HMS Truculent

The days leading up to the trial starting on the 11th January saw the crew undertaking general duties aboard HMS Truculent whilst she was undergoing work at Chatham Dockyard, they were working within the compartments and also mending and making clothing. On the 12th December, one month before the accident, HMS Truculent was moved into No.2 Basin where the final A/S, E/S and W/T acceptance trials were undertaken. Three days later the Torpedo party were ensuring the torpedoes were ready for discharge trials; these trials were carried out at 11am and 1pm the same day. These carried into the following day and were also carried out later in the month. On the 17th December the D.S.E.A. seals were checked, and again on the 24th December and 30th December, each time they were found to be correct. Reading through the Log Book for December 1949 you can see after weeks of being occupied with cleaning, general repairs and clothes mending a flurry of activity takes place on and after the 21st December, at this point the submarine is provided with 5 tons of distilled water, the returning and stowing of the submarine’s stores, refuelling and the preparation of leaving the Dockyard for trials relating to the work carried out on her. HMS Truculent was again moved on the 29th December to No.8 Dock within the Dockyard with the crew still working within the compartments and painting the ship. With such menial work being carried out there was little chance of any of them having the slightest idea of the chaos and devastation lying ahead of them in the next few weeks.

HMS Truculent left Chatham Dockyard on the 11th January 1950 to carry out her sea trials in the North Sea, the trials were to carry on through that night with her returning to Chatham on the night of the 12th. Aboard her were her crew of 56 and 18 Dockyard workers who would make adaptions as needed during the trials. Nothing of note happened during the trials and she had completed her snorkel tests, engine tests and diving operations without problem. The submarine surfaced in the afternoon to head back to Chatham. Mr Dennis Griffiths, a 22 year old ship’s fitter from Gillingham, was one of a group who had sat down in the aft stokers’ mess to eat his supper whilst they were returning to Chatham. The submarine was travelling at 9 knots in the Thames Estuary and was 8 miles east of Sheerness when disaster struck at 7.05 pm.

Leading Hand, Fred Henley, had had an early supper so he could relieve his ‘oppo’ in the Control Room, as with the trials everything seemed normal and there was no reason to think that they would not be back at Chatham Dockyard very soon. However, when, from the bridge, came the order “Bring the Manual of Seamanship up, at once!” it took Fred by surprise, and marked the beginning of a string of unusual and disastrous incidents. Although surprised Fred quickly collected the book from the chart cabinet and climbed the ladder up to the bridge and handed the manual to Acting Sub Lieutenant Leslie Arthur Frew. This was Sub Lt. Frew’s first trip aboard a submarine after training lasting 3 months, he flicked through the manual until he found the page he was looking for and then handed it to the Navigating Officer, Lt. Humphrey-Baker and the Captain, Lt. Charles Bowers. The night was very cold and very dark with a clear star lit sky, Fred took a few seconds to enjoy the fresh night before heading back down the ladder towards the Control Room.

Sub Lt. Frew had ascended to the conning tower at about 6.35pm, followed by Lt. John Edward Stevenson the engineer officer, where Lt. Bowers and Lt. Humphries-Baker were discussing a set of ships lights they could see on the port bow; these consisted of a top green light, followed by a white light and two lower red lights, these lights when first seen were about 2 miles away. With the confusion as to the lights on the vessel Lt. Bowers then gave the order to alter course 10 degrees to port, with this Lt. Humphry-Baker checked the submarines position on the chart to make sure that there was sufficient water for the Truculent’s surface draft of 13ft. Another order came shortly after telling the crew to “Slow”; at this point the approaching vessel seemed much closer, only 300-400 yards away. The lights on the oncoming vessel were not recognised, this was the reason for Fred Henley having to collect the Manual from the cabinet and bring it to the bridge, at this point the oncoming ship was assumed to be stationary as the Port of London Authority stated that a red light on the masthead meant a ship was stationary and not under command whereas the reality was that the approaching ship was travelling at 10 knots. Once the Captain realised this a string of urgent orders were calmly given, one being “full astern together” and ordered the helm to be put hard to starboard, Lt. Stevenson went to the port telegraph to carry out the orders and turned it to ‘Astern’. However, the oncoming vessel, a Swedish Tanker named Divina, was far too close and struck the submarine, she rammed into the fore end starboard side near the torpedo tubes, gauging a huge hole in her side. The two ships were locked together for 10 to 15 seconds, as the Divina fell away the bow of HMS Truculent dipped down. The Captain then gave the order “Stop together”, at this point Lt. Humphry-Baker “jumped” to the telegraphs, which were 6ft behind him and put both to ‘stop’, the next order was a normal precaution when a sudden list on a submarine was noted and when it was suspected air was escaping from the tanks, this order was for the low pressure blow valves to be opened. Then came the order “Shut all bulkhead and watertight doors.” The Captain ordered everyone on the bridge to go down to the control room.

Fred Henley was still descending from the bridge after delivering the Manual of Seamanship:

"I was not even half way down the ladder when I heard the Captain issue a string of urgent orders. Although he did not raise his voice, just by its tone, I somehow felt that somehow we were in a dangerous position. Still on the ladder on my way down to the Control Room I heard a tremendous crash, immediately followed by the loud noise, not unlike the crying of a baby, as steel plating was being ripped open. Truculent lurched over until she was practically on her side before slowly coming back on even keel. I could hear the sea pouring in, not only below me but also water cascading down the hatch, nearly knocking me off the ladder. I held on, realising our boat was sinking. Within seconds HMS Truculent, a fine British warship had been changed into a sinking wreck that soon rested on the seabed - some 80 feet below the surface.First priority was to get out. As taught in training, I opened my mouth to breathe out, let go of the ladder, but using it as a guide I floated upwards. Soon I was clear of the boat and very quickly on the surface.”

The lookout, Seaman Powell entered the hatch before Sub Lt. Frew, before Frew could get down through the lower hatch it had closed, trapping his arm and trapping him in the conning tower. He has been quoted as saying “When the conning tower filled with water the hatch came open and I came up to the surface.” Lt. Stevenson was waiting to enter the hatch after Lt. Frew but before he had the chance he was caught in the freezing water that washed over the submarine as she started to sink, Lt. Stevenson was caught beneath the gantry and sucked down with the ship before he had the chance to escape and reach the surface.

Within the submarine Dennis Griffiths found four plates of dinner in his lap and cups of tea falling from the table in the aft stoker’s mess as the boats collided, he, as was most of the men onboard, enjoying, or waiting for, their supper in high spirits and joking with Second class Engine Room Artificer Edward Buckingham, who was celebrating his 32nd birthday, Dockyard Surveyor Roy Stevens had just finished shaving when the ships collided. HMS Truculent sunk in just 4 minutes. Sea water gushed into the forward Torpedo Room through the huge gash in the hull made by the Divina, whilst the submarine was sinking Stoker Mechanic Kendall closed the watertight door between the Engine Room and the after-end, preventing the submarine from filling up further with sea water and after the ship had finished its decent, in the short time before the lights went out, a civilian by the name Stevens managed to check the depth gauge, the submarine was resting 42 feet below the surface, at the bottom of the Thames Estuary. Stevens said later “I knew then that an escape could be made. All that worried me was what would happen on top.”

The men were ordered to aft by First Lt. Frederick Joseph Hindes and around 50 to 60 men moved calmly but quickly into the Engine Room, shutting the bulkhead door behind them which took around 2 ½ minutes, with so many men it was feared that the overcrowding of the room could cause further problems and the group were split with around half of the men being ordered to enter the after end Engineer’s Mess. Due to the greater pressure in the Engine Room there was a struggle to open the bulkhead door, however, with an effort the men opened the door and after 25 to 30 men had entered the door was again closed. In the engine Room Chief Engine Room Artificer Francis Walter Hine took charge of the group. Although there were enough D.S.E.A. escape sets for each member on board the submarine not everyone in the Engine Room and Engineer’s Mess were able to have one due to them being stowed throughout the ship. Francis Hine ensured that all the weak swimmers were given a set and that everyone knew the correct procedure when leaving the submarine and swimming to the surface, some crew members gave up their escape sets to those more needy. Engine Room Artificer Frank Andrew Mossman was on watch in the Engine room when the collision occurred and picked up a D.S.E.A. set, he later said that everything went smoothly and that there was not the slightest panic during their time on the sunken submarine. There was a leak in the Engine Room which was investigated and found to be coming from the Snort Induction, although there may have been other leaks within the compartment the men did not search for them.

In the Engineer’s Mess Lt. Frederick Joseph Hindes assumed responsibility for the group in the compartment, among these was Dennis Griffiths, he was one of the men who requested that the mark buoy was released, Frederick Hindes agreed and they released it at around 7.10pm. Frederick Hindes, with his sense of order and calmness, ensured that the men in his compartment were all calm whilst trapped on the submarine. At 7.40 the decision was made to make an immediate escape from the submarine, this decision was made because although they should wait until they knew for certain that there were Navy vessels waiting to pick them up they knew they were in a busy shipping lane and imagined that the boat they collided with and other vessels would certainly be above waiting to pick up any survivors, both groups of men began to flood their compartments and the twill trunks were rigged. Back in the Engine Room Francis Hine opened the sea valves and began to slowly flood the room, to do this both the main engine muffler valves and the snort muffler valves were opened. As the water rose the pressure in the compartment increased, before the escape hatch could be opened the crew had to wait until the pressure inside the compartment matched the pressure outside the submarine, if they did not match the sea would rush into the compartment and the likelihood was that the men inside would be killed. Whilst the men were waiting they began to laugh and joke, even a song was begun and everyone joined in, Petty Officer Cook Ray Fry stated afterwards “It didn't seem long, because everyone laughed and joked as if they were in the local [pub]. But you felt bad inside." As the water level rose the men floated up to the roof and held on to what they could to stay afloat, the air was hot and foul, someone joked “This is one thing you can't blame on the Socialist Government!” which was accompanied by a laugh. Flooding the compartment took a total of around 45 minutes.

When flooding of the Engineer’s Mess was began through the D.S.E.A. flood valve it was found to be too slow so to increase the flow of water coming in the weed traps of the H.P. compressor and the signal gun were opened, the interlock of the signal gun had to be broken to allow this. After 30 minutes Lt. Hindes took two clips from the hatch and opened the vent in the escape hatch, due to the angle the submarine was laying in it was found that there was not a water seal on the twill trunk as there should have been so the clips were replaced and Lt. Hindes returned back into the compartment. After a short wait he returned and removed the clips again, after doing this he asked L. E. M. Miller to hold onto his legs whilst he dropped down the trunking, knowing that when the hatch opened the bubble of air he was in would be violently sucked out of the compartment, L. E. M. Miller was unable to hold Lt. Hindes due to the force of the air bubble being forced out of the submarine. In the Engine Room next door Petty Officer Cook Fry was sent to open the vent on the escape hatch in order to flood the twill trunk, Ray Fry, wearing a D.S.E.A. set, was to return to report that all was well for the men to leave the submarine, however, when he opened the hatch he was dragged out of the submarine, as was Lt. Hindes, by the air bubble. When he did not return Chief Engine Room artificer Hine went into the twill trunk and confirmed that the hatch was open and the men could start leaving. The men in both compartments were waiting patiently in a queue “as though we were waiting for a bus,” until it was their turn to leave. In the engine Room Francis Hine ordered those without sets to leave first, to do this they had to dive below the water toward the floor, crawl into the canvas funnel and then swim up through the hatch and to the surface of the sea, which took roughly 40 seconds. As Engine Room Artificer Mossman swam through the hatch he was caught on a piece of deck rigging “I was caught on it for about a minute, but it seemed like an eternity” he said later. The last two men to leave the submarine’s Engine Room were Ed Buckingham and Chief Hine, as the senior officer Hine waited for Ed to leave first, Chief Hine then followed him out of the submarine. In the Engineer’s Mess the remaining men waited until the rush of air from the compartment had ceased and the water had risen enough to form a seal around the twill trunk, although Lt. Hindes had been ejected from the submarine, nobody took over his command of the group, despite this the men remained calm and left the submarine in turn and in an orderly manner, leaving the submarine lying on the seabed of the Thames estuary roughly between Whitstable and Foulness Island, Essex.

The men that left the submarine believed that someone must have informed the admiralty of what had happened, little did they know that only those aboard HMS Truculent knew the details of the disaster, the crew of the Divina had not seen what they had hit, and although they saw the lights of the submarine they had not seen her silhouette nor any identifying marks as to what she was. After the collision Divina stayed in the area to pick up any survivors, they threw out lifebelts and launched a lifeboat, although didn’t stop the ship, this meant that some of the survivors from the bridge who were holding on to the lifebelt were left in the freezing water for an hour with a strong ebbing tide before being picked up by the ship. The Captain of the Divina, Carl Hommerberg, recalls that night "I had no idea we had struck a submarine. We all thought it was some kind of surface vessel and that there would be survivors swimming in the water. The survivors we did pick up were not in any fit state to talk and we continued rescue operations without realizing that it was a submarine we had hit." Even after this amount of time the Admiralty had still not been informed of the accident, the wireless aboard the Divina had not worked for 12 months and although the ship carried distress rockets the crew, still believing they had hit a small surface vessel, did not think it was necessary to fire any.

The Admiralty was not informed of the disaster until 8.15pm after the Dutch vessel Almdijk arrived on the scene, the crew of the Divina used a megaphone to ask them to send a message stating a ship had been sunk, at this time the first of the men that had escaped from the Engine Room were reaching the surface. The Admiralty sprung into action ordering destroyers, tugs, frigates, tenders and salvage vessels to the scene. A Lancaster bomber that had been ordered to pick up divers from Kinloss in Scotland crashed soon after take off, killing the five men onboard. Almdijk took five survivors to Gravesend; these men were Lt. Bowers, Lt. Stevenson, Lt. Humphry-Baker, Sub Lt. Frew and Leading seaman Fred Henley, before they were picked up Fred remembers the scene "Here I could hear men shouting out for help but because of the darkness I could not see them. Swimming aimlessly around in the icy cold water, I became aware that the ebb tide was carrying us all towards the sea. Soon I lost any idea of time and it seemed that I had been in the water for ages. Rapidly I was getting to the point that I did not care anymore. Shouting for help appeared to be useless, nobody could hear us. Ships had passed some distance away but they did not see me. Another ship was nearer and again I shouted and waved my arms. They must either have seen me or heard me, because she stopped, lowered a boat and very soon I was aboard in the warmth of a cabin on the freighter. Later I learned she was the Dutch freighter ‘Almdijk’. As soon as I had given the essential details to its officers, they radioed the authorities ashore for whom it was the first indication of the tragedy. Immediately the rescue services were alerted. By then I knew that I had been in the water for an hour.” These men spent a night at Gravesend’s Seaman’s Hospital before being picked up by a Royal Navy bus and taken to Chatham for a full medical. All of the men that were trapped within the submarine had managed to escape, however, they were now floating in the freezing sea, the night was very dark and the ebbing tide very strong. The men tried to stay together however one by one the groups were growing smaller as another man was washed away. Edward Buckingham was floating with Francis Hine until Francis was swept away. "One minute we were swimming together, and the next he was being swept away from me." He lost a good friend that night. The Divina rescued 10 men; they were Roy Stevens, Dennis Griffiths, Edward Buckingham, Frank Mossman, Ray Fry, E. Cheriton, G. Hillier, R. Almond, Les Stickland and Robert Kendall.

Before the men were feeling well enough to be able to talk nobody knew what had happened aboard the Truculent after the collision, there was no way of knowing if any of the men had escaped the sunken submarine and it was assumed the men were still aboard her, with this in mind divers and frogmen were rushed to the area. They spent hours diving into the murky, cold waters to patiently tap the side of the submarine and wait for a response. These men worked throughout the daylight hours of the 13th January, with no response it was declared that anybody left in the submarine would have perished as any oxygen inside would only have lasted for a few hours.

Once the loss of the submarine was reported family members and friends were informed and the long wait to find out if their loved ones had survived began, Maud Hine, wife of Chief Engine room Artificer Sam Hine, was reported to have said "I've been through all this before, in 1942 my husband's submarine was sunk. I waited four months for news. Then a telegram came telling me he was a prisoner." The relatives collected around the gates of the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham to wait for news, at 6pm the following day the admiralty announced “. . . No hope can now be entertained that there will be any further survivors from H.M. Submarine Truculent." King George expressed his condolences "Please convey to the next of kin of all those who have lost their lives the deep sympathy of the Queen and myself.” Sam Hine was one of the men who perished in the sea after escaping the stricken submarine.

Some relatives received good news however, on the 17th January 1950 the Suffolk Press reported:

When Maudie Kendall of Cavendish heard that her husband was one of 15 survivors from H.M.S. Truculent the tears ran down her cheeks, Mrs Kendall who lives at Park View, Cavendish, is the wife of 22 year old Ronald Kendall, Stoker Mechanic on the submarine Truculent, she did not know he was trapped in the steel craft in the Thames estuary, her first information about the accident came at 8 a.m. on Friday morning and had only to wait one and half hours in awful suspense before a telegram arrived, trembling she ripped it open, it read “All O.K. see you soon”.

The Divina picked up two bodies when she picked up some of the survivors, the bodies of those washed away began to be picked up over the following few days, on the 13th January ten bodies were recovered from the Thames Estuary, another six were found in Barrow Deep, Essex, and more were found in the following weeks, however, many bodies still remain missing. Each time a body was recovered Fred Henley was contacted and asked to come and identify the body, this was not always possible and it was a horrendous job to have to do, but it was one of the kindest things someone could do for the families of those men who remained missing. Eventually Fred had to refuse to do anymore, he said “For some weeks after the accident, I was called out a number of times by the police authorities when a body was found and they asked me to identify it. As the days went by, this task became very gruesome indeed until I finally refused to do so.”

All together 64 men lost their lives on the night of the 12th January 1950, only 15 of the men survived.

Bristol Crash

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