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HMS Oswald lost in 1940

by P D Hulme. March 2010


This is an account of the events leading to the loss of HMS Oswald in 1940 and the court martial of her Captain in 1946, put together from the copies of archived evidence given at the Inquiries and finally the five charges brought by the Court Martial. The original documents are in the archives at the National Archives, Kew and were photographed by David Hinchliffe and presented to me by David Barnes, a cadet when the former Captain of Oswald, David Fraser was Executive Officer of the Training Ship HMS Worcester. George Malcolmson, archivist of the RN Submarine Museum gave me advice. Ian Buxton provided propulsion advice and information. Hans Houterman and Jeroen Koppes for officer data, and last but not least, submarine researcher John Eade who read my drafts and encouraged me.

It was clear from references I do have, that the evidence of certain witnesses was not available to me, however I came to the conclusion that the body of the available evidence contains all that is required to render an account with reasonable accuracy and I hope, sympathy.

It has been useful to able to draw on the memories of the cheerful days of my youth, some sixty years ago, as an electrician in submarines that were not a lot different from the Oswald, hence I have used the first person throughout so as to be freely able to add my comments. I have not used the term boat unless it was part of a statement in evidence. I felt a clear distinction was needed between the submarine and the destroyer.

I have included a number of appendices at the end that the reader might find useful. Inevitably there is repetition of ship detail, but placed in various context. In essence this is not a complicated story and the action at sea took place over a period of about 30 minutes.

Following completion of this article I was moved to prepare a list of RN Submarines scuttled or captured in WWII to enable comparisons to be made between these incidents and the fate of HMS Oswald in 1940 and the Court Martial of her captain.

This was a difficult piece of submarine business and I quote an extract from Captain SM(1)'s 1943 letter:

Item 4. While much that is unsatisfactory has been brought to light, there is little doubt that commendable courage and devotion to duty was shown by many of the HMS Oswald's company on the occasion of her sinking.

Amongst the many, I would include Captain Fraser, skipper of Oswald. As in all submarines the buck does stop there.


Section 1

The Officers On The Bridge Prior To The Collision

There were two officers on the bridge when the critical orders were given, first the Officer of the Watch, then he was joined by the Captain.

The Captain of HMS Oswald, Lt Cmdr David A. Fraser RN. joined submarines in 1929 and got his first command, L23 in 1936. He took command of Oswald in April 1940. He will be referred to as the Captain throughout this article.

Born 1907 / Cadet 1925 / Midsh 1925 / A / S Lt 1928 / S Lt 1929 / Lt 1930 / Lt Cdr 1938 (retd 14.09.1952) / Cdr (retd) 1952 / Died 1978.

Prior to taking command of the Oswald he had no war experience except as an RN advisor on the Polish submarine ORZEL, from Dec 1st 1939 until given command of Oswald. In the time he was aboard ORZEL she was apparently not involved in any action against enemy shipping, the submarine being engaged in convoy escort duties.

It is notable that following the Court Martial of the Captain went on to two further non-submarine commands (HMS Campania and HMS Hartland Point) and eventually became the much respected executive officer of the training ship HMS Worcester. He was Mentioned in Dispatches in recognition of his attempts to escape from the PoW camp, and while doing so was shot in the knee. Ironically it was dated January 1946, the year of his Court Martial.

The Court Martial charges against the Captain and the verdicts can be seen in Appendix B. Some historical notes on the various Inquiries can be seen in Appendix E.

It should made clear that while the 1946 Court Martial of the Captain concerned the loss of his ship, that of his First Lieutenant Marsh earlier in the same year, involved other matters and the evidence offers little about the action leading to the loss. He was not on the bridge prior to the collision. See Appendix F

Lt Hodson was the Officer of the Watch on the bridge at the time of the incident. He was RNR and started submarine training in 1933 and served as navigation officer on L18 in 1933 and had kept up with submarine training while in the Merchant Service. He joined Oswald in February 1940. He will be referred to as the OOW throughout this article. He had no war experience prior to the first uneventful patrol of Oswald.

Born 1909 / Midshipman RNR 1926 / Lt RNR 1934 / Lt Cmdr RNR 1942 (ret from active service 1946) / Commander RNR 1949 / Captain RNR 1955 (retired 1964) / 29.04.1962 - 28.04.1963 RNR ADC to the Queen Area Marine Superintendent, UK. south at Southampton, Union Castle Line. / Died 1997.

I suggest the reader takes particular note that Fraser was 33 years and Hodson 31 years, at the time of the incident. Experienced naval officers by any measure.

Section 2

The Incident And Consequences. (Three parts)

In this section is my condensed account of the incident taken from many pages of archived evidence about the loss of HM Submarine Oswald about midnight 1-2 August 1940 and the consequences, together with my own comments on the various events.


The Oswald was on her second war patrol, the first commencing the day after Italy declared war. The loss took place some days after an unsuccessful daylight attack on Italian warships when the Captain skilfully slipped through the destroyer screen to make the attack. A problem with the stern outer tube doors prevented the firing of the torpedoes. The submarine was not detected and later was on the surface, in a clear, but dark, moonless night with a calm sea with a modest swell, making 8 knots and charging her batteries.

The Captain had chosen to make two wireless signals to the base at Alexandria to advise of the location of a significant number of Italian warships and transports. It is thought these signals drew the Italian destroyer Ugolino Vivaldi to the Oswald. The Captain in a statement to the 1945 Board of Inquiry (Item 7) said that later as a PoW, he heard from the Italians that they had been looking for a submarine for three days.

At 2350 1st Aug 1940 lookout AB Burbridge spotted at Green 160, 1.5 miles, what later turned out to be the Italian destroyer Ugolino Vivaldi and there no doubt the destroyer spotted Oswald. Burbridge thought she had been hidden in haze as otherwise visibility was 2.5 miles. The location was in the general area of the Straits of Messina. See Appendix D about the Italian Captain.

The OOW reported to the Control Room 'Enemy in Sight' and asked for the Captain on the bridge. It is thought he also he called for port 15 on the wheel, but it remained unclear exactly when this order was given. He chose not to immediately dive, instead engaging the enemy by turning the submarine's stern tubes towards the destroyer. In regard to this decision of the OOW, the Captain's Standing orders guiding the OOW were to become a key aspect in the Court Martial, Charge 4.Appendix B. Also see SECTION 8 Standing Orders

The Captain immediately left the bright light of the ward room and arrived on the bridge in about 30 seconds. Obviously it took more time for his night sight to adjust allowing him to see the destroyer in the darkness off the starboard quarter.

The subject of night vision and whether the Captain should have been better prepared was pressed by the Prosecution. In the 1945 Board of Inquiry evidence by AB Burbridge was given that covered lights were used in the Control Room and that the lookout watch change spent 10 minutes in this relatively dim lighting. The Captain told the 1945 Board of Inquiry (Item 46) that the control room was kept as dark as possible. My own recollections are of dim red lighting in the CR and an evening order over the PA system-Red Light Routine. Curtains were placed over the water tight doors forward and aft of the CR compartment.

Soon the Ugolino Vivaldi was 100yds away and closing the Oswald by then turning to port. At this point the Captain gave the orders "hard a'port" and "Prepare to Abandon Ship" then as the destroyer struck, "Abandon Ship". The total elapsed time from the sighting to the Captain being able to see the destroyer was the subject of much discussion at the Court Martial with the Captain trying to recall from 6 years earlier and the memories of the Look Outs and the OOW being equally tested. From first sighting by look out Burbridge, to the collision was likely in the order of 6 to 8 minutes.

The Court Martial Prosecutor in his summing up agreed that at the moment of collision, the order to 'Abandon Ship' was correct, but maintained in his summing up, that before this, there was time for the Captain to have dived the submarine. In evidence the Captain firmly stated there was not, Appendix A, but the Court disagreed and found the Captain guilty of Charge (2). Appendix B.

The reader can see why the elapsed time was so important-did the Captain have time to dive boat before the destroyer was too close-the Court thought he did.

As it happened the blow was more a side to side collision than a ramming with destroyer at an angle of about 15 degrees, damaging the external fuel tanks, but not the ballast tanks as the submarine did not take a permanent list. The vital pressure hull does no appear to have been breached by the collision, however severe damage seems to have been done to the pressure hull by what was accepted in the Court Martial as two or three depth charges, perhaps more-see Appendix D, dropped by the destroyer as it pulled clear and flooding was observed in the aft compartments of the submarine. There are photographs of the Ugolino Vivaldi in dry dock after the collision and she clearly lost plates under the water line from near the port bow extending aft 5 metres. The bow has a slight bend. The damage does not seem sufficient to have seriously disabled the destroyer-just a reduction in maximum speed.

However the submarine did not sink as the Captain had anticipated, but with most of the crew mustered on the fore casing and a few in the water, the Captain chose not to reverse the ABANDON SHIP order and engage the destroyer. The summing up of the Prosecutor outlined why he should have done so. See SECTION 7 Post Collision. The Court agreed and the Captain was found guilty of Charge 3. Appendix B

The Captain had decided to scuttle the submarine and ordered the CERA below to open the vents, then allegedly countermanded that order and ordered the vents closed. This alleged hesitation was probably initiated by Marsh; the 1st Lt who suggested the Italians had lost them in the darkness, 1945 Board of Inquiry. (Item 282). Then the destroyer fired some stray HE and star shells and the Captain reordered the vents opened and with open hatches the submarine fairly quickly sank leaving the crew in the water. She sank about 30 minutes from the first sighting, taking the valuable code books etc safely to the deep. At that time the Captain is thought to have ordered an SOS signal to be sent to the destroyer. The Captain is after all, trying to recall event detail from 6 years ago.

After six years individual witnesses only had a rough idea of the timing and sequence of events from leaving the interior of the submarine and finding themselves in the water.

The Ugolino Vivaldi eventually moved in and picked all but three of the crew, presumed drowned.

During the Court Martial of the Captain was asked if the crew of Oswald had any war experience, he replied 'No'. As mentioned above the Captain had no command experience in wartime, serving only as an RN advisor on a Polish submarine. His submarine command experience in peacetime was quite extensive.


The Captain and crew ended up as PoWs and what happened then is another part of the Oswald story. There was quite a lot of evidence to fairly select from and use.

The trouble appear to have its root in the crew's loss of confidence in the Captain and First Lt, together with small, but irritating things such being detailed off to be officer's servants and officers having cigarettes when ratings had none. From the evidence I have read, the unfortunate events only involved a few isolated cases of what could be called 'severe insolence' by naval discipline standards and minor disobedience by a few ratings in the stressful environment of PoW camps. Lt D W Waters (Fleet Air Arm) arrived at the Camp and became second in command. He appears to have been involved in aspects of the general unrest according to various witnesses to the Bruit Inquiry. He was called to give evidence at the 1945 Board of Inquiry.

The pre-war distance between the wardroom and the lower deck has to be taken into account.

The detailed witness reports of the Captain's sometimes vulgar comments to the his unhappy crew members are certainly most unfortunate when read in the evidence from the 1943 Beirut PoW Inquiry into what had happened in the PoW camps and would not have impressed the Board of Inquiry in 1945. One can only suggest they were the product of great stress in a strange environment where in the end, the Italians were in charge.

Significantly in regard to the few ratings mentioned above, despite four being named in the report of Captain SM (1), following his Inquiry of 1943, the only recommendation was to retain two of them in the Submarine Service and send two back to General Service and in effect 'keep an eye on them' for a few years. A fifth rating was involved in a mutually unpleasant exchange with the Captain while in the PoW camp in the presence of Warrant Engineer Mitchell. The detail was given in evidence at the 1943 Beirut Inquiry by Mitchell who commented that he was quite upset by the exchange and left at this juncture. This rating, AB Toose, was repatriated after the Beirut Inquiries were concluded, but was also put under confidential report and the subsequent reports were satisfactory. Toose later wrote a book about his experiences and died in more recent years in Australia. George Malcomson RNSM tells me the book was called "An Able Seaman's War" and gives a good account of the life in the PoW camp.

These men all continued to serve to their various Captains' satisfaction. There is some irony in that one of the named; AB Burbridge went on to give evidence as a Petty Officer at the Courts Martial of 1946! He was a key witness as he was the look out who first spotted the destroyer and gave evidence about what happened on the bridge and on the crew conditions in the water before being picked up and of course a major player in the PoW upsets. More important comment on Burbridge below.

It should be pointed out that the two initial 1943 Beirut Inquiries appear to have been unintentionally instigated by the verbal complaints of the repatriated Lt Cmdr Abdy to Captain SM (1) in Beirut. Abdy was asked to write them down at the request of Captain SM (1) Capt Philip Ruck-Keene who then held the Inquiries previously mentioned, that were limited by the absence of the Captain and 1st Lt of Oswald still incarcerated. One Inquiry concerned the PoW camp problems and the other, the loss. This latter would have been quite inconclusive in the absence of the Captain. (Note. Ruck-Keene was coincidentally the Captain of Oswald 1929-1931, China Station.)

From the 1943 Beirut Inquiry evidence, Abdy seems not to have anticipated that his indignant verbal complaints would lead to an Inquiry. Apparently he really just wanted to see the repatriated "trouble makers" kicked out of submarines and that would be the end of it, certainly not any sort of Inquiry into the loss of the Oswald.

Abdy had been a PoW in the camps along with Oswald people. He had been the Captain of the lost P32 submarine and apart from the Coxswain; he was the only survivor and had expressed the view that the Oswald crew should be grateful to their Captain for saving all, but three of the crew. He also felt strongly that ratings had no right to criticise the actions of their Captain and First Lt, as already stated, this resentment seems to have been to root of the camp problems though few would directly know the whole story of the loss apart from the period on the fore casing. As one would expect, no CPOs and POs expressed openly to officers whatever concerns they may have had, well as far as the evidence in my possession shows.

Lt Newton was also a witness at the Beirut Inquiries. He was formerly CO of the rammed and lost submarine Cachalot, all the crew survived bar one. I don't know where his crew were detained, but he did say Tempest's crew were with Oswald's crew in the PoW camp. Note. Lt H R B Newton. RN DSC went on to command the new Submarine HMS Selene from 1944 to about 1945.

Lt Newton was in the PoW camp with Oswald's officers and crew, concluding a statement to the Beirut Inquiry 1943,he said,"The general talk about the actions by the Commanding Officer (Oswald) is a most appalling let down to the whole traditions of the Navy. Any soldier or rating now feels himself at liberty to discuss the actions of the Commanding Officer. This could have only come from one source,the crew itself, sir. That is all I have to say", signed in script H R B Newton.

Part of Lt Newton's statement also included these very significant words "He (being the Oswald Captain) told me that in an attack prior to the sinking he passed through a heavy destroyer screen to attack some cruisers. Being very close he wanted to fire a stern shot; the stern caps, of which AB Burbridge was one of the crew, failed to open. The attack consequently failed."

The 1943 Beirut Inquiry then called A/B (LOT) H Hannaford and these questions were asked of him.

I suspect this question arose because the matter was raised earlier by LS Moore in his evidence.

Inquiry President:

Q. I would like to clear up a statement made by Lieutenant Newton. Were you in charge of the after tubes.

A. Yes, I actually was, sir, but I spent very little time them as the main part of my work was on the electrics.

Q. Had A/B Burbridge anything to do with the after tubes?

A. No, sir.

Q. At any time.

A. No,sir.

Q. Who were the Able Seamen who did the tubes.

A. Leading Seaman Penny,Able Seaman Walton and my self.

Questions then moved away to the camps.

AB Burbridge then gave evidence that his station was not in the after ends on the stern tubes, but amidships.

As the reader will recall Burbridge was one of the four named "troublemakers" in Capt SM(1)'s letter and not exactly a favourite of the Captain while in the PoW camps.

This detail is rather tedious, but it does give the reader a feel what had happened in the PoW camps.

This most unfortunate PoW atmosphere seems to have disturbed senior naval officers rather more than the skippers in the camp might have expected and certainly brought the 1945 Inquiry at Portsmouth that critically looked into the PoW camp incidents and the loss of Oswald.

But far as I can see the Court Martial tightly focused on the loss, however the Court would not have overlooked that apart from the odd expert, all the witnesses had been through the loss of the Oswald and the lengthy PoW camp experience and were recollecting their evidence from 6 years earlier.

I think it is worth repeating Item 3 shown in Appendix, C in C's comments

3. As regards the conduct of the crew in captivity, I am of the opinion that the behaviour of these officers in the circumstances left much to be desired but I do not consider it practical to frame charges for their trial by Court Martial on these grounds.

Clearly the Captain would have been a far better position in 1945 if the PoW episode had not occurred. On the face of it, Lt Cmdr Abdy quite unintentionally, did the Captain no favours. The fortunes of war!

Note. Lt Cmdr Abdy was commanding LST 324 in the West Indies, when his presence was required by the 1945 Board of Inquiry. 27/08/45


The Court Martial of the Captain, 17th/18th April 1946 at Portsmouth, examined all the evidence presented regarding the loss and found the Captain guilty on three of the five charges, Appendix B.

The original loss of seniority was reduced to allow for the 6 year delay between the loss of Oswald in 1940 and the Court Martial in 1946. There archived documents that show people high in the Admiralty were not happy with the guilty verdict on charge (3) Appendix B and felt the punishment was severe In essence that there were two quite different sets of circumstances, pre and post the collision.

The Captain confirmed that the action of the OOW was quite correct in accordance with his standing orders, yet in retrospect believed he should have dived. Section 8 on Standing Orders expands on this subject.

There is little in the evidence that indicates his officers gave him much command support and advice during the incident, but then he was known as 'Frosty' and perhaps didn't encourage his officers to offer advice,impossible to know if you weren't there!

Lt Pope, the Third Hand and the Torpedo/Armament Officer on Oswald, was a prosecution witness at the Captain's Court Martial. It is worth noting he was asked if there was any possibility of diving the submarine after the damage, he said "yes, but it would not surface again". He also said had they dived at the sighting, as he stated he would have done, the submarine would have simply have taken evasive action to avoid any depth charge attack, as a torpedo attack would not be successful at night, he also felt detection by the single destroyer was unlikely. However this was his view in 1945/1946. (Item 1014 - 1031 Fraser CM). In 1940 he had no personal war experience as already noted. Still he was a trained submarine officer at that time.

Lt Pope comes out this whole unfortunate business rather well. The Board of Inquiry 1945 seems to have been very impressed with him and said so in their 'Findings' where the Board's assessments of all the officers were stated. Yet Pope did no more than his duty as a Naval Officer and his opinions when sought were in the end, those of the Third Hand. Pope went on to be a Rear Admiral, though he did not pursue a career in submarines. It should be mentioned that in 1943 the C in C Levant, presumably echoing Capt SM (1), passed favourable comment about Lt Pope's behaviour in the PoW camps. He also echoed Capt SM (1)'s praise of the crew in general.

All this is not meant as any sort of criticism of Lt Pope, he didn't put a foot wrong, but merely an impression of mine from the evidence and the rather generous statements in the 'Findings' of the Board of Inquiry the previous year that led directly to the Court Martial. In retrospect, perhaps this was unfortunate, but unavoidable when the Prosecutor and the Court appeared to rely so much on his views and operational opinions given in evidence regarding the state of the submarine immediately following the collision that may or may not have proved damaging to the Captain in regard to Charge. (3). Appendix B. Found proved. But to my lay mind, nothing was said and done that could seen as an injustice. Pope was, after all, the only officer who could give evidence about the flooding back aft. Lt Newton gave evidence at the Beirut Inquiry 1943 that Lt Pope was the only officer who did not discuss the loss of the Oswald. This must have impressed as the Oswald seemed to be the subject of gossip by all and sundry in the PoW camp.

Lt Pope / Born 1916 / Cadet 1934 / Midsh1935 / A/S Lt. 1938 / S.Lt.1938 / Lt 1939 / Lt Cdr 1946/ Cdr 1951/ Capt 1958 / R Adm 1967 (retd 02.04.1970/ Died 2008. After WWII he appears to have changed his surname to Kyrle Pope.

Lt Pope was awarded an MBE in recognition of his efforts to escape from prison camp And I remind the reader that the Captain was shot in the knee while attempting to escape and was Mentioned in Dispatches.

Section 3

Oswald Just Prior The Sighting

There is inevitably repetition and expansion of what has gone before in the following sections that attempts to identify and describe in detail the various items that formed the basis of the Court Martial charges against the Captain, five in all. Appendix B. Also to try and show the line of questioning of the Captain and other witnesses taken by the Prosecution and the Defence (Mr Fearnly Whitinsall KC, known as the accused friend). On these questions and answers, the Court made its decisions.

Below is the simple layout of a typical direct drive arrangement of a submarine like Oswald.

The motors were used as generators as required to charge.



Oswald was proceeding on the surface charging batteries. The time was approaching midnight. At the moment of the sighting, before any alarms, the Captain was in the well lit wardroom deciphering an important signal with the other officers. The submarine was manned by the Watch (usually about a third of the crew); the OOW had the bridge along with three lookouts. The propulsion set-up was made clear by the Captain's evidence and his responses to the Prosecutor (Items 1315 to 1323 and 1323 to 1336, Fraser CM). Port engine charging the battery with tail clutch out (not propelling) and the starboard engine propelling the submarine at a speed of 8 knots.

Stoker Andrews, to the Beirut Inquiry 1943, said the opposite, being quite specific that the revolutions on the propelling port engine were 280 rpm, with the starboard engine charging. Stoker Andrews said the crew came to diving stations on the klaxon, until asked to clarify and then said night alarm. It makes no difference being a mirror of the Captain's recollection, but shows how accounts can vary over the years.

The Prosecutor, presumably having had technical submarine advice, took this mode of charging and propulsion as a subject for his implied criticism of the Captain and his preparedness for action. Charge (5). Appendix B. With suggestions that perhaps he should have been charging using a running charge (all clutches engaged) that is propelling and generating at the same time on both engines. The Captain stated he had 6 hours of darkness to charge before diving. (Item 1354). He gave the reason for running the engines in this way as the power / rpm ratio and that his Warrant Engineering Officer would be concerned that the power for the screw and the generator together would mean high power at low rpm and bad for the engine. (Items 1353 - 1359, Fraser CM).

I have chosen to include an Appendix A with the evidence as recorded to give the reader some idea of the manner in which the Court Martial was conducted and I think the questions and answers are of interest.

This extract I though might also be of interest in regard to Court Martial Charge (5). Appendix B.

It is taken from the three page summary by the Prosecutor." It is submitted it would have been prudent to have proceeded at a slower speed so that Asdic Listening Watch could be kept or the ship should have been propelling on both engines with a running charge so that the ship would have had speed and manoeuvrability at immediate notice ".

The Captain's defence offered expert ASDIC witnesses to counter this assertion. My own memory is that 'listening' ASDIC was ineffective when the engines were running.

By dismissing the rather catch-all charge (5) Appendix B, the Court showed it did not think the charging set-up was incorrect in the circumstances just prior to the incident. This will be discussed further.

However as can be seen above in the extract, from the Prosecutor's point of view, the issue was of maximum engine availability for propulsion in a surprise surface action, not the more common situation of quickly reverting to electric drive when diving on the klaxon.

The Court could hardly find the Captain guilty of charges (2) and (4) for failing to dive and still charge him for being unprepared for surprise surface action with a fast warship that clearly he had not anticipated despite his Standing Orders. One could argue the day long, but in the end it was of no consequence with charge (5) dismissed. Appendix B.

Section 4

The Sighting Of the Destroyer Ugolino Vivaldi

I have again included detail about the propulsion as it is about the only thing that appears to have materially changed on Oswald from sighting to ABANDON SHIP. Much of it relates to the charge (5) Appendix B. And possibly some insight into the thinking on the bridge of the submarine up to the point of collision.

It has been suggested to me that the OOW did not know it was a warship, so at this point I will state the obvious. The OOW had no doubts this was an enemy ship and identified it as a warship by taking the action he did in attempting to turn the submarine for a stern attack to engage in accordance with the Standing Orders and reporting ENEMY SHIP SIGHTED to the Control Room. Surely if he had he thought the vessel was a merchant ship it was sufficient to simply call the Captain to the bridge? In my view the circumstances of the first sighting at 1.5 miles showed clearly the vessel was a warship of some substance, in fact a destroyer, one of the number known by the officers of Oswald to be at sea in the general area.

The Captain agreed at his Court Martial when being questioned by the Prosecution (Item 1312 Fraser CM), that in retrospect that the OOW may well have had time to dive on sighting the Italian warship, but it was not the fault of the OOW for not having done so. It was apparently an option in the Standing Orders lost with the submarine. In simple terms-take a position to engage the enemy or dive, he chose the former. In earlier questioning by the defence, the Captain said quite firmly that the submarine should have dived on sighting the destroyer (Items 1188 to 1190 Fraser CM). However the Captain responding to the Prosecution in regard to diving at the time he came to the bridge and his night sight had adjusted, stated "I think not sir" (Item 1313 Fraser CM). See Appendix A.

It should be made clear that from the time of the sighting to the collision was variously estimated at 5 to 7 minutes. Should the Captain, coming to the bridge about 30 seconds after the sighting, suffering temporary night blindness for about 30 to 60 seconds, have taken the other option than that taken by his OOW and dived? Well the Prosecution thought so and the Court agreed and he was found guilty of Charge (2). Appendix B.

As may well be imagined, these elapsed times were the subject of much discussion by the Defence and the Prosecution.

The Prosecutor at the Court Martial stated that diving on Oswald would have taken 55 seconds from the time of the order to dive until the submarine reached periscope depth. Lt Pope in evidence said that would it take 50 seconds. It is worth adding that looking at other submarine trial data; the state of the surfaced submarine's buoyancy just prior to submerging is a more important factor than forward speed in the time it takes to submerge. What was not made clear was the additional time to get below the level where the submarine would be well clear of the destroyer-not a great time, but still a longer than that to get to PD. And as can be seen from the moment of the collision-try and get clear of any depth charges the destroyer would most certainly drop as it had at the time of collision.

Reading all the evidence available from both the 1945 Inquiry and the Court Martial, one might be tempted to think the Captain, when asked provocative questions under pressure, was careful to temper any statements or attitudes that might show the OOW in a bad light. The earlier 1945 Inquiry in its findings review of the OOW, was critical of his actions when it was clear the enemy was a destroyer, but felt no action should be taken against him due lack of prior direction (from the Captain).

To continue with the actions taken on the submarine, the Captain stated to the 1945 Board of Inquiry, that the torpedo tubes were loaded and there was no need to order the tubes to readiness as "the Alarm hooters" had given sufficient orders (Items 42 and 43 Board of Inquiry). The OOW had at some point ordered PORT 15 at the sighting and the submarine was turning to port to bring the stern tubes to bear, though the destroyer was no longer beam on, but heading for the submarine. The Captain, on sighting the destroyer approaching to ram, ordered hard to port (AB Gun Layer Smith, Beirut 1943 Inquiry) and other evidence.

From the evidence available, it is clear the OOW and later the Captain did not give any propulsion orders from the instant of the sighting of the destroyer to the scuttling of the submarine.

But as will be explained, the words "Enemy in Sight" caused the 2000bhp+ engine on the starboard side propelling at 8 knots to be shut down and replaced after a short delay by the starboard 600shp motor. Simultaneously the 2000bhp+ port engine would also shut down and the port 600shp motor would come on line, but only after a longer delay that would be significant in the short time of the action.

Eventually giving the submarine a speed of 6 to 8 knots (Half Ahead, Group Up) on both motors (Oswald Trial Data BR3034). This being the usual motor set-up for diving from the surface. The submarine was thus engaging in a surface action using electric drive intended for submerged operations, propelling at a moderate speed on battery drive with speed and endurance dependent on the state of the charge of the battery. All without specific propulsion orders from the bridge.

Whatever OOW was thinking, the reason for the propulsion change to electric drive lay in the alarm systems of the Oswald and other submarines at that time, but not fitted in my time.

As will be explained, in the circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that at the moment of the collision and depth charging, both electric motors would be running, propelling the submarine at about 6 or 7 knots.

Section 5

The Alarm System and its effect on the propulsion system following the sighting

The alarm, PREPARE TO ABANDON SHIP and ABANDON SHIP were the only orders given to the crew, hence the need to expand on the cause and effect.

The Captain, in evidence given to the Board of Inquiry in 1945 (Item 40, Board of Inquiry), made it clear there were two alarms, the ALARM to bring the submarine "Ready to Dive" and one for diving that we can assume was the well-known KLAXON that quickly brought the submarine to an operational state similar to the ALARM state of "Ready to Dive", but went a step further and caused the crew to actually dive the submarine with no further orders. What is known in popular fiction as a 'Crash Dive'. In evidence to the Beirut Inquiry 1943, Stoker Andrews mentioned both klaxon and night alarm.

Though raucous, the KLAXON was difficult to hear in the Engine Room/Motor Room and was supplemented by large red lights flashing. How the Oswald Engine Room/Motor room distinguished these two different alarms is not known, but on reflection, this is irrelevant as both caused the same action in those areas, shut down engines and go on to electric drive. And in the case of the Engine Room close the exhaust muffler valves and the main hull induction valve etc.

RN submarines as early as 1943 had only the KLAXON system and TANNOY PA system for other orders. But it appears an ALARM of sorts reappeared on RN submarines in the Sixties. This may have had something to do with the post war practice of snorting for very long periods.

To recap, in the case of Oswald the ALARM is the system of interest, variously described in crew evidence as an 'action alarm', 'buzzer' or 'hooter'. The consequences of this alarm were to bring the submarine crew to their diving stations and prepare the submarine to dive. The preparations included stopping the diesel engines and propelling on the electric motors. This automatic change in propulsion was confirmed by the Captain in responding to the Prosecution. He also said again the ALARM system sounded like what he called a 'hooter'.

First Lt Marsh told the 1945 Board of Inquiry that he was in the Wardroom when the 'buzzer' went off. He said in evidence "Of course we went to 'Action Stations'. I went to the control room and made the necessary preparations for an immediate dive and reported to the bridge 'Ready for Diving'". (Items 281 to 288, Board of Inquiry, 1945).

I have no memory of the words 'Action Stations' in submarines, rather 'Diving Stations'. It was perhaps superfluous term when the ALARM system was removed, about 1943 or thereabouts.

It has already been stated that the OOW reported to the Control Room "Enemy in Sight" and asked for the Captain's presence on the bridge, but there is no evidence I have read that the OOW said "SOUND THE ALARM". In fact in evidence (Item 313 Board of Inquiry) at the Board of Inquiry in 1945, PO Kennedy (2nd Coxswain, 8 years in submarines at the time of the loss.) told the Inquiry that he was in the Control Room and on hearing the report from the bridge 'Enemy in Sight', pressed what he calls the ACTION ALARM and took his station on the Fore Planes. I assume he expected to dive, not for any particular reason, simply that was likely the peacetime routine once the ALARM sounded and it was usual for the 2nd Coxswain to man the forward planes at diving stations. .

It not unreasonable to assume that PO Kennedy was the PO of the Watch in charge of the control room of the surfaced submarine, certainly the usual practice in a later time when the OOW was on the bridge. Kennedy was presumably acting on Standing Orders when he pressed the button on hearing ENEMY IN SIGHT. This aspect, as far as I can see, was not clarified. Unfortunately I do not have a copy of the evidence PO Kennedy may or may not have given at the Court Martial of the Captain. Nevertheless the formal 1945 Board of Inquiry required sworn evidence. It seems unlikely he would change his straightforward evidence, as the Court would have a copy of the Board of Inquiry evidence to hand. Checking the witness list Kennedy was promoted to CPO sometime between the Board of Inquiry 1945 and the Court Martial 1946. This would tend to confirm he was indeed a PO in 1940.

Section 6


Repeated for convenience is the simple layout of a typical direct drive arrangement of a submarine like Oswald.

The motors were used as generators as required to charge.



To proceed, the direct consequence of the OOW's report to the Control room of 'ENEMY SIGHTED', was that the submarine was without propulsion, as the Prosecutor stated, APPENDIX A, for as long as it took the watch ERA to stop the starboard engine, disengage the hydraulic engine clutch by remote control from the engine control platform and the electrician on watch to start the starboard electric motor, usually very quickly done as the submarine member of the Court would well know. And the Prosecutor would be aware his statement of the submarine being without propulsion was rather overstated. True, but only for a short time.

Then the submarine was being propelled by the starboard 600shp motor at the set speed for diving, followed by the 600shp port motor coming on line when the tail shaft dog clutch was engaged by the watch stoker, a slower job and the engine clutch disengaged.

In the A Class of my time when an engine was shut down, a small motor was geared to the engine crank shaft so that the engine was very slowly turned as it cooled down. The propeller side of the tail clutch had a brake to stop it being turned by the trailing propeller and as I recall the turning motion of the engine/motor side of the clutch enabled the stoker to align the clutch and engage. This activity required the engine clutch closed until it was complete. In some submarines there was a push button the stoker pressed when the clutch was engaged and lit an indicating light on the engine control platform to tell the ERA he could proceed and disengage the engine clutch or re-start the engine, depending whether diesel or electric propulsion was required.

To reiterate, probably both motors were propelling at 6/7 knot shortly after the Captain arrived on the bridge and gained his night sight. These sort of propulsion changes were usually well under the way before the remainder of the crew reached their diving stations to assist. There is no evidence the Captain ordered the electric drive to full speed, to the contrary.

I should say at this point, that I am reasonably assuming the Oswald'S propulsion operations were similar to my own experience some years later with a motor diving speed of 'Half Ahead Group Up', a relatively high speed setting on electric drive. The speed was usually reduced when the submarine reached periscope depth or levelled off at 90 feet, depending on circumstances and the Captain's orders.

On the night of the incident the port tail clutch engaging exercise would have been required whether the intention on Oswald was to use the port engine or the port motor. Of course the port motor would have been ready for propulsion faster than the port air start engine that inevitably had to shut down to allow the engagement of the port shaft tail clutch.

One has to estimate the maximum electric motor speed on the surface, as the published trial data is for the submarine submerged and therefore slower. With both motors on submerged trial the maximum speed for one hour was about 8 knots, and I would suggest increasing that figure by 10% on the surface. The submarine operating on battery would see the maximum speed gradually fall as the battery capacity and voltage fell, depending on the state of charge at the time of the incident and the propulsion demands.

It is worth noting that prior to the sighting, if the Captain foresaw diving after surface action, then he would surely not want to dive on a battery flattened by surface activity? The Captain told the 1945 Inquiry that the submarine had been on the surface for two hours maybe more, before the incident. From this we take it the battery was far being fully charged after a long period of dived during daylight. (Item 100 Board of Inquiry).

The key point the Prosecutor correctly made, Appendix A, was at that the time of the sighting the port engine was already running with 2000bhp available to significantly increase the speed above the original 8 knots. And if the charging port engine was quickly shut down by telegraph command and restarted with the tail clutch engaged, the submarine could have proceeded at about 16/17 knots. Clearly in the very short time available, the ability to simply telegraph max' speed on the running starboard engine would perhaps have brought a manoeuvring gain of some tactical significance as the destroyer approached, especially if the intention of the destroyer was to close and ram at moderate speeds rather than stand-off in the dark and use its guns (no radar then!).

It should be noted that the Prosecutor did not refer to the speeds available from the single diesel and electric motor, only power and this can mislead, though I trust not the Court of naval officers. Applying the power/speed cube law the single engine would develop a maximum speed in the order of 13 knots, however in practice a number of factors come into play when trying to run at full power on a single engine, so without trial data we can only estimate the maximum speed as being about 10 knots, but of course with no practical limit on endurance and with the prospect of the second engine being restarted and coming line shortly, giving a maximum speed of 17 knots.

From BR 3034, the legend surface speed of this class on diesel propulsion was 17 to 17.5 knots at 4400bhp with clean bottom. 72 days out of dry dock could see this figure reduced to 16.2 knots

Similar calculations can made to determine the speed of the 600shp motor relative to a 2000bhp engine.

The Prosecutor pressed this propulsion issue, see Appendix A. The Prosecutor knew the ALARM had caused the diesels to stop and no orders were given to restart them. He simply wanted the Captain to confirm this was so, and he did.

To reiterate, the starboard engine was propelling at 8 knots immediately before sighting the destroyer and was capable of being quickly increased to 10 to 11 knots, but instead was shut down by the alarm. Shortly after the Captain came to the bridge both electric motors would be running, propelling the submarine at about 6/7 knots and this speed could have been easily increased if ordered. No firm evidence that can I can find shows orders were given to alter the propulsion during the whole period and the submarine scuttled. The Captain thinks (Item 79 to 81 Board of Inquiry) that the submarine was stopped, but asked if by telegraph he could only reply 'I think so'.


It is clear to me that this whole propulsion issue was merely part of the Prosecutor case that the submarine was not well prepared for action on the surface and hoped to use this with the night sight issue etc to persuade the Court to give a proved verdict for Charge (5), Appendix B. The Court knowing the real issue was failing to dive on sighting did not give a proved verdict.

I believe the Court well knew the reality was that prior to the sighting no surface action was seriously envisaged by the Captain other than "Gun Action" against small merchant ships and that submarines in WWII didn't deliberately surface to take on warships like a destroyer. Dangerous in darkness even with surprise and suicidal in daylight.

I believe the Court also knew Prosecutor's propulsion arguments that I have endeavoured to explain, somewhat tediously at length, had little relevance to the reality the Captain found facing him when his night sight had adjusted and he could see there was nothing to be gained in changing from electric drive already propelling at a moderate speed. It was too late. The OOW had made a decision that, without an awful lot of luck against a skilled destroyer Captain, would lead to the sinking of the submarine one way or another.

The Court's view was that the only course of action for the submarine was to have dived, preferably at the sighting or when the Captain came to the bridge and the proved verdicts for Charges (2) and (4) demonstrate this. Appendix B.

Having firmly said all that about diving, we come to that which is in contradiction to what has gone before.

Section 7

Post Collision

The reader is already aware of the end of this story-with the crew on the fore casing or in the water; the Captain sent an SOS to the destroyer and then scuttled his ship. Of course crew ended up in PoW Camp.

But the purpose of this section is to try interpreting the available information and seeing on what grounds the Court decided to find the Captain guilty of (3) "Failing to engage the enemy when HMS Oswald was unable to dive."

Clearly from the charge and the verdict the Court expected the Captain to get the crew back inside the submarine, including I suppose those already in the water. Then man the submarine and engage the destroyer on the surface. The charge lacks any ambiguity, but fact remains that the other charges on which the Captain was found guilty, involved failure to dive and evade the destroyer, whereas the OOW on sighting the enemy engaged?

Something had changed and the Prosecutor in his summary clearly shows what it was by stating the character of the enemy had changed. He gave a hypothetical case where a single RN warship sighted 5 German warships. In this situation the Captain has no duty to engage, but if four more RN warships appear then the character of the enemy has changed and the Captain has a duty to engage the enemy. The Prosecutor related the first sight of the Italian destroyer to initial state of his example and the change in the character of the enemy when the submarine was on the surface, unable to dive.

The only defence against this charge was to demonstrate the damaged submarine was incapable of engaging the enemy.

The role of the Prosecutor was make a case that submarine, despite the fact that it was quite badly damaged, flooded aft and unable to dive, was in a state that allowed the use of the torpedoes and gun. And could proceed at a reasonable speed on the surface and have sufficient control to manoeuvre the submarine to be able to 'point and fire' the forward torpedoes at the enemy.

The Defence at no stage suggested that the gun and the forward torpedoes were not in full working order, so any defence had to be that the submarine had limited propulsion and no steering.

As will be seen below the Prosecution seems to accept the steering gear was or likely not functioning. This was probably because the after end spaces were flooded. Though how badly the steering gear would be affected I don't know and I don't what type of steering gear was fitted. For those readers with a particular interest, consult BR3034

Reliable evidence was given that the engines had been damaged, perhaps beyond repair at sea. This left the state of the electric motors and the 'state of charge' of the battery to be argued. Whether both motors were serviceable is not known. Lt Pope's evidence tells us that a switch board was 'jammed' (how he visually determined this is not stated) and its main motor running (Item 262 Board of Inquiry). Then Lt Pope's view (and others) on the fore casing just prior to the scuttling, that the submarine had some slight way (Item 263 Board of Inquiry), and in Court Martial evidence he stated the submarine was slowly moving to port (Item 966 Fraser CM). From earlier evidence we know the battery was not fully charged as it had only been on charge for about half the anticipated charging period of 6 hours when the engine shut down on the sighting of the destroyer.

The author of 'Beneath the Waves' Appendix D has obviously seen the full evidence of LS Moore not available to me and quotes him as saying he was on the fore casing and the submarine was circling to port as he had left the wheel hard to port and the motors were still running. LS Moore would have to have noted the tacho meters in the control room to know whether the motors were in fact still running as he abandoned ship, a memory test after 6 years! It would interesting to search for the evidence of the electricians (LTOs) to see in what state they left the motors as they abandoned ship. I suppose they would leave the motors as last ordered by the telegraphs, not knowing what was a happening to the submarine, especially if water was flooding in their immediate vicinity. Get Out ASAP!

If the evidence of the electricians established beyond doubt the state of the motors in the abandoned submarine, I feel sure the Defence and the Prosecutor would have used it in their summaries.

The Prosecutor also had the evidence of Lt Pope that a submarine could be steered using its engines, but Lt Pope qualified this by stating not if the rudder was jammed hard over. I point out this would equally apply to the use of the motors (Item 1046-9 Fraser CM). I doubt Lt Pope had any experience doing this apart from coming alongside.

I asked a senior naval architect friend about using the twin motors to effectively steer the submarine. He replied

I'm not a navigator, but I would question the use of the word 'effectively' The lever arm between the two shafts is not much to give a big turning moment, compared with a rudder which generates sideways thrust. Putting one prop astern would take most of the way off the vessel anyway. Can use the technique in berthing of course where demands are different.

The Prosecutor summarising, stated the evidence indicated that the abandoned submarine was going in tight circles until she sank apparently with the rudder still hard to port and driven by one of the electric motors.

The Prosecutor presented class details of the turning circle obtained in pre-war trials. Appendix G, as part of a rather convoluted way of determining elapsed time. The prosecutor put forward the class trial turning circle as evidence as some crew thought the submarine was circling leaving them in the water and returning, yet the speed to complete the turning circle seems far too low for this to be so. I wasn't sure what the point was, but elapsed time seemed to have become an issue between Defence and Prosecution. More detail can be read about the trial turning circle in Appendix G. I did not follow the thrust of the Prosecutor's argument in relation to the charge.

The Captain firmly stated the times between sight and collision were similar to time between collision and opening main vents. 5 to 8 minutes (Items 1233-34 Fraser CM).

The Captain, in a formal letter to I believe, Flag Officer Submarines, 6th June 1945 Item 5, stated the port engine lifted off its bed. He stated at the Board of Inquiry (item 7) that apparently an engine had lifted off its bed. I can no indications that evidence of this was presented to the Court or that the Captain was informed of this just before scuttling the submarine. The Defence makes no mention of this damage in his summing up. But the Prosecutor seems to accept that the submarine could not propel on engines.

The question would be, had the damage so misaligned the engines clutch that though open, jammed the shaft to the motor. A likely event if the engine had been lifted off its bed. A matter I was unable to resolve to my satisfaction from the evidence available to me.

As we know the Captain chose to SOS the destroyer and scuttle the damaged submarine and the crew were picked up by the Ugolino Vivaldi with the loss of three men, presumed drowned. The SOS evidence is a little vague, but the Captain recalled that the OOW made the signal.

I cautiously believe that had the Captain sent the Warrant Engineer and the CERA down into the submarine to gain a full damage assessment and formally report back to him before deciding to scuttle or not, the Court would have found it difficult to sustain the charge. But it appears he acted on his view when deciding to abandon ship, that the submarine would be badly damaged as he had anticipated when abandoning ship and now when one reads Lt Pope's report of the damage state, he was probably right but probably was not enough for the Court. The 1945 Board of Inquiry to the Captain 'had at anytime had he got a damage report up the voice pipe' he said 'no'. He also said 'no' when the question was put, 'did you ask for damage reports down the voice pipe' (items 60 and 62 Board of Inquiry). However it must be recalled the order to abandon ship had been given and he would not expect the voice pipe to be manned. At the 1945 Board of Inquiry, the Captain was asked what means he had of knowing the damage to the submarine, he responded rather vaguely, 'from people on the bridge, I think the Chief ERA'. (Items 20-22 Board of Inquiry).

I found no evidence that the Captain was informed that the steering was out of action or that anybody else knew apart from the flooding in the after ends and as I have said, I have no idea whether this would disable the steering.

The 1945 Board of Inquiry asked if the Captain had any reports on what was happening inside the submarine during the collision from the 1st Lt, the answer was no (item 65 Board of Inquiry), but of course this Inquiry covered all aspects of the sinking, not just the Captain's role.

According to the findings of the 1945 Board of Inquiry the Captain had second thoughts about his actions, but these seems to be based on the possibility that the Italians had lost them in the dark than indecision. When it became clear this not the case, he realised he had little hope of escaping on the surface and had no intention of getting into an unequal engagement with the destroyer that would almost certainly have resulted in the loss of many of his men with little hope of badly damaging the destroyer, that might soon be joined by the others of its Flotilla he knew were in the general area, though this latter was not raised in defence. And he was concerned about making sure no secret books got into Italian hands.

Perhaps the Court sensed the Captain's attitude and found him guilty of the charge on those grounds rather on the much debated matter of time and the largely undetermined state of the propulsion and steering of the damaged submarine?

I can find no fault in his decision to scuttle if he believed the submarine was not reasonably manoeuvrable, though at least some of the crew, with no experience of war, apparently felt otherwise. As the Friend of Captain (defence) said "it would have been a heroic and empty gesture".

He will have noted that the Italian Captain, as one would expect, seemed to be keeping stern on to the submarine, minimising the potential target. Lt Pope was questioned on this point by the Prosecution and the Court on lie of the destroyer when he was on the fore casing. (Items 969, 1088 Fraser CM). The Italian Captain would no doubt be assessing his own collision damage before making his next move.

This section could go on for page after page dissecting the evidence, but really it would change nothing, the charge as framed, needed a stronger defence evidence than was available to the Captain six years after the event. It has crossed my mind that the framing of Charge (3) was influenced by WWII events such as the heroic action of HMS Glowworm also in 1940

One separate issue, it is difficult to appreciate the situation existing in the submarine when the 'Prepare to Abandon Ship' order was heard, but I cannot help feeling the officers and CPO/POs IF it was possible, should have ensured every man had a properly fitted DSEA set as a life belt. Submarines were always ill-equipped to ABANDON ship and as best as I recall we remained that way apart from the life belts issued to the fore and after casing crew who were up top entering and leaving harbour. It is notable that WWII U-Boat crews appear always to have had aircrew flotation vests.

Section 8

Standing Orders

The Captain makes it clear that he largely accepted the Standing Orders that in April 1940, he inherited from Commander Sladden the previous skipper of Oswald and intended at some time making only a couple of minor alterations? (Item 1149 Fraser CM). Unfortunately the Standing Orders went down with the ship so the Captain was forced to rely on his memory of six years ago in 1946. Commander Sladden was on the witness list, but a copy of his evidence is not available to me. The Captain had not issued any special Night Orders for the watch on the night of the incident.

The OOW told the 1945 Board of Inquiry inquiry that in the circumstances, the Standing Orders required him to order 'SOUND THE ALARM', but there is no evidence he actually did so and in evidence, PO Kennedy seems quite clear he acted and pressed the ALARM button on hearing the OOW say 'ENEMY SHIPS IN SIGHT' .

It matters little as the result was the same. The only issue for me is whether the OOW having decided on surface action, intended that the one propelling engine should be shut down as he should have known would be the case if the ALARM was sounded. If he had wanted the engine to remain propelling and the other taken off charging and on to propelling, he should have given specific instructions to the control room, before the ALARM could be sounded, initially only asking for the Captain on the bridge, then a think and sort out of what had to done.

My view is there was no plan in the mind of the OOW, merely at the instant, carry out one option in the Standing Orders and wait for the Captain, and as an officer who had only recently joined the submarine, with no war experience and no detailed tactical training including actually diving the submarine on his own, who is to blame him? Apparently not the 1945 Board of Inquiry and the Court Martial or indeed his Captain when a shift of blame might have helped his case.

There really does not seem to have been a lot of thought all round of what a submarine should actually do in a surface action against a fast, well armed warship. My view, as I have already stated, was that it was never in the Captain's mind that his OOW would choose to engage a heavily armed warship on the surface.

The Findings of the Board of Inquiry should be noted in reference to the OOW's recall of the standing orders and a significantly different version recalled by the Captain. The two statements of evidence were seen to be of sufficient importance by the 1945 Board of Inquiry, to reproduce both versions verbatim in the Findings. As follows:

Excerpt from the FINDINGS of the BOARD OF INQUIRY 1945

The Board is of the opinion that the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander David Alexander Fraser was guilty of negligence in that he had not issued specific instructions to his Officers of the Watch in the circumstances obtaining at the time. i.e. Oswald being on the surface in waters close to the enemy coast, that two enemy reports had recently been transmitted.

No night order book had been written up. The only evidence of orders issued by the Commanding Officer regarding action to be taken on sighting an enemy was as follows:

By the Commanding Officer: "My order book stated that the Officer of the Watch should turn to a suitable course for attacking" (Q 29)

"I think there was a qualifying phrase in my orders that they should dive if necessary" (Q 30)

By Lieutenant Commander Hodson:   "The night alarm was to be sounded and the tubes brought to the ready, and if the Captain was not on the bridge he should immediately be sent for, and in the meantime the Officer of the Watch was to act as he thought best." (Q 168).

I would remind readers that the actual STANDING ORDER BOOK went down with the submarine and the questions were being answered from memory five years later.

Section 9

Depot Ship Support, probably HMS Medway just arrived from the Far East

In my view with action impending, the Alexandria Flotilla senior officers were remiss if they had not involved all Captains in an intensive review of the Standing Orders for each submarine and what would be the best tactics in a real war against a large well equipped Navy. This to include the details of the operational organisation of the submarines in response to various situations and threats.

As far as I can see, no was evidence was presented indicating this had been done. Peacetime procedures and attitudes seemed to have prevailed. Indeed at the 1945 Board of Inquiry (Item 86) the Captain was asked if any of the submarines in his flotilla had seen action. He replied "None sir, as far as I remember." The Captain was then asked "Had there been any discussion of action experience in the depot ship", the answer "No sir". I have not seen evidence that this important point was argued before the Court.

The 1945 Board of Inquiry (Item 28) asked the Captain if any intelligence had been given about the degree of opposition to expect, "I think not sir", he replied.

There does not appear to be any evidence from the senior officers of the Flotilla presented to the Court, yet the submarine's operational activities were directed from the Flotilla, indeed it seems likely that the W/T reporting and receiving directions from the Flotilla were the initial cause of the problems that led to Oswald's loss?

My recollection of reading 'The Submarine War Diaries, the stalking of Japan" by Admiral Mendenhall, USN (ret), reminds me a similar situation seems to have existed in the USN Submarine Service in the opening months of their Pacific submarine campaign.

In command of the submarine, of course it was the responsibility of Oswald's Captain to review his Standing Orders for the action and responses in regard to different alarms in various situations that might be encountered before the first war patrol and involved his watch keeping officers in discussion-he should have anticipated that the ALARM routine was unsatisfactory and altered the response routine to simply stop the charge and have both engines running. But this means he would have to anticipate finding his submarine engaged in a surprise surface action at night with a heavily armed warship, I doubt he did. One further comment, in my experience the First Lt was responsible for the day to day management of the submarine, but I don't know how much my skippers discussed with their First Lt in terms of Standing Orders, but it would be the First Lt's job to ensure the crew were trained to carry them out and therefore should have had some input.

One cannot help, but think the Captain would have been wise to have given the OOW specific night orders to "dive on sighting" in anticipation of Italian warships being close, having detected his WT signals reporting Italian warships and transports in the area. But he didn't and later conceded diving should been the course of action chosen by the OOW. Oswald paid the price.

In my view the Captain was quite properly found guilty of Charge (4) Appendix B.



Pre-Collision Evidence

An excerpt from questioning by the Prosecutor at Court Martial, being answered by the Captain, that I have included so that the reader can get a feel of the style of questioning.

1311 Q. Having sighted the enemy what did you decide to do?

A. The matter as explained to me was the fact that was that offensive action was being taken. I had confidence in the Officer of the Watch and as I could not see, it appeared to be reasonable action to take.

1312 Q. Did you think there was time to dive?

A. From the first sighting sir, there may well have been sir.

1313 Q. Do you think there was time to dive from the moment you saw and appreciated what the enemy was doing?

A. I think not sir.

1314 Q. I am correct therefore in saying that the previous decision of the Officer of the Watch influenced you?

A. Yes.

1315 Q. Now the organisation below as I understand it, when the alarm hooters went, was that both engines were into motors, in other words the ship was prepared for diving. Evidence has been given that the starboard engine was running and propelling and the port engine was charging with the tail clutch out?

A. Yes sir

1316 Q. When the hooters went and the starboard engine was stopped and the starboard motor was clutched up?

A.Yes sir.

1317 Q. And the port engine was stopped and the port motor clutched up, so that the ship was ready for diving?

A. Yes sir

1318 Q. Now by so doing by stopping the engines and propelling until the moment when the engines were unclutched, there was approximately 2000 horse power driving the ship ahead on the starboard shaft?

A. Yes sir.

1219 Q. When the ship was prepared for diving there was only 600 horsepower? On the starboard shaft and in between whiles there had been a short period of nothing?

A. Yes Sir

1320 Q. And on the port side, the port motor when clutched up drove the ship at 600 horsepower

A. Yes sir.

1321 Q. So that was the maximum power available.

A. Yes sir

1322 Q. So that you were on the surface with 600 horsepower maximum on each shaft.

A. Yes sir.

1323 Q. Now if you had made your decision to remain on the surface and to do whatever you were going to do, attack or evade, would it not have been more prudent to have got some organisation of keeping the engines driving so that you had 2000 horsepower available on each shaft ?

A. I am not quite certain on this point but I think the orders were given that the engines should continue.

1324 Q. I see. But in fact they didn't do that?

A. I agree to that, yes sir.

The prosecutor moved on to other matters.


Charges Against The Captain Of Oswald and Verdict

From Commander in Chief Portsmouth Dated 10/04/1946 to Admiralty

Lt Cmdr D A Fraser. RN. HMS Victory was tried by Court Martial at Portsmouth on 17th and 18th of April. The Charges were:

  1. Not using utmost exertion to bring his ship into action.
  2. Not taking evasive action by diving.
  3. Failing to engage the enemy when HMS Oswald was unable to dive.
  4. Not issuing specific orders to officer of the watch and
  5. Not ensuring HMS Oswald was in an adequate state of readiness for action.

The second, third and fourth charges were proved and first and fifth were not proved and the accused was sentenced to forfeit all seniority as Lieutenant Commander, to be dismissed from HMS VICTORY and to be severely reprimanded.


The Condition Of Oswald


Lt Cmdr Fraser answering questions at the Board of Inquiry 1945.

Item 48

Q. What was the mechanical condition of your ship?

A. Oswald has done a long refit and was brought out of reserve early in 1939. She commissioned, I think, just before the big Fleet Exercise immediately prior to the War. During the time that I was in command exercising from Malta, I had constant trouble from the breech ends. On the first patrol in the Aegean, I had two engine breakdowns. On the night before the ship was lost, the CERA reported that he expected trouble with the engines.

Item 49

Q. Did you feel because your ship was not of a very modern design she was susceptible to damage, more so than a modern submarine? Had that been in your mind at all?

A. No, Sir but I was not happy about the engines.


I served on both A Class and unconverted T Class. The first T Class was commissioned in 1938 and was not that far removed in design lineage from the Oswald 1929. Though during the war there was a change to part weld, part riveted, then finally all-welded. The later all-welded A Class, designed during the war, was similar in compartment layout and machinery to the Oswald (ODIN class) though the external ballast tanks were somewhat different. The first, AMPHION was launched in 1944 and was broken up in 1971 having been streamlined in about 1957. Significantly older than the Oswald was when she was lost! This long service was typical of the post war diesel submarines that suffered the heavy weather of the Northern Cold War patrols and a number performed well in the Indonesian conflict.

Diesel Submarines 1948 - 1958

Unfortunately engine trouble were not unique to the Oswald, some quite drastic, one cylinder exploded on the AMPHION while I was on watch snorting.

The point is that there was nothing particularly wrong with the Oswald that wasn't suffered by submarines of WWII construction at one time or another.

The Oswald was quite large at 1,710 tons surfaced, 2010 submerged. 283.5 ft LOA, beam of 30 ft and draught of 13.75 ft. Maximum depth 500 ft. Screws 6.5 ft in diameter

By comparison the later A Class displaced 1,120 tons surfaced and 1,620 submerged, 282 feet long with a beam of 22 feet and draught of 17 feet. Twin engines of about 2150 bhp. Screw 5.75 feet in diameter. Max depth 500 feet Plus. 525 feet is the deepest I have been on ARTEMIS 1950.

The T Class was smaller again and limited to 300 feet but when all welded 350 feet. The Oswald had the advantage over the T Class in having re-loadable stern tubes.

Without having crossed checked, relying on the Barrow Submarine data, the screw diameter of Oswald the compared to the A Class indicates that the Oswald had a slower rpm/bhp than the A Class. On the face of it, it seems unlikely this has anything to do with the problems of concern to the Captain

From BR3034

It is interesting to review the policy regarding deep diving. In 1928, the Director of Tactical Division (DTD) stated: 'The ability to dive to 500 feet was introduced principally in order that pressure hulls of these submarines should be more capable of withstanding the effect of the explosion of a depth charge. Submarine officers do not visualise any intentional diving to such depths as 500 feet though the ability to do so is an asset in the event of an involuntary deep dive which might cause the submarine to go much deeper than ever was intended'.

In WWII the USN often exceeded their diving limits of 300 ft to avoid depth charging damage and were able to make some hull improvement to 350 feet in later WW2 builds. See Admiral Galantin "SUBMARINE ADMIRAL". The post war, the aim was for 1000 ft plus.

Whether commanders of boats similar to Oswald in WWII avoided detection and depth charge damage by going to 500 ft, is not known


Beneath the Waves

Beneath the Waves, A History of HM Submarine Losses, A S Evans, William Kimber London

This book devotes pages 258 to 261 to the loss of the Oswald and has quotations from the Italian Captain. These were kindly provided by David Barnes.

The Captain states that just following the collision he ordered depth charges dropped from the chutes. 4-100 Kg and 6-100 Kg. Set from 25m to 100m.

After the collision he was concerned that he did not present a target from torpedoes, (not initially knowing of course that Oswald had abandoned ship. PDH)

The captain of the Italian destroyer is reported as being Giovanni Galati, who it appears, went on to be a Rear Admiral, retired from the Navy in 1950 and died in 1970. Ugolino Vivaldi was sunk in 1943 by German forces (aircraft in fact.).


Inquiry History

I have included this information about the formal Inquiries etc, separately as an Appendix rather in the body of the article. I considered it would rather overwhelm and obscure the intent of the article to describe the events leading to the loss of Oswald, already overloaded with reference numbers and so on.

The findings of the two Beirut Inquiries in 1943 by Captain SM (1) were reported to the C in C Levant in letters forwarded to the FOSM and the Admiralty for action some time in the future when all the officers and crew were available. The two letters summarised the findings of one Inquiry into the conduct of the crew in Italy and one into the loss of the Oswald.

Obviously FOSM had no choice, but to leave the matter pending until the Captain and crew were all available.

By 1945 all the Oswald's Officers and men had been repatriated.

An Inquiry was recommended to the Secretary of the Admiralty in a letter dated 20th July 1945. (A report on the Oswald loss from the Captain was enclosed). More notably FOSM, did not believe there was a Prima Facie case for Courts Martial for any officers, but he felt the Beirut Inquiry cast doubt on the morale of the crew and as already said, he recommended that an Inquiry to required to look into the whole matter.

A Board of Inquiry was convened (28th August, 1945) that was chaired by the President Admiral F A Buckley (Ret) with two members, Captains G C Phillips and H V King. I am advised by John Eade that both these Captains had held submarine commands early in the war. From this Inquiry led the Courts Martial. The findings were in the form of an assessment of each one of the Oswald's officers. The role of H V King is unclear as he did not sign the findings, only Buckley and Phillips.

The findings of the 1945 Board of Inquiry were conveyed to the C in C Portsmouth who strongly recommended to Admiralty:

  1. I generally concur with the findings of the Board.
  2. In the light of all the circumstances attending this lamentable episode, I am strongly of the opinion that Lt Commander Fraser and Lt Marsh should be tried by Court Martial for their conduct on the occasion of the loss of the HMS Oswald.
  3. As regards the conduct of the crew in captivity, I am of the opinion that the behaviour of these officers in the circumstances left much to be desired but I do not consider it practical to frame charges for their trial by Court Martial on these grounds.

In a formal minute dated 6th March 1946, the Naval Secretary advised (probably the C in C Portsmouth) that the 1st Lord had directed that Lt Cmdr Fraser and Lt Cmdr Marsh were to be tried by Court Martial. Also stating an early trial was essential as these officers had returned to the UK in 1945.

In the archives, a printed form filled in as shown below. As far as I can ascertain only one member had submarine experience.

Cover sheet for the minutes of proceedings at a Court Martial held on board HMS Victory. (RN Barracks). Portsmouth 17 April 1946
trial of Lt Cmdr D A Fraser. RN.

Captain P W S Brooking. RN. President.
Captain R L M Edwards. RN.
Submarine experience was Captain SM (7) Rothesay 1940-1943.

Captain T A C Pakenham.
Captain H A Traill. RN.
Acting Captain E J Sheller. RN (ret)

Signed by Captain (S) A J Wheeler. RN. (Word "Officiating" crossed out) Deputy Judge Advocate

There are exchanges of Admiralty correspondence (3rd May 1946) showing concern had been expressed in Parliament about the number of Submarine officers being Court Martialled since the war. The general theme being that because these submarine people had been PoWs for many years, this may possibly result in a grave injustice being done.

There is one puzzling piece of evidence given by Lt Marsh in his defence at his 1946 Court Martial (Item 1397 Marsh CM). He was asked if he had attended any other Inquiries into the loss of the Oswald and he answered two. One would be the 1945 Board of Inquiry at Portsmouth, but I am not aware of any other he could have attended as he was still a PoW when the Beirut Inquiry took place? He was asked if he had been allowed to stay and listen to other evidence and answered no.


First Lieutenant Marsh

In considering the scope of this project I decided there was little merit in discussing Lt Marsh, because as far as I could see he had nothing to do with the loss of the Oswald. But gradually I have had to come to the conclusion that the unfortunate events in the PoW camp (That I have already covered sufficiently for my purpose.) and Lt Marsh's alleged behaviour had significant influence on the 1945 Board of Inquiry in particular and then perhaps the Captain's Court Martial, in that it suggested morale and leadership problems on Oswald. Hence this brief overview, as it were.

I finally became convinced by the use of the word LAMENTABLE in the C in Cs report to the Admiralty following the findings of the 1945 Board of Inquiry that looked at both the loss and the unhappy consequences. Only my view, but I don't see the loss of the Oswald taken alone as being lamentable. Appendix E Item 2.

I do not intend to try and review the behaviour of Lt Marsh from the Prosecution evidence, as to quote the Defence in his summing up-there is a fine line between fact and hearsay, especially 6 years after the event. Merely some basics that I hope will assist the reader to get an idea of where Lt Marsh fits in the Oswald story.

I will mention evidence I don't think was in dispute, it seems likely the Captain did not help matters when he briefed Lt Newton (Former Captain of the sunken submarine Cachalot), just before he was repatriated in 1943, that he must strongly advise Captain SM (1) in Beirut, that Lt Marsh should not serve in submarines if he was repatriated, but Lt Newton was not to mention the loss of the Oswald and the problems with the crew in the PoW camps. Apparently Lt Newton carried the message, but did not elaborate on the matter. (Item 1495 Marsh CM)

Taking words from the Defence summing up, Lt Marsh did not have the experience, health or temperament for the important task of Submarine First Lt. The word health is important as Lt Marsh's chronic stomach problems are quite apparent in the evidence and appear to have been sapping in both health and spirit. I can't think of a worse condition to have while serving on a submarine.

My experience on four submarines, was that the First Lt was the pivot around which the submarine functions, with the Captain rather remote and rarely aboard in harbour. In my last submarine, for two years, I was the PO in charge of the electrical propulsion and answered directly to the First Lt, this proved to be a most satisfactory relationship for a young man like me suddenly faced with a lot of responsibility. On another occasion I recall one of my First Lt's behaving in a very cool manner in most difficult circumstances. I could go on but I am sure the reader gets the point that perhaps Lt Marsh was at that particular time, unsuitable for this onerous leadership duty, but according to the evidence given to the 1945 Board of Inquiry the Captain did not report his concerns about the 1st Lt to a senior officer (item 73 Board of Inquiry). In my view this was a serious mistake for all involved.

In 1940 many people were in positions for which they were unsuited due to the necessities of war and to me the verdict of the Court Martial seems remarkably harsh in that arguably, there were no consequences of his action that could be said to have contributed to the loss. Some might say more command support for the Captain might have helped, but the Captain was a very experienced officer and not likely to have been amenable to having decisions questioned, but perhaps things prior to the event like the Standing Orders could have benefited from the view of a strong minded First Lt, who's to say?

This taken from the Defence summing up. "Lt Marsh, Joined the RN in 1938, prior to this he had 6 months submarine training while in the RNR. At the time of the loss he had had 17 months in submarines under what the Defence stated were not particularly wartime conditions. The Captain considered him satisfactory in a junior capacity, but not as a First Lt."

Lt Marsh. Born 1913 / Prob. S Lt RNR 1936 / S Lt RNR 1937 / S Lt RN 1938 / Lt RN 1939 / Lt Cdr RN.11.02.1946. (dismissed the service by a court-martial 17.04.1946)./ Died 1987.

Joined submarines 1938, served on Thames for about 6 months in 1939. Joined Oswald about 1940.On the face of it not a lot of experience for a submarine 1st Lt?

I have decided to reproduce the charges and verdicts, leaving the matter there for others to read all the evidence if they so wish and come to their own conclusions. As I understand it, Marsh went on to have a very successful civilian career ashore .Before the war he had apparently been an officer in the Merchant Service.

This from the C in C Portsmouth April 16th 1946 to the Admiralty.

Lieutenant Commander G M Marsh, RN of HMS VICTORY was tried by court martial at Portsmouth on 15th and 16th April, 1946 on charges of

  1. negligent in performance of duty.
  2. neglect to prejudice of good order and naval discipline, and
  3. conduct unbecoming the character of an officer.

All charges were in connection with loss of HMS Oswald. The first and third charge were proved and the accused was acquitted on the second charge there being no case to answer. He was sentenced to be dismissed from HM Service.


Turning Circle

The Prosecutor stated in his summing up that "the Stoker Petty officer went straight over the side when he arrived on the bridge and was in a position to observe the Oswald, as she went round in a circle and returned to his vicinity."

The Orpheus class trial turning circle had been presented to the Court. The position of the rudder is always stated in these trials. The speeds are usually for both engines unless otherwise specified. Abbreviated turning circle data dated 15/04/46 for Oswald was attached to the Orpheus trial data and presumably available to the court it stated "HP time to turn 360 degree 3 minutes 28 seconds at 380 rpm. From BR3034 we have the knots/rpm. 380 rpm on both engines gives about 17 knots."

Now with both motors still running as at the point of collision, the speed was at best 7/8 knots, turning to port with hard over port rudder as it was at the time of the collision. So the time to complete one circle would have been about double the trial 3 minutes 28 seconds.

(1233-34 Fraser CM) questioned by the Defence, the Captain stated the times between sight and collision were similar to time between collision and opening main vents, being similar to the time between the alarm and the collision 5 to 8 minutes. (Item 952 Fraser CM) Lt Pope questioned by Prosecutor, estimated 3 to 5 minutes between alarm and collision.

However questioned by the Prosecutor, Lt Pope gave evidence that the submarine was turning, but not making much way (Item 966 Fraser CM), making the maximum possible time it took to complete a full circle in as much in doubt as the witness's memories.

It seems from reading the evidence that the Prosecutor is using the turning circle to in some way determine the time of the period from the collision to the scuttling.


1 comment

It may also be appropriate to mention that my father AB Jack TOOES was awarded a BEM for his successful escape from Garvi POW camp. He was the only POW to successfully escape from this prison.
Further to his career he was the senior CPO at Balmoral in NSW during 1953 - 56 . Finally finishing his career at HMS Royal Arthur a leadership training establishment,
So it would seem the Admiralty looked favourably on my father in subsequent years
   David Tooes Sun, 1 Apr 2018

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