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Despite the lessons of WW I, Great Britain and the corridors of power within the Admiralty paid scant attention to the real danger posed by Germany in respect to its submarine building programme. Much the same could be claimed in respect to the surface fleet being rushed through by Germany in the build-up to WW II, however, it was always the U-Boat threat that presented the greatest danger, a point driven home relentlessly by Winston Churchill.
At the outbreak of hostilities, Britain had about 57 serviceable submarines including 12 used for training purposes and many of this number dated from the 1914-1918 war and were effectively obsolete. Consequently an emergency submarine building programme had to be implemented shortly after Winston Churchill came to power, resulting in around a total of 168 submarines being built by each and every shipyard capable of this class of work, working flat out.
Some 78 of these were subsequently lost, many under unknown circumstances, such as HMS VANDAL, a U-Class Coastal Submarine built by Vickers-Armstrong of Barrow, a prolific builder of all forms of naval vessels and one of the largest producers of submarines. HMS VANDAL disappeared during testing trials off the Island of Arran in February 1943, only a few days after her commissioning and hand-over to the Royal Navy.
Carrying a new crew totalling 37 men, including her Commanding Officer, HMS VANDAL was inexplicably lost in the Kilbrannan Sound where the depth was of the order of 70-80 metres, well within the capacity of her pressure hull. The location of her wreck remained unknown for over fifty years until discovered in the summer of 1994. Lying deep in the Kilbrannan Sound, HMS VANDAL was to become a permanent tomb to those who sailed her out of Lochranza in the early morning of 24 February 1943. These were young men, the average age of crewmembers was only 24 years, and all but two were Englishmen, destined to die a horrific death in Scottish waters far from home.
The lonely and high-risk life of the submariner can not be overstated. Yet there was no shortage of recruitment candidates for this dangerous arm of the Royal Navy. Although Britain’s submarine effort was at a totally different level than that of her enemy, Germany, and based on a very different strategy, nevertheless its achievements were quite remarkable. A true comparison cannot be practicably made but, for indicative purposes, British submarines accounted for 134 enemy surface warships, 34 enemy submarines, 493 enemy merchantmen and, for every British submarine lost, almost 8 German ships were destroyed, whereas one German U-Boat was lost for every 4 British ships destroyed.
The precise number of non-combatant losses of British submarines will never be known, i.e. those lost in mysterious circumstances unrelated to a specific enemy action. HMS VANDAL is such a case. I is more than likely that the mystery will remain unsolved and that this unfortunate boat and the 37 young men who perished within her confines will be afforded the dignity of her official classification – a war grave.
THE LOSS OF HMS VANDAL
HMS VANDAL was a Class U-Group II Coastal Submarine, Pennant No. 64, built by the world-famous naval vessel Builder, Vickers-Armstrongs of Barrow in Furness. With a displacement of approximately 545 tons, her principal dimensions were 204 feet in length, 10 feet in diameter, and under normal trimming she would draw around 12’ 6” of water.
HMS VANDAL was laid down by Vickers-Armstrongs on 17 March 1942, launched on 23 November 1942, and completed / handed over on 20 February 1943.
On that day, 20 February 1943, HMS VANDAL sailed out of Barrow Island for trials and passage to Holy Loch where she was planned to join the 3rd Flotilla based there. She arrived at Holy Loch later on the same day and was scheduled to carry out conventional test manoeuvres in the Kilbrannan Sound on 22nd and 23rd February, culminating in deep diving tests on 24 February in the Upper Inchmarnock North designated deep-water area. During these ‘shakedown’ tests, and given that the tests were to be carried out under wartime conditions, communications by wireless telegraphy were neither obligatory nor encouraged. The final deep dive tests scheduled for the 24th February would proceed only providing the Commanding Officer was satisfied with the water-tightness of the boat and the training standard of the boat’s complement, which would be determined during the two day exercises in the Kilbrannan Sound on 22nd and 23rd February.
It was expected that HMS VANDAL would return to her base in the Holy Loch at about 19:00 hours on the evening of the 24th February. In the event, she was never seen again and despite searches being implemented her fate and location remained unknown. The last (known) sighting of the boat had been on the morning of the 24th February when she left Lochranza. After that, there was no trace or clue to what became of the boat, and this remained the position for the next 51 years.
In June 1994, the wreck of HMS VANDAL was discovered lying in about 69 metres depth in the Kilbrannan Sound (37 fathoms / 224 feet) in position 55 degrees 43.8 minutes North, 5 degrees 22.4 minutes West. This places the wreck approximately midway between Lochranza and Claonaig and almost in line with the navigational track of the small vehicular ferry, which crosses between these two points.
The cause of her loss, however, remains a mystery to date. Underwater photography has shown no obvious reason for her loss, e.g. open to the sea, collision or other damage, etc. It is assumed therefore that all of her crew remain on board the boat and that she is effectively a war grave.
The records do not show whether there were representatives of her Builders on board at the time of her loss. It would, however, be unusual if this was not the case. Her Royal Navy on-board crew at the time of her loss consisted of her Commanding Officer, Lt. John S. Bridger and his Officers and Men as detailed on the attached sheet.
Any speculation as to the cause of the loss is just that – speculation. The only manner in which the cause of loss could be possibly identified after this time lapse would be a full recovery and painstaking survey of the boat to search for clues.
THE ROYAL NAVY MEN WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN HM SUBMARINE VANDAL
RANK DETAILS, NAMES OF DEAD, AGES, WHERE THEY BELONGED, RN MEMORIAL
Commanding Officer J. S. Bridger 26 Biggleswade, Bedfordshire Portsmouth 72 / 3
Lieutenant J. M. B. Portman 21 Dorchester, Dorsetshire Portsmouth 72 / 3
Temporary Lieutenant M. V. Ebel GM RNVR – — Portsmouth 80 / 1
Sub-Lieutenant J. H. Hickley RNVR 22 Wakefield, Yorkshire Portsmouth 80 / 1
Petty Officer G. V. Cowlam 38 — Chatham 67 / 3
Petty Officer J. H. R. Phillips 28 Southsea, Hampshire Portsmouth 73 / 2
Leading Seaman R. S. Earles 23 Reading, Berkshire Portsmouth 73 / 2
Leading Seaman A. F. Fox 23 Desborough, Northamptonshire Chatham 68 / 1
Able Seaman J. Hutchison 22 Saint Andrews, Fife Portsmouth 75 / 1
Able Seaman K. Allerton 21 Normanton, Yorkshire Portsmouth 73 / 3
Able Seaman J. W. Allinson 21 Ferryhill, County Durham Chatham 68 / 2
Able Seaman J. W. Coffee 22 Norbury, Surrey Chatham 68 / 3
Able Seaman W. R. Aries 20 Virginia Water, Surrey Chatham 68 / 2
Able Seaman H. Shepherd – — Chatham 69 / 3
Able Seaman E. F. Miller 25 Harwich, Essex Plymouth 79 / 3
Able Seaman W. Williams 21 Landore, Swansea, Wales Plymouth 80 / 2
Ordinary Seaman A. Bettany – Nelson, Lancashire Plymouth 78 / 3
Ordinary Seaman C. J. Menzies 20 Cadishead, Lancashire Plymouth 79 / 3
Ordinary Seaman J. W. Higgs 19 Marylebone, London Portsmouth 76 / 2
Ordinary Seaman R. R. Stapleton 19 Forest Fields, Nottingham Portsmouth 76 / 3
Ordinary Seaman F. Revington 18 Higher Blackley, Manchester Portsmouth 76 / 2
Eng Rm Art 1st Class H. W. J. Shepherd 32 Silsden, Yorkshire Plymouth 81 / 2
Eng Rm Art 4th Class W. Andrews 22 Bexleyheath, Kent Chatham 71 / 2
Eng Rm Art 4th Class S. Moss 21 Corby, Northamptonshire Portsmouth 77 / 2
Petty Officer Stoker C. A. Jones 27 Shirley, Warwickshire Chatham 71 / 3
Leading Stoker T. Dowde 23 Brentwood, Essex Chatham 71 / 3
Leading Stoker T. Dodson RFR – — Portsmouth 77 / 3
Stoker 1st Class T. Jakins – — Portsmouth 78 / 1
Stoker 1st Class L. G. Frappell 18 Rainham, Essex Chatham 72 / 1
Stoker 1st Class D. Wood 20 Llangadock, Carmarthenshire Plymouth 82 / 2
Stoker 2nd Class W. Stanton – — Plymouth 82 / 3
CPO Telegraphist A. C. Hinds DSM 36 Erdington, Birmingham Chatham 71 / 1
PO Telegraphist L. D. Jacobs – — Plymouth 81 / 1
Leading Telegraphist J. Firth 23 Oldham, Lancashire Plymouth 81 / 1
Telegraphist G. Oxley 43 — Plymouth 81 / 1
Telegraphist R. G. Coulthard 19 Peebles, Roxborough Chatham 71 / 1
Leading Signalman W. W. P. Berry – — Plymouth 80 / 3
Portsmouth The Portsmouth Naval Memorial, located at Southsea Common, Hampshire
Chatham The Chatham Naval Memorial overlooking Chatham, Kent
Plymouth The Plymouth Naval Memorial on the Hoe, overlooking Plymouth Sound, Devon
[ The number references indicate the Panel and Columns respectively whereon the Commemoration is recorded ]