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The Thetis Submarine Disaster

The Admiralty Regrets

The Thetis submarine was to become a tomb for the 99 men on board her in 1939 and for the Royal Navy  it was to be its worst ever submarine disaster taking place just 40 miles from where the Thetis was built in Birkenhead.

The Thetis Submarine - Launched from Cammell Laird

During her maiden voyage, the Thetis, the pride of the Royal Navy,  99 men were to lose their lives, not in battle but as the result of a tragic accident.

Some of the crew that were aboard the Thetis
HMS Thetis was a submarine built by Cammell Laird in Birkenhead, she was launched on 29 June 1938.  After completion, trials were delayed because the forward hydroplanes jammed, but they eventually started in Liverpool Bay. Under Lieutenant Commander Guy Bolus, HMS Thetis left Birkenhead for Liverpool Bay to conduct her final diving trials, accompanied by the tug Grebecock. As well as her normal complement of 59 men she was also carrying technical observers from Cammell Laird plus 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. The  layout of the bow cap indicators was also confusing as  they were arranged in a vertical line with the shut position for tube 5 on the dial in a different position from those of the other torpedo tubes, this 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.

Lieutenant Frederick Woods and his men fought against the gushing water to close the forward watertight bulkhead, but a jammed butterfly nut and the difficulty of pulling a heavy door upwards against the angle which Thetis had taken made this impossible. They thought that unless they retreated to the next watertight door and closed it, the water would hit the submarine's batteries and release clouds of deadly chlorine gas throughout the vessel. Just as they closed the second door there came the impact of the ship's bow hitting the bottom of the sea. 

The ship was 14 miles out at sea, north-east of Anglesey's Point. An indicator buoy was released from the submarine and a smoke candle fired. The crew of the  Grebecock tug were becoming concerned for the safety of Thetis and radioed HMS Dolphin a submarine base at Gosport. A search was immediately instigated. Although the stern remained on the surface, only four crew escaped from the submarime before the rest were overcome by carbon dioxide poisoning 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.

In recent years new information suggests that as HMS Thetis partly resurfaced with the men still alive inside and rescuers could have saved them in just five minutes by cutting air holes through the 5⁄8in-thick steel hull. A larger hole could then have been cut to let them out.  A document was uncovered by author Tony Booth while researching Thetis Down: The Slow Death Of A Submarine. He found a memo at the National Archives in Kew signed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s private secretary Sir John ‘Jock’ Colville and dated February 9, 1940. Referring to the cutting of a hole, Colville wrote:

 ‘This was not attempted until matters became desperate, in order that the submarine might be as little damaged as possible.’

Mr Booth said: ‘It proves that the men were condemned to death by the decision “to protect the integrity” of the vessel. ‘Salvage experts were prevented from drilling air holes, which they said would have taken only five minutes, followed by the cutting of a larger hole. ‘Opening an escape route would have permanently weakened the structure of the submarine. She could have been repaired but the fear was that she would be more susceptible to damage from depth charges. That decision cost 99 men their lives. 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. The Thetis disaster was in marked contrast to the successful rescue of the survivors of USS Squalus, which had sunk off the coast of New Hampshire just a week previously.

HMS Thetis beached after the disaster

HMS Thunderbolt

The Thetis was taken back to Cammell Laird and following an extensive rebuild, was then recommissioned as HMS Thunderbolt, in time to participate in World War II. The submarine had a considerable war record until its luck ran out exactly four years and a day after its sinking in Liverpool Bay. It was depth-charged and sunk by Italian warships off Sicily on 14th March 1943 with the loss of all lives and lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea.

The Loss of the Thetis - Video

By Robert F Edwards
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