The First Submarine Escape
I open my first novel, The Custom of the Trade, with a tragic submarine accident, in September 1911. The inspiration for my story came from a newspaper article of March 1911 reporting the sinking of the German submarine, U3. The submarine sank off Kiel harbour, fortunately in shallow water. The stern was completely submerged, but her bows pointed out of the water.
Boats were quickly sent to the scene and the submarine crew released a telephone buoy to communicate news of their plight. The stern section of the boat was completely flooded, but 28 men had reached the safety of the torpedo compartment, shutting the watertight doors behind them. That left the two officers and one sailor trapped in the conning tower. Cranes were used to lift the bow section of the submarine to expose the torpedo tubes. Three rescuers then entered the submarine and fitted ropes to the men so that they could be dragged to safety. The survivors had been incarcerated for between eight and nine hours and were in very poor health, but had managed to stay alive through the assistance of their ‘oxygen making equipment’, probably an early form of oxygen candle.
The Germans then discovered that their floating cranes were not powerful enough to lift the whole submarine out of the water to effect a rescue of the three men in the conning tower. Rather late in the day, they brought into action their submarine rescue ship, the Vulkan. This had two hulls with a pontoon deck between and cranes either side. The rescuers worked through the night and at 4am managed to lift the hull sufficiently to expose the top of the submarine’s fin. After cutting holes in its top to afford access, they finally reached the stricken officers and sailor. Tragically, they were too late.
Unfortunately, the Royal Navy was slow to adopt submarine escape equipment, even though Sir Robert Davis, the head of Siebe Gorman and Company Ltd, invented an oxygen rebreather kit in 1910 for use in submarines. However, it was considered too bulky to allow an escaping submariner to exit the upper conning tower hatch and it was only in 1927 that the RN formally adopted the apparatus after some modifications. The apparatus was used with limited success for submarine escape in the 1930s.
Instead, and again in 1910, the RN introduced the Hall-Rees breathing apparatus into submarines. The joint inventors were the then Inspecting Captain of Submarines, Captain Hall, and Surgeon Commander Rees. Unfortunately, many submarine captains deemed that the escape apparatus took up too much space in the already cramped confines of a submarine and landed the kits. I have come across no evidence that the apparatus was ever used successfully.