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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

Perfidy and Tragedy

In August 1915, HM Submarine E13 attempted to navigate the narrow and shallow strait of Oresund between Denmark and Sweden in order to reinforce the Royal Navy's Baltic Submarine Flotilla. Unfortunately, a fault in her gyro compass led her to run aground off the Danish island of Saltholm. The Danish Navy were soon on the scene and the captain of the Danish torpedo boat informed Lieutenant Commander Layton, Commanding Officer of E13, that under international law, he had 24 hours to refloat the submarine and to leave Danish territorial waters. No assistance could be offered and failure to leave Danish waters would mean that the ship's company would be interned. Units of the Danish Navy then anchored nearby to act as guard ships. The submariners worked frantically to offload stores in an attempt to lighten the boat for refloating at the next high tide. Meanwhile, the activity attracted the attention of a German destroyer in the vicinity. Having observed E13's predicament, the destroyer withdrew for her CO to report the incident to his naval headquarters.

Despite the best efforts of the crew, it soon became apparent that they would not be successful in returning to sea before the expiration of the Danes' deadline. Layton's first lieutenant negotiated with the senior Danish naval officer present that the submariners would be taken ashore by boat. As the sailors waited to be uplifted, a German destroyer and torpedo boat arrived at speed. The German ships immediately opened fire, but the torpedo boat's torpedoes missed the submarine. However, the submarine was struck several times by gunfire and quickly caught fire. The terrified submariners jumped into the water and attempted to swim for the safety of the shore or anchored Danish naval vessels. The Germans responded by firing heavy machine guns into the water. Incensed by this breach of Denmark's neutrality, the CO of the Danish torpedo boat, Soulven, positioned his vessel between the men in the water and the German ships. The Germans then withdrew, but not before killing fifteen of Layton's men. He and the survivors were then interned in Denmark and the dead men's bodies repatriated to Hull for burial with full military honours.

A month later, two other E-class submarines successfully penetrated the Danish strait into the Baltic, but they were the last to do so. The German government successfully pressured the Danes into laying mines in their waters and the German Navy mounted continued patrols on the entrance to the Baltic. I faithfully relate the tale of the ill-fated E13 along with that of the rest of the flotilla in my novel, Where the Baltic Ice is Thin. It is a riveting story of classic submarine action, political intrigue, the pressures of command and, latterly, the tragedy of the Russian Revolution and the beginnings of British espionage on its former ally.

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