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The Loss of HMS Thetis Submarine 1939


Guest Fred Karno's Army

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Guest Fred Karno's Army

Having rummaged about in the loft yesterday morning I came across my collection of items relating to HMS Thetis,below is a brief synopsis  ;).

HMS Thetis (N25) was a Group 1 T-class submarine of the Royal Navywhich served under two names. Under her first identity, HMS Thetis, she commenced sea trials on 4 March 1939. She sank during trials on 1 June 1939 with the loss of 99 lives. She was salvaged, repaired and recommissioned as HMS Thunderbolt serving in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theatres until she was lost with all hands on 14 March 1943.[1] This makes Thetis one of the few military vessels that have been lost twice with her crew in their service history.

 

Thetis was built by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, England and launched on 29 June 1938. After completion, trials were delayed because the forward hydroplanes jammed, but eventually started in Liverpool Bay under Lieutenant CommanderGuy Bolus. Thetis left Birkenhead for Liverpool Bay to conduct her final diving trials, accompanied by the tug Grebe Cock. As well as her normal complement of 59 men she was carrying technical observers from Cammell Laird and other naval personnel, a total of 103 men. The first dive was attempted at about 14:00 on 1 June 1939. The submarine was too light to dive, so a survey of the water in the various tanks on board was made. One of the checks was whether the internal torpedo tubes were flooded.

Lieutenant Frederick Woods, the torpedo officer, opened the test cocks on the tubes. Unfortunately, the test cock on tube number 5 was blocked by some enamel paint so no water flowed out even though the bow cap was open. Prickers to clear the test cocks had been provided but they were not used. This combined with a confusing layout of the bow cap indicators — they were arranged in a vertical line with 5 at the bottom (2,1,4,3,6, and then 5) and the "Shut" position for tube 5 on the dial was the mirror image of tube 6 above it — led to the inner door of the tube being opened. The inrush of water caused the bow of the submarine to sink to the seabed 150 ft (46 m) below the surface. How the outer door (bow cap) to Tube 5 became open to the sea is a question that will probably never be answered, Woods maintained that until at least 10 minutes before he opened the tube all the indicators were at "Shut".[2]

An indicator buoy was released and smoke candle fired. By 16:00, Grebe Cock was becoming concerned for the safety of Thetis and radioed HMS Dolphin submarine base at Gosport. A search was immediately instigated.[3] Although the stern remained on the surface, only three RN personnel (Lieutenant Frederick Woods, Captain Harry Oram and Leading Stoker Walter Arnold) and one Cammell Laird man (Fitter Frank Shaw) escaped before the rest were overcome by carbon dioxidepoisoning caused by the crowded conditions, the increased atmospheric pressure and a delay of 20 hours before the evacuation started. Ninety-nine lives were lost in the incident: 51 crew members, 26 Cammell Laird employees, 8 other naval officers, 7 Admiralty overseeing officers, 4 Vickers-Armstrong employees, 2 caterers and a Mersey pilot.[4] The crew waited before abandoning the vessel until it had been discovered by the destroyer Brazen, which had been sent to search for it and which indicated her presence by dropping small explosive charges into the water.

In order to effect an escape from the stricken vessel, the escaping crew were required to enter the submarine’s only escape chamber, which can only accommodate one person at a time. As the pressure outside the submarine is greater than the pressure inside, this must be equalised before the outer door of the escape chamber is opened. The escape chamber is flooded with the occupant having to wait until the chamber is completely full of water. Only then will the pressure within the escape chamber be equal to the outside sea pressure.

In the case of HMS Thetis, 4 members of the ship’s company, three RN personnel (Lieutenant Woods, Captain Oram and Leading Stoker Arnold) and one Cammell Laird’s employee (Fitter Shaw) successfully used the escape chamber. During the 5th attempt to escape the occupant of the chamber panicked and tried to open the outer escape hatch before the chamber had completely flooded. As a result, the increased pressure outside the submarine caused an in-rush of sea water, thus drowning the escapee. Because the outer escape hatch remained partially open it rendered the escape chamber inoperative, preventing the escape of any other crew members.

The incident attracted legal action from one of the widows, who brought a claim of negligence against the shipbuilders, for not removing the material blocking the valve.[5] Unfortunately for her the Admiralty successfully invoked Crown Privilege (now termed Public Interest Immunity) and blocked the disclosure of, amongst other items, 'the contract for the hull and machinery of Thetis' as evidence in court, on the basis that to do so would be 'injurious to the public interest'.[6] The case is one of interest in English law, as the judges in this case accepted the Admiralty's claim on face value with no scrutiny, a ruling later overturned.

The Liverpool & Glasgow Salvage Association were commissioned to salvage the sunken submarine. On completion of the salvage operation the bell from Thetis was presented to the Liverpool & Glasgow Salvage Association by the Admiralty. One further fatality occurred during salvage operations, when Diver Petty Officer Henry Otho Perdue died from "the bends" on 23 August 1939. On Sunday 3 September, Thetis was intentionally grounded ashore at Traeth BychanAnglesey. It was the same day that war was declared. Human remains that had not already been removed by the salvage team were now brought out to a Naval funeral, with full honours.

The loss went beyond that of a submarine's crew. Among the dead were two naval constructors and several of the submarine team from Cammell-Laird; experienced designers and builders of submarines who would have been needed during the war.[7]

Among the items I have three bolts which came from the torpedo hatch door upon her refit in Birkenhead after bieng refloated and refitted.They came directly from the granddaughter of A man who was employed by Vickers Armstrong to oversee the fitting out of the build.Upon her sea trial he was scheduled to be aboard but in the early hours of that morning his wife became ill and he sent word he wouldn't be able to go so one of his friends took his place.Alas as he later found out this saved his life as he was sure he would have been lost as unfortunately was the man who took his place.He always said his wife had saved his life and no blummin wonder !.  He also then several months later had the task of again refitting her upon her bieng dry docked at Birkenhead and took the bolts from her during this.

He stamped them 99 lost,and Thetis (In fact 100 souls succumbed as a naval diver lost his life in the retrieval). They then adorned his fire place used as poker stands unti his passing in the late 80s.

The scrapbook contains all the paper reports from the time regarding the sinking and subsequent enquiry.And the blueprints were thought to have been drawn for use in a book,but upon further research it appears they were actually drawn for the official inquiry they are BIG !.

 It's a fascinating story and there have been several books written about the tragedy,the crew are laid to rest in Holyhead cemetery on Anglesey.

Subsequently Thetis was renamed Thunderbolt and had an Illustrious courier in the Mediterranean until bieng lost again with all hands.

An interesting note was that on relaunching as Thunderbolt all her crew were aware she was the Thetis and volunteered to serve aboard her,superstition bieng pushed aside. 

 

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Edited by Fred Karno's Army
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Guest Fred Karno's Army

It's a shame it's so overlooked @DAK D but I suppose happening on the door step of the outbreak of World War Two it's quite inevitable.Terrible tragedy:( and I am honoured to own these items from her. 

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Davejb

I would say that you are now the custodian of very rare pieces of Naval History, like most Naval disasters, especially just prior to an expected war, they were played down for the sake of moral, Its amazing these have survived, especially the actual blue prints possibly used in the enquiry. Are they marked as indications as to what happened. Personally I would get them framed in case of damage, at least that way they can be fully viewed and would make a very fine wall display, well done for saving them

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Guest Fred Karno's Army

@Davejb There is written in pencil Thetis on the bottom of the blue prints and on the back various numbers and script most of which is unlegible to my eye.

I contacted the Maritime museum at Liverpool a few years ago when it was the coming up to the anniversary of the the tragedy and they were jumping through hoops to get them and display them until they realised I was only willing to loan them and their attitude completely changed :(,totally spat their dummy out >:(. Unlike the Submarine museum at Gosport they were fantastic and even went through the archives to verify the bolts were exactly the same as those used on T class torpedo hatches.

I've often wondered if they were from the fateful tube number 5,and that I guess is something we will never know :(.

 

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Davejb

Thats typical of museums, they always want something for nothing, so they cut their noses off to spite their faces, surely a loan for a year would have been better than nothing, at least hundreds of people would have seen all these rare pieces

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