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Unlucky Thirteen

K13 was carrying out her final acceptance trials prior to the Admiralty officially taking her over from her Clydeside builders, Fairfield. 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 Fairfield, 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.

K CLass at sea
K CLass at sea

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.

Was Sub's Engineer Wrongly blamed for deaths?

When Commander Godfrey Herbert DSO took K13 into the Clyde, as well as 53 crew she was carrying 14 Fairfield's directors and employees, 11 civilian and Admiralty officials and men from sister ship K14 a total of 80 people.

K-class was nearly three times as big as any previous submarine and not easy to handle. As K13 moved into Gareloch for the final test dive, checks showed everything normal.However, Engineer Lieutenant Arthur Lane warned that a flickering indicator was due to faulty wiring. Herbert agreed.The indicator showed whether the boiler room ventilators were shut. As K13 dipped under water, the boiler room began flooding and Lane shouted to surface at once. It was too late. K13 came to rest with her stern on the bottom, 50 feet down at an angle. A fire broke out. Two terrified civilians tumbled through from the rear, saying everything was flooded.

They tried but failed to contact Lane. All those in the stem were dead. Only 48 men were still alive with eight hours of oxygen left. Initial attempts to get the men out flopped. Eventually a diver tapped out a Morse message on the side, and got an answer - "All well before engine room bulkhead". Conditions were horrific.Breathing became difficult. There was no food or water. At dawn next day they were told to open a ventilator hatch. An airline was passed down, taking brandy, milk, coffee, chocolate and beef essence.At three in the afternoon a hole was cut through the forward deck plating, and at 8 pm rescuers began cutting through the hull. By 9pm the first man climbed through the hole, to a huge cheer. It it was another hour before the others were freed

The Admiralty Court of Inquiry blamed Lieutenant Lane. Having perished, the young officer was unable to defend his reputation. K13 was raised and towed into Fairfield's.Months later she was recommissioned as K22. Jim believes Lieutenant Lane was most likely innocent. Investigators concluded he had opened a hatch to escape before the compartment flooded, and he was court-martialed posthumously.

Jim McMaster, UK National Secretary of the Submariners' Association and Chairman of the West of Scotland branch says, "One of our members conducted his own investigation and concluded Lane wasn't to blame. He tracked down Lane's daughter and told her before she died."

Article by Craig Campbell appeared in the Sunday post 23rd January 2011

While on exercise, K13 (now known as K22) was having 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.



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