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HMS Seraph: Star of film and books

It cannot be said of many ships of any nationality that they have had two books and a film produced as a result of their efforts. Only one submarine could ever have a signal sent to her reading Hymn No. 30: Verse Five. If you bother to read Hymn 30 in the English Hymnal you will find that verse five reads,

Thus spake the Seraph and, forthwith appeared a shining throng.

Clearly we write about the famous HMS Seraph, Barrow-built and still preserved, in part in the United States.

The Seraph was a standard S Class, submarine, laid down at Barrow in mid-August, 1940. Those who worked in Vickers shipyard then will know the boat best as 790. She was allocated the number P72 by the Royal Navy but appears to have been at least commissioned, if not launched, as P219. The launch was on October 25, 1941 and the boat completed on June 10, 1942. She left Barrow as the P219 but she was later renamed Seraph.

S Class submarines were comparatively small, displacing 715 tons on the surface and less than 1,000 tons submerged. Seraph was 217 feet long overall, had a breadth of 23.8 feet and a depth of 10½ feet. Twin shafts driven by 1,900 b.h.p. diesels and 1,300 b.h.p. electric motors gave her speeds of 14¾ knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged. As for armament, the S Class carried a 3-inch gun and three machine guns plus seven 21-inch torpedo tubes. Her ship's company totaled 44.

The date of commissioning is entered by the Royal Navy as May 27, 1942 so it is safe to assume that the boat sailed from Barrow for service on the date entered by Vickers as the date of completion - June 10, 1942. Her first Commanding Officer was Lieutenant (now Captain) N L A Jewell RN somewhat irreverently known to submariners as Jimmy Jewell. A distinguished career has earned him the MBE and DSC.

Seraph did her working up trials in home waters before carrying out a 14 day patrol off Norway in July, 1942. In August the same year she was bombed in error by an RAF Whitley. That was off Finisterre but the submarine was not damaged, and one may assume that she was actually on her way to serve in the Mediterranean at the time. She was attached to the Submarine Squadron based at Gibraltar and began special operations training with a team of Royal Marine Commandos. Her cloak and dagger missions were about to begin. During the early autumn she and other submarines of the 8th Flotilla reconnoitred the beaches and landing places for the Allied invasion of North Africa.

Two important tasks still laid ahead of the boat. The first was to land the American General Mark Clark in North Africa. On October 19 General Clark, Brigadier General Lemnister and three other United States officers were embarked at Gibraltar and subsequently landed on the North African coast about 50 miles west of Algiers. They made contact with various French Generals and arranged for French cooperation when the time came for the Allied landings to take place. The party was re-embarked on the 23rd and Seraph, returned to Gibraltar.

She then set out, almost immediately, on her second mission, which was to recover the French General Giraud and his staff from the French coast. Seraph sailed on October 27 as the USS Seraph (because Giraud refused to be rescued by the British) under the nominal command of Captain Wright USN and proceeded to La Fosette, some 20 miles east of Toulon, where on November 6 she picked up the General, his son and his personal staff.

HMS Seraph 1944 converted to a fast ASW target. The pennant number on the fin means the photo was taken before 1946/47 when all pennant numbers were removed
HMS Seraph 1944 converted to a fast ASW target. The pennant number on the fin means the photo was taken before 1946/47 when all pennant numbers were removed

At the end of 1942 Seraph resumed normal anti-shipping patrols in the Mediterranean and on December 2 she damaged the 2,420 ton Puccini. On December 23 she encountered a U-Boat on the surface. Both submarines dived and Seraph unintentionally rammed the other submarine at a depth of about 60 ft sustaining damage to her bows and starboard torpedo tubes. A kill was not confirmed but Seraph was sufficiently damaged to necessitate her returning to the UK to effect repairs (a homeward bounders defect!)

On completion of repairs she sailed from the UK with a corpse, "The man who never was" on board, later discharging the body off the Spanish coast near Hue-has. The body carried papers indicating (not too obviously) that the Allies would land in Corsica and not in Sicily. According to German war records the deception succeeded - but only just!

By late April 1943 Seraph was back in the Mediterranean operating east of Sardinia and on the 27th she fired a salvo of three torpedoes at a merchant ship off the Bonifacio Strait but with no success. On the 30th she fired one torpedo at a large supply ship and on the 31st she fired one torpedo at each of two 3,000-ton supply ships. None of these attacks was successful but one of the torpedoes ran amok due to a gyro failure, and circled Seraph herself four times! Each unsuccessful attack resulted in the Seraph being depth-charged.

During the invasion of Sicily she acted as a guide and a beacon for the invading U.S. forces. For this, and in recognition of previous services rendered to the United States, Lieutenant Jewell was awarded the Legion of Merit at the instigation of President Eisenhower. After assisting in the Sicily landings Seraph returned to Malta and from July 15 to August 1, carried out an uneventful patrol in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

On August 27 she undertook a successful special operation in Corsica and then commenced a patrol of the area. After an attack (which failed) on an escorted convoy on September 2 Seraph fired a salvo of four torpedoes at another convoy on the following day. One torpedo hit the seabed close in front of the submarine and the explosion put the other three torpedoes off their course. It seemed that Seraph's early good fortune had deserted her. Even in a Vickers-built submarine, you can't win them all.

During her patrols in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Aegean Seraph was constantly attacked with depth charges and on one occasion 58 charges were dropped near her in one action, fortunately not close enough to do any damage. This sort of luck stayed with her and though her total sinkings amounted only to five vessels and another damaged, she returned to the UK in one piece, with no lives lost, to be decommissioned in 1944.

In 1955 she was again rebuilt this time as a padded torpedo target for the training of other submarines. The captain of the squadron to which she was attached was none other than her old Captain Jewell. Seraph remained in Commission until October 25 1962, the 21st anniversary of her launching. Although her hull went for scrap she has a permanent memorial in the grounds of the Military College of South Carolina where General Mark Clark was the President for a number of years. Her periscope, fore hatch, plane wheels and other items were presented to the college by the British Government.

The book The Ship With Two Captains commemorates the rescue of General Giraud; the book and film The Man Who Never Was commemorates the most famous assignment of all one of the biggest bluffs of World War 2.

Reproduced from
Ulverston News (1976)


1 comment

My father worked on the seraph whilst she was being dismantled at Wards shipbreakers at Briton Ferry. Apparently an American turned up and bought her nameplate for £50.00. Whilst being dismantled there was an explosion with a loss of life
   david powell Sat, 2 Feb 2019

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