a DSM** reach the rank of CERA and become one of the Royal Navy’s most experienced submariners. He would survive the War but lose many of his friends. However all that lay in the future. Blyth had been his home for the past six traumatic months and now it was time to say goodbye to the people who had shown him such kindness,
“I packed my kit then joined Cookem for one last run ashore in Blyth. We went to Seghini’s for coffee then, just like the old time took all six girls to the cinema, walked them back home and then stepped out to the Watson’s for a very special supper. Mr and Mrs Watson were in tears when I left. They admonished me to be careful and to come back soon. This to my eternal regret, I never managed to do”
As seasoned submariners, John Low and Henry Miller would have been acutely aware of the risk they were taking in remaining inside the boat while their twenty-seven colleagues were evacuating it. Both would have known they had minutes to escape the boat once the motors were turned off. One eye-witness account states that both men were last seen entering the engine room bulkhead door, pausing to close it behind them in the knowledge that if they stuck to their task, they had no chance of getting out. They sacrificed their own lives to save their mates. Their courage was initially rewarded with the British Empire Medal but this was later exchanged for the George Cross. The citation reads as follows;
‘‘Able Seaman Henry Miller and Lieutenant John Low, R.N., were on duty in the control room of their submarine Unity when the vessel was struck by the Norwegian Freighter, Atle Jarl, in the North Sea. The submarine began to sink and the order to abandon ship had been called, Low and Miller assisted every member of the submarine to escape, except for themselves. Both received the same posthumous award for these actions.’
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. John 13:15
Unity of course always be here. In a very real sense she has become part of the Northumberland coast, now supporting a carpet of plumose anemones and soft corals. She lies over on her starboard side in fifty-five metres of sea. The fore casing and pressure hull have rotted away revealing torpedoes still in their tubes and the reload torpedoes remain in the racks. The stern hatch is partially open, raising the possibility that Low and Miller attempted a DSEA escape. Classified as a War Grave, HM S/M Unity is an intact and fitting tribute to the time capsuled heroes within.
Sources; In Fear and Affection – Rob Roy McCurrach, ADM 358/3639 – Inquiry into the loss of Unity, interviews with Norman Drury, Rob Roy McCurrach, Joe Blamey, Michael Lumby, Aston Piper all RN rtd.
© P Armstrong