IN 1939 the Royal Navy suffered its worst ever submarine disaster just 12 miles off the Great Orme in Llandudno. During the maiden voyage of Thetis, 99 men tragically lost their lives – not through battle, but through an unfortunate accident.
The ill-fated vessel, built in Birkenhead, sank during sea trials on June 1 carrying 103 men – twice the number she was designed to.
Only 69 of Thetis’s crew were sailors, the rest were mainly engineers from Cammell Laird, observers and two catering staff to prepare a celebratory buffet on board.
Although all of Laird’s workers were offered the opportunity to disembark prior to the dive, they all chose to stay aboard – thus sealing their fate.
Disaster struck when Lieutenant Frederick Woods, the torpedo officer, opened the test cocks on the tubes to add weight to the submarine as it was having difficulty diving.
Unfortunately, the test cock on tube number five was blocked by some enamel paint so no water flowed out even though the bow cap was open. This confusion led to the inner door of the tube being opened, without the knowledge that the outer torpedo doors were already open and the tubes full of seawater. The inrush of water caused the bow of the submarine to sink to the seabed 150ft below the surface.
It took over three and a half hours for the telegram raising the alarm to arrive at the Navy’s submarine headquarters in Portsmouth.
Operation Subsmash was put into action by Captain I McIntyre – but his efforts were beset by bad luck, bad timing and bad judgement.
The best rescue ship was hundreds of miles away, an aircraft reported inaccurate locations for Thetis, and cutting equipment was ordered late.
Meanwhile, on board, levels of carbon dioxide became dangerously high.
During the night, 60 tonnes of drinking water and fuel oil were dumped allowing Thetis to rise stern first.
Submerged for 13 hours, oxygen on board was quickly running out. The crew became very sleepy and couldn’t think straight.
Lt Woods, Stoker Walter Arnold and two other men managed to escape through a hatch – four men died attempting to escape using the same route.
A wire hawser was strung around the stricken submarine and held in place by a salvage ship. They planned to keep the stern up during the rising tide.
However, the strain on the wire was too great and the hawser snapped, leaving Thetis to sink to the bottom of the sea.
Dr G Ramsay Stark, from Holyhead, flew in a seaplane to the site of the disaster and there met with the only four men to make it out of the Thetis alive, all suffering “asphyxia and severe shock”.
The bodies of the 99 men who suffocated remained inside Thetis for a further four months until the submarine was salvaged from the bottom of Liverpool Bay.
Thetis was first beached at Traeth Bychan in Anglesey and then towed to Holyhead. Large crowds watched as the grim business of removing the corpses was carried out.
Many were buried in Holyhead with full naval honours – coffins draped with the Union Jack proceeded through the town, a firing party fired three volleys over the graves and a bugler played the Last Post and the Reveille.
A prominent figure in the cortege was survivor Leading Stoker Arnold, who reportedly “seemed in his mind to be re-enacting those grim scenes in the Thetis, when over a hundred men struggled for their existence, and when 99 of them carried themselves with calm when faced with death in its most horrible form”.
Forty-four of those lost were interred in a mass grave in the town, where a memorial was dedicated on November 7 1947.
The sinister mode of death horrified many, ahead of the approach of World War II.
The Thetis was eventually taken back to Birkenhead, and after an extensive rebuild was recommissioned as HMS Thunderbolt.
After the accident, the inquiry failed to find how, when or by who the number five bow cap was opened. But as a result a clip was fitted to all rear torpedo tube doors to prevent a similar disaster – it is still called the Thetis Clip to this day.
Glyn Jones, from Rhyl, was just a teenager when he watched the tragedy unfold on the news. The 91-year-old, who was living with his father in Greenfield, Flintshire at the time, recalled: “The sinking of the HMS Thetis was a very big disaster and was all over the news.
“I remember watching footage of rescuers who could hear banging coming from inside and were banging back to let those trapped inside know that they were there.
“You could see the vessel sticking about 18 inches out of the water at low tide.
“It was certainly an event that shook North Wales.”
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