‘We are known as the ‘silent service’ because we never boast, brag or talk about ourselves. We leave that to others. I have only one thing to add. Once you have shipped those ‘Submarine’ cap tallies, then you uphold the bastards no matter what. Always remember that you are following in the footsteps of some wonderful men, so make sure you never let them or the Submarine Service down‘
Training class graduation address, Blyth 1944
Practically all submariners who entered the Service between 1941 and 1945 trained at Blyth, making it along with Blockhouse, the almer mater of the wartime Service. To cater for Elfin’s new role, four classrooms were built North of the parade ground in April/May 1941and the canteen was enlarged. Existing buildings would later be converted into classrooms as demand grew. With the expansion of the base many local people, particularly women, were recruited to work in the canteen and to carry out cleaning work to relieve the burden on the regular naval staff.
What about the instructors ? Only a handful of specialist lecturers was sent from Blockhouse to Blyth to form the nucleus of the teaching staff. Some were cycled between the Seventh Flotilla at Rothesay and the Sixth at Blyth. Horton appears to have harboured doubts as to whether the knowledge of these highly experienced pre-war petty officers was appropriate for the Submarine Service of the 1940’s, preferring men who had more recent experience of war. Some of the petty officers who had served in the North Sea were now drafted to Elfin as a result.
The Submarine Service had always pressed specialists when required but the post 1940 Submarine Service could no longer be described as a voluntary branch. By the end of the war some 30% of those serving in boats had not joined by choice. Horton worked on the axiom that given a highly trained cadre of specialists to train them, an efficient machine could be fashioned from an influx of short term entrants. The Kriegsmarine had adopted a similar strategy during the Great War with considerale success. The Vice Admiral was not only empowered to press specialists from general service, he sought to recruit a requisite number of ‘Hostilities Only’ men (HOs) who had completed basic training but who might otherwise possess little or no experience of seafaring. As Jim Jaques recalls, news of a draft to submarines came as a shock to some:
“Turning away from the drafting office with my new assignment in my hand, I returned to enquire as to the classification of my new warship, HMS Dolphin. Rather bluntly I was informed that my future exploits would be confined to underwater warfare, in spite of my protests that I had not volunteered for ‘little diving boats’. The clerk informed me that my only chance of avoiding the draft lay in convincing the quack that I suffered from claustrophobia, adding that I did not have a hope in hell”
Some did resort to extreme measures as this anonymous account describes:
“The whole of my class was drafted into boats and one or two were none too happy about it. I heard them discuss how to fail the medical by piercing their eardrums or by swallowing cotton wool so that an abnormality would show on the X-ray. Well I was no hero but I just thought that if I’ve got to go, I’ve got to go“
The men who turned up for training at HMS Elfin tended to be a mixed bag. There were lubberly HO men initiated into the mysteries of knot tying, boxing the compass, stowing hammocks, kit layout, how to wear ‘fore and aft rig’ in a seaman like fashion and how to march and ‘chuck one up’ (salute) an officer. In 1941 most of the intake had already passed the tank exercise at Dolphin. Among each group of arrivals at Elfin there would be a backbone of experienced sailors from general service, some volunteers but many pressed. Leading Seaman Iain Nethercott, already the holder of a DSM, arrived at Blyth with a draft of men in 1942:
“We band of pilgrims crawled out the train at Newcastle and eventually discovered that a little blue rail coach ran to Blyth, so loading our kitbags and hammocks we set off for this unknown place up the coast. We were met on arrival by a lethargic wren with a lorry who drove us down the coast road and eventually pulled in to a scruffy looking collection of single storey red brick buildings complete with flagstaff and mandatory White Ensign (the base of the mast being tastefully picked out naval style in whitewashed stones).
We wearily lugged our kit off the lorry and being in charge I wandered into the Regulating Office to report that we had successfully negotiated half of England to get here and were now in urgent need of sustenance. Fortunately they had our meals in the galley oven but unfortunately the duty cook, a young wren, had obviously been so immersed in ‘Pegs Paper’ that she had left the gas on high and we were presented with a collection of burnt offerings. So refreshed we wandered in search of our wigwam. This turned out to be one of those brick sheds complete with a double row of cast iron beds with wire mattresses on which we could lay our hammocks. The place was heated by an iron bogey stove which consumed tons of coke or coal and achieved a minor miracle in that no heat was given out. Presumably it went up the chimney instead. An evil smelling lavatory completed our suite and a few red fire buckets full of dog ends were placed strategically round the walls, presumably to prevent us from setting the place alight while smoking in bed”
Leading Seaman J. Chapman’s group of trainees was so horrified by their new billet, they decided to do a little renovation:
“News reached us of an imminent inspection. That night we sat in the mess and looking at the filthy state of the walls, I wondered when they had last seen a coat of paint. Among our stokers were five New Zealand lads. As soon as he had finished his tea, one of them climbed onto a cross beam and gave the wall a rub. To our utter astonishment, from the smoky black wall emerged a lovely square of primrose yellow, glowing as if it had been painted yesterday ! Then we remembered tomorrow’s inspection and wished he had left things alone. We were wondering what to do when another New Zealand lad suggested we finish the job. We rolled up sleeves and got to work. We moved out all the lockers and tables, cadged buckets and cloths from the wrens then set to work cleaning the whole place from top to bottom in a race against time. It was pure mayhem but as good as their word, hey got on with it like galley slaves and by 22:00 the place shone from top to bottom. We were having our breakfast next morning when in walked the chief stoker to warn us that we had better get a move on. When he looked around him, his jaw dropped. Who would have believed it ?”
With the transformation from an operational to a training base it was inevitable that Elfin should have attracted a number of ‘barrack room stanchions’ as Iain Nethercott describes:
“The base itself was largely run by old pensioners who were excused sea duty so it was a nice quiet number for them, away from the dangers of war as well as providing the opportunity for numerous fiddles with naval stores and food. Their houses could normally be recognised by the smart grey paint and brand new half inch navy rope washing lines complete with gun metal sheaves. If the bugler was to sound off, ‘return stores’ half the bloody town would have fallen down“
Leading Seaman Mayhew knew all the tricks. Lieutenant Richard Raikes met him in August 1941:
“Elfin was full of characters, perhaps the most memorable was Leading Seaman Mayhew who drove the base staff car. He had been in the navy for over twenty years. Before this he had been chauffer/valet to a famous airman who had been killed trying to break a flying record. After that he had been employed by a certain London night club queen. He possessed an endless stream of tales about her exclusive clientele. ‘You know Sir, he would observe, ‘the most immoral people in them days was the judges, the senior clergy and of course the Lords Commissioners of Admiralty’. Mayhew had a particular dislike of the young and rather pompous base padre inflicted on us at this time. My wife and I happened to be present in a staff car taking a lift to Newcastle. The padre, who sat in front, was misguided enough to give Mayhew a moral lecture concerning his behaviour at Blyth. Mayhew slowly drew the car to a halt, turned towards the padre and said, ‘Listen sonny, you blokes, if you are not pansies and lots of you are, is just the same as other men, only you lot turn your dog-collars back to front so no-one can see you doing it !’ Followed by collapse of he padre and of course we had not heard a thing”
For ratings the length of courses taught at Blyth varied according to the student’s specialism but the new entrant could expect six to ten weeks of classroom teaching followed by ‘hands on’ experience in the training boat. Most classes held twenty-four students. The teachers were submariners of petty officer rank with experience of the 1939/41 undersea war. Norman Drury, Alfie Backers and Bernard Cranmer all returned to Blyth as instructors in the later stages of the war.
The first class commenced at 08:00hrs. Stokers and seamen were usually lumped together to be taught the rudiments of hydrodynamics, basic electrical systems and the working of the diving panel.. As A. Courridge discovered, the course was intense and discipline was rigorously enforced:
“We were each issued with exercise books and told to draw the basic outline of a submarine. One lad made the mistake of drawing in eyes and fins to make his into a fish. The CPO instructor saw this and the next thing we know our comedian was under punishment , running around the parade ground at the double. As the classes continued, so we elaborated on our basic drawing. First we drew the bulkheads, next would come hydroplanes, tanks and valves. By the time we had finished I was rather proud of my submarine drawing. It was an excellent way to learn in my view”
In time the training programme became more sophisticated culminating in the installation of an Askania control room simulator in late 1942. Interestingly Askania was a German company, the simulators having been purchased via its American subsidiary. Designed and built in America to British specifications, this was one of three sent to Britain, one was installed at Rothesay. The Blyth simulator was housed in a concrete building marked ‘Very Secret’ so naturally everyone in Blyth knew what was in side. It was impressively realistic, hydraulics ensuring that the deck tilted with the movement of hydroplanes. The Askania replaced the old Blockhouse simulator which was taken to Blyth in 1941. The Askania simulator was designed to work with the cyclorama attack teacher which projected images of target ships against a painted background. Both systems were operated by specialist wrens. Jim Jaques trained on the simulator in early 1943:
“The mock up certainly looked like the real thing. There was a conning tower with a brass ladder, hydroplane controls depth dials and maze of mysterious appendages the purpose of which eventually became known to the ‘nozzer’. First look through the periscope produced an eager line of inquisitive participants“
The men who took part in ‘Operation Source’, the ‘X craft’ attack on Tirpitz in September 1943 trained at Blyth in April of that year but their course appears to have been general and not tailored to ‘X craft’.
At any given time there would be three officer training classes at Blyth. One was designed for an intake of young Royal Navy sub-lieutenants (midshipmen) with about twenty months of sea time behind them. A small number of these officers may already have had some experience in submarines. Into this category came a sprinkling of men promoted from the lower deck, identified as possessing officer potential (upper yardsmen).
Following the old Blockhouse tradition a separate class was held to cater for the young RNR and RNVR intake. The third officer training class normally contained older, more experienced hands. Here RN, RNR and RNVR men were normally schooled together. Some had served in submarines but had not yet completed a full submarine training course. Crash course designed to transform destroyer first lieutenants into submarine ‘jimmys’ proved unsuccessful and were discontinued. The specialised courses in international liaison duties held at Blyth proved useful.
Judging from memoirs and anecdotal accounts, with its Siberian climate and unpromising surroundings HMS Elfin tended to be unpopular with its transient population of submarine officers, most of whom craved action in the Mediterranean and could not understand why they had been sent to such a god-forsaken exposed place. Lieutenant J. Gibson:
“The Sixth Flotilla. Three months under drab Northumbrian skies, sitting in nissan huts and listening to a monotonous voice dictating something…would cool the ardour of some young men. Even the weekly trip to sea would be flat, uneventful. Cold winds bringing the tang of the Arctic to our fingers, wept in from the grey horizon. The olds submarine (L23) would plunge out to the exercise area, perform a few unrehearsed acrobatics and return us to port. ‘But’ we would say, wait until we get an operational submarine in one of the crack flotillas”
Perhaps Lieutenant Gibson could be forgiven for not realising that the Sixth Flotilla had been a crack flotilla between 1939 and 1941, moreover it had operated in the kind of impossible conditions and against odds that made operations in the Mediterranean seem like a cakewalk to those submariners who had previously served in Northern waters. Most young officers benefitted greatly from instructors who had survived this phase and were able to pass on this experience. If command of a training submarine was not exactly what Dick Raikes had in mind when when he volunteered for submarines he was reassured to learn that once Tribune had commenced her refit (October 1941), he would take command of Seawolf Nevertheless he found day running in and out of Blyth Harbour no waste of time:
“From my point of view handling Tribune in and out of Blyth Harbour – not an easy harbour to negotiate with a 275′ long ‘T’ Class submarine in all weather conditions and tidal changes, was invaluable experience for what was to come“
Naturally ‘day running’ on the training boat was the highlight of each course fore the ratings. The old ‘safe area’ between the 25/30 fathom lines had been used by operational submarines to catch a trim, free from the attentions of coastal command was now designated as the Exercise Area for the Sixth Flotilla. It was close enough to Blyth to result in a short passage but far away from the main East coast convoy route to reduce the chances of attacks from the Auxiliary Patrol. Merchant ships were sternly warned not to enter this area. George Phillips allocated a minesweeper to escort submarines to this Exercise Area.
Training submarines were traditionally clapped-out relics having a few more months of service wrung out of them before heading for the breaker’s yard. The first training submarine to come to Blyth was L27 (Lieutenant H. Edmunds) which arrived from Sheerness on April 21st, 1941. It is questionable whether her motto, ‘When science fails trust in providence‘ inspired confidence or apprehension among her students. However Blyth Docks was one of the few establishments possessing a pool of specialist personnel and equipment to provide submarine refits. Modern submarines awaiting refits routinely doubled as training boats. The first of these boats was HMS/M Tribune.
Tribune had sailed on passage with Sunfish on June 9th, 1941 trailing behind an East coast convoy. Tribune had carried out fourteen patrols under the aegis of the Second and Third Submarine Flotillas. It was roundly accepted that the boat needed a major refit including the installation of new engines. Bill Dobson, then a young ERA recalls her condition:
‘She might have looked formidable but in reality Tribune was in a dreadful state. She was unfit to go to sea at all. Cracks over an inch wide appeared in her engine frames and by the time we reached Blyth, the engines had to be wedged in with pit props. Had those trainees realised what a mess she was in, they would never have gone out in her !’
In fact she was luckier than Sunfish. It had been planned to use Sunfish in either the Mediterranean or Biscay theatres but both boats were plagued by engine problems. Blyth Docks and the Swan Hunter Yard were working to capacity. Sunfish was re-directed to moor in the Albert Edward Dock until Swans could deal with her. On the night of September 30th, 1941 the Luftwaffe paid a call. Swans Yard was targeted but the bombs missed. A couple of near misses exploded adjacent to Sunfish, shattering her casing with shrapnel penetrating the pressure hull. It was questioned as to whether it was worth the effort of repairing the boat or sending her to be broken up. The decision was taken that Sunfish was to be repaired with a view to loaning her out to one of the allied nations
Here ERA Bill Dobson describes a programme that was to remain unchanged to the end of the war:
“We usually had an early morning start, leaving Blyth about 07:30 with a class of fifteen. One day it would be petty officers, the next seamen and stokers, ERA’s and officers. The trained submariners would first dive the boat then surface with the trainees looking on. After about half an hour we would hand over a station to the trainees and allow them to dive the boat. Obviously we supervised them closely. In this way we would teach them about trim, pumps and blows. We also trained them how to deal with emergencies. In this fashion we would carry out five or six dives per day then return to Blyth at 16:00. Back in 1939 I was given six month’s training but these lads were considered trained in just six weeks. At that time I was told I was too young for submarines but some of these lads were just nineteen !”
Iain Nethercott here describes his experience of day running in February 1942:
“Our sea-training at Blyth was done aboard an old clapped out submarine called L23 (Lieutenant R. Clutterbuck). We went to sea and did our first dives about six miles off the Harbour. We worked all the controls watched with trepidation by her regular crew who lived in a perpetual state of terror on these occasions, lest we open the wrong valve or press the wrong switch, consigning us all to a watery grave. All went well however and the old girl surfaced again and beat her way back to Blyth Harbour”
Trips in L23 were enhanced by the presence of Whisky. One day in the high summer of 1942 a stray dog crossed the gangplank. The crew adopted the dog, which slept in his own hammock in the fore-ends. Whiskey became a national celebrity when the Daily Mirror ran a feature on him.
Telegraphist David Morris found day running exhilarating:
“We went to sea in small numbers and spent the day diving, surfacing and generally being instructed in all aspects of control, including the periscope, engine room, toilet drill etc. I well recall the excitement when I took over the wheel after diving. Then I took my turn at my duties-to-be in the little wireless office. Afterwards it was back to the classroom for discussion followed by another go in the simulator“
For the most part day running was uneventful but it was not always plain sailing, Elfin had its fair share of training mishaps, some of them potentially deadly like the accident which nearly overtook Upright. The heroic HMS/M Upright (Lieutenant J. Wraith later Lieutenant P. Harrison) arrived in Blyth on April 21st 1942. The boat, which had completed twenty-four Mediterranean patrols with the Tenth Flotilla operating from Malta, had been the first of the ‘U’ class to reach the Mediterranean. Upright had taken part in sabotage operations but the highlight of her career to date was probably the sinking of an Italian cruiser, Armando Diaz off Tunisia in February 1941. Upright had landed commandos in combined operations parties (COPPS) on the Calabrian coast. The boat had sunk an Italian torpedo boat and several large merchants off Sicily and Tunisia. Upright made an attack on a dry dock, which, although it was hit by a torpedo, failed to sink because of its caisson construction. The crew had seen the other side of the coin when the boat suffered two significant depth charge attacks. Indeed her departure back to Britain was delayed by a bomb near miss on March 2nd 1942 which caused serious damage to the boat. By any standards Upright was a crack submarine.
One cold day in January 1944, Telegraphist Arthur Brady was detailed to board a trawler prior to join a day running class held on Upright:
“We were due to rendezvous with HMS Upright out of sight of land. A class had been out on Upright that morning In the wide expanse of sea there was no sign of any other vessel. Then , suddenly she was there, blowing like a whale as it surfaced. HMS Upright was soon bumping alongside and the sailors on the bridge were shouting to us to ‘look lively’ and come aboard. We scurried down the conning tower ladder as fast as we could go after the morning class had disembarked. The possibility of an air attack was very real in the North Sea and the submarine crew was understandably jumpy. As soon as we could he boat got underway again, with us ‘nozzers’ trying to act as though we were not there by making ourselves inconspicuous in any odd corner as the busy crew went about the business of diving. The fun was soon to begin, having been told by our instructor to disperse and keep out of the way. I made my way with two others into the fore ends.
Here three of us green ratings awaited, listening to the movements occurring in the control room as the crew made ready to dive“
The diving of a submarine is governed by allowing the ballast tanks on each side of the boat to flood with sea-water. These tanks are open to the sea at the bottom at all times but the upper sides are fitted with kingston valves. When the boat is to surface these valves are closed and large quantities of compressed air used to force out the water. Each kingston valve is fitted with a cotter pin, a metal wedge on a chain. While in harbour these pins are used to prevent accidental opening of the valve. Unbeknown to the crew of Upright, one of that morning’s trainees had slipped a pin into No 6 valve, thus preventing the flooding of the rearmost tanks when the order to ‘dive’ was given. With five pairs of tanks duly flooded but the last pair empty, Upright nose dived towards the shallow sea bed. Thetis-like her stern remained on the surface at an angle of sixty degrees, with the screws thrashing.
Arthur Brady again:
“In my innocence I thought that this was the normal diving angle but pandemonium reigned in he control room. I found it very difficult to hold onto the bulkhead door to prevent me sliding down the steeply sloping deck as my two colleagues had done. They were hard up against the forward bulkhead, virtually lying down against the floor. Suddenly as the angle increased, a free standing electric fire, used to warm up the fore ends slid down the lino covered deck. It ended up upside down, cooking the lino, under the plates I knew there were two fat torpedoes. I decided to do something fast to ease the situation. I let go of the bulkhead, I slid down the incline. I turned the fire over on its back so it could do no harm.
We learned later that most of the men in the control room were also trainees and the captain was inexperienced. We recovered by virtue of the capabilities of our instructor, CPO ‘Trunky’ Kirk, who momentarily took over. He gave the order to ‘Blow all tanks’ whereupon we soon surfaced. He alone recognised he cause of our unnatural dive and took the necessary action”
In fact Upright had never really been in serious danger, although the thoughts of trainees like Arthur can well be imagined. The order to ‘Blow ‘Q’ tank’ had failed to halt her descent. The Captain next ordered ‘Open ‘A’ suction and inboard vent. Pump from for’rard‘ with the result that the bow angle started to relax as the boat levelled off. The trawler had remained in sight and had informed Elfin of the situation. The trainees transferred to the trawler and both vessels returned to Blyth Harbour. Interestingly CPO Edward Kirk, who had indeed acted with initiative, was a survivor of HMS/M P32 which had been mined off North Africa back in August 1941. CPO Kirk, one of only two survivors, had recently been repatriated from an Italian POW camp in a prisoner exchange.
Upright was at the centre of another incident a few weeks later when the mooring wires of a rogue barrage balloon became ensnared in the screws. When the order was given to surface, the boat rose then slewed over. The bows protruded from the sea but the stern was gradually being dragged down. The bridge hatch was accessible. The crew realised what was happening. Although the wires were cut, the entrepreneurial Uprights succeeded in towing the barrage balloon back to Blyth Harbour. Once ashore they gleefully sold the balloon as salvage, the proceeds being sunk in the Queens and the Star and Garter with customary zeal.
These mishaps aside, submarining was still a dangerous game, even when a boat was moored in harbour.
The Norwegian submarine HNM B1 (Lieutenant R. Røren) arrived at Blyth from Rothesay on June 6th 1941. The boat having previously served at Rothesay in a training capacity. At 08:36hrs on August 8th 1941 B1, moored at the Ice House Quay, suffered a battery explosion. Tribune was moored nearby and the shipwrights together several crew members realising what had happened, rushed over to offer help. Several men were known to be onboard B1. The rescuers, Lieutenant Weydahl, Lieutenant Noll, CPO Eyles, PO Maclanachan donned DSEA respirator sets then clambered down the ladder only to find the control room full of smoke and fumes. They were joined by Lieutenant Røren. The deck over the batteries was ripped asunder by the explosion and fire threatened to spread to ammunition. Norwegian and Tribune ratings joined forces with the shipwrights to remove the ammunition before it could explode. Despite the adverse conditions, the rescue party succeeded in dragging out a civilian workman and a Norwegian rating. Eventually a group of ERAs led by Lieutenant (E) Wood managed to penetrate the motor room to confirm there was nobody left onboard. Sadly the civilian worker and the Norwegian rating succumbed to their injuries. A number of those involved in the rescue were rewarded for their rescue efforts. Lieutenant Commander (E) MacVicker was awarded the George Medal. CPO Eyles and PO Maclanachan both received the BEM. Lieutenant Weydahl was later presented with an MBE. Captain (S) 6, the self effacing George Phillips was also to receive a George Medal for his role in the rescue.
Not all accidents at Elfin involved submarines. A very strange incident unfolded on 14th December 1942 at HMS Elfin when a shell believed to be an unexploded AA shell, blew up the petty officer’s mess. The circumstances are not clear but ERA John Taylor was killed and his body was never found (he is commemorated on Portsmouth Naval Memorial under his real name of Rene Koelben). A second man, CERA Alfred Price died of his wounds and is buried in Beach Cemetery, Blyth.
A failure in gunnery drill was responsible for the death of twenty-five year old AB Charles Sayer who died on May 16th, 1943, a night of heavy air raids on the North East coast. He was buried in Kirkley Cemetery in Lowestoft. The most notorious fatal incident transpired on April 13th 1944. A fire broke out in some gorse growing on the beach near the Blyth Battery. This fire was tackled by Battery Sergeant Major John Dyke, Leading Fireman George Calloway, Leading Fireman Len Harrison and Fireman Richard Harris. A mine exploded killing all four men. However upon recovery of the bodies of these unfortunates, a second explosion crater was found with further human remains twenty feet away. It was clear that these remains were older than those of the fire-fighters. Then someone in Elfin remembered Lawrence Gilbert (22) and John Nash (21) who had been posted as deserters back in January 30th 1943. Both had been on leave when they told a messmate, ERA Francis Sandall, that they ‘intended to walk to Whitley Bay’ from Elfin.
They did not return when their leave was over. Both these lads were ERA’s 4th class who had given up well paid reserved occupations to join the Royal Navy. They were skilled, keen and motivated. On balance they seemed unlikely deserters. We will never know precisely what happened but it seems they walked down the beach towards the battery only to wandered into a minefield with catastrophic consequences. Dr. R. Kerr, who had examined both bodies, told the inquest held on April 20th 1944 that death was due to injuries caused by an explosion. The identity card and paybook of John Nash were found and used as confirmation as to the identity of the two bodies. ERA Nash was cremated at West Road, Newcastle while ERA Gilbert is buried in Beach Cemetery, where he rests amid exalted company. A Wren, Doris Hook died in an accident on June 16th 1941 aged just nineteen but I have been unable to find details. Wren Hook is buried in Cowpen Cemetery, Blyth.
As the war continued so the wrens assumed responsibility for practically all the support work at the base. HMS Elfin grew with the need to provide accommodation for increasing numbers of personnel. HMS Calypso was the deceptively exotic name for the motley collection of nissan huts which sprang up within the base from 1942 to house them. Wrens worked as stewards, as clerks, as typists and signal decryption. Highly trained wrens operated the Askania and attack teacher apparatus. The wren contingent working with the shipwrights grew in numbers, many proficient in turning, joinery and welding but mostly carrying out the more routine workshop tasks. A few of the wrens sent from HMS Vernon, the Torpedo School had gone through the apprenticeship programme but for most training had been ‘on the job’ and was much diluted. The more specialised wrens occupied quarters near the old Lifeboat House. Overall-clad torpedo wrens were afforded significant status. Wardroom lothario’s rated the Blyth wrens as great beauties. A cadre of torpedo wrens who moved into the concrete yacht in the Harbour were the cause of much speculation. While regarding most invitations with disdain, once the duty officer had done his rounds they repaid the attention with their own special ritual. Alec Wingrave:
“An armed guard patrolled the jetty at night. All the periscopes were manned from about 21:30 because the wrens only pulled the curtains at their windows (not portholes) after they had donned their night attire”
Come morning the process was reversed as the ratings lined the railings to peer through the uncurtained windows as the wrens got dressed again. Wrens were drawn from all over the country and from vastly differing social backgrounds but unlike the men, few of these girls had ever been away from home before joining up. They soon adapted to their new lifestyles and horizons were widened as never before. In peacetime teenager Wyn Huggins could never have dreamed she would one day put to sea on a submarine:
“We needed special permission to attend trials but when this was forthcoming we were naturally delighted. The submarine was undergoing trials following a refit and the base commander thought it might be good for morale and learning for some of the wrens to go out on a boat for a few hours. Well it was quite an experience. How those men existed for weeks in such a cramped noisy environment I will never know. I remember coming ashore and having to walk for some distance before I got my land legs back“
Predictably not everyone approved with the close proximity between trainee submariners and wrens. Much effort, usually unsuccessful, was expended in keeping the sexes apart. Disapproved of by conservative masculine authority and zealously guarded by her own officers (frequently themselves the wives of serving submarine officers) Jenny Wren was a much protected species but the more ingenious usually found a way to confound officialdom: Wyn Huggins:
“Sometimes there were parties onboard a visiting submarines and the girls would scramble through the hole in the fence to make their way down to the Harbour. We did strange things in those days. I remember one night sneaking down to the unmined stretch of beach to play barefoot rounders on frozen sand”
The only encounters approved of by authority took place on the sports field as Iain Nethercott relates:
“Some mad fool organised a netball match between the resident wrens and the submariners. The mother wren had some from an establishment called HMS Impregnable and spent all her waking hours guarding her charges from casual fornication with randy matelots, so the thought of scantily clad young girls coming into contact with sailors raised all the worst fears in her matronly chest.
She need not have worried for on the great day, I with other innocent sailors, was dragooned into tackling a group of amazons who seemed hell-bent on wreaking sadistic revenge against the make sex. We were not only trounced, defeated and beaten, I left the field covered in bruises and with most of the skin off my shins where a particularly aggressive great hairy woman kept tackling me by leaping at me head on, scraping her feet the full length of my knees. I wouldn’t have minded but I had no idea how to play the game and thus posed no threat“
Clearly Elfin was no place for wimps and whingers but there were compensations. Even after the passage of so many years one aspect of Elfin remains clear in the memory of veterans, the friendliness of people in Blyth and the North East. The experience of ERA G. Prior is typical:
“The first evening after I arrived I went out to explore Blyth with my Oppo Dennis and some others. Whilst walking along Dennis remarked that he needed to buy a stamp to inform his mother where he had been drafted to. A lady walking towards us must have heard his comments because she stopped us and insisted upon giving Dennis a stamp – refusing any payment. To me this was utterly amazing. I came from East Anglia where people are quite reserved and folk in the Southern naval towns tended to take sailors for granted. Yes, the people of the North East were altogether different from anything we ‘boys in blue’ had ever encountered. We enjoyed the atmosphere of the pubs and the attention of the girls in the Roxy Dance Hall. Quite a few of us were fortunate to go further afield to sample the hospitality of the miners in their various clubs and gatherings”
Richard Raikes took over command of the training boat Tribune in late August 1941:
“My wife and I found lodgings about 200 yards from the Harbour in a miner’s cottage. In those days wives were not recognised by the navy and we had to find and pay for our own accommodation if we wanted to live out. We found digs from a list put up in the wardroom and we were wonderfully lucky. The family consisted of a father who was nearly blind after spending his life down the pit. Two sons, both working but showing ominous signs of respiratory disease and mother – she was an angel, quiet, solid and uncomplaining. She mothered us all and cooked every meal for us”
As ‘Spasher’ Sacre describes, the locals made the Christmas of 1942 a memorable one for the trainee submariners:
“The town was a real home from home. The people were rough and ready and we got on with them very well. At Xmas we went to a party in a grey terraced house where we really lived it up, staying there all night. I remember a knees-up at the Queens. While I played he piano pints of beer stacked up, full to the brim and spilling all over the place. Best of all a girl on my knee and boy, was she a smasher ! We were always going to parties with the locals and the police, who allowed us to drink after hours, they never bothered us as long as we didn’t overdo things I must say that we were very well behaved for a rough, tough crowd who, deep down inside, knew that our days were numbered, being submariners. Even so, we never took liberties with the locals who were respected because they were truly wonderful”
When submarine officers under training mingled with the local miners in the Astley Arms, the results could be surreal as Charles Poynder recalls:
“One night four mad midget submarine officers leapt out of the upper floor widows using umbrellas as parachutes, with the result that two of them ended up in hospital. We later met some excellent coal miners and with Lydia Jackson’s permission, used her first floor room to have an Oxford (miners) versus Cambridge (submariners) boat race. As a result of this we paid an interesting visit down a local coal mine. I found a submarine far less claustrophobic“
The course ended with an examination. Study was difficult in the hedonistic atmosphere of Elfin as Telegraphist George Prior recalls:
“I found my shipmates a very friendly lot. You could say that Blyth imbued us with a blythe sprit ! I can well remember the drunken ordeals including a run ashore on the eve of my twenty-second birthday with some wonderful New Zealand lads. Next morning I had to sit the big oral exam but because of my hangover I was unable to answer one particular question. Fortunately I had made a good job of my written paper and was passed with the caveat, ‘take more water with it in future”
The prospect of the end of course exam was equally daunting for officers as Lieutenant Gibson recalls:
“In the manner of instructional establishments everywhere we would be given examination papers and asked to draw from our reluctant minds the last vestiges of those facts that had not been washed to oblivion by the wines of Newcastle. Some might pass because they answered all the questions about the inside of a torpedo: others would be pushed through because the flotilla captain remembered the day when he had failed his first exam“
Few of these officers shared the fortune of Sub-Lieutenant Poynder in September 1943 when he faced his exam:
“The last week was spent doing exams and my last one was on the gyro, a subject with which was not well aquainted. I was facing the chief with some apprehension when a sailor knocked on the door asking whether or not I was Sub Lieutenant Poynder ? On being given the affirmative, the sailor announced, ‘Lieutenant Johnson says he’s been given a draft chit to Plymouth and must leave in half an hour. Lieutenant Johnson says that if you have not finished, just mark him ‘average’ and get him cracking. The following day I joined Unbending as the new Navigator (Third Hand)”
Most of those officers who sat the examinations passed but some were quietly returned to general service. Officers who were not up to the job but who somehow slipped through the net, posed a significant threat as this account from a submarine commander describing events in the Spring of 1944, demonstrates
“We finished a refit on the Tyne where I was given two very young and completely raw sub-lieutenants. One of them was a real menace and succeeded in getting us into more scrapes than the enemy. Failure to report an East Coast convoy until we were under fire from the escort occurred within twenty-four hours of leaving Blyth. The last straw however was when we were exercising he dived the boat without the precaution of shutting the hatch behind him. Fortunately I was in the control room at the time. I saw what was happening, I slammed shut the bottom hatch, blew all tanks at maximum pressure and stopped her dive at thirty-five feet. The conning tower was of course flooded and I emerged from the gun tower hatch to see the sub-lieutenant swimming gaily after us about 200 yards astern. I returned to Blyth and got rid of him. Poor thing. It wasn’t his fault. He just could not cope“
There was a tradition at Blyth that before setting course for a celebratory tour of the fleshpots of Newcastle, the officers would lure the CPO instructors to ‘Oflag’ the junior officer’s mess. Their objective was to get the petty officers drunk on ‘borrowed’ whisky as quickly as possible. Linday Pirie discovered that the staff at Elfin had long memories and bore grudges:
“One Saturday night my younger brother Roger, under training at Elfin, rang up the padre with a suitably disguised voice and managed to persuade him that the Archbishop of York was coming next day. It was panic stations all round and when I arrived at Elfin some months later, the padre treated me with great suspicion“
All rates gravitated to the Roxy Dance Hall, a Blyth institution where they wriggled the night away to the sound of the Tommy Bell Orchestra as Gus Britton recalls (April 1941).
“Roxy Ballroom, I for one will never forget you and all those gorgeous girls ! South Parade Pier (Southsea) was OK but the girls of Blyth were much friendlier and you didn’t have to be some barrack room stanchion to get a dance“
For the sub-lieutenants it was almost as if escape from general service had released one last burst of adolescence before a headlong plunge into oblivion. The sight of trainee submarine officers queuing up to enter the Variety Theatre must have given the manager nightmares. Charles Poynder again:
“We hired the boxes on either side of the stage for a wild west show. We managed to throw a heaving line from one box to the other , followed by a towing rope with a view to performing a ‘transfer at sea’ across the auditorium. The rope broke to the consternation of the cast who had already been considerably distracted, our hero ended up on the stage beside the leading lady, accidentally knocking her six shooter out of her hand. She responded by clouting him, sending him flying across the stage to the cheers of all. At this moment a curtain caught fire enabling us to escape under cover before the fire brigade and police arrived.
A previous training class had caused trouble by firing pea-shooters at a lady on stage dressed only in live doves (the birds would either sit on her or fly around to hide her modesty. The intense fire drove the birds away, leaving the manager with not alternative but to switch the lights off. A bright sub-lieutenant anticipated this, illuminated the lady with a battery-powered Aldis lamp until she reached the back of the stage. The manager complained to Captain (S) 6 Claridge who offered to put the Theatre off limits to base personnel. Observing that the military made up ninety per cent of his clientele, the manager wisely withdrew the complaint.
We had one very wild sub-lieutenant who one night got thrown into the static water tank at Whitley Bay. The police pulled him out and a furious Captain (S) had to bail him out at the crack of dawn to ensure his presence at the 08:00hrs lecture. His final ‘black’ was to climb onto the roof of the Roxy to saw off the leg of the ‘R’ making it, yes, ‘The Poxy’. While he was up there his brother officers removed the ladder and he was arrested a second time. He later redeemed himself as First Lieutenant of HMS/M Uproar“
The crews of operational submarines undergoing refits either at Blyth or Wallsend, would often set forth as a crew, officers and ratings together. Those venturing to Whitley Bay had to take the crowded bus. The last bus did not stop at HMS Elfin but in the Spring of 1944 the splendidly named Skipper of Satyr, Lieutenant Tobin Subremont-Weston is reputed to have feigned acute nausea when the bus was nearing the base. As soon as the driver opened the doors, he flung himself down in the doorway, forcing the bus to remain stationary while his crew disembarked.
Among those junior officers who misbehaved at Elfin in 1942 and subsequently found himself ‘in the rattle’ was ICI supremo and 1990’s TV Troubleshooter, Sir John Harvey-Jones who trained at Blyth. Sir John always maintained that his time at Blyth had given him a great respect for the ordinary people of the North East. Nineteen years old John Harvey-Jones had served as a junior officer on Duke of York when he decided to volunteer for submarines in 1943:
“It was my first introduction to an industrial town and to the North East of England. Eventually this was to be the area in which I have lived for the longest consecutive period in my life, and I have a deep and abiding love for it. The training course was short and intensive, and from the very start we all felt ourselves to be somehow different. Submarines had a mystique...My time at Blyth was among the happiest of my life. Not only was I serving my apprenticeship and enjoying the reflected glory of the service which was viewed, not least by itself as a corps d’elite – but I also met the girl who proved to be the love of my life.
Sub-Lieutenant Harvey-Jones’ girlfriend Betty was a Wren Radio Officer based at the Tynemouth Port Station. They met at the Old Assembly Rooms in Newcastle. John passed his training course and was detailed to stand-by Trusty then undergoing a refit at Swan Hunters’ Yard in December 1943.
From 1943 radar began to be installed in British submarines and Blyth was a focus for this specialised work. Rutherford College in Newcastle near the West Walls, offered courses in electrical, wireless and radio theory to submarine telegraphists. Dicky Elliot was a trainee ‘wireless mechanic’. Mindful of the fifty per cent failure rate , candidates spent most evenings swotting diligently in the Christian Science Reading Rooms but there was little chance of all work and no play turning Jack into a dull boy. One of the trainees was an ex tram driver. Following one boozing session in 1944, the wireless mechanics hijacked an unattended tram at Grey’s Monument. They drove through the blackened streets of Newcastle all the way to the ‘Crow’s Nest’ at the Haymarket. Sometimes they exported their mayhem further afield. Dicky Elliot:
“The ‘Three Mile Inn’ on the Gosforth road was a favourite watering hole. I recall a bunch of us – officers and ratings – carrying out an attack with all the words actions and noises. I think a tin tray for used to simulate depth-charges. ‘Distance off track ?’, ‘Put me ten degrees on her starboard bow’ – all rollicking good fun with a sub-stratum of ‘To hell with it. Eat, drink and be merry !”
Of course it was the responsibility of Captain (S) 6 to police the base and maintain good order. This was done via the naval system of duty officer, duty Chief petty officer, petty officer and shore patrols drawn from the submarine trainees themselves under the command of a leading seaman. It may have worked elsewhere but at Blyth it was like putting lunatics in charge of the asylum. Blyth was said to be the only naval base in Britain where men volunteered for shore patrol duties. Iain Nethercott, a Leading Seaman at the time, here describes a Blyth shore patrol in 1943, his first:
“They’re HO (Hostilities only) men. They’ll let you down, Hooky, the others opined. Nevertheless at six o’clock in the evening I mustered my merry men in the guard house, complete with belts, gaiters, Naval Police armlets and pick axe handles. I fell in my trusty troops and reported to the Duty Regulating Petty Officer, asking what I was supposed to do ? He gave me a list of the local dens of vice which were out of bounds to innocent sailors and told me to report again to the local police station.
We were driven up the coast road and into Blyth. We marched to the local lock up and reported ourselves to a bored sergeant who suggested we visit all the out of bounds pubs and finish off at the local hop where a lock in was rumoured. We set off on our trail around the peaceful town of Blyth, me feeling rather like the local sheriff and his posse. We entered the first establishment. We could hardly get through the door for sailors (who had apparently never heard the news that they were contravening orders). As no one took a blind bit of notice of us, I forced my way to the bar and ordered six pints for my patrol, only to be told by the landlord that there was ‘no charge’. Maybe this patrol racket was a good idea after all. I told the patrol to remove their belts, gaiters, armbands etc. and should we be separated, to meet up at the Roxy at 21:00hrs. I also told them not to get too drunk because my leading rate was hanging by a thread and we had to get past the guard house.
Well they didn’t let me down and that night I marched this smart body of men back down the road to Elfin. I was able to report to the officer on duty that the Town was quiet and there were no naughty sailors in the brig. Another nail in Hitler’s coffin“
The rating trainees were now fully fledged submariners entitled to a two shillings per day supplement to their wages. Off they went with a spring in their step to Rothesay for further training, then to the spare crew of some Mediterranean flotilla:
“Submarining was great ! The captain, officers and men got on really well. She was a really happy boat and although some of the lads like me were HO’s. this didn’t matter a bugger to anyone. The regulars accepted us as if we had been in submarines for years. We realised of course that our lives depended upon each other. You could say that we were all in the same boat now !“
Elfin itself was considered to be one of the better naval establishments. The base had its own football and cricket teams but turnover of personnel tended to make continuity difficult, with the result that backbone of all Elfin clubs tended to be the shipwrights. In late 1944 a supervised shooting range was established. Of course there were frequent dances and the base band had an excellent reputation. Famous singers such as Pat Kirkwood and Anne Shelton visited from time to time. Jim Jaques:
“In the canteen you could buy twenty king size Capstan and a large bottle of Newcastle Brown for a mere bob but inebriated talent could not be shifted from the makeshift stage. The war raging outside seemed a million miles away, drowned in the crescendo of raucous merriment“
But the war was not a million miles away. Reality intruded into this rarefied world in the form of visiting operational submarines. From late 1941 onwards the submarines that had been sent to the Mediterranean bases of Gibraltar, Alexandria and of course, Malta, were in dire need of refits. The ‘T’ class submarine, Trusty had operated further afield in the Far East. There is no scope here to explore the stories of these boats in detail, only a few highlights can be singled out here. The dates they were at Blyth are given at the end of this chapter. These submarines had hammered Italian and German supply convoys bound for Rommel’s Afrika Corps. Many of the captains had served at Blyth during the campaigns in the North Sea. They had put acquired knowledge to good account in the Mediterranean.
Trident (Commander Geoffrey Sladen) was one of the first of these visiting operational boats (The first boat in urgent need of a refit at Blyth was Taku which arrived in October 1941) she came not from the warm Mediterranean but from Russia and when she arrived at Blyth in November 1941, she brought an unusual gift with her.
On June 22nd 1941 the Germans invaded Russia in their operation entitled Operation Barbarossa. While the Eastern front remained the main artery for troop movements, Nazi soldiers were also pouring into Russia via Northern Norway. Inexperienced and unprepared, the Soviets were soon pleading for supplies from their ideological enemies. Admiralty was prepared to offer material support in the form of British submarines. At face value this was an attractive proposition for the British. The Russian base of Polyarnoe (This is how the British referred to the port known to the Russians as Polyarny in the Murmansk Oblast) offered greater scope for patrols beyond the Arctic Circle than the most Northerly British base of Lerwick in the Shetlands. Significant losses could be inflicted upon the enemy while deflecting attention from the vulnerable Arctic convoys running between Loch Ewe and Polyarnoe (which commenced in August 1941). It was hoped that this experiment might also serve as a useful foundation for building relations between these unlikely allies.
For the most part relations between the British and the Russians remained strained and sour. The British were suspicious that the Russians were jealous of their successes. However there was some limited fraternisation between the British and their Russian counterparts. One day a British contingent including Commander Geoffrey Sladen, captain of Trident was invited onboard the warship of Admiral Golovko. In the course of a stilted conversation enlivened by vodka the subject of reindeer came up. Sladen observed that where he lived there was a steep hill and his wife could do with one to pull the family pram. ‘Why not use one ?’ replied the Admiral, ‘I’ll see that you get one‘ Russian Admiral and British naval officers laughed heartily but the conversation was not forgotten. By the late Autumn of 1941 the battered Trident was in dire need of a refit. There was scope at Blyth. Once the relief boats Seawolf and Sealion arrived, Trident left for Holy Loch on November 17th. Just before departure a Russian staff car and a small lorry pulled up at the jetty. Two bags, were deposited, two for each submarine. One bag contained a baby reindeer and the other a bag of moss to feed the animal. Then the grinning commissar and his staff car raced off without further explanation. This was not necessarily the gracious gesture it might appear on first sight. Submarines are not designed to house reindeer. The equally bemused crew of Tigris was also presented with a reindeer when the boat left Polyarnoe on November 20th. The prospect of a journey back to Holy Loch, unpleasant under any conditions, with a four legged passenger, was a nightmare prospect. And the Russians knew it. Lest the crew of Trident was tempted to ditch the reindeer over the side once out of sight of land, they were sternly warned by Admiralty that a Russian delegation was bound to turn up to welcome boat and reindeer in a formal presentation once they returned to Britain. There were to be no ‘accidents’ en route. Petty Officer Jim Riddoch of Trident was given the job of looking after ‘Pollyanna’:
“She did pong a bit, so I used to swill her down in the bathroom from time to time. She must not have liked the way we smelled either because every time the tannoy sounded to tell us the boat had surfaced, her ears pricked up and she would rush into the control room, waiting for the hatch to open. The Skipper didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes she would sleep in his cabin. You always knew because he would trip over her in the night. You would hear him shout and curse. You had to look out when the Skipper was looking through the periscope. One day Polly got loose, ran between his legs and got stuck there. ‘Riddoch, remove this animal, he would yell‘”
Matters took an unfortunate turn when Trident was re-directed to patrol off the Norwegian Lofoten Islands following false reports that Admiral Scheer was about to break out. This lengthened the agony for all. The fodder bag ran out and Jim was reduced to begging for scraps from the fore-ends. At last Trident reached Lerwick on November 28th.
By November 30th Trident arrived at Blyth and there waiting on the Quay were high-powered delegations from Admiralty and Russia who had come up from London for the handover. The baby reindeer must have thrived during the short journey between Lerwick and Blyth however because on arrival, Jim was unable to push his charge through the hatch. It was just as well that Torpedoman Bob Swift had experience in handling calves:
“It was simple really. We got a sugar bag and popped three legs in, tying it quite firmly. A sailor stood warily behind her, armed with a persuasive broom handle. It was a bit of an effort but eventually we shoved her out and everyone breathed a sigh of relief“
Once ashore there was no holding Pollyanna. The subversive creature tore past the delegation, chasing after a couple of dogs. Eventually the police caught up with her and returned her to the Quay with a dog lead slipped around her neck. Once the ceremony was over, Geoffrey Sladen relaxed, leaving David Gregory to take Trident down to Swan Hunters Yard for the refit. As for Pollyanna, she ended up in Regent’s Park Zoo, where it is said that every time she heard a noise like the crackling of a tannoy, when would put her head down, just like the old days when Trident went to diving stations. Perhaps she pined for the forests, the howl of wolves and the long Russian winters or maybe she suffered withdrawal symptoms for the tang of diesel oil. At any rate this living metaphor of Anglo Soviet goodwill died within a few months of her arrival in Britain, although some versions say she lived on until 1947. At least she fared better than the Tigris reindeer, Minnie. A matelot scandalously left her tethered on deck during a run ashore at Holy Loch. The little reindeer went downhill, pneumonia set in and she died quietly. The seamen thought Minnie worthy of a naval burial at she as she had completed a war patrol. It is said that when they requested the little corpse from the wardroom, they were informed by the acting steward that the officers, who were known to have developed a taste for reindeer meat while in Russia, had served her up with chips.
Trident remained at Blyth until her refit was completed. On January 20th 1942 Sladen took her to Lerwick to load torpedoes for a patrol off Allmenningen in Norway with a view to interdicting German warships.
Relations between submarine officers and the local shipbuilders could be interesting as John Harvey-Jones discovered:
“Even though we were at war and the shipbuilders were the key to our survival, I found Wallsend a tough experience. The unique strength of personality of the craftsmen who worked on the Trusty were a lesson in themselves. I could not believe that these sturdy men could possibly fail to share my own conviction that getting my particular submarine to sea was a sacred trust. The idea that they saw their hard-won demarcations and rights as in any way of comparable importance to the major matter of vanquishing the axis powers through the activities of the submarine service was incomprehensible to me. Yet they were at the same time, such normal, proud and skilled souls – struggling eternally to complete their particular part of a job – always held up for materials or the relevant craftsmen – and never a manager or supervisor in sight. When the shifts clocked off, for war or no war, clock off they did – they would would leave the yard for the man streets and pubs which surrounded Swan Hunter’s. I joined them. It was not easy, since understanding the Geordie dialect was a difficult art to acquire – even with the help of the wartime Newcastle breweries”
For the most part the shipworkers were merely rugged individualists who remembered the lessons of the hungry ‘thirties and the fate of those yards, such as Palmers, which had loyally built the warships which had fought the Great War.
One curious aspect of the undersea war was the sentiment some shipwrights at Blyth and Wallsend held towards visiting operational submarines. Edward Young wrote of an incident involving Sealion (Lieutenant. George Colvin) then under repair in the Spring of 1942 following her stint at Polyarnoe.
“Someone forgot his mother’s tea caddy and I volunteered to go with him to the yard and look for it on the boat. I couldn’t believe it when I saw her. Poor old thing propped up in dry lock like that with all her olive green paint dirty and marked and so rusty. A foreman came over and shot me an accusing glance, ‘She’s finished you know. You buggers have wrecked her. She was a good boat, one of the best. I know, because I patched her up last year. We can’t repair her now. I hope you lot are proud at what you have done’.
I had to slink away without looking for the treasured caddy. I felt so guilty. She had taken us through every scrape imaginable and there we were, safe and sound, but we had brought her to this. Poor dear old Sealion”.
Sadly the shipwright was correct. Sealion‘s operational career was over. She was now relegated to training duties on the West coast of Scotland. On September 14th 1942 Sealion left Blyth for Holy Loch. Lieutenant George Colvin did not go with her, instead he was appointed to Tigris. George was able to catch up on some courting. He married his Wren at Blyth but the honeymoon was necessarily brief as he was ordered to take Tigris to the Mediterranean in April, while his wife remained in the signals office at Elfin.
Upright arrived in Blyth on April 9th 1942. Tuna also arrived that same day, ensuring that celebrations lasted the full day. Following a refit Upright commenced training duties from Blyth Harbour which lasted until February 1944. Tuna sailed for Swan Hunter’s Yard on May 1st. This major refit lasted until September 6th, 1942, with Dick Raikes taking command of his Tuna, leaving for Holy Loch eight days later. On November 30th 1942 Tuna would leave HMS Forth at Holy Loch to carry out ‘Operation Frankton’ – the famous ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ raid on shipping in the mouth of the Gironde.
Following her long overdue refit at Wallsend, Gus Britton’s boat Tribune (Lieutenant N. Coe) remained at Blyth until the Summer of 1942. Admiralty had a very special role for her. She was to be used as the setting for a forthcoming feature film called ‘Close Quarters’. Filming was slated to last until the end of August. The Crown Film Unit was warned by Admiralty that it was perfectly possible that Tribune could be required at short notice. This factor, together with the inevitable demands for wide shots in narrow confined spaces, persuaded Pinewood Studios to create a wooden mock up. A wooden shell and accurately designed interior were shipped up from London in crates to be installed in an empty shed. ‘Splasher’ Sacre was one of the trainees given the job of unloading these crates at Blyth Station. The submarine mock-up was later retained and fitted adjacent to the attack teacher and the Askania apparatus for trainee practice. ‘Close Quarters’ was a propaganda film, as such it may not have been Oscar winning material but the setting for the film was as authentic as it gets, so was the star. The debonair David Gregory was asked to play ‘The Skipper’ and he was delighted to take part. There were a couple of actors on the payroll but for the most part the men on film are the somewhat bemused crew of Tribune. Stoker Frank Palmer was one of the extras:
“They chose Tribune because she was the training boat and could be spared. Blyth was relatively safe and that way the film could be made without much disruption of routine. We used to leave at the crack of dawn with the film crew and a wren stenographer. As the only female on the boat she was the focus of much attention and she was very pretty as I recall. It suddenly dawned on the officers that sooner or later nature would call and she would need to use the heads, only she would not know how to operate the heads. The officers ducked the issue leaving our red faced Coxswain Franky Miles to instruct her in this vital task. I particularly remember the warm weather during those long afternoons of filming and retakes and all. One day it was so hot that the Skipper gave permission for the ratings to hop over the side and have a swim in the sea. The lads just stripped off, forgetting in their enthusiasm that there was a lady onboard. Now at this time I was about to get married to a local girl. When the film crew found out they booked a room for us at the Star and Garter (latterly the Steamboat) not only this, they laid on a spread for us too. What a wonderful gesture that was. Mind you, I was back at sea next morning“
Although the film was shot at Blyth, Blyth itself does not appear in a single frame of the film. Exterior establishing shots were added much later, in the Autumn of 1942, at Holy Loch. The film was released in 1943.
The battle to disrupt Rommel’s supply lines was now at its heights and now resulted in a steady stream of boats requiring urgent refits. As fisherman Watson Brown recalls the arrival of a crack submarine caused much excitement:
“The wrens were running down to the harbour and we could see the lads lining up at the Ice House and vantage points around the piers. They couldn’t tell us much but we guessed a submarine was due in any minute. Gradually I made out a black dot near the examination vessel, about a mile away. It was a great sight to see them come in at harbour stations and the boys lined up with the men on the conning tower displaying the jolly roger. It gave you a lump in the throat. I could fill up just thinking about it now“
Returning Mediterranean boats followed Horton’s Great War example by emblazoning their tally of enemy shipping on large pirate-style jolly roger pennants. The boat Watson saw was HMS/M Utmost (Lt. Cdr. R. Cayley) which arrived at Blyth on February 18th 1942. Utmost had carried out seventeen war patrols, most with the Tenth Flotilla in Malta. During her time in the Mediterranean the boat had landed commandos, made blistering attacks on enemy troop ships, damaged a large Italian cruiser and landed agents in Tunisia. Under Cayley the boat was credited with sinking 70,000 tons of enemy shipping. Blyth was not Utmost‘s first landfall since leaving the Mediterranean as boats returning from this sphere of operations routinely docked alongside HMS Forth at Holy Loch first for provisioning but the crews were not going to tell the local civilians that, always claiming they were fresh from battle and close to starving. Several of her crew had earlier served on Unity and the prospect of a return to Blyth was one of great excitement to some and one of dismay to others such as Tom ‘Shiner’ Moon who, it will be recalled, had been blamed by VA (S) Horton for the Unity collision. Also present was Leading Telegraphist George Gregory, also of Unity, who had suffered severe ear problems ever since the sinking.
‘Harmonica Dick’ Cayley, submarine Commander and mouth organ virtuoso entertained the base from the canteen stage. ‘Paper Moon’, ‘Peg o’ my Heart’, Red, Red Robin – Cayley played all of the old favourites and like the first rate showman he was, he kept his audience enthralled. In reality arrival at Blyth was a bitter sweet occasion for Cayley as it was for others, for this was his way of bidding farewell to a crew who collectively revered him. Experienced men were drafted/appointed to form the nuclei of new submarines while newer submariners took their place. Some submarine commanders were able to retain key personnel. Ben Bryant for instance was able to select key personnel when he stood by Safari in October 1941. Dick Cayley, who was due to take over command of the new P311 expressed his faith in Yeoman of Signals Tom Moon by ensuring he took the loyal Signalman with him. When the somewhat soulless P311 was bizarrely renamed Tutankhamen, Cayley wittily had the number ‘2’, a little tank and a praying Egyptian figure, painted on the conning tower. Command of Utmost passed first to Lieutenant Anthony Langridge (who had narrowly escaped death in Narwhal) then to Lieutenant Johnny Coombe.
Photographers were on hand to capture the arrival of HMS/M Thunderbolt (Lieutenant Commander Cecil Crouch) at Blyth on March 30th, 1942, when she was given a rapturous reception.
The seven bars on her jolly roger signified successful torpedo attacks (two against enemy submarines). In the space of six blistering patrols to date there had also been six gun actions and two cloak and dagger missions. By any standards she was a remarkable submarine but there was far more to Thunderbolt than met the eye.
Beyond the ranks of dockyard insiders hardly any civilian outside Barrow had heard of Thunderbolt but everyone in the English speaking world knew her former name, Thetis. The boat had infamously been lost following an accident in Liverpool Bay back in 1939 with horrendous loss of life. Before she went into dry dock her cynically enterprising crew capitalised on the morbid curiousity of trainee and base personnel alike by throwing the boat ‘open to the public’ at an appropriate price. Shipwrights and wrens flocked to see ‘the death submarine’, as the newspapers had called Thetis. The highlight of these strictly un-official tours was not, as might be expected, the fatal bow cap operating lever on tube No. 5 but a tell-tale interior rust mark which persisted in showing through, no matter how many coats of crabfat paint might be applied to mask it. Myth and superstition dogged Thunderbolt wherever she sailed. Lurid tales were told of how the very fabric of the boat exuded a charnel house smell following prolonged periods of submersion. Certainly there were many otherwise level headed people who believed Thunderbolt to be seriously ‘hexed’ but Cecil Crouch dismissed this with the words, ‘A submarine can only be sunk once’.
The arrival of crews from Utmost and Thunderbolt had presented Captain Phillips with a dilemma. He was running out of space to house the crews. The watch ashore element of visiting submarines normally occupied the coastal forces unit (Elfin II, the coastal forces base was paid off in October 1942) in facilities already shared between wrens and shipwrights. As both submarines needed lengthy refits, the men were likely to be around for at least a couple of months. As a temporary measure, Phillips housed them in some condemned properties near Blyth Shipyard, possibly the same houses that Wendy Dell was forced to endure (See Dead Men on Leave). As Frank Palmer relates, this did not go down well with either the crewmen or the people of Blyth.
“They had nowhere to put us and to be honest I don’t think they wanted us. We ended up in some rat infested hovels near the docks. A local miner offered us his terrier to take care of the rats ! The folk of Blyth were outraged that men they considered to be heroes should be placed in such appalling conditions. The officers were ok. They were in Seaton Sluice or the base but as soon as they found out the way were were being treated, there was hell on“
Cecil Crouch confronted Captain Phillips with the result that the men were moved within hours into the coastal forces unit. Otherwise the two crews enjoyed a rest from the undersea war, a chance to visit family and a memorable break. Feted by the locals and held in awe by trainees and wrens alike. Utmost and Thunderbolt left Blyth in company for Holy Loch on May 2nd 1942.
By 1943 the Type 291W air warning radar started to be installed on British submarines, though the sets were not wholly reliable. The radar sets introduced before this, the Type 129 operated on 214 megaherz (or megacycles) and used the existing wireless transmission masts. At this frequency, the transmit/receive aerial was a cumbersome affair which had to be trained by hand. It was also erratic. Not only was there a blocked area astern, a target travelling across the stern say at red 160 would involve a frantic rotation to recapture the target. The coastline appeared as an arc rather than a detailed profile and small targets did not register. Later American designed centimetric radar sets known as ‘SJ’ were power driven, gave all round scan and superior target definition. All British submarines had been fitted with the Type 291 set by 1944.
Seraph arrived at Blyth in late January 1943 to have hers installed in the course of a refit. Seraph had a background of carrying out cloak and dagger operations ranging from landing COPPS (combined operations) parties to clandestinely transporting the Anglophobe French General Giraud from Toulon (masquerading as USS Seraph) to a meeting with Eisenhower in Gibraltar. On December 23rd 1942 Seraph had rammed an enemy submarine, suffering damage which necessitated repair back in Britain.
On April 19th Seraph left her Holy Loch base and set course for the North coast of Spain. She carried a very special passenger on board, Major Martin. Major Martin was unique because he was dead. His corpse carried bogus top secret information designed to convince the Nazis that the allies planned to invade Sardinia rather than Sicily, their actual objective. Transported in a specially designed canister, the body was released into the sea off Huelva on April 30th. This mission was later immortalised in the film based on the Ewan Montague book, ‘The Man who Never Was’ and latterly, ‘Operation Mincemeat’.
Throughout 1942 and 1943 war-scarred Mediterranean boats turned up at Blyth docks for refits and each received a rapturous welcome as they entered Blyth Harbour, proudly flying their jolly rogers as Captain S (6) cleared lower decks to ‘cheer ship’. Only a handful can be singled out here. The Malta based Una had carried out nineteen patrols, mainly off the coasts of Tunisia and Sicily. By the time she arrived at Blyth the boat was credited with sinking or damaging some 13,000 tons of enemy shipping.
Unrivalled also operated with the Tenth Flotilla out of Malta under whose aegis she had carried out seventeen patrols including landing COPPS parties in chariots. The boat had carried out reconnaissance in advance of Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily. In September 1943 following the Italian surrender she entered Bari harbour where she is said to have rounded up all the vessels in the anchorage and like a maritime sheep-dog, herded them to Malta.
The Tenth Flotilla boat, Unbroken claimed 15,000 tons of enemy shipping sunk or damaged on her jolly roger, in the course of her nineteen patrols. The boat operated off Sicily, Southern Italy, Tunisia and Libya. The boat torpedoed a couple of Italian cruisers in August 1942. Unbroken carried out numerous shore bombardments and even entered Sousse harbour to attack shipping. She may have been unbroken but the boat was apparently worn out. Following her refit, Unbroken remained at Blyth to carry out training duties until she was loaned to the Russians in 1944. Alistair Mars, her first Commander, chronicled the story of his boat in ‘Unbroken’ but there is no mention of Blyth.
Unbending carried out sixteen war patrols during which she carried out COPPS raids on the Calabrian coast of Italy, sank a couple of large freighters and rescued a downed Australian airman. Unbending was credited with sinking or damaging 15,673 tons of enemy shipping, including an Italian destroyer, prior to her refit at Blyth.
Tuna came to Blyth for a refit in the Spring of 1942 following operations in the Biscay and Norwegian sectors where the boat had carried out fourteen war patrols. The boat left Blyth in mid-September for Holy Loch where she carried out further trials. In late November Tuna, commanded by ‘Dick’ Raikes launched the Royal Marines who carried out Operation Frankton, the famed ‘Cockleshell Heroes’ attack on shipping in the Gironde estuary.
When Sibyl entered Blyth docks in May 1944 she needed a refit more than most, having completed the longest commission recorded by any British submarine during the war. The boat served in the Mediterranean theatre from November 1942 until April 1944. During this time she completed seventeen patrols (fifteen in the Mediterranean theatre). During this time she torpedoed seven ships and carried out six cloak and dagger missions.
ORP Sokol had carried out ten war patrols with the Tenth Flotilla at Malta. The Polish Sokol badly damaged an Italian cruiser and later in the Gulf of Naples sank a large transport in company with Utmost. In late 1943 she forced the anti-submarine nets protecting the port of Navarino where she damaged an Italian destroyer. Her wrecking spree was interdicted when she was caught in a German bombing raid on Malta in April 1943, the damage necessitating a major refit at Blyth.
An increasing number of foreign accents was heard at Blyth during this period due to the allied submarines operating alongside the Royal Navy. For foreign ships to operate as part of the Royal Navy the foreign submarines were required to rearm with British torpedoes and guns as well as adopt British tactics and communications procedures. By 1941 the focus of allied submarine operations was the Ninth Flotilla at Dundee. For instance ORP Jastrzab (Goshawk) arrived at Blyth in early 1942. The boat had been built by an American yard as S25 in 1922 and work was required to convert her to British specifications at Blyth docks. This involved the installation of new torpedo tubes and the sourcing of spare parts cannibalized from other boats. Tragically Jastrzab‘s unfamiliar appearance was to lead to a friendly fire incident while serving as an escort to PQ-15 en route to Murmansk in May 1942, which led to her destruction and deaths of five men including the liaison officer. Many of the allied submarines which succeeded in escaping occupied Europe proved to be unfit for operational patrols and so were assigned training roles. This had been the plan for the Norwegian B1 until she suffered the battery explosion. B1 was repaired and carried out training activities from Rothesay with the Seventh Flotilla at Rothesay.
In July 1943 Ursula returned to Blyth having carried out two Mediterranean commissions and survived. Along with Sturgeon she was the sole operational survivor of the original Sixth Flotilla, although several of the ‘L’ class boats were still in service for training purposes. During this time she sank four large supply ships. Ursula had served with both the Tenth Flotilla at Malta and the Eighth at Algiers. All told the boat had carried out twenty-seven patrols, fourteen of them in the Mediterranean. Her last patrol off Sicily was cut short following a collision with a ship she was stalking. The damage to her conning tower was significant and it was questionable as to whether or not the boat was worth repairing. Captain George Phillips was not present to see his old submarine return. He left to command the Tenth Flotilla at Malta in October 1942.
There was much interest in the batch of ‘U’ and later ‘V’ class submarines built at Vickers Armstrong’s High Walker Yard on the Tyne. The emergency war programme submarine order of July 12, 1941 was awarded to Vickers of Barrow. Capacity issues forced the Barrow yard to farm construction of Unsparing, Usurper, Universal, Untiring, Uther, Unswerving and Untamed out to Vickers Armstrong’s High Walker Yard on the River Tyne. Armstrong Whitworth had built twenty-two submarines on the Tyne during the First World War but by the second war, the expertise had been lost due to retirement. As a direct result Vickers Armstrong cycled submarine technicians backward and forwards between Barrow and High Walker. Mr. Fred Matthews, Principal Ship Overseer of Vickers was dispatched to High Walker to take responsibility for building submarines. Following a spate of incidents in 1940-41, it was clear that saboteurs were active in both the Barrow and the High Walker yards. Untiring suffered a battery explosion which delayed her entry into service, while Unswerving was allowed to slip from her blocks. In July 1943, Unsparing arrived at Gibraltar with her engines overheating because the main generator bearings were defective. This prompted Captain S (1) H. Ionides to write the following memo:
‘This is the first ‘U’ class submarine built at Vickers Yard on the Tyne and this almost certainly accounts for the fact that she is at present suffering from heavier incidence of breakdown than other ‘U’ class of about the same period. It is felt that a more intimate liaison between the experienced Barrow Yard the the Tyne Yard building their first modern submarine might well have lessened these early troubles. The views of Commanding Officer who stood by Unsparing (Lt. Aston Piper) while building confirm this view‘
The workforce at High Walker was indeed diluted but evidence pointed to something more sinister. The Barrow-built Usk was found to have carborundum dust in her reserve lubricating oil tank which caused the main bearings to fail. These incidents ended following the German invasion of Russia and blame was laid at the door of Communist fifth columnists working at the yards. An investigation followed though no arrests appear to have been made.
Immediately following launch, the boats routinely sailed to the Gareloch in Western Scotland for acceptance trials under the beady eye of the Admiralty Senior Ship Overseer and his staff. Acceptance trials over the boats would return to Blyth for another intense battery of tests and detailed machinery/equipment examinations on the part of Admiralty inspectors and highly experienced chief petty officers. Torpedo discharge trials were held off Arrochar in Western Scotland.
Untamed was tragically lost while carrying out trials in Western Scotland (See Untamed Unravelled) In the course of the subsequent inquiry, doubt was thrown upon the quality of work carried out by the High Walker Yard. The dockyard blamed the submariners for the accident while the submariners believed defective machinery due to poor workmanship had caused the accident. After all, Unsparing was found to leak and was forced to return to the yard during trials, Uther had so many fundamental defects she did not see active service and was relegated to training duties. Work on Untiring was said to have been ‘shoddy’. As all equipment and machinery had been subject to Admiralty inspections prior to sign-off, the inquiry into the Untamed disaster tended to sideline these concerns. At any rate, the dead crew of Untamed received the lion’s share of responsibility for the loss. Vickers continued to use the High Walker yard for submarine construction with the result that several of the ‘V’ class were built here; Vampire, Vivid, Volatile, Voracious, Vortex, Vulpine, Vagabond, Urtica, Varne and Votary. Several were loaned out to allied navies in the immediate post-war era.
Unsparing spent her wartime career in the Mediterranean where she sank six ships and damaged many more. Universal sank nine vessels. Untiring accounted for nine. Unswerving destroyed three ships in the Aegean. All these Tyne-built submarines survived the war. Usurper was launched sideways in September 1942 then Lieutenant David Mott took her to Algiers. Described as ‘a grand little boat with a first rate company’, she completed two testing patrols and sank a ship off Corsica, before failing to return from her third patrol in October 1943, probably mined. Usurper was the last of the ‘U’ class to be sunk by the enemy but she was not the last to be lost. That grim attribute belonged to Untamed.
In September 1944 Ultor came to Blyth and her arrival was captured by the press. The boat was skippered by ‘Geordie’ Hunt who had been third hand of Unity when the submarine was rammed off Cresswell in Northumberland. The Scot’s natural modesty masked a fearsome record. While most submarine commanders of the period averaged a torpedo on target success rate of 25%, George Hunt averaged 50%.
Lieutenant ‘Geordie’ Hunt one of the most successful and most likeable of submarine commanders brings Ultor into Blyth on September 4th, 1944
While the legendary Wanklyn held the record in tonnage sunk, Hunt had destroyed the most enemy ships, in sixteen patrols sinking twenty ships (43,000 tons). For George Hunt the move to Blyth was welcome because his wife, Phoebe, a Wren worked at HMS Calliope at North Shields. The couple moved into a house in Seaton Sluice where they were fussed over by an attentive, elderly miner’s wife who fed them and according to Hunt’s biography, ‘and insisted on looking after everything: washing, bed-making (an enormous feather bed) and housekeeping‘. Hunt now assumed command of Taku, now one of the training boats. One month later he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander at the age of twenty-eight and awarded a DSO.
In the Spring of 1944 the Admiralty decided to pay off a number of submarines including the surviving ‘H’ class and pre-war survivors of the ‘S’ and ‘U’ classes. These boats were too useful to scrap just yet, Sturgeon was handed to the Royal Dutch Navy as Zeehond (Lt. Cdr. Mackay). Unison arrived at Blyth for a brief refit in March 1944 prior to sailing to Rosyth and handover to the Soviet navy in June. Sunfish was renamed B/V1, Unbroken B/V2 and Ursula B/V4.
A ten man British liaison team trained at Blyth was attached to the Russia bound boats. V1/Sunfish (Captain B. Fisanovic) sailed from Lerwick for Polyarny at 20:00hrs on July 25th. Chief Stoker George Tiller flatly refused to sail with her, opining to his liaison officer that Russian incompetence guaranteed that V1 had no chance of reaching her base. At 09:42hrs on July 27th a Liberator of 86 Squadron, Coastal Command attacked a surfaced submarine with six depth-charges, from a height of fifty feet. V1 never did arrive at Polyarny. The Russians wasted no time in declaring that the Liberator, some ninety miles off course, had sunk V1 deliberately. The Liberator crew reported that the submarine had dived instead of remaining on the surface and made no attempt to fire recognition signals.
In a report to Churchill about the affair there is evidence that the other boats handed over to the Russians all abandoned their authorised routes to cut down on the journey time. V2 is known to have arrived at her base forty-one hours ahead of schedule by deviating from the assigned route. It is probable that nothing more mysterious than a combination of navigational error on the part of the Liberator and departure from the officially agreed route on the part of Fisanovic, led to the destruction of V1 and her crew, including Sidney Ravensdale. The remainder of the boats reached their destination in early August.
‘All in the same boat now’. Their faces grin from sepia coloured photographs transcending the decades. An unlikely combination of regular Jack m’hearties and fresh faced kinds trying to look the part. At any rate they proved a sufficiently potent force to tip the Mediterranean war against axis convoys decisively in favour of he allies. By 1943 Rommel was in headlong retreat through Tripolitania. No axis convoy had been safe. Post war examination of axis records reveals that by October 1942, 44% of Rommel’s supplies were not getting through, largely the result of British submarine attacks.
This Mediterranean success was probably the greatest single triumph of the Submarine Service. Most of the commanders who fought this war were survivors of the 1939-41 undersea war in the North Sea and the majority of the ratings and junior officers had trained at Blyth, the little Town had therefore made its own special contribution to winning the Second World War.
This victory had been bought dearly. Sepia photographs are often all that remain to prove that these men ever existed. as one by one the crack submarines ‘batted’. Their crews died game and they died hard. During her six month spree, Upholder, he highest scoring British submarine was credited with sinking 82,000 tons of enemy shipping, a tally that was to earn David Wanklyn the Victoria Cross. It was said of his crew that they would not be content to follow their Skipper to hell and back but would insist on carrying him up to heaven to sit with the angels. They got their chance when Upholder failed to return from what should have been her last patrol before a return home for a Blyth refit.
A matter of months following their rousing reception at Blyth, the crew of Utmost perished when the submarine went missing in November 1942. ‘Harmonica Dick’ Cayley did not long survive his old shipmates. In January 1943 HMS Tutankhamen failed to return from a patrol off the coast of Northern Sardinia.
In early December 1942, Tigris (Lieutenant Commander George Colvin) who had earlier commanded Sunfish at Blyth, sank the Italian submarine Porfido. Colvin was commended for his skilled attack but the episode profoundly affected him. Within weeks a telegram was on its way to Blyth informing his Wren wife, who worked in the signals office, that Tigris was seriously overdue from a patrol off Capri and must be presumed lost. His untimely death had robbed the Submarine Service of a skilled and inspirational leader. Regarded with universal admiration, his widow continued with her cyphering work at Blyth to the end of the war. Sad to relate, John ‘Ginger’ Nicholson (known as the ‘man with the monkey’) was another unable to keep his promise to return to Blyth. Ginger and the other Sturgeons who had joined Traveller (Lieutenant Drummond St. Clair-Ford) lost their lives when the boat batted in October 1942. Rob Roy McCurrach’s oppo, Bill ‘Cookem’ Fry’s artistic promise was destined to remain unfulfilled when Trooper (Lieutenant Johnny Wraith) was mined in the Aegean in October 1943. Cookem was twenty-seven.
Cecil Crouch’s assertion that a submarine could only be sunk once proved tragically wrong when Thunderbolt was cornered and depth-charged to destruction off Capo San Vito in March 1943. Not content with the ninety-nine lives lost in 1939, the submarine now claimed a further sixty-two lives.
Having spent thirteen years in service, by the end of the war Porpoise was a grand old lady. The boat had served in the North Sea carrying out perilous mine laying operations from Blyth. She had performed magic carpet missions in the Mediterranean to keep Malta supplied. In November 1942 the boat had sank a 10,000 ton tanker. Finally the boat was sent to the far Eastern theatre based at Trincomalee. Porpoise (Lieutenant Commander H. Turner) played a key role in the ill fated Operation Rimau. In January 1945 Porpoise failed to return from a mine-laying mission off Penang. Her loss brings to a close the sad litany of Blyth submarines lost in the war.
Alistair Mars quotes an actuary who calculated that the odds of a general service sailor being killed were nine to one against. The odds of a submariner being killed were even according to his calculations. By the end of the war, seventy five boats had been lost, killing 3,083 submariners. This breaks down into 349 officers and 2,734 men (or sixty-three commanding officers, 286 other officers, 783 CPOs and artificers and 1,951 ratings). This figure does not seem huge when compared with the number killed in the navy as a whole during the war – 50,758 but when compared with the numbers serving in submarines, it can be seen that losses were severe. The number killed was actually higher than the number serving at the outbreak of war in 1939. It can also be compared with the total of 9,316 men who were in the Submarine Service in March 1945. There were very few wounded men among submarine casualties. By the very nature of the Service either the whole crew survived or it perished in its entirety.
The worst period for submarine casualties was 1939-40 when twenty three submarines were lost, all manned by pre-war crews. During this period 851 men were killed and 115 taken prisoner. During the Norwegian campaign alone from April to August 1940 twenty-seven boats took part involving 1,323 officers and men. Ten boats were lost, 356 officers and men drowned and a further 101 taken prisoner. In other words 26% were killed with 7.5% taken prisoner. The total casualty rate during this period was 33.5% or one third of those taking part (Source: Hezlet).
The men who had been taken prisoner while operating from Blyth were herded into prisoner of war camps. . As for the officers, following unsuccessful attempts to break out of Oflag IXa Spangenburg, Lieutenants Wardle of Starfish and Harvey of Undine were sent to Colditz Castle where both became arch ‘kriegies’. ‘Stooge’ Wardle actually built the famous glider in one of the attics of the rambling fortress. Only the end of hostilities prevented Wardle from putting his glider to use. Lieutenant Harvey was an equally keen escaper. In fact the Germans thought he had already escaped and had him listed at Colditz under an assumed name . Only when he was caught dangling from the end of a rope did they realise the truth. For his role in the rescue of a drowning petty officer during the sinking of Undine, Harvey was later awarded a medal from the Royal Humane Society.
ERAs ‘Tubby’ Lister of Seal and Fred ‘Wally’ Hammond of Shark teamed up to escape from Sandbostel where most ratings and petty officers were held. Upon recapture they were sent to Colditz. It is often stated that Colditz held an all officer British contingent but this is not the case. Several petty officers including Telegraphist Peter Wilkens were incarcerated there. Hammond and Lister revealed to the Germans that they were skilled men. Subsequently both volunteered to help the German war effort because it presented opportunities to work outside the castle walls. They were given full assistance by the British contingent escape committee, including false papers and clothing. Sent to a camp near Wroclaw (Breslau) in Poland they escaped to make a ‘home run’ to Switzerland in the guise of Belgian engineers while working at Breslau gasworks in December 1942. They simply walked out, then took a series of railway journeys which brought them to Bern on December 19th. Not all escapees were so lucky. Initially the crew of Seal was herded into the camp at Thorn/Torun in Poland where Petty Officer Maurice Barnes succeeded in escaping with another man in July 1940. Travelling East in early August, after many adventures they were intercepted by Russians. In the resultant confusion twenty-four years old Barnes was shot and wounded. He was never seen again. Further details are unknown and Maurice Barnes is remembered on the Chatham Naval Memorial.
The other captured submariners eked out a dreary existence at Marlag-Milag camp in Sandbostel near Bremen. It was a camp purpose built to house naval prisoners of war. Ernie Trueman of Seal attempted to lift the boredom by staging Gilbert and Sullivan operas. In the Spring of 1945 the camp was evacuated in the face of the advancing British army. During the course of a nightmare forced march Eastwards the captives were starved bullied by the SS and strafed by British fighters. One man did not make the marce. ERA John Wilkinson of Starfish died of pneumonia in January 1943. He is buried in Becklingen War Cemetery.
It will be recalled that Billy Pester, rescued by a U-boat, had been the sole survivor of HMS Narwhal. Billy was questioned informally while in Marlag-Milag by ‘Happy’ Eckersall of Seal and more formally by Lieutenant Robert Barnes. The war ended and Pester came home. He was not to enjoy his new found freedom for long. Billy Pester died aged twenty-seven when his motorbike collided with a bus in Bournemouth on July 1st, 1945.
The war was over. Bill Polkinghorne recalls VE night and the days that followed:
“I remember VE night celebrations with dancing in the streets and in the Square. I remember also when I came back to Blyth after VJ day to steam Tribune down to her final resting place (September 25th 1945). Apart from a few people left to close down the base, the Tribune skeleton crew were just about the only submariners left in the Town. Quite traumatic as I recall, going into the pubs which had been so full of life only a few months earlier and being the only customers to talk to, the tearful landladies, barmaids etc. about all the lovely submariners who had been so much a part of the Town for the past five years. The end of an era for both Blyth and the Submarine Service“
Staff were left behind to administer an international submarine sale as ageing boats were sold off as Wren Jean Bewick recalls:
“At the end of the war, seven Chinese officers came to take over a submarine. We worked on a chit system. One of them spoke a little English but I managed to get them to sign their chits in the name of the seven dwarfs from Snow White. The pay master commander was quite amused when presented with my books at the end of the month“
On Wednesday August 15th the submarines of the Sixth Flotilla were amalgamated with those of the Fifth Flotilla at Gosport and the post of captain S/M (6) was finally abolished. That night a farewell dance was held at the base. Wren Doreen Richardson was present:
“The mood of the last dance was really such a mixture of feelings both sad and joyful. We realised how far we had come and fell a little daunted at how far we still had to go. Afterwards the married wrens were sent home quickly and the rest of us just drifted away“
The White Ensign was finally lowered at sunset on September 14th 1945. A handful of submariners, including Iain Nethercott remained to to deal with administrative details:
“The base was eventually closed down for good. Heaven knows how many signatures I gave to various heads of departments who were on their way back to Portsmouth for demob. All I know is that when I checked up with the naval supply officer in Newcastle, I discovered that everything had been written off, so someone must have made a fortune out of selling the stuff (I do know that afterwards when I was serving in China I had to answer a gigantic query about three ‘S’ class periscopes discovered in the recesses of the old Ice House. I had signed for them but had not even looked at them.
When the Spirit was finally refitted we left the old Blyth Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company and sailed downriver for final trials. During this time we had a grand farewell party for the shipyard men in one of the local pubs. They were now starting to build small merchant ships, the royal dockyards would in future carry out all submarine refitting and this gave us time to say goodbye to the Geordie shipbuilders who had served us so well. Like the other old timers, we had a farewell run to all our old haunts, the pubs and miners’ clubs. Then we sailed to Londonderry for sea trials“
Standing on the bridge alongside Ian Nethercott as Spirit left the piers was Lieutenant Anthony Langridge who, it will be recalled, had left Narwhal due to illness and missed that boat’s last patrol in 1940 when she was lost with all hands in the North Sea. It was perhaps appropriate that Iain Nethercott and Anthony Langridge should have been present on the bridge of the last wartime submarine to leave Blyth, one man from the operational phase and the other from the training episode:
“We never knew how Narwhal had batted until after the war. There was always uncertainty and this led to a sense of things being temporary. It was as if my boatmates had merely been drafted to another flotilla for a while. Death seemed a temporary thing, a moment in time that would be resolved once the war was won. One day we would wander into one of the clubs and all the boys would be there, grinning and jostling and japing, dodging their rounds and annoying the barmaids. Old times would seamlessly resume again. The green light blinked as we left the Middle Jetty behind and my thoughts drifted back to Narwhal. Dear clumsy old Narwhal always had trouble rounding that West Pier but Spirit was nimble and took the turn in her stride. I had a smashing crew and a new boat but streamlined Spirit seemed like an interloper bursting through my reverie. But as we passed those piers I realised, like a stab through the heart, that death is not a transient thing. They were gone forever, those marvellous men. I would never see them again. Something that had seemed incredible to me was now heartrendingly real. When Narwhal had been posted overdue of course I wished I had gone with her. Then it began to dawn on me that I might have something useful to contribute to us winning the war, no matter how small. My reckoning was postponed. Now that war was over. What lay ahead ? Spirit started tramping. We crossed the bar and I silently prayed that no-one on the bridge saw me brush my eye“.
“On the way out of the Harbour I stood on the bridge with several who, like me, had been in boats for years. I thought of my old class of ’42, all dead but me and one other. They lay entombed for eternity in shattered hulls all over the world. When the call came for volunteers, these sorts of men would always be the ones to come forward.
You could say they died for freedom, humanity – and two bob a day.“
© P Armstrong
ENVOI: ALL THOSE LOVELY LADS
‘They told me there was beauty in remembering,
That whispered words and tender memories would suffice,
That every blaze of moontide has its setting,
And love itself be buried in a sigh
They said that nothing lasted and my grief
would wither as my love amid the dust:
My hopes of you wilt as the yellow leaf
And scatter in a brave new passion’s dust
They little know my dear how thin that curtain,
Can turn to gossamer, that now as then,
I feel your presence comforting and certain,
And know you still among the world of men‘
Anon. Elfin Echoes 1941
I wanted to tell the story of the Blyth submarine base in the words of the people who were there but In this concluding section, the opinions are my own unless otherwise stated.
Here it is appropriate to question as to whether the submarines based in Blyth between 1939-41 had been used in a strategically and tactically sound fashion. The answer has to be, ‘no’ in terms of strategy. Because strategy was mainly devised by senior general service officers who had little knowledge of or interest in submarines, there was too much emphasis upon patrol lines and reconnaissance. Patrol lines were not only unviable, they tended to stifle the initiative of the submarine commander. There was no freedom to operate on roving commissions. When David Gregory exceeded his orders even Max Horton, who had commanded submarines in the First World War and knew everything there was to know about them, punished him. Interestingly Horton displayed a lot more leniency towards Ben Bryant when he devised an impromptu scheme to bombard the Holmengra radio station in Norway. The ability to act according to initiative or prevailing environment often brought success, providing these actions were based upon a foundation of wartime experience. Starfish and Undine were both lost because the respective commanders Turner and Jackson attacked unworthy targets in shallow water. More experienced captains might have wisely left these vessels alone. In Starfish at least, drill failure on the part of a crew seasoned in terms of peace-time training but unused to wartime conditions, contributed to the loss. As Horton observed, there was no room for mistakes in submarines. The loss of these boats was down to lack of experience at all levels, including staff and the pressure the commanding officers were put under to achieve results. The greatest burden of blame lies in the direction of Admiralty staff officers – given the paltry to non-existent level of training offered to pre-war submarine crews operating with the Sixth Flotilla when based at Portland (See ‘The Clockwork Mice’) which focused entirely on training crews of surface ships rather than familiarising submariners with attack and evasion techniques. The Blyth submarines were refused the flexibility to act to advantage.
In December 1939 George Phillips of Ursula brought back important information regarding the swept channel through the German Declared Minefield. It will be recalled that David Gregory sank a large troop transport when he re-interpreted his orders. More successes would have been achieved in the undersea war in Northern waters had British submarine commanders been given freedom to act. Tactically, British efforts were hampered by ageing hardware, over sensitive torpedoes and ‘fruit machines’ which were more complex and inferior to their German counterparts. Above all, British submarines were inevitably too reliant upon First World War tactical experience.
It was inevitable that the Germans would lay minefields. The loss of Swordfish and to a certain extent Seahorse, were down to sheer bad luck. Mines whether anchored or rogue are random hazards. However the failure to pass on information regarding the Sperre Martha Eins minefield in the Helgoland Bight to Massy-Dawson of Seahorse, when location co-ordinates were provided to other captains, reeks of incompetence and constitutes an intelligence disaster. The loss of Unity was entirely preventable. The boat should not have been allowed to sail in such conditions but the absence of Watson allied to a command structure failure at Elfin because no senior officer would step in to halt the sailing, was the fundamental cause of the accident. Staff trained in peacetime had to make adjustments to wartime realities. There was much to learn in 1940 and not all students were up to the task.
The loss of the big minelayers Seal and Narwhal was as predictable as it was avoidable. These boats had not been designed to operate inshore. Moreover in Northern waters there was little darkness to charge batteries, the Germans had overwhelming air and sea superiority in these waters. Add in the fact that BDienst had broken the British naval code and knew the likely track of Narwhal, disaster was inevitable. It is unclear whether Horton stood up to Forbes by attempting to halt these mining operations. It is more likely that he reluctantly acquiesced. It is possible that Spearfish also fell victim to German code breaking. On the other hand Rollman simply might have fortuitously been in the right place at the right time. There were suspicions within Admiralty staff that codes had been breached and although changes were planned, they had not been implemented by the time Spearfish sailed on her last patrol. Submarines of the period were routinely ordered to proceed to their assigned billets on the surface -‘proceed with dispatch’. In fairness acting upon intelligence reports required fast reactions by its very nature and only by harnessing the speed of its diesels could a submarine reach a billet in good time. However this policy was dangerous once the Germans had achieved aerial supremacy and undoubtedly contributed to the destruction of both Narwhal and Spearfish. Submarine commanders operating in the Mediterranean from 1941 to 1944, were largely allowed to decide for themselves how to proceed to their patrol zones.
Those who served as first lieutenants or junior officers and survived this savage Darwinian arena, the Wanklyns, the Lumby’s, the Hunts, the Pipers, the Bromage’s, the Raikes and the Langridges built up a foundation of knowledge that would stand them in good stead in the Mediterranean theatre, where there was more latitude to act on initiative. Newer submarines were coming into service and convoys running between Southern Italy and the North African coast were not difficult to find and the ships were often big. British submarines may have been driven out of the Helgoland Bight, the Kattegat and the Skagerrak but lessons had been learned; a new generation of submarine commanders based with the Ninth Flotilla at Dundee would take the war to the enemy in Northern waters with a vengeance. The learning curve may have been steep between 1939 – 41 but it was mastered in the years which followed.
It is pertinent to ask what the Sixth Flotilla achieved between 1939 and 1941 ? In terms of materiel the Blyth boats did not sink many enemy ships and along with the other East coast flotillas they were driven out of the Bight except for the Northern sector (Zone E) and Southern approaches (Zone H). Some of the ships they did succeed in damaging or sinking such as Leipzig and Lützow or Pionier were important targets. The warships in particular were out of action for over a year and their loss was keenly felt by the Germans. Leipzig was reduced to a training role once repaired in late 1940. Lützow which returned to service in March 1941 was plagued by mechanical problems and was ultimately relegated to a floating gun battery. The mysterious Pionier was a useful scalp in that she was crammed not just with troops and supplies but possibly with heavy water processing material, though it is doubtful whether this can either be proved or disproved. The Germans had a dire shortage of escort vessels as the Operation Sealion planners recognised. The loss of F9 and even the humble anti submarine trawlers sunk on the mine fields laid by Narwhal, Seal and Porpoise all added to the German bill.
Not only were the Blyth submarines stifled by over restrictive patrol orders, the environment worked against them. The Helgoland Bight was too shallow (Undine lies in ninety feet of water, Starfish in ninety one feet) and following the strikes of Salmon and Ursula in December 1939, too heavily guarded. The evidence of the SKL Diary indicates the attacks by Salmon and Ursula in the Bight did throw German plans into disorder. Larger German warships were re-directed away from the Bight. Admiral Lutjens despaired of German anti submarine units. More resources and far more training was required.
The Blyth submarines along with the boats based at Dundee, Rosyth and Harwich, formed the tip of the spear during the Norwegian campaign. Allied submarines sank over twenty transports and warships from cruisers to trawlers. The strike made by Spearfish against Lützow following a depth-charge drubbing surely ranks as an epic, if little known, episode of the war at sea. Lützow was out of action for nearly a year. The inability of the Royal Navy and the RAF to seriously interdict, let along stop, the German supply line to Norway decided the outcome of that campaign. The Germans were able to re-supply their forces far faster than the allies could supply their own.
The mining campaign carried out by the Blyth submarines in Scandinavian waters by Narwhal, Seal and Porpoise caused significant problems for the Nazis not just in terms of materiel but in the tying down of resources. The minefields sank many ships. although they were mainly small. These operations were suicidal for the submarines involved. These missions also functioned as a face-saver for Admiral Forbes and general service in that they constituted a useful riposte to Nazi claims that the Royal Navy had been driven out of the Skagerrak and Kattegat, even though these claims were largely true.
By April 24th the SKL diary relates that the threat to German convoys in Norwegian waters had diminished due to anti submarine countermeasures in the form of sea patrols, zig-zagging, minefields, routing convoys by night (at times when British submarines were forced to withdraw out to sea to charge batteries) and constant air patrols. These air patrols allied to diminishing hours of darkness, and the growing need to re-deploy submarines in anti-invasion patrols from May 1940, all forced Horton to abandon patrols East of the Lindesnes/Skagen line. The odds against the Blyth submarines achieving success were formidable. Once invasion fears had subsided, the attention of VA (S) was increasingly focused on the Mediterranean. Only Sealion, Sturgeon and Sunfish were left at Blyth to operate against blockade runners off Southern Norway during the Autumn months. Results were meagre. The supply ships were able to furtively dart between the leads, the rocky islands off the Naze. It was a relief to all when these patrols were suspended due to bad weather. There were too few targets for the Blyth boats and they were not worth the effort. Hampered by orders, constrained by environment and an enemy with total air superiority, the Blyth submarines had done all that was asked of them. VA (S) now decided that only one East coast submarine flotilla was required. East coast submarine operations now focused upon the Ninth Flotilla at Dundee.
There was unfinished business in the immediate post war years. Rupert Lonsdale had surrendered his boat to the enemy in 1940, something that had not happened since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Admiralty looked upon the matter with distaste but there were questions to be asked particularly as there were those who blamed Lonsdale and his First Lieutenant, Trevor Beet for allowing Seal’s ASDIC set to fall into enemy hands, though this was not the case, the set had been pulverised long before the boat was surrendered. On April 10th 1946 both Lonsdale and Beet faced a court martial. When the hearing was over both men were exonerated and given honourable discharge. The previous year Admiral Max Horton had written an empathetic memo following his interview with the crew which may have swayed the board:
“In considering the action of the Captain and officers it must be remembered that these events occurred in the opening months of the war at a time when little consideration had been given to the action necessary to prevent a submarine falling into enemy hands. Such an event had always seemed wildly improbable. Moreover it must be remembered that officers and men had been suffering from the mental after effects of their prolonged dive without the modern assistance of oxygen and CO2 absorbent which may well have clouded their judgement. In actual fact the task of sinking the submarine with all pressure gone in the telemotor system would have offered some difficulty to men in an exhausted condition“
The post-war Admiralty had little room for sentiment. In 1948 V4/Ursula was returned from Russia and scrapped at Granton on the Forth in 1950. Zeehond/Sturgeon suffered the same fate in 1947. Indeed, with the exception of Alliance, now the focus of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, there are no surviving wartime submarines and Alliance, completed in 1947, hardly qualifies as a wartime submarine. How much richer the experience of visiting a submarine would be if Ursula or Sealion had been preserved. Despite a spate of submarine films in the 1950s, the public largely forgot about the exploits of submariners. Hardly anyone, historians included, seems aware that while the other services reeled back on the defensive, British submarines ventured forth to harry the enemy in their own backyard between 1939 and 1941. Even fewer people know about the traumatic patrols carried out by the East coast flotillas.
Many of the submariners featured here such as Bernard Cranmer, Donald Bowra, Norman Drury and Dicky Elliot remained in the Service as career submariners. CERA Rob Roy McCurrach would have liked to stay too but an injury picked up during a particularly fierce game of hockey led to him being invalided out in 1945. Quite a few, including Bernard Cranmer, Frank Palmer, Bill Dobson and ‘Taff’ Harper married local girls and remained in the North East.
Many officers soon discovered that in the drab post war world, merit counted for little. Social connection was everything in a Royal Navy that was not particularly fond of placing submariners into positions of influence. Some left the Service and even the Royal Navy. Though there were a small number of outstanding exceptions many more spent the remainder of their naval careers in stultifying administrative jobs. For instance, although promoted to Rear Admiral, Ben Bryant’s 1951 appointment as Commodore of the naval barracks at Devonport, had a ring of finality about it. He died aged eighty-nine in November 1994. David Gregory of Sturgeon ended his naval career in 1964 as Flag Officer Scotland and Northern Ireland. He died in 1975. Anthony Langridge held various staff officer posts before retirement. He died in 2001 aged eighty-five. Michael Lumby of Sturgeon ran the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Research Establishment at Portland. He retired to Devon in 1966 and died in 2001 aged eighty four. Richard Raikes was invalided out of the Royal Navy in 1946. Raikes worked for Marconi until his retirement in 1972. Richard Raikes died in 2005 aged ninety-three.
Times were perhaps hardest for Service widows and their families. A typical AB torpedoman was paid ten shillings per day. As his widow was entitled to one-third of this as pension, she could look forward to the derisory sum of three shillings per day. The situation could be just as acute for officer’s widows, who, despite straightened circumstances, were expected to maintain some veneer of social standing. More than one was forced to sell cherished medals in order to make ends meet.
The likes of Mary Miller and Wendy Smith grew up with photographs of fathers they had barely known. Despite repeated attempts to discover the truth, Wendy’s mother died without knowing of the near suicidal missions undertaken by the crew of Narwhal. Until the 1970s wartime patrol reports remained classified information. Even when known, Admiralty remained tight lipped about cause of loss. However not even bureaucratic silence could prevent the sea from unlocking its tragic secrets from time to time.
In the Summer of 1983 Diver Martin Woodward discovered the wreck of a submarine sitting upright in the waters off St. Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. The bow section, which had been completely blown off lay on its port side nearby. The submarine had evidently been mined. The steering wheel, periscopes and telegraph had been colonised by marine life but were otherwise in a good state of preservation. Martin Woodward:
“A serious explosion had taken place, almost certainly a mine. As all the hatches were closed with the exception of the aftermost one (engine room); the sad realisation set in that all the crew must have perished. From the position where the mine had detonated, it must have been an instant end for the majority. The engine room staff in the after end seem to have tried to escape but in the cold November waters, so far from land, their chances were virtually nil“
Research indicates that German forces laid mines in this position the night before Swordfish sailed. The forward hydroplanes were set to hard a dive, the bridge telegraphs remained at ‘Slow Ahead’. This indicates that Swordfish was diving to catch a trim at the time of her destruction. The engine room hatch is open and may be evidence of an attempt to escape using DSEA. No bodies were ever recovered but this is not too surprising given local tidal conditions. To his eternal credit Martin Woodward did not disclose the position of Swordfish, thus protecting her from the depredations of sports divers for a little longer. Those next of kin who could be found were invited to a service in the Chapel of St. Ambrose high on the ramparts of Fort Blockhouse, St Ambrose being the patron saint of submariners. Afterwards the submarine Otis left for the position where a wreath was cast upon the waters to Michael Langley and his gallant crew. They lie in tranquil waters so near and yet so far from home.
In 2017 a private Polish expedition, the Santi Diving Group searching for the legendary Polish boat, Orzel in the North Sea located a large submarine wreck some 140 miles East of Montrose in Scotland. The wreck at 56°44, 386′ N 01° 35, 881’E corresponds to Leutnant Müller’s aerial attack on a surfaced submarine, executed at 14:55 on July 23rd 1940 (See Dead Men on Leave). It was also within the estimated positional range of Narwhal for that date. The wrecked submarine was not Orzel but Narwhal.
There is evidence of damage abaft the conning tower, again consistent with the German report (See ‘Dead Men on Leave’). It is not possible to be certain whether this indicates a direct hit by the bomb as this might be expected to have torn the boat apart, where as the wreck appears to be intact. More likely the bomb was a very near miss which nevertheless managed to puncture both casing and pressure hull. The lifeboat seen by the crew of the German bomber was almost certainly the collapsible boat blown out of its deck recess. Narwhal carried a cargo of fifty mines but there are no signs of secondary explosion. In fact the casing, particularly on the bow section is remarkably well preserved. The bomb shattered the pressure hull aft of the conning tower. For the men in the engine room and beyond, death would have been quick, a fact that must have provided some comfort to the relatives who attended an address organised by the Santi Diving Group. Sadly Orzel is still missing.
Spearfish is the only Blyth submarine still missing. If Rollman’s log is accurate, the boat lies within the Tiffany oilfield which averages a depth of 128 metres. Having been struck by a torpedo the boat is likely to be broken apart. While carrying out research in the mid 1990’s I was informed by an ‘S’ class submarine expert that a battered, net-festooned wreck had been found off the Danish coast. Like Swordfish this shattered submarine had been destroyed by a mine. While no positive identification had been made, all was consistent with the likely track of Seahorse heading South through the Helgoland Bight only to run into a minefield. The only boat missing in this sector was Seahorse. My informant would not disclose the position to protect this wreck from the violations of sports divers and salvage men. For Seahorse as for all the other lost boats, submariners crewed these boats; submariners crew them still. Of course not all submarine wrecks are war graves.
In 1989 divers recovered a large cylindrical object from the bed of the Helgoland Bight. This turned out to be the conning tower of Starfish. Fifty years after her loss (part of) a Blyth submarine had resurfaced !The conning tower was cleaned up, a new helmsman’s wheel was installed the the structure was put on show in the yard of the Wracksmuseum, Cuxhaven. In November 1990 Donald Bowra made a nostalgic pilgrimage to visit this exhibit. None present could forget the moment when seventy-three year old Donald set foot upon the conning tower he had last seen on that freezing January night so many years ago.
The rest of Starfish lies at 54° 47′ N 07° 05, 933′ E in just twenty-eight metres of water. The submarine wreck (despite containing at least three torpedoes) has been dived for decades and is said to be in a poor condition. The wreck of Undine at 54°09,58′ N 07°26,76’E is in an even worse condition than Starfish. Lying in a depth of twenty nine metres, the boat is split open, full of sand and silt, identifiable as a submarine only by reason of the ballast tanks on either side.
The North Sea War Museum at Thybøren, Jutland in Denmark also displays material relating to British submarine operations in the North Sea. Indeed this Museum has been at the forefront of discovering and interpreting the evidence war wrecks, including Pionier and Narwhal.
The post-war years were not good to Blyth. One by one the collieries were shut. Beeching closed the railway. Blyth Docks wound down in 1966, though shipbreaking continues. The local economy unravelled alarmingly with the result that the socio-economic problems facing the Town were (and still are) formidable but the promise of a massive car battery factory allied to the re-opening of the railway may signify that better times are in the offing.
In the 1990s a national newspaper featured a quest to find the ‘worst town in Britain’. When Blyth topped the poll, Gus Britton, the Honorary Curator of the Submarine Museum was sufficiently moved to write a passionate letter, describing how the folk of Blyth had been the kindest, most generous hearted people he had ever met. In this he spoke for many ex-submariners, as these pages bear witness. And it should be born in mind that despite terrible losses in 1939-40, the morale of the Sixth Flotilla never faltered. Support from the ordinary people of Blyth was a major reason why, despite fearful odds, those submariners unflinchingly returned to patrol time and again. In the training base phase, the selfless decency of locals sustained the trainees and made victory seem worthwhile because a recognition that shared values between submariner and local folk were worth fighting for. The Town of Blyth has every reason to feel immensely proud of its wartime story.
Despite this, reminders of the Submarine Service are increasingly harder to find in the North East. Swan Hunter’s Yard on the Tyne closed in 1994, severing a link with wartime days when another special breed of men worked around the clock to turn crippled boats like Spearfish back into fighting machines.
At Seaton Sluice the Astley Arms survives as a pub/pizzeria but the visitor will search in vain for the treasury of submarine memorabilia amassed by Lydia Jackson. The brewery owners had little interest in nostalgia. IN 1976 with retirement looming, Lydia, aged seventy-one sent the lot, including the Seahorse Bottle, down to the Submarine Museum at Gosport. Given that a large wooden panel bearing the names of all the boats to have been present in Blyth during the war years was discovered in a rubbish skip, Lydia’s actions were fully justified. With regards to the Seahorse Bottle, Lydia observed the following to the press:
“I always hoped some of them would come back but they never did. That bottle contains more than just whisky. To me it will always represent the courage and the gaiety of those men“
The Submarine Museum agreed. The Seahorse Bottle remains one of its most revered exhibits.
The Astley Arms is now a fine pub/pizza/carvery with a pleasing ambiance but there are no reminders of its past, nor are the staff aware of its history. It could be any pub/fast food outlet, anywhere. Nearby in Seaton Sluice the neat terraces of Collywell Bay Road and West Terrace where David Wanklyn, Ben Bryant, Dick Raikes, Geordie Hunt and Ronald Burch lodged, are still there but the inhabitants are only vaguely aware of their story, if at all. I was amused to note that the allotment where Geoffrey Sladen wrestled with Pollyanna the reindeer, survives too.
HMS Elfin was demolished in 2006 but oddly the allotments beyond its Northern boundary, once subjected to nightly matelot traffic, survive. The local authority held a consultation process with the people of Blyth as to what should be done with the old base, which had reverted to its former role as a borstal post-war but apparently no viable propositions emerged. With tedious predictability the land was sold for housing and the surviving buildings of Elfin, one of if not the the most historic parts of Blyth, were demolished. At first glance there is nothing to remind the visitor that this was once a naval base animated by purpose and determination and sacrifice. Even during the war years there was talk of a ghost haunting both the base and the South Harbour buildings – a half glimpsed sailor with a steaming bag slung over his shoulder, whose appearances were presaged by the whistled tune of ‘South of the Border down Mexico Way’. One hard bitten former instructor at the borstal told me he had seen and heard the sailor on many occasions. Norman Drury saw the ghost during the war, both at the base and around the South Harbour. The former Petty Officer claimed he knew his identity. You can’t help but wonder what the ghost makes of the housing estate which occupies his former home.
He might approve of streets named Wellesley Drive and Elfin Drive. He would probably be pleased with the naming of Trident Drive but the spectre would surely be appalled by streets named after those clapped out, distinctly unheroic training boats, Otway, Oberon and Otus. The latter might make our ghost spit ectoplasm as Otus was never at Blyth. Nor for that matter, was Talisman. Nor was there a submarine in the Royal Navy called ‘Volary’ but there was a ‘Votary‘. No attempt was made to name streets after those brave operational boats of the Sixth Flotilla, Ursula or Spearfish or Narwhal or Sturgeon or Sealion or Sunfish. An opportunity to perpetuate their story was squandered. The people who live here can rest assured that our ghost has long since abandoned the site of Elfin in disgust or despair. He might feel more at home down in the South Harbour though.
Across the road from the site of the base lies the access road to the South Harbour. The Harbour is busy with North Sea oil related companies and traffic but following the demise of the coal industry, not as busy as it once was. The German sheds survived until 1994. The Ice House was demolished in the 1970s. However much remains that our ghost – let’s call him ‘Jack’ – would recognise but what he would make of the hideous wind farm which has sprouted nearby is open to speculation. Jack would be equally dismayed to learn that wrens no longer undress in the windows of the concrete yacht now home to the exclusive Royal Northumberland Yacht Club but he might be heartened to find a yacht, thoughtfully named Unity tied up nearby.
The Middle Jetty has changed little and it is not difficult to picture Spearfish and Swordfish moored alongside and sometimes at twilight when the tide gently rocks a tolling buoy, when raucous voices sound and laugh then die away, the gulls seem to echo the self-mockery of men long gone
‘If you can’t take a joke, you shouldn’t have joined’
But this is just sentimental nonsense. The last boat left in 1945 and with the exception of a battered plaque, there is no indication that the boats were ever here.
Of course Unity will always be here. Classified as a war grave, she lies off Cresswell, a fitting resting place for the time capsuled heroes within.
The boat has largely escaped the attentions of predatory divers. She lies on her starboard side. The fore ends casing has fallen away as has most of the pressure hull forward of the conning tower. The compass binnacle stand is in place on the conning tower but the fittings have been removed. The stern hatch is open and a ladder invites the foolish to enter. There are no signs the hatch was wrenched open by trawl nets, raising the probability that Lieutenant Low and Stoker Henry Miller survived the initial sinking then attempted to escape using DSEA sets. Night had fallen by this stage and although CERA Alf Potter was directing the rescue search on the surface, if they succeeded in reaching the surface alive, the two men likely died of exposure.
In fact submarines continued to visit Blyth on a regular basis In 1979 the Town formalised its links with submarines by giving the Service, represented by the crew of Onslaught the freedom of the Borough. In recognition of this relationship Blockhouse periodically sent a boat on a courtesy visit but they moored at the Dun Cow Quay rather than the South Harbour. Sadly the demise of the Oberon class class allied to the huge draught of the nuclear boats means the visit made by HM S/M Opossum (Lt. Commander John Drummond) on July 19th -21st, 1993 seems fated to be the last time a submarine will call at Blyth.
Opossum remained at the Dun Cow Quay for a few days while Submariners Association members, local dignitaries and media types enjoyed the hospitality of Lieutenant Commander Drummond and his crew. The night before the boat was due to sail her crew met up with members of the Wansbeck and Disctrict Submariners Association (then called the Submarine Old Comrades Association) in the Steam Boat pub for a very special ritual. Conforming to his last wishes, the ashes of a submarine veteran were given one last run ashore. The urn containing his ashes was placed on a table, topped by a photograph of the late submariner. The rest of the evening was lost in a hedonistic rum-soaked frenzy. The mood was more sombre next morning as Opossum left the Blyth piers. With Opossum hove to, a tug boat bearing the mourners manoeuvred until the respective bows almost touched. The funeral party mustered on the casing, there was a shrill whistle, salutes then silence. The White Ensign was withdrawn and the ashes were scattered upon the sea as Mick Coyle crossed the bar in style. Many stood and watched on the piers as the submarine disappeared over the horizon but few realised that with her departure a proud story which began in the Autumn of 1915 had finally come to an end.
One tangible link with the submarines remains in Blyth. Outside St Mary’s Church, just off the Market Square stands a plinth bearing the anchor of HMS/M Tiptoe, the last of the ‘T’ class in service, scrapped in 1975. This anchor was donated in September 1979 as a reminder to Blyth and the world beyond of its links with the Submarine Service and the eternal debt owned to these men. A few days before each Remembrance Day this memorial is the focus of a wreath laying ceremony as local Submariners Association members and others gather to pay tribute to their own. They have all crossed the bar now but it was always the be-medalled war veterans who drew attention on such occasions. They might not have been able to clear the bridge in four seconds flat but the calibre, dignity and pride of these men was obvious for all to see. As for those who sailed from Blyth and never returned, the Submarine Memorial Fund preserves their spirit and cherishes their memory:
so must we all.
Submariners like having the last word. They shall have it here.
“The Blyth people were excellent, not because they were out for financial gain but because they were naturally warm and friendly. As mining folk they were one big family and were well used to looking after one another – just like submariners“
Frank Palmer, Stoker
“Blyth was not perhaps the most scenic place but there was a determination to knuckle down and get things done even though we were all losing dear friends. I for one will always be grateful to the warm hearted people of the North East“
George Phillips, Submarine Commander
“It was our home and every brick in the Elfin wall holds a story. Countless submariners put down a cup in the canteen, picked up their steaming bags and strolled off, into oblivion“
Gus Britton, Signalman
“At times I would just lie back on the mess cushions, look up and wonder, ‘What the hell am I doing here ?“
Rob Roy McCurrach, Chief Engine Room Artificer
“I put my survival down to God – and the skipper“
Bernard Cranmer, Coxswain
“So few survived from the heroic days of the Sixth Flotilla. I lost so many good friends and they were all people we could not afford to lost. No country could“
Richard Raikes, Submarine Commander
“Although it was very traumatic, I was very happy in boats and I look back at that time with pleasure – but in the name of all that’s sacred – never again !”
Norman Drury, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist
“The faces come back to me, sometimes with names, more often these days, without but loss makes a mockery of time. Never a day goes by when I fail to think of those fellows“
John Stevens, Submarine Commander
“One day I found a submarine cap in a Newcastle junk shop. ‘You can have it for nowt pet’, the man said, ‘It’s only junk’. Only junk. And I broke down and cried at the thought of all those lovely lads“
Mary Stewart-Brodie, Wren Officer
ADM 1/15478, ADM 199/1925, ADM 156/283, ADM 199/1818
The Italian Navy in World War Two Cdr. M. Bragadino,
Hero of the Upholder by Jim Allaway
British Submarines at War 1939-45 by Alistair Mars
The Fighting Tenth by John Wingate
Primary Sources common to all sections
British submarine patrol reports ADM199 series
War Diary Admiral (S)
British and Allied Submarine Operations in World War II Sir Arthur Hezlet
Second World War Submarine Operations Vol I Home, Northern and Atlantic Waters, 1953 (BR1376)(52)
German A/S Flotilla war diaries
BR3043 and Barrow Built Submarines series, Link Supplement
Up Periscope by David Masters
Diving Stations: The Story of Captain George Hunt and the Ultor by Peter Dornan
Hero of the Upholder by Jim Allaway
Silent Warriors Vol 1 by Armstrong and Young
British Submarines at War 1939-45 by Alistair Mars
Beneath the Waves by A.S. Evans
The Fighting Tenth by John Wingate
The Italian Navy in World War Two Cdr. M. Bragadino
British Submarines in Two World Wars by Norman Friedman
No Room for Mistakes by Geirr Haar
One Man Band by Ben Bryant
The Stick and the Stars by William King
Fatal Ascent by Melanie Wiggins
Never Volunteer by J. Stevens
Will not we Fear by Warren and Benson
Now is the Hour by M. Bowra
In Fear and Affection by Rob Roy McCurrach
Fight and Abide Fortune by Pamela Armstrong
Getting it Together by Sir John Harvey-Jones
https://www.seawarmuseum.dk/en Maritime Historical Center in Thyborøn, Denmark
APPENDIX I: ROLL OF HONOUR, BLYTH 1939 – 1945
Yeo Sig E. Armstrong SPO P. Lee
Lt. J. Baker Sto J. Marshall
Tel. H. Bazley AB R. Mayne
Lt. J. Fleming L/Sea A. Morgan
AB A. Cain ERA W. Packer
PO U. Clatworthy Sto D. Perham
L/Sto G. Coit L/Sto J. Phipps
Tel. J. Combe PO Tel A. Pugh
L/Sto J. Comer PO A. Skilling
W/Eng A. Cockburn ERA A. Smith
Lt. D. Massy-Dawson AB S. Stanton
L/Sea J. Dunwell L/Sto A. Steventon
Sig W. Eldridge ERA E. Summers
Sto R. Hines Lt. W. Thain
Sto J. Hyde Sto A. Watson
Tel J. Jenkinson AB R. Wesson
L/Sto J. Kewell AB E. Westbury
ERA D. Lawrenson AB H. Windley
ERA L. Wilson
ERA J. Wilkinson
Lt. J. Low Sto H. Miller
L/Sea J. Hare Sto C. Shelton
AB W. Smith PO M. Barnes
W/Eng H. Archer CPO W. Ibbotson
Sub Lt J. Best L/Sea W. Iverson
AB T. James AB F. Lynch
Sto H. Binns Sto M. Maxwell
Tel H. Bird AB E. Morey
EA A. Bird Sto J. Mordue
L/Sig R. Bruce ERA E. O’Hair
PO Tel E. Carlton Lt D. Pirie
AB R. Carpenter CERA S. Peel
AB J. Carter L/Sto A. Rawlings
L/Sig R. Clifford L/Sto R. Royle
L/Sto E. Darch PO A. Smith
Sto A. Delussey Sto E. Smith
Sto M. Evans Tel E. Smith
Lt Cdr J. Forbes ERA J. Smith
PO J. Foster L/Tel G. Tuson
AB A. Gilet Sto H. Walker
Lt A. Gimblet L/Sea P. Walker
L/Sea A. Glover Tel F. Williams
AB H. Hawes ERA O. Oliver
AB R. Hill
Lt/E J. Ackery PO T. Jarvis
ERA T. Andrews ERA W. Johns
PO E. Austin Sto H. Kitching
Tel J. Ackroyd Sto G. Lawson
Tel A. Bailie L/Tel W. Marchant
Sto C. Blyth Sto H. Marsden
AB K. Brooks ERA R. Mitchell
AB A. Brown AB J. Moor
Lt Cdr R. Burch AB P. Newell
AB J. Burton L/Sto J. Parish
L/Sea L. Cordery Sto T. Prior
Sub/Lt J. Cringle L/Sea C. Quin
Sto H. Davies PO N. Robinson
Sig W. Daw SPO A. Ross
CPO W. Denner Sto F. Simpson
CPO Tel H. Duckham L/Sea S. Simnett
AB A. Earwaker Sto J. Smith
L/Sto H. Elvin AB G. Stearn
Sto W. Frost Sto C. Stone
ERA E. Geeling L/Sto W. Stubbington
ERA H. Golding Lt. H Twynam
AB F. Govier Sto G. Vincer
L/Sea F. Grant CPO F. Whalebone
Lt C. Green CERA A. Wilson
EA J. Grey PO Cook A. Wood
PO Stw A. Heaan Sto T. Wood
ERA G. Henderson SPO G. Wells
L/Sto W. Hendy L/Sto R. Yates
L/Sea A. Horstead Lt. Cdr S. White
L/Sea G. Huelin AB R. Buckland
AB D. Apps PO Tel A. Northwood
AB W. Blackmore AB R. Nichols
L/Sto H. Buttress ERA A. Owen
CPO R. Bush Sto E. Piested
L/Sea J. Cox Sto J. O’Neill
L/Sto W. Crean Lt H. Stacey
PO T. Dando W/Eng H. Selway
L/Sig H. Davis Sto D. Sproat
AB F. Grattan ERA H. Spurgeon
Lt A. Fry Sto E. Souris
L/Sea A. Hollingworth ERA E. Stapley
AB A. Jones AB J. Shipley
Sto T. Jarret Lt M. Ratcliffe
SPO V. Kennard L/Tel L. Tonks
PO O. Kellet EA F. Ward
Lt M. Langley Tel J. Wood
ERA W. Lee Tel N. Williams
L/Sea W. Loines AB J. Young
Sto C. Morrison L/Sto J. Preddy
Sto J. Millerick L/Tel T. McMann
APPENDIX II: SUBMARINES OPERATIONAL FROM BLYTH 1939 – 41
Seahorse, Starfish, Sturgeon, Undine, Unity, Ursula, L23
Sturgeon, Ursula, Unity, (Spearfish)
Sturgeon, Ursula, Unity, L23, (Spearfish)
Sturgeon, Ursula, Unity, L23, Spearfish, Swordfish
Sturgeon, Ursula, Unity, Spearfish, Swordfish, Narwhal
Sturgeon, Ursula, Spearfish, Swordfish, Narwhal, Porpoise
Sturgeon, Ursula, Spearfish, Swordfish, Narwhal, Porpoise, H28, H31
Sturgeon, Ursula, Spearfish, Swordfish, Narwhal, Porpoise
Sturgeon, Ursula, Swordfish, H31
Sturgeon, Ursula, H28
Sturgeon, Sealion, Sunfish, (Snapper)
Sturgeon, Sealion, Sunfish
Sturgeon, Sealion, Sunfish
Sturgeon, Sealion, Sunfish
APPENDIX III: VISITING OPERATIONAL SUBMARINES AND TRAINING BOATS 1941 – 1945
Training Boats: Tribune (Lt. Cdr. R. Norfolk, Lt. Cdr. W. Cavaye ), L23 (Lt. T. Barlow, Lt. J. Bridger)
Tribune Arrived June 6 1941 – August 26, 1942 March 4 1944 – September 25, 1945 (Lt. J. Fyfe)
October 1st boat entered Swan Hunter for major refit. On August 26th Tribune (Lt. N. Coe) left Blyth for Dundee.
L23 (Lt. T. Barlow, Lt. J. Bridger) Arrived October 13, 1941 Left April 3, 1942
Trident (Cdr. G. Sladen) Arrived at Blyth, November 30, 1941. Left for patrol via Lerwick, January 20th 1942
Snapper (Lt. G. Prowse) under refit at Swan Hunter 23rd Oct – January 12. Snapper left for Blyth January 10th. Left for the Clyde January 12th
Seawolf (Lt. P. Field) arrived at Blyth for refit on January 7th from Rothesay. The refit took place at Swan Hunter’s Yard on the Tyne where the boat arrived on January 10th. The refit ended on March 27th when Seawolf left for Blyth. Seawolf left Blyth for Dundee on March 30th. En route the boat was attacked by a German bomber but dived to safety.
Taku (Lt. Cdr. P. Bartlett) arrived at Blyth for October 6th from Oban. Taku left Blyth October 13th for Sheerness
HNMS 09 (Lt. H. Goossens) arrived at Blyth for refit August 5th 1941. The boat was docked between August 6th and September 30th. Trials followed between October 14th and October 17th when the boat sailed for Rothesay.
Training Boats: Tribune (Lt. N. Coe, Lt.Cdr. W. Cavaye, Lt. R. Raikes) from August, Upright until August 26, 1942 L23 (Lt. E.Turner, Lt. R Favell, Lt. L. Hill) May 2, 1942 – August 12, 1942
ORP Jastrzab (Lt. Cdr. B. Romanowski) arrived at Blyth January 21st for alterations to British specifications. Left for Holy Loch on March 17th
Sealion (Lt. G. Colvin) 9th April 14th September, arrived at Blyth April 9, 1942 – Left Blyth September 14th 1942
HNMS 014 arrived at Blyth March 6th for a refit and repairs to the aft port hydroplane. The refit was carried out and the boat left Blyth on March 18th for Dundee
Tuna (Lt. M. St. John) under refit arrived April 9th 1942, Blyth. To Swan Hunters May 1st, 1942, back to Blyth September 6th, (Lt. R.P. Raikes) left Blyth for Holy Loch September 14th 1942
Utmost (Lt. Cdr. R. Cayley) arrived at Blyth February 11th 1942 from Holy Loch for refit. May 3rd Utmost (Lt. A. Langridge) left for Holy Loch in company with Thunderbolt
Thunderbolt (Lt. Cdr. C. Crouch) arrived at Blyth on March 30th 1942 from Holy Loch. Thunderbolt left Blyth on May 3rd in company with Utmost.
ORP Sokol (Lt. Cdr. B. Karnicki) arrived at Blyth July 15th 1942 for a refit. Sokol ( Lt. Cdr. J. Koziolkowski) left Blyth for Dundee on November 20th. The boat returned to Blyth May 24th 1944.
HNMS 010 (Lt. J.Geijs) August 16th arrived at Blyth from Tobermory for refit. 010 left for Dundee on September 7th
Upright (Lt. J.S. Wraith) arrived at Blyth for refit on April 21st from Holy Loch. Left for Dundee July 16th. Commenced training duties at Blyth (Lt.Cdr. A.F. Collett, Lt. P Harrison, Lt. J. Wilkinson) August 27th 1942. Refit February 5th 1944. Upright left for Dundee June 7th 1944
Otus (Lt. R. Clutterbuck) arrived at Blyth for refit September 17th. Otus left Blyth for Swan Hunters September 21st. Otus (Lt. J. Oakley) returned to Blyth on May 20th, 1943. Otus left Blyth for Rothesay, May 26th 1943
Unsparing (Lt. A.Piper) built on Tyne and launched on July 28th arrives at Blyth November 15th then commenced trials November 17th. Leaks were apparently repaired at Blyth docks. On November 25th Unsparing leaves Blyth for Holy Loch.
Training Boats: Upright (Lt. P. Harrison) and Ursula (Lt. A. Davies) August to December, Unbroken February – March 1944, Otway
Seraph (Lt. N. Jewell) Arrived at Blyth January 28th for refit and the fitting of radar in No. 4 dock. Seraph conducted exercises off Blyth and on April 7th the boat left Blyth for Holy Loch and preparations for ‘Operation Mincemeat’.
Usurper (Lt. D. Mott) left Vickers High Walker Yard on the Tyne on January 15th for Blyth. Various trials were carried out off Blyth in January. Usurper left for Holy Loch on January 28th 1943.
Untamed: (Lt. G. Noll) Untamed was launched at the High Walker Yard on the Tyne on December 8th 1942. In early March Untamed arrived at Blyth for tests and sea trials, followed by a trip to Arrochar, Western Scotland. Untamed returned to the Tyne on March 23rd. Between April 2nd and April 8th Untamed carried out further exercises off Blyth. On May 30th the boat was lost with all hands in the course of an exercise off Western Scotland (See Untamed Unravelled).
Una (Lt. J Martin) arrived at Blyth, March 31st for a refit. Una left Blyth August 5th, 1943
H43 (Lt. I. Raikes) arrived at Blyth from Loch Eriboll on April 23rd. Refit took from May 3rd to October 8th. Trials commenced until October 12th when the boat left for Dundee.
Ultimatum (Lt. W. Kett) arrived at Blyth from Scapa Flow, June 20th, 1943. The boat left Blyth for Swan Hunter’s on June 21st. Ultimatum left Swan’s Yard on June 26th. The boat carried out exercises from August 5th to August 9th. On August 11th, Ultimatum left Blyth for Holy Loch.
Uther (Lt. P. Beale) was launched at High Walker the Tyne on April 6th 1943. The boat left for Blyth on August 9th for trials. On August 11th Uther sailed for Holy Loch. December 9th Uther returned to High Walker to rectify defects.
Unswerving (Lt. M. Tattershall) built at High Walker on the Tyne arrived September 20th. Trials were carried out off Blyth between September 22nd and 27th. The boat left for Holy Loch on September 29th.
Varangian (Lt. J. Nash) built at High Walker on Tyne arrived at Blyth on June 21st. Exercises were carried out off Blyth until July 5th when the boat sailed for Holy Loch.
Ursula (Lt. A. Davies) arrived at Blyth for a refit on July 22nd. Refit commenced on August 2nd. Before and after refit, Ursula took part in training classes. On December 17th Ursula left Blyth for Holy Loch.
Untiring (Lt. R. Boyd) built at High Walker on the Tyne. The boat was launched on January 20th 1943 and commenced exercises then proceeded to Blyth on May 30th. Exercises continued off Blyth until June 6th when the boat left for Holy Loch.
Ultimatum (Lt. W. Kett) arrived at Blyth from Scapa for refit on June 20th. Next day the boat left for the Tyne where the refit lasted until August 11th when the boat left for Holy Loch.
Trusty (Lt. Balston) arrived at Blyth on July 2nd. Trusty left for Wallsend and Swan’s Yard on July 9th for refit following patrols in far eastern waters. Refit completed on December 6th. Trusty returned to Blyth for torpedo and diving trials before leaving for Rothesay on December 17th under Lt Cdr. J. Harvey.
Unbroken (Lt. B. Andrew) arrived at Blyth from Scapa Flow in company with Uther on September 23rd. Refit commenced on September 29th in Blyth Dry Dock. On February 9th, 1944 the boat returned to Blyth where she conducted training classes until March 14th, 1944. On March 16th Unbroken left for Rosyth under Lt. P. Langley-Smith. The boat was handed over to the USSR as B2/V2.
Unrivalled (Lt. H. Turner) arrived at Blyth for a refit on December 12th. Lt. D. Brown took Unrivalled on post refit trials off Blyth. On April 28th 1944, Unrivalled left Blyth for Rothesay .
Universal (Lt. C. Gordon) was launched at High Walker on the Tyne on November 10th 1942. The boat arrived at Blyth on February 20th 1943. Exercises lasted until March 3rd when the boat left for Holy Loch.
Strength of 6th Flotilla at September 6th, 1943
Training 1 – Upright
Refitting 1 – Unswerving
Training Boats: Upright (Lt. P. Harrison) and Unbending (Lt. J. Martin) February – March, Tuna (Lt. Cdr. A. Hill then Lt. Cdr. E. Norman) April – May, then June – July, August – September, Unison (Lt. P. Pritchard) March – April, Otway: August 1944 – June 1945, Taku (Lt. G. Hunt, Lt. W Kett, Lt. J. Nash) May – June 1945, Tribune (Lt. Cdr.W Eade, Lt. J. Fyfe, T/Lt. M. Tattershall) March 1944 – June 1945. Oberon May 1944 -, Sportsman September – October 1944
Vivid (Lt. J. Varley) built on Tyne, launched September 15th 1943. The boat arrived at Blyth on January 3rd 1944. Trials were conducted between January 3rd and 13th. The boat was due to leave for Holy Loch on January 7th but departure was delayed due to engine defects until January 14th.
Vulpine (Lt. P. Thirsk) built on Tyne and launched December 28th 1943. Arrived at Blyth May 3rd. Trials were carried out between May 18th and 27th. Adjustments were made to ballast on May 22nd. The boat left Blyth for Holy Loch on May 29th.
Unbending (Lt. J. Martin) arrived at Blyth from Lough Foyle, Northern Ireland, on January 29th. Unbending carried out training classes from February 4th to March 14th. Thereafter the boat was loaned to the Russians.
Voracious (Lt. F. Challis) built on Tyne, launched November 11th 1943. The boat arrived at Blyth on March 30th. Exercises took place until April 7th when the boat left for Holy Loch.
Satyr (Lt. T. Weston) arrived at Blyth on April 11th from Dundee for a refit in No. 4 dock. The boat sailed back to Dundee on May 13th.
Tuna (Lt. Cdr. L. Hill) Left shipyard on April 27th and commenced training duties at Blyth. She left Blyth for Loch Cairnbawn (Port HHZ) in the Western Isles on May 24th, where she became involved with chariot operations. On June 24th Tuna returned to Blyth to recommence training duties. Tuna returned to Cairnbawn on July 8th but the boat returned to Blyth for training duties on August 14th, remaining until September 17th prior to departing for Holy Loch.
Unison (Lt. P. Pritchard) arrived at Blyth on March 22nd from Rothesay to commence training duties from March 26th to April 26th. On May 5th Unison was sent to Rosyth prior to being handed over to the Russians as B/V3 along with Sunfish, Ursula and Unbroken.
Taku (Lt. A. Pitt) arrived at Blyth on May 5th from Holy Loch. On May 10th Lt. Parmenter took the boat to Swan Hunter’s Yard on the Tyne for a refit which lasted until July 5th. Taku then took part in submarine training classes from July 10th to June 14th 1945. The boat sailed for Chatham on September 25th, thereafter she was stripped then scrapped.
Sibyl (Lt. E. Turner) arrived at Blyth for a refit from Dundee on May 7th. The refit ended on October 17th and the boat carried out various diving and engine trials off Blyth until November 7th when the boat left for Dundee.
ORP Sokol (Lt. Cdr. J. Koziolkowski) arrived at Blyth on May 21st from Scapa Flow. The refit was carried out at Wallsend and lasted until September 22nd when Sokol proceeded to Rosyth.
Tribune (Lt. Cdr. W. Eade) arrived at Blyth from Rothesay on March 4th to re-commence training duties which lasted from March 7th to June 27th 1945. Thereafter the boat was paid off into reserve. Tribune left Blyth for Blockhouse on September 25th.
Ultor (Lt. G. Hunt) arrived at Blyth on September 4th. This refit was to last from September 10th to February 5th 1945 when the boat returned to Holy Loch
Universal (Lt. C. Gordon) arrived at Blyth for a refit on October 14th 1944. The refit lasted until March 13th 1945. On March 15th the boat left Blyth for Rothesay under Lt. S. Brooks.
Volatile (Lt. F. Lawrence) built on Tyne and launched on June 20th 1944. The boat arrived at Blyth on October 21st. Exercises off Blyth followed until the boat left for Holy Loch on November 1 1944. While participating in exercises in November at Scapa, Volatile collided with destroyer HMS Orwell, sustaining damage to her conning tower. The boat returned to Blyth for repairs at High Walker on December 8th 1944. Repairs were ended on March 4th,1945. On March 6th the boat left Blyth for Scapa.
Virulent (Lt. S. Fovargue) built on Tyne launched May 23rd arrived at Blyth on September 16th. Trials were carried out off Blyth between September 17th and September 22nd. Defects were repaired on September 23rd at No 3 Dock, Blyth. The boat left for Holy Loch on September 25th.
Otway (Lt. M. St. John followed by Lt. H. Turner, Lt. R. Gatehouse, Lt. W. Kett and Lt. Cdr. R. Boyd) arrived at Blyth from Rothesay to take up training duties from August 1st, 1944 to June 8th 1945.
Oberon (Lt. M. Crawford) arrived at Blyth from Scapa on May 1, 1944. Oberon as a training boat then decommissioned at Blyth
Votary (Lt. P. Staveley) launched at High Walker on August 21st, 1944. The boat arrived at Blyth on November 24th and carried out trials. Votary left for Blyth for Scapa Flow on December 4th
Sportsman (Lt. P. Langley-Smith) arrived at Blyth from Dundee for a refit on September 3rd. Post refit Sportsman served as a training boat until October 8th when she left for Holy Loch.
Strength of 6th Flotilla at September 1944
4 Submarine Training – Upright, Sportsman, Unison, Taku
4 Refitting – Sokol, Sibyl, Votary, Sportsman
Training boats: Oberon Jan – , Otway Jan – June, Tactician June – August , Trespasser July – August, Viking May – June 1, Surf June – August 1945
Upstart (Lt. P. Chapman) arrived at Blyth on January 11th from Blockhouse. Refit in No 5 Dry Dock from 5th January to 30th April, 1945. The refit ended on May 13th. From May 15th – May 25th the boat conducted exercises off Blyth. On June 5th the boat (Lt. r Westlake) left Blyth for Blockhouse.
Tally-Ho (Cdr. L. Bennington) arrived at Blyth on January 25th from Harwich. On February 18th the boat sailed to Swan Hunter’s Yard for a refit which lasted until July 31st. The boat (Lt. J. Fyfe) left Blyth on August 31st for Holy Loch
Vagabond (Lt. J. Stoop) was built on the Tyne at the High Walker Yard and launched on September 19th 1944. The boat arrived at Blyth on February 5th 1945. Trials were carried out until February 13th when the boat sailed for Scapa Flow.
Trusty (Lt. O. Lascelles) arrived at Blyth on June 29th for a refit from Rothesay. On September 26th the boat left Blyth for Blockhouse
Stubborn (Lt. A. Davies) arrived at Blyth from Scapa for battery repairs on February 12th. Exercises, which included practice attacks on Volatile, conducted off Blyth in February before leaving on March 6th for Scapa in company with Volatile and Votary.
Tactician (Lt. Cdr. L. Jewell) arrived at Blyth on June 11th 1945 from Holy Loch. Refit commences on June 12th. On June 18th Tactician assumes training boat duties. On August 24th the boat left Blyth for Blockhouse.
Varangian (Lt. A. Sumption) arrived at Blyth February 24th for a refit. Refit commenced March 7th. The boat left Blyth for Holy Loch on August 2nd
Viking (Lt. R. Bannar-Martin) arrived at Blyth May 3rd. Assumed role of training boat until June 15th. On July 1st 1945 the boat left Blyth for Blockhouse.
Trespasser (Lt. Cdr. L. Jewell) arrived at Blyth on June 25th. From July 2nd to August 25th the boat conducted exercises off Blyth. On August 26th the boat (Lt.M. Tattersall) left Blyth for Blockhouse.
Surf (Lt. T. Wood) arrived at Blyth on VJ day June 27th from the Clyde. Surf carried out training duties until August 24th when she sailed for Blockhouse
Spirit (Lt. A. Langridge) arrived at Blyth for a refit on July 6th from Blockhouse. The refit commenced on July 14th. She remained until January 8th, 1946 when she sailed for Londonderry. Spirit was the last wartime submarine to leave Blyth.
Strength of 6th Flotilla at April 30th 1945
S/M training 1 V class – Viking
2 U class – Upstart, Unison
2 T class – Tactician, Tally Ho
1 O class – Otway
Refitting 1 T class – Trespasser
1 V class – Varangian
APPENDIX IV: OFFICERS COMMANDING HMS ELFIN 1939 – 1945
Commander J.S. Bethell Sept 1939 – May 1940
Captain G. Voelcker May 1940 – March 1941
Commander G. Phillips March 1941 – October 1942
Commander E. Oddie October 1942 – March 1943
Captain G. Claridge March 1943 – May 1945
APPENDIX V: SHIPS ATTACKED BY BLYTH SUBMARINES 1939 – 41
Date Submarine Target Status Location
20.11.39 Sturgeon Gauleiter Telschow Sunk N Sea
14.12.39 Ursula F9 Sunk Bight
21.3.40 Ursula Heddernheim Sunk Skagen
4.4.40 Narwhal Emden Damaged Bight
11.4.40 Spearfish Lutzow Damaged Skagen
21.4.40 Narwhal Togo Damaged Skagen
23.4.40 Narwhal M1302 Sunk Skagen
1.5.40 Narwhal Bahia Castillo Sunk Skagen
1.5.40 Narwhal Buenos Aires Sunk Skagen
3.5.40 Narwhal M1102 Damaged Skagen
4.5.40 Seal Vogesen Sunk Kattegat
28.5.40 Seal Torsten Sunk Kattegat
30.5.40 Narwhal V1109 Sunk Molde
5.6.40 Narwhal Palime Sunk Feistein
5.6.40 Narwhal M11 Sunk Feistein
14.6.40 Porpoise M5 Sunk Hitra
4.7.40 Narwhal Treff VIII Sunk Kristiansand
16.8.40 Narwhal Biene Sunk Haugesund
2.9.40 Sturgeon Pionier Sunk Skagerrak
13.10.40 Narwhal Gnom7 Sunk Haugesund
13.10.40 Narwhal Kobold 1 Sunk Haugesund
13.10.40 Narwhal Kobold3 Sunk Haugesund
3.11.40 Sturgeon Sigrun Sunk Obrestad
6.11.40 Sturgeon Delfinus Sunk Obrestad
25.3.41 Sturgeon Drafn Disputed Statlandet
© P Armstrong