H.M.S. Trusty -Commanded by Lieut. Hugh May and H.M.C.S Haida

The following was taken from a file my father had – The following I believe is perhaps from a speech given at maybe a submariners reunion.  The contents are factual based on a John Grant, a member of the crew and a letter from Robert Welland, Captain of the Haida dated May 15th 1986.

 

….That Sinking Feeling !

Historically, March has never been a particularly salubrious month.  For one, Julius Caesar distinctly  the worse for wear, and even in those far-off days there were forces at play that have only recently been given a name and described in a way which most of us can identify.  Named after an American Engineer called Murphy, Murphy’s Law specifies when anything can go wrong, it will.

As 1987 appears to be the year for letting cats out of the bags and forcing our law lords to come as close to doing an honest day’s work as they ever have, while attention is focussed on the big cats, perhaps it may be safe to recall an event that took place in the closing months of World War 11.  By comparison with the Wright Cat, ours is only a wee pussy, but the surviving members of at least two ships’ companies are unlikely ever to forget what happened during a fateful few minutes on the morning of March 9th, 1945 when Murphy’s Law was operating at full blast.  For one thing, and not the least, it left the crew of H.M Submarine ‘Trusty’ with a  recognizably sinking feeling.

Unlike our American friends who seem to enjoy letting it all hang out, we tend to keep mum, as a result of which the event described officially never really took place.  At least there’s no official record, and any feelings generated by the event were dissolved in overproof rum.  So only the memory, as they say, lingers on.

Still, one member of ‘Trusty’s’ crew, John Grant, thinks it’s about time the event was recorded, and it’s largely thanks to his efforts that the story can be told.

It’s well known below the salt that Admiral, Generals and to a lesser extent one supposes, Air Marshalls, love war games, a kind of bringing to life of lead soldiers and engaging them in mock combat with a simulated enemy.  On March 9th, 1945, the naval panjandrums decided to wash away a few barnacles from the fleet at Scapa Flow and conduct and anti – aircraft exercise at sea.  Accordingly, the Battleship ‘Rodney’ a fearsome beast from the point of view of lesser cockleshells, put to sea accompanied by an appropriate escort of Cruisers and Destroyers.  Also involved was the T-Class submarine ‘Trusty’ representing the U-Boat menace, still very real at the time, but more usefully serving that day as part of the training of a bunch of budding submariners in what was officially known as W-13, the thirteenth (wouldn’t you know) ‘Commanding Officers Qualifying Course, under Commander E Woodward.

While ‘Rodney’ and her minnows were putting to sea, a flotilla of four Destroyers were on their way back from shipping strikes along the Norwegian coast, including the Canadian Destroyer ‘Haida’, captained  by a breeze Canadian, then Lieutenant (now Rear Admiral, retired) Bob Welland.

Apart from its more sinister aspects, March in the Northern waters isn’t exactly a health spa in the sunbelt.  The crews of the Destroyer flotilla can safely be presumed to have been tired, wet, and fed up.  When they met up with ‘Rodney’. their spirits weren’t exactly buoyed by being roped in on an exercise.  ‘Rodney’ signalled: ‘Join the screen, an anti aircraft practice is being conducted…..’.

‘Haida’ was given a position on the outed screen on ‘Rodney’s’ starboard side roughly three miles on her bean.  Visibility was down to three miles in rain squalls, with only one Destroyer ‘Zealous’ in clear sight.

The morning hadn’t begun well.  Shortly before 10:00 hours , firing was heard from the direction of ‘Rodney’. and shortly after, a lookout on the ‘Haida’ collapsed with blood pouring from his back.   A 20mm Oerlikon shell passed through the lookout and came out through the back before rattling around inside the open bridge.  Fortunately, the wound didn’t prove fatal, thanks to prompt action by the ship’s doctor.

Barely had the excitement subsided when the ‘Haida’s’ chief yeoman, Mackie, spotted a submarine periscope off the starboard quarter, about 800 yards off.  Quickly disappeared, but Mackie was insistent and as survival frequently depended on hairtrigger reactions, Bob Welland didn’t waste any time in executing a full, heeled -over turn and ordering a ten charge pattern of depth charges.  At  the same time the attacking blasts were sounded on the siren, the alarm was flashed to whoever might be in sight, and the radio room alerted the fleet by voice radio.

The depth charges duly exploded, and as Welland was turning to follow up the attack at a flat-out 28 knots, the submarine surfaced in the middle of the depth charge boil.  The forward 4.7 gun of the ‘Haida’ was about to commence firing when Welland, to his horror, recognized the bow of the submarine as that of a British T-Class.  He says he almost broke his thumb on the ‘Cease-Fire’ gong, as a result of which didn’t fire a single shot.

Not so the rest of the Fleet.  By this time the submarine was lying stopped, 400 yards directly ahead of the ‘Haida’, broadside, and badly down by the stern.  As the witch doctor’s apprentice found out, it’s easier to start a chain of event than to stop it.  The ‘Rodney’ opened up enthusiastically with her secondary guns, and at least fired 150 shells at what subsequently turned out to be the unsuspecting ‘Trusty’

At that point, seeing that his frantic ‘cease-fire’ calls weren’t getting through, Welland took the split second decision to deliberately foul the range by placing ‘Haida’ between the submarine and the gunners.  It was a brave and consequential  act, though it appears to have annoyed one out of the nearest Polish -manned cruisers, the ‘Conrad’, who crisply ordered him to get out of the way.

Fortunately most of the shots were high, splashing down some 500 to 1000 yards over.  By then the messages had got through and the gunfire subsided as did Welland’s heart rate, as he said later.

He ordered the ‘Haida’ to go alongside the ‘Trusty’, whose stern was well down.  Seaboats were manned, scrambling nets were free’d and swimmers made ready to go over the side.  He stopped with his bridge opposite the conning tower and, looking down, recognized the former shipmate Hugh May, then at 23 possibly the youngest submarine skipper afloat.

According to Welland – and we will have to take his word for the laundered version – the following mild exchange then took place:

May:   ‘Welland’ what the hell are you trying to do’

Welland:  ‘May’

May: ‘Tell those bastards to stop firing’

Which they did.  Nobody was hit, and the ‘Haida’s’ doctor went over to deal with some of ‘Trusty’s’ crew who had understandably  been banged about a bit.

The stern of the ‘Trusty’ was gradually raised, and with one diesel running, May took her back to Scapa, with ‘Haida’ in close company, securing longside.

That evening the two ships’ companies spliced the mainbrace with a vengeance, the numbers being swelled by the class of officer trainees who had been aboard for the days exercise.  As budding submarine skippers, they must have had rather more teeth-rattling realism than they had bargained for.

John Grant describes the reaction on ‘Trusty’.   There they were, decently submerged and jammed into the seamen’s mess, laughing and joking over mugs of tea, when the noise of the ‘Haida’s’ props revving at 28 knots brought them all to the same instantaneous conclusion: ‘The bastard is coming inboard!’

With that, they practically flung themselves at their diving stations.  Hugh May did the best he could by ordering; ‘Ninety feet, shut off the from depth charging‘  Then the charges went off, and all hell broke loose.

Realizing what had happened, that the ‘Trusty’ had been mistaken for a U-Boat, May decided to take his chances on the surface, knowing that his chances of surviving a controlled attack  were pretty slender. Like Welland, May then did something as brave as it proved ineffective.  He grabbed a recognition flare from its clip by the helmsman and shinned up the conning tower ladder to the bridge where he was just in time to see the ‘Haida heeling into a turn for a second bite at the apple, this time with possible added intention of ramming.

Shells from ‘Rodney’ and the cruisers were beginning to fall, and it was hardly a comforting situation, up on the bridge, alone and under fire plus, thanks to Murphy’s Law , a flare that failed to ignite.

Again , he did the only possible thing, taking the sub down in a crash dive and plunging beyond the 90’ ordered, to almost 400’ before regaining control and rising to 90’ the level at which depth charges are supposed to be least effective.

May then ordered the underwater signal guns to be loaded with smoke canisters and fired.  These too failed; Murphy was having  a ball.

With compensating tanks split and open to the sea, the situation was desperate.  At this point Commander Woodward took a hand.  Rather than allow May to be subjected to a second baptism of fire , when the sub surfaced for the second time it was he who went up the ladder with  a smoke canister in one hand and a white ensign in the other.

It worked, though by that time Welland had already recognized the ‘Trusty’ as a British T-Class and taken the necessary aborting action.  Still Woodward didn’t know that and this was the third brave act of the day.

So what happened when the smoke cleared?  That same evening, the Commander in Chief board the ‘Trusty’ to apologize personally for the action and pay deserved tribute to the courageous actions of Lieutenant May and Commander Woodward.

On the following day, a board of enquiry was held on H.M.S. ‘Belona Castle’, chaired by the Commodore ‘D’ (Destroyers).  Welland was found blameless and, with a nice touch of irony, congratulated on the accuracy of his attack and speed with which it was conducted. Lieutenant May was praised for saving his submarine.

At the close of the lengthy enquiry, the Commodore ‘D’ entertained both Welland and May to dinner in his shore quarters.  Somewhere during the course of the meal (well into brandies, one supposes), the Commodore asked Welland whether Canadian reporting rules required an official report.  To which Welland replied that as the Commodore was his, immediate boss and knew about it anyway, an omission of the ‘Trusty’ incident in his monthly report to Canada would hardly be noticed.  May said, in effect, ‘least said, soonest mended’: and in any case, he didn’t much care for report writing.

Two of the Admiral’s staff got a royal bollocking for sloppy staffwork; they hadn’t informed the destroyers that ‘Trusty’ was part of the exercise, though it should be said, in all fairness, that the destroyers had failed to listen in on the administrative frequency, as they were supposed to do.  However, coming back from the real thing, with frozen tootsies and minds on other things, it is understandable at least that they wouldn’t want to be bothered deciphering Scapa’s paper clip returns.

Then the incident was buried in the wake of time.  Until now, when the telling can’t do any harm and may serve to warm up a few memories of the day when adrenalin was in full spate and the word ‘ship mate’ had real meaning.  Looking back, one of the participants, remarking that being depth-charged and shot at by your own side is distinctly unpleasant, said he felt more than a passing sympathy with Wellington reviewing elements of his motley army.  ‘By God, I don’t know what they will do to the army, but they scare the hell out of me!.  or words to that effect.

2 Comments

  1. What a great story! ……. My late father, Lt-Cdr Roderick Maclean Wilmot, DSC, was on T-Class HMS TORBAY in the Mediterranean for her second commission, and the Indian Ocean for her third. …. So he was on board during the Q-Ship GA 45 incident mentioned in relation to poor HMS TROOPER. ….. Submarines formed part of my childhood, as my father’s character was shaped by his RNC Dartmouth ( 1936 ) and war service. ……….. He commanded a number of submarines until 1956. ….. He was in command of an unlucky submarine – HMS TALENT. …… TALENT had already had an accident at Chatham in 1955, when 4 dockyard workers died. …… In 1956, TALENT was submerged, and struck by a ship, causing damage to the front of the conning tower. ………. The nuclear HMS TALENT suffered almost identical damage in 2015 – so far as I know, no-one has ever pointed out this remarkable coincidence. ……… My father was not happy with the court martial, chose to leave the Navy, married my mother, and I was born a year later. ………… So I am the direct result of a submarine accident! ……. Best wishes, Zen

    • Thanks for your interest and your story. My father went to many submarine reunions over the years. Perhaps they knew each other?

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