‘The Lord is my pilot: I shall not drift,
He lighteth me across the dark waters,
He keepeth my log,
He guideth me by the star of holiness
For his name sake;
Yea, though I sail amidst the thunder and tempests of life,
I shall dread no danger;
For Thou art with me
Thy love and Thy care, they shelter me
In the homeland of eternity
And I will rest in the Port of my God for ever’
The Naval Psalm
Squabbles within the higher echelons of the Royal Navy were far removed from the ordinary sailors whose destinies the top brass controlled. Life for many Blyth submariners consisted of a Bacchanalian procession of drink, women and surviving the next patrol. Ursula’s triumphant return provided a welcome injection of glamour. Spare crew looked on wistfully as the boats left on patrol. It was galling for Rob Roy McCurrach that his ‘Oppo’ Lawrie Lawrenson topped the list of spare ERAs at Blyth and was set to join Seahorse for her next patrol. The orphans of the Submarine Service, spare crew officers and ratings were generally unloved and unwanted. Until the day that their names topped the list, they were relegated to menial roles under the malevolently gleeful eyes of the base staff. Their predicament was captured in a song to the tune of ‘Come to the Saviour’;
‘Come to the spare crew, make no delay
Come to the spare crew, half a crown a day
Sweeping up the mess-deck, sod-all else to do,
Come to the spare crew, do.
Joyful, Joyful, we will ever be,
When the boats are pushing out to sea,
Come to the spare crew, do’
Recently returned Undine Torpedoman Percy Campbell could have advised the spare crewmen hovering gloomily around the South Harbour that life in an operational boat also had its downside:
‘Things were very hard for submarine crews when every available boat was out on patrol. On return to harbour after three weeks and feeling pretty worn out, half the crew were given a few days leave, while the other half set to unload torpedoes. This in itself was a tremendous task and then we took on a fresh supply, cleaned up the boat, re-provisioned her etc. Everything was done by the crew themselves without the assistance of spare crew’
In common with other boats, Undine was plagued by leaking ASDIC dome seals. Undine was ‘trotted’ upriver to Blyth Docks for repair. Another crew could reasonably expect to spend Christmas ashore. The crew was determined to make this a Christmas to remember – and so it was – but not for the reasons they expected. Blyth was gearing up for the festive season. A range of entertainments was planned to keep the base personnel amused. In local clubs and pubs, submariners were bombarded with invitations. Local landowners sent Boxing Day hunt invitations to the Elfin wardroom.
A joint fascination existed between submariners and the local pitmen, after all they had much in common. Both groups tended to define themselves as victims, maligned or misunderstood by those in authority. Miners suffered at the hands of coal owners and big business, submariners from Admiralty ignorance and indifference. The miner produced the coal so vital for keeping the war effort going, the submariners convinced themselves and anyone else prepared to listen, that submarines were the most important weapon in the arsenal. To a large extent both groups thought and acted collectively as a brotherhood, the submariner with his mates, the miner with his ‘marrers’. In their respective worlds individuality was not merely tolerated, it was encouraged. Above all both sectors were cheerfully resigned to the appalling working conditions and dangers of their respective environments. The respect between submariners and miners was mutual and it was genuine. Oddly enough good relations between one set of miners and the crew of Sturgeon was to land the submarine crew in serious trouble.
Wartime regulations forbade crews from leaving their port without an appropriate pass. This regulation was governed by an imperative to maintain readiness for sea at all times. The crew of Sturgeon frequented The Royal in Beaconsfield Street. Keen footballers to a man, they were soon knocking a football around with the locals, some of whom played for Blyth Spartans. Some of the Sturgeon crew (including PO Tel. Norman Drury) accepted an invitation to watch a match played in Morpeth. Normally regulations could have been flouted and the authorities left none the wiser but on this particular occasion Lieutenant. David Gregory was unexpectedly issued with sailing orders. First Lieutenant Gordon Meeke reported that several key ratings were ‘adrift’. Sturgeon could not sail and Gregory was livid.
Upon their return the absentees were rounded up and bundled into the Elfin ‘rattle’. All leave for the crew was immediately stopped, not that it mattered much as Sturgeon was the only serviceable ‘S’ class boat, she was guaranteed to be on patrol over Christmas. The Sturgeon crew was ‘browned off’ and one telegraphist risked court martial and the loss of his good conduct badge by refusing to go on patrol. Bethell responded by drafting him to Starfish instead. His place on Sturgeon was taken by Tel. Phillips of Starfish when the boat left Blyth on December 15th for a patrol in Zone E.
Meanwhile Rob Roy McCurrach was detailed with cooking the Christmas dinner in the ERA’s mess:
‘We decided upon a turkey and a saddle of lamb which I would carve (I’d looked up how to do this in a cookery book). We also planned to serve a soup, the standard and only one in the Royal Navy known as a ‘pea do’, the thicker the better. When we planted this one on the table there were cries of, ‘Hey this is a submarine base not a sodding workhouse !’
In fact the messes were largely empty as many sailors had accepted invitations to spend Christmas with local families such as the Pearsons:
‘Our lodgers Pete and Liz spent Christmas with us. Pete was a great lad who who was always bringing food and stuff from the base kitchens and canteen.. My mother thought a lot of Pete. What with my elder brother away serving in the RAF I think she looked upon him as an extra son. The trouble was we didn’t have that much money. Dad was on a tiny disability pension and there was just my wages coming in. My mother would have liked a bird for Christmas dinner but we couldn’t afford it. Pete said, ‘oh don’t worry about it, I’ll bring you a rabbit or something.
On Christmas Eve, in strolled Pete, grinning away with a brace of large chickens. He had won them in the mess raffle. He presented them to my mother who was of course delighted. A chicken dinner was a real luxury. It was a had great dinner and afterwards some of his mates came over from the base with bottles and boxes of chocolates. Later we wheedled it out of him that Lord Ridley had sent over hampers of food and game for the officers. Pete’s friends had ‘intercepted’ some of the van load before the base people had time to unload it… Of course we were not going to tell my mother that. In any case we had eaten the evidence, hadn’t we ?’
350 miles away Sturgeon was bottomed out off the Danish coast in Zone E. Acting on intelligence reports of a warship breakout transmitted on December 20th, Sturgeon briefly patrolled Zone J in the mouth of the Skagerrak but by Christmas day she was back in her assigned billet (L23 was also at sea over Christmas patrolling the Skagerrak. L23 left Blyth the same day as Sturgeon and the submarine returned to Rosyth on December 29th) Providing the relieving boat, Seahorse was in position within the next few days, the crew of Sturgeon could at least hope to spend New Year’s Eve ashore. Lieutenant Gregory insisted that his unenthusiastic crew hold a carol service but arguments broke out as to the wording and much improvisation was required. A couple of harmonica players accompanied the singers but the service ended abruptly when the ASDIC operator reported a couple of A/S vessels on the prowl. Lieutenant. Gregory presented the crew with Christmas cards on behalf of the royal family, then it was time to adjourn to respective messes for Christmas dinner. Unfortunately the boat had been dived for some time and as Norman Drury recalls, this caused some problems:
‘Christmas dinner was actually quite good under the circumstances. The wardroom poured brandy on their pud and tried to set it alight but there was insufficient oxygen to support the flame and it wouldn’t burn’
Earlier that day the BBC had announced the completion of a protective minefield designed to shield the East coast. There were gaps in this minefield though their locations were classified. The task of policing Gap B off Blyth was handed to Auxiliary Patrol trawlers based at North Shields. Loch Doon struck one of the mines laid by U-22 in the Blyth roads. There were no survivors (See Terror off the Tyne I). The war was coming ever closer to the North East coast.
As Boxing Day dawned, merriment gave way to collective hangover. Rob Roy blearily gathered up the remnants of his Christmas tea and took them down to the South Harbour where his room-mate, Lawrie, was due out on patrol with Seahorse at 15:30hrs.
‘We had plenty of mince pies and pudding left over, so I took some with me and walked down to Seahorse. Lawrie was stowing his steaming kit as ‘Tug’ Wilson said, ‘Great run ashore last night. We ran a sweepstake 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 the civilians won one as well. ‘Miss Jackie’s going to keep our bottle until we return, then said Billy, a party. He rolled his eyes and drank from an imaginary glass. ’Anyway thanks for the mince pies’ and he went away stuffing one into his mouth. Smith came back into the mess, ‘Hello Mac, you coming out with us ? Better look slippy. All ashore that’s 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.
The wire ropes were quickly cleared, the seamen doing this dressed in filthy white sweaters and blue inflated lifebelts. 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 then 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 bows 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 Seahorse turned to leave harbour as the men on the casing made their way back into the boat via the conning tower. I stood and watched ‘till she reached the far wall’
The crew of Rosyth based Triumph had reason to remember Boxing Day night 1939 for the rest of their lives. The ‘T’ class boat was on the surface charging batteries just North of the GDM, having left base on December 23rd. While those off-watch tucked into their dinner down below, First Lieutenant John Stevens was taking his turn as Officer on Watch. The Patrol Report observes:
’23:00 hrs – The Officer of the Watch sighted a floating mine about 20 feet ahead. The mine was floating free and was first sighted on the crest of the swell. The wheel was put hard to starboard but Triumph had not started to swing when the mine exploded. The explosion was very heavy and there was a sheet of flame of about 50 feet high’.
One man asleep in his fore-ends hammock, woke up and jumped into a pool of icy water. The bulkhead in front of him was split and buckled. Haunted by the Thetis disaster, Lieutenant Commander McCoy always insisted upon shutting and clipping the watertight doors in the tube space. This time his caution had saved the lives of his crew, for beyond that bulkhead there was very little of Triumph left. Leading Torpedoman Val Wragg:
‘I readily admit to being very frightened because I was aware that if we had to abandon ship with no life rafts or carley floats we would not survive very long in the cold North Sea. However the Skipper ordered us all to diving stations and convinced us that we were going to stay afloat’
The explosion had blown of eighteen feet of Triumph’s bows. Prior to the explosion ten torpedoes had been stacked in the tubes ready for firing. Upon examination one was found to be missing, another was sliced in half, while the warhead of one torpedo had been crushed flat against the firing mechanism. It was clear the crew had been exceedingly lucky. All they had to do now was get home as Val Wragg describes:
‘A ballast pump was started in the fore-ends and we gradually lowered the water level. I was second in charge of the torpedoes but now I had to act as a watch-keeper because once we started making for Rosyth, the speed we could make was determined by how far we could control the level of flooding. At first we could only make for knots but this later improved to ten knots. It was a horrible journey back. We were up to our thighs in water trying to plug the leaks with felt or whatever came to hand. Yet I never doubted we would make it…and we did !’
Triumph returned to Rosyth on December 28th under destroyer escort. Here remarkable escape can be attributed to McCoy’s clipping routine, allied to the fact that the mine was detonated while the boat was on the surface. Had the boat been submerged the outcome would have been very different. This time the crew lived to celebrate the arrival of 1940.
A contingent from the Royal Tank Regiment had been sent to guard the South Harbour and its environs. On the afternoon of December 31st, the tank men paid their own unique tribute to the crew of Ursula. Bob Fife:
‘As a gesture of goodwill we allowed some of the crew to have a go at driving a tank in the dunes (where they could do no harm). Things went all right until one of them tried to drive through a deep water sump. Inevitably the tank got stuck in the middle. The submariners hopped out and legged it back to the base, leaving us to recover it. It’s a good job the ‘silent service’ didn’t hear the names we called them that day’
Four Blyth submarines; Unity, Seahorse, Undine and Starfish, were due to take up patrol billets in the Helgoland Bight in the latter half of December and early January. Admiralty wanted a round the clock watch on the sector. All were given broadly similar patrol orders. Broadly they were to sail North of the GDM then enter Zone E to patrol North West of Horns Reef for two days. Next they were to spend four to five days in Zone B. The question as to how close to approach Helgoland was left to the judgement of the individual captains. All were issued with the co-ordinates of the Vyl Lightship-Helgoland swept channel. The submarines were to return to Zone E via a different route to the ones used to enter the Bight. After two to three days in Zone E they boats were free to return to Blyth. Unity was already at sea, having sailed for the Bight on December 21st.
Lawrence Cryer, spare crew Telegraphist had been looking forward to celebrating New Year with his family at their Seventh Avenue lodgings. Undine’s own telegraphist had ‘gone adrift’ with the result that Cryer was given a ‘pier head jump’ to Undine. As the boat was due to sail at 16:00hrs, this naturally came as something of a shock. Cryer felt a good deal worse when he learned of the problems with the ASDIC dome sealings. Undine had been in dock between December 12th and the 23rd. The shipwrights had done their best in the time available but the telegraphists expressed little confidence in the dome remaining watertight.
Undine’s Skipper, Lieutenant Commander Alan Jackson was handed a billet in the Helgoland Bight, transiting between Zones E and B. The base intelligence officer provided instructions as to a safe approach to Helgoland, based upon Ursula’s discovery of the swept channel between the Vyl Lightship (off Esbjerg in Denmark) and the rock of Helgoland. This would be Undine’s fourth wartime patrol and her second patrol in the Helgoland Bight.
The boat left on time escorted by the Admiralty Yacht, Enchantress as far as Coquet Island. Here Undine set a Northwesterly course for the mouth of the Skagerrak. Enchantress wished her ‘Good Luck and God Speed’. The men on the bridge returned the sentiments then Undine disappeared into the night.
In every home and pub on the mainland the passing of 1939 was celebrated in traditional fashion. For Rob Roy there was good news. Impressed with his skills and his enthusiasm, ‘Chiefy’ Potter of Unity had selected him as his ‘sprog’ ERA for the next patrol. However Rob Roy’s elation was marred by a strange intimation which occurred one night as he walked back to the base with fellow spare crew ERA, Bill ‘Cookem’ Fry:
‘Listen, I said with great urgency’, ‘listen’.
‘I can’t hear a thing. What’s wrong ?’
‘’I heard Lawrie call my name’
‘You give me the creeps, said Cookem, ‘Come on, let’s get going. I’m freezing here’
The New Year had not started promisingly for lovesick Leading Seaman Donald Bowra. The twenty-three year old Starfish Stoker made the best of what promised to be a dismal festive season. The stokers had enjoyed some riotous runs ashore but Donald’s mind was back in Northfleet with his fiancée Evelyn. On December 12th Starfish had gone into dry dock at Blyth, returning to the South Harbour on December 23rd. Donald had been able to obtain a forty-eight hour pass in this period. Like Jack Dunwell of Seahorse he had made the most of this freedom to purchase a suit and finalise his wedding plans. It was unfortunate that on return to Blyth he was ordered to replace one of the submarine batteries, an arduous task by any standards. At least Donald had managed to avoid the Skipper Lieutenant Thomas Turner. Turner was a martinet. Donald was unlikely to forget and incident in the Summer of 1939. Starfish and her ‘chummy’ boat Seahorse had been undergoing a refit in Portland and a tender was laid on to ferry the crews backwards and forwards. It was about to leave for the shore one day when Donald remembered he had left behind his toothbrush, Begging the helmsman to wait a few more minutes while he dashed back into the boat to retrieve it, Donald had not realized that Turner was also on board the tender. He heard the Skipper snarl:
‘Who is running this xxxxxxx boat, me or the stokers ?’
Throughout the short journey Donald felt the malevolent gaze of Turner burning into him. In no doubt that Turner was a man who could and would bear grudges, resolved to make amends as soon as the tender docked. As the sailors disembarked, Donald rushed over and blurted out an apology. Turner cut him off in full flight, then apologised to a brother officer for being late. He then hissed, ‘Blame the new captain !’ pointing at the Stoker. The matter was forgotten in time but Donald gave Turner a wide berth. In time he came to regard Turner as a hard but fair Officer, who possessed a genuine respect for good seamanship – but heaven help the rating who incurred his wrath with sloppy work.
Archie ‘Tickler’ Smith had a critical perspective on Lieutenant Turner:
‘Turner liked to give the impression he was a real hard man. All the younger rates (and officers) who had never served under a different skipper, were scared stiff of him. I served on lots of boats and in my opinion, for what it is worth, a good skipper doesn’t need to stamp or swear or shout to get things done. If something went wrong, it was always someone else to blame – never Turner. He was always deflecting blame. I can’t recall meeting anyone who liked him or for that matter trusted his judgement on matters of seamanship’.
On January 5th, Starfish sailed for the Helgoland Bight. This was her sixth war patrol and her second in the Bight, having patrolled in Zone E in her previous mission.
Despite the best efforts of PO Telegraphist Cryer, the rubber joints had given way on Undine’s ASDIC dome, leading to the flooding of the device. Denied this vital piece of equipment, Captain Jackson faced the choice of turning for home or remaining on patrol in shallow, enemy infested waters. He chose to proceed. Jackson had been issued with the Vyl-Helgoland swept channel and detailed directives should he decide to approach the rock. Undine accordingly entered Zone B. On the dank morning of January 7th, Undine was at periscope depth some twenty miles West of Helgoland. Percy Campbell was on the fore planes when something odd happened.
‘There was a loud explosion which made the large depth-gauge in front of me vibrate somewhat. An alteration of course was made a few degrees to starboard and the Captain ordered, ‘Up Periscope’. He carefully conned 360 degrees in the course of which he spotted what looked like a marker buoy. He called Lieutenant Senior, the Navigator, to come and take a look and came to the conclusion that it could be a channel marker. Several explosions occurred without causing any serious damage but it was generally accepted that we were in a minefield’
At 09:47hrs two A/S vessels were spotted approximately 20 miles W of Heligoland, on an Easterly course of 275°. They belonged to the German Twelfth Mine-sweeping Flotilla under Kapitänleutnant Fritz Petzel. The enemy had greatly strengthened patrols since the humiliations of December 13th. The explosions heard by the Undine crew had been speculative depth-charges dropped by A/S trawlers M1204 (Anna Busse) and M1203 (Bürgermeister Schmidt). Undine was operating in less than 100 feet of water, she had no ASDIC dome but Captain Jackson decided to attack the leading A/S trawler, M1204. He turned Undine on a ninety degree track to his target. There had been debate in submarine circles as to whether A/S trawlers were worthy targets for expensive torpedoes but RA (S) Watson had been ambivalent. With the range down to 2,000 yards. Percy Campbell relinquished the hydroplanes for his official station in the fore-ends under Torpedo Gunners Mate, George Graham. Percy and his mates had practiced the drill for many years but now it was for real:
‘The orders, ‘Bring no’s one and two tubes to the ready, blow round tank, open one and two bow-caps’, came from the control room, followed in quick succession by ‘Set the gyro angle’, which was immediately dialled on no’s one and two torpedoes and we reported them ‘Ready’ by telegraph back to the control room’
The Skipper gave the order to ‘Fire’ and Percy Campbell describes what happened next:
‘After firing the two torpedoes we went as deep as we could (which was only eighty feet) and scraped along the bottom – it was a pity we didn’t have deeper water in which to manouevre. We waited silently and counted down the seconds, waiting for our torpedoes to hit. We counted Forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty- three etc…Hell, they should have hit by now…Everyone was tense with excitement, then there was a tremendous explosion’
Jackson raised the periscope just enough to have been spotted by one of the look-outs on M1204. The trawler’s helm was turned and the torpedo had missed its target. Undine had confirmed her presence in spectacular fashion. The Germans knew where she was and they knew equally she had nowhere to hide. Fortunes had reversed in minutes. Jackson ordered:
‘SHUT ALL WATERTIGHT DOORS. CLOSE UP FOR DEPTH CHARGING’
British submarine evasion techniques were governed by the experience of Spearfish in September. A strict silent routine must be imposed, allowing the boat to slip away at an opportune time. Unlike Spearfish, Undine did not have a functioning ASDIC set making it extremely difficult to locate the enemy vessels. Five minutes of total silence elapsed before Jackson decided to rise to thirty-six feet – periscope depth. The bows of a ship were heading straight towards Undine.
‘DOWN PERISCOPE. SIXTY FEET’
Percy Campbell: ‘It was easy for them as they only had to set the depth-charges to eighty feet and it was only a matter of time before our number was up. We could hear them criss-crossing at full speed over the top of us and just waited for the blow to come. It did. It scared the hell out of us as it was a near direct hit‘
What follows is an extract from Captain Jackson’s post-war account:
‘I turned to starboard to attack, but could not get round quickly enough and the trawler disappeared in the fog. About ten minutes later, approximately 09:50, two trawlers (minesweepers) were sighted to the southward, steering to the eastward, at a range of approximately 2,000 yards. I turned and carried out an attack, firing one torpedo on a 90° track at the leading trawler, estimating her speed as 12 knots. The torpedo missed, passing I to 2 meters astern, according to the German coxswain who was on the bridge at the time and who informed me that their speed had been 14 knots. The sea was so calm that I considered it inadvisable to show the periscope again for some time, so I turned to a westerly course with all auxiliary auxiliary machinery stopped. About four minutes after firing there was a moderately loud explosion… Before the submarine had really started to go down there were three violent explosions, one aft, one forward and another (I was informed by Leading Telegraphist Monserrat that he heard a noise on the port side of the control room which sounded like a depth-charge scraping the pressure hull, but I have no personal recollection of this) The submarine was blown upwards, some lights and glass broken, there was a steady leak in the engine room from near the hatch, a leak in the galley…’
Trim was lost and the sound of rending metal signified damage. Once taut controls abruptly slackened. Air pipes screamed as men scrambled through the dark to plug numberless leaks. With the submarine about to break surface, Jackson gave the order:
‘FLOOD ‘Q’. GET HER DOWN’
Lieutenant Commander Jackson:
‘The asdic being completely out of action, and the hydrophones almost useless, I was unable to form a picture of what was happening on the surface. The depth of water was about 12- 14 fathoms. Bearing in mind the experience of Submarine Spearfish, I proceeded at a depth of 40 to 50 feet as slowly as possible, and turning to the northward. A period of complete quiet followed for about five minutes Thinking there might be a possibility of attacking again and that the enemy had broken off the hunt, l returned to periscope depth and raised the low-powered periscope -only to look directly at a trawler on the starboard beam and so close that I could only see her port side from the bridge to the after end of the engine room casing‘.
Water pouring into the engine room forced the stern down. The torpedomen thrashed around through rising water on the fore-ends. Attempts to fix the damage were thwarted by the difficulty in standing upright on the slippery plates as Undine took on a heavy list. Jackson again:
‘I raised the high power periscope and saw a trawler bows-on the starboard beam at a range of half a mile. Considering it was impossible to get the submarine down again to a safe depth before being rammed , I ordered, ‘Surface – burn the confidential books. Prepare the charge’
The German sailors watched with incredulity as Undine broke surface, lolling like a drunk with her stern well down. Percy Campbell:
‘We were now at their mercy. The fore-part from the bows to the conning tower was on the surface with the afterpart still submerged. We tried every possible means to get her down but when they opened fire with their three inch guns (Undine had not been fitted with a gun) and machine gunned us as fast as they could; we could hear the hits on the pressure hull’
As if to underline the irony of the moment Leading Telegraphist Monserrat received a message from Admiralty, ‘NEGATIVE ZONE B’. It was a little too late to save Undine now that further A/S vessels had taken up position on either beam. Bullets pattered against the casing as Jackson mounted the bridge with his signalman, who draped a white ‘negative’ flag over the side. The firing then subsided allowing the crew to gather at the foot of the hatch. Bemused by its savage reversal of fortune, the crew was nevertheless still capable of making life difficult for the Germans. Percy Campbell:
‘Abandon ship ! Every man for himself. Sorry chaps!’ said the Captain. Lieutenant Sam Stewart, our youngest Officer was calmly setting fire to our code books and confidential papers in the wardroom. I went to his assistance and he told me with a smile to ‘open up the battery ventilators inboard’. With the mainline sea-cocks fully opened we made our exit’
First Lieutenant Harvey remained behind to ensure that all the valves were open sending thousands of gallons of sea water surging into Undine. Within minutes the battery cells were awash. Clouds of chlorine gas billowed through the boat. Spluttering Harvey staggered out to join the others, as the enemy ships now drew alongside, including M1201 (Harvestehude) commanded by Petzer. For the twenty-seven strong crew this was their first sight of the enemy. A short time ago they had tried to sink one of these ships and there was considerable speculation as to the reception they could expect. Undine was now so low in the water that crew members could step into the sea. The shock of plunging into the North Sea was bone piercing. The ordeal was made worse by German sailors firing bursts of machine gun fire just above the heads of the swimmers. CPO Jordan got into difficulties. Fortunately he was spotted by First Lieutenant Michael Harvey who dived in and dragged him to a nearby skiff. Clinging to a gunwhale to draw breath, Harvey shivered as a Nazi machine gun was pointed menacingly in his face. Picked up by M1201 and M1204, the sodden bedraggled crew of Undine was herded out of sight and into the trawler holds. TGM Graham in particular had been cheered by the prospect of imminent retirement on full pension: there was to be no pension where he was going, only six tedious years spent shuffling between POW camps. Interestingly the Official History Vol I (Submarine Operations Home Waters) (BR1376)(52) gives the date of this encounter as January 6th when it actually took place on January 7th. This has resulted in incorrect information finding its way into several publications.
Before he was hustled below, Jackson turned to see Undine‘s bridge still protruding above the water. It was a sad end for the little submarine but he could only pray that she sank before the Germans could attach more lines to her and haul her back to Wilhelmshaven as a prize. A short time later several German sailors boarded Undine only to be driven back by fumes. A second group, this time wearing gas masks boarded the boat. While their mates looked on anxiously, the men, led by Kapitänleutnant Petzer, disappeared below to recover whatever they could. Proud Undine was having none of it. As soon as the engines were switched off , she slipped the towing hawser and sank without warning, taking two of the unfortunate members of the M1201 crew with her in a Gőtterdäammerung which foreshadowed the end of Unity. The starboard fore hydroplane was seen to be at hard-a-rise and the spindle bent from depth-charge damage. There was nothing the crew of Undine could have done to save the boat. Only M1201 and M1207 of the Twelfth Flotilla had been fitted with revolving hydrophones. Had S-Gerät been installed, the denouement may well have been a tragic one.
‘My own personal experience was that after about three quarters of an hour to an hour in the crew’s quarters of the trawler, I was taken aft by a German sub-Lt. There was no sign of Undine. When I asked him if she had sunk, he shrugged his shoulders and pointed to a buoy. I am of the opinion that one of the depth-charges which exploded near the bow, jammed No. One main vent shut. No. One main ballast was blown with the remainder of the main ballast but the vent probably did not open when the main vents were opened from the control room. The weight of the water in the fore-end combined with the water leaking through the galley and engine room would have overcome the buoyancy caused by number one main ballast tank being empty and I consider that there is no doubt that Undine sank’.
The SKL Diary contained the following entry:
‘With the sinking of this submarine, the Kriegsmarine had achieved the first tangible A/S success, which is all the more welcome due to the previous complete lack of results which appeared to justify doubts about the effectiveness of the A/S defences‘
At 09:40hrs on the morning of January 9th, Geoffrey Wardle, the Starfish Officer on Watch, warned of an enemy destroyer on the starboard bow. Lieutenant Turner confirmed the sighting. Like Lieutenant Commander Jackson before him, he decided to attack. Leading Torpedoman ‘Tickler’ Smith was in the fore-ends when the order to bring the tubes to the ready was issued:
‘My action station was on a small platform between the torpedo tubes. My torpedomen mates were stationed at either side, their job was to flood the tubes and charge them ready for firing. My role as LTO was to operate the bow-caps and obey the indicator lights initiated from the control room. The tube firing sequence was operated electrically but to make sure of firing, I also had to operate the sequence by hand’
As the ship approached, so Turner gave the instruction, ‘Group Up’, followed by the order to fire. This time there was none of the usual sensation of the bows lifting before compensating water rushed in to force them down again. ‘Tickler’ Smith:
‘The ‘Stand by to Fire’ indicator came on but I waited in vain for the ‘Fire One’ and subsequent indicators to light. No firing took place and I reported this to TI Clark, who in turn advised the control room that the torpedoes had not been fired’
An unfortunate drill failure had prevented the order to fire from reaching ‘Tickler’ and his mates in the fore-ends. The initiative now passed to the enemy. The target was not a destroyer but M7 of the First Minesweeping Flotilla. Within minutes of Lieutenant Wardle spotting the warship, M7 (Oberleutnant Timm) had detected Starfish on S-Gerät. Lieutenant Turner took Starfish down to sixty feet as the submarine shuddered under a couple of depth-charge explosions that were far too close. The slackening hydroplane controls indicated damage. Turner now bottomed the boat out in ninety-five feet in the hope of repairing the hydroplanes, ordering Silent Routine. For over an hour the thirty-nine strong crew of Starfish listened intently to the warship screws overhead. With the Sperry compass in danger of wandering, the outside ERA sought permission to start up auxiliary machinery. This was quickly detected by M7. The novel ‘Now is the Hour’ by Michael Bowra gives a graphic description of the ordeal which followed:
‘The sound was coming from outside the boat…in the faint distance came the sound of propellers churning through the water and there was no mistaking that this sound was getting stronger. He listened intently, his gaze, for some reason, directed straight up, almost as if he expected to see his hunters. They were not turning away as before but were heading straight towards the submarine. Almost in despair he swore gently under his breath, ‘the bastards have found us’.
Light bulbs exploded in their sockets plunging the boat into darkness. Water and HP air streamed into the submarine adding to the discomfort. Donald Bowra witnessed the boat’s hull plating appear to spring apart under the force of the explosion and then return to its original position:
‘Before he could move, several heavy duty rivets were torn from their holes and ricocheted off the engine casing beside his head. Men were shouting and screaming, desperately trying to stem the leaking of oil, water and air. Just when it looked as though the crew had won their battle then more charges dropped into the sea above Starfish. One of the huge brass clocks came flying off the bulkhead (narrowly missing Donald’s head) and smashed against the opposite casing. Again a rivet, as though fired by a gun, careered across the boat and rebounded off the starboard diesel. Another explosion sent Donald hurtling into Russell. A member of the crew leaped over him. As he grovelled on the deck, Donald noticed the damp patch on the seat of his trousers; he had wet himself but who could blame him ? Donald’s vision was totally blurred and his nerves were at breaking point A couple of men vomited and the mess floated lazily in the water now covering the deck…Donald was soaked to the skin. His face was covered in oil and blood trickled from his nose and ears.’
CERA George Jagger bellowed orders as he desperately tried to plug a rash of leaks. Nearby, Engineer Officer Dodsworth attempted to make sense of a bewildering array of reports but the damage was obvious to all concerned. The after bulkhead had buckled, the conning tower was damaged and the water pouring into the engine room was now threatening to flood the diesel engines. News from the fore-ends was not good either:
‘Once you being depth-charged training discipline takes over and you have no time to think about anything except the job in hand – and what a job we had ! We could see the water pouring in from the bilges and so we tried to shut the small doors to ‘Five’ and ‘Six’ torpedoes but we were unable to do so as the doors had become warped by the explosions. I reported this to TI Clark. By this time the deck plates were covered by oil and grease. As they were being lifted by the lapping water, it was like walking on slippery uneven paving stones and it became increasingly difficult to keep a foothold’
By this stage air bubbles were visible on the surface, which was of great assistance in pinpointing the submarine’s location to the Germans as rising seas had caused M7‘s S-Gerät to fail. Marker buoys were laid as M5 arrived at the scene shortly before sunset.
TI Clark realised that his men were fighting a losing battle in the fore-ends. ‘Tickler’ Smith:
‘TI Clark ordered ‘Everybody out !’ and ‘Shut watertight doors’. By this time the water was up to my knees but with the TI’s help I jumped on to the platform only to find that the door clips had been knocked down by the force of the explosions. When they had been pushed in again, we all had to lean heavily against the doors to get them shut as they too had warped. Having done all we could in the fore ends, we shut the door then went first into the crowded control room, then into the engine room where HP air leaks and oil leaks seemed to be everywhere. Heavy tool boxes and other items were sliding from one end of the engine room to the other’
At 16:00hrs Turner ordered the distribution of tea and soup to the exhausted crew but there was no chance of such luxuries in the engine room where the engine cases were in danger of flooding. Dodsworth advised Turner that if Starfish remained submerged for much longer the motors could not be used to reach the surface. After discussing the matter with his officers at 18:00hrs, Turner addressed the crew in the control room. He described the hopeless situation and informed them of his plan to blow Starfish to the surface using the remaining air reserves as soon as confidential papers had been destroyed. Confidential books were gathered up and locked in the safe, lifebelts were issued while the telegraphists ripped off their trade badges. George Jagger rigged the aft escape hatch in the engine room. With the fore-ends flooded reaching the surface was bound to be difficult, so Geoffrey Wardle stood ready to release the drop keel at Turner’s command. It was now a case of saving life rather than saving Starfish. At 18:20hrs Turner gave the order to surface. As all remaining ballast was blown, Starfish rose stern-first. Her bow scraped along the bottom for what seemed an eternity before clawing her way to the surface on the last gasp of her motors. The moment Starfish surfaced she was illuminated by search lights on the two German vessels. As the last clip was removed from the engine room hatch the build up of pressure hurled George Jagger out of the boat. Turner now gave orders to scuttle Starfish. The main ballast tanks were flooded and Wardle was ordered to throw the safe over the side. Geoffrey Wardle had considerable difficulty in hauling the small safe against the angle of the boat. All his strength was required to clamber onto the engine diesel rockers and so make his escape. Machine gun bursts aimed over the heads of the men huddled on the casing were stopped by the display of a white sheet acting as a flag.
As he slid off the casing, Donald Bowra felt a sudden heart-stopping shock as the North Sea engulfed him. He headed towards a searchlight. Ahead he could see the Germans helping submariners into a boat. Glancing behind him he could see that the casing was still crowded with men, ‘Tickler’ Smith among them:
‘I stayed wet through like the others on the tanks near the gun. Finally the German ship came alongside. By this stage Starfish was only four or five feet out of the water at the stern. The Germans pulled us on board’
Having swallowed a larger quantity of oil Donald Bowra was in serious trouble as a combination of exhaustion and waterlogged clothing began to drag him under. He was in a half-drowned state when a German sailor roughly hauled him out then threw him on the deck of M5 (K. Dierksen). When he regained his senses he found himself sprawled out on the deck. He looked up to see two men clad in leather jackets, sternly pointing rifles in his direction. When the last of the forty British sailors was taken below, some of the captives glimpsed Starfish. The gun barrel was twisted like a corkscrew. The German sailors managed to secure a line between one of the buoys and the three inch gun. Nevertheless Starfish had shipped to much water to remain afloat for long. At 19:10hrs Starfish sank.
For the crew of Starfish as for the Undines, a journey that had started in Blyth was to end in Nazi Germany. M7 docked at the South Jetty, Wilhelmshaven just before dawn on of January 10th The first snows of Winter had fallen on the quayside but this did not deter the authorities from holding a rapturous reception for the A/S crews. In the holds the captives listened to brass band music interspersed with cheers as medals were dished out at their expense. Minus shoes and socks, clad only in paper-thin overalls, the prisoners were frog marched down the quayside to a torrent of abuse from German civilians. The German A/S crews remained aloof from this Nazi ritual humiliation, mindful perhaps, that fate was fickle. The officers and senior rates were separated from the rest who were thrust inside a grim Kriegsmarine barracks.
Donald and his mates found themselves in a drab, unheated classroom fitted with a double tier of bunks, A pail containing potato soup was placed in the middle of the floor but there were few takers. Men conversed warily, rightly suspecting that the room was bugged. The Germans wanted to identify telegraphists in order to learn more about ASDIC. One by one the submariners were removed for interrogation. Donald Bowra’s turn came at 03:30hrs. Two armed guards marched him into a room containing a desk and a couple of chairs, one of them occupied by a middle aged German officer who bade Donald to be seated. Donald was asked for, and gave, his name, rank and serial number. He responded to all other questions with a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders. The German officer spoke excellent English. He attempted to draw Donald into seemingly innocent conversation. He casually asked Donald if he could remember the precise time that Starfish had left Blyth ? The Stoker was unable to hide his surprise. Yes, not only did he know all about Blyth, he could list all the Blyth and Dundee boats which regularly patrolled the Helgoland Bight. The list was accurate. Admiralty did not realise until late 1940 that German naval intelligence, B-Dienst had broken the British Naval Cypher Number One as early as 1935. Donald merely shrugged when more questions were put to him. The German officer assured him that if he was to answer the questions, he could assure him that his circumstances would improve dramatically. Again Donald shrugged. The German officer gave up. At a given signal the two guards re-entered the room and marched Donald back to the classroom. All the ratings were given identical interrogations but contrary to the Geneva Convention the officers were held in solitary confinement for a week. Eventually a convoy of cattle trucks turned up to take to prisoners to Oflag IX(a) Spangenburg Castle, where they were reunited with the crew of Undine. For both crews the next six years would be long ones.
Time was also weighing heavily on the mind of Ruth Strong in Carlisle. It was Friday, January 12th. All the wedding arrangements had been made. All that was missing was the Groom, Jack Dunwell. Ruth knew something was wrong. Jack always rang her on his return from patrol. Fully realising that Seahorse must be overdue, she plucked up the courage to telephone HMS Elfin. Unfortunately not even Jock Bethell himself could have given Ruth, the Rev. Cockburn or any of the other Seahorse dependents now bombarding the base with anxious calls, any information for nothing had been heard from the submarine since she left the South Harbour on Boxing Day.
A detailed analysis of the loss of this boat is given in ‘Black Christmas – Whatever Happened to HMS Seahorse ?’ What follows is a summary. First let us revisit the orders issued to Lieutenant Dennis Massy-Dawson (See Black Christmas – Whatever happened to HMS Seahorse for detailed analysis) It would take Seahorse two to three days to cross the North Sea and skirt the GDM. Seahorse was to patrol Zone E. After midnight on December 29th-30th Seahorse was to continue South into Zone B, West of Helgoland, keeping East of the longitude 7° East. After midnight on January 4th, Seahorse was to return to Zone E, keeping to the West of 7° East. Seahorse had been expected to return to Blyth on January 10th.
It was noted that the boat had failed to acknowledge signals sent on December 27th and January 7th. Some regard this as evidence that the boat was destroyed before the patrol billet was ever reached. U-22 was sent to mine the Blyth roads on December 20th, specifically to sink submarines. Seahorse would have ‘proceeded with dispatch’ on the surface as per her orders. Her departure was carefully observed by shore watchers and nothing amiss was reported.
The Blyth roads have been intensively dived and no submarine wrecks have been discovered to date. It is therefore highly unlikely that Seahorse was mined on her own doorstep.
In the immediate post war years German records were scoured for attacks on British submarines in the hope of closing the circle. Some sources regard the attack made by the First Minesweeping Flotilla on January 7th in PG-49741 to have been responsible for the destruction of Seahorse. This attack took place at 54°19.8′ N 07°30′ in the Helgoland Bight. This German account is given in full:
‘At 13:18 submarine sighted and alarm given. Location obtained and 9 DCs (depth charges) dropped. Success not observed. S/M noises heard through echo ranger and revolving directional hydrophones. Buoy dropped. After the attack a further clear echo was obtained and 3 DCs dropped without result. Position watched and two light buoys dropped. UJ boat anchored near the spot but heavy fog prevented further attack. 6 DCs each of double throws had been dropped on the located position of the submarine but no proof of success was obtained. A diving vessel was sent for but no wreck was reported to have been found‘.
Clearly the Germans themselves did not think this attack had sunk a submarine. Indeed there is every reason to conclude the target was ‘non sub’. The first observation to be made is that no British submarine would surface in daylight (even in fog) within the Helgoland Bight, unless it was in imminent danger of sinking due to fatal damage. The other point is that if we cross reference this report with the orders issued to Seahorse, it becomes obvious that if the boat still survived on January 7th, it would have been well to the North of the location of this attack, in Zone E. The final criticism of this explanation is the fact that the location was dived immediately following the attack by Kriegsmarine divers – and has been dived ever since by sports divers. No submarine wreck has ever been found.
We can be equally dismissive of a claim that Seahorse was sunk by the German Sperrbrecher IV/Oakland South East of Helgoland on December 29th, 1939. This vessel opened fire on a presumed periscope with a 20mm gun and though an oil slick was seen, the water was only twenty-four meters deep and no depth charges were dropped. As we know, Seahorse was ordered not to transit between Zone E and Zone B until 29th December. Seahorse ought to have been off the Danish coast at this juncture, nowhere near the scene of this encounter.
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.
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 between the Vyl Lightship off Esjberg and Helgoland. This intelligence was processed by
Admiralty then disseminated. Undine, Starfish and Unity were ordered to take a course well to the East of the 7° line (green) but no instructions had been issued to Seahorse when she left on patrol (although Massy-Dawson was provided with the co-ordinates provided by Ursula. 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 twenty mile long wall, two to four mines deep in a depth of one hundred feet. Seventy 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. These mine strips were laid with considerable guile. A British submarine would surface at night to charge batteries but it would dive before dawn, where the mines would be waiting. Seahorse should have returned to Blyth on January 10th. We know that she failed to acknowledge transmissions made on both December 27th and January 7th. The latter may be more significant than the former.
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 16:00hrs on December 29th. 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 the reprieve would only be temporary. 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 December 29th/30th are therefore very high.
When Undine failed to return or send an ETA signal on January 15th, Admiralty realised it had a disaster on its hands but the scale was not yet fully understood. Next day Hamburg radio made a devastating announcement to the effect that Kriegsmarine forces had sunk no less than three British submarines in the Bight confirming that men from Starfish and Undine had been recovered. The international news agencies cottoned on fast to the disaster, leaving Admiralty unable to suppress information any longer. To clarify the situation an official communique was read out to a stunned House of Commons. Late that evening the BBC made the following announcement:
‘THE SECRETARY OF THE ADMIRALTY REGRETS TO ANNOUNCE THAT DURING THE PASGT WEEKS HM SUBMARINES SEAHORSE, UNDINE AND STARFISH HAVE FAILED TO RETURN TO THEIR BASES OR REPORT.
THESE THREE VESSELS HAVE BEEN ENGAGED ON PARTICULARLY HAZARDOUS SERVICE AND THE ADMIRALTY FEAR THAT THEY MUST NOW BE REGARDED AS HAVING BEEN LOST. NEXT OF KIN ARE BEING INFORMED AT ONCE. THE GERMAN WIRELESS HAS ANNOUNCED THAT PART OF THE CREWS OF THE UNDINE AND STARFISH HAVE BEEN RESCUED’
What else could the Admiralty have said ? Could it have criticised its own staff for underestimating the defences of the Bight, so recently the scene of Ursula‘s triumph ? Could it have pointed out the deficiencies of pre-war training which placed emphasis on teaching the crews of surface ships rather than training submariners in evasion or even in making attacks ? Could it have explained to the public that even if the submariners had been fully versed in these techniques, the waters of Zone B in the Bight were far too shallow to put them into effect. Above all, it will be recalled it was Churchill and the Admiralty who wanted to press the submarines harder, while the soon to depart RA (S) Watson had sought a more gradual introduction in order to build up a picture of the Bight defences and provide his crews with cumulative experience.
The fact that all three submarines had been engaged in routine patrols only served to heighten Admiralty discomfort. Three modern submarines and 106 highly trained submariners were missing (twenty seven from Undine, thirty-nine from Starfish and forty from Seahorse). Even during the darkest hours of the Great War the Submarine Service had never known a disaster on such a scale. News travelled all over the world. In his book, ‘British Submarines at War’, Alistair Mars, then a young officer patrolling in a submarine off Vladivostock, describes how this news was greeted with anger and disbelief. Within the Service there was an assumption that some ‘desk wallah’ had blundered. What other explanation could there be ?
Some linked the loss of these submarines with the mysterious ‘North Sea grunts’ but the phenomenon had been noted by Great War submariners. As mentioned previously, Admiralty believed Seahorse had been mined with the Germans unaware of the wreck location. Submariners hated mines. Depth charges could be evaded, torpedoes, likewise but mines were like some terrible primitive god, uncertain, inconsistent and unjust. Triumph survived her encounter with a mine because she was on the surface at the time of detonation, while Seahorse was likely submerged. For some inexplicable reason, unlike Starfish, Unity and Undine, Seahorse had not been issued with instructions as to how to make a safe approach to the Bight. A ‘desk wallah’ had indeed blundered, with more than a whiff of criminal incompetence.
There was a fearful symmetry in the destruction of Undine and Starfish. Both captains (experienced with submarines but novices in terms of wartime realities) had rashly attacked unsuitable targets in seas too shallow to avoid detection or evade the subsequent hunt. The willingness of commanders to attack in such circumstances can only be explained by the intense pressure they felt under to achieve success.
For the parents of George Hogg of Heaton, for the Tindalls of Washington and for Mrs Cryer in Blyth, anxiety gave way to some relief when the Germans confirmed their men were alive. There was no such joy for the recently wed Diane Massy-Dawson, the Rev. Cockburn or Ruth Strong. Initially flickers of hope had been raised by a cruel rumour that all three crews were safe but these embers of hope were quenched when next-of-kin received Admiralty telegrams advising them that the crew of Seahorse must now be presumed dead. They were sent on January 18th, the day Ruth Strong and Jack Dunwell were to have been married.
That morning a service was held on the Elfin parade ground. 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...’ held an extra poignancy. Those who had earlier cheered Ursula‘s success now saw the other side of the coin. The loss of the submarines was felt in unexpected ways. Bob Fife:
‘It must have been about January 18th when we were asked to attend a meal given by the Rotarians or somebody. We were all for it, until we learned that the spread had originally been intended for some of the lost sub crews and they did not want to waste the food. Upon learning of this we all lost our appetites and turned it down’
Meanwhile Rob Roy came to terms with the loss of his friend and room-mate Lawrie Lawrenson:
‘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 I enclosed ten, one pound notes with my letter. I said I would come and see her one day (something I never managed). I kept his empty wallet and his cap – which I wore for the next six years’
There was much sadness in the Astley Arms but Lydia Jackson steadfastly refused to believe all those young men, once so full of fun and laughter, could possibly all be dead. She took ‘Tug’ Wilson’s bottle of Johnny Walker and placed it high on a shelf above the door. There she resolved to keep it safe until ‘Tug’ and the boys returned to collect it.
ADM 199/278, ADM 199/1925, ADM 267/114, ADM 234/380, ADM 199/1819, ADM 199/1830, ADM 199/1837,
Now is the Hour by Michael Bowra
© P Armstrong