Lost at Sea – K-13

The following information is taken from John Harris’ excellent book Lost at Sea.

These new boats, submersible destroyers as they were known were layed down in 1915 and were to be the biggest and fastest submarines ever built. The design of previous submarines had prudently avoided boilers and funnels, but it was decided that only steam could guarantee 20 knots which would allow them to accompany the fleet. The Navy commissioned 17 of these vessels – but they were a disaster. They were involved in sixteen major accidents and many smaller mishaps. One sank on her trials. Three were lost after collisions. A fifth disappeared. Another sank in harbour. As John Harris noted, “They achieved nothing against the enemy and out of twenty seven built eight were lost from causes other than enemy action, four were scrapped within four years of commissioning, and another six within nine years. The loss of life in them was appalling and they became objects of hatred and superstition and the men in them were described as ‘the suicide club’.”

K-13 was on her maiden voyage, under Lt-Commander Herbert with fifty-three crew, fourteen directors and employees of the shipbuilders, Fairfields, five sub contractors, five Admiralty officials, a Clyde pilot and the commanding and engineering officers of her sister ship K-14. several dockyard engineers and dockyard workers aboard.

Things went badly from the start – someone accidentally switched off the starter motor on the steering gear, putting the helm out of action, so that K-13s bows grounded on a mudbank. A Glasgow steamer then jammed herself against the submarine, but Herbert was finally able to get her underway and off Greenock, Herbert put her through the routine proceedures of a surface trial. At midday the vessel headed to Gareloch for the final diving trials. The day was dine and a small steamer, Comet, took on board those whose services were not needed for the dive. Running with only the conning tower above water, it was noticed that the submarine had steadily increased her weight. The engineer officer announced that the engine room had sprung a small leak, and it was decided they would submerge after lunch.

Before boarding Comet for lunch, Lane asked the Admiralty overseer, Frederick Searle, to look at one of the four ventilators between the funnels, which he said was sticking. Searle assured him that there was nothing to worry about, but Lane asked his chief ERA t examine again. The chief ERA reported them fully open.

Before getting under way Herbert signalled his intention to another new submarine, E-50, which was commanded by a friend of his Lt-Commander Michell,which was also undergoing acceptance trials in the lock. Passing the order ‘Diving Stations’, Herbert walked along the hull to watch the funnels being lowered into wells in the superstructure. In the control room a red light appeared, illuminating the word ‘shut’, and Herbert ordered half speed ahead on both motor and the flooding of all but four of the main external ballast tanks, then clambered down the conning tower, closing the hatch behind him.

While he had been on the superstructure, one of the passengers from the sister ship K-14, Engineer-Lieutenant Leslie Rideal, noticed that a light supposed to shine steadily to indicate that the mushroom hatches were closed was flickering. Lane did not consider it important, but as K-13 dived the boiler room was reported to be flooding, and Rideal saw water sprouting from and exhaust pipe leading from the boiler room. The Admiralty’s boiler-room overseer had also seen water streaming in and rushed to inform the captain. As he arrived, Lane was already shouting a warning and the Fairfield assistant manager was also on his way with the same information.

Herbert ordered ‘Hard to rise! Blow tow and three!’ but still the submarine went down and CPO Moth, the coxwain, reported her out of control. The forward keel, weighing ten tons and able to be dropped in an emergency, was freed, watertight foors were closed and all forward tanks were blown. It made no difference. Stern first, the submarine came to rest on the bottom. In the control roon, as Herbert ordered the motors stopped, thick jets of water shot from the voice pipes from the after compartments, spraying the port switchboard and starting the fuses blowing. Electric cables crackled, smoked and burst into flame, using precious oxygen and polluting the air with dense white smoke.

The voice pipes were plugged and the fires put out, but when Herbert tried to telephone Lane he found the telephone dead. Taking stock of the situation, he found that there was still ample lighting but that reserves of compressed air were running low, and they could not shed the after ten-ton keel becausd it was controlled from the engine room. Of the eighty men who had been aboard, thirty one had been lost. It was calculated that the quantity of available air should support the survivors for fifteen hours.

The rescue attempts took a long time, particularly as by the time the alarm was rasied it was 10 p.m. and the senior men at the Navy’s Clyde HQ and at Fairfields had gone home. It was well after 10 p.m. that the first rescue vessel, Gossamer, arrived. She carried a diver but no diving suit, and Fairfields sent to Glasgow for their own diver. But his suit, which had not been used for years, burst and he was dragged half-drowned from the water while the Fairfields car raced off to find another suit. Two more rescue ships arrived, but they had neither a diver nor suit. At daybreak, Fairfield’s diver tried again.

During the early morning, it was decided that someone should try to leave the submarine via the conning tower to help the rescuers. Herbert felt that he should be the last to leave, and Goodhart, the commander of K-14, agreed to try. The attempt was timed for midday, Herbert accompanying Goodhart into the conning tower to control the rising water and the compressed air which would enable him to escape. As the hatch below them was clipped, Goodhart opened the sea valve and the icy water began to rise. Breathless and with their ears drumming, Herbert turned on the high-pressure air and Goodhart knoocked the clips off the upper hatch. With the pressure inside and out equalised, he pushed the hatch open and shot out.

It had not been Herbert’s intention to follow him, but he was swept off his feet and carried upwards and through the second hatch above clear of K-13. On the surface, attempts were being made to raise the bows of the submarine when suddenly there was a tremendous surge of air that churned the water between the two lifting vessels and a man appeared in the middle of a highe bubble. It was Herbert.

“Where’s Goodhart?” were his first words.

No-one knew what he was talking about and he explained what had happened. But there was still no sign of Goodhart. By this time, Michell had taken E-50 alongside Gossamer and was running the rescue attempts. An attempt to attach a high-pressure air hose to the submarine failed when the divers could not find the external connection, though eventually they suceeded. It was thirty five hours since she had dived, and the foul air coming up was said to be almost black.

The trapped men used the incoming air to recharge the empty air botles and to attempt to blow the tanks. They had almost given up hope when they detected movement and, as the bows rose, the two rescue vessels hove in on the wire which had been passed beneath the submarine until her nose was now only eight feet below the surface.

A four-inch armoured hose was now attached, and a bottle of brandy was lowered down the pipe followed by milk, chocolate and coffee. Another attempt was made to heave K-13’s hows out of the water and, around midday, they slowly broke the surface. Michell called up two mud barges and used them to support the submarine.

By noon, the men below were in darkness save for three torches and, with the submarine at a steep angle, were constantly slipping on the oil-covered deck. The tide was rising, but finally the rescuers managed to cut a hole in the pressure hull and the exodus began, the civilians first. The last man emerged shortly after 10 p.m. fifty-seven hours after K-13 had dived. With high tide, the hole was only three inches above water. At six the next evening the weight of the submarine tore the bollards out of the barges and she sank.

A court of enquiry was told that divers had found that the four thirty-seven-inch ventilators over the boiler room had been left open and that the indicators in the boiler room showed they were open, and that the engine-room hatch was also inexplicably open. The Admiralty overseer said that he had tested every valve not once but several times, and it was decided that Engineer-Lieutenant Lane had failed to close all the openings before signalling to the control room that the engine an boiler rooms were shut.

On 15th March K-13 was brought to the surface. Thirty-one coffins were prepared for the bodies that were expeced, but only twenty-nine were found. Goodhart was found trapped under the roof of the wheelhouse, though Engineer-Lieutenant Lane and John Steele, a civilian, were missing. But the mystery of the open hatch over the engine room was solved – two men have evidently opened the hatch when the air pressure inside had equalled the water pressure outside and had escaped, only to succomb to the sudden reduction of presure in their lungs. Currents had carried them down the estuary and one body was found on a distant banck of the Clyde two months later.

None of the officers or civilians in K-13 ever went on board a submarine again. A few of the crew went back, among them Petty Officer Moth, who withing a few weeks became completely bald.

Harris, J Lost at Sea London 1990