Black Christmas I – Whatever happened to HMS Seahorse ?

I have no idea whether it (a copy) is still there but in terms of NE wartime legends it’s up there with the Bradford brothers and HMS Kelly – the bottle of Johnny Walker whisky above the bar in the Astley Arms, Seaton Sluice. It is not for sale, rather it is one of Britain’s more remarkable war memorials.

The original Seahorse Bottle resides in the Submarine Museum

You probably know the story but in any case it goes like this. On Christmas night 1939 the pub is full of submariners. They hold a sweep-stake, the prize a bottle of whisky. The bottle is won by ERA ‘Tug’ Wilson of HM S/M Seahorse, only he can’t drink it. None of the crew can because they are due out on patrol next afternoon.

Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Len ‘Tug’ Wilson aged 23

Landlady Lydia Jackson reassures ‘Tug’ and his mates that she will keep it until they return. There is the sting. They don’t return. Seahorse sails out of Blyth piers and into oblivion. Miss Jackson keeps the bottle of whisky on a shelf above the bar, just in case ‘Tug’ and the lads ever return….

The Astley Arms, former shrine of Blyth submariners

The original bottle was there until 1971 when Lydia Jackson retired. Knowing full well that an indifferent brewery would simply allow her successor to dispose of it (a skip full of submarine memorabilia was discovered in a back yard in the early 80s) instead she presented it to the Submarine Museum, where it remains a revered exhibit to this day.

The Seahorse Bottle Label

First hearing the story of this bottle as a child, as an adult I sought to discover the real story behind the HMS/M Seahorse and ERA ‘Tug’ Wilson. I soon found out that there was far more to this poignant story and that it lay at the heart of arguably the greatest disaster ever to befall the Submarine Service, one that saw three Blyth submarines lost in little more than a week in that Black Christmas of 1939

Rob Roy McCurrach was in the spare ERA pool at Blyth in December 1939. His hut mate Lawrie Lawrenson had also been in the spare pool but had been given a ‘pier head jump’ to Seahorse due out on Boxing Day. This is his account:

Seahorse crew in 1939

“We had plenty of mince pies and pudding left over, so I took some with me and walked down to Seahorse at the Middle Jetty. Lawrie was stowing his steaming kit as ‘Tug’ Wilson said, ‘Great fun ashore last night. We ran a sweep-stake and guess what, we won a bottle of whisky !’

A swindle from the word go !’ added Billy Packer, stepping into the mess for a moment. ‘Not a real swindle, Billy, said Wilson, the civvies won one as well. Miss Jackie’s going to keep our bottle until we get back’, then, said Billy, ‘a party !’. He rolled his eyes and drank from an imaginary glass.

‘Anyway, thanks for the mince pies’ and he went off stuffing one into his mouth. Smith came into the mess, ‘Hello Mac, you coming with us ? Better look slippy. All ashore that’ going ashore !’

I made my way through the boat and gingerly walked across the greasy plank, turned and stood on the jetty to watch their departure. Soon that would be me off on patrol.

Seahorse leaving Blockhouse 1930s Note ‘duck’s arse’ stern configuration

The wire ropes were quickly cleared, the seamen doing this dressed in filthy white sweaters and blue inflated life belts. I saw Smith on the bridge running the telegraphs backwards and forwards, the repeaters ringing out in the cold night air. He waved to me and went below. Shortly after the Captain appeared on the bridge, well-wrapped in a vast duffle coat. Gradually the activity lessened. Seahorse was ready to slip. The telegraphs rang in earnest. Dirty water swirled around the stern then stopped. The bow of the boat slid away from the catamaran. More rings, fainter now as she moved forward. A sudden puff of smoke as Lawrie’s engine rumbled into life. The other started and she swung to leave harbour as the men on the casing made their way down into the boat. I stood and watched till she reached the far wall.”

HMS/M Seahorse slipped out of Blyth Harbour and into oblivion

And that was that. No whisky. No party. No Seahorse. Admiralty tried to keep a lid on the fact that three boats were now overdue but the Dockyard knew. Soon Blyth locals were beginning to sense that something was up. Rumours were spreading fast. Diane Massy-Dawson living with a mining family in Seaton Sluice and the Rev Cockburn were pleading for information.

The contingent of Royal Marines guarding the base were invited to a tea hosted by the local Rotarians. It was soon discovered that the feast had been intended for the missing submarine crews and the hosts did not want to waste the food. The Marines turned the invitation down. The crew of Ursula enjoyed ‘big eats’ in their place.

Ruth Strong, fiance of Jack Dunwell was about to get married. By Friday January 12 all the wedding arrangements had been made. Invitations had been sent out. Presents were arriving daily. All that was missing was the Groom. Ruth knew something was seriously wrong. Jack always rang her from the base as soon as he went ashore. This time there had been no reassuring call to end the anxiety. Consumed with dread but wishing to resolve her anguish, Ruth plucked up the courage to ring the Blyth office. Unfortunately not even Captain (S) 6, Jock Bethell himself could have given Ruth or any other of the dependents the news they craved. Seahorse had not been seen or heard from since she slipped out of Blyth on Boxing Day.

Hamburg Radio provided the answer. On January 16, 1940 it triumphantly announced that three British submarines had been sunk in the Helgoland Bight, two, Starfish and Undine were named. Unable to suppress news of the disaster any longer, an Admiralty communique reporting the disaster was read out to a stunned House of Commons. Late that night the BBC made the following announcement:


The padre held a service next morning at Blyth. Bethell turned out the entire base. For many present the closing prayer, ‘Oh Eternal Lord God who alone spreadest out the heavens and rulest the raging of the seas, be pleased to receive into thy almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us thy servants and the fleet in which we serve…‘ must have had an added poignancy. Those who had earlier cheered Ursula’s success now saw the other side of the coin as jubilation turned to mourning. After the service the padre gathered some leading seamen for a peculiarly naval tradition, Opening lockers. ‘Dead men’s defects’ were sieved and sorted. Suspect letters were destroyed. Anything that could be returned to the families was parcelled up. Pornographic material, clothing and anything else remotely desirable was auctioned off in the mess with the money going to the next of kin.

Initially flickers of hope had been raised by a cruel rumour that the crews of all three had been taken prisoner but these embers were quenched when next of kin received Admiralty telegrams advising that the crew of Seahorse must now be presumed dead. Ruth Strong received hers on January 18, the day she was to have married Jack Dunwell.

Rob Roy sent the effects of Lawrie Lawrenson back to his mother:

“I parcelled up his gear thinking stupidly, ‘Sorry about this madam but we’ve lost your only son. Careless of us. First boat, first patrol’ Lawrie hadn’t left much money so enclosed ten one -pound notes with my letter. I said I would come and see her (something I never managed) I kept his leather wallet and his cap – which I wore for the rest of the War”

Whatever Happened to HMS Seahorse then ?

Three possibilities emerge from close analysis;

1) she was mined in the Blyth roads

2) she was destroyed by German anti submarine units on 7 January

3) she was mined while travelling towards her patrol zone (billet) in the Helgoland Bight.

What was Seahorse ordered to do ? Massy-Dawson was ordered to ‘proceed with dispatch’ ie the boat was to travel on the surface on its diesel engines, to Zone E off the Danish coast. On the night of 29/30 it was to make its way into Zone B, the very dangerous Helgoland Bight. Seahorse was to patrol the Bight for five days before making its way North back to Zone E, where it was to remain for a further three days. The boat was expected to return to Blyth on 10 January.

As the boat approached enemy controlled waters the patrol routine was for the boat to remain submerged during daylight hours powered by its motors. Only during nightfall would the Submarine surface to drive ahead on its engines. As always the Captain, Dennis Massy-Dawson decided how far to go, when to attack etc based upon the likely danger and chances of success.

The possibility that Seahorse was mined on her own doorstep could not easily be dismissed

The Germans had launched a major mining campaign against the NE and its effects were utterly devastating. U-22 had laid mines off Blyth with the intention of destroying submarines operating from the Port (See ‘A Tale of Two U-boats). Seahorse failed to acknowledge a wireless transmission sent on 27 December, lending some plausibility to the theory that she was mined on her own doorstep. Seahorse would have proceeded on the surface via the Blyth Channel and into the East Coast Swept Channel. Neither the St Mary’s Light keeper nor any of the auxiliary patrol vessels reported a submarine blowing up but given the intense enemy mining activity during this period, they were dealing with acute problems of their own. While mining in the Tyne roads remains a possibility, the waters around the Swept Channel have been heavily dived and no submarine wreck has been reported…yet.

Seahorse probably after her launch as one of the Chatham sheds can be seen in the background

On 16 January 1940 Hamburg Radio announced the destruction of three British submarines in the Helgoland Bight area. Two were known to be Undine and Starfish and the third was assumed to be Seahorse. In the post war years German primary sources became available and Admiralty was keen to discover what had happened.

The account of the German 1st Mine-sweeping Flotilla. In the immediate post war years it was thought this unit had destroyed Seahorse but detailed analysis in the 1980’s proves this to have been impossible. Note the original attribution to Seahorse has been scribbled out.

On 7 January 1940 units of the German 1st Minesweeping Flotilla had carried out an attack on an intruding submarine – or what they took to be an intruding submarine deep in the Helgoland Bight (Zone B) This was very close to where Ursula had made her attack on Leipzig in her mid December patrol. It was assumed, without detailed analysis that the target of this attack had been Seahorse. It is certainly correct that Seahorse ought to have been in the vicinity, though crucially bearing in mind her orders, not at the time of the attack. Had Seahorse survived her journey into Zone B she would have picked her way North and made the crossing into Zone E on the night of 5/6 January. It is highly unlikely that Massy-Dawson would have kept the boat so long in the highly patrolled waters of the Bight. It is equally worth pointing out that this attack took place in the early afternoon and only in the most extreme of circumstances would a British submarine surface so deep in enemy territory during daylight hours. In this light the German report loses credibility from the outset. A translation of the German report is given above . It is obvious that the Germans did not think they had destroyed a submarine in this attack, indeed there is every probability that the victim of this attack was either an old wreck or an underwater rock formation. German divers failed to find a submarine wreck in the position and contemporary divers have equally failed to locate a submarine here.

We can be equally dismissive of a claim that Seahorse was sunk by the German Sperrbrecher IV/Oakland south-east of Helgoland on 29 December 1939. This vessel opened fire on a presumed periscope with a 20mm gun and though an oil slick was seen, the water was only 24-metres deep and no depth charges were dropped. As we know, Seahorse was ordered not to transit between zone E and zone B until 29 December. Unless Massy-Dawson blatantly disobeyed his orders, Seahorse ought to have been off the Danish coast at this juncture. Fortunately in 1985, Mr Bob Coppock of the Admiralty Historical Branch (Foreign Documents Section) carried out a major analysis into the loss of Seahorse, cross referencing the experiences of previous British submarines in these waters with German records and the orders issued to Lt Massy-Dawson.

The likely track of Seahorse on her last patrol, calculated by reference to patrol orders and previous patrols in this sector. The green course South would have taken her clear of the minefields, without directive to the contrary, she took the red course and into purple oblivion
The deadliest mines lay under the surface

Seahorse (Lt Dennis Massy-Dawson) left Blyth at 15:30 on 26 December. It would have taken her two days (sailing on the surface) to reach the North tip of the German Declared Area. Her orders were to remain in Zone E until the night of 29/30 December when she was to commence her journey into Zone B, the Helgoland Bight. Admiralty knew from Coastal Command reports that the Southern part of Zone E and much of Zone B had been heavily mined by the Germans but they did not know the location of the mines. HMS/M Ursula had brought back valuable intelligence regarding a safe channel through these minefields. This intelligence was processed by Admiralty. Undine, Starfish and Unity were ordered to take a course well to the East of the 7 degree line (green) but this directive was not issued to Seahorse when she left on patrol. In fact Admiralty was unaware that a field known to the Germans as ‘Sperre b Martha Eins’ consisting of 960 mines had been laid between Esbjerg and Horns Reef, just North of the junction between British Zones E and B.

All told, this formed a 20 mile long wall, two to four mines deep in a depth of 30m (100′). 70 odd miles beyond this obstruction lay another wall, ‘Stripe F’ consisting of 600 mines and beyond that again lay ‘Stripe D’ with 700 mines. A surfaced submarine could conceivably slip over these mines at high water but they would be fatal to a dived boat. Seahorse should have returned to Blyth on 10 January. We know that she failed to acknowledge transmissions made on both 27 December and 7 January. The latter may be more significant than the former.

Armstrong, Eric, Yeoman of Signals, 36Lawrenson, Desmond, ERA4 23
Baker, John, Lt, 28Lee, Phillip, PO. Sto. 34
Bazley, Herbert, Tel. 25Marshall, John Sto 1 29
Cain, Arthur, AB, 24Massy-Dawson, Lt. OC.
Clatworthy, Ulric, PO. 31Mayne, Richard, AB.
Cockburn, Alex, Warrant Eng. 33Morgan, Alfred, L/Smn.
Coit, George, L/Sto, 36Packer, William, ERA.3, 27
Combe, John, Tel. 25Perham, Donald, Stoker1
Comer, John, L/Sto. 27Phipps, Joseph, L/Sto. 27
Dunwell, Jack, L/Smn.Pugh, Arthur, PO. Tel. 30
Eldridge, Walter, Signalman, 38Skilling, Albert, PO.35
Eyre, Frank, L/Smn. Smith, Archie,ERA.3 25
Fleming, John, Lt. 25Stanton, Syd, AB.
Hines, Reg, L/Sto 21Steventon, Alec, AB. 26
Hyde, John, Sto 1, 27Summers, Ernest, ERA.3 28
Jenkinson, James, Tel.37Thain, William, Lt. RNR.
Kewell, John L/Sto 25Watson, Ernest, Stoker 1, 39
Wesson, Richard, AB. 31Westbury, Eustace, AB. 31
White, John, PO. 33Wilson, Leonard, ERA4, 23
Windley, Harry, AB.23

If we make the reasonable assumption that Seahorse survived the North Sea crossing and her billet in Zone E, this would mean Massy-Dawson would follow his orders and commence the journey to Zone B at dusk in the expectation of surfacing at nightfall just after 16:00 on 29 December. In other words, if Massy-Dawson opted for the more direct route (and there is no reason to think that he did not) there is every probability that Seahorse crossed ‘Stripe b’ mine barrier while submerged. Even the event of Seahorse successfully crossing this minefield surfaced in darkness, fields F and D would still have to be negotiated while submerged the following day. The chances of Seahorse detonating a mine while submerged on 29/30 December were very high.

Postscript: About fifteen years ago I encountered an ex naval diver carrying out research at the Submarine Museum. He told me that a battered, mined submarine wreck had been discovered off the Danish coast. The wreck was in a bad condition but sufficient survived to identify it as an ‘S’ class boat. Only one ‘S’ class boat is still missing in those waters. Certainly the diver believed it was the wreck of Seahorse. In order to preserve the boat from the depredations of sports divers, the location of this shallow water wreck was being withheld…it still is.

So, next Boxing Day when you are recovering from the previous day’s excess have a hair of the dog and raise a glass of Johnny Walker to that fine crew of Seahorse, on patrol for eternity.

Resurgam !

FDS 327/85 NHB, T10223142-722,
ADM 358/3606

‘In Fear and Affection’ Rob Roy McCurrach

© P Armstrong