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   Inside Out - North West: Monday February 14, 2005


Thetis on its maiden voyage
The submarine was to become a tomb for the 99 men on board

In 1939 the Royal Navy suffered its worst ever submarine disaster just 40 miles from where it was built in Birkenhead.

During the maiden voyage of Thetis - the pride of the Royal Navy - 99 men tragically lost their lives - not through battle, but through an unfortunate accident.

Inside Out joins a Liverpool theatre company as they prepare to stage a new play based on the story of the ill-fated submarine, Thetis.

In the summer of 1939 a major rescue operation to save the lives of 99 men trapped inside a submarine came to an abrupt and pitiful end.

For three days, in the heart of Liverpool Bay, just 38 miles from land, the men on board battled the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning, waiting for a rescue which never came.

The fateful launch

On June 1, 1939, Thetis prepared to make its maiden voyage.

The voyage was to be a test run and dive in the home waters of Liverpool Bay.

Conditions on board were extremely cramped, with the submarine carrying 103 men - twice the number she was designed to carry.

Thetis being launched
Many aboard were engineers from Cammell Lairds

Only 69 of Thetis's crew were sailors, the rest were mainly engineers from Cammell Laird.

Laird's workers were offered the opportunity to disembark prior to the dive, but all chose to stay aboard.

Diving to disaster

Thetis's initial attempt at a dive was unsuccessful as the vessel, for some reason, was too light.

The decision to allow seawater into the torpedo tubes to add weight to the submarine fell to Lieutenant Frederick Woods.

Without the knowledge that the outer torpedo doors were already open and the tubes full of seawater, Woods gave the order.

Woods was also unaware that a few weeks earlier, a painter, working on the other side of the torpedo door, had allowed enamel to drip inside the test tap and solidify.

With the test tap blocked, Woods believed it was safe to open the door inside the submarine.

Stoker Walter Arnold was in the third compartment and immediately knew the dive was not progressing as it should.

Derek Arnold
"As soon as he felt that blast of wind he knew something was wrong, but he didn't know what."
Derek Arnold, son of Stoker Walter Arnold

"He knew something was wrong when he felt a blast of air go past him, most unusual in submarine, explains his son Derek.

"As soon as he felt that blast of wind he knew something was wrong, but he didn't know what."

With hundreds of tons of water filling the first and second compartments, Thetis nose-dived.


It took over three and a half hours for the telegram raising the alarm to arrive at the Navy's Submarine Headquarters in Portsmouth.

Operation Subsmash was put into action by Captain I.A. Mcintyre but his efforts were beset by bad luck, bad timing and bad judgment.

The best rescue ship was hundreds of miles away, aircraft reported inaccurate locations for Thetis and cutting equipment was ordered late.

On board, levels of carbon dioxide became dangerously high.

During the night, 60 tonnes of drinking water and fuel-oil were dumped allowing Thetis to rise stern first.

Time was running out

Thetis in Liverpool Bay
Thetis was only 38 miles from land when she sank

Submerged for 13 hours, oxygen on board was quickly running out.

"They were sleepy basically, they just didn't have energy, they couldn't think straight," says Derek.

"They weren't making any conversation, they were not making any efforts, they were just going down, and down and down."

Lt. Woods, Stoker Arnold and two other men managed to escape through a hatch, yet four men died attempting to escape using the same route.

A wire hawser was strung around the stricken submarine and held in place by a salvage ship. They planned to keep the stern up during the rising tide.

However the strain on the wire was too great and the hawser snapped, leaving Thetis to sink to the bottom of the sea.

The bodies of the 99 men who suffocated remained inside Thetis for a further four months until the submarine was salvaged from the bottom of the Bay.

No individual was ever blamed for the disaster.

The story lives on

John Wright
"We're not being absolutely true to the letter - we're being true to the spirit."
John Wright, Director of Out of the Blue

The theatre company Rejects Revenge, has created a new stage production based on events the disaster called Out of the Blue, due to open in February at the Liverpool Everyman Theatre.

For the actors it'll be their most serious work to date.

Director John Wright explains how the play uses a variety of theatrical styles to bring the story to life.

He says, "We've got scenes that are quite realistic in the broadest sense, other scenes which are really quite surreal, scenes which are comic and scenes which I think are very poetic."

Despite being based on real life events, John is quick to remind theatre-goers, that as with many stories based on fact, there is also present, an element of fiction.

"We are making a story and that means we make things up," explains John.

"We're not being absolutely true to the letter - we're being true to the spirit."

For the 99 men who tragically died in the disaster their memory lives on in the hearts of their families, and now, thanks to Out of the Blue, in the minds of theatergoers across the country.

See also ...

On the rest of Inside Out
German submarines
Decoy Q-boats

Military Fact File - Submarine
BBC Wales - Thetis

On the rest of the web
British submarines of World War Two
Cammell Laird Shipyard
Rejects Revenge Theatre Company
Liverpool Everyman Theatre

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Edward Hayter (grandson of Commander RGB Hayter RN)
My father was 8 months old when his father was killed in HMS Thetis. Below is a poem written by my great grandfather W.L.B.Hayter, In Memoriam R.G.B.H. Commander RN Entomb'd within that narrow fateful bark, Not Thetis self, immortal herein born, Could raise her namesake from the waters dark. What though the crew, ere yet all hope was shorn, To win the surface and their strength repair Full gallantly did strive, Ah! hope forlorn! They droop'd and died in foul empoison'd air. And you, dear Son, to earth at last consign'd On Mona's seaward hill with others sleep, Rewon yet lost. E'en thus we fondly mind How Lycidas, great Milton's sorrow deep, In these same western waters' troubled tide O'erwhelm'd, yet rose to Heaven; so you belov'd, Through His great might who rules the Oceans wide Now in God's keeping and His love abide. W.L.B.H - 1939 submitted by Edward G B Hayter

Vicki Jordan
My mother, Joan Rocke, aged 93 and living in Chester remembers this incident well. She had been out to dinner the night before the fateful launch and round the table were some of the men who died. Tragically one was shortly due to marry a friend of my mothers. The waiting for some form of rescue, the image of the dreadful deaths, haunts her still and indeed she was reminded of it recently by something in the news and mentioned it to me again.

Cliff Duckworth
I was only eight years old in 1939 but I remember the headlines in the papers and people talking about the tragedy as it unfolded. My father went into the navy that year and he obtained a copy of a poem about the disaster written by, I think, a relative of one of the men who died. Over the years,it was unfortunately lost.

Michael Nash
I dont Know if know, this ship was rename the Thunderbolt it was sunk in the February or March,of 1943. By the Italians This ship was adopted by the town of Frome in Somerset the ships crest is in the museum, so this ship sunk twice.

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