Monday, 1 June 2015

My cousin the Captain and the HMS Thetis tragedy

Today marks the anniversary of the Royal Navy’s worst peacetime submarine disaster—the sinking of HMS Thetis in Liverpool Bay with the loss of 99 men at the time of the disaster, and one later.

Thetis was built by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead. During sea trials on 1 June 1939, she sank suddenly to the seabed on her first dive.

It is believed a piece of hardened paint had blocked one of the torpedo tubes, so that when it was opened it was no longer watertight, and water flooded in.

My connection with the disaster is that my father’s cousin, Captain Harry “Joe” Oram, was one of only four survivors.

 Captain Oram

Captain Oram’s part in the story is told better than I ever could by the Chicago Tribune from 5 June 1939:

“The heroes of the submarine disaster were revealed today to have been seven men who volunteered to let their bodies serve as buoys to guide rescuers to the sunken British submarine. Three of the seven died in the attempt, four came through alive.

“The story was told to THE TRIBUNE correspondent by F. F. Shaw, one of the survivors [a Cammell Laird engine fitter], who said the greatest praise should go to Capt. H. P. K. Oram, another survivor.

“Capt. Oram, he said, was first to volunteer to try to get through the escape chamber, though the submarine was tilted at such an angle it was believed a man would be drowned before he could get clear of the hull.

“There was a chance, however, that he might get the outer hatch open before he drowned, in which case his body, floating to the surface with the exact position of the Thetis in watertight containers strapped to his wrist, would guide rescue ships.

“Oram, commander of the Fifth submarine flotilla, insisted on going first. He got through. The next three men who tried were drowned before they could get the outside hatch raised and were pulled back into the submarine. Then Shaw, a civilian technician, went through successfully, and was followed by Lieut. F. C. Wood and W. C. Arnold. 

“All had strapped on them the containers giving directions to rescuers.”

 The stricken HMS Thetis

Shaw recounted how the first sign of trouble was the sounding of the warning bell, then a terrible shudder was felt, and the submarine’s passengers were thrown forward into a heap. It was the idea of Commander Bolus, commander of the ship, for someone to attempt to leave through the escape chamber, carrying directions to the disaster which would be found even if he drowned, though he warned that the chances of survival were slim. “Capt. Oram was first to call out, ‘I’ll go,’” Shaw recalled. Six more men, including Shaw, volunteered. “Captain Oram insisted on going first,” he continued. “He got through all right. But the next three men died miserably in the chamber, and I watched while their bodies were released one after the other.” 

The submarine's crowded conditions - she was carrying twice as many men as she was designed for - meant that the air inside would not have lasted long enough to save the passengers, who were poisoned by the carbon dioxide from their own breath.

A memorial marking the tragedy was unveiled a year ago today at the River Walkway, Birkenhead, and metal plaques, one for each victim of the disaster, can be seen in the clock tower of Birkenhead Priory, St Mary’s Gate, Birkenhead. 

The submarine was raised and salvaged, and re-commissioned as HMS Thunderbolt, but sunk off Sicily in 1943…with the loss of another 99 men.

Sadly, I never met my cousin the Captain, though I recall my father mentioning the Thetis tragedy and his cousin’s connections with it many years ago. By all accounts, he was a survivor, who died in his 90s in 1986. His biography The Rogue’s Yarn. The Sea-Going Life of Captain H. K. ‘Joe’ Oram is published by Pen and Sword Books.

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