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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

Submarine escape in the early 1900s

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.

In my tale, the crew of the submarine HMS D2 make use of a newly-invented escape apparatus to effect their escape. This breathing apparatus was introduced into submarines by the Royal Navy in 1910. 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, but I recently came across this film footage from the 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. About 54 minutes into the film, one can see the Hall-Rees rebreathers in use by the seabed hunting party. I find it amazing that such films were being made in the midst of the carnage of WW1.

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 a different and more compact oxygen rebreather kit for use in submarines, again in 1910. However, it was still 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.

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