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The Two Men Who Calmly Kept To Their Stations

By the time the Holland's and the A class submarines had come from the berths at Barrow and entered service, the Royal Navy's Submarine Service - every man a volunteer, by the way - had become accustomed to dicing with death.

When the 1914-18 war began the British Mediterranean Fleet based on Malta had three B class submarines attached. They were, singularly enough, B9, B10, and B11. They were sent to the Aegean Sea, there to languish without a chance of distinguishing themselves.

In November that year the Dardanelle's came into the news for a British naval squadron had bombarded the forts and the German warships Goeben and Breslau were inside and had been in action against the Russians in the Black Sea. Could nothing be done against the naval strength of Johnny Turk located somewhere near the narrows?

The young officers commanding the three British submarines were all keen to try and force a passage. The hazards were the uncertain submerged endurance of their boats the strong current and the presence of minefields. Human courage was one thing the question of electricity supply was quite another.

HMS B11 had newer batteries so Lieut. N D Holbrook RN was selected for the task of seeking out whatever he might find and doing the greatest possible damage when he found it. On Saturday, December 12, 1914, B11 dived at dawn off the entrance to the Dardanelle's. The dive had been postponed to the last minute because the boat would need every ampere she had.

Through the minefields and on towards the Narrows she went. Holbrook raised his periscope and there in Sari Siglar Bay he sighted a warship at anchor. Manoeuvring carefully, Holbrook fired one torpedo and hit the Turkish battleship Messoudieh which immediately opened fire on the B11 periscope and missed. A few minutes later the battleship rolled over and sank and a means of protecting the minefield against sweeping had gone.

Having thus made history, Holbrook decided to turn for home. He found that his compass, a rudimentary contraption at the best of times, had been so damaged by shellfire as to be useless. Unfortunately the current drove B11 ashore and every Turkish land gun which could bear opened fire. Miraculously the submarine bumped off, hit the bottom more than once, dodged the mines and somehow escaped being hit.

Her periscope became fogged for quite some time leaving Holbrook to navigate blind, yet she was outside the entrance to the Dardanelle's in the early afternoon and her commander could afford to surface.


He and his crew proved that something considered impossible could be done and they and their boat made a contribution to history. Lieut Holbrook was awarded the Victoria Cross the first of 14 submariners to be so decorated. Lieut. S T Winn his first lieutenant, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and everyone in the boat was awarded the DSC or the DSM.

Later the Turks salvaged most of the Messoudieh's guns but at Chanak they preserved a unique souvenir a piece of the B11's torpedo that had done such damage.

B11 incidentally, survived the 1914-18 war as did B9, but B10 was bombed and sunk in harbour at Venice in 1918. B11 was sold in 1919 and scrapped in Italy.

With hindsight one can condemn the Holland's as floating death traps for no man, not even the captain could predict what they would do. What would result from a certain set of circumstances might be predictable today; it certainly was not in the early days of "submarining." Possibly that is why young officers with a bent for mechanical things and a zeal for promotion volunteered for submarines.

Most certainly some of the most distinguished admirals of the years between the 1914-18 and 1939-45 wars began to make their mark in the little boats. That was at a time when every voyage outside the harbour was a voyage of discovery.

A3 in 1903
A3 in 1903

The A4 almost came to grief when something quite unexpected happened on a routine exercise near Portsmouth.

She dropped to 90 feet, uncontrollable, and with 100 feet as the limit of dive one can imagine the thoughts of her crew. The cause of the trouble was found to be an open ventilator and a leading seaman acted with commendable zeal in first trying to stem the flood of water with caps and then tearing off his jumper and stopping the torrent with that.

The boat hit the bottom and things were really bad. The order was given to start to blow tanks. Something happened. The hull moved and the boat began to lift. Three and a half minutes later the boat surfaced full of chlorine fumes and with two men missing from the roll call taken on the casing. A search was made, and there were the two missing men calmly at their stations. They had not heard the order to leave their post.

B Class being fitted out in Devonshire Dock
B Class being fitted out in Devonshire Dock

And there was the boat that dived in Tilbury Docks and settled herself so firmly on the bottom it was difficult to free her. The Director of Naval Construction happened to be aboard.

Another got stuck on a clay bottom and a third developed pressure leaks yet there was never any lack of volunteer crewmen which was just as well because by the time Britain got round to constructing the B class in 1906 there seemed a fair chance that submarines might be used in war.

That is where we take up the story of HMS B11, renowned long after the Armistice had been declared.

B11 was the last of her class to be constructed. She was completed in 1906, and like her consorts, was considerably larger than the A class boats, displacing 280 tons on the surface and 313 tons submerged.

She was one third longer again at 135 feet and had a 12 cylinder Wolseley petrol engine developing 600 hp and giving a surface speed of around 12 knots. Her electric motors drove her at eight knots (thereabouts) submerged. Her complement was two officers and 11 men, and she was a good deal easier to control underwater than any of her predecessors.

This was because she was the first submarine to be fitted with forward hydroplanes and with their aid was able to dive under way. Previously it had been the accepted custom to stop before diving.

By the standards of 1908 B11 was a submarine of advanced design. By present standards she was very deficient.



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