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.
Some of the deadliest submarine accidents
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 ft below the surface. 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. 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. 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.
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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.
Forty-four of those lost were interred in a mass grave in the town, where a memorial was dedicated on November 7 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. It was also very difficult to see the last dial, number 5,the one with the bow cap open, because there was a horizontal bar directly in front of it. All of the indicators, therefore, were pointing in the same direction.
There was one other test that Woods could have done, and that was to open a drain-cock between the torpedo tube and the bilges. If he had done this, the noise of water under pressure going into the bilge from number five tube would have alerted him to the fact that the bow-cap was open. According to his tests, however, Woods was happy in his own mind that the bow-caps were closed and all the torpedo tubes were empty of water.
There were a number of other experienced torpedo men in the compartment, and all were of a like mind. Woods then decided to undertake one of the many jobs he had on his check-list for that day, to inspect the inside of the tubes and particularly the bow-cap seals, which had previously given some trouble and had leaked badly. When Leading Seaman Hambrook tried to open the rear door of number five tube he reported the operating lever to be stiff and the door most reluctant to open. When finally it gave, a solid wall of water burst in.
Everyone was stunned by the sudden and unexpected event, and Hambrook was momentarily trapped by the weight and pressure of the gushing water. Woods was convinced that the tube itself had fractured and that trying to shut the rear door against the inrush of water was hopeless. Had he attempted to reach the bow-cap operating lever, and got the bow-cap shut, tragedy might have been averted.
But with the sudden flooding the submarine had begun to dive and it was now bow downwards. In the control room, alerted to the emergency, the captain gave orders for the submarine to surface. But the bow was already too heavy with water and she continued towards the bottom. In the torpedo room, Woods ordered everyone through number one watertight bulkhead door and into the torpedo stowage compartment. With some difficulty they all scrambled aft, stopping to shut the heavy watertight door as they retreated.
Because of the bow down angle they had great difficulty in pulling the door up to get it closed. Just at that moment, seawater got into the electrics and the lights fused. In the darkness, one of the clips for securing the door fell down, which prevented the door from being properly closed and fastened. Unable to see what they were doing, the men could only abandon that door and move aft through the watertight door in number two bulkhead while they still had the opportunity. When this was done, and the door closed, Woods went aft to the control room to report to the Captain.
The submarine, meanwhile, hung with her bow in the mud and her stern sticking up at an angle in about 50 metres of water.
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She had dived at 1. Her only attendant vessel was a civilian tug, Grebecock. She was old, and her radio could reach only kilometres on a good day. The two accompanying naval officers on board the Grebecock had experienced some anxiety about the dive because the Thetis had seemed reluctant to dive for over an hour, then had gone under quite suddenly with a flurry of bubbles. This was abnormal, but they decided not to worry as no smoke candles had been fired to indicate an accident or distress. Meanwhile, down below, the very steep angle of the bow was gradually easing off.
The only way to save themselves without assistance from the surface was to somehow pump or blow the water out.
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At first it was suggested that the fitters from Cammell Lairds could blow compressed air into the two flooded forward compartments to force the water back out the open torpedo tube. This seemed a good idea until it was realised that the torpedo loading hatch in the flooded torpedo stowage compartment was designed to withstand external pressure, but if they pumped air into that compartment with sufficient pressure to force the sea out of the torpedo tube it would also lift the hatch off its seating just enough to let all the air out. That air was the only thing they had left to pump into the ballast tanks, later when they made their attempt to regain the surface.
The only workable plan was to drain the water out using the bilge pumps, but before this could be accomplished, either the rear door or the bow-cap of the open torpedo tube would have to be closed by someone brave enough to enter the flooded fore-end.
Immediately both Woods and Chapman volunteered for this task. Captain Bolus decided that Chapman should make the attempt.
The plan was to enter the forward escape chamber from the rear door in the un-flooded accommodation space. Once the pressure reached the same level as that in the flooded area, the front door of the chamber could be opened and Chapman could climb into the forepart of the submarine, make his way to the tube space and shut the rear door, or even operate the lever closing the bow-cap.
After this he would return via the escape chamber, and the water could be pumped out and discharged through the bilge pump. High hopes were held for this approach, and if the man who had volunteered had been a trained diver there would have been no reason why it could not have been quickly successful. But there were no trained divers onboard, and in those days no one had ever used a DSEA set in water deeper than five metres.
There were two factors against the attempt being successful. The first was the nature of the breathing sets. The DSEA set was an oxygen re-breathing set designed for shallow depths. When oxygen is breathed at a depth of 10 metres or deeper, which is twice the surface pressure, it becomes poisonous. It affects different people in different ways. Some people are able to breathe oxygen at depth for some time without any ill effects, while others become nauseous and even unconscious quite quickly.
The second factor was pressure. The human body is mostly liquid and is able to withstand this change, but in the hollow bones or sinuses of the head, the air pressure has to be equalised.
Thetis: Submarine Disaster by David Paul
This is usually achieved by blowing against a pinched nose or a nose clip, but the technique has to be learned and is not easy for everyone. If this clearing of the ears is not achieved, the pressure outside the head pushes in on the eardrums, causing acute pain. When they finally rupture, the diver experiences pain, dizziness and disorientation. Lieutenant Chapman became dizzy from the effects of the oxygen poisoning before the escape compartment was even full of water.
His attempt had to be abandoned. Woods was convinced he could succeed where Chapman had failed and asked the captain if he could make a second attempt. Captain Oram and Bolus conferred. The second man would remain in the escape compartment in case Woods became unconscious from oxygen poisoning once inside the torpedo room. There would then be someone to shut the forward door of the escape chamber.
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