The story of the tragedy of Her Majesty's submarine Affray begins on
One of those families was that of Able Seaman George—known as Ginger—Leakey, who lived in the Hayes constituency. He joined the Royal Navy in 1945 and a year later volunteered to serve on submarines. It is a tragic irony that he was never meant to sail on the Affray that day. He was on official shore leave visiting his wife Eileen who was expecting their second child. However, he received an urgent telegram summoning him back to his boat as another member of the crew had been judged unfit to serve. The daughter whom Able Seaman Leakey would never see is my constituent, Mrs. Georgina Gander, who has joined us in Parliament today to witness this evening's debate.
The purpose of the debate is to seek answers to the questions that Mrs. Gander and others still ask about the reasons for the loss of the Affray. She and I are indebted to the research undertaken by the journalist and author Alan Gallop, whose research into this incident has recently been published in the book "Subsmash".
HM Submarine Affray was an A-class submarine completed by Cammell Laird for the Royal Navy and accepted into service in May 1946. The A-class subs were built for service in distant conflicts such as the far east. They could dive to a depth of 500 ft and deeper if necessary without risk of their hull collapsing. They accommodated a crew of up to 61 in peacetime and 66 in wartime conditions.
From the outset it appears from the records that the Affray was beset with mechanical problems that disrupted her service, including a battery that flooded without warning during trials, a further new battery being required four months after the Affray's being accepted into service, defects in a starboard supercharger and air compressor when en route to Australia, excessive wear found to the astern bushes requiring work in dock in Sydney and Colombo, and a partial refit needed in Singapore.
By 1950, the submarine had sailed 51,000 miles across the globe. She has been described as an exhausted boat, badly in need of substantial repairs. On
"As far as I can see these engines have had their time...I shouldn't be surprised if this boat pays off and went into reserve."
After one exercise he describes how
"one engine fell over"— that is, broke down—
"and we limped in on one and just as we arrived in the other one went...I think that this boat is just about finished."
Another time he wrote:
"She leaks like a sieve and when doing a deep dive the other day the water poured into the engine room faster than we could keep it out, so we had to surface with all speed."
In January 1950, a snort mast was fitted to the Affray. That device was a long steel tube fitted to the hull serving as a snorkel which when raised allowed the submarine to increase the amount of time it could remain under water. The mast had a head valve at its top to prevent the entry of sea water when raised and a large valve where that induction system entered the sub's engine room. Leading stoker mechanic William Day was responsible for raising and lowering the snort mast. He listed defects encountered on exercise, saying that
"as soon as we surfaced from snorting there was always a lot of water in the engine."
During the refit at Portsmouth there were reported hostilities between the non-naval staff working on the sub and service personnel, and repair and maintenance work took longer than expected. There were excessive delays. During that time, oil was also found to be leaking into a battery tank.
During that period, Lieutenant Commander John Blackburn was given command of the Affray in January 1951. He received orders on
The crew of the Affray worked long hours to overcome engine problems and to prepare the sub for sea by that deadline. Nevertheless, there were still concerns about its seaworthiness. First Officer Lieutenant Derek Foster shared his fears with his wife. She reported later:
"He said he didn't want to go to sea on Monday as the submarine wasn't seaworthy."
Despite that, on
A crew of 85 officers and ratings were summoned to join the Affray on
"90 per cent. knew nothing about the boat. The old crew came off and it was more or less a new crew that was preparing to take her out."
At 1700 hours on
The sub was due to send an on-the-surface signal the following morning—
Repeated emergency signals were sent to the Affray, but with no response. By 1255 hours every ship in the home fleet flotilla had been summoned to join the air and sea search, including the Reclaim, which was the Navy's only deep-diving and submarine rescue vessel. Foreign ships also joined to assist in the search for the Affray.
At 2155 hours the submarine Sirdar reported that it had picked up faint signals on its ASDIC sonar listening device in the vicinity of the Affray's diving position. Hopes were raised, but they were soon dashed when no response was received from charges sent overboard to encourage any survivors to attempt escape—that was the normal procedure for signalling that ships were ready to lift any escapees from the water. The search went on, and James Callaghan—then Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, and later Prime Minister—reported to this House that over 40 surface ships and seven submarines were taking part, but with no success.
At 1945 hours on
"The disappearance of HMS Affray is a complete mystery...not a trace of her was sighted...The cause of the disaster must have been an accident; it could not have resulted from any inherent defect in material or design."
A limited search continued and eventually, in June, after a sweep of the sea bottom with sonar equipment and with the use of a newly invented underwater television device, the sub was found a considerable distance from where earlier soundings had identified, in an area that had been swept earlier in the initial search and rescue. All the visual evidence pointed to the fact that whatever happened to the Affray occurred very quickly, taking her crew by surprise. The snort mast was snapped off. Divers eventually raised the broken snort mast from the sea bed.
A board of inquiry set up by the Navy to investigate the loss of the Affray heard evidence that the snapping of the snort mask resulted from metal fatigue and poor welding. The inquiry was held in secret and its papers were released only under the 30-year rule. The board followed closely the conclusions already reached by the Admiralty's First Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief, dismissing other theories of mechanical failure, or human or drill error.
The snort mast theory could have been proved by ascertaining whether there had been an attempt to shut off the induction valve fitted at the point where the snort entered the hull. If that was shut, the snort would not be responsible and another cause would need to be considered, possibly internal explosion. However, the site of the boat was inaccessible, and with the boat shifting it was thought too dangerous for divers to inspect.
Doubts quickly began to emerge within the Admiralty about the snort mast theory. Some officers thought that the board had closed its eyes too quickly to other possible causes and that the theory could not be reconciled with the lack of assessed external damage to the hull of the sub. The failure to allow for the working up training of the crew pointed to a possible drill failure. Why any material failure should occur as it did was also not explained. Discussion took place with the Minister concerned over whether the sub should be raised, but that was dismissed as too difficult and costly. It was stated in Parliament that the relatives unanimously did not want the sub disturbed, but relatives later confirmed that they had never been consulted on the matter.
In November 1951, in a statement to Parliament, James Thomas, the then new First Lord of the Admiralty, concluded:
"there is insufficient evidence to enable me to say...why 'Affray' was lost."—[ Hansard, 14 November 1951; Vol. 493, c. 980.]
He explained the snort theory and the possibility of a major battery explosion, which could also have been linked to a crack in the snort mast. He confirmed that the risk of failure precluded attempts to raise the sub.
The Navy, using HMS Reclaim's divers, attempted various methods to check the snort theory, including the use of what were, at that time, primitive X-ray devices, but with no success. Continuing concerns were expressed in the Admiralty about why the Affray was sent to sea with a crew that had not been given time for working up after a protracted refit. We now know that a letter marked private and confidential was issued to Captain Hugh Browne, captain of the 5th Submarine Flotilla, which stated:
"you made an error of judgement in sailing Affray with a training crew and folboat party embarked on a training patrol before she had been given the opportunity for the working up which was clearly desirable after her protracted refit and the many changes in her crew."
This letter was never made public at the time, and has been discovered only recently.
The Navy then closed its file on the Affray. Nobody took responsibility for allowing the Affray to put to sea in circumstances considered by naval staff to have been unacceptable. However, for more than 50 years questions over the Affray have not gone away, especially for the remaining relatives. The central question, of course, is why was the Affray lost. The snort mast failure theory could be resolved using today's technology to examine the sunken sub in order to determine whether the valve at the base of the snort mast was in an open or closed position. However, in 2001, the Government designated the Affray as a protected site and announced a ban on diving in order to protect the Affray and other sunken ships from disturbance by trophy hunters—that measure was supported by all across the House. Nevertheless, exceptions have been made, to enable the recovery of bullion from HMS Sussex, for example. Mounting an official dive on Affray could assist in shedding light on what happened to the boat and help in providing closure for the remaining relatives.
A disaster appeal was launched at the time of the loss of the sub by the mayors of Portsmouth and Gosport and it gained huge support across the country and raised more than £170,000 for the relatives of the crew. That has been disbursed over the years in supporting the families. The HM Submarine Affray disaster relief fund trust remains active, but it is not publicly known how much is left in the fund and all queries to the trustees are referred to the Official Solicitor at the Public Trustee Office. No information has been forthcoming. The few remaining relatives still receive very small amounts of financial support. It is their view that any funds left should now be distributed to the relatives for whom they were originally intended and/or given to naval charities for similar deserving cases.
I have raised several issues in this debate to which it is clearly beyond the ability of a Minister to respond in a brief, time-limited Adjournment debate. I ask the Minister, therefore, if he would agree to meet me, other interested hon. Members and the Affray relatives so that we can discuss the issues, allow the relatives to express their views and examine whether we can seek further evidence to determine what happened to those who lost their lives on board Affray. In my view, we owe nothing less to the memory of those who lost their lives so tragically in the service of their country.
As my hon. Friend said, HM Submarine Affray was an A-class submarine completed in 1946. The class had originally been designed for operations in the far east during the latter part of the second world war. The submarine used a diesel-electric power plant, with diesel engines being used for surface propulsion and charging of the batteries. The batteries powered electric motors for underwater propulsion.
Some time after completion, Affray was fitted with a snort mast. That was a tube whose head was above water permitting the submarine to run its diesel engines while at periscope depth, reducing the chances of it being detected by surface ships or from the air.
The submarine was scheduled to carry out a series of exercises. She was scheduled to make a surfacing report by radio at 1000 hours on
Some weeks later, the wreck was detected and identified north of the Channel islands, lying in 260 ft of water. In the succeeding months, the diving tender HMS Reclaim dived on the wreck in an attempt to discover the reasons for her loss. One of the discoveries made was that the Affray's snort mast had broken off and that that might be connected to her loss.
A board of inquiry was convened under the presidency of Rear-Admiral R. M. Dick. It presented its interim finding to the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Arthur Power, on
The board considered a number of possible causes for the loss, including battery explosion, material failures, operating errors, mines and collision. Of these, material failure was considered the most likely immediate cause.
The board of inquiry therefore concluded, with the reservation that
"certain technical evidence and calculations will need further checking", that the submarine was lost due to the sudden snapping of the snort mast. It determined that that was caused by a material failure resulting from the mast's brittle condition, that the submarine was overwhelmed by the resultant rapid flooding, and that death would have come very quickly to the crew.
The Board of Admiralty signalled the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, on
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, but I should like to put it on the record that the error of judgment identified by Captain Hugh Browne was never reported by the board of inquiry to Ministers, and then on to this House.
I am not sure what my hon. Friend means by his reference to an error of judgment. Perhaps we need to talk about that matter outside the House.
A particular point to which the investigations were directed was to ascertain the position of the snort induction valve since, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that would have confirmed whether the Affray was actually using the snort mast at the time of the accident.
Meanwhile, the board of inquiry made its final report on
The board of inquiry report stated that the rapidity of events did not allow the release of position indication signals. It believed that the crew died rapidly, that the submarine was materially sound and that the crew had confidence in her and her captain. Finally, the report stated that the search organisation was rapidly and energetically implemented.
I am aware of the recently published book about the loss of the Affray, and of the suggestions that it makes. A study of those suggestions has been carried out by the naval historical branch, and it has been concluded that there is no reason to disagree with the findings of the board of inquiry.
One suggestion made in the book is that somehow there was collusion between the First Sea Lord and the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, while the board was still sitting. The contention is that those individuals had decided to find that the loss was due entirely to the fractured snort mast and that the outcome of that collusion was relayed to the board. However, that directly contradicts the doubt expressed by those same people about the reasons for the tragic accident, and the fact that they ordered further diving to be carried out in an attempt to ascertain more information. The allegation of collusion does not stand up and there appears to be no documentary evidence that such collusion took place.
In 2002, the remains of the Affray were designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. In consequence, no diving or other underwater operations may take place within a defined zone around the wreck without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State for Defence.
Submarines of the same class as Affray have been out of service for more than three decades, and no diesel-electric submarines have been in Royal Navy service for several years. The subsequent safety record of the Royal Navy submarine service has been excellent; indeed, Affray was the last submarine lost at sea. A submarine is a complex ship operating in an environment that is intrinsically hostile, even in peacetime.
Although it is deeply regrettable that the Affray accident resulted in such severe loss of life, including that of the father of my hon. Friend's constituent, I do not think reopening the investigation will give scope for learning significant lessons today. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but we have to balance the potential for gain in reopening the investigation with the intrusion on what is, in effect, a military grave.
I shall consider my hon. Friend's request for a meeting, but I do not want to appear cruel or callous so I do not want to hold out hope that I am minded to reopen the investigation. After such a huge length of time, I really do not think that there is reason to do so. I shall talk to my hon. Friend after the debate about the point he raised in his intervention and will try to understand it further. I shall reflect on his request for a meeting but I do not want to promise it at this stage.
May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the meeting would be to outline the continuing concerns of a number of relatives about what happened to the Affray and about the subsequent investigation? It is not a formal request to reopen the board of inquiry, although it may involve a request that divers are facilitated with new, modern technology to investigate the sunken sub so that we can have complete clarity for the relatives about what happened. There is a precedent; in the case of HMS Sussex, where bullion is buried in the wreck, permission was given. If permission was given in the case of the Affray, it would obviously be with full consultation with all the relatives, bearing in mind the number of their relatives in the sub.
The Sussex is not a designated site so it is not a precedent.
The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at Thirteen minutes past Eight o'clock.