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Submarining, a Hazardous Occupation?

By Barrie Downer

A review of the Service Records of several thousand Naval Ratings in the Submarine Service (taken from National Archive Records in the ADM/188 Series etc.) from the earliest days (1901 to 1939) has highlighted the wide range of risks/hazards to which those Submariners were exposed during their Naval Service. These risks/hazards often resulted in illness, injury, incapacitation or death whilst serving (or shortly thereafter) or resulted in being 'invalided' out of Naval Service either owing to the incapacitation or from unfitness for further Naval Service. These risks/hazards can be divided into those of a 'Medical Nature' and those resulting from 'Accidents' or 'Enemy Action'.

Risks of a Medical Nature.

It should be remembered that until very recently (the late 1960's) no medical professional was carried on a Submarine, very basic medical care was the responsibility of the First Lieutenant and the Coxswain. Naval Surgeons were only carried in the Submarine Bases and Depot Ships. It is only in recent years, following the introduction of nuclear-powered Submarines, that Medical professionals began to be carried on-board as a matter of course. However, their primary role is to monitor the physics of the nuclear power plant and environmental issues, general medical health being a secondary task.

Early Submariners seem, on the whole, to have been a reasonably healthy lot, there was a suggestion that no self-respecting germ or bacteria could survive in early Submarine conditions although humans could! One problem was that until the days of the Second World War there were no antibiotics and few pain killers available and many submariners died from what today would be considered to be minor ailments, conditions or infections.

The following is a list (not necessarily exhaustive) of the medical conditions and illnesses reported on Service Records resulting in the death, incapacitation or 'invaliding' of Submarine Officers and Ratings:

Beri beriBronchitisBlood poisoningBrain diseasesBrain tumours
Bright's diseaseCaisson diseaseCancers (various)CellulitisCholera
Defective teethDengue feverDiabetesDiphtheriaDisease, Nervous System
Duodenal UlcerDysenteryEmphysemaEndocarditisEncephalitis
EnteritisEnteric FeverEpilepsyEye diseases (various)Fibrosis of the lungs
Flat feetFracture of the skullFracture of the spineGastric UlcerGonorrhoea
GoutHerniaHaemorrhage, variousHeart attacksHeart disease
Heat strokeHepatitisHyperpyrexiaInfections, variousInfluenza
InsanityIntermittent FeverIntestinal ObstructionJaundiceKidney disease
LaryngitisLead poisoningLiver diseaseLunacyMalaria
Mediterranean feverMeningitisMyopiaNephritisNeurasthenia
Otitis externaPancreatitisPeritonitisPleurisyPneumonia
Remittent FeverReynaud's diseaseRheumatismShockScalding
Scarlet feverSepticaemiaSleep walkingStammeringStroke
Sun strokeSyphilisTetanusThrombosisTuberculosis
Tumours (various)Typhoid feverTyphusUlcerative ColitisUraemia
Varicose veinsYellow fever

Risks from 'Accident' or 'Enemy Action'

Again, the following list is not necessarily exhaustive, but these events been noted as causes of 'death' or 'invaliding' in many cases:

BurnsCrush injuriesClothing caught in rotating machinery
Falls (from Ladders or Masts)FracturesGassing
Lightning strikesRailway accidentsRoad accidents
Scalding & Steam LeaksSecondary drowningShooting
Struck by falling objectsSuffocation


In the above risks 'Burns' included an Able Seaman who died when a lorry carrying petrol which he was escorting caught fire.

'Explosions' could be 'Petrol Vapour' explosions in 'Holland', 'A', 'B' & 'C' Class Submarines, 'Crank Case' explosions in both Petrol and early Diesel submarines and 'Hydrogen (battery gas) Explosions', to which all Classes of Submarines are susceptible, even today.

'Falls' included 'falling from aloft', 'falling from gang planks', 'falling into dock bottoms', 'falling from ladders', 'falling overboard whilst sleepwalking', 'falling into ships holds/bunkers' when coaling ship' in the Submarine Depot Ships and 'falling overboard' from Submarines, Depot Ships and ship's boats. Other 'coaling ship' hazards included being struck by full coal bags when they were being swung inboard, being struck by falling lumps of coal or being overcome by fumes in bunkers when trimming the coal.

You might wonder why Submariners were involved in 'coal ship' accidents but in early Submarine Depot Ships 'coal ship' was a 'whole ship' evolution and even the Officers and 'Spare Crew' were not exempted, only the Captain was excused!

'Crushing' included torpedoes, shells and heavy loads being dropped, ship's boats dropping when being hoisted 'in' or 'out', rotating equipment or machinery (i.e. gun turrets), breech blocks and cordite/shell hoists.

One unusual case of crushing was that of an Engine Room Artificer who died of 'rupture of the urethra & peritonitis' resulting from being 'accidentally squeezed' in the engines of 'RACER'. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the verdict of the Coroner's Court was that 'death of the deceased was caused by an accident' and that 'no blame was attached to anyone.'

'Gassing' included being affected by exhaust gasses, carbon monoxide & carbon dioxide concentrations, petrol fumes and 'arseneuiretted hydrogen' gas which might be generated when submarine batteries are being charged. And, as if the above listed Illnesses/Risks/Hazards (most of which seem to have been accepted as normal events in the Service) were not enough, some Submariners also had a propensity to commit suicide by a variety of means including:

  • Cutting one's own throat/wrists
  • Hanging
  • Shooting
  • Gassing (coal gas ovens were a favourite)
  • Poisoning
  • Jumping from heights and/or drowning

Although not counted as suicide, during WWI there were a number of cases whereby Ratings 'Deserted', noted as 'Run' on their Service Certificates, with an additional note of 'Killed in Action' after joining the Army during WWI . They might well have survived the War had they not deserted! Interestingly, although most of the offences listed in the 'Articles of War' gave death as one of the consequences no record has yet been seen of such a sentence being imposed on or carried out on an offending Submariner!

In the grand scheme of things, as far as Submarine Service was concerned, the risks from 'Accidents' might result in the death or injury of individual Submariners but, very occasionally, of the whole Crew or a large proportion of the Crew, whereas the risks from 'Enemy Action' generally resulted in the death, not only of the individual Submariner, but more often than not, the loss of his Submarine and the death of the whole of his Crew.

For Ratings serving in Surface Ships (General Service) the risks from 'Accidents' might also result in the death or injury of an individual Rating but 'Enemy Action' might result in death or injury to the individual or a number of the Crew, however, the possibility of survival of some of the Crew is greater.

Whether a 'death in service' arose from a medical cause, accident, enemy action or suicide the fact would by annotated on the Service Record by the letter 'DD' which means 'Discharged Dead' and, usually, the cause is briefly detailed but not always. People researching family history can often get an unexpected surprise when finding out the causes of 'invaliding' or 'death in service'.

In some cases, a Court/Board of Enquiry and Post-Mortem examination was held to ascertain the cause of death, especially for accidents or unexplained deaths, particularly where any individual Officer or Rating or the Navy might have been held accountable. However, a fairly standard annotation at the time was along the lines of 'accident, no blame attributable to anyone' or 'accidentally killed/drowned' as a 'get out' clause with implication that the accident or incident being was the unfortunate victim's own fault.

Today's 'Health and Safety' culture would have a field day!

A Submariners Life