The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 1 - June 1980

HMS Titania 1917-1918

by G. Hawthorne

It is indeed a far cry from Blyth on the east coast of England to Kimberley in Griqualand West, South Africa, and a long span of time - over sixty-two years - since I was a boy-telegraphist (wireless operator) serving on HM Submarine 'J3' part of the tenth submarine flotilla stationed at Blyth.

I consider that the submarine base at Blyth in the years 1917 and 1918, known as HMS Titania, can claim fame as having more distinguished submarine commanders, at any one time, than any other submarine base in the British Isles.

I recall such names as: Martin E. Nasmith, VC, Norman D. Holbrook, VC, Edward Courtenay (Paddy) Boyle, VC, (all of Dardanelles and Sea of Marmora fame), Max Horton, DSO, Claude Barry, DSO, Goodhart, DSO, Lawrence, DSO, Howell-Price, DSO (who later was second in command of 'C3' when she blew up the Mole in the raid on Zeebrugge). I am only mentioning a few, for there were many others decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross.

What a thrill it was for me at Sunday morning divisions to observe on the breasts of some officers, the blue ribbon with a miniature Maltese Cross in the centre, denoting that the wearer had earned the coveted Victoria Cross. (As from the Royal Warrant of May 22nd, 1920, the colour of the ribbon has been crimson for all services).

It was towards the end of 1917 that I was sent from the submarine training depot RMS Dolphin to Blyth, as boy-telegraphist, to serve on HM Submarine J3 under Petty Officer telegraphist 'Knocker' White (a grand chap and very efficient). I was just 17 years of age.

My training up to this stage had been as follows:
- three months of seamanship on HMS Impregnable at Devonport; six months at the wireless school at Shotley, Harwich; three months at the wireless school at Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth, learning valve reception and Poulsen arc transmission, then two weeks submarine training at Fort Blockhouse, HMS Dolphin at Gosport and finally, two weeks training in the use of hydrophones at HMS Tarlair at Aberdour, Scotland.

I was to relieve a telegraphist named Callan. I recall that when I arrived at Titania and went aboard J3, Callan showed me over the boat and explained my duties, which included receiving and transmitting wireless signals; the decoding and coding of letter and cypher codes; operating the Fessenden underwater sound-signalling apparatus; listening on the hydrophones for sound waves from ships in our vicinity; raising and lowering the telescopic radio mast on the bridge; operating the starboard main motor, and attending to the Kingston flooding valves and the vents and test cocks in the motor compartment during action or diving stations.

Having completed all this, Callan said 'Cheerio' and departed, leaving a somewhat dazed and bewildered me to try and find my way out of the boat, which was not easy as she was nearly lOOm (300 feet) long and 9m (27 feet) in the beam, with many compartments, which were, starting forward: the forward torpedo compartment, the wardroom (containing the wireless office), the control room, the beam torpedo tubes, the No.1 engine room, the motor room, the No.2 engine room, and the after-end compartment where the seamen and stokers ate and slept (the steering jennies were also in this compartment). Our flush toilet and offal discharger were in the first engine room.

HMS Titania was a merchant ship of 5 250 tons, being built in England for the Austrians when war broke out. She was commandeered and converted for use as a submarine parent ship and was appointed as depot ship to the 9th and 10th submarine flotillas consisting initially of GJ to G6 and later Jl to J6 and later M1 (the first submarine to be fitted with a 12-inch gun). She was commanded by Max Horton, who in World War II was Admiral in command of Western Approaches.

The following day we were ordered to 'prepare for sea' and I took up my station in the motor room. The telegraph indicator signalled 'slow ahead starboard' and I leaped to the motor switches.

I must now take you back to Callan, who had carefully explained to me how to operate the motor, which was controlled by a series of locking arms, which had to be 'made' (pushed home), from left to right to start, and broken from right to left, in alternation, to stop. There was a giant rheostat for speeding up, and an equally giant switch for reversing.

After leaping to the switches, I made Nos. 1 and 2 and then panicked, thinking that I should have started from the other end. I tried to rectify by pushing the switch on the far right and promptly jammed all the switches and stopped the motor. This is a very serious matter when the Skipper is trying to get away from his berth with a strong current running, so the language that came down the voice pipe from the Captain, Commander 'Nutty' Thompson, although too terrible, was fully justified!

I stood petrified, until the operator on the port motor, LTO Harry Chin came to my aid and put matters right. I never made another mistake again, when operating the motor switches! However, more was to follow. We were about to do a trial dive, as we had only just come from the yard of Hawthorne Leslie & Co in Tyneside where we had had a partial refit. We proceeded out of the basin normally and on arriving in the diving area, we declutched the engines and proceeded on the main motors as we flooded the main ballast tanks. We were submerging normally, when suddenly the bows tipped steeply, putting the deck at a very steep angle, so much so, that I had to hold on the safety bar in front of the motor switches, to prevent myself from falling. Also I had to hang on to the rope handle of the box housing our machine gun, which was trying to slide down the hatch in the flooring above the main motors. The noise was terrifying, as all the tools and loose equipment in the engine room and other compartments rattled and clattered forward. I thought that all this was normal, as I had previously only dived in a small C class submarine. I looked down at Harry Chin, the LTO on the port motor, and he certainly was looking very concerned, and noticing the grin on my face, said 'You silly young bastard, if you knew more about it, you wouldn't be grinning all over your face!' At about 200 feet we hit the bottom with our nose and after bumping twice, the Skipper gained control and brought the boat up to a level keel again. We were lucky that our nose did not stick in the mud. I was told later, that the dockyard personnel had left off the flooding doors to our forward main ballast tanks and when we vented to flood, the water rushed in too quickly, and gave us a very negative buoyancy. Normally the J boats dived beautifully.

Radio reception was not always good, because of atmospherics and the earthing of the aerial by spray and waves breaking over it. To increase the distance of reception, we used to attach an aerial to a box kite, which was a lot of fun. We thoroughly enjoyed our practice flying of the kites from the beach stretching to Whitley Bay.

Sometimes on surfacing, I would find the aerial entangled in the superstructure, and with a lifeline secured around my waist I would climb down and release it. Often icy seas would break over me, and I would be drenched and almost washed overboard, but I was pretty nippy - I had to be!

To enable submarines on patrol to keep in touch, three depot ships on the East Coast, the Maidstone at Harwich, the Titania at Blyth, and the Lucia at Middleburgh used to transmit to each other at ten minutes past each hour and subs would intercept. To enable radio traffic to be maintained at an even volume, if no messages were to be sent, dummy signals were transmitted in four-letter code or five-figure cypher. This cypher was broken down as follows. A cardboard clock with a single hand was used. The numerals were first ticked off in pairs, then the clock hand or pointer was turned to the first pair of numbers and at the opposite end of it was indicated a pair of letters. These letters were jotted down in groups of four and when all the figures had been converted, the four letter code book was used. If no message was being sent, the first group said 'dummy'. Incidentally, each code book had eight ounces of lead in the covers and all were kept in a heavy iron chest, so that in an emergency, the whole lot could be dumped into the sea and kept out of enemy hands.

As radio transmission at sea was kept to a minimum, so as not to reveal the submarine's position to the enemy, transmission was used as little as possible. On a signal being picked up from the depot ships, the single letter 'Y' (meaning your message has been received and understood) was sent to C-in-C Scapa Flow with the call sign of the submarine concerned. In theory, the North Sea was divided into small squares, and in each square was a British vessel fitted with radio, so that no German force could be at sea without the Admiralty being aware of it.

While in harbour some of the submarine crew lived aboard Titania - all the officers did, of course, while the remainder, including my own crew, lived in the old herring-drying sheds near the main gate. It was bitterly cold in these sheds, and the north wind used to howl through the cracks and holes in the wooden walls. We always told the coxswain where we slung our hammocks, so that he could call us, if required to put to sea at night, which was often the case.

We were a happy bunch, and after cleaning and maintaining our boats, we boys kept watch in the main wireless office in Titania or attended school classes, taking such subjects as physics or applied mechanics. Then there was football or trips into Blyth - all this when we were not doing sea patrols. These patrols usually lasted ten days and we patrolled the Dogger Bank, off the German coast, the entrance to the Skagerak and Kattegat, and on occasions we operated out of Scapa Flow when we patrolled the Great Barrier minefield to find out where the U-boats were getting through on the surface into the Atlantic. In five days we sighted three U-boats but could not get within range for an attack. So very disappointing!

On these patrols we never washed, shaved, or took off our clothes and after a couple of days at sea were hardly on speaking terms with each other. We lived in a strange and weird dream world, just doing our watches, maintaining the boat, facing unsavoury meals, attending to diving or action stations and then sleeping as much as possible. This was particularly so in my case, because there were only two 'Sparkers' so we were on watch and watch about. The remainder of the crew were in three watches, so they did one on and had two off. As there were only six bunks available for the seamen and stokers, crew members just lay on the decks, wherever they fancied and fell asleep. We all became terribly constipated and many had bad sores from the arsenic in the oil fuel. However, after returning from a trip, we longed to be out on patrol again, always hoping to bag something.

There is a very good description of conditions at sea, which I picked up somewhere. 'The wind was rough and the sea mountainous. The motion of the boat was a perpetual swinging, swaying, racking, rolling and listing. Inside the humidity was intolerable; moisture condensing on the cold steel hull ran in streaks to the bilges; food turned rotten and had to be thrown overboard. Bread became soggy and mildewy. Paper dissolved. Our clothes were clammy and never dry and whatever we touched was wet and slimy. The air we breathed was a mixture of hydrogen and chlorine from the batteries, foul air, the smells of cooking and unwashed bodies, of arsenic and oil fuel and finally carbon monoxide. No wonder we hardly spoke to each other!'

During my stay at Blyth, two submarines were lost. One was G7 which set off on patrol early in 1918 and was never heard of again. Probably struck a mine, and they had been such a fine jolly crew! The other was our sister ship J6. J3 and J6 were both built at Pembroke dockyard in 1916. J6 was sunk by a Q boat, a British mystery ship, on October 15th, 1918. The Q boat was a top-sail schooner which had been converted at great expense into a first-class mystery ship. She was captained by a very experienced officer, who had already won the DSO and bar and DSC and bar, in mystery ships. Visibility was bad as J6 passed the schooner on its starboard beam. The men in civilian clothes, concealed behind the camouflaged guns, as the submarine drew closer, whispered 'U6, U6, it's a Fritz' An officer later reported 'I cannot tell what it was that hung over the conning tower and completed the loop on the J, making it look like a U, probably a navy blue scarf. I was as convinced as any of the men, that it was a U-boat'. The Captain gave the order to break the white ensign, and open fire. The very first shell hit a man on the bridge of J6 who was about to fire a rifle with a recognition signal. It was the signalman, and both his arms were broken. The second shell punched the waterline of the submarine under the conning tower and exploded in the control room, killing a close friend of mine, boy-telegraphist Sexton. More shells were fired at J6 as she disappeared into a fog bank. Only fifteen men were picked up out of a crew of forty-five.

About mid 1918, my boat J3 was sent to Birkenhead, where I received 30 shillings a week maintenance allowance out of which I had to keep myself. I was fortunate to find lodgings with a Mrs McDonald whose husband was a foreman pattern maker at Cammell Laird's. She lived in York Street, Birkenhead, and only charged me 27/6 per week for board and lodging.

After finishing our refit and doing our 'trials' in Liverpool Bay, we proceeded to return via the Western Isles and spent the first night anchored in Jura Sound. I have never seen such beautiful scenery as we passed through the Hebrides on a fine Sunday afternoon, although the islanders shook their fists at us, thinking we were a German submarine.

We had a shocking trip around Cape Wrath and through the Pentland Firth, striking very heavy seas, so much so, that we lost our 'trim' which was not corrected until we arrived at Aberdeen.

Strangely enough, when secured to the old fishing jetty in Aberdeen, a woman and her daughter asked to be allowed over the boat and after receiving permission, I showed them over. Years later, this lady, a Mrs Allen and her daughter came to Kimberley where I was living, and we met again. As a matter of fact, her daughter, Peggy, worked in my business for many years.

On one of our trials out of Scapa for a patrol in an area off the Shetland Isles, it was noticed that a few of the crew were not at all well. However, we carried on but by the time we reached our patrol area, there were only a few of us left on our feet to carry on. We had been hit by the great 'flu epidemic of 1918. We radioed for assistance and a destroyer came and towed us back to Scapa, where we tied up alongside the hospital ship China, and the sick crew were taken off. I was fortunate and did not contract the 'flu. All of our chaps recovered.

Next, I remember the surrender of the German U-boats. They had received this terrible instruction: 'Proceed to the nearest British Port with open hatches and surrender'. A few came to Blyth and were secured alongside Titania. A pal and myself broke into one of them one dark night, armed with a torch, screwdriver and pliers and climbed down the conning tower hatch. We were looking for souvenirs, but did not get much - just a few name plates, part of a breathing escape apparatus (which I have presented to) the Submarine Museum) and a wandering lead lamp which I found in the engine room.. I'll never forget the terrible smell in the U-boat - all that I mentioned previously, plus the smell of potatoes and sour bread. I suppose my own boat smelt just as bad, but to me it was a sweet and homely smell! At times on patrol we were submerged for twenty hours before coming up to charge our batteries. Then the air or atmosphere was like a mist and a match would not burn in it.

Once during a patrol off the Dogger Bank area, we were rolling on the surface prior to starting a battery charge, when a look-out sighted the bow wave of a destroyer coming over the horizon. There was insufficient time for us to challenge and get a reply before the destroyer would be upon us, so the Captain gave the order 'Dive'. The destroyer (British), seeing a submarine dive without challenging, decided that it must be hostile and promptly dropped depth charges. We were shaken a bit, but there was no serious damage apart from a few rivets 'started' and some elements of light globes broken. Our Captain, in the control room, Is reported to have exclaimed 'I suppose that bastard will now go back and claim his DSO!'

Our flotillas did not have any outstanding successes, mainly because of lack of targets. J1 (Lt Cdr Lawrence) succeeded in torpedoing two German battleships, the Grosser Kurfurst and the Kron Prinz. Both were hard hit but managed to get back to port. Our 18-inch torpedoes did not have sufficient power to deal a death blow to a modern battleship.

J5 (Cdr 'Paddy' Boyle, VC) had an inconclusive surface gun battle with a U-boat and although she had a foot of seawater over her batteries, owing to ventilators being left open in the engine room when she dived, and thus filling the boat with chlorine gas, managed to return to Blyth.

My own boat once sighted four enemy battle cruisers escorted by a Zeppelin. (Last year when I was in England, I had the very great joy of reading of this trip and many others in the original log books of J3, now kept in the Public Records office at Kew, London. What an experience to visit this wonderful place, where nearly all records, Civil, Military, and Naval of the past 400 years are kept in this very modern highly computerized building.) We were not permitted to attack, as they were proceeding from Germany, and our job was to report their position by wireless to C-in-C Scapa Flow, using the eight-letter battle-fleet reporting code. All ships hearing this type of code were required to give priority to the passing on of the signal. We got our signal off, although we were forced to crash dive a couple of times, while we were on the surface for this purpose. Eventually we lost visual contact and also hydrophone contact.

At this stage of the war, married officers and men were encouraged to have their wives live near the depots and many wives lived in Blyth, where the friendly people of this town made them very welcome. It was heartrending however, when a boat was overdue from patrol, to see wives and children of members of the crew cluttered outside the depot gate anxiously waiting for news and asking the liberty men as they passed outside - 'Any news?', 'Any news?'

On submarine J5 I had an unusual pal, a Jewish telegraphist, whose name was Goldstein, and he was a good chap. We used to go into his boat at night and give each other orders such as 'vent flood pump' or 'blow' this, that or the other, main ballast tanks, or operate the trimming tanks. All these things we did in imagination so that we were thoroughly at home in any compartment, and eventually knew the inside of our boats as well as, or nearly as well as the Chief Stoker. Afterwards we put on boxing gloves and had a good bash at each other.

In December, 1918, we were advised that the J class submarines were to be given to the Royal Australian Navy and volunteers were called from the existing crews to serve for a 2, 3, or 5 year period, with the promise of immediate 28 days leave and Australian rates of pay. This was too much for me to refuse and I volunteered for a three-year period and was accepted. The whole flotilla then moved to Vickers yard at Barrow-in-Furness to have refrigeration fitted in place of our beam torpedo tubes. This however, was never done. Stanchions however, were fitted to carry a hawser around the boat to prevent fellows being washed overboard, and on our stern was erected a standard to carry a hawser from the bridge that would carry an awning to protect the deck from the intense heat of the tropical sun.

When this work was finished we proceeded to the Royal Naval Dockyard at Portsmouth and eventually on March 9th, 1919, set off for Australia, under Captain 'S', Captain Edward Courtenay (Paddy) Boyle, VC, as part of an Australian Fleet, consisting of HMAS Australia (Battle cruiser) and three cruisers, Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane, plus six destroyers of the River class, Paramatta, etc., and the submarine parent ship Platypus and her brood of six J boats, and so farewell to Titania and to Blyth.

We eventually arrived in Sydney after a leisurely trip of three months, stopping at Gibraltar, Malta, Suez, Aden, Columbo, Singapore, through the Timor Sea and the Torres Straight via Thursday Islands, then down through the Great Barrier Reef to Brisbane, and then finally to Sydney.

We took such a long time because, after leaving Aden, we broke a main propeller shaft and on reaching Columbo waited there for a month while a new shaft was freighted from England. The new shaft incidentally, was fitted by our own artificers. But the long trip to Australia is another story.

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