Life under the waves

The first British submarine was launched in 1901. At the beginning of the First World War, Britain had around 60 submarines, 168 officers, 1,250 men and limited idea of what to do in a battle as they had never been in conflict. They rapidly became a potent force and during the war sank 54 enemy warships and U-boats and 274 supply vessels. The cost was, however, tremendous with around a third of those who joined the submarine service losing their life. A Culture volunteer on the Poole History Centre First World War project describes what it was like being in a submarine and the fate of a few of the Poole submariners.

All submariners were volunteers and on interview they had to show they were ‘capable of sustaining a considerable amount of bodily strain’. An understatement! The clothes they wore were usually the ones they had on a fortnight earlier – the smell was described as ‘most revolting’. The lack of fresh air meant the crew suffered nausea, headaches and lethargy which could affect decision-making. They also suffered from sleep deprivation relying on, typically, 4hrs a day. Submarine commanders were under special strain as any decision they made could be fatal. Broken bones and concussion were common when a submarine was thrown about in a stormy sea. There were no doctors on board and the only first aid was provided by the crew themselves. If seawater entered the batteries, the submarine would fill with poisonous chlorine gas.

A submarine crew rarely changed members so they became a close knit community. Also the confines of a submarine meant that distinctions of rank meant very little. Despite the high risk and unpleasant working condition, the informality and comradeship, plus the excitement of being involved in something different, made the prospect of being in a submarine attractive to some men.

In contrast to the surface fleet, not many Poole men served in submarines. Hedley Alexander Grant, whose parents lived in Parkstone, died in October 1918 when the L10 submarine was sunk in the North Sea. He was a messenger boy when he joined the navy in January 1913 for 12 years when he was 18. The L10 was commissioned in June 1918 from the Dumbarton shipyard of William Denny and was used to stop German vessels mining the sea. It had a crew of 38 and was armed with four bow and two beam torpedo tubes, as well as a 4in deck gun. On October 3rd 1918, L10 came across a group of German destroyers in the Heligoland Bight and torpedoed the German ship S33. However, the submarine, for some reason, suddenly surfaced and was sunk by the other destroyers. All those on board died.

Charles Trickett, from Branksome, was a coal loader before he joined the navy in March 1912 as a Stoker 2nd Class. He served on several ships and was promoted to Stoker 1st Class in 1913. His service record is unclear but he may have joined the submarine service at the end of 1916 as he was attached to HMS Maidstone, which was a submarine depot ship. There is a record of him serving on HM Submarine E32 towards the end of the First World War. Charles Trickett was on HM Submarine L55 (Lucia) when it failed to surface on June 9th 1919. The submarine was part of the Baltic Battle Squadron and was fighting on the side of the Baltic States during the Russian Civil War. It is believed that after firing on two Bolshevik destroyers it entered into a British minefield. The Soviets claimed it had been sunk by one of its destroyers. They raised the submarine several years later.

Able Seaman George Miles, from Hamworthy, was also attached to the submarine depot ship ‘Maidstone’, and served on HM Submarine E19. HM E19 was part of the Baltic submarine fleet that sank several German merchant ships with the aim of disrupting the trade in iron ore. The 9th September 1915 issue of the local newspaper reported that Miles and the rest of the crew had been awarded the St George’s Cross by the Tsar of Russia. Submarine E19 was destroyed in April 1918, along with six other submarines, by their crews to stop them being captured by German troops who had landed in Finland. George Miles served in the navy during the Second World War.

Able Seaman Frederick Fudge, whose mother lived in Wallisdown, died when HM Submarine D 6 was sunk by the German U-boat UB 73 off the coast of Ireland on 24th June 1918. Two survivors were taken prisoner. Fudge had been a butcher’s boy before he signed on with the navy in February 1914 for 12 years.

Albert Joseph Miller was born in Branksome and joined the Navy in October 1914 when aged 18. He started his naval life as Boy 2nd Class and was promoted several times becoming Leading Telegraphist in April 1916. He was wounded in an action off the Heligoland Bight on August 28th 1914 while on HMS Fearless. He was on HM Submarine E50 when it was lost in the North Sea on January 31st 1918.

There were several classes of British submarine but the K-class submarines had a particularly bad reputation with only 18 being built but were involved in 16 accidents, several collisions, and one sank on trial. They were steam-powered when on the surface to enable them to travel fast in support of the fleet. However, shutting down a boiler and lowering two small funnels increased dive time and the likelihood of leaks. An even more significant problem was that the K-class was 339ft long (compared to the L-class at 239ft) but only had a maximum operating depth of 200ft. If the submarine dived at an angle of 30o the stern would be at the surface and the bow nearly at maximum depth. The reputation of the class was so bad that they were referred as the ‘Kalamity’ class.

The local newspaper reported on the loss of submarine K5 in late January 1921. It was with four other submarines (K8, K10, K15 and K22) while on manoeuvres with the British Atlantic Fleet when it failed to surface. Fifty-seven men lost their lives. It had gone down in 85 fathoms of water but as the salvage vessel could not go more than 30 fathoms a rescue was impossible. There was Poole connection to the loss. Lieutenant B.J. Clarke was an officer on K5 and had been second-in-command on the captured German U-boat U107 when it came to Poole in January 1919 for a charity fund-raising event. He had been accompanied by his wife and son on the visit and ‘much sympathy’ was felt by those in Poole who had met them after hearing about his death. See an earlier blog ‘German U-boats in Poole Harbour’ 

U 107 on Poole Quay

U 107 on Poole Quay


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