- Ellis, John
- Early warships, Naval technology, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Alongside Pennant Hills Road in Carlingford, a Sydney suburb, is a memorial comprising a pond, rocks, the lettering K13 and brass plates. Of those who have seen it, how many have wondered what it is, what is it for, why Carlingford? Who has stopped to satisfy their curiosity? It is a memorial to some submariners and some background about early submarines will be helpful.
Submarines – the concept of a submersible vessel as an offensive weapon has appealed to naval tacticians for hundreds of years. Although some were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, real development was impractical until the development of the battery powered electric motor for submerged propulsion. The first practical submarine was USS Holland, built in 1898 and named after her designer. She used a petrol engine for surface propulsion and was battery-electric powered whilst submerged. By 1905 the RN had five Holland Class submarines and were building some to British designs. Unlike ships, which were named, a class letter, followed by a number, identified British submarines. These early designs depended upon petrol engines that were also in their infancy.
The first, HMS/M A1, was powered by a 600hp, 16 Cylinder Wolseley engine. An engineering magazine observed:
‘The most interesting fact is that she has no less than 16 cylinders. We should imagine that these shall require a considerable amount of adjustment before they can do all that is desired. A four cylinder motor car is not always an unmixed blessing, a 16 cylinder motor car would be regarded with considerable terror by the majority of mechanics.’
The engine failed to meet specification, however it did operate as a 12 cylinder unit. A1, incidentally, was lost with all hands when practising an attack – she collided with her target. By 1907 the newly invented diesel engine was being considered for submarines and the British were the first to commission a diesel- powered submarine. Submarine construction of that period can be compared with cask making. Strakes were riveted to a frame with all riveting being done by hand, as hydraulic riveting machines did not ensure rivet holes were completely filled with the rivet. The joint between strakes was carefully caulked. Even so, joints would work in a seaway leading to leakage when submerged.
By the outbreak of World War I, the RN had 64 submarines, however only 17 were capable of operating beyond the British coast. Germany on the other hand had 46 capable of operating across the North Sea. Although there were scores of submarines in service in the major navies by 1914, they were still very high-risk vessels for their crews. Brassey’s report on submarines in the RN in 1914 said: ‘During the past three years only nine officers and 37 men have been lost in submarine accidents.’
Submarines were not strongly supported in the RN and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, had developed the Submarine Service with much opposition from conservative elements. In 1904 Fisher foresaw the immense impending revolution that the submarine would effect as an offensive weapon. In 1912, his observation that the Germans would use submarines to sink merchantmen in wartime was scorned. His was a lone voice in the RN. His critics said: ‘Submarines are the weapons of weaker nations; submarines are underhand, unfair and damned un-English . . .’ and ‘ . . a share in their evolution has been forced on us by other nations.’
In 1913 Fisher requested Vickers, Scotts and the Director of Naval Construction (DNC) to construct a fleet of submarines to counter the German strength. Although the British were the first to power a submarine on the surface with a diesel engine, some French submarines were steam powered. Fisher said:
‘The oil engine will govern all sea fighting and all sea fighting will be governed by the submarine. We are behind the Germans in development of the oil engine and so, like the French, we are fatally hankering after steam engines in submarines.’
The DNC design was 340 feet long, displaced 1,700 tons, had a range of 3,000 miles and was capable of 24 knots on the surface. This was a major increase in size from the A Class ten years earlier, which were 150 feet long, displaced 200 tons and were capable of 15 knots on the surface and 8 knots when submerged.
At the outbreak of World War I, submarines were a major worry to surface fleets as there was no method to counter them when submerged, even though their submerged capability was very limited. Nevertheless German U-boats were very effective in the opening months of the War. In September 1914, U9 sank three RN cruisers off the Dutch coast in half an hour in daylight with great loss of life and on 1 January 1915 a U-boat believed to be capable of 19 knots on the surface sank the Dreadnought HMS Formidable. DNC’s solution was a steam propulsion system, however an incident with a French steam powered submarine attached to the RN reverted attention to diesel power. A wave broke over the submarine, bending the funnel and preventing its retraction and the boiler room was flooded. The design proceeded as the J Class with a designed surface speed of 21 knots, 7 knots faster than any previous diesel powered British submarine. In reality they attained only 19 knots. This obsession with surface speed clearly demonstrated that the Admiralty had not really considered how to optimise the capability of the submarine. The Admiralty was adamant that submarines should be able to keep pace with the Fleet whilst surfaced. Indeed, to some, submarines were known as ‘Reapers’ – vessels capable of accompanying the surface force and useful to finish off targets initially damaged by destroyer torpedo attack. DNC returned to the steam powered solution capable of 24 knots. Fisher reluctantly agreed and the K Class was ordered in May 1915 with 14 in the initial order. They were 340 feet long, 1,800 tons surface displacement, 2,600 tons submerged displacement and were armed with one 3 inch and two 4 inch guns as well as torpedoes. They had a company of 54. Propulsion on the surface was from two steam turbines of 10,500 shp supplied by two boilers. A 1,800 shp diesel was available whilst steam was being raised. Submerged propulsion was by four battery electric motors. In reality they were submersible destroyers. K3 was the first to commission in August 1916, by which time 12 were nearly complete. Although none had completed trials, a further seven were ordered.
In January 1917 K3 was still the only one of the class in commission and was giving trouble with submerged control. K13, built by Fairfield’s at Glasgow and under the command of Lieutenant Commander Herbert, DSO, RN, was undergoing builder’s trials in the Gareloch near Glasgow. On 18 January 1917 she had achieved 23½ knots and by 29 January had satisfactorily dived several times. At 1400 on 29 January 1917 Herbert prepared her for her last dive. In addition to the ship’s company, there were 26 others on board including representatives of the builder and their sub-contractors, the Admiralty and the captain and engineer officer of K14. Herbert ordered diving stations from the conning tower and watched the funnels retract. Electrically operated hatches that were finally clipped locked internally by hand, closed the holes through the pressure hull. All these hatches were linked to a battery of indicator lamps that showed all funnel and ventilator openings were closed. A flickering of the ventilator inlet cover lamps was attributed to faulty wiring.
The commanding officer received word that the engine room and boiler room were secured and continued flooding and went below. Not trusting the indicator lamps, the Chief Engine Room Artificer inspected the boiler room, found it flooding freely and alerted the CO. Herbert reacted with orders to surface by blowing tanks, however the coxswain reported the submarine out of control. All attempts to blow tanks to halt the sinking failed and K13 was on the bottom in eight fathoms of icy cold water. Initially there were failures in power circuits, electrical fires and local flooding. Later, some power was restored and fires were extinguished. A muster revealed 49 of the 80 were alive, all in the forward end.
By sunset, about 1600, the patrol boat accompanying the trial was puzzled with the lack of noise from the hydrophones and raised the alarm. By 2300 some poorly equipped salvage vessels were on the scene, although it was dawn on 30 January before a diver was on the hull. He established there were survivors. Herbert and Goodhart (the CO of K14) decided to escape to the surface. Only Herbert survived the escape and he stressed the importance of getting air into the submarine, as lack of air was already causing dizziness and lethargy. The divers had a low pressure air hose that they eventually connected 26 hours after the sinking. The valve was opened inside the submarine, however only a few splashes of water emerged. The connection was checked and it was found that the outlet was blocked with ice. When cleared, the hose was connected, 35 hours after the sinking.
As well as air for breathing, air was pumped in to raise the bow, with slings being passed under the bow supported by two pontoons. The plan was to cut a hole in the pressure hull, however the first oxy- acetylene set broke down and another had to be brought from Glasgow. Fifty six hours after the sinking, 46 men emerged; the salvage crew had worked without a break. Shortly afterwards, K13 broke free and settled on the bottom.
An inquiry in February 1917 found the four 37 inch ventilators for the boilers had been left open and found this the responsibility of the EO, who had perished. The recognition gazetted was the posthumous award of the Albert Medal to Goodhart. In March 1917, K13 was raised and towed up the Clyde to Fairfield’s for refit. She was recommissioned in October 1917 as K22 – with the surviving coxswain of K13 as the commissioning coxswain!
Twenty seven K Class submarines were ordered, although six were cancelled as the War drew to a close. Of the 21 built, eight sank in accidents resulting in the loss of over 300 men. Other than K13, two sank in collisions with other submarines, two sank in collisions with ships, one sank in harbour and two were lost at sea. Most of these disastrous events took place in wartime and the Admiralty was able to gloss over the incidents as war losses. It is of interest that no K Class submarine inflicted any damage to enemy shipping. Ironically, the parameter that drove the Admiralty to this disastrous design, U- boats capable of 19 knots, was unfounded.
Other classes of British submarines, however, had considerable success. One was HMS/M B11, built in 1907 and in 1914 under the command of Lieutenant Holbrook, RN. In December 1914 he sank a Turkish battleship in the Dardenelles and was awarded the VC, the first naval VC of the War. This award coincided with the township of Germantown, near Albury, deliberating a change of name that did not make reference to Germans. They chose Holbrook and about 20 years ago a scale model of HMS/M B11 was erected in the local park. The first submarine to penetrate the Dardenelles and enter the Sea of Marmara was HMAS AE2, on 25 April 1915, sinking a Turkish ship and severely disrupting the logistic support of the Turkish defences of Gallipoli. She was commanded by Lieutenant Commander H.H.G. Stoker, RN, and after creating five days of havoc in the Sea of Marmara she was scuttled after becoming uncon- trollable. Stoker and his men went into captivity in Turkey. He was awarded the DSO in 1919. Having seen that a submarine could beat the currents and minefields of the Dardenelles, several RN submarines followed. Between them they destroyed nearly 200 ships and a train, and three skippers were awarded the VC.
In 1919 the RAN took delivery of six J Class submarines. The submarines sailed from the UK with RN ship’s companies, with the plan to recruit and train RAN officers and ratings to man them here. One of the RN ratings was Leading Telegraphist Charles Freestone, a survivor of K13. Freestone, a native of Chelmsford, Essex, transferred to the RAN in 1921 and served another five years before his discharge at the age of 30. He settled in Marrickville in the late 1920s and established a fibrous plaster ceiling business. His first works were in Pennant Street, Parramatta. By the mid 1940s, his company, C.A. Freestone Pty. Ltd. had an office and main works in Victoria Road, Parramatta and a secondary works in River Road, Camellia. After World War II, Freestone moved from Marrickville to Blacktown, where he lived until his retirement when he moved into Parramatta.
In Parramatta he was known as a prominent manufacturer, employer and investor. The district reminded him of his home in Chelmsford, as both were located on a river with large industrial zones and pleasant rural areas surrounding them. He never forgot his submarine shipmates and especially those who perished in K13. In his will he set aside part of his Carlingford subdivision in 1956 to be named K13 Memorial Park. Without seeing the memorial commenced, Freestone died in May 1958. His health was impaired by pneumonia and a long drawn out and exhaustive battle with authorities to have his Greenacres property released from the green belt and recognised as residential area. His widow took up her husband’s dream. An architect was employed and while keeping in mind Charles Freestone’s idea of using ‘some good solid Australian stone as used by pioneers’ to embody a seascape motif with the letters K13 prominently displayed, a plan was submitted to the Council that was finally adopted in March 1961.
The service commemorating the unveiling and dedication of the K13 Memorial Park was held on 10 September 1961 with the High Commissioner for the UK, Lieutenant General Sir William Oliver, KGB and Mrs. Freestone in attendance. The Commander, 4th Submarine Squadron, then based at HMAS Penguin, was made a trustee of the Memorial. A few years later the trusteeship was transferred to the Commander, Australian Submarine Squadron on its establishment and the return to UK of the 4th Submarine Squadron. Since the unveiling the Squadron has held an annual parade with a wreath laying ceremony. This event is now held at 1100, 11th November each year. The inscription on the Memorial says ‘This memorial has been created in memory of those officers and men of the Commonwealth who gave their lives in submarines whilst serving the cause of freedom. It is called the K13 Memorial in particular memory of those lost in HM Submarine K13.’
As history gets lost with the passing of its makers it is important that these details be collected and recorded, so that memorials do achieve their purpose of honouring those people who through their efforts have benefited us. The stone is there not only to remind us of their lives but also to honour their achievements. I share this information with you in the hope that you might be more informed admirers of those who go down in the depths and do honour to the dolphins they wear.