HM Submarine Affray

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:43 pm on 14th November 2007.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 7:43 pm, 14th November 2007

The story of the tragedy of Her Majesty's submarine Affray begins on 16 April 1951, when she made her way into the English channel with 75 officers and ratings on board, dived, and never again resurfaced. To this day questions remain about why the Affray was lost. Not knowing what happens still lies heavily on the surviving families of her crew, who bear to this day, 56 years later, the sadness and sense of loss suffered when their loved ones failed to return home.

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 8 May 1950, she entered Portsmouth dockyard for a major refit. During the period in Portsmouth, experienced crew expressed serious concerns about the Affray's mechanical and structural condition. Chief Petty Officer David Bennington wrote to his father:

"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 3 April that his sub would put to sea at 1700 hours on Monday 16 April for a week-long practice war patrol in the English channel. The exercise was code-named Exercise Training Spring. The aim of the exercise was to provide trainee executive and executive officers with submarine experience at sea under wartime conditions. The sub would also carry a small number of commando cadets from the Royal Marine amphibious school at Eastney.

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 10 April the submarine was given an updated safety certificate and ordered to sea on 11 April to test its main engines. Only half the crew were taking part, with a further 10 drawn from reserve or spare crews. No defects were found after four hours at sea, except that the yellow indicator buoy which floats to the surface as a marker in the even of sinking had come adrift. Its hatch was later secured with wire. Doubts still continued about the seaworthiness of the sub. Sergeant Jack Andrews, one of the Marines who were to be the passengers on the Affray, expressed to his brother the night before sailing that he was far from happy about taking passage on it.

A crew of 85 officers and ratings were summoned to join the Affray on Monday 16 April, 23 more than normally carried in peacetime. Twenty-five of them joined the boat for the first time. They had no experience of working together. Thirteen ratings were then discharged because of shortage of space. Able Seaman Edward Hickman, a member of the Affray's crew, commented of the crew:

"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 16 April the Affray slipped its mooring and headed for the English channel. It was last sighted near the entrance to Portsmouth harbour passing south-easterly. At 2056 hours its captain signalled that he was diving at 2115 hours for Exercise Training Spring. That was the last signal received from the Affray.

The sub was due to send an on-the-surface signal the following morning—17 April—between 0800 hours and 10 am. By 10.40 am, nothing had been received and at 10.45 am Captain Brown of the Submarine Flotilla alerted his flag-officer, Rear-Admiral Sidney Raw, about his anxiety for the boat's safety. Initially, it was thought that the sub was experiencing a radio transmitter problem, but by 1100 hours Rear-Admiral Raw transmitted an urgent message—Subsmash One—indicating that the safety of the Affray was in doubt. That was an immediate call to action, signalling ships and aircraft to begin the search for the Affray.

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 Thursday 19 April, 69 hours after the Affray had dived for the last time, the emergency signal Subsmash was cancelled. Rear-Admiral Raw said in a message to the Admiralty:

"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.