This month the focus in our diary of the war at sea is on the submarine HMS Unity, sunk on 29 April 1940.
One of the key dangers for submarines in the early decades of the 20th century was the risk of collision with surface ships, although this risk lessened with the increasing sophistication of detection technologies.
At the same time, while convoy provided ships with a degree of safety against a common enemy, it also occasionally raised the risk of collision with other ships in the convoy. For example, there are sporadic reports of collision in convoy in English waters during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while they also occurred during the First World War (see our previous post on War Knight, 1918).
For HMS Unity it was a collision of causes, as well as a collision in fact, as she came in contact off the Northumbrian coast with a surface ship, the SS Atle Jarl. Unity was on the North Sea patrol and left her base at Blyth on 17.30 on 29 April 1940 on a northerly course in conditions of poor visibility, while Atle Jarl was steaming south in convoy from Methil to the Tyne. Neither vessel saw the other until they were virtually on top of one another and Atle Jarl struck the submarine upon the port bows, sinking within five minutes. (1) Four of the Unity‘s crew would lose their lives: Lt John Niven Angus Low and AB Henry James Miller went down with the submarine, while Leading Seaman James Sneddon Hare and Stoker 1st Class Cecil Shelton drowned before the boats sent out from the Atle Jarl could rescue them. (2)
The voyages of both vessels were connected with the same event on the international stage – the fall of Norway on 9 April 1940. On 6 April Atle Jarl had left Shields on the north-east coast for Trondheim in Norway. She put into Methil Roads in Scottish waters the following day then set off for Norway, but events then forced her to put back. She then left Methil to return to Shields on 29 April. (3) On that same day Unity‘s intended voyage was in the opposite direction, to Norway, where the Allies were still involved in a campaign to dislodge the Nazi occupiers.
The previous month Unity had made headlines in Britain and the Netherlands with her rescue of eight survivors from the crew of the Dutch trawler Protinus, who had been bobbing about without food or water in an open boat in the North Sea for six days, after their vessel had been attacked and sunk by a German aircraft. Two men were killed in the attack and two succumbed afterwards as they drifted: eerily prefiguring the losses aboard Unity, two in the incident and two in the sea afterwards. The survivors were landed at a Scottish east coast port and Unity‘s crew ‘received the congratulations of Queen Wilhelmina, of Holland.’ (4)
The loss of Unity herself, however, was a completely different matter. The press was silent on the subject, although allusions to the rescue of the Dutch fishermen cropped up at intervals during the war, either as her crew subsequently took part in successful engagements, or were awarded medals. The only clue to the submarine’s loss, perhaps, was that they gained these awards in other vessels: but this would only be known by the men and their families, and to the outside world their presence aboard other submarines would have been masked by the transfer of postings through career progression, particularly for officers.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we are able to read between the lines.
For example, the news that AB Jones had received the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for ‘daring, enterprise and devotion to duty on successful patrols in HM Submarines’ was accompanied by a reminder of the Protinus rescue and the fact that he was ‘subsequently posted to HM Submarine Utmost.’ (5) Most of the crew were indeed subsequently divided between Utmost and Upright, and at least one went to submarine P311. (6)
Nor were the survivors the only ones to receive gallantry awards. On 16 August 1940 both Lt Low and AB Miller were posthumously awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal, which was exchanged for the new award of the George Cross instituted just a month later. Even then only their branch of service was recorded: ‘HM Submarines’ – but the citation was specifically for ‘gallantry in loss of ship in collision’. (7)
The sinking of Unity by collision at 7.15pm on 29 April ‘off the Farne Islands’ did not reach the public domain, but was reported on 1 May to the War Cabinet, who were also notified that ‘Divers from Scapa were being hurried to the Tyne.’ (8) It was noted at the next day’s meeting, however, that diving operations had been unsuccessful and that: ‘The few men remaining in her could only be saved, however, if they made their own escape by using the Davies [sic] apparatus.’ (9)
It was only after the war in Europe was over in May 1945 that the news of Unity‘s loss made its way into the public domain when the Admiralty ‘revealed its secret losses, which could not be announced before without giving Germany information.’ (10)
The managed lack of information was one thing; it was a necessity for the safe conduct of the war and for public morale, and did not mean at all that nothing was done behind the scenes. As we have seen, the War Cabinet was notified of a rescue attempt, and the gallantry of Lt Low and AB Miller in remaining behind and assisting their crewmates to escape, even at the risk of their own lives, was recognised within months of the event.
In the interim, a Court of Inquiry was convened at Blyth. There it emerged that the poor visibility was not the only contributory factor to the disaster, but a missing piece of information had also played its part in shaping the course of events, and that was an entirely different matter.
A signal had come through to Blyth from Rosyth to warn of the impending Methil-Tyne convoy in the swept war channels, but this, for some reason, had not reached Unity. This reasons for this were examined in detail, but no-one recalled having sight of the signal – neither the signalman who should have been able to collect it before sailing, nor the navigating officer, nor the commanding officer. Procedures at the shoreside signal distribution office were minutely examined to account for the discrepancy, but as the confidential papers had gone down with the submarine, there was no conclusive paper trail to demonstrate or corroborate whether the signal had been collected or not collected, never seen or seen but overlooked in the haste to put to sea. (11)
These seemingly routine tasks could make the difference between life and death, and it could be said that ‘for want of a signal a submarine was lost’, and four lives. Whether her presence would have altered the course of the struggle for Norway, we will never know, but it is a reminder that in wartime each person was a very small cog in larger cogs that moved enormous wheels, and individual events had a cumulative effect on outcomes far away. The history of Unity also reminds us that while ships have always saved people from wrecks, only to be wrecked in their turn (sometimes many years later), under the circumstances of war these sequences of events were both more frequent, and compressed into shorter spans of time.
(2) Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, results for 29.04.1940
(3) p1 of Atle Jarl‘s convoy register (in English), National Archives of Norway, repr. on warsailors.com
(4) Algemeen Handelsblad (in Dutch), 30 March 1940, No.37,063, p3; Daily Record, 1 April 1940; Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5
(5) Birmingham Post, 7 November 1940, No.25,681 p3
(6) Middlesex Chronicle, 16 May 1942, No.4,352, p5; Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)
(7) London Gazette, Friday 16 August 1940, No.34,924, p5059; TNA ADM 1/11525
(8) TNA CAB 65/7/1
(9) TNA CAB 65/7/2
(10) “Naval Chronicle”, Hampshire Telegraph & Post, 25 May 1940, No.8,469, p12
(11) Evans, A. 1986 Beneath the Waves: A history of HM Submarine losses 1904-1971 (London: William Kimber)