Royal Navy Submarine Service - WWII

A sailor's yarn related by

Pusser Jack

H33 - First War Vintage Boat

I went to sea on this boat at Christmas 1941 in the Western Approaches, to assist in the blockade of Brest and to prevent escape of the German high seas fleet. The boat was of first war vintage and of riveted construction, which creaked in heavy seas and leaked when dived. The German ships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst were in harbour and were considered a threat to the Royal Navy and supply routes. As a result, six submarines took up station 60 miles or so offshore in formation, outside the harbour. This was referred to as the "Iron Ring" round Brest. We saw no action but the sky was lit up night after night by heavy bombing raids on the town. Also, we clearly heard what we thought was depth charge action nearby.

The picture shows H33 at sea complete with torpedo loading derrick on the foredeck. On return to harbour after our patrol, we later learnt that H31 - our sister boat had been lost. While on the surface at night, a trimmed down position with hull awash was usual to reduce silhouette, while allowing diesels to operate and to charge the batteries. We had to keep the main hatch open to vent the boat and allow cooking, engine aspiration and smoking etc. Breaking seas would occasionally swamp the conning tower and tweak your ears as the diesels sucked air from the boat and reduced the pressure in the hull. A ton or so of water aboard as a result of a breaking swell could seriously affect the trim and heavy Atlantic swells are common off Ushant, due to the 3000 mile fetch and the prevailing sw winds.

My view, following analysis, is that H31, our sister ship, may have foundered due to a breaking sea and an upset trim. The sound of explosions could have been the pressure bulkheads imploding as the boat dived to the bottom, out of control, with the main hatch open. These boats were withdrawn from service and broken up soon after.

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Duty Watch

On Board P512

Here we are in Halifax on P512 in 1942- I'm duty watch by the torpedo loading hatch, the one on the right with the pistol in his belt. This was an ex "R" Class ex First War submarine of American origin and I went to sea on this boat during winter 1942. After crossing the Atlantic we arrived off Newfoundland and we then undertook a training programme with the Royal Canadian Nav, day running out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the company of Corvettes who were "Ping Training". The highlight of the trip was a visit to a genuine American Indian Reservation while on leave. There was plenty of excitement as the drink laws were arcane and as a result severeal of us ended up facing the mnusic shoreside. More exitement ocurred when our shore billet burnt to the ground while we were at sea.

Machine Gun

Target Practice

Getting in some machine gun practice on P512 from the Conning Tower. I starred as an extra in a propaganda film at this point, featuring P512 and a Corvette. It was called Corvette K225 and released in the USA in black and white in 1943, starring Randolph Scott. In the UK the film was called "The Nelson Touch". We had to dress in German uniforms and then undertake gun action against the Flower Class Warship. We drew lots to see who would "star" in the film, and operate the deck gun. Dummy rounds were no use as the resultant splash was too puny. Instead we were required to use live ammo. The skipper had a serious word and impressed upon us that we were not under any circumstaces to hit the Corvette with live rounds. As the usual guns crew had been ousted in favour of those who had drawn lots, we endee up with a stoker in the gun crew! He was first one up at the hatch as the cameras began to roll. He mistook the order "one clip" and fully opened the upper Conning Tower hatch as we surfaced. Water poured in and the crew below closed the lower hatch. The stoker and I were up to our necks in water at this point and we both felt close to drowning, but as the boat surfaced the hatch below was opened and the water level dropped. We then slid down ropes to commence gun action and rounds soared away over the masts of the Corvette. Later on when ashore, the Canadians ribbed us with the chant "the Limeys' can't even hit a barn door at ten paces."

Humorous events were forgotten as we turned for home in mid 1942 at the end of the training session. While crossing the Atlantic a Canadian warship mistook one of our boats for a U Boat and rammed it. The boat sank with all hands and we lost some good friends. It was our sister boat P514 and the date was 21/6/42.

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H.M.S. Unrivalled - The North Atlantic

I also went to sea on H.M.S. Unrivalled - shown in this picture. She was built by Vickers Armstrong and launched on 16/2/42. She had a length of 197 feet and displaced 545 tons and had a complement on 31 crew. Speed was 12 knots on the surface and 9 knots when submerged on electric motors. It was fitted with four 21" torpedo tubes and one 3" deck gun. The boat was scrapped at Briton Ferry in South Wales in 1946.

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H.M.S. Unrivalled

T Class

H.M.S. Unrivalled underway at sea and I joined her at Rothesay off the west coast of Scotland. I shipped as 2nd Coxwain and sailed to attack U Boats shadowing the Russian convoys. The North Sea suffered from fresh water intrusion in the vicinity of the fjords. It was the Coxwain's job to maintain trim and this was difficult as the water layers were of different salinity and density.

The line drawing shows Unrivalled in which we made North Sea patrols covering convoys to Russia and seeking enemy shipping in the area south of Greenland. The weather was bitter and the boat iced up heavily on the surface. The patrol was more of a battle with the weather rather than hostile warships and the visibility was poor, leaving us with little opportunity for action. When we returned to Rothesay, we had to play steam hoses on the hatches to open them, due to ice and rust build up.

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T Class

H.M.S. Totem - Alongside

This was a "T" Class Boat built at Devonport shipyard in 1944. It displaced 1300 tons and was 274 feet long and had a crew of 65. Speed was 15 knots on the surface and 8 knots submerged. I joined this boat in early 1945 from the Dunoon base on the Isle of Bute, on the west coast of Scotland. I revisited our old haunts in Rothesay and Dunoon in October 2000 by CalMac Ferry - not much has changed! In 1945 the boat was moored alongside the Depot Ship in Holy Loch and we set sail immediately for the Med. Shortly after, we spliced the mainbrace with a double rum ration, while off the blazing lights ashore at Blackpool, as "sparks" had picked up the expected VE day broadcast.

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Depot Ship

H.M.S. Totem - Malta Patrols

HMS Totem was operating in the Mediterranean and we were based in Sliema Creek on Malta at this time and we were required to undertake patrols in the eastern Med. The intention was to intercept supply convoys to North Africa and to sink enemy shipping. I returned there after the war in 1976 and a small plaque had been placed on the wall commemorating the efforts of the Submarine Flotilla during the war.

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H.M.S. Totem - Malta

While alongside in harbour we were required to sleep ashore and fequently the boats were dived by the duty watch when air raids took place. On one occasion we powered up the town lighting after a raid, using our generators. Three boats were lost to air raids - P36, P39 and Pandora. The Med was a difficult area to operate in and the clarity of the water and the bright sunlight made boat detection from the air rather easy at periscope depth. There were extensive minefields in the Med as well, and these took their toll. There were 41 RN Boats sunk in the Mediterranean during WWII.

Our favourite treat was "Big Eats" ashore and afterwards we would try and avoid paying the taxi by doing a runner on the pierhed. We usually made it and as the first turn of the screw pays all debts ashore we had an incentive to get financially ahead. From Valetta Harbour in Malta we set off for Freemantle in Australia. Shortly after, we were on patrol in the Malacca Straits off the East Indies. Our base and Depot Ship was at Trincomalee.

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H.M.S. Totem - Malta

The picture shows a photo I took in 1976 of the plaque on the wall in Malta, commenmorating the Flotilla's losses. We were on patrol in the same area as United States boats which were "dry" and had no alcohol aboard. However, they had icecream and Coca-Cola! We did a good deal of swapping food supplies! They carried masses of food as they were much larger ocean going boats - similar to the prewar British River Class boats. Later on in the patrol Sparks never lived down failing to hear the first broadcast for VJ day. We spliced the mainbrace again. I was at sea in Totem for both VE and VJ days.

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Grog Hatch

H.M.S. Totem - Promotion to "Rum Captain"

Here's one of the crew loading up the rum ration through the torpedo hatch forward. I was now acting 2nd Coxwain on the boat (known as "Scratch") which was a step up and with it came responsibility for the rum locker. Needless to say I lost the key to this on one occasion and was not popular for this error - which I soon rectified. Rum was issued at the skipper's discretion as on all Royal Navy ships at that time. This was genuine Pusser's with a very high octane rating. The spirit was not cut with water as on surface ships and was not usually issued immediately before surfacing; as the combined effects of fresh air and alcohol made standing upright difficult. Repayment of minor debts was by "sippers" from your tot and larger ones were repaid by "gulpers".

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H.M.S. Totem - Mantra of the Pole

The picture shows the replacement Totem Pole installed in 1965 taken while alongside H.M.S. Dolphin. Rumour had it that if Totem sailed without the totempole, harm would befall it. My original snap of the pole taken in 1945 can be seen on As with all things nautical, superstition is a matter taken seriously - like never changing a ship's name. Totem was a lucky boat which survived the war and carried out many patrols thereafter. By 1965 the wooden totempole was seriously affected by rot and had to be replaced. The replacement pole shown i the photo is now preserved in the Dolphin Museum at Gosport.

However, the boat was sold, renamed and the pole discarded. The boat was lost soon after - in January 1968.

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Submarine Losses - All Navies - WWII

At the start of the war there were some 54 boats in service and 164 were built during the war. Of those, 82 were lost, including their crews, made up of 341 Officers and 2801 other rates, who did not return. Eighty-two boats was a high number compared to the American boats lost (52), but a very low number compared to the German Kreigsmarine U Boat losses (637).

Direct comparisons between the different submarine services is not really possible and HM Submarines made up only 3% of the Royal Navy. We were called the Silent Service and had a tradition of taking volunteers only. I was paid one shilling a day extra (submarine pay) over and above the Royal Navy rate of pay.

The submarine service won 9 Victoria Crosses during the second war and four of those were allocated to X Boat crews. The late Coxwain Tommy Gould won a VC on HMS Thrasher for removing two live bombs from the casing while at sea. A picture of him hangs in the Union Jack Club close by Waterloo Station in London.


Submarine losses for all navies were severe and many boats were lost with all hands in circumstances unknown. We should respect the courage and sacrifice of the crews of all navies who had to operate in a hostile and dangerous environment for long periods.

Statistics differ according to sources researched and the above information has been collected from many sources but cannot be relied upon to be completely accurate. Further information will be gratefully received. Special thanks to HMS Dolphin Museum at Gosport Hampshire U.K.

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Last Updated: June 2001