HMS Thetis, then a new design of submarine, sank on her trials in the River Mersey shortly after she left the dock in Liverpool, eighty years ago on 01 June 1939. There were 103 people on board including two Captains – one the operational Captain of the ship and the other a submariner Observer Captain, Captain Oram.
The cause of the accident was an inspection hole to allow a sailor to look into the torpedo tubes. The shipyard worker who knew how to deal with these was sick and the rookie who replaced him did not know that there was a special closure for this inspection hole, so he painted over it. Once submerged the torpedo tube flooded, then the hull, and the bow of the vessel sank. The stern was still above water.
Two ratings got out through the escape hatch, followed by one more rating, then Captain Oram. It was thought he would be the best person to direct the salvage operations from above. After Capt Oram had got out the escape hatch jammed.
Fairly recently papers from the Prime Minister’s Secretary (Churchill was then Prime Minister) revealed that the Admiralty forbade the drilling of air holes in the hull for fear of weakening it. We were very short of submarines. But air holes would have saved the lives of all the remaining 99 people in the submarine. An above water escape hatch could also have been cut. This too was forbidden for fear of weakening the structure of the hull.
My father, Captain Colin Bittleston CBE DSC RN, was Naval Liaison Officer in Liverpool at the time. He was not operationally involved in the attempted rescue but he did go out to inspect the position of the submarine.
The remaining ninety-nine people in the ship, half of them dockyard workers, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, since they had no air to breathe. The Admiralty at first refused to pay any compensation to the widows of the dockyard workers who had died. They claimed they had no liability since they had not yet accepted the ship. Technically they were right.
My father had a battle with the Admiralty over this and won compensation for the widows. He got a medal for doing so but would never discuss it with me. He must have known the Admiralty’s order but been under the Official Secrets Act not to reveal it. That is probably why he would not discuss his gallantry medal (a bar to his already DSC) for what was an essentially civilian matter.
On various anniversaries I have run a small In Memoriam notice in the Daily Telegraph and usually received a few letters from descendants of the tragedy who like to know that someone remembered. If you look in today’s Daily Telegraph, in the In Memoriam section, and see the notice I have placed, you will know a little of the history behind it.
My father was a good man who always fought for justice. He died in 1968, twenty-nine years after HMS Thetis sank.
May he and all those who died in HMS Thetis rest in peace.