A Submariner's Story
Northern Irish ex-pat Frederick Rodgers recalls a close call aboard Royal Naval submarine Alcide in 1955
It's a Thursday morning in early April 1964. It arrives just like a hundred other mornings aboard a British submarine at sea. Roughly roused from the tranquility of sleep it's my turn to go on watch. My name is Fred Rodgers, but aboard Alcide I go by the nickname Ben. Just about everyone in the navy has a nickname. For example, with the surname Reynolds you’d be known as Debbie. Please don’t ask; I have no idea how I came by the name Ben.
I’m a Leading Seaman, having served for a little over five years in the submarine service. I was born in Belfast and joined the Royal Navy in 1955. At twenty-five years of age I’m married and living in an apartment in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
Reluctantly climbing out of my warm bunk I slowly lower my feet on to the deck. At sea we never change clothes or undress so I’m ready to go on watch. Before heading for the control room I pay a visit to the head. The boat is running normal and quiet as I take up my duty in the control room. The watch change continues with bleary-eyed submariners dragging themselves to their various duties.
The Royal Navy 'A' class submarine is cruising at four knots, 100 feet below the surface of the north Atlantic. Our job is to patrol in a designated zone listening for intruders. That is the polite name for Russian’s. The cold war is in full swing. I'm sitting at the foreplane’s control dreading the four long hours ahead. The stale damp air in the boat is a familiar mixture of body odor and diesel fumes. The harsh white overhead lights hurt my still sleepy eyes.
At approximately 0430hrs the morning kye (hot chocolate) arrives. The officer of the watch gives permission for one all round. One all round is the signal to light up; smoking out of necessity is a restricted privilege aboard a submarine. The watch is relaxed.
The boat is in the hands of George the autopilot. It's designed to control course, speed and depth. Nevertheless, we remain vigilant - George can be notoriously unreliable at times. While keeping a keen eye on the depth I help solve the world’s major problems with my fellow watch-keepers. After much debate we select the best car of the year. We touch on the problems of religion, politics and anything else that comes to mind.
Around 0730hrs a wonderful aroma of bacon frying in the galley invades my nostrils. I’m hungry and anxious to see my relief. At a few minutes after 0800hrs I head aft to collect my breakfast. The tiny galley on an 'A' class boat is located in the after part of the control room beside the engine room door.
Weary from four hours on watch I lean against the bulkhead watching eggs sizzle on the grill. As the chef piles two eggs and several rashers of bacon on my plate I feel the deck angle downward. I smile as I listen to the officer of the watch berating the plainsman who has just relieved me. 'Come on lad, wake up and watch your depth'. I know he can’t blame George. It had been shut down at the watch change.
Suddenly it becomes clear the downward angle is not the fault of the planesman - we appear to be in a steep dive!
In a matter of seconds we’re at 200 feet. The 1st lieutenant rushes into the control room, immediately taking charge of what is rapidly becoming a serious situation. The order to shut off for going deep sounds throughout the submarine.
Our skipper is asleep in the cabin. Going deep means the lower conning tower hatch along with every other hatch inside the boat was quickly shut. This effectively leaves the captain isolated and alone outside the main pressure hull. I assist in shutting the engine room door and all valves passing through the bulkhead before returning to the control room to report that part of ship sealed.
Events now seem to evolve in slow motion as the crew go about their duties sealing the boat for the deep dive. Every eye in the control room focuses on the rapidly descending depth gauge readings. Passing 400 feet the 1st Lieutenant gives the roder, 'blow main ballast'.
This would surely correct the uncontrolled descent and allow us to regain buoyancy. The sound of air screeching into the ballast tanks is reassuring as we wait for the boat to level off and start rising. I stand breathless and motionless, unable to take my eyes off the depth gauge.
I’m alone. It seems every man in the control room is frozen in time, eyes firmly fixed on the same gauge. When the blow is completed an eerie and utter silence returns to the boat.
We are still sinking. Blowing the tanks has not even slowed us down. With the sea bottom perhaps two miles below we would never reach in one piece. As we pass through 600 feet the 1st lieutenant throws his shirt over the depth gauge. It effectively breaks our trance. Now in the silence we hear the first groans and creaks as the hull compresses under the enormous sea pressure.
The feeling of being trapped in a steel tube as it plunges toward its crush depth is terrifying. Powerless to do anything, I fearfully await the end. I wonder would people know what happened to us or if we would be thought of as dying bravely. I ponder never seeing a blue sky again and ask myself why I’d volunteered for the submarine service in the first place. I remember the lessons we were taught during training.
An 'A' boat has a maximum depth of 500 feet. The hull is designed to withstand sea pressure to 1000 feet then halved to 500 as a safety measure. That was only the builder’s theory and they weren’t here now to actually attest to its accuracy. Besides which, Alcide is more than 20 years old, the pressure hull would have certainly deteriorated during that time.
I’m gripped by a fear I have never before experienced, while outwardly I try to maintain an appearance of calm. As we continue our descent a strange feeling of calm over takes me. I relax, realizing I’m no longer in control of events.
Through the fog of these thoughts and theories, I become aware that my right handias hurting. I have a death grip on a stanchion but can’t let go.
Suddenly a voice pierces my silent reverie. 'Bubble rising, sir.’ I’m not sure I’ve heard correctly. Maybe I’m dreaming and this is naturally what I want to hear. Shifting my weight to allow for a sudden upward sweep of the deck, it’s clear that we are rising!
The boat is now racing toward the surface at about the same speed we had dived moments before. Clearly no-one wants to slow our ascent even though sonar can not safely report surface contacts at this speed.
When we break surface a relieved skipper is the first man on the bridge. Trapped alone in his tiny cabin not knowing what was happening must have been a frightening ordeal. The entire experience had only taken minutes. Yet for those of us in the control room those minutes had seemed like hours.
The first question everyone asked. 'What happened?', 'What caused the sudden dive?' I’m not so concerned with the cause, just happy to be alive and back on the surface. Still hungry, my thoughts quickly return to my breakfast.
On reaching the seaman’s mess I find it alive with chatter. I think it’s mostly bravado hiding fear. Shipmates eagerly relate tales of their experiences (supposedly) on other boats. 'On such and such we hit the sea bed at 800 feet!'. 'Oh yeah! On my last boat we sank stern first and were stuck on the sea bed for hours!' And so the stories go on.
But what really happened? What caused the steep dive? How deep did we actually go? These are questions I can’t answer with any certainty. The best theory offered and perhaps the cause was an iceberg. Icebergs are generally made up of fresh water and as they move into the Gulf Stream they melt. That morning it is possible the submarine entered at the top of a huge pocket of fresh water, the remains of an iceberg. With the difference in water density between salt and fresh water we immediately became very heavy and dropped like a stone.
Only when we exited at the bottom of the berg did we regain our buoyancy. How deep we went that morning is open to speculation. Perhaps somewhere near 800 feet. Had the berg been a few feet deeper maybe I wouldn’t be telling this story - who knows?
Frederick Rodgers went on to serve a total of twelve years in the Royal Navy and twelve more in the Canadian Navy Reserve. Now retired, he lives in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Rodgers published his first book, Lily and Me, in 2004. Click here to read more of Rodgers' work as well as his blog.