HM Submarine Affray

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:01 pm on 14th November 2007.

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Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 8:01 pm, 14th November 2007

I congratulate my hon. Friend John McDonnell on securing this debate on the loss of HMS Affray in April 1951, and I acknowledge his concerns for his constituent who lost her father in that tragedy.

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.

On 16 April 1951, Affray left Gosport on a training exercise. As well as most of her normal crew, she was carrying a training class of officers and some Royal Marines in training. My hon. Friend referred to that issue. While the captain was censured for allowing Affray to sail with officers under training and Royal Marines on board, there was no evidence that the crew was inexperienced in submarine operations. The judge of whether a ship is safe to go to sea has to be the commanding officer. In that case, he was an experienced and decorated submariner and the captain of the 5th Submarine Flotilla.

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 17 April. That signal was not received and consequently Operation Subsmash was ordered in accordance with standard submarine search and rescue procedure. That began at 1100 hours on the same day. Over the next few days, many ships and aircraft were involved in the search for Affray, to no effect.

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 19 July 1951. He forwarded that finding to the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser, on the same day.

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 24 July that it was by no means as certain of the cause of the loss. It asked that further diving work be carried out on the wreck to try and establish why the Affray went down. Further efforts were made but, even so, no firm conclusions could be reached and diving was abandoned in early November 1951.