The Story of the Blyth Submarine Base 1939-45 2. One Big Happy Undersea Family

Big ships we never cared for,
Destroyers you can keep,
There is only one place where we know
That is way down deep
Underneath the surface
We dream our dreams away
Underneath the surface on battery boards we lay
There you’ll always find us,
Tired out and worn
Waiting for the coxs’n to wake us
With the sound of the klaxon horn’
Tune: ‘Underneath the Arches’

To clamber down the ladder and enter the bowels of a submarine was, for the uninitiated, to penetrate a bewildering metal jungle of valves, gauges and handwheels. The visitor would first notice the smell of diesel oil with undertones of bluebell polish, rotting cabbage and sweaty clothing. It should not be forgotten that the submarine was a home as well as a weapon. Whatever their class the general layout of a submarine varied little; tube space forr’ad, engine room aft, with the control room sandwiched between [Fig 3].

Fig 3 Layout of U class Unity, Undine and Ursula

The control room was crammed with all equipment needed to dive, navigate and fight with the vessel.

The Control Room. Hydroplane operators on left with back of helmsman visible behind First Lieutenant. Seamen ratings were detailed off to operate the hydroplanes but the men in this image appear to be petty officers. IWM

In most places it was possible for an adult to stand upright but in others it was necessary to duck if head injury was to be avoided. The helmsman was fortunate in that he was one of three ratings provided with a seat, in his case against the forward bulkhead, directly under the voice-pipe leading up to the bridge. The other ratings likewise blessed were the two hydroplane (horizontal rudder) operators, one controlling the fore ‘planes, the other the aft ‘planes. The fore planes governed the submarine’s depth while the aft planes regulated the angle of the boat. Hydroplane control was a demanding task requiring the operators to work in tandem. During patrol routine ordinary ratings would be detailed off to work the ‘planes but during diving stations the job of working the aft ‘plane was always given to the coxswain.

Control Room of Seraph. Lt. N. Jewell at the periscope. Note the telegraphist in the right corner. In the smaller submarines there was no sealed-off cabinet for the telgraphist and his equipment. The image, taken in the South Harbour prior to a refit, is posed

The diving panel was also found in the control room. Operated by the outside ERA (aka outside Tiffy or ‘outside wrecker’, so called because he was responsible for all machinery outside of the engine room). This panel and its valves and handwheels controlled the diving and surfacing of the boat.

The compartments of the submarine were surrounded by a thin skin steel skin known as the pressure hull. This membrane was in turn wrapped by another skin called the casing which covered the twin saddle tanks on either beam. The lower sections of these tanks were pierced by a number of free-flood valves permanently open to the sea. The main valves or kingston valves were fitted to the upper part of the saddle tanks. When the kingston valves were shut, the resultant cushion of trapped air allowed the submarine to travel on the surface. Once these valves were opened and the air allowed to escape, the submarine could be dived and regulated via the hydroplanes. The maximum diving depth of wartime submarines varied. The ‘L’ and ‘H’ class boats rarely dived beyond eighty feet but the first generation of ‘S’ and ‘U’ class boats were tested to 200’ but these boats are recorded as diving below this level.

In order to surface the boat it was first necessary to shut the kingston valves then expel the water previously allowed to flood the tanks using high pressure (HP) air stored in rechargeable bottles. Filling them in wartime conditions was a difficult business and HP air was used very carefully. Just enough HP air was used to enable the submarine to break surface, then a pump known as a ‘blower’ would be used to force the remaining water from the boat. Until fully drained of water a submarine tended to be unstable. Should a boat surface beam on to the waves before the blowers had cleared out water, there was a real chance of the boat rolling over. It was crucially important to surface bows-on to the waves. Conversely it was necessary for the submarine to dive beam-on to the waves if the natural lifting tendency of sea water was to be prevented from impeding the dive. Submarine crews preferred to sail ‘trimmed down’ with only the conning tower and the gun showing above the surface. In this state the boat obtained all the advantages of diesel propulsion minus the dangers of exposure to visibility.

If a submarine was in perfect lateral and longitudinal balance it was said to be ‘in trim’. Obviously trim changed as supplies were stowed or used, as torpedoes were fired and even with the redistribution of personnel. The first lieutenant and the stoker PO constantly monitored the status and using graphs calculated the amount of compensating water to be expelled or admitted to maintain trim. Maintenance of trim was of supreme importance. A badly trimmed boat might reveal its periscope to an enemy or cause the boat to plunge out of control. A hunted submarine could adopt a ‘stopped trim’ – admit or expel sufficient water to keep it suspended without resort to the motors. All machinery would be shut down lest an enemy listening device detected the sound.

Ursula provisioning, a sure sign that the boat was preparing for patrol, 1941

The centre of the control room was dominated by the two Barr and Stroud periscopes, one for search, the smaller one for attack. The binocular search periscope was fitted with a twist grip handle which enabled the user to switch to X4 magnification. By lowering a side lever the lens could be positioned against the sky to warn of prowling aircraft. The monocular attack periscope was used during the closing stages of an attack, its relative size reduced the chances of detection by enemy look-outs who were trained to look for periscope feathering in the water. During attack or evasion manoeuvres the ‘stick’ would only be used for a few moments. During routine diving patrol the periscope would be raised once every half an hour in the hope of obtaining a navigational fix. HE rather than visual contact usually provided the first indication of hunters or victims. With the exception of the engineer, every commissioned officer was expected to take his turn on watch, a responsibility never given even to the most experienced petty officers in the Royal Navy.

A chart table stood to one side of the control room and here the navigation officer kept all the charts and instruments necessary to his trade. Apart from calculating the boat’s course, prior to an attack the navigating officer operated the computer known as ‘the fruit machine’ to calculate a firing course.

The Submarine Torpedo Director or Fruit Machine on HMS Alliance. The upper dial represents the submarine, the lower one the target. The line running between the two dials represents the periscope line of sight. True bearing rings around each dial were fed by the gyro compass. Director angle was displayed by the pointer on the submarine dial. The operator input enemy course, enemy speed, enemy length and range to calculate the target range. This is a late 1940s version of the machine. The sets fitted to 1939-41 boats were overcomplex in comparison to their German counterparts

Split second timing might mean the difference between sinking a ship or being cracked open by a depth-charge. Effective communications within the boat were of paramount importance. All boats possessed an internal telephone system linking the main compartments. Given that submarines were generally small and diesel engines noisy, these chambers were also connected by an internal telegraph system.

Apart from ratings trained to operate the ASDIC set, each boat carried a group of specialist telegraphist ratings responsible for maintaining communications with the outside world. By surfacing at night, boats of the period could send and receive wireless signals to keep them in touch with RA(S). The success of SST, a device enabling submerged submarines to communicate with each other, depended upon prevailing North Sea conditions, which were rarely favourable.

Aft, beyond the watertight bulkhead lay the engine room, the largest chamber in the boat. Ask a veteran submariner what he remembers most and chances are he will say the noise and the smell. The engine room was responsible for both. Two massive diesel engines situated either side of the centre plates, drank copius quantities of oil and air to ensure the pistons kept pounding. Should the bulkhead doors be shut against them, the engine room staff would asphyxiate in minutes. A commissioned engineer officer was appointed to larger boats but smaller boats made do with a chief engine room artificer (CERA) usually an engineer of many years experience. The diesels were used for surface running but once submerged, the boat relied upon its electric motors. These motors were powered by batteries which tended to drain rapidly. In order to charge the batteries the boat travelled at night on the surface on one diesel engine, using the other diesel as a dynamo. A submarine would be extremely vulnerable if caught on the surface while running a surface charge with its batteries depleted. As soon as charging was complete the boat resorted to powering on both diesels for speed.

Seraph engine room. Nowhere to sit.

The imperative to charge batteries dominated and defined submarine routine. From it developed the universal practice of travelling submerged during daylight hours once inside the billet. During the night the boat would surface, charge batteries then dive again just before dawn. It follows that the most dangerous time of the year was Spring and early Summer when hours of darkness were at a premium and boats were forced to remain submerged for prolonged periods. In order to ensure speedy arrival and a restriction of battery consumption, the submarine commanders of 1940 were ordered to, ‘proceed with dispatch’. No definition was provided for this order but it was universally interpreted to mean the boat must proceed to its billet on the surface, driven by the diesel engines, diving only in emergencies. This was to prove a costly order for at least one Blyth submarine.

Of course speed varied with the age and quality of the engines . The ‘S’ class boats could achieve a respectable fourteen knots on the surface (but this dropped to nine knots once submerged). The ‘U’ class could reach eleven knots on the surface (ten knots submerged) . Warships and most merchantmen (except those bound for the breaker’s yard) could outrun submarines with ease. Only by stealth and cunning could a skipper outwit his opponents.

Motor room of Seraph

Aft of the engine room lay the motor room. Here an array of switches fed electric current to the motors. By ‘grouping up’ ie by placing the motor armatures in parallel, the boat could reach its maximum underwater speed, to make an attack or get out of trouble. Conversely by ‘grouping down’ – arranging the armatures in series, speed could be reduced and battery power conserved.

The fore-ends of Snapper with most of the men missing IWM

Forward of the control room lay various tiny curtained-off spaces, including a soundproof wireless transmission office. Beyond a bulkhead door lay the fore-ends. Here the reload torpedoes were housed but it was also home to a majority of the crew.

At the far end of the fore-ends lay another watertight door which gave access to the tube space. Most submarines of the period had six torpedo tubes installed but the ‘T’ class based on the Forth had ten tubes fitted. The fore ends was the kingdom of the TI (torpedo gunner’s mate in general service – the senior PO in charge of weapons). The TI was responsible to the torpedo officer. A TI supervised the flooding up and draining down of tubes either side of an attack. A TI routinely carried out sectional examinations of torpedoes, he ordered air tests and the application of ‘torp oil’. Torpedo loading, always an arduous task was aided by a couple of runners fitted under the fore hatch. Once at sea these runners were planked, hoisted to the deck head and used to store provisions.

There was dual control of torpedo firing. The tube space and control room were linked by the previously mentioned hydraulic system while the operatives communicated with head sets. This duplication guarded against mechanical fault ruining an attack. The firing of torpedoes was governed by a drill. First the TI and his team obeyed a red indicator light by flooding the tubes, next the ‘Stand By’ indicator light signalled the torpedomen to charge the high pressure air bottles and open the bow-caps.

Whitehead Torpedo

Submarine tubes of the period were not fitted with angling gear (although the torpedoes had angling capabilities), therefore a skipper making an attack was forced to turn on a firing course by aligning his boat bow-on to the target, rather like pointing the barrel of a gun. The sudden change of balance resulting from the torpedoes leaving the boat required compensation if trim was not to be lost. As soon as torpedoes were fired, valves were opened to allow the ingress of a requisite amount of water. The first generation of ‘U’ class boats operating from Blyth were particularly sensitive to changes in trim. The utmost concentration was required on the part of the first lieutenant if the bows were to prevented from breaking surface following the firing of a ‘fish’.

Each torpedo was fitted with a miniature engine which ran on a mixture of shale oil and compressed air. A Mark VIII twenty-one inch Whitehead torpedo contained 750 lbs of Torpex explosive , had a theoretical striking distance of 5,200 yards but 1,200 yards was the norm. Immediately after it was fired a torpedo would dive, level off then run for 250 yards before assuming its depth-setting of 4’ be It should be apparent that wartime submarines were delicate vessels requiring the utmost in skill and dexterity on the part of their crew. Having examined the boat layout it is now time to take a closer look at the crew.
The common riposte from an old salt to the ‘drips’ (moans) of a newcomer to submarines was,

‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined’.

Fore ends of an S class boat – note provisions including unwrapped bread slung on torpedo loading ramp IWM

In these Breughelesque surroundings design priority had been given to machinery, crew had to fare as best as they could with the space available. There was insufficient room for every man to have his own bunk or hammock. Fortunately the watch system ensured that one-third of the crew would always be on duty at any given time. The ‘hot bunking’ system required a man going on watch to hand over his bunk, hammock or space to an ‘oppo’ coming off watch. A wartime submarine was no place for the fastidious but all would look and smell the same after a fortnight at sea. German reports concerning captured British submariners referred to the ‘disgusting unshaven and louse-ridden state’ of their prisoners, comparing then unfavourably with hygienically-minded Teutonic counterparts. Beyond the propaganda, conditions in U-boats were just as bad.

Junior ratings housed in the fore-ends lived worked, ate and slept in a steel slum stacked with torpedoes sand festooned with hammocks, wet oilskins and deteriorating provisions slung in overhead nets. As the temperature within the boat was largely governed by external conditions, the fore-ends was usually cold and damp. Men were squeezed in like sardines and in common with sardines they were smeared with oil. Tables used to dismantle, assemble and oil torpedoes were also used for eating, despite being coated with shale oil and grease. One rating might be heartily tucking into breakfast when a pair of legs from the hammock above would end up on the plate. The fifth circle of Dante’s Inferno was a paradise when compared with the fore-ends of a submarine. Some preferred to sleep on the reload torpedoes but there was an art to this as the torpedoes had an unpleasant tendency to shift around in their racks but those who mastered the technique found the most spacious place on the boat.

‘…a steel slum stacked with torpedoes’ IWM

Space was equally precious in the stokers mess known as ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. The noise of the diesel engines reverberated all through the boat but here it was impossible to communicate other than in sign language. Some stokers rejected the sweaty bunks to sleep on rolls of cotton waste placed between the back of the diesel engines and the curved pressure hull.

Hierarchic by nature, the quality of accommodation depended upon rank. Every submarine boat contained a wardroom but in practice this was little more than a curtained off space containing some fold away bunks, a table and sometimes a gramophone. In submarines commissioned officers were forced to live alongside ratings in sharp contrast to the compartmentalised world of general service. The gulf between officer and rating was reduced by the imperative for all rates to adapt to prevailing conditions. Privacy was non existent, forcing men from different backgrounds to co-exist in a climate of greater mutual tolerance than found elsewhere. A submarine was a finely balanced mechanism in which each efficiently functioning element was dependent upon the other as Michael Lumby describes:

HMS Sturgeon ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ the Stokers Mess. Note miners’ lamp

‘Your life depends upon good drill and automatic reaction. A submarine is a very close community – anyone could listen in to conversations in the wardroom or senior rates messes – only a curtain separated them from the main gangway. One’s work was at very close quarters so that a misfit stand out very clearly. Officers, senior and junior rates were rubbing shoulders all the time, developing a close relationship between all concerned. You can’t improve upon this’

Status was fiercely guarded in the POs and ERAs messes. The Royal Navy respected their claim to their own separate messes even on board the smallest of submarines. The comparatively relaxed atmosphere on board a submarine was enhanced by the informality of dress adopted whenever a boat left on patrol. Officers and men simply wore whatever was to hand, oily service jumpers, ancient bell-bottomed trousers, football shorts, anything that could be relied upon to keep out the cold. Any item of clothing left lying around was likely to end up in the ‘scran bag’, only redeemable following a payment to the boat welfare fund. As Percy Campbell, Torpedoman on L27 and Undine relates, there was little point in changing clothes:

From the time we left harbour until we returned, we didn’t undress. We wore overalls over our long pants and sea-boots. We grew beards to hide our dirty faces and vied with one another to grow the best set’

Wartime submarines were fitted with small toilets or ‘heads’ in naval parlance. The number carried varied with the design of the boat. Officers and senior rates were provided with one in their respective mess. A ‘pig’s ear’ fitting on the bridge catered for the needs of men on look-out duty. Use of the heads while dived was strictly regulated for a number of reasons. The sudden redistribution of weight caused by a man crossing the control room floor to enter the heads might be sufficient to throw the boat out of trim. HP air was used to flush the heads and there was always the danger of tell tale bubbles indicating the boat’s position. Once permission to use the heads had been granted, the user had to operate a complex series of valves in series:

1] Charge air bottle then open sea and non-return valves
2] Free lever and bring to ‘pause’
3] Bring lever to ‘flushing’
4] Bring lever to ‘discharge’
5] Bring lever to ‘pause’
6] Return lever to ‘normal’ and ‘lock’
7] Shut all air valves

Any man failing to carry out these instructions risked the horrors of ‘getting his own back’.

While fresh water was cherished, there was never any shortage of water in a submarine as none was fully watertight. Sea-water dribbled down periscope standards, it seeped in through bolts to drip down bulkheads, all of which reduced the chances of preserving food. Submarines carried a surprising variety of tinned foods such as soups, fruit, corned beef, steak etc. Tins of Spam were always the last to go and it was said that a boat was in dire straits if a tin of Spam was opened. Submarines of the period were fitted with cold cupboards capable of preserving eggs and a few cuts of meat. This cupboard might also contain dried fish known as ‘yellow peril’. Some crews preferred to avoid this rather than risk a boat of diarrhoea while on patrol. The larger submarines boasted specially trained chefs. Cachalot had a real French chef but the majority of crews were forced to select their chefs from their own number, usually some junior rating whose repertoire did not extend beyond boiling eggs. On the other hand the choice of chef was a matter of some anxiety. The crew of one particular submarine was unlikely to forget the consequences one Christmas when their young chef cooked and served a chicken without first removing the entrails. Some cooks worked miracles and the Submarine Service developed its own specialties such as ‘cheese oosh’, ‘elephant’s footprints’, ‘trainsmash’ and ‘potmess with babies’ heads’.

The preservation of bread in the damp atmosphere of a submarine posed particular problems. Normally bread was baked in the sooty ovens of Titania but Blyth Co-Op stepped in to produce a number of experimental loaves wrapped in waxed paper. Lt. P.J. Cowell, Skipper of L27 took loaves with him on his patrol from 22nd September to 1st October. Upon his return he related that while the Titania bread had become mouldy after four days, the Co-Op bread was still in edible condition at the end of the patrol. From this point Blyth Co-Op baked and wrapped all the bread taken on patrol. PO Tel. Norman Drury of Sturgeon describes how bread could be made to last that little bit longer:

The Co-Op bread was hung in nets hanging in the fore-ends. After ten to fifteen days mildew would form but all we had to do was cut off the fungus with a short knife. Then it was a case of ‘dunk’ it in fresh water then place it in a hot oven – delicious !’

Submarines and submariners were plagued by ’beasties’. Crabs were endemic in the overcrowded foetid atmosphere. Weevils were dealt with in the time honoured method of allowing them to grow large enough to be easily winkled out of bread all in one go. A fortnight into a patrol and the food would be literally alive with them. They were nevertheless preferable to the detested cockroaches or ‘Bombay runners’. Some infestations could not be tolerated. Norman Drury again:

For several patrols a rat lived in the fore-ends of Sturgeon among the compressed air bottles. The sailors, whose mess table was located over them, used to watch him come out at night to gather scraps. When he was eventually caught the rat was found to be completely red from the outside coating of the bottles’

Vermin only added to the polluted atmosphere following long periods of submersion as Rob Roy McCurrach graphically describes:

Potatoes and cabbage went off as did cracked eggs. Wellington boots exuded fearful odours, stale cigarettes, smoke and perspiration added their share. We all became constipated and the smell of wind-breaking was hair curling ’

The longer a boat was submerged, the more the crew would become oblivious to the smells and in time only the unaccustomed would be detected. Odours would sink into the bilges in gaseous form only to be released when the hatch was opened while surfacing. Following prolonged periods of submersion the crew would be exposed to a poisonous cocktail of gases, the toxic nature of these gases only being understood in the post war years. The psychological strains were immense as this 1941 report indicates:

‘Atmospheric conditions, once the initial discomfort has been overcome appeared to be quite adequate for the amount of work required but considerable discomfort was caused by excessive respiration due to the raised atmospheric temperature while dived. Towards the end of the dive when oxygen content had decreased and carbon dioxide increased, there was a noticeable slowing of mental processes together with creating irritability and shortness of temper’

As soon as the hatch was opened after surfacing, the trapped gases would rise in a fog while oxygen starved lungs were suddenly exposed to ozone. Nausea might ensue but as the boat was gradually ventilated the crew would recover and set about its allotted tasks.

The crew was divided into red, white and blue watches with each duty watch lasting three hours. Once surfaced those off-duty would be granted permission to ‘carry on smoking’ while the rest got down to work. One of the priorities was to rig a human chain and ’ditch the gash’. Buckets brimming with all manner of waste would be hauled up the hatch before tipping the contents into the sea. While preparations were made to charge batteries, those told off for look-out duties would make their way up to the bridge. As Gus Britton here describes, this was nothing to look forward to:

Signaller Gus Britton of Tribune and the Submarine Museum

Out of your hammock or your bunk, or off the table, locker or deck – wherever you happen to sleep. On boots, stagger aft along the pitching gangway, into the control room with its red lighting and darkened figures, all cheerful because they are about to go off watch. Into wet oilskins, ‘Permission to go on the bridge, Sir ? In through the bird bath and up to the bridge to get a faceful of cold sea’

A ‘faceful of cold sea’ was akin to being slapped with a hair brush. Beneath the waves a submarine glided along in its element, above them it was subject to the same poor sea-keeping qualities which applied to all small vessels. In rough weather a surfaced submarine would pitch and roll like a fishing boat. Bernard Cranmer here describes a nightmare journey he made up the Norwegian coast in Sealion in 1941.

All that lay ahead of us was a mountainous sea and night after night of gales and general misery. Roaring wind, scratch meals, vomit and dampness everywhere. There was never any chance to dry clothing with water pouring down the conning tower and the pumps unable to keep up. Even the Ursula Suit was useless on look-out with water coming in through the neck and over the top of your boots. The waterproof mittens did not prevent fingers from freezing. When on the bridge, looking aft, I always felt as if I was on the back of a great whale, lifting and then diving down into the next valley. Binoculars were impossible to use and all I could do was pray that things were equally as difficult for the enemy.’

North Sea patrols generally lasted twelve days on average from harbour to harbour. The submarine carried fourteen days worth of provisions in case of emergencies. As we have seen, patrols were commonly extended. The longer the patrol, the greater the tensions. The 1941 report again:

The cramped accommodation, close contact with messmates and lack of exercise all play their part in setting up a state of nervous tension. Though this at first is slight it increases as the days go on and may prove to be the last straw when a more severe nervous strain is superimposed. This condition is offset by the increased amount of sleep which submarine life imposes and also by the welcome diversion which mealtime provides. Again and again I have noticed how all looked forward to meals and how any default in the bill of fare was met by a lowering of morale’

Wartime submariners cheerfully accepted intolerable working and living conditions, all of which begs the question as to what kind of man would enter the Submarine Service in the first place ?

Most, but by no means all, of the men who joined the Submarine Service in the inter-war years were volunteers from general service. Eager to recruit a skilled cadre of specialist technicians the Service offered higher rates of pay than those proffered by its parent. Despite the dangers highlighted by a string of tragedies, there was no shortage of applicants. Torpedoman Val Wragg was typical of those who joined during the ‘hungry thirties’:

‘Why did I join submarines ? I wanted to get married and I simply needed more money. I wasn’t really bothered about the dangers. Anyway it was May 1939 and as young lads we did not stop to think, ‘is there going to be another war ?’

CPO Frank Miles of Tribune had also joined submarines in the mid ‘thirties for the money. 2/6d per day as a submariner. 1/3d per day for active service and one shilling ‘hard lying’ money in recognition of the hardships. There were also proficiency payments on offer. By 1939 an AB in general service could expect to earn two shillings per day but a transfer to submarines could see his income nearly double. The picture was even rosier for specialists such as telegraphists who could expect to earn a basic of 3s 6d per day. Money was the main attraction for officer and rating serving in submarines but it was by no means the only one.

As we have seen the Submarine Service revelled in its own unorthodoxy. Submariners gleefully contrasted themselves with the ingrained conservatism of general service, leading to a rejection of some of the more extreme forms of petty discipline. Leading Stoker Donald Bowra of Starfish joined submarines because one day, while serving on a destroyer, he was disciplined by a sub-lieutenant for not crossing the Chatham parade ground at the double. To those repelled by the excessive discipline of general service, submarines provided a more relaxing, if in other ways, more demanding, alternative.

Many of those who joined boats were merely following in family footsteps, families such as the Arnolds or the Millers of Poole in Dorset. Born in a pusser’s blanket, the Miller boys lived and breathed submarines. Albert, the eldest died in E50, mined in 1918 but this did not prevent Henry, the youngest from volunteering for submarines. After all Henry had been born with a caul over his head and as every old soak knew, anyone born with a head caul can never drown.
A significant proportion of the recruits who joined the Submarine Service during the Great War were drawn from the traditional South coast manning towns and their hinterlands but judging from casualty lists, the crews of 1939-41 originated from all over Britain, the privations of the inter war years having forced them into the Royal Navy.

Lt. Aston PIper RNR

A high percentage of submarine officers came from old established county families with a tradition of sending a son into the Royal Navy. For some born with diesel and shale in their blood, such as the Piries or Raikes or the Coltarts, the idea of joining anything but the Royal Navy would be unthinkable. In the main, the backgrounds of submarine officers tended to be more homogenous than those of the men they commanded but there were exceptions. Lt. Aston Piper RNR served as a Chief Officer in the United Baltic Shipping Line, running between Hull and the Baltic countries. At the outbreak of war Aston Piper was appointed to join Ursula at Blyth as Navigating Officer.

For the overwhelming majority of officers, education at Dartmouth Naval College or a similar establishment was de rigeur. Dartmouth was the almer mater or the Royal Navy, its objective to prepare cadets for the responsibilities and skills required by an officer in the Navy. The scale of fees deterred all but scions of a service or patrician background. Social standing as well as technical ability was reflected in the submarine officer’s uniform, although there were some notable exceptions.

Upon leaving College a ‘Dart’ was expected to serve out his term as a midshipman. In time he would obtain sufficient seniority to earn a lieutenancy. As he made his way up the general service ladder, so he would be encouraged to study the disciplines of wireless, telegraphy, maritime engineering, torpedoes, gunnery and navigation. Most officer candidates applying for the Submarine Service were already rated sub-lieutenant and would have had specialist training in several of these fields. A career in submarines appealed to the more ambitious, technically minded young officer. Most were assertive young men with a healthy contempt for ‘bull’. John Harvey-Jones volunteered for submarines from general service:

Submarine life was about as far removed from that on the Duke of York as that on Mars would be. Professional failure at tasks one was given was leapt upon instantly and mercilessly. Such discipline however was reserved for matters of importance rather than for petty misdemeanours which I had fallen foul of in the past

In a sense they were all gamblers – merely applying to join the Service was likely the greatest risk they had taken to date. Succeed and the candidate would be given responsibilities unthinkable in general service, fail and his career would lie in tatters.

Lt. Richard Raikes

The career of Lt. Richard Raikes accepted into the 1933 training intake at Blockhouse was typical. The three month course was part theoretical and involved spending three days per week at sea on one of the ‘L’ boats. Lt. Raikes passed with ease, later joining L22 as Navigating Officer in December 1933. By the Summer of 1934 he had amassed enough experience for an appointment to Clyde. Two halcyon years in the Mediterranean followed with Dick Raikes continually adding to his skills and knowledge (augmented by coursework) until he was considered sufficiently ‘boat minded’ to join Severn as First Lieutenant. The responsibilities heaped on the shoulder of the First Lieutenant were many and varied but always demanding as most skippers were content to leave the day to day running of the boat to ‘jimmy the one’.

Four years later in August 1940 Lt. Raikes was invited to sit the Commanding Officer’s Qualifying Course (COQC- known within the Service as the ‘perisher’. There was only one opportunity of passing and failure would result in a humiliating return to general service. As Max Horton, later VA(S) pointed out, there was no room for mistakes in a submarine. Each candidate was put through a series of simulated exercises under the supervision of an experienced submarine commander. Dick Raikes passed the perisher to join L26, his first command in February 1941 . Submarine commanders who had passed the perisher in peacetime were fortunate but those who passed in wartime were forced to learn harsh lessons in a cruel Darwinian arena. Dick Raikes:

Looking back on my first three months in command it is horrifying to think how ill-prepared I was for operational command. One was learning important lessons every day and I’m sure that without this breaking-in period I would have been lucky to survive my first patrol’

The men who was commanded submarines on the outbreak of war tended to be in their thirties. George Phillips who captained Ursula was thirty-seven. Ben Bryant of Sealion was thirty-five, David Gregory of Sturgeon was thirty-one. The purge of older commanders carried out by VA(S) in 1939-40 combined with losses led to submarine skippers becoming ever younger. Lt, Anthony Troup, who took over H32 in 1943 aged twenty-one was probably the youngest.
A newly promoted lieutenant commander could expect to earn the highest rate of lieutenants pay enhanced by increments covering the additional strains imposed by submarine command. Anything else was determined by his individual circumstances. Married men could apply for a lodgings allowance. The average pay for a 1939 lieutenant commander was £210 per annum, less than small town solicitors. Given the responsibilities, discomforts and dangers, the pay of the wartime submarine skipper seems pathetically inadequate.

The submarine skipper was the eyes and mind of his crew. He alone co-ordinated its actions and took the key decisions. The success of the mission and the survival of the boat rested on his judgement. A skipper was required to be on duty at all times while at sea. Jock Forbes of Spearfish was called to the control room no less than thirty-four times during one watch. A submarine skipper’s job was arguably the most demanding in the Royal Navy but prestige compensated for the lack of financial reward. The captain embodied the esprit de corps of his boat. An admired skipper reflected an efficient crew. Men were proud to serve with a Ben Bryant or a Ronald Burch. They revered ‘Dick’ Cayley and of course David Wanklyn. Conversely the poor performance of one particular captain led to his boat earning the sobriquet of ‘the leper colony’. The collectivist outlook of the submarine crew crystallised in a Service convention that when ‘gongs’ were dished out to a submarine captain, they were held in proxy for his entire crew. Collectively they faced danger and collectively they reaped the rewards.

The Service could afford to be choosy before the war, selecting only ratings over twenty-one with at least one Good Conduct Badge. Once general service released a man he would be drafted to Blockhouse, the spiritual and administrative headquarters of the Submarine Service. Blockhouse (aka HMS Dolphin, Gosport, Hants.) lies on the other side of the Harbour from the Royal Dockyards. Here the curriculum focused on basic hydrodynamics and sea-training but candidates were also expected to make a couple of simulated escapes from the dreaded ‘tank’. Mention of the word ‘tank’ in submarine circles brings forth a nostalgic smile but few felt sentimental at the time of the exercise The first test required the candidate to make a controlled ascent from the bottom of a thirty foot deep tank of water. Each candidate was handed a Davis Submarine Escape Apparatus set (DSEA). The set consisted of a breathing bag, goggles and a nose clip. DSEA developed from Proto sets used in mine rescue would have been familiar to men from the North East and Wales. For the vast majority it proved something of a challenge. Rob Roy McCurrach:

We listened dutifully. The phrase, ‘…and you will be breathing pure oxygen…’ nearly knocked me sideways. Shades of the dreaded Dr. Fu Manchu. For as small boys we had often attended Eastney Cinema and we remembered that the Doctor had captured a dozen British bobbies and put them in a large glass tank. Nayland Smith and his friend Dr Petrie looked on in dire horror as pure oxygen flooded into the tank. The police went berserk and died hideously…
‘…and that’s all there is to it, said the instructor, ‘see you tomorrow’

DSEA escape

As the candidates descended ever deeper into the tank, so they were forced to inhale from the breathing bag around their necks. Swallowing continuously helped to dissipate pressure in the Eustachian tube but it was not a very comfortable experience. Upon reaching the foot of the ladder the candidate made his first controlled ascent, following the training PO’s instructions to the letter. Anyone failing to comply was dragged out by a boathook and forced to repeat the exercise.

Val Wragg

Within the tank lay a mysterious second chamber designed to hold two men and fitted with a large inspection port. This chamber was the focus of a second exercise which involved making a simulated escape from a fatally damaged submarine. Here the candidates worked in pairs. One operated a valve which slowly filled the chamber with water, while the other mounted a ladder to open a central vent on the escape hatch in a bid to equalize pressure. As the chamber slowly flooded, the escapees ‘guffed up’ their DSEA sets. Just as they were making final adjustments, without warning the instructor would open up the main valve to send cold water surging into the chamber. Nerves were tested to the full. Only when the compartment was fully flooded would pressure equalize sufficiently for the escape hatch to be lifted. Keeping to the drill, one by one the and returned to general service but for the successful men there was a significant sense of achievement in earning the coveted ‘HM SUBMARINES’ cap ribbon. These men had joined an elite brotherhood and whatever the future held in store, their lives would never be the same again. Val Wragg:

‘No disrespect to my general service colleagues but with a submarine cap tally I was something just a pip above an ordinary sailor’

A newly qualified pre-war submariner could expect to spend three to six months training an ‘L’ boat before being drafted to the spare crew pool of an operational flotilla. When a vacancy arose in his specialism he would take his place in the Submarine Service. Like any newcomer in a close-knit organization the ‘sprog’ submariner needed time to settle into his new environment. Crews were usually broad minded, indeed a tolerance of individuality was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Submarine Service. However no skipper could allow the social equilibrium of the boat to be upset by a ‘misfit’. A crew was an indivisible whole. Weaken one element and the entire mechanism is reduced. All newcomers required close monitoring during the first few months. The majority found themselves accepted into an exclusive freemasonry. Val Wragg again:

In a submarine you are such a close mob with no privacy whatsoever. If you can adapt – and you’ve got to – you become a brother. You develop a feeling for one another. Male bonding I suppose you would call it

The attitude of the Submarine Service towards discipline should never be sentimentalized but the most competent officers knew when these codes could be relaxed. ‘Taff’ Harper of Seal:

There was a general feeling among officers and crew that as long as you could do your own job, you were all right. Let’s face it, every job in submarines was vital. When you were at sea, you were crew and there was none of this ‘Yes Sir ! No Sir !’. We would use Christian names (except for the skipper – we always called him ‘Sir’ but he would address us by our nick-names) Discipline was strict when it needed to be but we would even share our tots with officers we liked. Once ashore it was a very different matter mind’

Wartime news reels and newspapers naturally concentrated on daring attacks and spectacular results. When a boat returned in triumph the local and national media would be on hand to capture the moment. For a few days the faces of the crew would feature on newsreels. Once ashore the locals would fuss over them. Media interest might wane but to the ordinary folk of Blyth and the North East these submariners were permanent heroes.

For the most part the North Sea submarine war was not a dramatic parade of daring strikes against the enemy. Most patrols would consist of long hours of boredom interspersed with a few fleeting moments of high excitement. Perhaps the smoke of a too distant convoy or the sound of a bomber roaring overhead. Reconnaissance information was more valuable to the allied cause than a random attack on an enemy merchantmen but this information remained classified and in any case, was unlikely to fire the public imagination.

Then there were the nightmare patrols when the boat only just made it home – an encounter with an enemy bomber or a brush against a sea-mine. Worst of all was a depth-charge attack. A good skipper could turn, twist, sit his boat on a salt layer none knew existed, dive to unheard of depths or hide in undersea ravines, to escape. Inevitably the time would come when he ran out of tricks and the enemy had him cornered. In these circumstances all that remained was to rest the boat in ‘stopped trim’, shut down all machinery, order silent routine and trust to luck.

Experienced submarine crews learned how to interpret strange sounds overhead. They could easily differentiate the noise made by the reciprocating engines of a passing merchantman from the ‘swish’ made by the screws of a warship. Above all they knew the ‘ping’ of S-gerät, the enemy acoustic locator as it reached out for them like invisible fingers. Should the pings grow fainter it meant the enemy was on the wrong track but if the sound changed pitch, this signified the impulses were heading directly towards the boat. Once the transmissions became continuous, the enemy had located the boat and a depth-charge attack would surely follow.

As the hunter made its attacking run the screws would be audible to the submariners as a noise resembling that of a stick being dragged across a piece of corrugated metal. The worst moment came as the hunter passed overhead and the noise of depth-charges rolling into the water could be heard. All the submarine crew could do was pray that the depth-charge settings were incorrect. A charge exploding within a 200’ radius of the boat shatter lights and scatter anti condensation cork. Should the charges explode at 100’, the boat would vibrate like a tuning fork. Delicate machinery would suffer damage but the vital bulkheads should hold. However if a charge was to explode within fifty feet the pressure hull would crack and the sound of the explosion and the inrush of sea would be the last noise the crew would ever hear. As Frank James of Sahib describes, the experience of a close-pressed depth-charge attack was not easily forgotten:

‘It’s the worst sensation in the world. The boat is absolutely silent but you can see the fear and apprehension on everyone’s face. If the ship is directly overhead it sounds exactly like a train and if they are that close then you really are in trouble. The exploding depth charge is not like a ‘bang’. I can only liken it to you putting your head inside a dustbin while someone replaces the lid then hammers on it with a mallet’

Fog Elliot:
We were at 260’ and still going down. I thought we were finished. I just thought, 12:00 back home everyone will be round for dinner. And here I am. Finished. There was this young Scots lad in the fore-ends with me called Jackie and he says, ‘Geordie I’m frightened’ and he got hold of my arm. He was as strong as a little ox. I was shaking too but I said, ‘Oh you don’t have to be frightened. It’s no use being frightened’ and he held on so tight I felt sure he was about to break my arm. Then I realized he had filled his pants. My forearm was black and blue for weeks after that’

Bernard Cranmer:
I knew lads who were good kids when it came to going ashore and boasting about what they had done on patrol but when the gentlemen ‘up top’ drop a few cans on you, I’ve heard these same lads pray aloud, ‘Please make it stop. Sweet Jesus make it stop’

Those fortunate enough to survive a depth-charge attack would be matured by the experience. They would be held in awe by unseasoned crews. In one or two cases deliverance turned to sorrow. More than one crew returned home to discover that anti submarine vessels had latched on to their ‘chummy boat’ in an adjacent billet. Their thoughts upon finding the other boat overdue might well be imagined.

The crew of a fatally damaged submarine would eventually revert to their DSEA sets. It is sobering to note that during the Second World War seventy-five British submarines were lost. 3,000 lives were at risk but there were only twenty-eight recorded escapes using DSEA. This dismal record was partly due to an unequal distribution of sets within the boat. Finding the right number of sets in an unflooded section would be a matter of luck. Even if there had been a sufficient number of sets within the boat, post war research has proved the DSEA set was fatally flawed.

At best the set contained ten minutes worth of air, insufficient to enable the escapee to decompress before reaching the surface. A man fortunate enough to make his way to the surface in depths deeper than 120’ would likely suffer Caissons Disease, better known as ‘the bends’. Some skippers operating in deep water would order all but one of the hatches bolted down, crews preferring to sleep their way out and stick with their submarine. Val Wragg here gives a further insight into the unimpressive DSEA record:

There was really very little chance of anyone escaping using DSEA. On the very few occasions when it might have been possible, priority was always given to saving the boat. Eventually someone might have had presence of mind to say, ‘OK lads, it’s time to go’ but if you have been deprived of oxygen and forced to breathe air heavy with carbon dioxide, it is going to be too late for chaps who can’t think straight or are too weak to use the drill’

Those who did reach the surface would find no kind hand to pluck them from the water. A handful of escapees would be at the mercy of the elements. Exhausted, pitifully weak they would be gradually dispersed by the waves, either to drown or die of exposure. It is small wonder that the subject of escape was taboo in submarine circles because the prospect of escape hardly existed at all.

Any sketch of submarine life must also include the small frustrations, the days when machinery ‘fell over’, when dials lied, periscopes jammed or a longed-for sandwich was dropped into the bilges. Then we must consider the submariner’s delight in simple pleasures; the first fag of the day, the bump of the bows against the Middle Jetty when the boat returned from patrol, or a look-out’s first sight of a school of dolphins or the aurora borealis.
Submariners were immensely proud of their boats. Hours were spent polishing brightwork or cleaning decks, or applying ‘pusser’s crabfat’ (thick grey paint used on submarines operating in the North Sea). Some, like Frank James claimed a sixth sense when it came to their boat:

You come back from a run ashore, ‘jolly jack’ like. Then it’s back down to the harbour and along the jetty but where is your boat ? It was second or third one out when you left but as you are not exactly compos mentis (and they do all look the same) you can’t be certain. Yet you know as soon as you climb down the ladder whether this is the right boat. Even before a strange and hostile crew chases you away, you just know. Maybe this boat doesn’t smell right’

Life in submarines was hard but for some this was part of the attraction. Submarining was a trade for real men and only real men were capable of making the grade. A submariner might suffer dreadful conditions, eat unimaginative food and face indescribable terrors but at least he knew he had passed the test and in so doing joined a special brotherhood. The living and working environment fostered values of loyalty and mutuality which transcended rate or social background. The last word belongs to Con McCabe:

‘I wasn’t particularly fond of life in the big ship Navy but as soon as I joined submarines it was a different Navy altogether, more like one big happy undersea family’

© P Armstrong