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The Ordeal Of HMS C25

By J. David Perkins

This is a distillation of several accounts of the action including that originally told by Lt. William J. Carr, RNR, in his book "By Guess and by God" and amended according to the account of Mr C. J. Crawford and others.

On 6 July 1918, a squadron of German seaplanes returning from a daylight raid on Lowestoft and Walmer, caught a Harwich-based British C-class submarine napping on the surface. When the boat was eventually towed into port she was literally a bloody shambles, her captain and nearly half her crew were dead and several others wounded. Yet, even this tragic event had its share of heroism.

The 321 ton coastal submarine C25, with a crew of two officers and 14 men, was commanded by Lieutenant David C. Bell, RN. She was patrolling on the surface, running on the gas engine, off the south-east coast of England near Harwich. When the captain and lookouts spotted aircraft coming from the westward they paid them little heed thinking they were British planes heading for Flanders. The aircraft held their course until they were clear of the boat when they turned and swooped on their unsuspecting victim from out of the sun.

C25 being bombed from the air when she suffered severe loss of life and was nearly lost with all hands
C25 being bombed from the air when she suffered severe loss of life and was nearly lost with all hands

There were five seaplanes in the flight and they opened a withering fire on the conning tower killing or wounding the captain and the three men there before they could even man their Lewis gun and return fire. Sensing a helpless victim, the aircraft made pass after pass with machine guns blazing. Down below conditions rapidly deteriorated. The thin plating of a C Class boat was hardly equal to the machine-gun bullets and the hull was pierced in several places causing further casualties inside the boat. With no internal bulkheads to contain the damage, the effects of a bullet entering the hull were not confined to any particular area.

Ironically, it is conditions such as these that brings out the finest traits in men. Sub-lieutenant Roland Cobb, a mere youth, was the only other officer on board and should the captain become incapacitated it was up to him to take command. Alerted by the lack of orders coming down from the bridge, he scrambled up the conning tower ladder to investigate conditions up top. There he quickly determined that the captain and two of the men were already dead. The remaining man, Leading Seaman William Barge, was still alive, though seriously wounded. "Dive sir!" said Barge, "Don't worry about me. I'm done for anyway", his only concern being for the safety of the submarine and his shipmates. If the boat dived before the seaplanes made a sieve of her, she might escape and reach port. The young officer couldn't bring himself to abandon the man on the bridge and, ignoring Barge's appeal, manhandled the injured sailor to safety down the narrow, cramped conning tower. Barge died almost as soon as he was deposited on the deck.

Sub-lieutenant Cobb gave the orders to prepare to dive and the gas engine was shut down. However, before they could shut the lower conning tower hatch, one of the bodies from the bridge tumbled down the tower and lodged itself in the hatchway. Still warm and limp, the man's buttocks were wedged tightly in the hatch-ring, one leg dangling into the command position, the other jammed in the tower above. Try as they might there was no budging the unfortunate corpse and two more men were mortally wounded during their attempts to clear the hatchway.

Even while their comrades fell around them, the ten surviving crewmen, some of whom were wounded, went about their duties with commendable coolness. While some prepared the boat for diving, others plugged the bullet holes as best they could with rags and clothing, jammed in place with bolts and bits of wood-anything that would allow the boat to submerge and escape the murderous fire. While one stoker was plugging a bullet hole in the gas engine space, another round passed through the thin hull plating nearby hitting him right between the eyes. In penetrating the hull the bullet had been flattened and when it struck the unfortunate sailor it caused considerable damage to his face.

By this time the gasoline engine had been secured and having witnessed the stoker being hit, and assuming him dead, Chief Engine Room Artificer C. J. Crawford decided it was time something was done to get the boat dived. Making his way forward he first saw Leading Seaman Barge huddled where he had fallen, his lifeless eyes staring fixedly up at the conning tower hatch and the tightly wedged body that stood between them and safety. Another man, who had been hit in the neck, was trying to stop his own blood from pumping out with his bare hands. Two or three others were standing on the rungs of the conning tower ladder trying to force the body out of the hatchway so they could shut the hatch. Realizing there was no chance of dislodging the corpse, Crawford returned aft where he secured a hacksaw and a large knife, cleared the men away from the hatchway and without a moment's hesitation set about amputating the dead man's jammed leg at the thigh. Smothered in blood from his crude surgery, he finally cut through the hip bone with the hacksaw allowing the body to drop to the deck briefly followed by its severed member. Reaching into the tower Crawford slammed the hatch shut. Quickly the hard pressed crew flooded the ballast tanks to take C25 under the surface. During their attempts to dive to comparative safety it was discover the main motor was no longer working.

All the while, sea water, leaking into the boat through the poorly plugged bullet holes, had seeped through the cracks between the wooden planks that covered the battery tank and mixed with the sulphuric acid in the cells below creating chlorine gas. As the interior of the boat began to fill with the deadly fumes, Crawford wrapped a towel around his mouth and nose and led the work of plugging-up newly discovered leaks. He knew full well that their only chance was to remain dived for as long as possible in the hope the seaplanes would fly away once they were satisfied that C25 was "killed dead", as they were fond of saying in the old navy.

But, with no propulsion, and the surviving crew deathly sick and choking for air, Sub-lieutenant Cobb had no choice but to order the ballast tanks blown to regain the surface even before the boat was fully submerged. Upon opening the conning tower hatch the battery fans were started to clear the air. As it was impossible to remain below the crew tumbled out onto the casing, even the fit ones more dead than alive. There, they were greeted by the crack of gunfire. To their intense delight they discovered the five enemy aircraft in full flight and another submarine, E51, firing at them with her 12-pounder and Lewis gun. Their relief was brief, however, as the five seaplanes were reinforced by several more German aircraft which then concentrated their attention on their would-be rescuer. E51 in turn was forced to dive or face a fate similar to that suffered by C25. Fortunately, before the Germans could resume their attack on the hapless C-boat, HMS Lurcher, one of the destroyers attached to the 9th Submarine Flotilla at Harwich, arrived on the scene and opened a rapid fire on the aircraft sending them back to their own side of the Channel in haste.

Lurcher took the crippled submarine in tow and brought her into Harwich where she was made fast and evacuated. One of the men who went into the submarine to help remove the dead and wounded reported to Carr, who was aboard Maidstone at the time, that the "inside of the boat was like a slaughter-house. Blood was spattered everywhere".

The submarine was quickly repaired and returned to service under the command of Lieutenant Arthur Lindsell and, now Acting Lieutenant Roland M. Cobb as Second in Command.

NOTE 1: At the end of the war, along with his medals, CERA C. J. Crawford, RNR, received an extract from the Admiralty report, commencing: "Crawford was the only man who kept his head throughout, and his action in removing a rating who had become jammed in the conning tower was highly courageous". The letter containing the extract was signed by Sir Charles Walker.

NOTE 2: Ever since this incident, and certainly into the 1950s that I know of for certain, it was customary for the building or refitting yard to present a newly commissioned submarine with a canvas bag full of tapered wooden bungs of various sizes, for plugging bullet holes.

Those killed in this attack were:


  • Lieutenant David Courtenay Bell, RN. Commanding Officer
    23 year old Lt. Bell was the son of Robert Arthur and Eveline Maud Bell, of 31, Waldegrave Park, Strawberry Hill, Middx. His remains are interred at the Shotley (St. Mary) Churchyard, Suffolk in the Submarine Enclosure.


  • Petty Officer William George Borrow, Coxswain (237304)
    Age 27 at the time of his death, PO Borrow was the son of Ernest Nanson Borrow and Annie Borrow, of Nottingham. His remains are interred at Camberwell (Forest Hill Road) Cemetery, London, United Kingdom.
  • Leading Seaman William Barge (J/124)
    Very little is recorded of this man, except the selfless manner of his death. Leading Seaman Barge is buried at the Shotley (St Mary) Churchyard, Suffolk in the Submarine Enclosure.
  • Signalman C. A. Buttle (J/9244)
    23 year old Signalman Buttle was the son of Mrs. Janet Buttle, of 50, Normanton Rd, Derby. His remains are interred at the Derby (Nottingham Road) Cemetery, Derbyshire, United Kingdom.
  • Able Seaman John Marcian Walsh (J/10812)
    AB Walsh was the son of the late Edward and Mary Walsh, of Liverpool. He was 25 years old and his remains rest in the Liverpool (Anfield) Cemetery, Lancashire, United Kingdom.
  • Able Seaman George Sidney Hamilton (J/26612)
    21 year old AB Hamilton was the husband of Elizabeth Hamilton, of 212, Silver Rd., Norwich. His remains rest in the Norwich Cemetery, Norfolk, United Kingdom.




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