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The Lucky Thirteen

by John Monan

HM Submarine Thrasher was one of the most successful submarines of the Second World War. She was definitely the most decorated, being the only submarine to have two VCs among her host of decorations.

Thrasher 1940
Thrasher 1940

She was always considered to be a very lucky boat, being known to the media as the double VC Submarine.

It was on the 13th February 1942 that she sailed on the patrol which was to test her good luck to the utmost, but that story has been told many times before, when two of the crew were awarded the Victoria Cross. Lieutenant Peter Scawen Watkinson Roberts and Petty Officer Thomas William Gould

This little story relates one of the incidents which caused her to be given the nickname Lucky Thirteen. The number thirteen had played a big part in her life and operations.

On the 26th July 1942 Thrasher sailed from Port Said on what was to be her 13th and last patrol before leaving for the UK for Paying Off, refitting and re-commissioning.

I was at that time on the sick list, having had my left thumb crushed with a torpedo and, of course, my arm in a sling. I was in danger of missing the boat and being left in the Med, but a few strings were pulled and I sailed with the boat.

Leaving Port Said we proceeded on a zigzag course being escorted by two Swordfish aircraft to see us through the safety corridor and out to the open sea.

At about 2100 hrs. We were about 30 miles out from Port Said and I was sitting in the Control Room beside the Asdic Operator. Suddenly there was a terrific bang and I fell into the Bilge with the Asdic bench on top of me. I could just see along the passage way and I noticed that the galley range had been thrown out of the galley and into the passage amid a lot of blue sparks and flashes. Also the wireless office and the radio equipment were ruined.

The Officer of the Watch shouted "DIVE, DIVE, DIVE." The vents were opened by the outside ERA and the boat started to dive. I remember thinking, "This is the end of the war for me". I had no hope of lifting the Asdic bench off, not with a gammy and useless left arm anyway. I had visions of the Control Room being flooded and people escaping up the Conning and Gun Tower hatches, leaving me behind, so I began to prepare for the end.

It was then my thoughts went back to the days on Taku and the leading stoker singing "When I survey the Wondrous Cross." Suddenly things quietened down a little and it was discovered that No.1 battery was on fire and this was affecting the other batteries. So we had to isolate the batteries by dropping the fuselinks and shutting the ventilation off, thereby sealing the battery compartments. We were left without power for lights, running the compass and all the equipment which was necessary to operate the Submarine.

The Gyro was humming and buzzing like an angry bee and the Magnetic Compass was upside down and quite useless. The Captain rushed out of the wardroom and decided that the best thing he could do was to surface the Submarine and endeavour to keep her afloat and try to head back towards Port Said and get some help.

When I heard the main engines start and I thought of some of the tough spots I had previously been in, also the faith I had gathered from the Taku incident, I decided to give it a go. Someone once said that when you are in a tight corner you get superhuman strength from somewhere. That was certainly my experience as somehow I got the heavy Asdic bench up and managed to get myself out of my predicament.

The Captain realised he had no compass or navigational aids to help him get the Submarine to safety, but being the excellent Captain that he was, he worked out that Port Said must be somewhere to the south of our position. He located the pole star and, keeping this over the stern, he steered the Submarine in a southerly direction by giving instructions down the voice pipe to the helmsman.

This tactic paid off as presently we came across one of the patrol vessels outside Port Said and, having identified ourselves, we were escorted into a safe haven.

The damage to Thrasher covers two typewritten pages of foolscap. The main battery was useless, only 30 of the 336 cells remained undamaged. The work of preparing the battery tanks was started and a replacement battery was found.

During this extensive repair the crew were billeted on an old Egyptian houseboat which Was secured astern of Thrasher. The houseboat had a catwalk about three feet wide running round the living quarters. A few planks of this catwalk had rotted away leaving quite a large hole for someone to fall through. Someone had found an old door in the dockyard and placed it over the hole to prevent anyone falling through.

By this time my thumb had healed and I was 100% fit again. When the battery was connected up and ready, we had to place it on shore charge. To watch this charge it befell my lot to go on duty at 0400. Waking up from a deep sleep I pulled on my overalls and made my way to Thrasher. Trying to rub the sleep from my eyes, I stepped out onto the catwalk and, of course, someone had removed the door covering the gap and I plunged through into the dirty water of the harbour.

Only someone who has visited Egypt can imagine the filth which accumulates in the harbour. It is not a very pleasant experience, but it is guaranteed to wake you up especially at four o'clock in the morning. I somehow managed to scramble out with the assistance of the leading telegraphist who had heard the splash and rushed out to help.

When the refit to Thrasher was completed we again put to sea and eventually we arrived at Chatham Dockyard for a complete overhaul and extensive repairs. I, along with some others, had been selected to go home on leave. During this leave my mother and I visited the Ritz Cinema in Belfast and after listening to an excellent organist (I believe his name was Joseph Seal) the news reel came on and my mother said "Look! Isn't that you there?" And sure enough it was. The borough of Shoreditch had adopted Thrasher and had been very kind to us by sending cigarettes and woollen comforts etc. This newsreel showed us being entertained to dinner in Shoreditch Town Hall. It gave quite a good run down on our exploits in the Mediterranean and how we had been named Lucky Thirteen and won two VCs etc.

Someone must have heard my Mother say isn't that you and me confirming that it was, for when the newsreel finished and before the main picture started, all the lights came on and the manager came out onto the stage and announced "We are privileged to have a member of the Thrasher crew with us today" and the spotlight came onto me. I tried to sink into the seat out of sight. I could not start to explain the reception I received after this.

My story appeared in some of the local newspapers and I had a wonderful time for the remainder of my leave.

When I returned to Thrasher, I found that during my leave my promotion to Leading Seaman had been announced and eventually I was drafted to Roedean College at Brighton, which the Navy had taken over for an Electrical School. There I qualified for the highest rating in the Torpedo Branch, that of T.G.M. (Torpedo Gunners Mate), which was later changed to T I. (Torpedo Instructor). Eventually I was rated Petty Officer and had many thrilling experiences in the submarine service, especially against the Japanese in the Far East.

One day I may jot these experiences down, but I just wanted to write about Thrasher the 'Lucky Thirteen' and her exploits. Incidentally there are a few members of the crew still alive including the Captain and one of the VCs. We have a get together occasionally and swap yarns.

I am member of the International Submariners' Association. One German ex-submariner (who is also a member) said to me, "During the War there were three types of men, the living, the dead and those who go to sea in Submarines.

Reproduced with kind permission from
Submariners News



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