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The Miracle Year of HMS Sleuth

by John Allibone

How could Sleuth win the Gunnery Efficiency Trophy when it did not have a gun? How could Sleuth knock a barrage balloon out of the sky whilst proceeding at 120 feet and towing a submerged X Craft?

Sleuth was a streamlined S class Stripped of deck gun with a very small bridge structure. One search periscope, no radar no snort. Simply the bare essentials to provide a small fast target boat for A/S training. The forward hydroplanes were permanently turned out and secured in that position. The whole design was for 'day running' only. Out at 0800 in at 1700-1800 Monday to Friday. Below, the torpedo tubes had been blanked off and torpedo racks removed from the fore ends which meant that the fore ends provided comfortable accommodation - permanent wooden bunks.

Late January maybe early February, Sleuth left Rosyth dockyard after a major refit - Lieutenant Roake. RN 'in command'. We were to proceed on passage to the depot ship Montclare in Rothesay, Isle of Bute.

Before we had left the Firth of Forth we had to anchor due to thick fog - for how long I can't remember. Eventually we weighed and proceeded. No sooner out of the Firth of Forth we were hit by a westerly gale. As we were heading west it was clear that we were in for a rough passage.

How rough? We were to head west through the Pentland Firth. After a day or two, wind now force 12+, it was clear that Sleuth could not make headway against the wind and strong westerly current. We must head north to pass beyond Orkney. How many hours were we 'beam on' to these mountainous seas? It seemed a very long time. Remember, no radar. Navigating officer had no sight of land no star or sun sights. As the aerials were intact, radio could be transmitted and received, he may have the benefit of RDF.

The starboard forward hydroplane was now flapping like a broken wing and looked as though it could come adrift at any moment. The port side "permanent" wooden bunks were now in the horizontal position. Now heading west again shipping them green was very much an understatement. On bridge lookout I was very much aware of the hydroplane now flapping crazily and banging against the pressure hull. The noise in fore ends was horrendous. I remember the Officer of Watch saying to me "if you see the hydroplane come adrift take cover behind the periscope standard" My thoughts were "I will be in control room before you"!

After four or five days we were in calmer waters and in sight of the Isle of Bute and soon moored safely alongside the depot ship with loads of people looking down to see this dented and battered slippery S boat. After a short period of repairs and maintenance by depot ship and our own engineers, the boat was back to normal. We now had to set about our purpose for being there. Fresh from dockyard hands meant the usual sea trials and tests to be followed by working up and Cdr S/Ms inspection.

Duly completed, we were now ready to proceed south to Portland, home of the 2nd S/M squadron, to take up our duties of day running A/S training duties. Easter leave period came and went and we settled down to what is for submariners a very comfortable lifestyle. During the summer months there were cricket matches against other boats followed by visits to The Jolly Sailor in Portland. Plenty of shore leave in Weymouth, but the main event was the Gunnery Efficiency Trophy.

Traditionally, a competition between boats of the squadron to establish the fastest, and most accurate surface gun action. The gun layer would view the target through the periscope then take his place in the gun tower hatch. The captain would order the boat down a further 30 feet. All main ballast would be blown for the fastest surface on an even keel possible. At twenty feet a whistle would be blown, and the gun layer would open the hatch, load the first round and take his place to lay the gun. As soon as he could see that the trainer was on target he would fire the first round with loaders reloading as quickly as they could to continue rapid fire.

Sleuth entered this competition and won it. Sleuth did not have a gun. It could not borrow one nor could it supply a gun crew to another boat. There would be no point. No boats in the squadron had a gun. The competition took place on the rifle and small arms ranges.

The barrage balloon? The frigate Undaunted was experimenting with long range sonar. It needed to know the position of the target boat to direct the sonar onto the bearing. The balloon was moored to the after bollards of the target boat and would fly about thirty to forty feet above the surface and Undaunted could establish the boats position by radar. Sleuth was the target boat on this occasion and was proceeding on a steady course towing an X Craft to Devonport for Navy Days.

Mid-afternoon a fire broke out in number two battery. This meant an emergency surface. "Fire red grenades from forward and after SSEs." One of these grenades hit the balloon. As it was moored to the after bollards it would have been most likely from the after ends so the Stokers get the blame. Fire out. We now continue on course for Devonport on the surface and arrive without further incident. Navy days over, Sleuth now goes to Portsmouth for a six monthly Docking. I go to Pompey barracks for a killicks course. Then to Dolphin to await a draft to 4th S/M squadron Australia. Two weeks summer leave, then a week or so of pushing a broom around the fort. Two weeks embarkation leave.

Soon after return, off to Aussie by the P&O liner Arcadia Another four weeks of "paid leave" aboard a sea going hotel. I disembarked Arcadia in Melbourne to join Thorough which was visiting Melbourne for the Olympic Games.

Life is tough in boats.

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