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H.M.S. Thetis (1936-1939)                                                                     

The sinking.












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A Soul Lost


3 months before the onset of World War II (1939-1945), our ancestor Ernest William Mitchell died on board the British Royal Navy submarine H.M.S. 'Thetis' during sea trials in Liverpool Bay, Irish Sea. His official date of death is 3 June 1939, the last date any soul in the stricken submarine was known to be alive.


Ernest along with 41 other men was buried in Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales, with full naval honours. Their coffins were draped with the Union Jack and paraded through the town, a firing party fired three volleys over their graves and a bugler played the 'Last Post' and the 'Reveille'.


Ernest is commemorated on the fourth panel of the H.M.S. 'Thetis' memorial dedicated in Holyhead, Anglesey, Wales, on 7 November 1947. The memorial inscription reads:


"To the memory of the officers and men of the Royal Navy and of the civilians who lost their lives in H.M.S. 'Thetis' on 3 June 1939".


The Submarine


Classification: T-Class Submarine.

Length/Breadth/Depth: 275 ft x 26.5 ft x 12 ft (83.3 m x 8.1 m x 3.7 m).

Tonnage: 1,330/1,585 displacement.

Complement: 53 men.

Armament: 1 x 4,100 x 21 Torpedo Tubes.

Machinery: Diesel 2,500/1,450 horsepower Electric 15/9 kilowatts.

Built By: Cammell Laird and Co. Ltd., Birkenhead, Liverpool.

Construction started: 21 December 1936.

Sea trials commenced: 4 March 1939.

Sank: 1 June 1939.

Loss of life: 99 souls.


The Tragedy


On 1 June 1939, the British submarine H.M.S. 'Thetis' was undergoing sea trials 14 miles off Great Ormes Head, Wales, with a total of 103 people on board. The 53 crew she was designed to carry and 50 technicians and other naval civilians.


At 13:40 hours, she submerged for a three-hour test dive. During her descent, she was light in the bows because the bow caps had not opened to let water into the torpedo tubes. This was seen on the indicator dials, but a fifth dial was misread because a drop of paint over the opening of a test cock failed to show that the tube was filled with water.


When the loading door was opened, water flooded in and the hatch couldn't be closed. As a result, the submarine plunged bow first into the mud 165 feet below the surface. The stern of H.M.S. 'Thetis' was seen from the surface at 08:00 hours the next morning, at which point 4 men emerged from the submarine via the escape hatch. A series of errors led to the submarine not being recovered in time to save the lives of the 99 men still in it, all of whom drowned or were poisoned by carbon dioxide.


The tragedy of this loss was heightened by the fact that only a week before, the United States Navy had rescued 33 men from U.S.S. 'Squalus' in a similar incident.


The submarine was eventually recovered, refurbished, and after the start of World War II, was renamed 'Thunderbolt'. On 14 March 1943, 'Thunderbolt' was sunk with all hands by the Italian corvette 'Cicogna' during an attack on a convoy bound for North Africa.


News Flash


In 2009, an important memo signed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was unearthed in the National Archives in Kew, it proves that with World War II looming, the Admiralty decided it was more important to save this submarine than the 99 men trapped inside it.


The stricken vessel partly re-surfaced with men still alive inside it, but salvage crews were prevented from drilling air holes into its hull and opening an escape route for the men. She could've been repaired, but it was believed that doing this might have permanently weaked the structure of the submarine and made it more susceptible to damage from depth charges.


Not only does this decision defy belief, but I've long believed that the official inquiry conducted on 3 July 1939 over a period of 4 weeks was a coverup since it determined that the sinking was a ‘no blame’ accident in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, thereby denying compensation for the families of the dead.


We lost a courageous ancestor in this avoidable tragedy. Petty Officer Ernest William Mitchell was commended by the 4 survivors for his valiant behaviour during the sinking, and his was the first body recovered from the vessel during the salvage operation. 


Thankfully, despite the Admiralty's efforts to play down Britain's worst peacetime submarine disaster, many still pay tribute to those who died and a remembrance ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the sinking was held in Birkenhead, Merseyside, on 1 June 2014.


Note: If you'd like to know more than has been summarised on this website or have information that improves this history, we'd love to hear from you.

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