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The Sinking of Submarine H29

By Barrie Downer

Having reported on the sinking of Submarine H29 in Devonport Dockyard in 1926 with several fatalities, on the causes of the accident and the subsequent Courts Martial of the Commanding Officer and the First Lieutenant where both were found guilty of the charges and the First Lieutenant was 'dismissed his ship'. The following are brief descriptions of the Service Careers of both Officers. On the whole it seems that the accident did not destroy their careers, they both ended up as Commanders. On the whole the First Lieutenant seems to have done better than his Commanding Officer following the Court Martial but it can only be conjecture whether both would have gone further had events been handled differently.

Frank Harold Elcho Skryme, Royal Navy

Frank Skryme joined the Royal Navy on DTBR and was promoted to Acting Lieutenant on 15th May 1918. He was appointed to HMS President 'for course of instruction at Cambridge University' to date 15th Jan 1919.

This was followed by an appointment to the Cruiser HMS Delhi (1st Light Cruiser Squadron) on 9th Dec 1919. On 4th Mar 1921 he was appointed to the Submarine Flotilla Leader HMS Inconstant 'for Submarine Duties' and, on 29th Sep 1921 he was appointed to the Submarine Flotilla Leader HMS Conquest (1st Submarine Flotilla) 'for Submarine K6 as Third Hand and for Navigational Duties'. His next appointments are not yet established but he was appointed to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Maidstone (3rd Submarine Flotillas) at Devonport 'for Submarine H29 in Command' on 2nd Feb 1926.

After the sinking of H29 Frank Skryme was tried at Court Martial on 15th Sep 1926 'for negligence for omitting to take charge of the submarine and for failing to have a clear understanding with his First Lieutenant as to what that officers intentions were as regards to trim'. He was found guilty of the charges.

This did not adversely affect his Naval Career and he was promoted Lieutenant Commander on 15th Oct 1926.

On 31st Dec 1926 he was appointed to the Flotilla Leader of the First Destroyer Flotilla, Mediterranean Fleet, HMS Montrose. On 2nd Jan 1929 he was appointed to the Trawler HMS Ouse (Tender to HMS Egmont at Malta 'in Command'.

This was followed by an appointment to HMS Pembroke at Chatham 'for Submarine HMS Parthian - standing by whilst completing' at HM Dockyard Chatham. Submarine HMS Parthian commissioned at Chatham on 6th October 1930.

Following commissioning Submarine HMS Parthian was sent to the Far East to join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla based on the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Medway at Hong Kong.

After Commanding HMS Parthian he was appointed ashore to HMS Tamar (the Receiving Ship) at Hong Kong 'and for duty with Submarines' on 8th Dec 1933.

The Navy List of January 1935 lists Frank Skryme as a Retired Lieutenant Commander although the date of his retirement is not yet established.

He was recalled for further duty during WWII and was promoted to Acting Commander although details of his WWII appointments are not yet established. He was still included in the Navy List of Retired Officers as a Commander in June 1957. Frank Skryme is reported to have died on 28th Nov 1975.

Malcolm Edgar Wevell, Royal Navy

It is not clear when Malcolm Wevell joined the Royal Navy but he was promoted to Sub Lieutenant on 15th Sep 1921 and to Lieutenant on 15th June 1923. His date of joining Submarines is not yet established but he was appointed to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Maidstone (3rd Submarine Flotilla) at Devonport 'for Submarines' on 24th Mar 1924.

Six months later he was appointed to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Vulcan (Reserve Fleet) at Portland 'for Group M Submarines in Reserve' to date 2nd Sep 1924. He then moved to Portsmouth when he was appointed to HMS Dolphin 'for Group D Submarines in Reserve' on 18th Sep 1925.

This was followed by a return to Devonport with an appointment to HMS Maidstone 'for Submarines' on 28th Nov 1925 and then 'for Submarine H29 as First Lieutenant' on 1st Jan 1926. After the sinking of Submarine H29 Malcolm Wevell was tried by Court Martial 'for negligently or by default hazarding H29'. On 15th Sep 1926 he was found guilty of the charge, was dismissed from HMS Maidstone and was severely reprimanded.

On 22nd February 1927 he was appointed to the Battleship HMS Ramillies.

He had left HMS Ramillies by June 1929 and was between appointments. His next appointment is not yet established but Malcolm Wevell returned to Submarines on 12th May 1930 with an appointment to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Alecto (Training Half Flotilla) 'and for duty with Submarines'.

He was promoted Lieutenant Commander on 15th June 1931. An appointment to the Submarine Depot Ship HMS Adamant (6th Submarine Flotilla) refitting at Devonport 'as Senior Officer' followed on 17th May 1932. On 11th Aug 1932 he was sent to the New Zealand Station with an appointment to the Sloop HMS Veronica 'as Executive Officer'.

On his return home he was appointed to HMS Pembroke (the Royal Naval Barracks) at Chatham on 17th December 1934. He returned to sea on 15th Feb 1936 when he joined the 42,100 ton Battle Cruiser HMS Hood for a two and a half year commission before joining HMS President II 'for HMS Satellite' the Reserve Fleet Depot Ship at South Shields.

Malcolm Wevell saw service during WWII, was promoted to Acting Commander and was appointed to the Submarine Depot Ship of the 3rd Submarine Flotilla HMS FORTH at the Holy Loch 'in Command' on 28th Jul 1942. He was still serving there in late 1944.

No further information is available.

THE SALVAGE OPERATION

ILL-FATED SUBMARINE FIVE BODIES LOCATED

(From "The Scotsman", 12th August 1926)

Splendid progress has been made with the mournful task of salving the ill-fated submarine H29. As a result of Tuesday night's operation the vessel was lying on an even keel in about 25 feet of water at the spot where she sank. The periscopes were showing about ten feet above water, one standing straight up and the other, which was bent during the salvage operations, inclining at an angle of forty-five degrees. Divers descended to prepare the way for the final stages, and two salvage tugs stood by. The salvage work was well advanced by noon, when, with the falling tide, the water in the basin slowly drained away. The conning tower of the submarine with the '29' painted on the front and side became fully exposed, and the top of a torpedo derrick also showed above water.

The divers, of whom there were five at work from two barges, made many descents. Heavy steel hawsers were passed under the submarine and preparations were made for lowering a specially constructed pump through one of the hatches to clear the vessel of water inside and thus raise her. Patches of oil floated over the submarine whose main deck could just be seen below water.

Shortly after noon, when pumping operations were being started to clear the sunken craft of water, Henry Pullinger, a member of the dockyard staff, who was engaged in working one of the pumps near the conning tower, was seen to stagger. It was found that he had been overcome by powerful fumes from the interior of the submarine. Several of his colleagues managed to reach him before he sank into the submarine, and with great promptness he was got ashore and rushed to naval hospital in one of the service ambulances. Pullinger was employed in fixing an inlet pipe to the suction pump down through the conning tower when he collapsed. Three men afterwards used gas asks whilst in the conning tower to complete the work of fixing the pump, which was operated from a barge alongside, and began working at 2.30. The submarine was then fairly high out of the water, although the main deck was still submerged.

Telegraphing that night, the Press Association's special correspondent at Devonport writes: The salvage work continued throughout the afternoon and evening. After some delay through engine trouble pumping was again in full swing just before five o'clock, an immense volume of water being drawn from the vessel by the pump, which was fixed in a specially constructed tube let down through one of the hatchways near the conning tower.

The diver was a long time fixing this tube in position, but within a short time the forward part of the vessel began to rise as the water was pumped out, and within an hour the bows were well clear of the water. The submarine's compass and chart, showing traces of the gas which overcame one of the workmen, were salved from the conning tower in the afternoon.

The Admiral Superintendent of the Dockyard, with his staff, supervise the operations, on which about two hundred men were engaged.

THE INQUEST

SUNK SUBMARINE DEVONPORT DISASTER

(From "The Scotsman", 21st August 1926)

That the six men who lost their lives in submarine H29 on August 9th died from want of oxygen caused by the foundering of the submarine in No. 2 Basin, Devonport Dockyard, which foundered was due to the misconception of an order, was the verdict returned at the resumed inquest at Devonport Guildhall yesterday.

Lieut. F H E Skryme, the officer in command of the H29, said that on the day of the disaster the submarine was moored for basin trials. He gave orders that the testing of the torpedo tubes should be carried out at the first opportunity by the firing of dummy shots, and that the First Lieutenant, Mr Wevell informed him that the operation would take place in the afternoon. Having been lightened at 8 am by pumping out the auxiliary ballast tanks, the ship had to be brought to normal trim, and for this it was necessary to mix water to balance the tanks.

After lunch, witness went below to see that work generally was in progress, but on going up on deck he noticed that the boat was low in the water. Knowing the hatches were open, he went to the after hatch, which would be the first to submerge, in order to close it, but did not succeed as there was a four-inch pipe let down through it for ventilation purposes. The water was then just trickling over the edge of the hatch. He left an Engine Room Artificer at the after-hatch, trying to close it, and ran forward and through the fore-hatch. He gave orders to close the water-tight doors, and again returned to the after-hatch and tried to cut the pipe, but had only half-severed it when the water became too deep for him to continue. Until the submarine became submerged he should say that not more than two minutes elapsed.

Witness waded to the bridge, and caught hold of one of the chains which hung around the side of the dock and climbed ashore.

Asked by the Coroner the reason the vessel sank, witness said the after-hatch came under water, owing to the flooding of No. 3 main ballast tank. When the hatch came to the water level, a great volume of water entered, ran through the boat, and caused her to sink. It had only been proposed to submerge the vessel sufficiently to allow the torpedo tubes to be fired, and not to submerge altogether.

Mr J W Ruse, representing bereaved relatives under exactly similar circumstances, would you again submerge this boat, or any other boat, with the hatches open? Witness replied that after this experience, if water were being moved in the boat, he should see the hatches were shut.

Lieutenant Malcolm Wevell related that on going forward to the control room from where the Kingston valves were operated, he said to Stoker Petty Officer Aske, 'I am going to put a drop of water into two and three man ballast. I am going on deck.' Later he remembered hearing the air rushing out of No. 2 main ballast tank, and from the upper deck casing he looked over the starboard side, and saw the boat lower in the water than she had been. He gave the order to stop flooding, and asked the Stoker Petty Officer if the vent was shut. Aske replied that it was.

Later witness saw some dockyard men come hurriedly from aft and make for the fore-hatch. He asked what was the matter, and getting no answer, went on to the upper deck where he saw the boat was lower in the water aft. He saw the Commanding Officer on the upper deck, and heard him give the order, 'Shut water-tight doors.' Witness after repeated the order down the fore-hatch, through which men were coming up. He also gave the order 'Blow Three,' meaning that the ballast tank No 3 was to be emptied. At that time the fore part of the boat was well out of the water. He managed to get down the hatchway into the crew space and rush aft to the control room, where he saw Aske at the Kingston levers which operated the big valves at the bottom of the tanks. Chief Engineer Artificer Dalton, one of the six victims of the disaster, was then at the 'blowing' station, and he remained there afterwards with complete disregard for his own safety. He also noticed No. 3 main ballast Kingston levers open.

Witness said to Aske, 'You have not flooded three,' and went off when Kemp came stumbling with the water through the bulkhead through the bulk-head door between the after crew space and the control room. He had just previously noticed water coming down the fore-hatch, and gave the order 'Shut the fore-hatch.'

That could not be done. He remembered nothing clearly afterwards, except that he was carried forward by the rush of water to a position beneath the fore-hatch. His left foot, however, was held fast by something on the starboard side, and he subsequently became unconscious, and did not know how he got clear of the boat. When he regained consciousness, he found himself floating in the water.

The Coroner, Mr J Pearce, asked witness if, when he told Aske he was going to put in a drop of water, he intended to convey to Aske that that was an order for him to put water into No. 2 and No. 3 main ballasts. Witness replied in the negative.

The Coroner So that it really comes to this .The statement which you made to the Stoker Petty Officer was misconstrued by him to be an order? Yes.

A Juror Who gave the order to open the valves? Nobody.

Why did you not take action to have the hatches closed? - Owing to the draught being much less than normal, and also owing to the fact that engine trials were taking place.

Another Juror - But for the Chief Stoker misinterpreting your order this accident would not have happened? - No.

Stoker Petty Officer George William Aske stated that, in the control room, the First Lieutenant said to him, 'I want to trim down the boat a little. Put some water in 2 and 3 tanks.' The Officer then went on deck, and witness, taking that to be an order, started on No. 2 tank by first seeing that the vent was closed. He then opened the Kingston Valves, and proceeded to the vent and opened it.

The next order he got was from the First Lieutenant, which was to 'Shut off,' but witness was in the act of shutting off at the time, as he knew the tank was full. He then proceeded to put some water into No. 3 tank. He slightly opened the vent valve of No. 3, and stood by for two or three seconds, when he saw a splash of water come over the engine room hatch. He immediately shut the vent, ran back to the control room, and put on the 'blow' to No. 3, and stood by it until the majority of the men below had got up, either through the conning tower hatch or the fore-hatch.

The water was coming in from both fore and aft from the control room, and witness got up through the conning tower, being the last to leave the bridge. It all happened in about two minutes. The First Lieutenant generally told him why they were trimming, but on this occasion he did not do so.

The Coroner - Were you surprised at having to submerge without being told the reason? - No. If you had been told you were to submerge for the purpose of firing torpedo tubes only, how much water would you -have let into the tanks? - Not a great deal. Not as much as was let in? - No. Was what was said to you by the First Lieutenant taken by you to be an order? - Yes.

Lieut. Commander J H McNair, senior submarine officer in the Devonport Flotilla, said there was nothing wrong in the order being given for the hatches to open while the boat was being put into normal trim. He knew of no Admiralty regulation ordering the hatches to be closed if any water were being put in the tanks. The accident, he said, in reply to a Juror, was undoubtedly caused through the flooding of the ballast to such an extent to bring the hatch under the water. He did not know how that happened, however.

A Juror - In other words, someone has blundered, and we have to find out who.

Witness - Either blundered or misunderstood. There was a mistake somewhere.

The Coroner - It all tends to show that an order should be definitely and clearly given, and definitely and clearly understood.

Witness - It should, of course.

Medical evidence having been given, the Coroner, in summing up, said it was a question as to whether or not a definite order was given to submerge the ship by filling the tanks. He was convinced the Stoker Petty Officer thought the Lieutenant said, 'Put water in the tanks.' If the order had been more definitely clear, and more clearly understood, that accident would not have happened. He did not see how they could attribute particular blame to anyone. It was a mistake to which all were liable - to misconstrue what had been said. In future all orders should be very definitely given and understood, especially on board a submarine.

The jury returned the above stated verdict.

THE COURT'S MARTIAL

SUBMARINE RISKS OFFICER CENSURED THE SINKING OF H29

(From "The Scotsman", 15th September 1926)

The circumstances attending the sinking of Submarine H29 at Devonport Dockyard on August 9th, when six lives were lost, were given in evidence yesterday at Courts-martial held in the RN Barracks. Captain Neil O'Neill, of the IMpregnable, presided over the Court, at which Lieut. Malcolm Wevell, second in command of the submarine, was charged with hazarding the vessel. He pleaded not guilty.

The circumstantial letter read by the Deputy Judge Advocate stated that it was the intention of Lieut. F H E Skryme, the Commanding Officer of H29, to fire water shots from the torpedo tubes on completion of the refit, and, on Lieut. Wevell's application, Lieut. Skryme verbally approved these water shots being carried out. In order to carry out the tests, it was necessary to trim the vessel down by the bow about nine inches. Lieut. Skryme, in evidence, said that water shots consisted of dummy shots being fired through the tubes full of water, instead of with torpedoes in them. Lieut. Wevell said that he was going to fire the water shots and was going to trim the vessel.

The Witness approved the trials. The upper deck hatches should have been closed during the operation. The accused said nothing about what tanks he proposed to flood before the operation. The cause of the sinking was the trim of the vessel becoming so low that water entered through the after hatch. This filled the boat until the after hatch went under, and then water entered through the foremost hatch.

Replying to the Court, Lieut. Skryme said that if Lieut. Wevell had reported that he intended to use the main tanks instead if the auxiliary tanks, he would have made sure that there was a good reason for it, and if there was one, he would have taken proper precautions.

Engine Room Artificer Pearson stated that when water came down the engine room hatch he went forward and saw Lieut. Wevell coming down. 'I realised the boat was sinking, and I went into the control room and found two or three men going up the control room ladder and I went up with them' said witness.

TOO LOW IN THE WATER

Stoker Petty Officer George William Aske stated that he was in charge of the tanks, as regards trimming operations. On August 9th trimming operations started about two o'clock'. The hatches were open. The accused said to him: 'I want to trim down the boat a little. Put some water in 2 and 3 main,' and then went on deck.

The witness described how he began to flood No. 2 main ballast and continued to carry out the order to put water into the two tanks. He stated that while standing by No. 3 tank he saw a splash of water coming over the combing of the engine hatch. He immediately knew that they were too low in the water and shut off the vent in the tank and ran back to the control room, and, putting the blow to No. 3 tank, he stood by it until quite a few people came forward. Several went through the conning tower hatch and he afterwards followed.

Asked for the defence if he heard an order by Lieut. Wevell to stop flooding, the witness said he had an order to shut off while he was in the act of doing so at No. 2 tank. The witness did not remember Lieut. Wevell asking if the vent was shut. He received no further order after the order to shut off. Lieut. Wevell said to him afterwards, 'You have not flooded No. 3,' and the witness replied, 'Yes, I was carrying out your order.'

Lieut-Commander Claude Barrington Barry, HMS Maidstone, expressed the opinion that in the operation of trimming a submarine the main tanks could not be safely used with the hatches open.

In reply to the Court, the witness said that to the best of his knowledge there were no definite written orders prohibiting the flooding of main tanks with the hatches open.

The President - Is there no official book of any sort giving the procedure for flooding? - I know of none.

The prosecutions case was closed.

THE CASE FOR THE DEFENCE

Lieut-Cmdr. John Hamilton McNair, HMS Dolphin, the first witness for the defence, said that as a submarine officer he did not consider it necessary for the hatches to be closed to bring a submarine to a normal trim. If the other tanks were out of action the main ballast tanks could be used. The witness, however, said he should have the upper hatches closed when using the main ballast tank.

Leading Stoker Walter E Kemp stated that before the disaster he saw Lieut. Wevell speak to Chief ERA Dalton, one of the victims, and Lieut. Wevell said he was going to trim the boat down a little forward

The Chief ERA said, 'Don't take the bows down to far forward, because I am doing trials on the starboard engine this afternoon and that will cause the propeller to come out of the water. The best way is to bring her down bodily.' The witness added that he afterwards saw Stoker Petty Officer Aske open No. 3 vent, but did not hear any definite orders being given.

Lieut. Wevell did not apply to give evidence.

Commander T B Drew addressed the Court on his behalf and read a statement to the effect that after seeing Chief ERA Dalton, Lieut. Wevell spoke to Stoker PO Aske, and said, 'I am going to put a drop of water in the No. 2 and 3 main ballasts. I am going on deck.' The statement was made to PO Aske with the sole idea of letting him know what was about to take place, and was not intended in any way as a definite order. On going on deck, Lieut. Wevell heard No. 2 main ballast tank being vented, and observed that the boat was lower in the water. He gave the order 'Stop flooding; that will do.'

KNOCKED OFF HIS FEET

Commander Drew related how on finding alarm among the men Lieut. Wevell went on deck again and noticed that the boat was much lower in the water and heard No. 3 main ballast being vented. At practically the same time Lieut. Skryme, who was on deck, gave an order to shut water-tight doors. Lieut. Wevell repeated the order and gave another to blow No. 3 tank. He made his way to Stoker PO Aske and said, 'You haven't flooded No. 3?' to which Aske replied 'Yes.' Lieut. Wevell then attempted to shut the water-tight door between the motor room and the engine room, but was prevented by Leading Stoker Kemp, being swept through the door. In the confusion and the flood of water he was knocked off his feet.

With regard to the hatches Commander Drew stated that the operation of flooding No. 2 main ballast tank was commenced without the usual routine orders having been given, and that Lieut. Wevell was ignorant that the operation had even been started until he heard the tank being vented. Asking for an honourable acquittal, he submitted that the opportunity to carry out the usual submarine practice was taken out of Lieut. Wevell's hands by the precipitate action of Stoker PO Aske.

Captain J B Glen cross contended that whatever might have been the accused's intention Stoker PO Aske interpreted his statement as an order to flood the tank.

The accused, having found that No. 2 main tank was venting, it was his duty. Had he wished to stop an action which he had not authorised, to take decisive steps, and his mere order to shut off was not sufficient. Captain Glencross submitted that the accused had been proved guilty of negligence.

THE COURT'S DECISION

The Court found the charge proved, in that the hazarding of the vessel was due to the accused omitted to give orders for trimming the H29 in a definite manner, not immediately investigating the flooding of No. 2 main ballast tank, and having omitted to ensure that the engine room hatch and the fore-hatch were closed before the main ballast tanks were flooded. The sentence of the Court was that Lieutenant Wevell be dismissed from HM Ship Maidstone and be severely reprimanded.


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