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The Loss of HM Submarine ARTEMIS 1 July 1971

Paul Kemp is a naval historian (and NSL member) who has written a number of books on submarine history. He is currently engaged in writing a two volume history. of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service for publication in time for the centenary of HM Submarine HOLLAND l ‘s commissioning There was nothing particularly unusual about the evening of 1 July 1971 in HMS DOLPHIN, home of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service. The working day had ended and only the duty watches were onboard the various submarines secured to the jetty. Just after 1905 the Trot Sentry of HMS OCELOT, an Oberon class diesel electric submarine, noticed that HMS ARTEMIS, an older A class submarine moored inboard of OCELOT, was very low in the water-so low that the sea was lapping round the lid of the after loading hatch. As water began to pour into the submarine through the hatch, OCELOT’s Trot Sentry raised the alarm. But it was too late: ARTEMIS subsided gently into the muddy waters of Haslar Creek as the few men onboard tumbled up through the forward torpedo hatch. Three were trapped in the submarine and made an escape 10 hours later. The incident was treated with a certain amount of hilarity in the press. However, such a trivial disposing of the affair hid a serious situation where the submarine’s command structure had collapsed. ARTEMIS’ loss could have ended as a disaster with major loss of life. So just what had happened to cause the submarine to sink on that fine July evening?

ARTEMIS bad just been unlocked following the fitting of trials instruments prior to the submarine deploying to the West Indies. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Roger Godfrey, was away at RAF Bascombe Down having discussions on forthcoming exercises. The First Lieutenant was on leave, so the docking separation was entrusted to the Third Hand who was
currently on repon. The inquiry into ARTEMIS’ loss criticized the decision to leave him in command on the grounds that he was, “Neither qualified nor competent to perform what in fact is an exacting task, and appreciated little of the problems which might arise. The succession of organizational and personal failures which occurred during the next few days may well have stemmed from this first unacceptable decision”.

The docking operation was conducted in an almost cavalier fashion. The end result was that when ARTEMIS undocked on the afternoon of 1 July, she was much heavier in the water than when she had been docked. As the dock was being flooded up, the Dock Master asked for Number 5 main ballast tank to be flooded to the waterline with the vent open so as to achieve the correct unlocking trim. As the water rose above the inlets for Number 4 main ballast tank, the Kingston valves were opened as was the usual practice. Unfortunately the siphon pipes to the after fuel group had been left open through negligence so that water vented from Number 4 tank into the fuel group. After the docking all ballast tanks were blown to full buoyancy but it was not appreciated that the after fuel group of tanks contained a good deal of water. No record had been kept of the submarine’s draught marks when she was docked, so when the Dock Master commented that ARTEMIS seemed light in the water, the ship’s officers were in no position to check his assertion but merely accepted is word. In fact ARTEMIS was almost three inches lower in the water than when she had entered the dock. The Engineer Officer then suggested that Number 5 main ballast tank be flooded to return the submarine to her usual trim. Although this action did
not affect the submarine’s overall trim, it did appreciably lower the stem.

ARTEMIS was returned to DOLPHIN on the morning of I July in a cold move. The OOD, the Third Hand, left the submarine without checking on the duty watch organisation or detailing what work was to be done in the afternoon. As a result he was not in a position to know that the submarine’s watertight integrity was being weakened by the unauthorized opening of hatches on the casing. Submarine Standing Orders (which are mandatory) clearly state that only two hatches can be open at any one time. Additional hatches could be opened for a specific purpose but only with special permission. and had to be shut once the necessary work had been completed. That afternoon in ARTEMIS, the forward loading hatch was open as the principle means of entry to and exit from the boat. Subsequently the after loading hatch. was opened in order to remove an item of equipment. The Torpedo Officer then changed his mind and removed the item through the after escape hatch instead. On completion of the task he ordered a Leading Seaman to shut the hatches. However, the rating completely forgot to shut the after loading hatch and merely pushed the escape hatch shut from the outside without clipping it home. Although the hatch appeared shut, the lid was resting about half an inch clear of the housing. At the same time the leading seaman rigging the shore power line through the conning tower hatch found that the lead was defective as were two others that he tried. He made no attempt to shut the conning tower hatch but instead rigged a fourth lead through the engine room hatch (which had been opened in the forenoon to remove fuel hoses) and then forward through the engine room watertight door to the control room where he connected it to Number Two Battery Panel. This action fundamentally compromised the submarine’s watertight integrity. At some time during this period the gun tower hatch was also left opened. Thus in a submarine which was already unusually low in the water, six out of seven hatches were open.

Lieutenant Commander Godfrey returned to HMS DOLPHIN shortly after 1230. He made no attempt to visit his submarine but contented himself with receiving verbal reports from his officers in the wardroom bar over a drink. He then returned home at 1300 and played no further part in the proceedings.

During the move back to DOLPHIN the possibility of first filling the external and emergency fuel tanks was considered. No clear orders were given although the CMEM’ was given the impression he could do so if be wished. Neither the Third Hand nor the Engineer Officer realised the significance this evolution would have on the submarine’s trim. The combination of first filling with Number 5 tank flooded would be to remove all reserve of buoyancy from aft of the fin. The forward tanks were filled first and then shortly after 1700 work started on filling the after tanks. There was no supervision of the operation. The CMEM, who was responsible, chose to remain in the comfort of his mess. He did not leave the mess to check: on matters even when the LMEM told him about bubbling vents on Number 4 ballast tank:. Rounds were carried out at 1600 and at 1800 but no record was written up as the Rounds book could not be found. No one shut any of the open hatches on the casing, or even queried why all but one of the submarine’s hatches were open. When the Duty Officer went ashore at 1820 be failed to notice that the after plane guards were well under water. This indicated that the first filling had dropped the stem by nearly 18 inches. The scene was now fully set for the disaster which was to follow, unless someone in authority recognised the pattern of incompetence and corrected the errors. No one did.

There were nine men onboard ARTEMIS that evening. The Duty Petty Officer, Petty Officer David Guest, was on the casing. The Trot Sentry was at his post by the forward loading batch and the duty seaman was in the fin. The LMEM was first filling the tanks while five other ratings were inside the boat. At 1855 three cadets (aged between 12 and 14) from the DOLPHIN Sea Cadet Corps unit asked to visit the submarine and were shown round by the Trot Sentry. Meanwhile the Trot Sentry in OCELOT noticed There were nine men onboard ARTEMIS that evening. The Duty Petty Officer, Petty Officer David Guest, was on the casing. The Trot Sentry was at his post by the forward loading batch and the duty seaman was in the fin. The LMEM was first filling the tanks while five other ratings were inside the boat. At 1855 three cadets (aged between 12 and 14) from the DOLPHIN Sea Cadet Corps unit asked to visit the submarine and were shown round by the Trot Sentry. Meanwhile the Trot Sentry in OCELOT noticed that ARTEMIS was very low in the water and called out the Duty that ARTEMIS was very low in the water and called out the Duty Watch as did the Trot Sentry in OTUS which was lying in the next trot. OTUS Commanding Officer came up onto the casing and went across to the jetty to raise the alarm.

ARTEMIS was very low in the water which was lapping round the edge of the after loading hatch. In fact water had been pouring into the submarine unnoticed for the past 10 to 20 minutes through the half inch gap in the after escape batch. Some 12 tons of water had entered the submarine and brought the after loading hatch to the waterline. The LMEM saw water pouring in through the after loading hatch and went down to the engine room in an attempt to isolate the after ends. However he found that the door between the motor room and after ends was blocked by mattresses and bunk frames. He then tried to shut the engine room hatch but it was blocked with the shore power lead. He then went forward to shut the watertight door between the engine room and the control room but this too was blocked with the power lead.

Meanwhile Petty Officer Guest ordered the three Sea Cadets out through the forward loading hatch. This they did with commendable coolness, considering the water was coming in over the lip of the hatch. They were followed by three other members of the duty watch, the last of whom had to pull himself up out through the incoming water. The Trot Sentry then made the difficult but correct decision to shut the loading hatch although he knew there were still some other men inside the submarine. He then stood on the hatch to keep it shut until the submarine sank underneath him. Three seamen escaped out of the fin but made no attempt to shut either the conning tower or gun tower hatches. This simple action would have slowed the entry of water into the submarine considerably.

Inside the submarine, Petty Officer Guest and two other ratings, MEM Donald Beckett and LMEM Robert Croxen were trying vainly to shut the watertight door between the control room and the engine room. The power lead prevented the door being fully shut although after salvage it was found that the dogs had been partially engaged. They retreated forward and tried unsuccessfully to shut the conning tower hatch from inside. They were working in complete darkness, the lights having failed and many of the portable emergency lights being away for repair. By this time water was swirling around their knees, the submarine had a sharp bow up angle and their progress was impeded by the wardroom door having come off its housing. It was clear that they could do no more than look to their own safety. They entered the torpedo stowage compartment and successfully managed to isolate it. The fact that the Trot Sentry had stood on the lid of the loading hatch enabled them to get the clips on from the inside. In time they were able to establish underwater telephone communication with OCELOT. They then rigged the twill trunk in order to carry out a compartment escape but in such shallow water it took 10 hours to flood up the compartment and equalise the pressure. First to leave the boat was LMEM Croxen (who was only 22 years old), followed by MEM Beckett and Petty Officer Guest. The enquiry noted that, “The skill and determination of the ratings concerned, together with the Trot Sentry, are the only redeeming features of an otherwise sorry tale”. Six days later ARTEMIS was raised by the salvage vessels GOLDEN EYE and KINLOSS and the following year was sold to the Portsmouth scrap dealer Harry Pounds for breaking up. For some years her battered and rusted hull could be seen among the detritus of Pounds’ yard from the M27 motorway.

The enquiry into ARTEMIS’ loss was conducted by Flag Officer Submarines, Vice Admiral Sir John Roxburgh, a distinguished wartime submariner and an officer not known for mincing his words. The results of the enquiry were published in a Lessons Learned document, which Roxburgh ordered to be fully disseminated throughout Submarine Command and read by every officer and senior rating. The document concluded, “The submarine sank, not because of material failures, but because of the failure at all levels to maintain high standards in basic submarine practices … the officers onboard so lacked awareness of the risks of life in submarines, that they failed to relate the individual abnormalities which they knew to exist, and failed to take corrective action for any of them” .

ARTEMIS was an old boat and her loss barely dented the British order of battle, particularly given the burgeoning nuclear fleet submarine programme. Four years after her loss the last of her sisters went to the breakers. However, the lessons of this sorry tale are so obvious that they hardly need restating. Yet these simple truths are the ones that need emphasising time and time again. In August 1926 the British submarine N.29 had sunk in Devonport causing six deaths-in circumstances very similar to those of ARTEMIS. The old saying that “He who forgets history is condemned to repeat it,. can come horribly true..


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