British Submarine's Gallant Fight for Life

The War Illustrated, Volume 1, No. 7, Page 206-207, October 28, 1939.

One of the most gripping stories of the Navy in wartime is that which tells of the escape of a British submarine from the enemy patrols which hunted it from dawn to dusk. We retell it here in the words of "Naval Eye-Witness".

Since the surrendered German Fleet disappeared beneath the waters of Scapa Flow, theatrically scuttled by its own officers, there have been many mists over the North Sea.

One of these mists cleared recently to reveal a British submarine proceeding on patrol. Her log notes laconically that a full gale was blowing.

She observed a neutral fishing fleet riding out the gale at its nets, and dived beneath them to avoid unnecessary publicity... At night she rose to the surface and her navigator, a Royal Naval Reserve Canadian Pacific man, observed the stars and fixed her position.

These uneventful happenings brought her, early one morning, to her allotted patrol area in enemy waters, and at the first hint of dawn she dived.

Shortly before breakfast the detonation of a depth charge quite close to her suggested emphatically that she was in the vicinity of enemy forces. Her captain decided to have a look at them through his periscope, and put his ballast pump in action.

Another depth charge promptly exploded much closer, blowing some of his fuses. It was unpleasantly obvious that he was being hunted. He stopped all his machinery, holding his breath, as it were, to listen.

The crew lay down to conserve valuable oxygen consumed by movement. During the next hour they counted the detonation of six explosions as the enemy groped about in search of them with sweep wires, electrically-operated bombs, and depth charges.

The submarine could do nothing except remain silent on the bottom, motionless. To relieve the monotony, it seemed good to the crew to start a 6d. sweepstake on the time at which the next explosion would shake the hull.

An able seaman moved softly down the narrow alley-way among the motionless men, booking their bets against next pay day.

The bombardment intensified. For the next hour the explosions averaged one very two minutes. They grew gradually more distant. Then there was a lull.

They Were Waiting for the End

About tea-time the strained, weary men in the submarine heard a wire scraping over the after jumping-stay... They listened, tense, expectant.

A series of bumps thudded along the hull as if a giant were stamping along it in hobnailed boots.

Then what they awaited happened. A shattering explosion seemed to contract the hull of the submarine as their own hearts contracted.

All lights were extinguished, there was everywhere the crash of broken glass, and in the silence that followed the sound of water spurting and the hiss of air escaping from the high-pressure air-system.

Portable electric lights revealed enough of the catastrophe. One motor and both engines were out of action. From half a dozen leaks in the air-system air hissed as from a punctured tyre.

Working as noiselessly as possible, they contrived to restore the lighting, and stop the air leaks as best they could.

Then, the air gradually growing fouler because they had been a long time submerged, they sat or lay about waiting.

The First-Lieutenant bethought him of a bottle of boiled sweets, and passed them round as a solace. It reminded someone else of a bag of peppermint-drops he possessed. He crept round the dripping spaced offering them to his shipmates, who sucked them appreciatively. The air was making breathing more difficult every minute.

In the meantime, the lieutenant in command was deciding on his course of action. As soon as eh knew by the clock that darkness had fallen on the face of the sea, he mustered his little band of officers and men and told them of his decision.

To stay where they were meant to die the death of rats in a trap.

If the ballast tanks still held and in his heart he doubted it he intended to blow the water out of them and rise to the surface. Once there, although his ship was helpless as a log, he intended to fight to the death.

The crew accepted the alternative joyfully. Exchanging gasping jokes among themselves, they turned-to, loaded the torpedo-tubes, Lewis-gun and rifles, and stacked ammunition ready for the gun.

As a last grim measure they prepared a demolition charge to blow their ship to pieces rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

Finally, when all was ready for what they believed would be their last fight, they blew tha tanks and the submarine rose floundering to the surface.

In spite of their efforts to stop the leaks, enough air had escaped inside the submarine from the air cylinders to raise the pressure to a dangerous point.

Mindful of this, her captain, who is lightly built, had to guard against the danger of being blown through the hatch when it was opened. He selected a 14-stone signalman to cling to his legs and thus "anchored", threw opened the hatch.

So great was the rush of air that it blew his heavy binoculars, which hung by a strap vertically above his head. He climbed out and looked anxiously about him. It was a clear night with a moderate swell. There was nothing in sight.

Limping Home to Port

With periscope gone, wireless smashed, communication pipes crushed as if squeezed by the fist of a giant, and engines disabled, unable to dive again and with only one motor in action, even now the prospect was grim enough.

He crawled away from the scene on his remaining motor, while the warrant engineer below began a desperate attempt to put life into his distorted and damaged machinery. Three hours after they had surface he reported the starboard engine ready, and two hours later the port.

They had now, thanks to this man and his devoted little staff, a fighting chance of life. With water still pouring in from the leaks, the captain gallantly made his way on the surface all night. In the dawn his wireless operator modestly reported that he had repaired the wireless. Their first thought was to send a warning to sister submarines on patrol in the vicinity to avoid temporarily the area where trouble could be had for less than the asking.

After that, another to their base, asking for a helping hand.

Lying on the surface like a wounded duck, they saw in the afternoon a flight of enemy bombers approaching them. Wearily they again made preparations for the fight that must finish them.

The 'planes passed a couple of miles to seaward and disappeared. An hour later they returned. Once more the gun was manned, rifles distributed. The enemy disappeared again without seeing them.

The call for help brought destroyers racing across the North Sea to a rendezvous they reached at midnight. Cruisers and an aircraft carrier appeared with the daylight and a few hours later the Fleet, terrible in its might, arrived to the support of its wounded cub.

An air attack by the enemy bombing 'planes crumpled under the anti-aircraft fire of the cruisers and the attacks of the fighters sent up by the carrier.

In due course the submarine returned to her base without further molestation.

The lieutenant in command found a letter awaiting him. It was from a relative in the country. "We hardly realize there is a war on", read the opening sentence.

He folded it reflectively and put it in his pocket to answer a little later.

Historical context, by the webmaster

As is revealed in page 479 of Vol. II, the submarine concerned was the "Spearfish". On September 24, 1939 she was badly damaged by the German navy. The "Spearfish" was escorted home by ships including the aircraft carrier "Ark Royal" and the battleship "Nelson". Damage was repaired in March 1940.

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