HMS Affray

– in Westminster Hall at 1:00 pm on 24th January 2012.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 1:00 pm, 24th January 2012

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to raise such an important matter in this Chamber.

HMS Affray was an A-class submarine, which entered service in 1946. She left Gosport harbour at 4.30 pm on 16 April 1951 on a training exercise. She was due to resurface at 10 am the following day, but no signal was received. Within three hours of her failure to report, a major search began, in which the entire home flotilla and many foreign vessels took part. The search was scaled back on the evening of 19 April. Some weeks later, the wreck of the Affray was discovered on the sea bed north of Alderney in the Channel Islands, beneath 260 feet of water.

The tragedy took the lives of 75 men. It is clear that it could easily have been avoided and that those men lost their lives needlessly. The inquiry that took place at the time was a closed inquiry. When its details were made public under the 30-year rule in 1981, it became clear that it had been staggeringly inadequate. In the words of a widow of one of the men lost on the Affray, this was an inquiry of the admirals, by the admirals and for the admirals—it was not for those who died or for those they left behind.

The widow I have just quoted is Mrs June Tower. June is a constituent and, in 1951, she was married to 23-year-old John Treleaven. John was one of 25 trainees among the 75 crew who lost their lives. On 16 April— 61 years after the event—June will attend a ceremony on the island of Alderney, where a plaque will be unveiled to commemorate the 75 who died in the Affray tragedy. The event presents the perfect opportunity for our Government to make amends for six decades of obfuscation.

The closed inquiry in 1951 reported to James Callaghan, who was Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty. It reported that the loss of the Affray was most likely caused by metal fatigue and faulty welding on the Affray’s snort—a long tube added to the vessel in 1950 to act like a large snorkel. When the wreck was discovered, it was reported that the snort had snapped and that the likely cause of the tragedy was the resulting influx of water into the ship.

What was not included in the report to the Minister was the Affray’s dubious history, the extraordinary lack of experience among the crew and the fact that the Affray was carrying a significantly larger crew than normal. The mechanical problems that beset the Affray included the fact that her battery flooded without warning during trials, defects she had experienced in a starboard supercharger on her way to Australia and the need for a partial refit when she was in Singapore.

By 1950, the Affray had done 51,000 miles and was not rated highly by seamen who knew her well. Chief Petty Officer David Bennington reported that

“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”.

He also described an occasion when an engine broke down. After the same exercise, he stated that

“we limped in on one”— one engine—

“and just as we arrived in the other went...I think that this boat is just about finished.”

The snort was fitted in January 1950, but it developed defects very quickly. Mechanic William Day was responsible for raising and lowering the snort, and he detailed a number of defects with the device, adding that

“as soon as we surfaced from snorkelling there was always a lot of water in the engine room”.

Lieutenant Commander Blackburn, who captained the Affray and died with his men, told the crew that they would be going on a short, five-day voyage because the Affray was booked to go into dock at the end of those five days due to trouble with her battery.

There is plenty of evidence that the Affray was bordering on unseaworthy, if not actually unseaworthy, and that the Admiralty was well aware of that. The Affray was an unfit vessel. Each of the 75 men who died was talented, dedicated and proud to serve their country, but as a collective unit, they were the wrong crew for the wrong ship—again, something the Admiralty was fully aware of.

The Affray carried 75 crew on that voyage, but she was meant to carry only 61 in peacetime. Even in wartime, which this was not, she was meant to take a crew of only 66. Worse, only 26 of those on board were part of the Affray’s regular crew. A further 20 crew members had been moved out of barracks at the last minute to take part in the exercise, due to confusion over Easter leave. There were also four Royal Marines and 25 trainees. Among those trainees was John Treleaven, who, in the words of June, his widow,

“had spent 2 years on HMS vanguard but hadn’t a clue about submarines and had never been out in the Affray”.

This was, therefore, an unfit submarine, carrying a brave but unsuitable and oversized crew. Yet, the inquiry, which was hushed and rushed, reporting just three and a half months after the tragedy, concluded that the cause of the loss of 75 men was a snapped snort pipe. The snort was no doubt snapped, but was it the cause of the tragedy or the result of an explosion caused by the faulty battery? I have no idea, but the closed inquiry made no serious attempt to look at the issue.

When all is said and done, though, there are two failures for which the Admiralty must take responsibility. One was sending out a vessel with 75 men on board when it was clearly not fit for duty. The second was sending out an ill-prepared, inexperienced crew on such a ship. It is entirely possible that an accident happened that day and that it could have been mitigated had the crew been smaller or more experienced.

One of the other widows, Mary Henry, who was married to First Lieutenant Derek Foster, told June that she had found her husband in the garden on 15 April, the day before the Affray set sail. He was working unusually furiously at his garden, and his wife inquired what was upsetting him. He replied that

“we are taking a gash—or rubbish—crew and they’ll all be sick and get in the way, it’s dangerous”.

June Tower talked to one of the men who was taken off the crew at the last minute due to double booking and the complications over Easter leave. He told June that

“it was incredible that they took those trainees out in the Affray, if there had been an emergency they wouldn’t have known what to do”

He added that

“the affray leaked like a sieve, she was always turning turtle but nothing that an experienced crew couldn’t deal with”.

He explained that the 20 crew who were swapped over at the last minute to allow those in barracks to join the ship were later told by their superiors not to talk about the incident for fear of blackening the Navy’s name.

That gives us a clue as to what happened in the hushed and rushed inquiry. Britain was, and remains, rightly proud of her Navy. In 1951, we were in the early and fevered days of the cold war, and out in Korea, it was getting decidedly heated. The foolhardy decision to allow an unfit ship, crewed by the inexperienced and the untrained, to take part in a challenging exercise, which led to such a dreadful tragedy, must have been a matter of huge embarrassment to the Admiralty and the Navy as a whole. The need to present a picture of an invincible Navy must have overridden the need to ensure justice for the families of the dead. However, that was 61 years ago. Do we need to allow those considerations to haunt us today, while June and other relatives are still yearning for answers? I am sure the answer is that we do not, of course, need to allow those considerations to hold us back.

June Tower is an incredible woman. For 61 years she has sought justice for John. Now, she is a widow for a second time. Like the other relatives of those who died, she is delighted by the decision to unveil the plaque to them. She is hugely grateful to the Essex Submariners Association, which has led the work in raising the funds for, and organising, this important memorial. When John died, she was overwhelmed by the gifts of condolence sent to her and the rest of the bereaved families from right across the Commonwealth. Happily, she remarried in December 1954. She married a GP, Julian Tower, with whom she spent more than 50 wonderful years. When she and Dr Tower married, the Affray fund provided her with a generous dowry. She says that she has much to be grateful for and many to be grateful to.

The great shame is that the Navy and the country to whom June’s first husband was so dedicated, and for which he gave his life, have acted quite differently. We have had a hushed and rushed inquiry, a lack of truth and no contrition, no admission of fault and no apology. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister agrees that that is a dishonourable position for us to be in. I hope he will do all in his power to put that right.

June is clear that the wreck of the Affray is a grave and that it should remain undisturbed. She does not want it lifting to the surface, and she does not want divers to risk their lives to investigate it, because it lies on the bottom of the English channel. However, there is sufficient evidence above the water for there to be a reinvestigation of the evidence, and I formally ask the Government to do just that. Secondly, June and the other relatives of the crew deserve an apology from the Royal Navy and Her Majesty’s Government for the mistakes made in sending out an unfit submarine with an inexperienced crew. Thirdly, I would be grateful if moneys remaining in the Affray fund could be utilised to pay for the maintenance of the bronze plaque on Alderney, so that it will remain a fitting and proud tribute to the 75 who lost their lives.

June wrote a delightful and extremely moving book about her relationship with her husband John, culminating in the Affray tragedy. She wrote the book, “Maritime Mail”, because she wanted to provide a memorial for those brave men. The plaque and June’s book are tremendous memorials and outstanding tributes to a brave crew who died needlessly. The most important tribute that we can pay them today is to agree that a reinvestigation should take place and that an apology should be made.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 1:11 pm, 24th January 2012

I commend my hon. Friend Tim Farron on raising this important issue through the vehicle of an Adjournment debate. I acknowledge his concerns for his constituent, who lost her first husband in this tragedy. I would, of course, like to pass on my sympathy to her and to all the families and relatives of those who were affected by this loss. I also have a constituent affected by this, Mr Kevin Cook, whose father went down on the Affray in the months before he was born. He has approached me for help with this issue as a constituency MP.

As my hon. Friend explained at the outset of his speech, it is now 50 years after the Affray was lost with all hands. However, what passes as history for many can remain a fresh concern to some, particularly if they feel—as clearly my hon. Friend’s constituent does—that there remains unfinished business. We have a duty to ensure that concerns are addressed as fully as they can be and that they are dealt with sensitively, within the bounds of what can reasonably be achieved this far after the event.

Let me set out a little of the background. HMS Affray was an A-class submarine completed in 1946. The class had originally been designed to undertake operations in the far east during the latter part of the second world war. The submarine used diesel-electric power-plant. Diesel engines were used for surface propulsion and charging of the electric batteries, which were used to power electric motors for propulsion when dived. Subsequently, Affray was fitted with a snort mast, which was a breathing tube to permit the submarine to run its diesel engines while at periscope depth, much reducing the chances of it being detected.

As we have heard, on 16 April 1951, Affray left Gosport on a training exercise under the command of an experienced submarine captain, Lieutenant Blackburn. There were 75 men on board and she was scheduled to make a surfacing report by radio at 10 o’clock the next morning, 17 April. When that was not received, Operation Subsmash was ordered in accordance with standard submarine search and rescue procedures, beginning at 11 o’clock the same morning. Over the next few days, many ships and aircraft were involved in the search for the Affray, but, sadly, to no avail. On 19 April, the Admiralty accepted that the Affray was lost, with no reasonable hope of any survivors. It was not until 14 June that the wreck of Affray was detected and identified north of Alderney in the Channel Islands, lying in 260 feet of water. In the following months, divers from HMS Reclaim spent much time investigating the wreck, hoping to discover the reasons for her loss. That was considerably dangerous work.

The board of inquiry convened to investigate the loss of HMS Affray presented an interim report on 19 July. The board considered a number of possible causes. Material failure was considered the most likely cause. That was not, however, a definitive finding. The board also considered issues of human error or the possibility of collision. The board of inquiry continued to seek further evidence. Diving continued to be carried out on the wreck, using some of the most advanced techniques available at the time, but no firmer conclusions could be reached and diving was brought to an end in early November 1951.

The final report of the board of inquiry reached conclusions that were broadly similar to those of the interim report: that the submarine was lost because of the material failure of the snort mast, which broke off without warning, and that the resultant rapid influx of water resulted in the submarine dipping markedly by the stern, becoming increasingly heavy and sinking to the bottom. The board also concluded that the rapidity of events did not allow the release of position indication signals, that the crew died rapidly and that the search organisation was rapidly and energetically implemented.

The report was laid before the House on 14 November 1951 by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr J P L Thomas. It noted that there was no certainty about the reasons for her loss and that the broken snort mast might be either the cause or the consequence. The Government judged that any attempt to salvage the Affray would be dangerous, expensive and not at all certain to be successful. With the extra risk to life that salvage would have incurred, the Government decided that it was best not to proceed. As a result, the definitive cause of the loss of the Affray could not be proven and the wreck of HMS Affray would therefore be the final resting place for the 75 souls on board.

As I am sure the House will agree, it is fitting that that grave is now protected from being disturbed under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. I took note that my hon. Friend told us that his constituent’s clear preference was that it should not be disturbed. As Members may be aware, claims were made in print in 2007 alleging that the true cause of the loss of the Affray was known but suppressed to spare the embarrassment of senior naval officers. A study of those claims has been carried out by the Naval Historical Branch of the Royal Navy, but it has concluded that there is no reason to disagree with the findings of the original board of inquiry. Indeed, scrutiny of the paper trail around the inquiry found that it was far from a review carried out by the Admirals for the Admirals, which was, I think, the expression my hon. Friend used. In fact, far from the Royal Navy hierarchy encouraging the board of inquiry to the conclusion that what happened was caused by the mast snapping, they were, on the contrary, very sceptical about that account. They did not encourage the inquiry down that line, but continued to question whether that was the true explanation. Some people have called for a new inquiry to be launched on the basis of those various allegations.

I listened to the points that my hon. Friend has raised today. He stated very confidently that this was an accident that could easily have been avoided and that the lives were lost needlessly. I cannot see any evidence that enables so bold a statement to be made. It is perfectly true that there had been problems with the condition of the vessel, but it had spent three months in the dockyard earlier in 1951, during which time most of the serious problems were addressed.

Furthermore, it is true—this is, effectively, common practice—that the Affray was booked in for further repairs to be carried out. However, the decision on whether or not she was fit to go to sea was not taken by the hierarchy of the Admiralty in the fashion described by my hon. Friend; the decision rested with the commander of the vessel, who was, as we know, a popular, decorated and extremely experienced captain. He judged that the vessel was in a fit condition to go to sea, although it is also true that there were more people on board than usual because the exercise was going to combine two different training exercises: one for the submarine crew and one for a small number of Royal Marines who were on board for that purpose. Again, the captain made the decision that the size of the crew was reasonable in all the circumstances, and that it was appropriate to go out to sea with that number on board.

Some of the issues that have been raised, and some of the points that were made separately in the Bennington letters, were known to the Board of Inquiry when it was considering the events that led up to the tragedy. We cannot say with any certainty at this point what the board members made of each of those pieces of information, but we can say with reasonable confidence that those factors were known about at the time, and were considered by the Board of Inquiry. I am struggling to see that new evidence is available today that was not available to the Board of Inquiry when it looked into the matter. It is my duty to tell the House that in the absence of any new evidence, it would not be possible to authorise a new inquiry. The main purpose of a Board of Inquiry is to ascertain the cause of an incident so that a recurrence can be avoided.

The House will understand that submarines of the same class as Affray have been out of service for more than three decades. Indeed, we do not even have any diesel electric submarines in the 21st-century Royal Navy. The subsequent safety record of the Royal Navy submarine service since the sinking of Affray has been excellent—Affray was the last submarine lost at sea—so it is exceedingly unlikely that a new inquiry could make recommendations that would materially affect the running of our modern nuclear-powered Vanguard, Trafalgar or Astute class submarines. A new investigation, even with new technology, would involve significant expense and significant risk, and we would have to be realistic about what it would be capable of discovering, particularly if we respected the wishes of those who would not want graves to be tampered with.

My hon. Friend also raised a question about the Affray fund. It is an independent fund, and is not controlled by the Ministry of Defence. The trustees are the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, the mayor of Gosport and the Public Trustee. If he wishes to pursue any matters pertaining to the fund, it would be best if he addressed them to the trustees.

Submarines are complex ships, operating in an environment that is extremely dangerous, even in peacetime. Submariners operate at the limits of human ingenuity, and that is to their credit. They are among the bravest men in the Royal Navy, and soon to be the bravest women too. The loss of Affray and the men who served on her was a national tragedy, as well, of course, as a personal tragedy for many. We all understand only too clearly why those who were personally affected want definitive answers, but nothing can bring the fallen back, and after more than 50 years, there seems to me to be no realistic likelihood that we can ever provide the answers that, for understandable reasons, they crave. I cannot see that any new evidence is available to us now that was not available to the original Board of Inquiry. The passage of so much time seems to me to make the prospect of discovering anything new infinitesimal.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The Minister is right to say that there is not much in the way of new evidence, but there are two clear sides that were never really put together. He referred to Affray’s dubious service and maintenance history, and the technical and mechanical problems that it experienced. It is the marrying together of sending the craft out in that state with a crew that was oversized and, probably crucially, under-experienced—25 trainees and a crew that was two thirds inexperienced in that ship—that makes Mrs Tower and me believe that those in charge were culpable. I accept that the argument about the inquiry is one thing, but an apology should be made for that poisonous cocktail of an inexperienced crew and an unfit vessel.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I have already touched on the points about the condition of the vessel. The records of its condition were all available and properly documented at the time. They were available to the Board of Inquiry to consider. It is true that Affray had had some service and maintenance issues, but there is no particular evidence that their number was unusually high for submarines at that time. Therefore, the decision by the commanding officer and the chain of command was based on their judgment at that time about the safety of the vessel. There is no evidence that anyone can see that they were pressed to take the vessel out. According to the standards of the day, the risk was within the parameters of what they considered to be normal. It is also true that there was quite a large number of relatively inexperienced trainees on board at the time, but again that was not radically out of the ordinary. The captain judged at the time that the blend of experience and trainees on board was acceptable, and that the vessel was fit to set sail.

I would be hugely regretful and deeply sorry if either of those factors contributed to the loss of the Affray, but there is no evidence in truth that either factor did. We must be realistic about what we can hope to establish as definitive fact 50 years after the event when a Board of Inquiry conducted in the immediate aftermath with all the information at its disposal at the time was not able to say with certainty exactly what the cause was. It remains a huge tragedy for the Navy and a personal tragedy for those involved, but after more than 50 years, I just cannot see any new evidence or any realistic prospect that we would be better able to identify the cause of the disaster now than we were at the time.

I am delighted that in April some of the relatives will go out to commemorate the anniversary. I hope that my constituent, who is planning to go with them, finds the experience moving and meaningful, but I just do not think that there is anything we can do to put to bed the unanswered questions, because I do not believe that any more information is available to us today than was available then. I fear that the 75 souls who were lost will have to be left in peace on the sea floor, and that we will not find out anything new as a consequence of the allegations that have been made in the recent few years.