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G9 - A Peculiar Tragedy

These three medals are from the most peculiar of Barrow tragedies and are a reminder of how dangerous the life of a submariner can be.

They were awarded to Royal Navy Stoker HWT Underwood. He drowned with all but one of his crewmates on September 16 in 1917 when the Barrow-built submarine G9 was sunk by a British destroyer in a double friendly fire incident.

The submarine had been launched at Barrow on June 15 in 1916 and was 187ft long. It weighed in at 700 tons and was powered by 1,600hp Vickers diesel engines to produce 15.5 knots on the surface and 10 knots underwater on battery power. This class of submarine fired the latest design of 21 inch torpedo.

HMS G9 had left Scapa Flow in North Scotland on September 9 to patrol an area between Shetland and Norway. Its captain, Lt-Cmdr the Hon Byron Cary, 30, was on the bridge in the dark, in heavy seas and with information that a German U-boat was in the area. He called for full speed, had the bow tubes made ready and ordered two torpedoes to be fired. He never lived to explain what he had seen to prompt this action.

His target turned out to be the friendly destroyer Pasley. HMS Pasley was in the area trying to find merchant ships which had become detached from a convoy and didn't stay friendly for long. One torpedo whizzed past the ship while the other struck its target but failed to explode. HMS Pasley's officer of the watch, Midshipman Frank Wallis immediately steered the destroyer to ram the submarine, almost cutting it in two. Only Stoker William Drake managed to jump clear before the submarine sank within 30 seconds. There had been a brief few seconds before the collision when lookouts on Pasley realised that the submarine was British, but too late to do anything about it.

The crew of G9
The crew of G9

After the ramming, the G9 crew were ordered to assemble beneath the conning tower and started to struggle up the internal ladder. Of the five men who got free of the sinking boat, Stoker Drake was the only one to reach HMS Pasley, which had stopped to rescue survivors. Weakened by the effort and numbed by the cold water, Drake was unable to pull himself up on the lifeline lowered to him. He was only rescued after Able Seaman Henry Old clambered over the side of the destroyer to get him.

The G9 survivor said after the event:

The boat heeled over to starboard and then there was a big rush of air up through the conning tower. I saw one man get up through the conning tower, and so I followed him. When I was half-way through the lower lid, somebody in the control room gave the order to close it and it caught me in the stomach. I got through the door and right on to the bridge." He reported seeing only two other men get clear of the submarine before it vanished below the surface.

Pasley's captain, Cmdr Ramsey was in the ship's chart house when the dud torpedo struck his ship and rushed to the bridge as the destroyer lined up the submarine ready to ram. He heard a crew member shout "She's one of ours" but was unable to avoid the collision. The damage to Pasley was minor and the destroyer was able to resume his convoy duties to the Shetland Islands.

A Court of Inquiry was held on HMS Indomitable at Scapa, four days after the sinking. It attached no blame to HMS Pasley, concluding:

That the process of reasoning which led the captain of HM Submarine G9 to mistake HMS Pasley for a U-boat is, and must remain, unexplained.

Midshipman Wallis was told by the court that his decision to ram HMS G9:

Was the right action to take under the circumstances, and that its result, so deeply to be regretted, is evidence that it was taken with commendable promptness and precision.


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