HM Submarine A5 (Forgotten Submariners)
Early in 1999, CPO Owen O'Keeffe of the Irish Naval Service was visiting Old Church Cemetery near Cobh, County Cork. The purpose of his visit was to do some research on U.S. Navy graves dating back to the First World War. In the course of his search for the American graves, O'Keeffe came across five particular graves that had like headstones. The graves were very neglected and overgrown and the headstones, which were in the form of crosses, were moss covered.
On discovering, through research, that the graves were those of Royal Navy Submariners who were killed in an explosion onboard HMS A5 in February 1905. O'Keeffe decided to do something about restoring the graves. As well as the restoration task, O'Keeffe decided to research the cause of death of the occupants of the five graves.
HMS A5 was built in Barrow-in-Furness, launched in March 1904 and commissioned on 11 February 1905. Her displacement was 190 tons surfaced, length 105 feet, beam 12.5 feet and a draught of 10.5 feet, so she was tiny by today's standards or even those of the immediate post war era. The A5's engines were powered by petrol and she had a range of approximately 300 miles. Her armament consisted of two 18-inch bow torpedo tubes and she carried 4 torpedoes, two in the tubes and two spare. A5's crew consisted of 2 officers and 9 ratings.
HM Naval Base Haulbowline, located on the western side of Cork Harbour, was quite large and had a dockyard and dry dock capable of holding a vessel of cruiser size. The base was almost entirely self-contained and even had its own hospital. The designs of the buildings were, and are, very similar to the buildings in RN bases worldwide. Cork being a natural harbour is the ideal location for a Naval Base. The ships based at Haulbowline would have looked after the Western Approaches area of the Atlantic. Cobh in Cork Harbour was also the last port of call of western bound trans-Atlantic liners.
Once commissioned, A5 accompanied by her depot ship, HMS Hazard, sailed from Barrow-in-Furness and called at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), Co. Dublin, and Dunmore East, Co. Waterford, before arriving at Queenstown (now Cobh), Co. Cork on 13 February 1905. HMS A5 was the first submarine to be seen at the Haulbowline Naval Base. She attracted a great deal of attention and a large number of people were out to view the new arrival. Apart from being the first submarine to arrive at the Haulbowline Naval Base, the public were aware that a sister ship of A5, the A1, had been sunk during 1904 when in collision with a Liner. On arrival in harbour the A5 berthed alongside 'Hazard', which in turn was moored to a buoy. The crew moved over to the depot ship, which must have been a great relief when one considers the noise from the engines and the very cramped conditions within the small submarine when underway. It is difficult to imagine how the crew were able to get much sleep because of the engine noise etc.
During 14 and 15 February 1905, preparations were underway for A5 to carry out some exercises, in a type of shop-window effort to demonstrate her capabilities to the Commanding Officers of ships present in the naval base, and some 60 to 70 naval officers who had arrived at Haulbowline to witness the exercises and attend a subsequent lecture on submarines. These exercises were scheduled for 16 February and it was immediately prior to sailing on that fateful day that the submarine commenced refuelling from 'Hazard'. The A5's engines were petrol fuelled. Refuelling was completed at 0805. Approximately two hours later an explosion occurred inside A5 toward the stern, a second explosion some thirty minutes later followed this. The second explosion was located in the conning tower area. So great was the force of the explosions that members of the crew were actually blown out of the boat through the main hatch into the water. Subsequently two crew members were picked up by a tug.
The following were either killed by the explosion or died subsequently from injuries received:
- Sub-Lieutenant F.C. Skinner
- CERA Charles Sinden
- PO 1st Class Arthur Manley
- PO 1st Class William J Pryor
- L/h Stoker Ernest Goldthorpe
The remainder of the A5's crew were injured but survived:
- Lieutenant H.G.J. (Commanding Officer)
- Chief Stoker Thomas Winstley
- Acting ERA John B Randall
- AB Edwin W Hughes
- AB Edward Banham
Sub-Lieutenant Skinners's remains were taken to his hometown, Bedford, where he was buried with full military honours. The remains of the five ratings were interred in Old Church Cemetery near Cobh, with full military honours on 20 February 1905. It was a funeral the like of which has never been seen in Cobh since. Bands and pipers from HMS Emerald, The Royal Gordon Highlanders and that of the Admiral in charge of the Haulbowline Naval Base, Rear-Admiral McLeod. The town of Cobh actually closed down for the duration of the funeral, in a mark of respect to the deceased submariners.
An official inquiry and inquest were held in Haulbowline Base and Cobh Town Hall respectively, into the cause of the tragedy. The result was that the first explosion occurred towards the stern of the A5. The cause of the explosion was the vapour from the petrol mixing with the air and being ignited by a spark from the electric switch when the submarine's main motor was activated. Smouldering clothing or electric leads, resulting from the first explosion, was the cause of the second explosion under the conning tower. In March 1905, A5 was taken back to Barrow-in-Furness where she underwent major repairs. She rejoined the Fleet in October of that year and continued as part of the Home Fleet until December 1915, when she was paid off for disposal. A5 was broken-up in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1920.
The Irish Naval Service, in response to CPO O'Keeffe's good work, donated a granite block with a brass plaque giving details of the A5 tragedy. This was unveiled in March 2000 at a ceremony attended by Members of the Cork & County Branch of the RNA, whom CPO O'Keeffe had contacted in the course of his research. The Cork & County Branch also laid a wreath at the A5 Memorial following Ireland's 'Sea Sunday' Service in July 2000 and will continue to do so in the future.
Because the accident occurred before the First World War, the graves do not come under the remit of the War Graves Commission, which probably accounts for the neglect. Cork & County RNA intend holding a Commemoration Ceremony to mark the centenary of the tragedy in 2005. In the meantime it would be interesting to know if the War Graves Commission can give any assistance towards these neglected graves.
Since the restoration of the graves, there has been a visit, by the grandchild of one of the victims of the tragedy. The note on the wreath simply said, "Grandad, sorry it took me so long visit". Perhaps there are other relatives of these submariners who would like to visit the graves.