- A.N. Other
- History - general, Ship design and development
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
When the Prince of Wales, later King George V, inspected the Submarine Flotilla in March 1904 and undertook a dive in an ‘A’ boat he was first presented to the crew of two officers, nine men and three white mice. At this time every RN submarine had as part of its crew three white mice, which each drew a shilling a week pay with full board and rations. Following the report listed below each submarine was issued with caged mice placed near the fuel tanks. When their sensitive olfactory nerves detected gas leakage, they at once began squeaking. The crew made pets of them and also drew the pay and rations of the mice, which they divided among themselves.
A report contained in ADM 1/7725 from the Inspecting Captain of Submarines to the Commander in Chief Portsmouth dated 31 May 1903 provided advice from Surgeon Captain Stewart, RN concerning the ‘Determination of Carbon Monoxide in the Air of Submarine Boats’. Following receipt of this report urgent action was taken on a method of detecting noxious gases in submarines.
In July 1903, each submarine was supplied with a mouse in a wire cage which was suspended in the vicinity of the gasoline engine. Observance of condition of the mouse was made at regular intervals during the time the engine was running. It was noticed that when the boats were running with the conning tower open and the ventilation was good, no effect was produced on the mouse. During rough weather however when the conning tower was necessarily closed, the ventilation being less perfect, the mouse became uneasy, and was evidently affected by the vitiated air. The state of the mouse was coincident with certain symptoms in the crew such as headache etc. On 6th July the mouse in No 3 Submarine was suspended in a cage in the vicinity of the engine room from 9 am to 5 pm. The boat was manoeuvring off Portland, the weather at the time being very rough, a SW gale blowing and the conning tower was closed for 4½ hours, the engine running all the time. The mouse became very uneasy, panting, and resting on its belly and later on appeared more or less helpless and lay on its side. It was then taken into the fresh air where it recovered.
On 8th July, Submarine No 4 was out at sea for 8½ hours with the gasoline engine running the greater part of the time. The mouse after some time showed signs of distress, panting etc. It lay down on its side, became more and more helpless and died just before the boat arrived in harbour.
Examination of the blood in dilute solution gave a decided pink tint and was estimated at about 30% saturated with CO. A number of the crew suffered this day from very severe headaches but recovered shortly after leaving the boat. This was the first and only occasion on which we had definite proof of the presence of CO in the air of the submarines, but I think there can be no doubt that its presence in small quantities accounted for those cases of illness which I attributed as due to CO poisoning.
Mice are now regularly carried in the submarines, but since improvements have been made in the ventilation arrangements, they do not appear to suffer from any ill-effects.
In July 1908 while the RN Submarine Flotilla was manoeuvring off Folkestone, Submarine No 9 was seen to be falling behind, flying a signal of distress. A rescue party was organised and the crew were found unconscious. It seems the officers in the conning tower were unaware the crew below had succumbed to noxious fumes. They were discovered in time and resuscitated. Some weeks earlier the Admiralty had ordered that mice previously carried to detect gas leaks were no longer required and were to be removed from all boats1.
1 Mice were first used in coal mines to detect toxic gases but as they were not easily seen they were replaced by more colourful canaries. Although they were superseded by electronic detectors, canaries were not finally phased out of British coal mines until the 1980s.