HM S/M VANDAL -  the shortest serving submarine.


Lost 4 days after commissioning whilst working up in Scottish waters. That is two losses, the first being that the boat never came home and all in her perished, and the second, nobody knew where she was, geographically speaking, when out and about doing crucial and potentially dangerous trials and tests. Even in the midst of a terrible and long war one would think that her SOA [Submarine operating authority] responsible for her work-up, would know her every move having planned and dictated it until successful conclusion. She was lost in 1943 but it wasn’t until nearly the turn of the century 20th to 21st  [1994] that she was eventually found. When a submarine was built and after every long refit thereafter, she first did a check on her water-tightness by doing a “basin dive”- BD.  A basin is an area of water integral to a dockyard or builders yard and this picture shows a submarine in a builders test basin. .

Should anything go wrong with the BD, everything was at hand to save the boat and to bring her safely back alongside her terra firma berth. Subsequent to that event was its first deep dive – DD to a depth of or marginally beyond her recorded safe diving depth which each class of submarine is certified for at build. This was always done in a Scottish deep Loch leading off from the Firth of Clyde areas. This Loch, like a dockyard basin, had many monitoring and safety features and also several safety small craft ready to assist if necessary. The dive was controlled from inside the submarine itself now with many dockyard civilian workers  embarked swelling the numbers of personnel on board. Various planned depths are achieved to a rigid programme, and when satisfactory, the next programmed depth is acquired, and so on, and at any point of doubt, the submarine can return to the previous successful depth. Manifest in the stresses and strains of prosecuting the war with everything [materiel and personnel] stretched to bursting point, the trials team and SOA would not have had the latitude to think laterally , now a prerequisite to modern times, and at all costs, the boat was wanted immediately for a deployment thus negating the need for advisory procedures, taking short cuts on safety matters where possible and justified. HMS Vandal was a Group 3 U-Class submarines and many of the class were already at sea prosecuting the war quite successfully in some cases, so we [and certainly the builders, SOA and the Admiralty] were justified into believing that the hull design is adequate and does all it is designed to do, proven in sea and more importantly war conditions by the submarine service and submariners. Thus, a deep dive for the Vandal, although always desirable was not an operational necessity, and there is no record that one was done or attempted or scheduled!

However, note the boats complement and the personnel who fitted [or didn’t ?] these billets. Here we have two separate groups, the officers and the ship’s company, the ratings. By the time the Vandal was nearing her build-finish, many boats of all classes with many U-Class included, were already deployed in various theatres of war. This resulted in the finite numbers of trained submariners available being severely reduced and a massive headache for the appointers/drafters. Training, like submarine building and testing, had to cut corners, with the obvious result that the crews of submarines in1943 were ill-trained and unprepared on first going to sea in comparison with earlier fully-trained submariners, and this applied to both officers and ratings.

The officer complement was just four, two Royal Navy officers and two reservists from the RNVR [volunteer reserve]. All were very young and obviously inexperienced, with the CO [RN] himself barely four years on from being a sub lieutenant. Nevertheless after joining the navy before the war on the 16th September 1938 he saw service in the submarines Oberon as a sub lieutenant appointed Feb 1940; Perseus as a lieutenant Feb 1941 just missing her loss from mining and mildly famous for the John Capes saga,  and then the submarine  L23 [lost May 1946] in December 1942, a WW1 built boat. In late December 1942 he joined the Vandal as the CO. CO’s were very thin on the ground at this stage of the war! His executive officer [first lieutenant] was an officer called John PORTMAN also RN, who had not long had his second stripe on joining the Vandal. As a sub lieutenant he joined the submarine depot [surface] ship HMS Maidstone in October 1942 and from there he joined submarine Clyde in December 1942 and on into Vandal [another rapid move] in early 1943. “Still wet behind the ears” surely covers this poor man chalice: to be thrust into submarines and in double quick time, thrust into the executive officer role, must have given the officer some sleepless nights. Of the other two officers, both RNVR, they too must have wondered a little about what their future would hold especially as “responsible officers” – some officers are not, borne for training! All in the wardroom were in for a shock full well knowing the lack of experience that wardrooms normally abound with. Not so here on this occasion!

CO: Lt John  S BRIDGER RN Seniority [Sen] 16 Oct 1939
1st LT: Lt John M B PORTMAN RN Sen 1 Nov 1942
3RD HAND: Temporary Lt Mark V Ebel RNVR Sen 1 Oct 1942
4th HAND: Temporary  S/Lt James H Hickley RNVR Sen 30 Sep 1941

All the officers were young and except for the CO, very inexperienced: such was the demand the war placed on appointers.

Now for the ship’s company.

No Engineer Officer was appointed. Complemented for 3 ERA’s only, two of which were acting 4th class and 1, a young an inexperienced  ERA 3rd class. There were no 2nd class, no 1st class, no  Chief ERA,  no WO class to fulfil the role of ‘Engines’ looking after both the engine-room department and the electrical department.

Neither was there enough trained submariners to man this vessel, and submarine experience and knowledge was more important [or as important] as knowing your trade or branch job. So, any trained submariner would fill the criterion of “submarine trained” to make up the numbers. Vandal had no fewer than six communicators drafted to her, 1 bunting, 1 CPO Tel, 1 PO Tel, 1 Ldg Tel and 2 telegraphists, and whilst some would be considered W/T office ratings, others would be either seamen, stokers or whatever short-fall rate needed to be filled. Several submarines sailed with gross imbalances in the ship’s company make-up!

Overall then, one can see that the Vandal had many shortcomings, and it begs the question of whether any of these contributed to her loss and sad demise?

Note on the Admiralty file [PDF] the final column, which simply suggests that the cause of death was from “injuries”.  No mention of MPK [missing presumed killed], or Lost, or DOWS [the official UK jargon for ‘Died On War Service’, an expression used to differentiate between a combatants death and a death from natural causes or accident occurring in war time to a member of the armed services. 

See also this Admiralty file The ratings death list on the loss of submarine VANDAL.pdf

[Note the loss was 37 officers and men and this list shows 33 men. Add to them the list of officers above]