Did You Know, There’s a Submarine Under The Park?

Did You Know, There’s a Submarine Under The Park?

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December 22, 2022

LT Tom Kemp RN

By the Editor – The author demonstrates, with laudable clarity, the fascinating connections between place and time, and, importantly, how an urban legend can reveal very real history with a little contextual ‘digging deeper’. A five minute read.

It is no unusual thing for a submarine to be hidden from view; passers-by oblivious to its presence. But it is usually seawater and spray, rather than earth and grass, that obscure it from prying eyes. The presence of a submarine lurking underneath Coronation Park in Dartmouth, Devon, under the watchful gaze of Britannia Royal Naval College (BRNC), is a tantalising but poorly kept secret. Unadorned by any monument or headstone her presence is, nevertheless, widely acknowledged by historians writing of the town’s recent history. Many of them, along with a small army of local history enthusiasts, are in violent agreement that she is there but an aura of mystery remains as to who she was and how she found herself under a park where children play, dogs run and traffic queues for the Higher Ferry. What follows is my humble attempt to shed some light on this unlamented vessel and seek to further unravel one of Dartmouth’s most charming and beguiling mysteries. It is my most earnest wish that this account may prompt anyone with more extensive knowledge or recollections to add their voice to the discourse and, perhaps in time, help to commemorate what I believe was a submarine worth remembering. It goes without saying that any mistakes, errors or misinterpretation of facts must be my fault alone.

Coombe Mud, in Dartmouth, was compulsorily purchased from Philip and Son Ltd, the notable shipbuilders who ran yards at Sandquay and Noss on the river Dart, in 1929 by the town council. It was, over the course of the next eight years, filled in and reclaimed from the river (like much of Dartmouth’s present-day waterfront!) to form a stunning recreational park, eventually being named ‘Coronation Park’ to commemorate the Coronation of His Majesty King George VI. In the decades prior to this, the Mud had become something of a graveyard for unwanted or discarded vessels and it seems logical that any vessels remaining on the Mud by the early 1930s would have been entombed within the rubble and earth that made up the park when it was reclaimed. The rationale seems plain enough; why go to the effort of dismantling and moving the rusting hulk of a submarine when it could serve a useful purpose in helping to form the foundations of the new park? Far more practical to put her hull to good use. What is less clear, however, is how the boat came to be resting there in the first place and who was she? Accounts differ wildly, with some sources claiming she was a captured German U-Boat[i] and others that she was a de-commissioned British boat.[ii]

Contemporary images of the Mud and Sandquay may hold the answer to the first of these questions, showing the foreshore littered with the partly-disassembled hulks of various vessels, among them a submarine, seemingly with her conning tower removed. The aforementioned Philip and Sons Ltd likely had some part in this, having dabbled in shipbreaking and having purchased a number of German warships to scrap – in addition to, perhaps more importantly, at least two submarines. The first submarine they scrapped, HMS A8 (purchased in 1920), was reported in company board minutes as being ‘nearly broken up[iii] by 1923, a full six years prior to the Mud changing hands, suggesting that she did not survive long enough to be entombed within the park. A more likely candidate, then, is the second submarine to come into Philip’s possession. Writing in 2001, Derek Blackhurst explained how, after running aground off Roundham Point while under tow on 12 December 1920, the hull of German torpedo boat S24 was “towed to Dartmouth, along with a British submarine hull that he [a Mr Shaw] had also bought, and were used as a breakwater at Coombe Mud. Both are reported to have finally ended up under Coronation Park”[iv] suggesting that this second boat may have served the dual purpose of sheltering Coombe Mud whilst being dismantled. She finally surrendered her name in The Denny List Part III. The boat, whose fate is recorded as “sold for scrapping, 1921, but used to fill a mud bank reclaimed from the River Dart” was HMS E52.[v]

Present-day Coronation Park and its previous form as Coombe Mud, facing Eastward, likely pictured sometime between 1921-1936. The submarine’s hull is resting on the mud on the left of the image (lower image courtesy of Dartmouth Museum)

One of 58 E-class overseas submarines commissioned prior to 1919, she was built by the famous shipbuilding firm, Denny & Co., in Dumbarton (they also built E55 and E56).[1] She was laid down in March 1915, launched on 25 January 1917, and completed on 13 March 1917. A Group III boat of her class, she was 181ft long and displaced approximately 660 GMT when surfaced and 807 GMT submerged.[2] She was armed with five 18-inch torpedo tubes and a 12-pounder quick-firing deck gun. She would likely have carried a complement of three officers and 28 men. The Group III boats had the interesting addition of two transverse torpedo tubes,[3] pointing athwartships, which, in addition to their two forward and one stern mounted tubes, afforded an impressive degree of coverage (not impressive enough, however, to make the feature worthy of inclusion in future classes of submarine). Very little has been written of her service during the war but she holds the truly noteworthy distinction of having sunk UC63, in the North Sea on the night of 31 October-1 November 1917.[4] Edwin Gray gives a fascinating account of the action:

The U-Boat was cruising on the surface at night and, according to the sole survivor, the men on the bridge were chatting to each other instead of keeping look-out. E52’s torpedo was not sighted until it was only yards away and UC63 had no time to take evasive action. Even more remarkable was the fact that the British submarine was running on the surface throughout the entire attack. As one of E52’s officers said afterwards: “Victory goes to the alert and the conning-tower of a submarine is no place in which to gossip or doze. The attention of the Officer of the Watch on the UC63 had probably not been distracted for more than a few seconds, but it was long enough to cause death to all but one of her crew.”[5]

Quite justifiably, E52’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Philip Esmonde Phillips RN (who was only 29 years old and had just been promoted on 15 October 1917), appears in the Edinburgh Gazette on 21December 1917, having been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for “services in action with enemy submarines”. Having passed through BRNC when the paint was barely dry, Phillips went on to have a truly remarkable service career, but his story cannot be told in sufficient detail here to do it justice.

The E-class, in general, were regarded as solid, well-built submarines and were responsible for sinking a swathe of other enemy vessels, including one battleship, an armoured cruiser, five submarines and various torpedo boats and gunboats. Three E-class Commanding Officers won the Victoria Cross during their time in command (Lieutenant Commanders Nasmith, Boyle and White) and, as if the significance of the E-class submarine required any further emphasis, the legendary Max Horton was also counted among their captains; commanding HMS E9 when he famously few the Jolly Roger upon returning to Harwich after sinking the German light cruiser SMS Hela.[6]

The story of ‘the submarine under the park’ has fascinated and intrigued visitors to Dartmouth for years (I count myself among its victims) and constitutes yet another unseen-but-enduring bond between BRNC, Dartmouth and the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service. By pulling on this captivating thread and diving a little deeper (pun intended) into our own past, we find that the histories of our officers, submarines, shipbuilders and local heritage are more closely interwoven than we might ever have suspected and that ‘the submarine under the park’ has a name and a story worth telling.

References


[1] Akermann, Paul, Encyclopaedia of British Submarines, 1901-1955, (Paul Akermann, 1989), p. 146.

[2] Gray, Edwyn, British Submarines at War, 1914-1918, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971), p. 250.

[3] McCartney, Innes, British Submarines of World War I, (Osprey Publishing: Oxford, 2008), p. 11.

[4] Akermann, Encyclopaedia of British Submarines, 1901-1955, p. 151.

[5] Gray, British Submarines at War, 1914-1918, p.2 24.

[6] Akermann, Encyclopaedia of British Submarines, 1901-1955, p. 151.


[i] Freeman, Ray, and Jones, Roy, Changing Dartmouth, (Harbour Books: Dartmouth, 1984), p. 26.

[ii] Freeman, Ray, Dartmouth and its Neighbours: A History of the Port and its People (Richard Webb, 2007), p. 188.

[iii] Blackhurst, Derek, Philip & Son Ltd, Shipbuilders & Engineers, (Ships in Focus Publications: Preston, 2001), p. 24.

[iv] Blackhurst, Philip & Son Ltd, Shipbuilders & Engineers, p.2 4.

[v] Lyon, D.J., The Denny List Part III: Volume 3, (National Maritime Museum, 1975)