- Mason, R.C.H., AM, OBE, Lieutenant Commander, RN (Retd).
- Ship histories and stories, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The winter of 1953 was marked by severe storms and flooding over vast areas of Kent and the Thames estuary, causing heavy loss of sheep and other livestock, after sea walls were breached. This is an account of ships in refit at that time in HM Dockyard, Sheerness, by an experienced submariner. ON THE NIGHT OF 31 JANUARY 1953 I was woken by a worried naval sentry with the news that water was coming over the top of the dockyard and there was still two hours to high water. As Commanding Officer of HM Submarine Seraph I had volunteered for Duty Officer on the last weekend of the refit in Sheerness Dockyard so that the younger officers could enjoy a ‘run ashore’ in London. I was old enough to know that one should never volunteer for anything in the Navy. That night the wind had been blowing hard from the NE but I did not expect the blast I got as I opened the door of the Duty Officer’s cabin and stepped outside into a furious gale. There was indeed water coming over the top of the dockyard wall. I got the sentry to rouse the six sailors of the duty watch and together we set off toward Seraph, which was afloat at the far end of Sheerness Dockyard.
Seraph was completing an expensive refit which involved, amongst other things, the cladding of the ballast tanks with steel plate strong enough to withstand the impact of a torpedo fitted with a dummy warhead. She was the only experimental submarine in the RN at the time. Not only was Seraph a padded target but also the vehicle which fired the experimental wire-guided torpedoes. There were other important research projects which also required modifications to the ship’s hull during the refit. In short, Seraph was a very valuable ship.
Previously I had commanded the submarine Sirdar (prior to the appointment to Seraph) and she too was in a dry dock in Sheerness Dockyard, also undergoing refit. Very quickly the water rose and the rescue party were soon wading knee high towards Seraph. It was a very bright moonlit night giving good visibility across the Dockyard. As we passed by the drydock area housing both Sirdar and the frigate HMS Berkeley Castle, the force of the water displaced the main lock gates and a torrent of water cascaded into the main basin, into the dry docks, sweeping aside the shores and causing both ships to capsize.
We could hear the ships capsize over the howling gale-force wind. It was a very frightening experience. The rescue party, now roped together, struggled towards Seraph through the torrential flood of sea water and debris. We boarded Seraph and immediately inserted the fuses to activate the main motors. Fortunately one of the Duty Watch was an electrician. Two hands forward and two hands aft eased out the breasts and springs as Seraph rose with the tide. For over an hour we held her alongside with the aid of the motors until, at last, high water peaked and the ebb started. On Seraph‘s exposed bridge I was cold and wet, and my cap had taken off in the wind.
Two hours later we had Seraph safely secured. As the dawn broke, the wind had eased and we were able to see the devastation. We discovered that the seven of us had been the only people in the Dockyard that night; no other ships were manned over the weekend.
Some hours later we were able to report the status of the submarines to Flag Officer Submarines.
I was disappointed that no recognition was ever given to the gallant efforts of the rescue party which had undoubtedly saved Britain’s only experimental submarine from destruction.
(Every time I visit the Gold Coast I am reminded of the relatively short history of the area. Sheerness Dockyard was, I believe, built by French prisoners-of-war in the 19th century. The floods of January 31st 1953, the worst in UK since the turn of the century, created unprecedented tide levels – the effect of a stormy and persistent NE wind from the North Sea and a king tide. There have been several instances of sea wall damage on the Gold Coast in the past. What would happen if an unprecedented storm here breached the narrow strip of land that separates the sea from the canal system?)