Atorpedo battery can be dangerous, as some of us well know; but High Test Peroxide (HTP), as a fuel, is very nasty stuff indeed if mishandled.
Granted, HTP packs a powerful punch at fairly low cost; but as Dick Boyle, Officer-in-Charge of the U.S.Navy’s experimental midget submarine X-1 (briefly in service 1956-57) said “high concentration unstabilized hydrogen peroxide has no place in a fighting ship”. The Royal Navy discovered this, the hard way, on 16 June 1955 when the 950 ton submarine SIDON went to the bottom of Portland Harbor alongside her depot ship MAIDSTONE.
SIDON had embarked torpedoes of a new type fueled by HTP: they were fined with blowing heads (not warheads) for test firings at sea later in the day. The submarine was due to sail at 0830; and the captain, Lieutenant Commander Hugh Verry, was already on the bridge with First Lieutenant Ed Puxley and Engineer Officer Roy Hawkins.
At 0825 officers at breakfast in MAIDSTONE’s wardroom on the upper deck heard a dull thud followed by the shrill sound of alarm bells. Surgeon Lieutenant Charles Rhodes, finishing two years National Service, went to the ship’s side to see smoke belching from SIDON’s conning tower: other hatches were shut, as normal when preparing for sea. Another eye-witness saw not just smoke but “a sheet of flame” shooting up “through the conning tower, followed by more flames and smoke; then bits of equipment and furniture, hats and coats, clouds of paper were blown into the air”. Engine Room Anificer Peter Leech and Petty Officer William (Happy) Day were checking the diving panel in the control room some 100 feet, and separated by two bulkheads with open doors, from the source of the explosion which occurred in the fore-ends when one of the HTP fish was manually loaded into its tube. Immediately before this operation the valve on the torpedo’s storage tank had been opened to admit fuel to the engine. It seems that the volatile HTP met din or a foreign substance when passing through the connecting pipe: this acted, violently, as a catalyst. Men in the torpedo loading space, including the torpedo officer and an engineer officer from the depot ship, were blown to pieces.
Leech, relatively distant in the control room, said there was a loud thud and a burst of orange flame followed by thick yellowish-green smoke. He was tossed ten feet through the door of the tiny radio shack at the after end of the compartment. Although dazed, he heard somebody shouting “everybody out of the boat” and climbed up the conning tower ladder to walk across gangplanks to the safety of MAIDSTONE. His colleague Day heard a “dull sort of bang” before the blast lifted him off his feet: the next thing he remembered was coming to in hospital.
Day was probably assisted by Surgeon Lieutenant Rhodes who had removed his spectacles, found and donned breathing apparatus, and raced down to SIDON where Steward Dereck Jones, on duty in MAIDSTONE’s wardroom, saw him “go down the hatch in a cloud of smoke” and, a minute later, “come up half-carrying an injured seaman.” Then Rhodes went down again. Four times he brought up a man from the smoke; but by the time he was attempting another rescue, a little later, the submarine’s bow section was low in the water-flooded through the damaged torpedo tube. The gallant young Surgeon Lieutenant was last glimpsed gasping and struggling with his breathing apparatus at the foot of the conning tower ladder just before SIDON sank.
Meanwhile, SIDON’s Captain, Jimmy and Engineer had sped down from the bridge. Hawkins started the low-pressure blower to suck out smoke, but this did little to clear the atmosphere. He then donned breathing apparatus and joined Verry, Puxley and Rhodes who were fighting a way forward, through piles of debris in the passageway, to see if they could “get some of the boys out”. But they found the fore-ends bulkhead door was almost wholly blocked; and soon afterwards, realising that the boat was sinking, Verry ordered “abandon ship”.
The 767 ton mooring vessel MOORDALE, berthed not far away, immediately came to assist when her master saw that SIDON was in trouble. The crew succeeded, with commendable speed, in securing a wire around the submarine’s stem; but they could not prevent SIDON slipping beneath the surface, bows first, at 0845. It all happened very quickly.
Frogmen from MAIDSTONE were equally swift to react, but there was no reply to their taps on the bottomed submarine’s bull. By early afternoon it had to be accepted that three officers and ten ratings, trapped in the boat, were dead.
The Royal Navy thereafter declined to use hazardous HTP in weaponry. The short-lived British boats with HTP Walter-type propulsion plants-EXPLORER and EXCALIBUR completed in 1956 and ’58-were nicknamed the two exploders; and Soviet sailors called their contemporary HTP Quebec-class boats cigarette lighters.
Although it is not known, at the time of writing. exactly what initiated the fatal explosions in KURSK on 12 August 2000. it may be that the Russian Navy has failed to heed the lessons learned forty-five years ago in SIDON.