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Steam Submarines

The Navy's Dive to Disaster

The gargantuan steam submarines were treated as a joke by the hardened veterans of the Submarine Service when they first appeared. But on the fateful afternoon of January 29th, 1917 the K boats suddenly developed a new and more sinister reputation. From that day onwards 'K' stood for Killer. And by apt coincidence the drama featured No 13.

K CLass at sea
K CLass at sea

K13 was carrying out her final acceptance trials prior to the Admiralty officially taking her over from her Clydeside builders, Fairfields. She had already covered the measured mile at a record 23' knots to gain the honour of the world's fastest submarine and there was a festive air about the pre-diving lunch which continued to 3-15 pm. And as she glided slowly down to the diving area in Gareloch she was carrying not only her regular crew of 53 officers and men but also 14 directors and employees of Fairfields, 13 other civilians, and two Royal Navy submarine officers acting as observers to gain K boat experience. When she arrived at the loch she picked up two more civilian experts. She dived smoothly enough but to Lt-Cdr Herbert's consternation she refused to trim level at 20 feet and continued plunging toward the bottom. An ERA reported the boiler room to be 'flooding down' and the watertight door to the stern section was promptly closed and locked. It was a drastic remedy but if the submarine was to be saved there was no alternative even though it meant certain death for the men trapped in the compartments aft of the engine-room bulkhead.

The hydroplanes moved to hard a'rise and compressed air screamed through the pipes as the ballast tanks were blown clear of water. But K13 showed no desire to surface and in a desperate effort disaster Herbert dropped the forward 10-ton keel. Even this failed to stop the submarine's crazy dive and moments later her stern settled on the muddy bottom of the loch in 50 feet of water. And as if to compound her crew's misfortunes the main switchboard caught fire and consumed valuable oxygen before the men managed to beat out the flames with their bare hands.

Thirty-one of the men aboard the ill-fated submarine were already dead - trapped and drowned in the flooded stern section. And only one watertight door separated the remaining survivors from a similar death - or perhaps even worse. Professor Percy Hillhouse, the naval architect who had embarked at the loch shortly before the fatal dive, was busy with his slide-rule calculating how much air was left and how long it would last. It was not a encouraging answer - only eight hours at most!

The confusion at the surface was, if anything, greater than the dark despondency of the men trapped below. Although the escorting tug wirelessed an urgent message reporting a probable disaster within an hour of K13's disappearance it was a full six hours before a gunboat and two salvage tugs left the Clyde, And by then seven of the predicted eight hours had gone.

Gossamer arrived at midnight with a diving suit but no diver. And when one was finally found the suit proved to have perished with age and nearly drowned its unfortunate occupant. Thrush arrived on the scene shortly afterwards but she had neither suit nor diver. Finally however, one of Fairfield's civilian divers went down and groping his way along the sunken hull, he made contact with the trapped men by tapping Morse messages on the plating.

Aware that time was running out Lt-Cdr Herbert decided to send one of the officer-passengers, Goodhart, to the surface by flooding the conning-tower and blowing him upwards in a bubble of compressed air. It was a risky business and Herbert personally supervised the escape attempt. The two men climbed into the conning-tower, closed the lower hatch, and opened the valves so that the compartment slowly flooded and compressed the air inside it. When the water level reached their waists K13's own skipper released the submarine's own high pressure air and clung to the steel supports while Goodhart pulled the clips and opened the upper hatch.

The tremendous surge of compressed air caught both men unaware. Goodhart streaked upwards through the hatch as planned but moments later, Herbert found himself being swept up as well. As it happened he was lucky. The men standing on Thrush's deck saw a confused upheaval of water as the air rushed to the surface and Herbert's head suddenly bobbed into sight. Strong arms grabbed him and, more dead than alive, he was dragged aboard the tug. But the gallant Goodhart never made it. Caught up in the rush of escaping air he was hurled against the roof of the bridge, knocked unconscious, and drowned.

Now that Herbert was safely on the surface there was renewed hope for the men still trapped below. His unrivalled knowledge of K13's structure and his first-hand report of conditions inside the doomed submarine at least gave the salvage experts something to work on. Unfortunately it also gave them something to argue about and more precious minutes slipped by. It was agreed, however, that the first priority was to supply air to the sunken submarine - air to keep the men alive. And, of equal importance, air which, as the pressure built up, would support the leaking engine room bulkhead - the only thing separating the survivors from disaster.

High pressure hoses were taken down but the divers were unable to find any way of connecting them to K13's hull. It was six o'clock the following evening - long past Hillhouse's deadline - before the pipes were secured. And then it was found that no air was getting through. More discussions followed and, while the experts argued and wrangled over the problem, the divers picked up more Morse signals from the trapped men: GIVE US AIR. GIVE US AIR.

By midnight the fault was traced to an ice blockage in the line itself and within minutes fresh pure air was being pumped into the poisoned hull to revive the half dead survivors. A further tube was used to send food down and by 6-30 am voice communication had been established. Yet despite the renewed hopes of the rescuers, the salvage experts continued to argue. A steel wire was latched under K13's ungainly hull and slowly, creaking with strain, the forward end of the submarine was lifted inch by inch until the bows were standing clear of the surface.

Seizing his opportunity Herbert decided to bring the survivors out through the torpedo tubes but before this could be done, K13 lurched, slid back slightly, and came to rest with the bottom of the tubes two tantalising inches below the surface. For the trapped men disappointment deepened into bitter despondency when the fuses of the main switchboard blew, and except for a few hand torches, the interior of the submarine plunged into total darkness.

Finally, after hours of argument the experts accepted Herbert's alternative suggestion to cut a hole in the bows with an oxy-acetylene torch. Even this took valuable time for the space between the outer and inner casings was found to be flooded and the exhausted men inside the submarine had to pump the area clear. But Herbert's determined perseverance won in the end and, just after 3 pm, 57 hours after K13 had started her fatal dive beneath the surface of Gareloch, the 46 survivors were helped through the escape hole to a miraculous return from death.

But not even this disaster shook the Admiralty's confidence in their steam submarines and shortly after the first six boats were formed into a new 12th Flotilla and given the task of hunting U-boats. It was as farcical idea as hunting fleas with an elephant. The unhandy K boats took a full four minutes to dive and, once submerged, they were often slower than their German targets. To pit one of these steam monsters against an agile well-handled U-boat was the height of absurdity, yet so skilled were their captains that even the ridiculous almost worked.

First, however, there was the usual K boat comedy of errors, K7, running submerged in the Channel, was mistaken for a U-boat by two destroyers and, minutes later, depth charges were exploding all around her. Gilbert Kellet, her skipper, managed to wriggle clear and, surfacing, plaintively signalled that 'he was on their side'.

Later that day Kellet had the luck to spot a U-boat on the surface but, influenced by the K boat's malevolent hoodoo, his first torpedo missed. Undismayed he followed up with a salvo of four. One of them struck the U-boat fair and square on the beam. But with typical K boat luck, it failed to explode. Kellet brought K7 to the surface intending to use his superior speed but the German skipper was an equally cunning adversary. He took one look at the smoke belching giant erupting from the sea like some primeval marine monster and hurriedly dived for cover. It was now Kellet's turn to be exposed on the surface and deciding not to play any more, he steamed K7 away from the area as fast as he could. It was during this U-boat hunting phase that K1 inconsiderately ran herself aground near Bow Rock. She was not seriously damaged but in accordance with the Navy's regulations her skipper, Charles Benning came up before a court martial charged with hazarding his ship. With a perfectly straight face Benning explained that rats had eaten the chart of the anchorage. And with equally straight faces the Board accepted his reason and dismissed the charge. It was a reason that only a K boat captain could have got away with.

Five months later, on November 16, 1917, the 12th Flotilla was sent out with the Grand Fleet for an offensive sweep towards Denmark. The lumbering K boats snaked in an untidy line behind the cruiser Blonde but despite the difficulties of station keeping, all went well. When Blonde swung onto a new course at 10 pm the line of submarines slowed and bunched. Helms were quickly ported, but, for K4 not quickly enough. There was a sickening crunch of steel on steel, and her bows rammed hard into K1's stern.

Prompt work in closing watertight doors prevented immediate disaster and while Blonde took the crippled boat in tow the crew were taken on board the cruiser. But the weather was deteriorating fast and despite an heroic attempt to salvage the wounded monster Blonde's captain was forced to sink her with his own guns.

Back at Scapa Flow the morale of the 12th Flotilla fell to a new low when it was learned that all K boats were to be fitted with redesigned bulbous bows. And the inference that they were not seaworthy in their present condition did nothing to allay the fears which the men felt each time the lumbering giants left harbour.

The men of K2 nearly rose in mutiny over an imagined grievance concerning ship's prayers and when the crew of a J-class boat were ordered to transfer to the new K22 - in fact the old K13 of Gareloch notoriety which had been salved, refitted and re-numbered - many of them reported sick with a mysterious illness which enabled them, fortuitously, to evade the unwelcome draft.

It seemed that nothing could satisfy the evil hoodoo brooding like the shadow of death over the steam submarines and February 1918 saw a spectacular disaster involving no fewer than nine of the smoke-belching monsters.

Now split into two flotillas - the 12th and, ominously, the 13th - they were slated for Operation EC in which the Rosyth Force was to rendezvous with the Grand Fleet in the North Sea. The light battle cruiser Courageous led the fleet out of the Firth of Forth followed by Leir's 13th Flotilla, four battle cruisers, Little's 12th Flotilla and then the rest of the fleet.

It was dark when they reached the mouth of the estuary and then to add to the difficulties of night navigation a light mist hung over the water. Leir's boats were travelling at 19 knots, running nose to tail, and following the shaded blue stern light of the submarine next ahead. Suddenly a group of minesweepers, ignorant of the fleet operation in progress, swept across the line of approach.

K11 cut speed and turned to port, K17 followed suit but K14. third submarine in line, continued straight ahead although, she, too, reduced speed. Realising that he was getting too close to the boats ahead, K14's skipper, Harbottle, ordered full right rudder but, at the vital moment, the K boat hoodoo jammed the helm and she swung away in a wide circle leaving K12, immediately astern, to pass clear, blissfully unaware of her flotilla mate's antics.

By now the immaculate line-ahead formation was in utter shambles and K22, bringing up the rear, suddenly found another submarine lying broadside across her path. It was too late to avoid a collision and still running at 19 knots K22's bows sliced deep into K14's port side abaft the forward torpedo compartment. Prompt action in shutting the watertight doors saved the two submarines from immediate disaster but they were still lying together and rolling gently in the swell as the four battle cruisers swept on to the scene. Three passed safely, their wash making the submarines rock violently, but the last, Inflexible struck K22 a glancing blow that stripped the plating from her bows.

When Leir learned of the collisions astern he reversed course and led his cruiser-flagship and the remaining submarines back toward the scene to assist. And realising the dangers of his action he switched on Ithuriel's full navigation lights to warn other ships of their approach. The battle cruiser Australia narrowly missed the group in the mist and shortly afterwards there was a mad scramble when they met a destroyer flotilla steaming at high speed.

Captain Little. leading the 12th Flotilla, carefully avoided the collision area but was unaware of Leir steaming toward him with the remnants of the unlucky 13th. Suddenly both groups loomed out of the mists and met head-on like armoured knights clashing on the jousting field.

Fearless, the cruiser leading the 12th Flotilla, smashed into K17 just forward of the conning tower and as the submarine twisted clear and reeled away into the darkness she was already sinking fast. K3 nearly rammed K4 and a disastrous collision was only avoided by brilliant ship handling. And K6 narrowly missed a head-on shunt with K12 of Leir's flotilla. With all form of control lost the flotillas dissolved into utter confusion with both groups of submarines hopelessly intermixed and milling around in all directions as their frantic skippers jinked and twisted to avoid each other.

The damaged bow of HMS Fearless after smashing into K17 just forward of the conning tower during the Battle of May Island
The damaged bow of HMS Fearless after smashing into K17 just forward of the conning tower during the Battle of May Island

K6 sank her bows deep into the side of K4 almost slicing her completely in half and locked together in a fatal embrace both submarines began sinking. Commander Layton managed to draw free by running K6 full astern but K4 stood no chance of survival and she plunged to the bottom like a stone. She sank so quickly, in fact, that when K7 arrived a few seconds after the collision she passed right over the spot without even scraping her keel. Putting her engines into reverse K7 moved slowly astern to search for survivors.

But the men struggling in the water did not belong to the unfortunate K4 - they were the crew of K17 still swimming in the darkness after the previous disaster!

The 5th Battle Squadron, although warned of the collisions, was unaware that both flotillas were milling around directly ahead and while K7 was still trying to rescue survivors the great dreadnoughts swept onto the scene at 21 knots. What followed was probably the most ghastly tragedy of that terrible night.

The escorting destroyers ploughed straight through the helpless men in the water, cutting them to pieces with their propellers, and when they had run clear only nine men remained alive - and one of these would die later. Not a man escaped from K4.

But dangers, disasters, and the injustices of the Court of Inquiry that followed, could not quench the spirits of the submarine crews. And when Commander Layton handed K6 over to Cdr. Crowther - who'd been on board as a guest on that terrible night off May Island - he observed drily that the disasters were good experience and 'a bloody good introduction to K boats'.

The Battle of May Island, as the multi-disaster came to be known, should have marked the end of the K boats miserable saga. Unfortunately it didn't!

K-16 carrying out a carbon copy of K12's diving trials in Gareloch, ended on the bottom in the same way although, fortunately, her skipper Charles de Burgh managed to blow the ballast tanks and bring her back to the surface without further incident. But for the men who made up her crew it was a terrifying experience.

And in May 1918 the newly completed K15 lived up to the steam submarines' unenviable reputation when a beam sea entered her funnel intakes, swamped the fans, and extinguished the boilers. Although running on the surface her commander responded with an unexpected order - 'shut off for diving!' It was a lucky decision. The water entering the boiler room destroyed the submarine's positive buoyancy and the stern sank slowly to the bottom leaving her bulbous bows exposed above the surface. They had closed the watertight doors in the nick of time thanks to their quick-thinking commander.

Jammed valves prevented the ballast tanks from being blown and it was eight hours before the pumps could be persuaded to bring her back to the surface. It was yet another example of the K boat hoodoo.

The ports in the funnel superstructure had been designed to open both ways - an unsound detail in a vulnerable vessel like a submarine - and all the boats were modified to correct this fault. All, that is, except K15. Someone had forgotten her. And but for the instant reaction of her captain, Vaughan Jones, it was an oversight that could have cost the lives of her entire crew.

K3, commanded by Herbert Shove, an eccentric who usually carried two white rats in the pockets of his uniform, went out of control in the Pentland Firth and struck bottom at 266 feet. In what were regarded as shallow waters K3 with an unerring eye for disaster,had picked the one spot where there was a large hole in the seabed. Fortunately it was the hoodoo's day off and despite the tremendous pressure to which her hull was subjected Shove got her back to the surface none the worse for her escapade.

Even when the war was over the K boats continued to add to the Navy's losses. The brand new K26 scalded two stokers to death when faulty valves caused a blow-back of super-heated steam during trials and K2 and K12 collided on leaving Portland Harbour.


No one was hurt on this occasion but the Admiralty were none too pleased with the repair bill. And the remaining K boats continued to suffer their usual plague of troubles when they joined the Atlantic Fleet for exercises in January 1921.

K9's warning light failed to come on during a preliminary trimming dive and her horrified officers found a coil of rope carelessly stuffed under one of the ventilators preventing it from closing. She was still giving trouble when she dived later in the exercises but, more alarmingly, K22 was having even greater trouble surfacing. The fault could not be traced but, taking no chances, Commander Poland blew all tanks and threw her engines full astern even though his unexpected appearance on the surface meant disqualification by the war game umpires. But, as Poland knew, you could not play games with a K boat. It was war, deadly war.

Having been thwarted twice the hoodoo took a savage revenge on K5 - a submarine that had already buried her bows in the bottom of the Firth of Forth without apparent cause and also collided with an old destroyer at Milford Haven - with macabre efficiency. She dived with the other boats to carry out a dummy attack on a cruiser squadron and she never came up again. An oil slick and splintered wood on the surface showed she had broken up underwater. And entombed in their unmarked grave under the Atlantic her six officers and 51 men perished like their comrades in the K boats before them.

Even changing the class letter did not defeat the hoodoo. Toward the end of the war three K boat hulls were used to build the M Class submarines. M1 carried a single monster 12-inch gun for use as a submersible monitor - or 'Dip Chick' as the Navy called her; M2 was fitted with a small seaplane which nested in a bulbous hangar on the foredeck; and M3 was designed as a minelayer. And in a final attempt to escape the evil reputation of the K boats they were equipped with 1400 HP diesel engines in place of the hated steam turbines.

But it did them little good. Call them what you will but they were still basically K boats and the hoodoo was not easily fooled. On November 12, 1925 M1 was struck by the Swedish ship Vidar 15 miles off Start Point and went down with her entire crew of 69 officers and men. Then seven years later, in 1932, M2 vanished in Portland's West Bay. A passing collier reported seeing 'a large submarine diving stern first' - a fact she did not seem to consider unusual. And when Navy divers located the submarine on the bottom eight days later the found the hangar door, the conning-tower hatch, and the pressure hull, all wide open. Although various theories were advanced no convincing explanation of the sinking was ever produced. As the former coxswain of K13 commented: 'She was a K boat originally. What more do you need to know than that?' And Coxswain Oscar Moth knew what he was talking about. He had survived the Gareloch disaster in K13, had volunteered to serve in her again when she was salved and re-numbered K22 and had emerged unscathed from the Battle of May Island.

Back in 1913 when the idea of steam-powered submarines was first mooted Admiral Jacky Fisher had retorted scathingly: 'The most fatal error imaginable would be to put steam engines in submarines.'

He was so right...



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