The Story of the Blyth Submarine Base 6. Dead Men on Leave

‘Not ‘midst the din of cannon’s roar

in battle smoke and flame,

O’er waves that wash this Britain’s shores,

the final signal came

They leave the cheerful light of day,

at duty’s call they go.

Down, down beneath the wind-blown spray

to dangers deep below.

Death comes aboard, the patrol is done,

They make no weak appeal.

The gunner dies beside his gun, the helmsman at his wheel

The sea has claimed them for her own

and keeps them one and all,

beyond the reach of bugles blown or fluttering flags recall.

Famed ships, brave men of days of old,

live in historic scenes

But valour writes your name in gold

Men of the Submarines

‘Heroes’ Stoker Clifford Stone HMS/M Narwhal, June 1940

When the press men gathered at the South Harbour to cover the return of Spearfish, they could not help but notice a strange looking submarine moored at the Middle Jetty. This submarine was much bigger than the rest, some 293 feet long. It lacked the streamlining of the ‘U’ and ‘S’ class boats. It was fitted with off-centre periscope standards. The press was sternly warned that on no account was this submarine to be filmed. Blyth was set to be the focus of the forthcoming submarine mining campaign.

Deploying submarines to lay mines in the North Sea had been discussed within the higher echelons of Admiralty in late February 1940. The sceptical Horton had secured the concession that the boats should not be used in water less than ninety feet deep. With the fall of Norway and Denmark the ships of the Royal Navy had been driven out of Scandinavian waters. However, for as long as enemy vessels kept blowing up on British mines, the Nazis could not claim to have defeated the Royal Navy, a lesson not lost on Commander in Chief Home Fleet, Charles Forbes. British submarines could hamper Nazi consolidation by mining key roadsteads and attacking vulnerable supply lines. Despite Horton’s misgivings, Forbes was determined to unleash a Summer mining campaign to ensure the world knew that the White Ensign was still flying in Northern waters. This policy did not take into account that whatever the hazards faced by ordinary coastal submarines in these seas, the dangers would be greatly multiplied for the lumbering, slow-diving mine-layers.

Among those who doubted the wisdom of this policy was Jock Bethell. Having lost three boats already, he had no desire to see Seal and Narwhal join the list. Placing the safety of his crews above his own career advancement (only too well aware of the vindictive nature of VA(S) who would not take kindly to insubordination) Bethell resolved to visit Northways in an attempt to persuade Horton to halt the operations.

Note the box-like casing containing the mine rails. The periscope standards were placed off-centre to accommodate the mine rails running the length of the boat. The gun turret of the Porpoise class was originally enclosed

Porpoise, Narwhal, Rorqual, Grampus, Cachalot and Seal were purpose built mine-laying submarines launched in the 1930’s. The fuel capacity of the Porpoise class was immense. With their fuel tanks full it was estimated they could sail around the world without having to refuel. Because of their relative size the Porpoise Class boasted amenities unheard of on smaller submarines. Compartments were roomy. The wardrooms were opulent with mahogany tables and partitions lined with wainscot. There was a bunk for every sailor. However few of those in the ‘S’ and ‘U’ class boats would have changed places with their Porpoise class counterparts because mine-laying was considered to be the most dangerous work in the Submarine Service.

The Porpoise class had been designed for offshore mining not shallow inshore leads or harbour roads or Norwegian skerries. Diving time was crucial to survival. Most British boats could dive in seventeen to twenty-three seconds but flooding the casing of a mine-layer took a minute and thirty-two seconds on average. Each submarine carried fifty Type XVI mines custom designed for the Porpoise class. The average mine-lay could be carried out in twenty minutes with the boat either surfaced or at periscope depth. Minelaying usually took place with the boat travelling at four knots if submerged or six knots if surfaced. Egg-laying required a skilled team of specialist personnel to direct the operation from a compartment in the stern. Switch levers controlled the speed and spread of the lay. It was the responsibility of the captain to maintain the correct depth, speed and course. Once committed to the lay, it was impossible to take avoiding action or dive to safety. One major drawback was that with a full load of mines onboard, the boat could not ‘trim down’ like other submarines. The boat had to be kept in full buoyancy with all the associated slow diving issues, to avoid trim being lost. The captains of mine-laying boats had considerable latitude over when and how to lay their mines. There was usually a secondary minefield location should the designated sector turn out to be too dangerous. Once the mine-lay was completed the captain was given the discretion to carry out a conventional patrol and attack targets with torpedoes. The Rosyth based mine-laying submarine Narwhal and the peripatetic Cachalot. were to be sent to Blyth.

Minefield FD I lay in dangerous waters deep in enemy seaspace

In the course of a March patrol, Sealion had spotted a German marker buoy previously unreported.  The amount and nature of the enemy activity suggested to naval intelligence that the buoy marked a passage through the GDM.  It was a promising area to offensively mine.    HMS Narwhal (Lieutenant Commander Ronald Burch) arrived at Blyth on April 1st. She departed later the same day for the Naval Depot at Immingham Docks where she embarked fifty MK XVI mines.  Next morning Narwhal left to carry out FD1, a mine lay in the Helgoland Bight designed to snare any vessels using this suspected passage. The mines were laid 54°37’N, 06°35’E  between 04:13hrs and 04:22hrs. The boat returned to Blyth on April 8th following an uneventful patrol. It is known that an A/S Trawler, Emden was destroyed on these mines. There are some reports that a 3,000 ton ship, Marion was seriously damaged.

Another mining operation FD 5 was scheduled for Narwhal. This time a field was to be laid North of Laesø Island in position 57°26’N, 10°45’E. Narwhal left Blyth to pick up her load at Immingham on April 9th. Next day she left for the Northern tip of Denmark. Burch wrote in his Patrol Report:

Proceeded submerged to laying position. Kattegat was full of trawlers, fishing vessels and miscellaneous craft. Some were armed and kept station in divisions of three in line abreast, columns disposed astern or quarterly, probably minesweeping. Others were in line ahead. Some unarmed craft appeared to be ordinary fishing vessels. Laid mines exactly where ordered but on course 315°. Fix was obtained from three shore light houses. No traffic was seen in Laesø Rende

21:31 hrs Sighted dark objects later identified as a large and a small merchant ship escorted by two torpedo-boats or trawlers. Started attack.

21:58 hrs Fired 6 torpedoes from 6,000 yards. No hits were obtained‘.

FD 5 and FD 6

Narwhal was back at Blyth on April 17th. It is known that the 5,042 ton German merchant Togo was badly damaged on these mines. Thirteenth Minesweeper Flotilla vessel, M1302 (Schwaben) was also sunk.

Cachalot (Lieutenant Commander S. Bennetts) arrived at Blyth from Blockhouse, Gosport on April 10th. The boat left Blyth for Immingham Docks on April 13th. The hazards of a submarine, even a large one, travelling down the East Coast Swept Channel have already been described. At 21:45hrs off Whitby an Italian merchant, Beppe, collided with Cachalot tearing off a section of casing and damaging the buoyancy tanks. Able to sail under her own power, the boat was ordered to proceed back up the coast to Swan Hunter’s Yard at Wallsend. Seal was summoned to Blyth to carry out the mine-lay in her place. With Narwhal due to leave Blyth on April 25th for Operation FD 6 and Seal expected to sail on April 29th for FD 7, Captain S(6) Jock Bethell made arrangements to visit Horton at his Northways headquarters.

Lt. Cdr. Rupert Lonsdale

Seal (Lieutenant Commander Rupert Lonsdale) arrived at Blyth on April 20th and next day went straight into Blyth Docks to repair a faulty door between the stoker’s mess and the mining compartment. Unfortunately there was only time to carry out some welding work as a temporary measure. It is unclear to what extent this work may have contributed to the forthcoming drama. At any rate the delay allowed time for the sailors to find rooms for wives and dependents.

The move from Rosyth to Blyth was not universally popular with the crew of Seal. The loss of three boats within a fortnight had been unprecedented within the Submarine Service. Now that Unity had joined the sad list there were many who considered the Sixth Flotilla to be a jinxed unit. Certainly Bethell had been unhappy with the views of the South Harbour enjoyed by foreign sailors in neutral ships loading with coal at the staithes. There were widespread rumours that German spies had infiltrated the crew of a certain Swedish collier which regularly transported coal from Blyth.

The damaged Cachalot at Swan Hunters’ Yard

Jock Bethell had returned from Northways a disappointed man. Not only had Horton refused to cancel FD7 and the forthcoming mining operations, he had sacked Bethell for his temerity. George Voelcker was appointed Captain S (6) in his place with effect from April 28th, 1940. Not until January 1941 was Bethell appointed to command the cruiser Caradoc.

The crews about to carry out FD 6 and FD 7 were unaware of the dangers ahead, nor were they aware of Bethell’s efforts on their behalf. There was much dripping (grumbling) about the long journey to Immingham to pick up the mines but the one compensation was the relatively short duration of mine-laying missions.

Narwhal loading mines at Immingham Docks, a slow and ponderous process IWM

Narwhal left Blyth early on April 26th, late that afternoon she arrived at Immingham Docks. Mine loading took two hours. By 19:00hrs the boat was ready to leave.

Lieutenant Commander Ronald Burch had enjoyed a meteoric career within the Royal Navy. Burch had served as First Lieutenant of Parthian and had spent time as Liaison Officer on the Polish Submarine Wilk (which culminated in the award of the Polish Military Cross). Ronald Burch took over command of Narwhal and her experienced crew in February 1940. Barely a day into her mission there was evidence that the enemy knew where Narwhal was, when a couple of torpedoes streaked past the bow at 23:45hrs. Fortunately there was plenty of light in the sky allowing Narwhal to alter course in good time, allowing Narwhal to slip into a fog-bank. This attack was put down to chance, indeed it has not been possible to identify the U-boat involved. Admiralty was completely oblivious to the fact that the Germans were able to decipher most wireless transmissions made by British submarines by the Spring and Summer of 1940. The enemy meanwhile plotted positions and worked out the probable routes used by submarines. Regular aircraft, U-boat and A/S patrols were organised accordingly.

In the spacious engine room, Stoker Joseph Smith wiped a gauge and patted his engine in anticipation of a fast getaway as soon as the mines were laid. Thirty-three year old ‘Smithy’ did not possess a seafaring pedigree. Prior to joining the navy back in 1926, Joe had worked as a charge-hand on a Brize Norton farm in native Oxfordshire. Joe had volunteered for submarines in 1930 and apart from a brief spell on Spearfish, most of his sea time had been spent on big boats such as Thames and Regent. Just before the outbreak of war, Joe Smith had been drafted to Narwhal, his favourite boat.

Engine room. Unbearable noise and negligible ventilation. Stokers communicated in their own sign language. Many of those submariners who survived the war went on to develop hearing problems, particularly engine room staff

Smithy had taken part in all Narwhal‘s patrols to date. He well remembered the day when the boat had played a leading part in the destruction of U-63 while on convoy protection duties. Smithy and his mates were in no doubt that more testing missions lay ahead. The crews of small boats were often reluctant to move to larger boats and not just because of the inherent dangers. It was said that large submarines were impersonal, their crews clannish by trade and aloof. Clifford Stone could have told them that the cameraderie was as strong on Narwhal as any British boat. Although Clifford could enjoy a run ashore along with the best of them, he was also something of an unofficial wordsmith. He would pass free time by scribbling down thoughts and working them into prose. Writing helped this devoted family man forget the loneliness of service life and his poems reflect his profound regard for brother. submariners.

This time Narwhal‘s mission was to mine the seaway between Laesø Island and the Danish mainland, the Skaw. This sector was fast fast becoming known as ‘Hellfire Corner’ due to the total dominance of enemy forces.

Narwhal laid her mines between Laeso Rende and the Skaw peninsula (on the left). The attack on the convoy took place just off the Skaw

As Narwhal approached the Island at periscope depth at 07:10hrs on May 1st, an enemy A/S vessel was seen to be in the position of the primary lay. The secondary location a short distance away would have to suffice. Bob Mitchell, mining ERA took up his station in the stern compartment. As each mine trundled along the rails and out of the trap, Mitchell and his team manipulated levers and valves to admit a compensatory amount of sea-water to Narwhal‘s tanks. This was the critical time. A mine jam was every member of the crew’s worst nightmare. Once committed to the lay it fell to First Lieutenant Green and Coxswain Denner to keep the boat in trim and at the correct depth. The off-centre periscope standards left little elbow room Lieutenant Green as he watched for enemy activity. The crew listened intently as the mines bumped and jolted along the rails. Then the noise stopped. There were ten mines left to drop when ERA Mitchell reported a problem. For some inexplicable reason the bows of Narwhal kept turning to port with the result that the mines were being laid in a curve rather than a line and this at a time when the Rau boat had started up its engine and was moving ever closer to the boat. Burch confirmed that this did not matter. The last ten mines were duly laid. Minefield FD 6 comprising fifty mines was laid between 07:27hrs and 07:53hrs in position 57°30’N, 10°43’E. In the engine room Joe Smith tightened the joints and polished the fuel injectors in readiness for a fast dash through the Skagerrak one darkness had fallen. With the lay completed, Burch took Narwhal North, passing Frederikshaven on the port beam. At 17:25hrs the officer on watch alerted Burch that there were smoke plumes ahead.

Narwhal’s Attack

‘Sighted 9 or 10 merchant vessels escorted by surface escorts and aircraft. Started attack in which 6 torpedoes were fired from about 1,000 yards. All 6 were heard to explode. Several hits must have been obtained for sure‘.

The location of the attack was plotted as 57°39’N, 11°03’E. In fact Burch found it difficult to manouevre into a firing position. Only when the zig-zagging convoy turned was be able to place Narwhal in a viable firing course. When the convoy altered course, the strong escort was left in its wake struggling to regain position. Ronald Burch selected the largest ship in the convoy, third from the left. He calculated he could fire off a salvo of torpedoes before the escorts were on top of Narwhal.

In the fore-ends TI Jarvis waited for the command to fire. The boat slowed down so the hum of the motors could not be detected on S-Gerät. The order was given. Moments later six explosions were heard as Buenos Aires (8,570 tons) and Bahia Castillo (6,097 tons) were torn apart by torpedoes.

The waters of the Kattegat are subject to a curious natural phenomenon caused by the melting of ice. When freshwater from melted ice meets salt water, layers are created which can cause strange and disconcerting tricks. A submarine in trim might enter a fresh water layer then suddenly become ‘bodily heavy’ and plunge without warning (this fate may well have overtaken G8 of Hirtshals Havn in 1918 – see The G7 Mystery). Salt water layers also had the capacity to baffle ASDIC and S-Gerät. They could also make a submarine ‘bodily light’ and force a boat to lose trim. Under these circumstances only by admitting tons of additional water ballast could a submarine remain at periscope depth.

Buenos Aires in an earlier manifestation as the SS Boonah

As Burch and his crew sought to evade retribution, Lieutenant Green was relieved to discover a convenient salt water layer. Burch dived down to this layer, shut down all machinery, allowing the natural buoyancy of the salt water to support Narwhal now motionless in stopped trim. Another salt water layer was detected, enabling Burch to skilfully wedge Narwhal between the two layers, thus deflecting any acoustic transmissions by the enemy.

75 depth charges were dropped, none of them was dangerously near but it was harassing. The behaviour of my crew was admirable throughout and the belief that some of our torpedoes had hit gave the usual and extremely pleasing fillip to everyone’s spirits

Buenos Aires sinking (E Skjold Collection)

The Patrol Report records that an explosive wire was lowered by the A/S vessels. As the sweep commenced the sound of the wire was heard to scrape across Narwhal‘s casing. At one point it was believed the wire had snagged the conning tower, only to slip over the side then grate along the stern. The hunters eventually moved on. So did Narwhal.

Bahia Castillo built by Short Bros.

The Sunderland built Bahio Castillo was beached and her stores removed but the ship was written off. Twenty Germans and two hundred and twenty-one horses died in Buenos Aires which eventually sank. British naval intelligence combed through German records in the post war period to find that the following A/S vessels had been destroyed on Narwhal‘s minefield; M1101, M1302, M1703 and at least one UJ boat (Hezlet).

Meanwhile when the opportunity arose on the night of May 3rd-4th, Narwhal transmitted news of her success as she made her way back through the Kattegat:


Seal, the incoming boat, not only picked up the transmission, the look-outs actually spotted Narwhal. Narwhal and Seal communicated by SST. Burch wished Seal luck, adding she would probably need it. Of course good fortune for Narwhal was problematical for Seal as the German A/S defences would be alert and only too aware that at least one British submarine was operating in the Kattegat. This was the first mine-laying operation Seal had ever carried out.

The crew of Seal in 1939 (Albert Eckersall)

The slight, balding Rupert Lonsdale looked more like the master of a minor public school than a spray-lashed buccaneer. The thirty-five year old, mild mannered introvert commanded a rough, tough but highly experienced crew. Lonsdale had already made a blind reconnaissance of Stavanger harbour, navigating solely on the basis of acoustic returns from the ASDIC set.

FD 7

One Seal seaman could not face the thought of a mining mission without getting ‘tanked up’ the night before. Leading Seaman Charlie Smith was given a ‘pier head jump’ from spare crew to the boat in his place. Aged thirty-four, Smith, was an ex naval swimming champion. In common with the other mine-layers Seal had a wealth of experienced personnel. Bert Palmer aged forty-six who had served on G12 during the Great War. Seal left Blyth earlier than Unity and so missed the worst of the fog. that would fatally confront Unity. The boat left Immingham with fifty mines on April 29th. At 02:27hrs on May 4th she was trimmed down with little more than her conning tower showing, preparing to round the Skaw when at first light, an HE 115 seaplane dropped a bomb near by. Seal was dived immediately. Men were thrown about but damage to the boat was limited to the forward hydroplane motor. A field coil had to be replaced and some light bulbs were shattered otherwise all was well. The greater problem was that the Germans now knew Seal‘s course.

The boat proceeded at periscope depth travelling at four knots until she had reached a position between Laesø Island and Gothenburg where enemy activity was known to be intense. A group of A/S boats blocked the route to the primary lay site. Lonsdale made the decision to mine the secondary location in international waters off Vinga Island, easy to identify because of the distinctive lighthouse.

Seal laid her mines just off Vinga Light

Seal‘s mining team comprising PO Caughtrey, ERA Ernie Trueman and Leading Seaman Tom Vidler clambered into the mining compartment at the stern. The mines were laid at position 57°33’N, 11°35’E between 09:00 and 09:45hrs. Although they had not detected Seal, the A/S vessels, which belonged to the Fifth U-Jagd Gruppe under Korvettenkäpitan Günther Brandt, were moving slowly towards the position of the submarine. With the lay completed Seal withdrew slowly Westwards. Lonsdale faced a dilemma. He could not surface the boat and escape on the surface with the enemy virtually on top of Seal. He reasoned that the best hope of escape lay in finding a salt layer to rest on, keeping the boat in stopped trim and the crew in silent routine. First Lieutenant Butler was certain that the boat retained sufficient battery power to surface after dark. On the other hand, given that Seal had been submerged since 02:30hrs, the crew would inevitably be debilitated by oxygen starvation if he waited until darkness. Lonsdale in consultation with Lieutenants Butler, Clark and Beet decided it was a gamble worth taking. Lieutenant Butler found the salt-layer at fifty feet. At 15:00hrs the boat rose to periscope depth. A sweep revealed what was interpreted to be a second A/S group closing escape to the North. As Seal slowly returned to the salt-layer, trim was unaccountably lost. The depth needle quivered wildly as the boat first plunged then paused as if unsure whether to dive or surface. Stoker Mickey Reynolds in the stoker’s mess heard a metallic scraping noise. Coxswain Higgins reported that the aft hydroplanes had unaccountably slackened then jammed. Within seconds Butler regained trim and the incident was forgotten. An air of normality returned. It was generally concluded that Seal must have snagged some underwater obstruction.

HMS Seal

The messes were full and the galley was busy. ERA Ernie Trueman was starving. It was 19:05hrs and his relief was late. Mickey Reynolds and ‘Taff’ Harper were relieved from their watch in the motor room and made their way to the stokers’ mess. Here they awaited their much-anticipated roast beef, peas and potato dinner. Suddenly the boat shuddered. Reynolds’ plate spun in the air, scattering the food over the deck. There was a scream of high pressure air accompanied by a sudden rise in pressure. Ernie Trueman:

There was pandemonium aft, the news passed through that we were filling up with water from hte mining compartment. The men on the spot quickly shut off this section but not before a lot of water had got for’rard into the mess deck and motor room. We evacuated these compartments and shut all watertight doors from the mining compartment to the engine room’

The Germans had recently laid a two layered minefield. One strip of mines was laid off Skagen at forty-nine feet, the other at ninety-eight feet (Skagen Sperre-UMA). As Seal had dived towards the salt water layer, a mine mooring cable had become snagged on one of the aft hydroplanes, hence the loss of trim. For some time the mine had bobbed harmlessly but the motion of the boat had forced the mine against the casing and detonation followed. Men experienced this explosion differently. ‘Taff’ Harper felt only a quiver but in the engine and motor rooms men were hurled off their feet. The men in the control room felt the bows swing upwards as the boat slid backwards to bury her stern in mud. Seal was now trapped on the sea-bed in one hundred and thirty feet of water, with her stern buried.

Seal trapped on the sea-bed

In the engine room Lieutenant Clark found himself surrounded by a knot of shouting stokers as the men made their way out of the flooding stern compartments. The bulkhead doors were shut and clipped behind them. Moments later there was a rapping on the stern bulkhead door. This door was carefully opened for stokers Vidler and Reynolds to flop out to collapse on the floor in sodden heaps. The men described how they had been left behind as they struggled to close the open escape chamber door. Closing this door mean diving through filthy black water but try as they might, they could not close it against the deck angle. The door remained open. This was an important piece of information because if Lonsdale opted for a salvage blow rather than DSEA escape, the operation would be very difficult to carry out if the escape door remained open. The men were able to confirm that the watertight door at the aft end of the stokers’ mess had been blown off its seating by the explosion but appeared to have been forced back into place by the flow of water.

In effect Rupert Lonsdale faced the same dilemma that Lieutenant ‘Sam’ Bolus of HMS/M Thetis had faced in Liverpool Bay back in June 1939. The forward escape chamber was still operable. Lonsdale could order immediate use of DSEA escape sets or he could opt to save the boat via a salvage blow at a cost of increasing debilitation from carbon dioxide poisoning. One key difference between Thetis and Seal was the fact that Seal was in enemy infested waters. Even if escapees reached the surface there was no reason to think some kind hand would pluck them to safety. It was more likely any escapers would drift apart and die of exposure or drowning. From the outset Lonsdale was minded to shelve any thoughts of DSEA escape and save the boat – but he deferred to the technical expertise of Lieutenant Clark.

‘Nobby’ Clark telephoned through to Captain Lonsdale in the control room to impart the news that all the men were now safe. The mining compartment was fully flooded and possibly the auxiliary machinery space below the deck but the stokers’ mess and the motor room were only partially so. The stern was partially buried but it was impossible to tell whether the screws were still functional. Lonsdale believed he damage had been caused by a depth-charge rather than a mine. Movement now would only invite more depth charges. Sitting tight on the salt-layer was still the best option in his opinion prior to attempting a salvage blow after dark at 22:30hrs. All of the seaman branch and most of the stokers were ordered to lie down to conserve air. Permission was granted to gamble with cards. Clark retreated to a corner, picked up his his slide rule and digested the damage reports. Shortly afterwards he led a party of five volunteers into the partially flooded stern compartments. The party was no more successful in closing the escape chamber door than Tom Vidler and Mickey Reynolds had been but he did emerge with vital information. Clark concluded that Seal had shipped one hundred and thirty tons of water and had come to rest with an eighteen degree bows-up angle. As Seal‘s main ballast tank capacity was three-hundred and eighty tons, mathematically the boat should have sufficient buoyancy to be able to surface once her ballast tanks were blown, whether the escape chamber door was open or not. Of course there were variables. The extent to which the stern was buried in mud being the main one but the condition of the steering gear was another unknowable. This was Clark’s second brush with death. In 1939 he had been appointed as one of the Admiralty inspecting officers to attend the Thetis trial. A last minute swop with a colleague had saved him from a slow death in Liverpool Bay. Clark was considered pernickety by some but he was universally admired for his calm efficiency and good humour.

One of the men who volunteered to enter the stern was ERA ‘Tubby’ Lister. Like Clark, Lister had been due to attend the Thetis diving trials only to be diverted at the last minute by Admiralty. The bluff Yorkshireman took particular care in opening the test cocks on the bulkhead doors. Lister was a rarity, an ERA who had joined the Royal Navy as a civilian fitter rather than the usual track via the ‘Boy Arts’ School at Chatham. Lister had entered the navy as a mature man, he was consequently blessed, or cursed with an anti-authoritarian streak and an independent mind. Lister had been drafted to Seal in 1939 where he quickly forged a working rapport with CERA John Stait who recognised his qualities.

ERA Donald Lister

Leading Stoker ‘Spoff’ Middleton was instructed to check the pumps and high pressure air blows and to couple up connections where required. By this stage the ASDIC operator was able to confirm that the A/S vessels had moved off Northwards.

Stoker Herbert ‘Taff’ Harper

There was no panic among the crew as ‘Taff’ Harper describes:

If you are an experienced submariner you have scares from the first day you go out in a boat. You know that if you are likely to hit the bottom now and again, say if you hit a patch of fresh water or if ‘jimmy’ loses trim. You expect all of this and I think the experience served us well in this case. We just shrugged got on with the job. If any of the new lads felt a little anxious, the older ones just assured them this sort of thing happens all the time and it wasn’t worth making a fuss overAs time went on we began bleeding from the nose and mouth. We became lethargic. You would scratch your head and it felt as if you had run about 500 yards

The thoughts of Lonsdale were on his young son. Two years before his wife, Christina had died leaving him to bring up John alone. During this time he had rediscovered Christianity, not the God-by-numbers nonsense drilled into him at Dartmouth but an altogether more satisfying personal code which gave him strength and inspiration to face the future. In the next few hours these firm but unobtrusive beliefs would be tested to their absolute limits. Just before 22:00hrs Lieutenant Butler reported that Seal was ready to surface. The crew was poised and in position but Clark could not help noticing how oxygen starvation was having a marked effect on the older men. Then the Skipper issued the long-awaited order,


It was planned that the combination of blown ballast coupled with power from the motors would be sufficient to wrest the stern from the imprisoning mud.


Motors hummed, dials wavered. Slowly the boat began to move but the noise quickly gave way to an alien scraping sound as the screws churned impotently. Seal shuddered as her bows began to swing upwards.


As the motors strained, so the deck angle became uncomfortably steeper. Butler called out the depth-reading but it was obvious the stern remained lodged fast in mud. The needle hovered at seventy-five feet.


It was no good. The stern was locked tight in the mud

The noise of the motors died away leaving the bows to settle at a more comfortable angle. This attempt had failed. Next time they would try something different. While there was dismay at the failure to surface, there was no sense of despondency. Lonsdale convened another meeting with Clark and the technical specialists. He assured the crew,

Well there’s no need to break out the DSEA sets just yet

There was more than enough high pressure air and battery power to mount a second attempt to free Seal. This time Lonsdale planned to blow all remaining water ballast together with the last vestiges of oil in the tanks. The ace in Seal‘s pack was that this time the eleven ton drop keel would be released. This was a particularly desperate move because without the drop keel the boat would be unable to dive again in waters dominated by German aircraft but by this stage Lonsdale and his officers were seriously considering a surface run into neutral Gothenburg just fifteen miles away.

Air normally comprises twenty-one percent oxygen, seventy-nine percent nitrogen with traces of carbon dioxide and other gases. Human beings are unable to survive in an atmosphere containing less than sixteen percent oxygen. Inhaled under pressure, a carbon dioxide level of as little as five percent will undermine alertness, morale and judgement. As ‘Nobby’ Clark and ‘Tubby’ Lister were only too aware, this factor above all had doomed the crew of Thetis. Following seventeen hours dived, the crew of Seal was slowly succumbing. Men were clumsy and sluggish in their movements. They suffered from headaches or chest pains and some were having difficulty in focusing their eyes.

Ernie Trueman:

At 23:00hrs diving stations was called again. Every effort was made to lighten the boat. The drop keep was released, auxiliary tanks were blown but still we did not move in the required direction and things began to look pretty hopeless…

Even releasing the drop keel had not been sufficient to free Seal‘s stern. The fifty-nine strong crew confronted impending death with quiet resignation. Some fished treasured photographs from ditty boxes. For young Sub-Lieutenant Phillip Boulnois the situation was particularly unfortunate; he had merely ‘hitched a ride’ from Immingham to gain experience in mine-laying with his classmate, John Henderson.

submariner’s ditty box

There was much gallows humour in the ERA’s mess. One man changed into his ‘number ones’. Coming from a ‘respectable family’ he vowed to ‘turn his toes up in style‘. Another debated whether it was appropriate to expire on his bunk or die outside with the ‘common herd‘. At one point a rumour circulated that Lieutenant Clark was ‘trying something’ and could do with some help. To ‘Spoff’ Middleton and ‘Tubby’ Lister anything was preferable to supine surrender. Slithering down the deck-plates they found Clark alone in the motor room attempting to connect two forgotten ballast tanks to the main high pressure air system. This done they dragged themselves back to the control room. They hoped and they might even have prayed but it was to no avail. The stern of Seal remained tightly locked in the mud. Lonsdale addressed his crew over the speaker:

We have tried everything we can think of to get to the surface without result. None of us can think of anything else. We have run out of ideas so I am going to call the crew together and we shall say some simple prayers. Our object will be to ask God to help us

Lister had no time for words, particularly not prayers. Sobbing he made his way to the DSEA lockers and broke one open. Lieutenant Clark quietly slipped away from the rest and joined him. With an arm on Lister’s shoulder he quietly advised him that the crew was too befuddled to attempt a DSEA escape now. It would only succeed in flooding the boat. Barely anyone was capable of thinking straight now. Exhausted and dying, the crew made one last effort to haul themselves into the control room for Lonsdale’s prayers. Hardly any was capable of standing upright now.; most lay huddled on the control room floor. Lonsdale spoke:

Dear God, we have tried everything in our power to save ourselves and we have failed. Yet we believe that You can do things which are impossible to men. Please O Lord, deliver us

They shambled through ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. Afterwards the Skipper invited them to say a few words of their own.

Please answer the Captain’s prayers‘, pleaded one PO, ‘although I have my doubts as to whether you can’

Another cried out, ‘Dear God look after my home and my family

‘Taff’ found the prayers invigorating:

I believe the Skipper’s prayer helped me. I knew we were going to get out. I don’t know why, I wasn’t that partial to the Skipper but I knew he was a nice fellow and a good Captain. I admired him. He was religious but he didn’t force it down your throat but if you can pinpoint a moment when our luck changed, this was it for me’

‘Taff’s thoughts were summed up by the words of another

Please God, bless us all and give us strength for the next attempt to surface !’

‘Next attempt to surface’, with what ? Lonsdale had broken through the torpor, now it was imperative to harness the attention of his men in one last, probably futile, attempt to surface. Lonsdale knew there was a tiny amount of high pressure air left. There was no more water ballast to blow but there was plenty of human ballast. If the blowing of the air could be combined with a dramatic redistribution of weight within the boat, the stern might be levered out of the mud. ‘Taff’ Harper again:

We were very sleepy. I think we were resigned to death but I don’t ever recall being frightened, yet we were all bunched together in this small place and we had to get up to the bows to counter-balance the stern in the mud

A rope was rigged from the tube space to the control room. One by one the crew hauled themselves up the rope against the incline (Alliance)

I was a fairly fit fellow but it took me at least twenty minutes to haul myself up this two inch rope and the boat was on such an angle. A lot of men were flaking out, gasping ‘its no use, I can’t go on’. By the time you got to the end of that rope you were fighting for breath so badly, you just thought to yourself, ‘well that’s it chum

At 01:10hrs Lieutenant Commander Lonsdale whispered the order,


Those still clinging to the rope heard a grating noise as once again the screws battled against the mud.


Men hardly dared to brethe. ‘Taff’ heard Lonsdale call out,


We had a depth-gauge near us and of course our eyes were glued to it. It was just like a massive town hall clock. The Skipper didn’t even bother to say ‘Shut watertight doors’. Anyway he couldn’t with us clinging to the rope. We watched as the depth-gauge needle began to quiver; you could hear the high pressure air. The motors were running and the screws were turning. I heard Ritchie say, ‘Starboard motor immobile’. My heart dropped at that. Then I heard someone yell, ‘She’s moving ! Oh but it was wonderful !’

Ernie Truman manned the diving panel:

Eighty-five feet…eighty feet…seventy-five feet…seventy feet…sixty-five feet…It was sheer willpower, God knows we had no other power behind us. We were willing that needle to move. We were pleading with it. ‘Come on you beauty, come on...’

Lister was urging her on too,

Come on you cigar shaped bastard, get a move on

The first indication that the stern was free came when the bows started to level out at sixty feet. As they did so, oily water trapped in the stern compartments came flowing out and the force was sufficient to knock Lister and Stait off their feet in the engine room. In the fore-ends ‘Taff’ Harper was aware his survival hung by a thread. If Seal was to slip back now, they were surely done for:

‘The needle was wavering…just wavering, then all of a sudden it took a jump – the wrong way because the stern was now coming up so the bows went down, you see. We were urging this needle to go up…praying for itto go in the right direction, ‘come on…get on with it…get on with it…Then I heard someone say, Oh God she’s going down again’ but then it stopped. It could only have been seconds , mind you it seemed like hours…

Ernie Trueman stared at the gauges and this time Seal began moving in the right direction:

She hung in balance neither rising nor sinking. These were nervous moments as we had used up all our high pressure air. Game to the last however , she gradually rose towards the surface

At 01:30hrs the sensation of waves breaking against the casing was palpable. The boat had been submerged for twenty-three hours. ‘Taff’ Harper:

‘The order came ‘Open hatches !’ Oh but my head was bursting. We were ecstatic and we could tell that we had surfaced because we could feel the boat rocking. The air was absolutely foul and when the hatch was opened, it produced the thickest fog you ever saw. You couldn’t see you hand in front of your face for this fog’

Men expressed a variety of emotions. Some thanked the technicians others patted the motors or gave thanks to their God. If it was a miracle it was a Chatham-built miracle but a miracle nevertheless. Thoughts now turned to what would happen next. One hour of darkness remained. Enemy A/S vessels and aircraft would return at daylight. Seal could not dive. The only hope of avoiding being taken prisoner lay in reaching Swedish territorial waters. Most of the crew was stupefied by carbon dioxide poisoning and the steering gear had been mangled by the mine explosion. The engines were started but the chances of returning to Blyth diminished with every revolution, the boat was turning in circles. Lonsdale had no other option than to proceed towards the twinkling lights of Gothenburg by going slowly astern. Lieutenant Trevor Beet placed the confidential books in a weighted sack then threw them over the side. First Lieutenant Terence Butler supervised pulverising the ASDIC set together with the torpedo aiming computer known as the ‘fruit machine’. The periscopes were smashed and navigational equipment was thrown over the side.

Far away in London the staff of Northways had waited in vain for Seal’s ‘Mission Complete’ transmission. While it was not unusual for such signals to be delayed, catastrophe had been widely anticipated for the mine-laying missions and now catastrophe was duly delivered. At 01:50hrs a message was transmitted to Northways using the priorIty code:


Horton responded at 02:10hrs with a ‘GYE’ acknowledgement:


followed by:


Seal did not receive Horton’s message because the radio had already been destroyed. Seal was making slow progress towards Sweden but the miracles were over. The oil pumps seized up causing the engines to falter then first light at 02:30hrs aircraft engines roared overhead. Seal was just three miles outside Swedish territorial waters with the Gothenburg light clearly in sight.

Cannon equipped Arado Ar196 seaplane – bad news for the crew of Seal

The Germans had digested the submarine reports of the previous day. At first light two Arado 196 sea planes from Küstenfliegergruppe 906 took off from the newly established seaplane base at Aarlborg in Northern Denmark. They were joined by a patrol of HE115s used for A/S patrols in the Northern Kattegat sector. Arado 6W+IN (Leutnant Günther Mehrens and Unteroffizier Heinz Böttcher) spied Seal. A couple of lewis guns had been brought onto the bridge. Lonsdale ordered everyone but Signalman Waddington and Leading Seaman Mayes down below. The gunners did not fire during the Arado’s initial pass hoping the airmen might believe that Seal was a damaged Swedish submarine. Mehrens had been trained to know what a British mine-laying submarine looked like. This time he flayed Seal with cannon fire. As they descended down the conning tower ladder Lieutenant Butler and AB Jack Murray were hit by shrapnel in the legs and thigh respectively. Mehrens transmitted a submarine alarm and very soon more aircraft and a 2. U-Jagdflotille A/S trawler, UJ-128 were heading to the scene. Mehrens quickly exhausted his supply of ammunition but the second Arado 6W+EN (Leutnant Karl Schmidt and Unteroffizier Sackritz) took up where he had left off. Within minutes an HE115 8L+CH (Leutnant Nicholas Broili) appeared to render the outcome beyond doubt.

Lonsdale and Mayes kept up a response until the lewis guns jammed. Shells penetrated the port main ballast tank and Seal began to heel over. Water was entering through the stern, re-flooding the motor room. One of the Arados dropped a bomb which caused the engine room hatch to slam shut. The men were saved by a quick-thinking ERA who managed to stop the engines just in time.

The motor room began to slowly flood again (Alliance)

With all propulsion and power gone and his crew hopelessly debilitated, Lonsdale had no option but to surrender to the Germans. To perpetuate this unequal contest could only result in the pointless deaths of fifty-nine brave men who had already been through quite enough. The previous twenty-four hours had not merely probed character and nerve, it had exposed them to terror as no other wartime experience could have done.

The Arado transmitted the signal ‘K’ – ‘Stop Immediately’. Lonsdale ordered that the wardroom tablecloth be brought to the bridge then tied to the periscope standard. Lonsdale instructed Waddington to signal ‘SOS. Surrender’. The tablecloth was tied to the periscope. Critics would later round on Rupert Lonsdale on the grounds that at this juncture he should have ordered the depth charges to be rigged. Under the Naval Discipline Act it was an offence to surrender a Royal Navy warship if it could be defended. Of course Seal could not be defended any more than Undine, Starfish or more recently Shark could have been defended. However it could be argued that it was Lonsdale’s responsibility to ensure that Seal was scuttled. The mine-laying boats were fitted with two bilge mounted depth-charges designed to blow up the ASDIC set in extremis. Lieutenant Beet now ordered that the depth-charges be rigged but the set had already been smashed to atoms by hammers in any case. The depth-charge was rigged to explode once the boat sank to fifty-feet. It would surely blow the bows off. The officers could only hope that the crew was removed from Seal before the charge exploded.

Leutnant Schmidt landed his Arado alongside Seal. He was determined that Lonsdale should join him in the aircraft. With guns trained on the bridge, he ordered Captain Lonsdale to swim towards the seaplane. Trevor Beet and Coxswain Higgins offered to go in his place but Lonsdale felt he had no choice but to follow the German instructions. With First Lieutenant Terence Butler suffering from wounds, Beet was now in command of Seal as Rupert Lonsdale slipped over the side and swam towards the Arado. Meanwhile the second Arado and the HE115 circled overhead.

HE115 – even worse news for the crew of Seal

With difficulty Lonsdale reached the nearest seaplane float. Leutnant Schmidt greeted him with a cheery smile and the words:

It’s a cold bath this time in the morning, eh ?

The drenched Lonsdale was helped into the plane and given chocolate. As it took off, Lonsdale looked down upon his crew, not knowing if he would see them again. Leutnant Mehrens now landed his Arado alongside Seal to demand a second prisoner. Second Coxswain Marcus Cousins agreed to go. Lieutenant Beet addressed the crew to advise them to pack their ditty boxes as they would be ‘heading into the bag’. UJ-128 (Käpitanleutnant Otto Lang) was closing now. A warning shot was fired in Seal’s direction. It was 06:30hrs (GT). Lang ordered his First Lieutenant (IWO) twenty-two year old Heinz Nolte to take some men and board Seal. The beaming faces of the German boarding party made a sharp contrast with the dejected British crew. Nolte, who spoke English, introduced himself before making a rapid tour of the boat. He warned Beet and Clark against any attempts to scuttle the Seal. A towing rope was rigged between the trawler and the submarine. Nolte then ordered all members of the crew apart from Clark and five ratings to leave Seal. The crew of Seal did as ordered but as they turned round for one last look at the boat, someone asked, ‘Where is Smithy’. Charles Smith was missing. Nobody could recall seeing Leading Seaman Smith since the men had been ordered below when the strafing commenced.

Did Charles Smith attempt to swim to the seductively close Gothenburg or Vinga Lights (background) or did he fall victim to fire from the aircraft ?

It may be that Charles Smith, former swimming champion, attempted to swim to freedom rather than become a prisoner of war. Either way he was never seen again. He is remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial. It may be that his is one of the Unknown graves in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Kviberg in Gothenberg or Frederikshavn in Denmark. If so, he is in good company.

Despite her precarious list to port, the Germans somehow managed to secure a towing line to Seal. The British skeleton crew was confident the boat would sink. Coxswain Warwick Higgins commenced to ‘swing off’ the flooding valves used for DSEA escape in the fore-ends. Heinz Nolte suspected what they were up to and forced them back to the control room at gunpoint. The engine room hatch was left ajar by PO Tel. Charles Futer only to be slammed shut again by a German guard.

Seal under tow. Note tablecloth tied to periscope standard serving as white flag. UJ-128 and Seeteufel ahead

In the afternoon the tug Seeteufel with a team of salvage specialists under Käpitan Funk arrived at the scene. UJ-128 set course for Frederikshavn. Despite the efforts of Beet, Clark, Higgins and Futer, Seal did not sink. Henz Nolte:

In the control room I found a CPO and other POs busily turning some valves evidently at the instructions of Chief Engineer Clark. I took a good look around in the control room and noticed a light indicator system above the valve they were opening. Evidently these were to indicate whether the valves were open or closed. I ordered Clark to close the two tanks on the port side‘.

Seal captured. Kriegsmarine personnel examine holes punched through the casing by the Arado attacks

Seal. Seeteufel and UJ-128 arrived at Frederickshavn at 18:00hrs. The captives were led down a gangway to the quay below. A gang of Danish Nazi sympathisers jeered and spat at the submarine crew as they were marched at gunpoint towards a number of lorries. They were driven to a school near the harbour. The spartan interior provoked someone to remark that ‘It was just like back at Blyth’ and that got them all laughing again.

Seal in Frederikshavn supported by Seeteufel. Note UJ boats in background

Back at Blyth ‘Jock’ Bethell had cleared his desk and handed responsibilities over to George Voelcker, the new Captain S(6). Both men had spent all night in the operations room. Bethell had, of course, feared the worst and now his fears were confirmed by a terse message from Northways repeating Lonsdale’s last transmission. Bethell had been right. Horton had been wrong but there was no mea culpa. Horton did not do contrition. The loss of Seal did lead to a temporary suspension of mining operations in the Kattegat until the matter could be fully explored in a meeting between Horton and Admiralty scheduled for May 16th.

On the evening of May 5th a rumour spread around Blyth that Seal was about to enter Harbour. The returning boat was in fact Narwhal. As she headed upriver to Blyth Docks, Seal wives and dependents made their way to the dock gates. Relief for the wives of one crew spelled distress for another. In fact the shipwrights found that a significant section of casing been torn off by the wire snare deployed against Narwhal in her last patrol. The crew had been exceedingly lucky.

Seal crew in Frederickshavn school yard. It is clear from the expressions that whatever they are being fed, it is not ‘big eats’ IWM

On May 7th the crew of Seal was herded on to a train bound for Kiel, then they were marched off to the Friedrichsort naval barracks where specialist interrogators were poised to extract as much information as possible from them. The experience of ‘Taff’ Harper was typical:

They tried to be nice with me at first, they told me that they were brother sailors but they were really not very nice at all. ‘If you just answer these few simple questions, we will broadcast that you are all right. We are sailors just like you and we really do understand’ As for me, I was not brave by any means. I was sitting in front of this desk with an enemy who was fully armed while I was not. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a couple of guards pointing their guns towards my back. They knew all about us. They knew who we were and they knew where we had been. They would make apparently innocuous conversation then they would slip in some pointed questions when you were off your guard. I was scared but I wasn’t falling for that.

They asked me, ‘who is the coxswain ?’ ‘why did your captain hit the mine ?’. I told them I was just a stoker and only knew about the engines. I knew that U-boat crews were highly specialised. They would not expect me to know anything beyond my own trade. At any rate I acted green in the knowledge they were only interested in the ASDICS, ‘this echo sounding gear, who operates it ?’ ‘can you use it underwater or do you have to surface ?’…’I don’t know’.

I made one mistake however. The officer stated ‘We know your submarine is a mine-layer’, to which I replied, ‘Of course you do, you’ve got the boat’, at which point he slapped my face ‘for being cheeky’.

The interrogation over, the crew was dispersed. Ratings and POs entrained for the long journey to Stalag XXa, Torun in Poland while the officers were sent to Offlag IXa Spangenburg near Kassel. The wounded Jack Matthews and Terence Butler were later allowed to join their colleagues. They were well treated throughout as were all the naval prisoners. Rupert Lonsdale was interrogated by the Kriegsmarine in Kiel then shuffled around various offlags until the end of the war. He has the ignominious distinction of being the only British commander to surrender his ship to the enemy since HMS Reindeer was surrendered to USS Wasp in 1812. Clearly there were questions for Lonsdale (and Lieutenant Trevor Beet) to answer but they would have to wait until 1946.

Admiralty had a reasonably complete picture of what had happened within a few days due to information gathered by the naval attaché at Stockholm and a cruelly mocking broadcast by William Joyce hinting that there had been survivors but drawing out the naming of them. By May 12th telegrams had been sent to dependents advising them that their men were prisoners of war. The crew of Seal might have been consoled to learn that their mines would be responsible for sinking the 4,240 ton, West Hartlepool built Vogesen and the 1,248 ton Skandia. At least one German A/S vessel was sunk as well as two neutral ships.

Vogesen ex Hartlepool- built Manchester Port – victim of Seal’s mines (Author’s collection)

At least the crew of Seal was spared the trauma of seeing the swastika flag raised above the periscopes. On May 16th HMS/M Seal was towed to Kiel. The Nazis had been handed a propaganda coup and they intended to milk it to the full. The Kriegsmarine technicians were dismissive of the 1930s Porpoise class design. There was little to learn from the husk of Seal, though the Germans did derive information about the fan contact pistol systems fitted to Mk VIII Whitehead torpedoes. Seal, renamed ‘UB‘ was recommissioned into the Kriegsmarine in November 1940 but German torpedoes were incompatible with her own twenty-one inch tubes.

The swastika flies above the surrender tablecloth and the White Ensign

UB was decommissioned in 1941. Perhaps something of her old spirit remained for she proved something of a liability. Despite care and attention being lavished on the boat, she never fired a torpedo in anger. In fact she never left Kiel Harbour. Some say she fell to a stick of American bombs in No. four basin in 1943 and her remains were taken as scrap. Nor did the capture of Seal bring much luck to the German airmen involved. The aircraft commanders were all awarded the Eisernes Kreuz Klass.1 (EK.1). Leutnant Mehrens and his crew were killed when they crashed into the Kattegat on May 17th. Leutnant Schmidt and his men were shot down over the Channel by Hurricanes on May 19th, 1941. There were no survivors. Oberleutnant Broili transferred to the U-bootwaffen. He was appointed to U-207 as IWO and died with the boat in the Denmark Straits on September 11th 1941.

It was recognised that Norway was now a lost cause and as early as May 2nd the British commenced withdrawing troops. There were questions over the future of submarine inshore mining operations. Horton now sought to end them but Commander in Chief Home Fleet, Charles Forbes and the rest of Admiralty wanted them to continue. In the meantime, until a definitive decision was taken, the mine-laying missions would continue. Porpoise was ordered to Blyth to take the place of Seal. By mining the approaches to Norwegian ports, enemy logistical support could be undermined. Admiralty intelligence failed to analyse the mine-layer patrol reports or if it did, it failed to question why enemy aircraft appeared to have an uncanny grasp of the courses adopted by the submarines upon leaving Immingham. Admiralty intelligence was slow to grasp that B-Dienst had broken Naval Cypher No. 1 code. As soon as a British submarine made a wireless transmission, B-Dienst would detect then log it. Subsequent transmissions would allow it to estimate the target and the likely course. The truth slowly dawned on naval intelligence. By the beginning of May it was realised that the code had been compromised but not the extent of enemy incursions. On May 8th an alternative cypher was brought into service but only a handful of submarines were issued with the required data.

Narwhal was patched up at the Dockyard and in the early hours of Tuesday, on May 7th she left Blyth to carry out Operation FD12. This was a mine-lay off Kolbeinsflu Buoy in the approaches to the Norwegian port of Bud.

FD 12 – simple enough on a chart

Once again safety was sacrificed for speed and battery conservation as the boat was ordered to ‘proceed with dispatch’ on the surface after loading mines at Immingham. Mine-layers were eminently unsuitable for operations in Northern waters at this time of year. Narwhal’s batteries simply did not have the requisite endurance for long hours of submersion. With the knowledge that Narwhal needed all the battery power it could muster, Burch forbade the use of cookers. At 05:40hrs on May 11th, Ona Island was sighted and the lay commenced off Kolbeinsflu Buoy in position 62°58’N, 06°48’E.

Narwhal laid the FD12 mines off the distinctive Ona Island

Orders specified that the lay should begin at 20:40hrs but fearing that Narwhal‘s batteries would be too depleted by this time, Burch decided to commence three hours ahead of schedule at 17:00hrs to guarantee sufficient power in the case of an emergency should a fast getaway be required. Winter snow had melted to reveal sage green slopes outlined against the ice blue sea. The little island of Ona was easily recognisable by virtue of its light but enemy observers based in that lighthouse would spot Narwhal at periscope depth.

Working against a heavy swell the mines were laid in position. With considerable relief, Burch set course for the relative safety of deeper water. The batteries were reported to be very near to exhaustion. With Narwhal only five miles from land, catastrophe beckoned. Burch had little choice but to surface and charge batteries so close inshore. Engineer Officer Jim Ackery described this episode in the following terms:

At last we heard the hiss of air into the main ballast tanks then the bows tilted. The main engine telegraph rang for ‘full speed ahead’…you can imagine our relief when the engines started right away. We had sighted enemy aircraft through the periscope every day so far. It was a fairly safe bet we would be sighted pretty soon.

The tension was awful. Seconds ticked by – surely the enemy must have seen us by now ? We were three hundred miles from home, lumbered with a pair of dicey engines that even with careful nursing would only churn out fourteen knots and unable to dive into the bargain. A real sitting duck ! I began to wish I’d stayed in ‘gens’. If only we could make nightfall without the enemy spotting us. All the time we were drawing away from land and the possibility of our being spotted diminished. At long last darkness fell and although our problems were not yet over, this afforded us a welcome respite. I swear the episode has put ten years on me’

Commander Anthony Langridge, then a Lieutenant on Narwhal regarded this mission as his most terrifying patrol during his time in submarines.

On May 14th Longstone Lighthouse was spotted and Narwhal entered the East Coast Swept Channel, reaching Blyth later that day. V-1109 (Antares) a German A/S vessel detonated one of these mines at 62°58’N, 06°48’E and sank taking seventeen men, including the Norwegian pilot, with her.

Two days later VA(S) Horton attended a key meeting at Admiralty chaired by the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff. Commander in Chief Home Fleet Charles Forbes was not present but his subordinates it was made clear that he expected the mining missions to continue they pressed for a continuation of submarine patrols in the Skagerrak. However, given the situation in Europe, Norway and Denmark having fallen and France shortly to capitulate, the emphasis was upon anti invasion patrols. Three potential invasion sectors were highlighted; the Shetlands, the coast between Flamborough Head and the East Anglian coast. In response Horton proposed a line of five submarines from Stavanger to the Southern end of the GDM. Whenever available, it was planned for boats to patrol off Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim together with the Southern tip of Norway known as the Naze (Zone C). Three to four boats were to be stationed West of the Dogger Bank to cover the exits from the swept channel. Three further submarines would cover the gap between the GDM and the Dutch coast and the Horton successfully argued for the suspension of inner Skagerrak patrols until later in the year but in return he conceded that the offensive mine-laying operations off Norway should continue. Otherwise submarine operations in Home Waters during the Summer of 1940 were to consist of ‘distant’ reconnaissance patrols. Offensive operations against enemy invasion forces or logistical support, were to be a secondary consideration. The War Diary of VA(S) contains the following entry under May 28th:

Yesterday, VA(S) informed Commander in Chief Home Fleet that in view of the serious situation now developing he considered it most important that all submarines should be available for operational in the centre or southern portion of the North Sea… He further proposed that mine laying by submarines on the Norwegian coast should be discontinued, so that mine laying submarines might be available for patrol.  Admiralty concurred in the proposal regarding submarine mine laying.  Commander in Chief Home Fleet replied that he considered …that mine laying by submarines should continue, as he was of the opinion that a seaborne expedition was as likely to sail from Norwegian waters as from anywhere else’. 

The newly constituted Ninth Flotilla based at Dundee and the Second and Third Flotillas on the Forth would concentrate on patrolling the Norwegian coast. The Blyth boats would carry out anti invasion patrols West and South of the GDM (Zones A and H). With the fall of the low countries, the Harwich was phased out and the modern boats transferred to the Third Flotilla.

1940 Patrol Zones

Keeping with this new policy in late May Sturgeon carried out an uneventful patrol off Terschelling (Zone H2). Swordfish was given a billet covering the GDM (Zone A2) then a watching patrol off Flamborough Head. Ursula remained in Swan Hunters’ Wallsend Yard until July. On May 12th, 1940, the war scarred Spearfish, just out of Blyth Docks, was sent to patrol the Dogger Bank followed by the West flank of the GDM. What follows is an extract from her Patrol Report of May 20th:

01:15 hrs Sighted a white light thought to be a fishing vessel.

01:53 hrs Whilst working round to bring the white light ‘up moon’ from Spearfish. Sighted a small dark object on the port beam, distance two nautical miles. Turned towards and dived to 45 feet.

02:40 hrs Came to periscope depth. Made out a fishing boat without lights, range was now 250 yards.

02:55 hrs Surfaced. Took of the crew (two men, two boys and a dog). Whilst they were going down the conning tower hatch a periscope was sighted 500 yards away. Dived.

03:33 hrs Surfaced. Saw that the periscope was a dan buoy. Picked up the dog which had been left on the casing when Spearfish dived at 02:55 hrs. Attempted to sink the fishing vessel by ramming. Got our bow stuck in the fishing vessel and Spearfish only came lose after going full astern for 10 minutes. Sank the fishing vessel with five rounds of HE’.

The fishing boat belonged to the Danish Kragh family. Because his position was compromised, Forbes had no option but to sink the vessel. Each Mark VIII Whitehead torpedo cost £2,600 in 1940, so Forbes slowly rammed the fishing boat which became impaled on the bows of Spearfish. The submarine was extricated only with difficulty. All concerned were distressed to discover the dog was still alive, fighting for its life in the water. ‘Dutchy’ Holland sought permission to attempt a rescue but Forbes refused. The casing was awash, it was far too dangerous. Watching the animal’s pathetic attempts to swim towards them, Forbes wavered then relented. He ordered that Spearfish be brought as close as possible to the dog, while Holland scampered down the casing. A second rating held on to his ankles while Holland attempted to seize the dog but each time a wave carried it from his grasp. At last Holland was able to grasp the dog and land it on the casing to applause from the bridge.

With seven civilians and a dog for company the remainder of the patrol might have proved problematical but the guests were experienced fishermen, well used to cramped conditions. This is an extract from the Patrol Report:

They spoke fair English and said that they would have come voluntarily to an English port had the Germans not threatened to put their families into concentration camps. They appeared very decent, pleasant and honest men and very willing to help the allied cause if they could do so. Their main anxiety was to let their families know of their safety. Mr. C. Kragh acting as spokesman made a little speech of thanks for their treatment on board’

The remainder of the patrol was beset by technical problems. The main ballast tanks leaked, the sperry compass gave wildly inaccurate readings, worse still something had broken loose in the fore-plane housing unit and the rattle was clearly audible when dived. On the edge of the GDM oil and wreckage was spotted on May 22nd. Nearby floated an overturned lifeboat. As if to make matters worse, a thick clammy fog descended on the returning boat. The boat entered the Swept Channel in zero visibility. As the Patrol Report records, the situation became critical:

‘Spearfish had recently been ‘wiped’. The Sperry Compass failed on May 13th and the Diving Compass was quite unreliable. The whereabouts of Spearfish in relation to the minefield ‘LA’ [Code for the East Coast minefield] caused considerable concern especially as the unreliable fix placed her neatly off the Southern end of it. It was exceedingly difficult to select a safe course to clear the dangers. No sights had been obtained since leaving the billet and the soundings were of little value’

Lieutenant Commander Forbes (now DSO) sent the routine ETA signal when twelve miles from Blyth. This time he was approaching from the South. Out on the bridge the look-outs inhaled the salt-laden air. The sea was heavy and the boat dipped with an easy motion in the inshore swell. Suddenly the sound of reciprocating engines was heard. Once again Spearfish was in the middle of a convoy. Salvation arrived in the form of the tug Dorothema which extricated Spearfish from the FS convoy columns then guided her into the Blyth roads. Spearfish narrowly escaped the fate of Unity. The Kraghs were able to produce set of clearance papers issued by the Nazis. These papers provided useful information for naval intelligence. This was not the only gift. As a token of their admiration, the Kraghs presented their non-descript hound to the crew of Spearfish. Fed on a diet of Eccles cakes and Newcastle Brown Ale, the dog (now re-launched as ‘Pluto’) became a familiar sight in the backstreets of Blyth, trotting between pubs in pursuit of its masters. The dog’s lugubrious countenance was not improved by their habit of tying its long ears above its head. Having spent so much time in the company of submariners, it was said that Pluto, a bloodhound cross, became addicted to the smell of diesel oil. He could sniff out submariners from any pub between Seaton Sluice and Cambois.

The widely predicted invasion of the low countries took place on May 10th. Three days later the panzers were rumbling through the Ardennes – the invasion of France had begun. Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill. As a result of these events the patrol of Spearfish had been extended by several days but no convoy warning had been transmitted. Local Dockyard workers tended to have advance warning when a boat was due in or out. It was usually possible to accurately forecast the date of a submarine’s return. This information would travel like wildfire around the pubs and clubs. The most reliable source was said to be a barmaid whose husband worked at No. Five Dock but as Fred Rumsey recalls, the Blyth ‘jungle telegraph’ was not infallible:

In the Spring and Summer of 1940 the local people really took the submarine crews to their hearts: I remember a lot of Spearfish’s people used the Blagdon Arms and I became known as ‘George’, even though they knew this was not my real name. This came about one evening when someone in the Pub remarked that I looked like King George V ! I suppose because of my beard and my build. Anyway the name stuck. I remember that in that Pub there used to be a civilian, a chap with a gammy leg who played the accordion. We used to have some good times there.

On this particular patrol France was over-run. Our recall signal was cancelled and we spent an additional couple of days on patrol before we were recalled again. On returning to Blyth, when we went ashore that night, we went as usual to the Blagdon. As we entered the Pub everything suddenly became silent. People were staring at us in disbelief. We soon discovered that because we had been on patrol a couple of days longer than usual, the buzz had gone around that Spearfish was lost. This turned out to be quite a night !’

Bernard Cranmer arrived at Blyth in early June. Having qualified as a Torpedoman at HMS Defiance, he volunteered for submarines because of the extra money. On passing the test he was given an option between the Ninth Flotilla at Dundee or the Sixth Flotilla at Blyth. Blyth being geographically closer to his native Lancashire, Bernard chose Blyth. Beyond that, the place was a mystery and he had never heard of it. First impressions on arrival at the station were not positive:

It was only a small town you know. The smell of the collieries was the first thing that struck me when I arrived. The pits produced gases and these tended to mix with the sea mist to produce a miasma of moist air mixed with sulphur gas’

The newspapers still talked of a ‘phoney war’ but there was nothing phoney about the war that Blyth was fighting. The Luftwaffe was liberally dropping magnetic mines in harbours and roadsteads along the East Coast. Five submarines had already been lost, four of them due to enemy action. It was Summer and the sailors made the most of their seaside location. The officers enjoyed the golfing facilities of Whitley Bay and Morpeth. Some attended the Northern Counties Club in Newcastle or attended dances in the Old Assembly Rooms or the Oxford Galleries. There was plenty of countryside to enjoy, Rothbury and Warkworth being especially popular. Here and there it was still possible to enjoy a stroll along a beach – ‘Jolly Jack Tar on terra firma – the firma, the less terra !’ – so ran a popular catchphrase of the time. Only a handful of officers possessed their own cars, kept during their absence at a garage in the base. A Bernard Cranmer describes there were many irregularities:

We had some reservists in spare crew – really first class submariners. There were three badge men like ‘Rigger’ Coates who, as Garage Manager, had the role of taking charge of the cars when the officers were off on patrol. As soon as the officer’s boat had sailed, an advertisement would go up in the junior rates mess:


Petrol was no trouble as Admiralty was kind enough to supply it from a tank at the base. Your car was topped up and for a small fee payable to ‘Rigger’ you could take your girl to Newcastle or out into the country or to the Princess Ballroom in Ashington if you fancied a change’

Most of the submariners relied on public transport however. Harold Bennet son of the local coastguard lived in Wensleydale Terrace next door to the base. He was silent witness to some strange nocturnal evolutions:

Our garden allotments backed on to the perimeter fence of Elfin, so we saw plenty of activity, even if we did not understand. It was a high wire fence but even so there was nightly ‘traffic’ over and under it. Occasionally we lost fruit or vegetables but happily my rabbits were not disturbed

The people of Blyth smiled indulgently upon these wayward young men. They did not kick up a fuss when submariners tried to saw of the second leg of the ‘R’ on the illuminated sign advertising ‘The Roxy Theatre’. A patriotic local barber placed his salon at the disposal of submariners needing that last minute ‘top up and prime’ before reporting for duty. ‘Up homers’ – invitations to join local civilian families for ‘big eats’ were much prized by sailors craving good food and lively company. The Bennets gained a reputation for their hospitality:

We often invited wrens and sailors from the base home for meals. As I recall our parties were always a fantastic rave-up. Many of those we invited were men my father knew from his twenty-two years in the navy from lifestyles quite foreign from our own

The sailors flocked to local working men’s clubs. A couple of Narwhal‘s ratings devised an impressive ‘turn’. Locals blindfolded one of the duo with a headscarf. Next the two men would sit down at a table placed centre stage, facing each other. A pack of cards was produced and checked by a member of the audience, who then selected a card and handed it to the sighted submariner. The sighted man then placed the card in the hand of his blindfolded ‘oppo’ who would accurately identify the card his colleague was holding. They were of course telegraphists and their trick worked as long as the tablecloth was long enough to hide their feet and the sighted sailor was able to tap the name of the card in morse code on his blindfolded colleague’s shoe.

John Grant relates the following account of an eve-of-departure lock in:

‘It was 02:00hrs and the bar was crowded, bursting at the seams, indeed more cramped than a submarine mess deck with jovial pint-swilling sailors. This merry din reached the ears of an astonished night shift sergeant patrolling down Waterloo Road. Quickening his step the sergeant banged on the club door and simultaneously rang the bell. The merriment continued unabated while the door was gingerly opened a few inches by the resentful steward. ‘What’s going on here ?’ demanded the sergeant, one foot strategically placed in the door. ‘What’s it to you ?’ retorted the steward. ‘Look the boys from Narwhal are ashore and they are out again soon. Either come in and join us or stop being a bloody nuisance. The party is going on. The sergeant considered this law-flouting ultimatum, then with quiet dignity he took off his helmet and entered the throng. A pint appeared in his hand as if by magic and the party went on until four in the morning’

The black-out was doubtless responsible for the record number of road accidents but for amorous matelots, darkness brought exciting possibilities. Jack’s ardent desire to propagate the species was legendary. Many submariners lived out their brief lives just one step ahead of legal action over paternity with irate husbands in hot pursuit. Cavalier behaviour led to bigamous relationships often only revealed when a boat was listed overdue. Wrens were actively dissuaded from forging relationships with submariners as Rose Murray recalls:

Lots of boys, officers and ratings, had girlfriends in the area. Quite a few of our Wrens would go out with them to the cinema or one of the local dance halls. I always got the impression that anything more serious was frowned upon by those in authority. I will always remember one particular Wren officer telling a girl that there was no point in being courted by a submariner because none of them could expect to stay alive very long. At the time it seemed a cruel and callous thing for her to say but I learned much later that she had lost her fiancé on Sterlet. It wasn’t bitterness on her part she just did not want anyone else to go through the same distress

The South Harbour shipwrights responded to invasion fears by building their very own armoured car. It was a miracle of salvage. The gun turret from a crashed Wellington bomber was fitted to a Great War vintage Whippet tank. It clanked backwards and forwards between the base and the harbour to much derision from the sailors. By Monday June 3rd the Dunkirk evacuation had unfolded. One after the other the countries of Europe had fallen. Now the British looked to the sea for protection as it had protected them for centuries.

FD 16 chart detail Jaerens or Jaderens Reef sector

Meanwhile Captain S(6) Voelcker handed sealed orders to Lieutenant Commander Ronald Burch detailing FD16, a mine-lay off Jaederens Reef guarding the Southern approach to Stavanger. The crew of Narwhal accepted with some stoicism that the longed-for leave was not going to materialise any time soon, ‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined’. Narwhal left Blyth on June 1st. On June 3rd, fifty mines were laid off Jaederens Point, in position 58°46’N, 05°25’E. The flay was carried out in mirror calm conditions but fortunately a fog bank rolled in to mask the boat from the shore.

FD16 laid off Jaerens Reef on the approach to Stavanger. FD 19 was laid North of Haugesund to interdict the Bergen roads

On June 5th a Northbound German convoy consisting of the tanker Samland, the repair ship Huascaran and the supply vessels Alstertor and Palime were heading for Trondheim to support Gneisenau and Scharnhorst after Operation Juno. This was an important convoy so seven minesweepers were attached as escort; M2, M6, M9, M10, M11 and M15. It was known that at least one allied submarine was operating in the area so the ships were ordered to sail through the Jaederens sector at fourteen knots. At fourteen knots they could not deploy their mine sweeping gear. Shortly before 08:00hrs (CET) the 2,863 ton Palime triggered a mine which as good as blew her bows off. Some of the crew of Palime panicked. They ran to lower the lifeboats rather than following orders from Kapitänleutnant Dittmers to secure a tow rope.

Narwhal laid FD16 in the immediate foreground between Feistein light and the reef

The entire crew of Palime was saved. Look-outs on M11 (Kapitänleutnant Dittmers) spotted a mine and it was realised that Palime had not been torpedoed. The mine-sweepers geared up to clear the danger. M11 managed to deal with two of the mines laid by Narwhal but the third with a non standard anchor cable, became snagged in the sweep mechanism. At 10:20hrs the mine exploded killing five men and seriously injuring eleven more.

Palime beached on Jaederens Reef (E Skjold Collection)

Palime had been carrying valuable ammunition for the German warships, including a large cargo of torpedoes. The salvage tug Ula succeeded in beaching Palime but the dangerous currents frustrated all attempts to salvage the munitions.

Narwhal arrived back at the South Harbour, Blyth on the same day that Palime was sunk. No sooner had Ronald Burch flung himself into a wardroom armchair than he was issued with orders and instructions for a new mine-lay off Bergen, FD 19. Stoker Joseph Smith scribbled a brief note to his wife:

‘I can’t tell you where I am writing from but you can guess it is well up in the North. We are going out again tomorrow for a week or so. We’ve only been in a few days. I wish they would let us have a bit of leave. I’ve only had four days in the last 18 months’

If the navy would not grant him leave, Smithy resolved to bring his family up to Blyth, although the best accommodation was long since taken. Duly re-fuelled and re-provisioned Narwhal sailed from Blyth on June 9th. The mines were laid off Haugesund in position 59°26’N, 05°10’E on June 9th. The boat carried out a brief, uneventful patrol off the Island of Utsira before returning to Blyth on June 18th. The requisitioned Norwegian transport Biene sank on one of these mines on August 17th. Three ex Norwegian patrol boats, Gnom 7, Kobold1 and Kobold 3 were also destroyed on this field in August with significant loss of life.

Utsira Light. Narwhal laid her mines just off the Light

Following this patrol Ronald Burch was awarded a DSO. for ‘daring, endurance and resource in the conduct of hazardous and successful submarine operations‘. First Lieutenant Green and Engineer Officer Ackery were both awarded DSCs. As far as the crew was concerned, decorations were less important than the prospect of rest and a few days leave. Cars were retrieved from ‘Rigger’ Coates, bags packed and golf clubs loaded as officers set course for home. The crew of Narwhal descended on Newcastle Central Station, pouring into the third class carriages of London-bound trains. Among them, Clifford Stone, on passage at last to Weymouth where Florence and his two little girls eagerly awaited his return.

HMS Porpoise. Because of its robust construction the Porpoise/Grampus class was fitted with 4″ guns

In early June Admiralty received intelligence reports that Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Hipper were preparing to break out of Trondheim. Scharnhorst, known to be damaged, was expected to make for either Kiel or the Bight. With this in mind, Commander in Chief, Home Fleet ordered that Horton must send one of the Blyth boats to mine Ramsøy Fjord in the Trondheim roads (FD 18). Porpoise was selected to carry out this mission.

Porpoise was the first of the class. She had an experienced mine-laying crew and in Lieutenant Commander P.Q. Roberts, an exceptional Captain. FD 18 would take her much further North than any previous mine-lay. The boat left Blyth for Immingham on June 8th, departing for her mission early next morning. At 09:50hrs on June 12th Porpoise was ‘Proceeding with Dispatch’ on the surface when she was forced to take evasive action to avoid a torpedo attack. It has not proved possible to reconcile this attack with German records. There was a distant sighting of Hipper exercising off Ramsøy Fjord but the distance of nine miles was too great for the submerged Porpoise to close. Fog closed in to reduce visibility to less than 100 yards on the day of the mine-lay. Normally Roberts and his crew would have welcomed this but Frohavet was rocky and treacherous. One wrong turn of the helm risked grounding the boat on a reef. Porpoise was of course a big boat and Roberts had no reason to trust his charts. With the skerries of Frohavet to port and the islands of Hitra and Frøya to starboard the mines were laid on June 14th between 14:30hrs and 15:30hrs as this Patrol Report extract records:

Line A
Position of the first mine: 63°29’40″N, 08°13’20″E
Course of the lay: 270°
Number of mines: 16
Distance between the mines: 150 feet

Line B
Position of the first mine: 63°30’00″N, 08°11’40″E
Course of the lay: 270°
Number of mines: 18
Distance between the mines: 150 feet

Line C
Position of the first mine: 63°30’20″N, 08°10’00″E
Course of the lay: 270°
Number of mines: 16
Distance between the mines: 150 feet

It was nail-biting stuff. As Roberts had gloomily predicted the charts were wildly inaccurate. The noise made by the bows scraping against the reefs was ample evidence of this. Porpoise completed the lay then withdrew Westwards.

Minefields FD 18, FD 20 and FD 21

Just after midnight the ‘mission complete’ transmission was made. Suddenly at 00:29 with the boat charging batteries on the surface, an Arado 196 Seaplane swooped out of the twilight sky. Commander Roberts:

Sighting was I think mutual. The seaplane fired a recognition signal of one white star while Porpoise started to dive. The seaplane then altered course for Porpoise and as we were diving, dropped one bomb with about 18′ showing on the control room depth gauge at the time. This bomb exploded near the stern and shook us severely. Many lights shattered, ammeters in he motor room jammed, the inclinometer in the control room was broken and the depth guage was blown about four feet out of alignment. With about 35′ showing on the gauge, a regular pattering similar in rhythm to machine gun fire was heard against the hull

Gneisenau’s Arado had Porpoise in its sights

The attack was made by Gneisenau’s seaplane which had been directed against the submarine’s detected transmission. Damage was slight but the submarine had been lucky. Early next morning a second seaplane was shadowing the boat. Every time Porpoise prepared to surface, the seaplane was there. A couple of times Porpoise partially surfaced only for the seaplane to mount a low level attack. Still dodging the stubborn Arado, look-outs spotted a second British submarine charging batteries. It was the Rosyth based River-Class, Clyde (Lieutenant Commander D. Ingram). There was no exchange of courtesies under the circumstances. At 01:00hrs the seaplane delivered a well placed bomb. Porpoise was shaken but suffered no significant damage. One curious result of this attack was that the very inclinometer forced out of alignment by the previous attack was blown back into position and was now functioning normally.

Control room of large submarine looking for’rard. In minelaying boats the periscopes were placed well off centre to allow for the mine rail. Planesmen’s wheels on left, then helmsman’s wheel. Blowing panel on far right

The weather became unseasonal for Summer. The swell began to grow alarmingly. As Porpoise passed through tricky layers of salt water, the boat was forced to admit extra tons of sea-water ballast in order to maintain lateral trim. On June 21st Porpoise was recalled, arriving at Blyth four days later.

Seascape around Froya and Hitra – a perilous contention when the issued charts are inaccurate

The German M-5 which it will be recalled had played a role in the destruction of Starfish, blew up on June 18th when attempting to sweep these mines. Twenty-eight men died.

M-5 Biter bit. M5 Sank Starfish and some claim she sank Seahorse. Nemesis
caught up with her in the form of one of Porpoise’s minefields

The other Blyth boats had not been idle during June. Sturgeon carried out an anti invasion patrol off the Island of Texel between June 26th and July 11th. Swordfish carried out an uneventful anti invasion patrol in the same waters. Once again Spearfish endured a patrol in Zone H2 which became somewhat harrowing on June 18th when shortly after 21:00 hrs when the boat was approaching Blyth, the boat snared a mine cable. The momentum of the boat drew the anchor cable against the casing. The mine horns scraped down the side of the casing. Even during her previous depth-charge ordeals it is doubtful whether the crew had been closer to death.

Meanwhile newcomer Bernard Cranmer was learning of the indignities meted out to spare crew at Blyth. One June morning a number of ‘spares’ were told off to fill sandbags under the supervision of a certain PO of uncertain temperament. The working party drove down to the beach in a lorry. Sandbags were filled then thrown into the back of the vehicle, while the PO sunned himself at the side. The PO listened to the rhythmic thud as one sandbag after another was thrown in. Time elapsed until he reckoned sufficient sandbags ought to have been filled by now.

He stretched, yawned then strolled around the other side to look. Oblivious to his presence the submariners were playing cards in the sand or sunbathing. The only exception was a man who lazily threw a sandbag into the back of the lorry, retrieved it, then lobbed it back again.

Twenty years of professional frustration now bubbled up inside this PO. First his face turned a shade of red, then it darkened to purple rage. He was not merely angry. He was out of control. Wielding a shovel with murder in his eyes, he chased after the submariners. The submariners tried hiding behind dunes but the snarling PO found and pursued them. They jumped over a fence hoping to find a short-cut up to the base. In their blind panic they ignored the shouts of some nearby soldiers. The PO was still in hot pursuit, aiming his shovel at an imaginary victim. Bernard and his colleagues collapsed exhausted beside a sign board. The signboard read ‘Mine field’.

Fortunately some army officers reached the submariners before the PO. Eventually the crazed man was lured away and the army officers succeeded in coaxing the submariners out of the minefield. They were given a severe talking to before being marched back to Elfin under guard. Bernard avoided the defaulters list because his name topped the spare crew torpedomen list. H31 was short of a torpedoman. It was the sort of news he had been longing to hear. His pay shot up by a shilling per day – it was amazing how the ‘paybobs’ knew exactly when to increase wages. By the same token they were equally quick to reduce it should a man be returned to spare crew for whatever reason. Bernard was now a proper sea-faring submariner and his esteem increased accordingly. The demented PO was never seen in Blyth again.

Newly appointed submarine commanders were traditionally handed ‘H’ and ‘L’ boats before moving on to finer things. Because of the invasion flap, Horton had transferred sea-worthy training boats away from Blockhouse, Gosport to the East coast submarine flotillas. H31 came to Blyth on June 6th 1940 in company with H28. In June Lieutenant Malcolm Wanklyn took over command of the boat. His first patrol from Blyth commenced on June 19th when the boat patrolled off Texel, returning to Blyth on July 1st.

Lt. David Wanklyn. Legend.

‘H’ boats had been introduced in the closing years of the Great War. They were a bit of a joke within the Submarine Service with their cantilevered conning towers and paddle shaped hydroplanes which gave them a quaint Jules Verne feel. Only 171 feet long, they were the smallest submarines until the advent of the X-craft. As originally designed the conning tower had been fronted by a canvas screen, the steel version was added post-war for the the comfort of the bridge watch. Pipes and air blows were worn and air leaks caused ear drums to vibrate when the hatch was unclipped on surfacing. Nor were they good sea-keepers. Twelve of the twenty-two crew lived in the motor room, sharing it with switchboards, crankshafts and a cooking range. The lives of the crew were permeated by a cocktail of petrol fumes, battery gas, salt water, cooking smells and sweat.

H31 – old but still game

An ‘H’ boat was said to be the best possible introduction to submarines because anyone who could survive conditions without requesting an immediate return to general service, could survive in anything. On July 14th H31 was ordered to relieve Sturgeon off the Dutch coast in Zone H1. The outward passage was incident free apart from Bernard Cranmer being up to his elbows in shale oil as torpedoes were dismantled, oiled then re-assembled. At 06:00hrs on July 18th H31 came to diving stations. Only Wanklyn and First Lieutenant John Hemingway knew whether or not this was the real thing. Through the periscope Wanklyn could discern three A/S vessels in line abreast, one slightly ahead of the other two and likely listening on passive Horchgerät. The vessels belonged to the German 12. U-Jagdflotille already responsible for the destruction of Blyth boats Undine and Seal. The loss of Undine and Starfish back in January had amply demonstrated the hazards of attacking A/S vessels in shallow water but Wanklyn was determined to attack:

06:33 hours Sighted three trawlers bearing red 135° to 160°. Own course 165°. Started attack. Location: 53º28´N, 05º01

07:37 hrs Fired one torpedo.

07:39 hrs The enemy started a hunt. Only two ships were heard hunting.’

Afterwards Wanklyn dived H31 as deep as possible. Two minutes later a couple of explosions reverberated through the little boat. Wanklyn estimated that two trawlers were hunting, one of them equipped with a listening device. For Bernard it was exciting but the underwater rumbling noises were a little disconcerting. He asked the TI what they were.

Oh the noise. It’s just the North Sea grunts’ – some kind of underwater volcanic action. Don’t know what causes it but you get a lot in these parts

Wanklyn withdrew H31 from the sector. A weak depth charge-attack had followed but it was a depth-charge attack all the same. During the return journey Bernard was pleasantly surprised by the number of submariners prepared to offer him a sip of their rum tot. Later he asked the TI why this had happened:

They were offering you their tots because you are the bravest sprog on the boat. You remember those North Sea grunts ? Well they weren’t grunts they were depth-charges and a couple were not too far away‘.

Bernard took his turn on the watchbill as look-out. The Skipper was on the bridge too. None was allowed to let their attention slip but Bernard was compelled by the hawk like profile of Wanklyn. It reminded him of photographs of T.E. Lawrence. H31 returned to Blyth on July 26th. Bernard looked forward to a celebratory run ashore with his new friends. He had joined an exclusive club and could reap the benefits. David Malcolm Wanklyn also had cause for satisfaction with this, his first real operational patrol. He added the following to his report: ‘...the behaviour of the crew was most satisfactory’.

UJ-126 (Kapitanleutnant Peters)

Jim Allaway’s perceptive and moving book ‘Hero of the Upholder’ quotes ‘Dick’ Raikes describing the relationship between Wanklyn and a family of miners he lodged with in Seaton Sluice;

My wife and I both clearly remember how all of them thought ‘Wanks’ ‘a great gentleman’. This was perhaps the impression that he left with the working classes and the lower deck. He was genuinely fond of them and I honestly think that he was more ‘natural’ with them than with his contemporaries in his own class’

In August 1940 Malcolm Wanklyn left Blyth for Barrow to stand by HMS/M Upholder.

Although unverifiable at the time, H31 had torpedoed and sunk UJ-126 (Steiermark) with the loss of nine lives. The 300 ton UJ-126 (Kapitätanleutnant Peters ) was only the first of a staggering 119,000 tons of enemy shipping destined to be sunk by the enigmatic Wanklyn in the course of his career. Yet the legend began in Blyth; from here the hunter was blooded.

The build-up to a patrol was a tense time for all concerned. A few days before sailing the skipper would be issued with sealed orders by Captain (S) 6. The submarine commander would probably spend time in the operations room at Elfin going over details with the intelligence officer. He might pass on details of the sailing date to his first lieutenant but the extent of disclosure was a matter for his own discretion. Ratings would only be informed of the destination once the boat had crossed the Blyth bar. Admiralty severely underestimated the intelligence of the men under its command. Submariners were very astute when it came to guessing when their boat was due to sail. Victualling was a sure sign that a boat would sail within forty-eight hours. A ‘buzz’ would circulate long before the first lieutenant had informed senior rates of the date and time for harbour stations.

Lest an eve-of-departure run ashore should debilitate a crew, a 23:00hrs curfew was brought into force. The submariners also adopted the knocking up scheme used by local miners. Spare crewmen would go around the base in the small hours hammering on the doors of crew due out that morning. Bernard Cranmer spent most of his adult life in submarines. Here he describes the atmosphere as the men embarked on what might be their last run ashore:

Everybody’s stomach would be turning over, churning with nerves and you can’t concentrate on anything other than getting underway. You are there in the pub but really you are not there. You would put on the usual act of bravado – it won’t happen to me – too afraid of being thought scared to act any other way.. We would go for a good booze up. Some lads might go over and have a word with a friend on a different boat and perhaps give directions as to what should be done with their things, should the worst happen. Mind you there was a dominant mood of just living life to the full – live every minute of every day and to hell with everything else. You just wish you could get underway and get the patrol over with

His leave now at an end, Clifford Stone prepared to return to Blyth. As he packed his bag he confided his fears to his wife, Florence. For some time Narwhal had been pushing her luck. He was not alone. All wartime submariners suffered from ‘the bad feeling’ sooner or later. Few talked openly of their fears. Before leaving Blyth for Gosport in June 1940, Rob Roy McCurrach had a disturbing conversation with fellow ERA ‘Olly’ Oliver of Spearfish:

Even when I’m turned in at the base I have the most appalling dreams’ George (George Pledger ERA Mess President) who was listening kindly said, ‘Tell us about them’

Well, fairly simple really…I’m in the mess on my own, writing to my wife, when the curtains slowly part and a very old man looks in’. George looked at me with concern and asked, ‘Does he say anything ?’ ‘No, he just points’ George gave me another look and I knew what was in his mind. Running a boat is a hazardous pursuit. It must be. Admiralty don’t pay extra money for nothing. Olly’s attitude would get everyone into trouble because if he did not keep quiet he would be branded a ‘Jonah’ and that was the last bloody thing any crew needed

George added, ‘I can’t really do anything for you Olly. Have you told Stan Peel about this dream and was he cross ?’

Olly nodded miserably

Well don’t ever mention the old man again. You’ll only get Stan’s back up. Try and forget it but come and see me after your next patrol’ Olly said he would try.

He must have mentioned the old man again but this time was the last time for Stan Peel put an end to the business once and for all. One morning Olly came into the Spearfish mess just after the boat had returned from patrol, after the cry of ‘Rum’s Up !. His tot had gone. ‘Anyone seen my rum ?’ he asked. ‘Yeah’, said Stan, ‘the old man looked in and he drank it

Before departure mascots were patted, rabbits feet were tucked into pockets, kewpie dolls dangled from the tube space bulkheads. A veritable treasury of amulets hung from the neck of Ben Bryant, Skipper of Sealion. Nevertheless his crew knew its moist potent protection against disaster was the prayer meeting Bryant held every Sunday. There had been a time when the crew had not been so devout. Indeed Bryant remembered the day his ‘browned off’ crew had hurled the prayer book into the sump in the hope that off-duty watch might get some rest on Sunday mornings. Bryant was unable to hold his service but the culprits soon regretted their action. The remainder of the patrol turned out to be the most nerve-wracking the sealions had ever undertaken as the boat was bombed, depth-charged and narrowly missed a mine. Like some miraculous early mediaeval gospel the prayer book inexplicably turned up, albeit grubby from its sojourn in the sump. Never again did the crew of Sealion interfere with one of Bryant’s services.

One last memorable run ashore was all Jack asked for. With tensions running at fever pitch, fights were endemic; fights with ‘crabs’ (RAF) and ‘pongos’ (army) fights with merchant seamen (preferably foreign) and when there was no-one else around, fights with torpedomen and stokers. Some notorious pubs were put out of bounds but shore patrols only made arrests in extreme circumstances. The base was subject to potentially explosive incidents. One general service PO, a noted bully, was discovered maltreating a young sailor under his charge by a group of outraged submariners. When confronted, the PO’s response was sufficiently insulting to earn him a ducking in the base static water tank. The submariners relaxed, safe in the knowledge that as their boat was due out next morning, no action would be taken against them. After all, they were trained and valuable while the PO was mere ‘base ballast’.

Come 23:00hrs the messes would be crowded. Blessed with the instincts of obedient homing pigeons, the rovers returned. Some were subdued, their thoughts lingering with home and family. Others were dusted with sawdust, reeking of beer and vomit or proudly displaying black eyes to admiring boatmates. The memory of this run ashore would sustain them during the days ahead and give them something to look forward to until the next time. A few would end up in the police cells. Should harbour stations be called early next morning they risked missing the patrol with the result some hapless member of spare crew would be given a ‘pier head jump’ in their place. A minority, unable to overcome their fears might be driven to commit petty offences in the hope that arrest might allow them to avoid the patrol. Captain S (6) countered this by coming to an arrangement with Blyth Police whereby any personnel arrested overnight were to be fed then returned to Elfin under guard. Far more typical of submariners of the period were the attitudes of Fred Rumsey and Rob Roy McCurrach:

At this time in Blyth there was an very strong feeling among submariners that you must go out with your boat at all costs. In some circumstances going sick was considered an avoidable reason. The thought at the back of mens’ minds was, ‘suppose whoever took my place was lost. How would I feel then ? Everyone would think I had dodged the column’. I don’t recall this having been openly discussed but it was undoubtedly a fact.’

Go adrift deliberately, no, never. This was our job (anyway if you did go adrift your pay and leave would be stopped). I might have been a bit unhappy to miss a date or a good film but I was under orders. I was told what to do and I did it – I was very law abiding ! I was crew and when the boat goes to sea you are duty/honour bound to go with it. I might have been scared stiff but I always went. I was a trusted member of a submarine crew and a submarine crew was an indivisible whole. Weaken just one small part and you weaken the rest

Lieutenant Anthony Langridge had been suffering from abdominal pain. He went on patrol only to be hospitalised with acute appendicitis on his return. He missed the next two Narwhal operations. He told a friend that he ‘felt like a dead man on leave’. The officers had their own ways of blowing off steam. Every so often they would beg Lydia Jackson, Landlady of the Astley Arms, to let them hold a private function in an upstairs room. They said they needed it for ‘special ceremonies’. Assuming it was required for naval masonic rites, Lydia granted permission. Dozens of submarine officers converged on the Pub but the last man in locked the door behind him. None ever spoke of what took place but they made plenty of noise, drank vast quantities of beer and spirits and always left the carpet wringing wet. One night, realising she had not closed the blackout curtains, Lydia Jackson found the door unlocked.

There was a young sub-lieutenant, a new or rather, he newest arrival. He was wringing wet from head to foot and wearing his best uniform. He was bravely persevering his way through the verses of this initiation song, while a dozen brother officers ringed around him hurling full pints of beer over him and yelling encouragement. He was standing with his back to the window and at the time I was more concerned about my new green velvet curtains and carpet. Later I did feel very sorry for the poor boy. They were such a crazy high spirited crowd’

The time would inevitably come for the men to walk down to the South Harbour. A Ferguson’s van was hired to give the submariners a lift. Fred Rumsey:

We were a good crew and Spearfish was a happy boat; we were always in high spirits. We used to travel down from he base in the back of a lorry with our steaming kit. I remember we used to have a large picture of a pin-up girl and we would hold it up for all to see during the short journey. There was a youngster in the crew and as I recall everyone was kind to him. Like me they were probably trying to reassure themselves as well as him

The boats left with only a handful of shipwrights and spare crew to see them off. A wren dispatch rider on a motorbike was poised to deliver any last minute messages but she was the only wren allowed into the South Harbour without permission. This probably owed more to superstition than to practicality. It was almost as if to make a fuss was to court disaster.

Return to port was governed by a similar mix of regulation and convention. On approaching the berth, the casing party would change into pristine white jumpers in readiness for the piped order, ‘Casing Party Close Up’. Any spies would conclude that the clean shaven tidy matelots had been on a training exercise rather than a patrol. The skipper had his own rituals to perform on return. His primary responsibility lay in furnishing Captain S(6) with a verbal and later written patrol report. The written report would be passed on to Horton for his comments. This done, the skipper would request permission for fifty percent of his crew, either ‘port’ or ‘starboard’ watch to be granted four days shore leave.

The men off watch would make for the base showers to scrape away a fortnight’s dirt. Some might make it their priority to telephone wives and girlfriends. Once ‘topped and primed’ a riotous run ashore would follow. The more harrowing the patrol, the more riotous the celebration.

Those left on board were required to unload and replace all unused torpedoes harnessing the efforts of spare crew. A newly returned boat would ‘trot’ along to the Ice House where the torpedoes (warheads added) were kept. Sometimes a returning boat would moor directly under the tall cranes used to load the ‘fish’.

Duty watch: Snapper in January 1941 taken on the Tyne

The tasks allotted to duty watch could be many and varied. One Summer evening Bernard Cranmer and his ‘Oppo’ Paddy were told off to man one of the heavy Vickers machine gun guarding the Harbour. While the training could only be described as ‘scratch’ they had seen it done in films and were therefore confident of giving a good account of themselves should the need arise. Grabbing ammunition belts from the Ice House magazine they raced over to the gun. The novelty of swinging the gun around soon wore off. Bored stiff they waited for the duty officer to complete his rounds before slipping off to the nearest pub, taking care to bribe the sentry with the offer of a bottle. They were enjoying themselves when suddenly a triple alert sounded. Borrowing a bike they pelted back down to the Harbour, slipped the Royal Marine sentry his reward and ran towards the sandbagged gun position. The gun position commanded a fine view of the Cambois (known locally as the ‘East Pier’) Pier, the longest of the Blyth piers.

Cambois or East Pier, Blyth

The ‘All Clear’ sounded and the Harbour fell silent once again except for the lapping waves. It was not going to stay peaceful for much longer. Moments later tracer arced into the sky as the gun opened fire. Paddy had spotted someone on Cambois Pier – a high security area where no-one should be. Convinced they were faced with a saboteur, the two submariners trained their gun on the indistinct figure darting between Pier installations. Bernard Cranmer:

Lo and behold he fell flat and we cheered like mad. After all we had shot a saboteur. We would surely be decorated for this. The sentry notified the base duty officer. Suddenly the figure was seen to get to his feet and run. A second burst was fired. ‘Now its my turn to have a go’ insisted Paddy‘. Down went the saboteur again

More base personnel were arriving and an officer ordered an immediate search of Cambois Pier. Bernard and Paddy jubilantly recounted their story to their reliefs. At 08:00hrs they were rudely awoken and ordered to return to the base ‘at the dip’ – Captain Voelcker wanted to talk to them. They changed into their ‘number ones’ and knocked on the door of Captain S(6). Then it dawned on them that they were present not as request men but as defaulters.

At the table stood Mr. Foggin, with two police men. We had to apologise as the person we thought was a saboteur was the Cambois Lighthouse keeper. Because of the alert all the buses had been running late and his relief could not get there until after midnight. Mr. Foggin was making his way home when we opened fire. Medals ! We had our horoscopes read good and proper that day. Some time later we were sent for again and this time congratulated on our initiative for spotting in intruder and taking appropriate action. After all we had just been doing our job’

On June 30th Narwhal left Blyth to carry out FD 21, a mine-lay off the approaches to Trondheim. This was the boat’s longest trip to date. The mission began badly. Upon leaving Immingham Narwhal was exiting Gap C in the East Coast Minefield when a British A/S trawler raced in as if to ram. Burch gave the order ‘Full Astern’ as the trawler tore past, ignoring waves and recognition flares fired from the bridge. By July 4th Narwhal was approaching her billet in position 63°15’N, 07°39′ at periscope depth.

Grip Seascape

Visibility was poor and like Roberts of Porpoise before him, Ronald Burch found his charts to be useless. The crew had little option but to crawl towards the lay position navigating via ASDIC transmissions. The mines were laid in twenty minutes. Burch slowly inched the boat back out to deeper water. Two days later on July 6th Narwhal‘s wireless operator, Telegraphist Ackroyd reported much enemy chatter. There were reports of a damaged British submarine being strafed by aircraft. There had been increased aerial activity off Stavanger too. Burch knew that the submarine in question in Zone C3 must be either Sealion (Lieutenant Commander Ben Bryant) or her replacement, Shark (Lieutenant Commander Peter Buckley). It was, Shark. Her crew put up a two hour fight with machine guns against aircraft until the number of wounded men rendered surrender an inevitability. When Narwhal returned to Blyth on July 7th there were strong rumours that the mine-laying missions were to be discontinued. In fact at the urging of Forbes and the vacillation of Horton, they were to continue until the end of the month. One A/S vessel UJ-D/Treff VIII is believed to have sunk on one of the mines laid by Narwhal. Out of a crew of thirty-five, thirteen are believed to have drowned.

Spearfish left Blyth for an uneventful anti-invasion patrol in zones H1 and H2 off the Dutch coast between the islands of Vlieland and Terschelling. For some time seaman Fred Rumsey had thought that the rash on his arms signified an allergy to shale oil used in torpedo maintenance. In keeping with the prevailing philosophy, Fred kept quiet about this malady for as long as possible. However on this patrol Fred’s arm became swollen to an excruciating degree. Upon the return of Spearfish on July 17th, Fred Rumsey was hospitalised:

Before leaving Spearfish I asked Lt. Pirie whether I could return to the boat as I did not want to leave her and I felt badly that I was letting everyone down because of this business. The boat was now one man short for the next patrol and that was no small matter on an ‘S’ boat, not least for watchkeeping. I was one of only two gunnery rates which meant the gun was short of a vital member. Lt. Pirie assured me that as soon as I was fit enough to do so, I would be allowed to return to Spearfish. Even so, I felt very depressed and not a little guilty, terrified in case my colleagues thought I was a coward

Forbes was informed that Spearfish had been selected to replace the lost Shark. The boat would join the Third Flotilla on the Forth. This news came as a shock because Forbes and his men had been looking forward to attending the wedding of Stoker Mordue at Newcastle on July 29th. Sturgeon’s gun-layer, Joe Neil agreed to take charge of Pluto the dog until the crew of Spearfish made arrangements for him. Wives and dependents remained at Blyth until accommodation could be found around South Queensferry.

Stoker Smith of Narwhal was eventually able to find digs for his family, though what he found (Nelson Place) was scarcely satisfactory. His daughter, Wendy, remembers the long trek North to Blyth:

There were three of us. I was coming up to my 9th birthday, my sister was just 7 and my brother 4. Mother was expecting at this time. We had often trailed after Dad to places such as Portsmouth and Plymouth. By the time we arrived at Blyth we discovered that Narwhal had already sailed on July 22nd. My memories of Blyth are not good. The digs were in a large Victorian terraced house with the back overlooking the docks. I think there was a put-U-up bed that was very low and close to the floor. Mum sat up all night throwing shoes at the mice

Joseph left a message under his photograph explaining that these lodgings would have to suffice until his return. Narwhal had left Blyth on July 20th to carry out FD 22 – her second trip to lay mines up at Grip. ‘Let go’ from Immingham at 15:00hrs on July 22nd, the boat set course for ‘Gap C’ in the protective coastal minefield. The boat had been explicitly ordered to proceed on the surface until within thirty miles of 58° 29′ N 02° 34’E.

Dornier Do 17Z probably taken at Sola

Lieutenant Commander Ronald Burch was ordered to follow a course which took Narwhal through 54º07′ N 00 º00′,

54º36’N, 00º48’E, 55º16’N, 01º00’E, 57º00 N, 02º20’E, 62º 00’N, 02º 20’E, 63º 33’N, 06º 22’E. This was the precisely the same route used by Porpoise and Narwhal in their previous ventures into the Trondheim roads.

A Dornier 17Z bomber of Staffel 1/606 was issued with special orders detailing a patrol course. This unit had been based at Copenhagen but aircraft ‘E1’ flown by Leutnant sür See Bernhard Müller was one of several retained at Sola (now Stavanger Airport in Norway). Since April 1940 B-Dienst had deciphered wireless transmissions intended for, and acknowledged by, Narwhal but had mistaken her call sign for that used by Porpoise. The patrol vectors supplied to Müller were based upon the routes known to have been previously used by the mine-layers as a direct result of B-Dienst wireless decryptions. 

Narwhal’s course was known to B-Dienst

Just before 14:55hrs (cet) on July 23rd Müller’s crew spotted a large surfaced Northbound submarine in Square AN 4856 (56º52’N, 01º40’E) Course 20º . Müller banked then turned to make a low level attack with wing-mounted bombs and machine guns. The bombs were released just after the Dornier pulled out of the dive. Two bombs missed altogether but the third exploded abaft the submarine conning tower as she desperately attempted to dive. Normally it would take one minute and thirty two seconds for a Porpoise class boat to dive. If the internal ‘Q’ tank was flooded, as it likely was, this could be reduced to one minute fourteen seconds. It was still too long.

Bernhard Müller watched as the submarine sank by the stern. By the time he had turned, the bows were protruding four metres above the sea. The boat remained like this for two or three minutes before slipping under for the last time. When Müller banked and returned again, all that was left were some pools of oil and some wreckage which he likened to ‘half a lifeboat’. The Porpoise class was fitted with a canvas Berthon boat. Müller and his crew had carried out an immensely skilled attack. It was credited by the Kriegsmarine with sinking HMS/M Porpoise.

The first Horton knew of the loss of Narwhal was the failure to transmit a ‘mission complete’ message. If we pause to examine the charts accompanying the diary of VA(S) the projected position of Narwhal on July 23rd was 55º 30’N 01º 10’E and on July 24th, 58º 50′ N 02º 20’E. This places Narwhal in precisely the position of Müller’s attack. The description of the submarine was consistent with that of the Porpoise class. No other British submarine was present in this sector and there is no other plausible explanation for the loss of Narwhal. The Germans made no sinking claims and the mystery remained until after the war when records were seized. The destruction of Narwhal is often heralded as the only example of a British submarine being sunk as a direct result of signal Intelligence during the war but this is not the case, as we shall see.

On July 24th Porpoise left Blyth to lay FD 23 a minefield in Zone E off Denmark in position 55°51’N, 06°18’E. On July 26th the Porpoise wireless operator picked up messages from nearby German aircraft circling the site of Narwhal‘s demise. The mines were laid on July 29th. Lieutenant Commander Roberts made the following observations in his Patrol Report:

The 150 miles of passage between the 50 fathom line and the lay were not particularly enjoyed as the depth of water was really much shallower than is required for Porpoise. Nor was my anxiety in any way alleviated by the singular lack of unanimity between my two relevant charts, showing depths of the lay position varying between 9 and 18 fathoms. As Porpoise draws 9 and a half fathoms at periscope depth, when on an even keel, it will be appreciated that these discrepancies were matters of some interest to me’

Porpoise returned to Rosyth on August 5th. This was the last submarine mining mission undertaken from an East Coast flotilla. Porpoise had a brief sojourn on the Forth before moving to Rothesay.

The crew of Swordfish (which had a significant North East contingent among the ratings) was pleased that Spearfish was heading to the Third Flotilla at Rosyth, rather than them. Off-watch they sunbathed on the flattened squared off stern affectionately known as the ‘duck’s arse’ (In Jack’s league of favourite pastimes sunbathing came a close second to ogling the new intake of torpedo wrens usually found exercising near the bandstand in Ridley Park) Sunbathing on the duck’s arse could be risky. It was far too tempting for duty-watch to blow the heads, sending a shower of effluvium down on their boat-mates.

On July 27th Swordfish (Lieutenant P. J. Cowell) left Blyth to carry out a patrol in Zone E1, North of the GDM. Next day the boat was proceeding trimmed down on the surface when a yacht, apparently in distress, was spotted in position. On board were four Norwegian merchant navy sailors attempting to sail to Britain. They had left Arendal two weeks earlier. Cowell took them on board Swordfish then sank the yacht, Maski, with gunfire. With a damaged rudder and tattered sails the yacht had been drifting helplessly when Swordfish chanced upon it. Fully restored by generous tots of rum, the Norwegian sailors were permitted to work their passage by helping out on the fore-planes. The patrol continued but the only twist of excitement came on August 4th when Cowell made an attack on a merchant vessel:

01:57 hrs Sighted a 2,000 tons merchant ship bearing 350°, course 120°. Started attack.

02:07 hrs In position 57°54’N, 06°48’E (247° Lindesnes 7 nautical miles), fired three torpedoes from 4,500 yards. No hits were obtained’.

Swordfish returned to Blyth on August 8th.

Sturgeon (Lieutenant G. Gregory, DSO) was given a patrol off the Dutch islands of Vlieland and Texel. The boat left Blyth on July 27th. This patrol was without incident until August 4th when Gregory decided to attack a small merchant.

12:39 hrs In position 53°15’N, 04°36’E fired six torpedoes at two small merchant vessels (three torpedoes at each). Enemy course was 210°, speed 8 knots. Range on firing was 1,200 yards. No hits were obtained.

The convoy was in line ahead in the order merchant vessel, tug and towed merchant vessel with the escort of three armed tugs disposed on either bow of the leading ship and astern.

Following the attack the escort dropped six depth charges of which two were close. The hunt by the escorts lasted for about 30 minutes

Sturgeon returned to Blyth on August 9th.

Following her lengthy stint in Swan Hunters Yard, Ursula (Lieutenant W.A. Cavaye) left Blyth for what proved to be an uneventful anti-invasion patrol off the Dutch coast in zones H1 and H2.

Hawes Pier, South Queensferry. Titania and Maidstone moored under the Forth Bridge, their submarines gathered alongside

Spearfish left Blyth for Rosyth on July 24th. On July 31st the boat sailed from the Forth for a patrol off the Naze, the South coast of Norway in Zone C3. Zone C3 was known to be hazardous as at least two boats, Thistle and Shark were suspected of having been destroyed there. The crew was left in no doubt that a dangerous patrol lay ahead. On August 1st Spearfish was making progress towards her billet. When AB Fred Rumsey had been hospitalised, Seaman Billy Pester had been given a pier head jump to Spearfish before she left for Rosyth because he had some gunnery experience. In the early evening of August 1st, 1940, AB William Victor Pester was one of the look-outs on the bridge of the submarine as she beat her way North on he surface. The men on the bridge failed to spot a second submarine approaching from the North. The look-outs on the other submarine had spotted Spearfish, however.

U-34 Type VIIA (Kapitanleutnant Wilhelm Rollmann)

The second submarine was U-34 returning to her Wilhelmshaven base in anticipation of a riotous reception. Kapitänleutnant Rollmann and his crew had spent two months on patrol. The boat left Lorient on July 23rd, having called in to replenish torpedo stocks. In the course of his patrol Rollmann had sunk merchants Vinemoor, Accra, Sambre and Thiara. U-34 had torpedoed and sunk the destroyer HMS Whirlwind off Lands End on July 5th. Rollmann and his crew were ‘experten’.

Slightly awkward Wilhelm Rollmann wearing Rittercreuz

What follows is an extract from the KTB of U-34:

18:17 a slender object spotted on the horizon by the starboard watch looking very much like a periscope. At 18:19 we dive.

58 º28′ N 01 º06′ E (AN 4281) Discern a submarine sailing straight towards us. 0 degrees inclination. The slender contours first seen over the horizon can now be recognised as the two tall periscope standards aligned Gradually the conning tower of the submarine comes into sight. Enemy course is 30 degrees. Difficult to make out which type it is. Decide to position myself ahead for an attack. Can see that it is a Sterlet-type submarine. Course and speed are difficult to determine. At 19:04hrs I fire a bow shot after first having closed at three-quarter speed and maximum speed for a while to reduce the distance. Torpedo set to run at 2 metres. Opponent doing 9 knots. Hit forward, 20m from the bow. Running time one minute, 46 seconds which means he was 1,610 metres away. Huge explosion which is felt inside our boat, despite the distance. Immense pall over the explosion site. Assume the submarine’s own torpedoes must have detonated as well. The boat sinks within 2-3 seconds. Large pieces of wreckage fly through the air

19:05hrs We surface and immediately head towards the scene of the sinking. We find one man swimming and bring him on board at 19:10. At 19:08 a powerful air bubble rises to the surface. There is very little oil to be seen and just a few pieces of wooden debris floating around. Sinking reported by radio’

The last patrol of HMS/M Spearfish

AB William Pester was on the bridge, engaged in his first patrol. There was no land in sight, just grey choppy sea, grey skies and a grey submarine. Aware of footsteps on the conning tower ladder, Billy became nervous with the realisation that Skipper ‘Jock’ Forbes had joined the look-outs on the bridge. Suddenly Spearfish shuddered under a terrific explosion which sent Billy Pester sprawling across the telegraphs. Regaining his senses thanks to the icy spray, he turned towards the Skipper to see the Skipper thrashing about with his head and shoulders inside the hatch. Pester tried to pull him out but the hatch slammed shut before he had a chance. Pester thought it was a nightmare but the cold water surging over his legs was ample evidence that the boat was diving without him. Billy heaved against the hatch but the bridge was awash. He felt a sharp pain in the neck. His binocular strap had been snared by the gyro repeater bar and as Spearfish dived, Billy was dragged down with her.

No matter how hard Pester pulled at the strap it would not break. His lungs were near bursting point, his head throbbed as he tried to tear himself free. Down, down he went. In time he became aware of a powerful force beneath him. The strap tore into his neck. The pain became intense. Then the strap relaxed. Something was powering Billy back towards the surface, towards the daylight. Pester broke surface in a maelstrom of air bubbles. Gasping, bewildered and chilled to the bone, he began to tread water as it dawned upon him that he was alone in the North Sea. He tried to reassure himself that any second now, Spearfish would surface to pick him up but in his heart Billy knew that Spearfish would never have dived like that unless something had gone seriously wrong. Then he remembered the explosion.

Alone in the North Sea Pester began to cry with despair, Pester did not spot the patch of white foaming sea a hundred yards away. Only when a slate-grey conning tower emerged painted with an unfamiliar black crow with outstretched talons, emerged, did the terrible truth dawn. He read the lettering ‘U-34’. Gutteral voices and unfamiliar faces stood on the fore casing, some jeering, most just staring at him. Pester was roughly dragged on board. A journey which began on a British submarine was now to end on a U-boat.

Pester was carried below. A German sailor knelt beside him with a bundle of dry clothes. He urged Billy to put them on. The German sailor dressed his wounds then encouraged him to sleep. Later that day he was awoken by a young German officer who sat down beside him. The officer was none other that Wilhelm Rollmann himself but Billy Pester did not know this at the time. The German explained that his U-boat had been shadowing the British boat for some time and that he had made his attack at long-range with his last remaining torpedo. As a fellow submariner he could well understand how Billy must be feeling but the Englishman should understand that he and his crew had only been doing their job. Had the positions been reversed, he felt certain the British boat would have done the same. Billy Pester protested that Spearfish might not have sunk but Rollmann gravely assured him that all propeller noise had ceased once Spearfish had disappeared.

The very air bubble that had saved Pester’s life had signified the extinction of his mates. When Rollmann demanded to know the name of the submarine and Billy told him it was Spearfish, the German became angry, calling the British submariner ‘a liar’. He told Pester he knew for a fact that Spearfish had been destroyed the previous September. Käpitanleutnant Wilhelm Rollmann was one of the most successful U-boat aces of 1940. At the end of this extremely successful patrol when U-34 arrived in Wilhelmshaven on August 3rd, ‘Papa’ Dönitz was on hand to confer the Rittercreuz on him. In this patrol alone Rollmann had accounted for 29,990 tons of Allied shipping (inflated by Hamburg Radio to 76,000 tons).

British naval intelligence intercepted an earlier Hamburg Radio broadcast of August 2nd claiming that an unnamed U-boat had torpedoed and sunk an unnamed British submarine. Northways, Horton’s headquarters soon linked this with the failure of Spearfish to acknowledge a message transmitted earlier that day, ordering ‘Jock’ Forbes to close the Norwegian coast and enter Zone C3. On August 5th Hamburg Radio broadcast a report on Rollman’s triumphant return to base. Rumour spread from Northways to the Blyth wireless transmission office with cruel rapidity. Voelcker was soon confronted with distraught wives pleading for information he was not in a position to give. He could not even tell the Spearfish dependents that the boat had joined the Third Flotilla on the Forth and was therefore not his responsibility. The women gathered at vantage points around Newbiggin in the desperate hope of spotting the missing boats beating their way home. Some waited at the South Harbour checkpoints begging returning submariners for information. On July 27th Sturgeon had left Blyth to carry out an anti-invasion patrol off the Dutch coast. An unsuccessful attack had been made on an enemy A/S boat on August 4th. Sturgeon returned to the South Harbour on August 9th. Stoker Con McCabe:

‘Spearfish, Narwhal and Sturgeon all left Blyth round about the same time but Sturgeon was the only boat to return. It makes you think, that does. A lot of he lads were sweethearting local girls and I remember as we came up from the Harbour on return from patrol, they came over to us and pleaded,’ When is Spearfish coming in please ?’ or ‘Can you tell us where Narwhal is ?’, ‘Has she been diverted ?’. Well we knew they should have been back by now and we guessed what had happened but what could we possibly tell them ? What could the lads say ? We could only shake our heads but they could read it in our faces. I’ll never forget the way those poor women looked at us. It was most distressing’

On August 10th, the day after Spearfish should have returned from Rosyth, George Voelcker issued the order to ‘Clear Lower Decks’. With all ratings drawn up on the parade ground, he advised those present that both Narwhal and Spearfish were overdue and must now be presumed lost with all hands. Meanwhile the padre and senior wren officers travelled around Blyth to break the news to the bereaved. The shock was to cost Mrs Lucy Smith her unborn child, while Florence Stone learned of the tragedy from a terse Admiralty telegram, one she had been expecting for some time. Amid her grief she could not forget Clifford’s parting words;

Whatever happens remember I died for you and the children

The crews of Narhwal and Spearfish were officially logged ‘Discharged Dead’ and the letters ‘DD’ were stamped on their service certificates before they were posted out to next of kin. What remained of their kit now became the subject of a curious naval ritual. A series of advertisements went up in all me messes announcing a sale of ‘Dead Men’s Effects’ also known as ‘Dead Men’s Defects’. At 17:00hrs on August 16th two sailors undergoing punishment dragged in bags of belongings to the junior rates mess and a shrill blast on the bosun’s call proclaimed the sale was open. A writer from the pay offices at ready to record the transactions as the master at arms displayed the various items.

The former Chapel of HMS Elfin where prayers were said for the overdue crews

‘One number one suit nearly new’, he announced, holding up one much beer stained best serge suit after another. There had been many three badge men and the chevrons on their suits were worn with age. Despite the condition of much of the kit, bidding was brisk. Nobody was expected to pay on the nail and few of the sailors worried about what would happen at the end of the month. Not many of the sailors had any intention of keeping the kit they were bidding for. Time and again uniforms were returned to the heap to be bid for again before being secured by some junior rate who might have pledged five shillings he could not afford. Countless suits, white duck suits, tropical gear from halcyon days spent in the Mediterranean or even the China station. Overalls, collars, ties, boots, socks, much-loved pin-ups, model submarines fashioned for sons, pen-knives picked up cheap from Lisbon, would sell for three times the amount pledged for similar articles available from the ‘slop shop’. AB Joe Neil of Sturgeon took ownership of Pluto the dog (invalided out of the Submarine Service due to TB, the dog left with him). Finally when the last item was sold, the jaunty declared the sale to be over. What remained was burned.

Commander in Chief (Home Fleet) Sir Charles Forbes insisted that the suicidal submarine mining missions in Scandinavian waters should continue. VA (S) Horton wanted to end them but appears to have compromised with Forbes. with the result that the missions continued.

The price bid for each man’s kit was totted up by the writer and the some of money either sent or delivered to his widow – one street near the Docks where many Narwhal and Spearfish dependents were living – was given the grim sobriquet of ‘Submarine Widows’ Row’. Now there was nothing in Blyth to indicate these men had ever existed.

Ben Bryant wrote the following post-war:

The weather throughout the whole of that 1940 summer was glorious – but not for submarines. For us it was a terrible summer. It claimed half of our flotilla. But somehow through all of my recollections of that grim time, the sheer beauty of the Norwegian coast remains the dominant memory. Yet every card was stacking against our submarines. The translucent seas had never a ripple to hide us from our foes above; the cloudless skies seldom darkened in those northern latitudes to give us the blessed shield of invisibility we craved to charge our batteries. There was the everlasting anxiety as to when we could venture up to change the foul air in the boat; the men panting like dogs in the carbon-dioxide laden stench we breathed; the plaintively repeated signals from our base, asking for one of our flotilla mates to report their position – the sign that that another was overdue. But all these things are unreal memories. The beauty remains”

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that the crews of both Narwhal and Spearfish fell victim to the order ‘proceed with dispatch’. This order was universally interpreted to mean a boat must proceed on the surface to its billet harnessing the power of its diesel engines. In the case of Narwhal the earliest time that the boat could dive was literally prescribed in the sailing orders issued to Ronald Burch. An argument could be made that the order to ‘proceed with dispatch’ was necessary because of the buoyancy and trim challenges faced by mine-laying submarines before they had laid their cargo. However this order was copied into routine orders at a time when not only did the Germans have overwhelming aerial supremacy in the sphere of operations, there was ample evidence that the submarine code had been comprehensively penetrated. The attacks by aircraft, or the presence of A/S vessels were not down to bad luck or chance, they signified the fact that B-Dienst had a near complete knowledge of the location and movement of British submarines. Likewise the return course of U-34 was not a matter of chance. Rollmann’s return course was specified by BdU instructions, in turn informed by B-Dienst decryptions. This fact that the submarine code had been compromised was known to British submarine crews even if naval intelligence officers failed to grasp the obvious and respond accordingly by deleting the order ‘to proceed with dispatch’. For Spearfish like Narwhal had fallen victim to that fatal order. Had the two boats been allowed to travel to their billets submerged, charging batteries in open water at night, diving in daylight, battery power would have been consumed, time and sometimes trim might have been lost but B-Dienst would have been frustrated and these tragedies averted.

Following hard on the loss of Lieutenant Commander Edward Bickford and Salmon, the destruction of two more submarines in the space of ten days was devastating. Far more costly was the loss of ninety-nine of the most experienced submariners in the Service (sixty from Narwhal and thirty-nine from Spearfish). Two outstanding commanders had been lost in the form of Burch and Forbes. In time new and better submarines would roll off the stocks but men like the gentle Clifford Stone, engineering supremos Stan Peel and Jim Ackery and those future skippers Donald Pirie and John Green, all lost to their families and to their Country: they could never be replaced.

In her terraced house in Seaton Sluice a tearful miner’s wife helped ‘Jock’ Forbes young and expectant widow to pack her suitcase. Then she waited for Voelcker’s staff car to take her to Newcastle Central Station. As the widow of an Officer, Mrs Forbes could expect to travel first class down to London but for Lucy Smith (now recovered from her miscarriage) there was only a hot and crowded compartment. Wendy Dell:

Coming back to Weymouth the train was packed with service personnel and mother was at the end of her tether. She pushed us into a toilet and we stayed there for the long journey home’

Commander in Chief (Home Fleet) Forbes, VA(S) Horton and the rest of Admiralty had drawn deeply from the well of human courage – and all too often had its waters been poured wastefully away.

Doomed sisters: Spearfish with Narwhal in background. 1939 probably taken in Lisbon Harbour. IWM

ADM 199/294, ADM 199/373, ADM 199/1843, ADM 199/1827, ADM 199/1828, ADM 199/294, ADM 199/892,

ADM 199/1877, ADM 199/1840, ADM 156/283, ADM 173/15792, ADM 1/27186

BR 3403, BR1736 56 (1), OIC Own Forces (Submarines) Signal Log

Marinegruppenkdo West, Fd Luft West, PG-30031, PG-50/266, PG-38755

T1022-2607/39582, T1022-3505/73578, T1022-3505/73574

Will Not We Fear Warren and Benson, Fatal Ascent Melanie Wiggins

© P Armstrong