ROYAL NAVAL DAYS OF MODERN YORE?

RN with a bear hug for the RCN.

WITH AN IMPORTANT STORY OF THE USS THRESHER

and little old British diesel 'A' Class submarine, HM S/M AURIGA, summoned to the rescue!

So many stories are told about the WW2 years with emphasis on the RN's input to defeating the dreaded Atlantic UBoat curse.

That story is legion and well told/known, but sometimes unfairly as regards our dear, devoted and professional allies operating in the northern waters of the north Atlantic an ocean area I know well, but fortunately for only 20 months in days gone by 56 years ago.

This was the commitment of the fledgling  Royal Canadian Navy, of whom I have had first hand  experience, far more and above the knowledge of the run of mill RN personnel both ashore and at sea.

The Sixth RN Submarine Flotilla formed and based on Halifax Nova Scotia 1955-1965 under the name of HMS Ambrose, were far more au fait with the Canadians than were ever the Royal Navy per se, and as each RN Boat joined and left the Flotilla, so the bond grew.  I was in HM S/M 'Auriga' 1963-1964 [20 months - Commissioned by Lieutenant Commander M.R. Wilson RN] and lived in Halifax with my wife Beryl and first born son [Steven] in Halifax Infirmary in September 1963. As such he became a 'bluenose' the name for all born and bred Nova Scotians [Nova Scotia means New Scotland], and now aged 56 and a Senior Lecturer and Programme Director of a London University, he is still very proud of his dual nationality especially being a bluenose: so named after a ship built in Nova Scotia, which became famous.

During that period we did and saw so many things which were ground breaking events, and although already mentioned on various other web pages on this site, to keep them in context I'll mention them here again after I tell you this prime story.

I am stimulated into doing this having just read the brand new book [launched 7th November 2019] called "A game of birds and wolves" about the increased killing of Atlantic German UBoat wolf packs by the RN [and others] operating out of Liverpool under the authority of CinC Western Approaches, whose ace UBoat killer was the pan-allied naval  hero, Captain Frederic John Walker CB and no less than four DSO's Royal Navy.

 Once upon a time there was a young Royal Canadian Officer [RCN] who manifestly displeased the Royal Navy [RN] with, quote the RN, a gross inability to marshal and thereafter protect from UBoat attacks, an east bound convoy of merchant ships carrying goods to the UK, when many of the ships in the convoy were lost.  In colloquial terms, he was sent to Coventry by the RN but was feted and admired by the RCN back in dear old Canada. In hind sight it was a rather unfair judgement, for the poor man had few escorts of any note or worth and with inexperienced CO's and some not fully worked-up, to control forty two convoy vessels against a massive wolf pack attack, losing fifteen ships out of the  forty two during the crossing.   That one day, I would meet him, now long ago forgiven by the RN and effectively put on a pedestal by his beloved navy and country folks, was a great surprise and an honour I have always treasured. He was still in uniform with three more years yet to serve before his retirement in 1967, and I remember a very spritely 51 year old veteran of the bad old days of German UBoat wolf packs creating havoc in the North Atlantic. If that were not enough to deal with,  in what has always been tempestuous waters and when not, fog-bound in real pea soupers [the likes of which other areas of the Atlantic do not suffer] off the infamous Grand Banks,  the gateway to the North Atlantic proper from and to the great port of Halifax Nova Scotia, the last remaining open all year round port before arriving in the Gulf of St Lawrence and closed winter ice-bound ports thereafter.

This man died in 2005 when 92, and this is a brief biography/obituary of his well spent life. My wife Beryl and I used to spend much of our leisure time [when not at sea or visiting many US ports and cities] around the Nova Scotian coast line particularly between Liverpool, Chester [the home of this admiral] and Peggy's Cove, and here's a point, that although  Nova Scotia means New Scotland there are as many towns and a handful of city's and areas bearing English names as well as with Red Indian tribal names as there are Scottish names!

Preface to Biography

Starting in the mid 1960's just a couple of months after 'Auriga' was reassigned back to the UK after nearly 20 months on station and the last of the RN submarines had joined the 6th flotilla/HMS Ambrose which was disbanded later in 1965, the RCN created a state of flux inconceivable to the RN over its long history!  It started in 1965 when the long association with the white ensign was dropped in favour of the maple leaf ensign and jack - this had long been mooted before we left the station. To our shock, truly, in 1968 they decided to drop the long established [from post WW1] use of the RCN title, to amalgamate the navy army and air force into The Canadian Armed Forces [Royalty not inclusive]==, ditching the naval uniform in favour of a common rifle-green uniform for all armed forces ranks. I'll wager that the admiral was none too pleased about that. Then the Canadians ditched the National Anthem in 1980 and instead used a new one of their own called "O Canada. Finally, in 2011 to everybody's astonishment they decided to reinvent the wheel and reinstated the RCN and the name and naval uniform reappeared.   The RCN was in being in my time in Canada and so it was when Admiral Piers retired in 1967. During the period 1910 until 1967 the highest rank in the RCN was a rear admiral and Admiral Piers was one of a few only. However the navy grew in size with a small submarine fleet and more surface vessels whilst continuing to dabble with an aircraft carrier* which nearly always appeared to be harbour bound, until eventually it warranted a vice admiral as the highest Canadian rank which continues today in 2019, and there is just the one in command.  In June 2011 HRH The Duke of Edinburgh became the Admiral of the RCN.


*Her first use of a carrier was commissioned into the RN at Vancouver in February 1944 named 'Puncher' having an RCN crew but with an RN Air Aviation Division doing all the flying 'ops: followed in January 1946 when the RN carrier 'Warrior' was transferred. Then came the RN carrier 'Magnificent' in April 1948 leaving without relief in April 1954. Finally came her first very own carrier [but far from new] the 'Bonaventure' commissioned at the Harland and Wolff Yard into the RCN at Belfast January 1957. She was originally ordered and built as HMS Powerful during WW2 but work stopped on her in 1945 at the end of the war. It wasn't restarted again until 1952  and this time taken up by the RCN,  finally being commissioned in 1957. She was decommissioned in 1970, and since that time, nigh on 50 years, the RCN has had no fleet air cover!

Now first a short video of Admiral Piers as he was in 1995 when aged 82

Rear Admiral Piers of the RCN.wmv

BIOGRAPHY/OBITUARY

[but note also this Obit from the Guardian which is more forthcoming about the losses incurred under his command of convoy SC107 and the RN severe criticism of the RCN at that time]

Rear Admiral Desmond Piers OBSERVER OBIT.docx

Rear-Admiral 'Debby' Piers CM DSC CD

CM The Canada Medal was an honour created in 1943 as part of an attempt to establish an indigenous honours system in Canada. It was meant to serve as the top award that could be awarded to civilians and military personnel.
CD The Canadian Forces' Decoration is awarded to officers and Non-Commissioned Members of the Canadian Forces who have completed twelve years of service. The decoration is awarded to all ranks, who have a good record of conduct

 

Rear-Admiral "Debby" Piers, who has died aged 92, was a young Canadian officer in charge of a slow convoy to Britain which was severely mauled by U-boats; the episode led to the Royal Navy insisting that the Canadians withdraw from the North Atlantic for further training.


When the 42 ships of Convoy SC 107 set off in October 1942, Piers's destroyer Restigouche was the only ship with high-frequency direction-finding (HF/DF
known as 'huff-duff') equipment, which he had scrounged from the US Navy at Londonderry. Four other corvettes in the escort either had new captains or were fitted with unreliable radar and short-range ASDIC. When they were attacked west of Cape Race, Newfoundland, by an estimated 17 U-boats, Piers used his HF/DF to sweep aggressively around the convoy, driving off most of the shadowers.

But eight ships were sunk on the first night, and seven more in the next week. Piers fought fiercely, but when he limped into Liverpool, the Royal Navy's criticism was harsh.

Senior officers claimed that the Royal Canadian Navy had expanded too rapidly, had taken on too many tasks and was poorly trained. Admiral Sir Max Horton's report pointed out that 80 per cent of the convoy's losses had occurred when it was under Canadian command in the western Atlantic. This ignored the difficulties under which the convoy had sailed, and singled out Piers's youth and inexperience. Certainly Piers was young; he was earning less than his ship's doctor. But he had been senior officer on convoys on at least seven occasions without losing a ship; and he had been in the North Atlantic for three years.

Desmond Piers as a young RCN officer possibly a lieutenant commander at the time of the disastrous sinking's in the RCN escorted convoy mentioned above when he was the senior officer of the escorts.

The Canadians stuck by Piers, and he left Restigouche in June 1943 with a reputation as a fine seaman and brilliant tactician. He took a keen interest in the welfare of his sailors and, in a hard-hitting report of his own, recommended better equipment, more home leave and regular mail, longer work-up periods, fewer short-term appointments and better individual training. The ensuing reforms greatly improved the RCN's fighting performance.

The citation for his DSC in 1943 declared: "This officer has served continuously in His Majesty's Canadian destroyers since the commencement of hostilities. As Senior Officer of Convoy Escort Groups in the North Atlantic, he has, by his vigorous leadership and aggressive attack, been an inspiration to those under his command."

Desmond William Piers was born on June 12 1913 into one of the founding families of Halifax, Nova Scotia
: Samuel Cunard the founder of the famous shipping company was also a Halifax man and is duly commemorated in the city. Piers' father called him Desy, which was transmuted into Debby when he was a baby. In 1932 Piers graduated from the Royal Military College, Kingston, to become the first cadet to join the Royal Canadian Navy. He trained at sea in the Royal Navy and returned to Canada in 1937 as first lieutenant of "Rusty Guts", as Restigouche was known.

Piers experienced his baptism of fire during the evacuation of France when Restigouche, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Horatio Nelson Lay
[one of getting on for five score of Lord Nelson's descendants], was ordered to assist in evacuating the 51st Highland Division's wounded from St Valery, near Dieppe. Lay asked Piers to send someone ashore to get in touch with the Highlanders. Looking in his cabin mirror, Piers told himself: "Piers, you're the one who's going ashore," and replied to himself: "Aye Aye, Sir." After he had packed binoculars, a signal lamp, chocolate bars and a bottle of whisky in his golf bag, he was told by Lay: "Piers, you're a bloody fool. But okay, find out what's going on and signal it back." Ashore, Piers found Major-General Victor Fortune, who was refusing to leave because he wanted to hold the perimeter defences to allow more men to get away, and Piers narrowly avoided accompanying him into captivity. The propeller of his boat was damaged, and he could make only a half knot out to where Lay waited for him inshore.

The following year, Piers was the newly-appointed captain of Restigouche when she struck an uncharted rock in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, while escorting Prince of Wales, on which Churchill and Roosevelt held their Atlantic Charter meeting; when she had to put in for repairs, he returned to Halifax, where he married Janet Macneill.

In late 1943 Piers became training officer at Halifax, where he made inspirational speeches about the duty of officers in privileged positions toward their fellow men, while insisting upon very high standards in exercises. He also helped to thwart German prisoners of war who had escaped from Bowmanville, Ontario; he controlled the shore side of operations from the lighthouse at Pointe Maisonnette, New Brunswick, though U-536, which had come to pick them up, evaded the trap set.

At the Normandy invasion, Piers commanded the new destroyer Algonquin, which bombarded the shore in support of Canadian and American troops. He also served in Arctic convoys.

In February 1945 he took part in a mock winter Olympics in northern Russia, winning the 100 yards dash; his crew played ice hockey against the locals, which they lost 3-2.

With the return of peace, Piers was second-in-command of the Canadian aircraft carrier Magnificent, and obtained a pilot's licence; but he also had to quell a protest by ratings exasperated by his maintenance of tough wartime discipline. He held influential appointments in headquarters during an intense period of the Cold War, and was at the centre of decisions concerning the RCN's commitment in Korea as well as about Canada's maritime commitment to Nato. In 1952 he was Assistant Chief for Personnel and Administration to the Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic, then returned to sea as commanding officer of the cruiser Quebec and as commander of the First Canadian Escort Squadron.

Piers returned to the Royal Military College as commandant, and in 1960-62 served as Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Plans) at naval headquarters. He was chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff and commander of the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff in Washington.

Piers retired in 1967 to his house, the Quarter Deck, at Chester, Nova Scotia, where he took up community work. But in 1977 he was appointed Agent General of Nova Scotia in London, where he promoted the province's use of tidal energy, publicised the first international gathering of the clans in the province and helped to organise industrial seminars around the country; the following year he was made a Freeman of the City of London.

While thoughtful and considerate of his people, Piers set high standards for himself, and expected the same of others.

At a dinner to commemorate the Battle of the Atlantic two years ago, he played a harmonica and delighted his friends by dancing to the tunes of his own shanties.

He gave 12 acres of land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in order to ensure public access to one of the last wild headlands of Canada.

"Debby" Piers, who died on November 1, married Janet Macneill, the former wife of Peter Aitken, second son of Lord Beaverbrook, in 1941: he had been smitten since first seeing her on stage at Halifax when, aged six, she played a fairy in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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Separate ditty referring to the menace of UBoats off the Canadian east coast. I am calling it an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 16 April 1945 German U-Boat 190 torpedoes and sinks Royal Canadian
Navy Bangor Class minesweeper HMCS Esquimalt 8 km off Chebucto
Head, near the entrance to Halifax harbour and the Halifax lightship; forty four
of her crew are lost in the last major naval loss of the War for the RCN.
Almost a month later VE Day is declared and the war with Germany is won and over. May 11th, and U-190 surrenders to the RCN.  She was ceremonially sunk on October 21,
1947 in the same position that the Esquimalt sank.

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Canadian Rear Admiral D. Piers was a friend of the Canadian Rear Admiral H.F. Pullen in charge of Halifax and the eastern sea areas of Canada as CANCOMFLAGLANT and through him with the British Commander of the UK 6th Submarine Flotilla, the  highly charismatic and popular Commander Kenneth Vause Royal Navy, and at that time the Canadians had borrowed or purchased an old guppy diesel submarine from the USN, called HMCS Grillse [although back in 1921 she had two British built submarines, the 'CH14' and 'CH15'] running that one boat on the west coast from Esquimalt British Colombia [adjacent to the town of Victoria on the southern part of Vancouver Island the home of the RCN's Pacific fleet] which is just literally 12 miles from the US Border - a sea border delineating the State of Washington - roughly half the distance between Dover and Calais. It would be many moons before the Canadians had ultra modern diesel electric submarines [and in greater numbers] renown for their quietness and efficiency, when they purchased the Royal Navy's 'O' = Oberon Class, the finest, fastest and almost stealth proof deep sea long range submarines.  To put it into perspective, my submarine at this time of serving in Canada [63/64] built in the 1940's but never saw war service, was ANCIENT when compared to our 'O' Class but we ran them into the deck until the early 1970's.  Our very last use of diesel submarine technology was when we built a class of submarines in the 1980's called the 'Upholder' class [yes, UBoats] which we used for just a few years to allow our new nuclear SSN submarines [which fire lots of weapons, torpedo's, and missiles but not ICBM's]  into front line service in any sustainable numbers, and at that point we laid the Upholders up and put them up for sale. That sale was a long time in the coming, and the boats deteriorated as a result. When it did come it was from the Canadians again. Prior to being laid up they were fine ultra modern diesel electrical boats, but in truth, the same can't be said of them at the end of a lengthy lay up. Sadly, the Canadians struggled with the class, four in number, riddled, according to them, with defects rendering them unserviceable, and much angst passed towards the UK from Ottawa. That aside and absolving any blame on the UK, the Canadians had followed the rules of 'Caveat Emptor' [buyer beware] and had satisfied themselves full well aware of their long lay up out of service period that they were fit for service for  their requirements.  Since those days [1998] the Canadians have gone their own way and will probably buy diesels of an inferior technical build/quality to those sold to them by the British. Australia too ran British 'O' boats but decided to go for their own build, the 'Collins' class which are demonstrably inferior to an 'O' boat. Still, since we only now build nuclear submarines for our own use, our market is closed to all comers and the finger pointing has come to an end, although neither Australia nor Canada can afford to get into the nuclear game!

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Back to the friendship of the Canadian admiral and the British submarine boss in Halifax. Our submarine was chosen to give Admiral Piers a day at sea, and on the day he arrived, the boat was spotless and shone like a bright star. He was most impressed especially when he took on board that we had flotillas and squadrons [1st, 2nd, 3rd and 10th] stationed around the UK with more stationed in Malta [5th], Sydney NSW [4th], and Singapore [7th]. It also performed well with not a defect in sight. We took surface passage out of the long harbour staying close in on the coast avoiding many islands especially off Chester, when the admiral used the search periscope set to high power to get a good look I believe at his house and the environs of the village said to be the richest part of Nova Scotia!

Travelling south east to open sea we had two dives followed by surfacing's, one on the watch [done by roughly a third of the crew] and one at diving stations involving all the crew.  We did a short snort to show how we charged our main batteries [by running the diesel engines when dived]  to allow underwater operations and propulsion, and the admiral operated a few controls like steering and forward hydroplanes. He much enjoyed sitting on the chariot which is powered by electricity and moves through a 360 degree azimuth controlled by a foot switch, the chariot being clutched-into the very heavy search periscope, so with a toe or heel pressure on the foot switch one could slew the 'scope clockwise or anticlockwise to look at any surface object at one's pleasure in either 'low power' or 'high power' referring to magnification. Then back to the dockyard [having had lunch aboard]  just underneath the city's famous Angus L McDonald suspension bridge which connects the city of Halifax to the city of Dartmouth - there we go again - not a Scottish word in sight, although in fairness the name of the bridge might be that of a Scot?  Since those days, they have built another suspension bridge to Dartmouth further into the harbour down at the Bedford end  - was that another English word?

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The relevance of this paragraph below, apart from describing the picture underneath it, will become fully evident during the reading of Item 3 further down the page.


HM Submarine Auriga in Devonport Plymouth on her commissioning day in May 1962 showing the CO, Lieutenant Commander  Michael Roger Wilson Royal Navy, his wife and children cutting the commissioning cake near the bow of the vessel. After leaving our submarine and returning home with his wife and family he was appointed to various UK jobs, the first to a naval boys training establishment in Cornwall HMS Raleigh not far from Plymouth, and this was obviously designed as a "rest period" after all he had been through in command of Auriga and to get him away from submarines, a period which lasted for two years. However and almost by fate his remaining time in the navy was back in the submarine world based in the States in Washington DC and Norfolk Va on the books of HMS Saker and or NATO jobs in other areas. His final job was in HMS Rooke at Gibraltar in 1981 leaving the service in 1982. During these periods he was promoted to Commander and awarded the decoration of the OBE gazetted 11th June 1977 . He died on 17th September 1999 in his early 70's.  Before joining Auriga he had already had two submarine CO appointments and was an experienced submariner.  This personal cameo of M.R. Wilson's career has been kindly supplied by Mike Coombes, a retired naval officer of the website www.navylistresearch.co.uk.

HM Submarine AURIGA when in Canada 1963/4 shown berthed alongside the jetty with the aircraft carrier HMCS Bonaventure to our stern, and returning to harbour after a patrol was one of our sisters HM Submarine ASTUTE who would secure alongside our starboard side

and this was the AURIGA as built in the 1940's and made ready to fight just two months before peace was declared in Europe May 1945: by looks alone a fearsome weapon!

By the time of mid 1950's [as you see the two submarines together above],  the class had been cosmetically altered in its appearance to modernise its looks with the sail fin covering the entire conning tower and masts, a streamlined casing [upper deck] and other operational assets/enhancements  designed to make the underwater signature less noisy and more stealthy. Taken all in all, post refits, trials and tests, work-up's and then deployment, a cycle of nearly two years, I wasn't to know  that I would bring the boat back to the UK for another refit, leave the boat to join other operational submarines in UK waters, only to rejoin Auriga on completion of her Portsmouth refit in RGP [Refit Group Portsmouth] and start a new cycle in her, this time based on Singapore into a much larger group of submarines known as the 7th Submarine flotilla with a captain in command known as SM7. With the Breaks I have explained, I first met Auriga in February 1962 in Devonport RGD, and finally said my goodbyes at Chatham [RGC] in late 1968.

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Earlier in the page I mentioned that we did so many things. So by numbers just a very few. In addition exciting and dangerous times in the Cabot Straits newly exiting from under the ice after polynya hunting photo's [between pages 178 and 179] and whale watching where sadly the photos were lost  and  text [pages 82-90] in a book called Hunters Killers by Iain Ballantyne first published in 2013 ISBN 978-1-4091-3901-0 by Orion Books Ltd of London WC2H 9EA.

1. When JFK was murdered we were the only British ship in Halifax Harbour and we dressed ship, which simply meant raising a white ensign on the top of our fin adding to the jackstaff forard and the ensignstaff aft flying respectively a Jack and a white ensign. The fin white ensign is very small, tiny in fact and is made of pure silk. Being in charge of all wireless telegraphy equipment's, flags bunting and Aldis lamp,  I have owned this historic ensign now for 56 years as a memento!

2. When JFK was first buried in Arlington very close to the now Shrine [Eternal Flame]  in 1963, his now grave which has the eternal flame did not exist. He was finally exhumed a few years later using a crane to lift the large and very heavy casket and reburied in the existing shrine on March 16th 1967:  buried with him were two infants of the marriage to Jacqueline,  Patrick who died when two days old on the 9th August 1963 and Arabella, still-born in 1956All three had the top soil of their former graves transported to the new family graves. When Jacqueline died in the spring on 1994 she too was interred alongside her first husband as the first lady.   For those who have never had the privilege to visit the stunningly beautiful national burial ground of great dimensions/acreage, it is very poignant, if for no other reason, that the house of the Confederates Army General Robert E Lee stands immediately above the Presidential Shrine at the top of a precipitous slope falling to the grave from the house with General Grant the leader of the Federal Army, the victors in the US Civil War, no where to be seen. This is no gimmick for the cemetery was first used by Robert E Lee's deceased troops.   We visited JFK's first grave in 1964 which is still marked and commemorated, and subsequent to that we [my wife and I] visited his second grave and that of his murdered brother's Senator Robert Kennedy which is a very simple grave dug into the grassy bank just down from the shrine.  Later, when his other brother Edward died from brain cancer he too was buried in similar fashion to that of Robert Kennedy and that last burial completed the national shrine to the Kennedy family.  We love Washington DC and have revisited the city twice since this time. Auriga was a regular visitor to New York [and other cities/areas including Bermuda at Ireland Island] getting an alongside berth in the East River and shore accommodation in the Flushing Naval Barrack in Brooklyn. The book I have mentioned above has a photograph of us on the way to East River passing Manhattan as we went.

Below just one of scores of Souvenirs collected during my many visits States Side this one for a Virginia stop over for a few days, used as a filler only. All mine are originals.

 

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I start this section 3 with our local news paper of a sad day in April 1963. The local paper was the Halifax Nova Scotia Chronicle Herald of the 11th April, and what follows is a cropped view of the front page. Apart from the main story it shows a map with a cross of search area 120 miles south of Nova Scotia and by the time this paper was printed we in Submarine Auriga were long gone from Halifax taking approximately 10 hours to reach the rendezvous at approximately 0900 on the 10th April, detail taken from my personal diary and W/T office logs: as a judge of distance St Helier in Jersey is exactly 120 miles from Portsmouth. However see page 2 of the paper in the next but one frame below, which gives a mentioned of the ships ready to leave Halifax to assist. The submarine shown here on the launch pad is not the Thresher which was much bigger and had to be launched bows first. I suspect that it was the only picture available to the editor but it is of a USN nuclear submarine.

This is page 2 of the 12 double sided page newspaper. Note the section to the right of the lower picture entitled RCN Ships standing by, which refers to going to the assistance of the Thresher.  I have over typed non relevant text with a more easier to read snippet.  We in Auriga were very conscious that before this dreadful day, we the British held the record for the worst submarine loss in history when on the 1st June 1939 we lost the 'T' Class submarine Thetis in Liverpool Bay with the lost of 99 lives. On this occasion it was to be another 30 lives lost to add to that record! If that weren't enough, as the Thresher was sinking to her demise, further south in the Philadelphia Navy Yard  irony was playing a cruel card for at that very moment the USN were commemorating the WW2 dead of the USN submarine service which was a total of 1500 men. By comparison our WW2 deaths in the Royal Naval submarine service was 3506 men, 375 officers and 3131 ratings. In actual fact there was another linkage to Threshers demise which was the nearest piece of land to the scene of the disaster namely Cape Cod in Massachusetts. JFK always spent his summer months at Cape Code and just eight months later he too was to die a horrible death. 

3. We were the only RN submarine to ever assist a foreign submarine in distress whilst at sea!  A trial dive which turned into a subsunk - a submariners distress/disaster?

USS Thresher first of class is launched. Constructed in the late 1950's - launched in 1960 and commissioned in August 1961. She was so long in length that she was launched in Portsmouth Navy Yard New Hampshire, nose first! She was considered lost through human error chiefly on the part of Portsmouth Navy Yard Trials section.

Motto 'vis tacita' meaning Silent Strength.  Lead boat of her class. First commissioned 3rd August 1961. Her ships crest is a rather confusing one? USS Thresher was named after a type of shark which is  harmless to man and easily recognizable by its tail, longer than the combined length of body and head.  In this picture the tail runs from the bottom of its body and disappears off screen bottom right,  behind the roundel on the submarine outline to the right which itself has the symbol of nuclear energy emblazed on the hull depicting its reactor. At the time of her loss Thresher was the fastest and most powerful nuclear boat in USN arsenal.

The Thresher shark has the most lethal tail of any fish in the seas and  ocean's.  Unlike all other flesh eating sharks it kills its prey with its tail and not with its mouth/jaws.


Lt. Cmdr. John Wesley Harvey USN, left, is seen at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard during a change of command ceremony as he took control of USS Thresher in January 1963 at age 35, the youngest sub commander in the Navy at the time. Harvey took over from  Cmdr. Dean Axene USN, right, as the second of two CO's


In that same sad year of 1963 [but happy at the birth of my first son Steven in the September] we had not long been back in Halifax after a small NATO exercise and a visit to Boston, and I was at home showering when I was recalled by telecon ready for an immediate sailing. The USN nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher [named after the Thresher shark]  with a full crew plus dockyard workers totaling in all 129 men left Portsmouth Navy Yard New Hampshire after a dockyard overhaul.  The CO was Lieutenant Commander John Harvey USN who had been an officer in the first USN nuclear submarine USS Nautilus during its Polar transit.  Launched in 1960 then fitted out, fuelled and reactor going live, commissioned in August 1961, successful trials, and operational on task duty in her first commission, she sailed for a deep test dive off Boston near Cape Cod, Boston because of the tremendous bottom depth of 8,400 feet = 1.5 miles deep.  Academically and for your general interest only  scientists state that at 4000 metres [13123 feet] the pressure at that depth is a staggering 11,000 lbs psi.  The pressure at the bottom of Thresher's deep dive of 8400' was approximately 3747 lbs psi.

The  safety/rescue surface vessel in attendance which had sailed with her from Portsmouth was the USS Skylark - see picture left.  From the start the test period all went well to plan. On arrival at diving station, she dived to 'catch the trim' i.e. to make sure the boat was horizontally level with water in internal tanks ready to be pumped forad to aft and vice versa if necessary to achieve a near perfect balance when almost stationary. She then surfaced with more checks of systems before diving again to spend the night underwater before the deeper/deep trials began early the following day.  At some stage, perhaps of doubt, we were called to sea to act as a decompression chamber also known as a Diving Chamber or Bell [see this site for details] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diving_chamber -  for anybody who managed to escape should all go terribly wrong: why that doubt, if doubts existed,  is hard to qualify because according to navy official files used to created a quasi official video streamed on You Tube, in her first year of being at sea before being docked in dry dock for over seven months at Portsmouth New Hampshire navy yard cumulating in a command change to its second skipper, she had dived successfully down to her certified deep diving depth of 1300 feet over forty times, a fact repeated during the video! Later in the day, we also learned that USN submarines had also been called to sea for decompression/diving chamber duties ensuring a huge capacity to cater for Thresher's needs were they required. On arrival at the scene, in rough seas, I communicated with the Skylark which had assumed the duties of the SOSF [Senior Officer Search Force] who said that she was on top [of Thresher] and requesting us to stand off and await further orders: slightly later we were directed to move some distance away from the datum point in case of any attempt at a personnel escape or an emergency surfacing attempt was made. It was surreal that I alone in my submarine was talking to the controller of the dived vessel by R/T [radiotelephone] and before our arrival with the vessel by W/T [wireless telegraphy] = Morse code: back then we couldn't remote any of our W/T equipment's  to places outside the Wireless Office.   As time passed now with bridge to bridge loudhailer and flashing light communications established [if required - they were never used] in addition to those of mine, things became fraught and the case was becoming more and more beyond redemption and foreboding with no further radio communications with me.  Evidently we learned that the  Skylark was listening to underwater break-up the cracking of steel plates, possibly the pressure hull itself, so God alone knows what the deformation of human bodies would be as the boat plummeted uncontrollably for thousands of feet to the murky depth below. She lost all contact with the Thresher on underwater telephone. Many of my readers will understand atmospheres and the pressures assigned them, understanding that on the upper deck of a vessel on the surface acting on the human body was nearly 14.5 lbs psi, and as one enters the water and dives down that pressure doubles every 10 metres [33 feet].  The pressure simply relates to the amount of sea water above one's position under the surface.  That translates at this depth off Boston of 8400 feet to a water pressure of approximately 3747 lbs psi where steel blocks would be deformed and literally nothing whatsoever left of a human frame: 3747 lbs = 1.67 long tons = the British ton of 2240 lbs - a short ton = 2000 lbs and is the American ton -- a metric ton is 2204 lbs.  Imagine such a weight as 1.67 long tons acting upon every square inch of every surface area including the human body?  Had the USN calculated the pressure in short tons the answer would have been a crushing 1.87 short tons.  After scouring the sea bed with devices brought from afar through the Panama Canal from the US west coast and photographing the splintered pressure hull now in many separate pieces scattered over an enormously wide area [some smaller parts actually recovered by the submersibles] and trying to make sense of the communications between Thresher and Skylark done by underwater telephone and accurate sonar/sound activity and timings, it was assessed that Thresher's unbelievably strong pressure hull of this large and powerful submarine the USN's most technically modern submarine built to date, cracked [imploded] when the boat was between the depths of 1300-2000 feet = 400-610 metres.  What isn't understood is that the Thresher class deep diving depth was 1300 feet = 592 lbs psi pressure, and that she had gone through this barrier evidently safely and without comment, and only after it, and now diving much deeper,  did the CO of the submarine tell the Skylark on underwater telephone that he was experience some difficulty thought to be flooding?  The mid point depth of that assumption was 1300' + 2000' = 3300' ÷ 2 = 1650 feet which is 52 atmospheres corresponding to a pressure of 748 lbs psi: at 2000' the maximum assumed depth the pressure would have been at 63 atmospheres 903 lbs psi, and at the safe diving depth, 1300 feet it would have been 592 lbs psi. At the inquest into her loss which shook the USN to its roots, a statement was made to this effect " The data reveals  that the Thresher very likely had already sunk below her 1,300-foot test depth limit when she reported minor difficulties. The result was a hull collapse that could have been avoided with more testing and better planning."  A signal blight [signal in this case used as an adjective] meaning - significant and very noticeable -  and a severe reprimand for the officers ashore in Portsmouth in command of Threshers trials, dives and its test dive. It wasn't a design fault, nor an error on the part of Lieutenant Commander Harvey USN the seasoned submarine officer in command of Thresher.

During the 1963 inquiry, Admiral Hyman Rickover stated:

I believe the loss of the Thresher should not be viewed solely as the result of failure of a specific braze [which was compromised and which led to flooding], weld, system or component, but rather should be considered a consequence of the philosophy of design, construction and inspection that has been permitted in our naval shipbuilding programs. I think it is important that we re-evaluate our present practices where, in the desire to make advancements, we may have forsaken the fundamentals of good engineering

When the Court of Inquiry delivered its final report, it recommended that the Navy implement a more rigorous program of design review and safety inspections during construction. That program, launched in December 1963, was known as SUBSAFE. From 1915 to 1963, the U.S. Navy lost a total of 16 submarines to non-combat accidents. Since the inception of SUBSAFE only one submarine has suffered a similar fate, and that was USS Scorpion, which sank in 1968 for reasons still undetermined. Scorpion was not SUBSAFE certified.

AND WHAT OF THEM?

It was estimated that upwards of 900 human beings were directly affected as either NOK or family and all because of the then lack of QC = Quality Control on building and subsequent testing of new submarines and overhauled relatively new submarines after a short operational period. May God give them peace and rest and the country never ever forget these hapless and unfortunate men.

However, kept as a top secret not to be divulged paper even to Federal judges in congressional hearings,  an acoustics expert  Bruce Rule, revealed that his findings also obtained by sonar and other sophisticated means set to listen to North Atlantic regions, https://dosits.org/people-and-sound/history-of-underwater-acoustics/the-cold-war-history-of-the-sound-surveillance-system-sosus/  showed that a bus [that's a devices which delivers electric power to a variety of critical devices including cooling pumps for the reactor] had failed so shutting down the cooling waters and in turn taking the reactor off line. Not being able to control its own operations through loss of electrical power the boat sank. The flooding from wherever [not known for certain] had nothing to do with the loss of control nor extra bodily weight which caused it to sink, although a leak, air or liquid, from a service pipe at that depth would have produced an unnerving and enormously deafening noise.  The previous CO of the boat from commissioning to the hand-over to the second CO, Lt Cdr Axene and now a commander USN -  Lieutenant Commander Harvey USN was appointed in January 1963 just a few months before the loss - claimed that the reported flood the CO had mentioned to the Skylark would not have been considered a minor problem under his command. Additionally, he would have been on board for her first post build deep dive so very familiar with what was required and to be expected.   Bruce Rule  also said that a reference to a garbled "900" made by the Thresher to Skylark on under water telephone referred to the boat actually being 900 feet BELOW the safe diving depth namely at 1300' + 900' = @ 2200 feet below sea level [pressure at  69 atmospheres = 992 lbs psi].   Worse still, his acoustic machinery recorded at a depth of 2400 feet  the implosion depicted which was at 75 atmospheres and 1081 lbs psi pressure playing on the hull: this, save but for 200',  WAS TWICE THE MAXIMUM DIVING DEPTH OF A THRESHER CLASS BOAT.  He agreed that when the implosion did occur it was all over in 0.1 of a second so all on board died instantaneously not even aware that the grim reaper had visited them.

 Depths and pressures are always fascinating as often as not for tragic reasons and that the hapless RMS Titanic went to the bottom on the North Atlantic and now rests at a depth of 3800 metres which is 12500 feet below the surface, 2.36 miles down where the pressure is approximately 10,000 lbs psi. 

Just after the maximum diving depth of Thresher had been passed, the boat would have remained intact, but thereafter, thought to be up to 700 feet deeper but not known for certain, it and its content would have fallen unevenly through a mind boggling 6750 feet to the bottom possibly with the resulting collision and the speed impact would have ripped the reactor from its mountings into its own grave in sand or mud where it still rests some 56 years on with no obvious radiation worries or reported problems.  

 Eventually all surfaced submarines with decompression readily available, USN and RN,  were dispatched when all hope was lost and we in Auriga turned north and  wound our lonely and pathetic way back home. On arrival my wife and I hugged one another like wrestlers the event shore-sides USA and Halifax having been televised, but even after three weeks away from base, all want of love making had left me and I was utterly distraught.  The next morning we learned in Auriga that the skippers wife had had a nervous breakdown and that she was hospitalised in Halifax.  The build up in this dear poor woman's thinking/frame of mind of what might and could at any time have  happened to Auriga and her husband, freaked her out for the count. The skipper,  Lieutenant Commander Mike. R. Wilson Royal Navy was a popular man and we were saddened to lose him when Mrs Wilson was casualty evacuated home with children, and Mike Wilson went with her. On top of the tragic experience for us all we were to receive two new skippers, one temporarily and  a rushed immediate appointment, and the other, permanent but after a few weeks, [Lt Cdr Kenneth Bromback RN] and both treated the boat as a new work-up toy, rather than treating the fully worked-up and highly efficient crew members as being in shock and in need of some care, requiring  sympathy and empathy knowing what we had experienced at the actual scene of 129 men's deaths [16 officers, 96 enlisted crewmen and 17 civilians], the largest number ever lost in a submarine.  Referring to Story 2 above about JFK at Arlington, there is also a beautiful memorial for those who lost their life in Thresher - some web pages show the total loss as 129 souls but for some inexplicable reason the USN calls it at 133 names : this was later followed by the loss of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk with 110 men and the US submarine Scorpion with 99 men. Just a few hours before, enroute home to base from Boston, we had been homeward bound in safety, back with our loved ones and the high morale was off the scale - now it was off the scale in the other direction - lower than rock bottom and these fill-in officers could not see it nor adjust to it.  They needed the work up not us,  and their attitude was resented by all in the boat, even by some of the officers.   By comparison, we in the RN [although really incomparable]  did our deep test dives [done after build and after each major refit] for 'A' Class diesels, in Loch Fyne [better known for fish restaurants] a Scottish sea loch, and our operational depth was a maximum of 400 feet [at the service age of nearly 20 years since date of construction] at a depth gauge reading representing 193 lbs psi.

1963 to me is a very special year and not a year has passed since that time when I haven't at some point  found my own quiet private space to reflect on a bitter-sweet year with  two shocking sets of deaths of dear America special people,  brought back from melancholy when remembering the joy and pride at my son Steven's birth - my little special "bluenose".  There are many picture of Thresher on the internet laying in pieces on the sea bed as though the thick metal parts had been soft butter cut through with a blunt  knife, and they are sad to look upon now still and quiet after a trauma too devastating to contemplate.  However, to me this little picture drawn by a young boy of his daddy's submarine USS Thresher is an exercise in poignancy.

USS Thresher a crayon drawing by Bruce Harvey.  “The young son of Lieutenant Commander John Harvey USN, CO of the Thresher, drew the boat on the ocean floor after hearing of its loss. Bruce’s father and 128 other men died when the submarine sank off the New England coast.

   1953 is when I joined the navy and 1983 was my technical date of leaving 30 years later,  but that dragged on a little to early 1984.  The 'something 3' follows me around but especially 1963!

4. Just in passing whilst in Argentia Newfoundland, a big USAF base also operating out of Goose Bay and the international airport at Gander we had the misfortune of visiting a whaling station. If there is anything you never want to do or see in life or have in your bucket-list, make sure the Russian, Norwegian and Japanese manned whaling factory is not included!

Finally just one more event out of so many tales.

5.  A submarine has a tank called a slop drain and sewage tank - yes you've guessed what might be coming. We crossed the pond from Devonport in some of the worst storms ever seen in the Atlantic making for Halifax Nova Scotia in January 1963 having left the UK in atrocious bitterly cold weather. We were trapped on the surface, much too dangerous to dive risking being turned topsy turvy by the fin acting as a sailboard. The conditions below were unbelievable not to mention dangerous. Then it happened the slop drain and sewage tank was chokker block full with sea sick as much as anything and the 'blow system' failed so we had no where to go for our toilet [called heads in the navy] needs?  The blow system puts a steady blow of about 15 lbs psi above sea pressure in the sea area outside the submarine where the tank is emptied usually at a shallow dived depth or when on the surface from the top of the full tank to force the contents out of a hole in the bottom of the tank opened by the stoker emptying the tank into the sea from inside the submarine: this is called a hull valve opened with a long key and tool bar very similar to a mains water cock at a private house. A submarine has to be very careful because 'blowing' can create air bubbles when empty/emptying which can be seen by surface ships or heard on asdic receiving sets.    With such an unfortunate and embarrassing major defect, the only option is for the crew to use the open sea, but the boat is throwing around like a wild mad bucking bronco, and it being fundamentally round in shape, that movement is a confused circular rolling.  It is much too dangerous to attempt access to the casing [upper deck] but by luck there is a way into the inside of the free flood fin which encloses the long conning tower more or less resting on the ballast tanks. Once inside the fin, six at most at a time can squat side by side to attempt to do a poo. By the time one is in the squat position one is soaked to the skin with freezing sea water, when motions are involuntarily shared amongst the six sitters from head to toe.  Covered in crap and wet through is the end of the world but it is a  social duty to make sure that when coming back below inside the pressure hull one inevitably smells like a sewer but doesn't  have any constituent parts of it still attached to the body or clothes. Enough of that and too much information anyway. Not unsurprisingly we couldn't head straight for HMS Ambrose [a small office complex ashore in the main dockyard and CANCOMFLAGLANT building in Halifax in this state, so we traded signals with Halifax who brokered a deal on our behalf, sending us to  St Johns, Newfoundland high on the north east tip of the province, where a clean-up visit and assistance with a paint ship job was conducted. We carried jet black shiny paint for touch-up jobs but not enough to cover the spaces ravished by the Atlantic storms en route to Canada. A high pressure steam hose was played on the inside of the fin as well as on the ballast tanks to clear away the raw sewage left by 69 men [officers and men used the fin facility at different times] over a near four day period, and I am not sure whether the ERA in charge of outside fittings, affectionately called "the outside wrecker' was blamed or not,  but the boat got a make over making it spick and spam ready by the end of two days for the short journey of 656 miles to Halifax, [our new home for the next  19 months] which at a leisurely 10 knots took 2.5 days, with a functional slop drain and sewage tank. All of our affected clothing, known at sea as our 'pirate rig' [i.e. none uniform clothing] was destroyed, burned ashore in an incinerator.

So ends my story although far from all of it, and in particular that the RCN our hosts, and we their slaves at their beck and call for all aspects of ASW be it in ships or in Orions [their eqivalent to our Shackletons and then Nimrod ASW patrol aircraft] for over 18 months, didn't even give us a mention about our involvement with the USS Thresher affair in their monthly RCN Magazine called 'The Crowsnest'.  Not a mention, not a hint or a whiff in their April and May 1963 editions No4 and No5 respectively. We did all feel a bit let down by that, but then again we have to think of our reputation viz "we come unseen and as often as not unclean", so no wonder they didn't know about us? We worked with them at sea and we often stayed out there while they returned to harbour ready for a new lot coming out of harbour to re do the exercises with us [in fact I did occasionally hear in our control room that the RHOC navy was off again] -  RHOC - standing for 'return harbour on completion' a well know RN saying, and we parked behind them on the RCN dockyard wall, midway between the bridge and the port admirals building. Still, being 'Brits we took it on the chin! True, we weren't part of the RCN nor were they a part of the RN, but it was known that sometimes we were called HMCS Auriga instead of HMS Auriga, and who would care a damn anyway,  for the letter 'C' meant 'companions', 'comrades', 'close' friends/allies, colleagues and Canadians, which after all, so was my baby son Steven laying in his cot in uptown Halifax!

Although the desperately sad event was a USN affair, all no doubt with many tears in the eyes of their toughest of men [and in ours], and that although we were called to action from a distance,  we took no part whatsoever when in the area awaiting USS Skylark's instructions which never came, [nor for that matter did it come to any of the USN searching surfaced vessels, ships or submarine]  riding out a sea state of force 6 with a huge swell. Without being accused of sour grapes, despite a few  pages of listed USN ships and submarines in the search-box area, we were not mentioned, and that in a proverbial fraternal submarine rescue attempt,  was disappointing to say the very least. We were there at the scene of action/distress willing, capable and able just like any other vessel present, and to my way of thinking, if one is mentioned then so should all be mentioned notwithstanding.  All we had to remember this unimaginable sadness  by  was the collapse of our captain's wife Mrs M.R. Wilson with a nervous breakdown and the loss of much liked skipper Lieutenant Commander M.R. Wilson Royal Navy, plus also a mention in the local Halifax newspaper. 

Good sailing and many greetings.

Yours aye

 

Godfrey [Jeff] DYKES
RN 1953-1984
Radio Supervisor of the Boat

P.S. I would like to apologies to the crew of the Canadian frigate HMCS 'Swansea' for hitting her up her backside with our submarine HMS Auriga whilst berthing in Halifax some time in 1964.  We we going ahead [I think] or were you going astern?