The Royal Navy’s Battle with Bolshevik Submarines in The Baltic, 1918 – 19

HMS Vindictive Royal Navy aircraft carrier Russian civil war 1918

Although she arrived halfway through 1919, HMS Vindictive played a major role in the last half of the fighting.

Even before the guns of World War I had fallen silent in Europe, the great powers were already finding themselves embroiled in another great conflict that was sparking up in the east. Having seemed constantly on the verge of revolution for two decades, the Great War finally broke the Russian Empire and on March 15th 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne and a provisional government was installed to replace him.

Then on October 25th, the socialist Bolsheviks under Lenin who had been in exile during the war rose up against the provisional government and seized power. Almost immediately, Russia descended in to civil war between the Bolshevik “Reds” and the “White Russians” – a loose alliance of factions each with their own goals but united in their desire to destroy Bolshevism. The old powers in western Europe such as Britain, France and Germany viewed the situation in Russia with horror, concerned that their own countries could be torn apart by their own Marxist uprisings. They therefore committed equipment, ships and troops to support the White Russians in fighting the Red Army and Navy.

Volk Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

Russian Bars-class submarine

The Royal Navy had already been active in the Baltic Sea with a large submarine presence supporting their Russian Navy allies in preventing the import of iron ore from Sweden to Imperial Germany since 1914 but now those allies were likely to be hostile towards them if the Russian crews supported the Bolsheviks. Russian pride in their navy’s major surface combatants was still tainted by their defeat at the hands of the Japanese at Tsushima in 1908 and its ability to function had been further inhibited by the loss of experienced officers in the revolution and the general breakdown of discipline amongst the remaining crews. However, the Russian submarine force remained a significant threat with their smaller crews having a greater sense of loyalty to one another than in the bigger ships. They were also equipped with quite capable submarines built during the force’s expansion upon the outbreak of World War I such as the Bars-class which were armed with a single 57mm deck gun and eight 18inch torpedoes.

With Germany and the Bolsheviks negotiating for peace at the end of 1917, a flotilla of eight British submarines found themselves trapped between two hostile powers and were ordered to Finland where they remained until April 1918 when, with German forces closing in, they were taken to sea one at a time and scuttled. On November 11th 1918, World War I ended and the focus was now turned entirely to defeating the Bolsheviks including sending a British naval taskforce in to the Baltic. Dubbed Operation Red Trek and commanded by Rear-Admiral Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, the taskforce sailed on November 28th and comprised of a number of fairly modern destroyers and cruisers as well as a number of submarines that had survived the First World War in the Baltic. Red Trek had four primary goals;

  • To contain Bolshevism.
  • To protect Britain’s interests in the region.
  • Maintain the freedom of the seas.
  • Prevent the newly declared independent states of Estonia and Latvia from being seized by Red forces or remnant German units.

Opposing Alexander-Sinclar’s taskforce was Russia’s Baltic Fleet that still included a number of capital ships such as the Gangut-class battleship Petropavlovsk but was seriously weakened by the manpower shortage and so did little to stop the British ships from landing troops and equipment in Estonia. The British did suffer their first casualty during this time however when the light cruiser HMS Cassandra struck a mine on December 5th near Saaremaa in the Gulf of Finland. The mine had been laid by the Germans during the war and the British were unaware of the minefield’s presence. Mines would prove to be the number one threat to the British in the coming year accounting for a number of losses.

Leaving five of his ships to support the Estonians, Alexander-Sinclair then sortied south to asses the situation in Latvia and lend support to that country’s security. The Bolsheviks decided to launch an attack against the weakened British force to punish them for meddling in Russian affairs sending a flotilla of their ships to attack them. This flotilla almost completely disintegrated as it sailed out to intercept the British due to a combination of poor leadership, even poorer discipline among the crews and generally low reliability amongst the ships to the point where only two destroyers – the Avtroil and Spartak –  made a valiant attack on their own. Unfortunately for the Bolshevik crews, courage did not translate in to success. During the engagement off Reval in Estonia, one crew got disoriented and ran aground while the other tried to make an escape but became surrounded and so elected to surrender rather than become martyrs.

The Bolsheviks worked hard over the next few weeks to address the problems typified by the whole affair and aware that if they were to succeed then they could brush away Alexander-Sinclair’s force with their battleships, the British sent the 1st Light Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Walter Cowan to the Baltic. Cowan was a forceful commander who wanted to exercise a more aggressive approach to tackling the Russians when he took over command of the mission in early 1919. His efforts were initially inhibited however by the harsh winter which slowed progress and lowered British morale considerably. The Bolsheviks put to sea again in May 1919 but were forced back by Cowan’s fleet leaving mines and submarines as the only real way they could fight the British.

One such Bolshevik submarine was the Bars-class Pantera under the command of 24-year old Alexander N. Bakhtin which left the port of Kronstadt on the night of July 23rd/24th. Bakhtin was one of the more experienced commanders amongst the Bolsheviks having served successfully aboard the Volk during the fighting with Germany. Bakhtin and his men had orders to attack British vessels off Kaporia Bight, the second submarine crew to be dispatched on this mission with the first, the Vepr, having been forced back to port with engine troubles. They did not have to wait long to encounter a British force spotting two British submarines travelling on the surface the next day. Keeping the sun at his back to conceal his position, Bakhtin launched an attack by firing a single torpedo at the furthest British submarine which spotted it early enough to evade it.

Pantera Bars-class submarine Bolshevik Navy

The Pantera (after the Russian Civil War)

Bakhtin then turned the Pantera on to the closer submarine, HMS E40, and launched two torpedoes in its direction. He then ordered his crew to turn away and dive deep in order to evade a counterattack. Again, Bakhtin’s efforts proved fruitless as the two torpedoes were quickly evaded by the E40 which continued turning until her bow was brought to bear on the diving Pantera. The E40 dispatched a torpedo towards the Pantera but had as much luck as the Russians with it passing alongside the Bars-class sub as it dived. A nearby British destroyer, HMS Watchman, conducted a depth charge attack but Bakhtin and the Pantera escaped back to Kronstadt.

Having been repaired, the Vepr made a second attempt to intercept the British a few days later on July 27th. Early the next day, the Vepr detected two British warships and fired a salvo of torpedoes towards them but without success. Having been detected, the Vepr attempted to escape as it was attacked with depth charges that inflicted significant damage on the submarine including to the electrics which plunged some of the crew in to absolute darkness. Despite having difficulty maintaining their depth due to damage, the crew of the Vepr managed to avoid destruction by the two destroyers – HMS Valorous and Vancouver – and later avoided an attempted attack by the British submarine HMS L15 to limp back to Kronstadt for repairs.

PLEASE NOTE – It is sometimes reported that the submarine involved was actually the Ersh but according to Geoffrey & Rodney Bennett in their book Freeing the Baltic 1918–1920 there is no evidence to suggest the submarine was in the area on July 28th 1919. Record keeping was not a priority in Russia at this time.

Despite the lack of success thus far on the part of the Russians, Rear Admiral Cowan was particularly concerned by the attacks and the potential they could have on his force which now included the aircraft carrier HMS Vindictive. As part of the effort to contain the Russian fleet, Cowan’s forces instigated a widescale mining operation around Kronstadt and neighbouring ports held by the Bolsheviks. Submarine nets were also deployed near his own harbours to protect his ships from being ambushed as they sailed in to the Baltic while the addition of the Third Destroyer Flotilla increased the number of British ships equipped with hydrophones to listen out for the submarines as they cruised submerged. Cowan committed most of his assets that were not directly supporting land operations to hunt and destroy the submarines including some of his cruisers and aircraft from Vindictive.

On July 30th, he ordered the planes from Vindictive to make a bold early morning attack on Kronstadt one of the aims of which was to target the submarine tender Pamiat Azova. Anti-aircraft fire over Kronstadt was very heavy but the pilots reported scoring a hit on the vessel and claimed a hit on a nearby drydock. It would later be learned that the pilots had mistook the oil tanker Tatiana for the submarine tender which remained undamaged. On August 18th, Cowan’s forces attacked the harbour with a force of coastal motor boats supported by Vindictive’s aircraft. This time they scored hits on the Pamiat Azova after which it sank and lay on its port side in the shallow water.

This aggressive reaction typified Cowan’s style as a commander and appeared to alarm the Bolsheviks to the point where their submarines didn’t venture out of port for the best part of the following month. In the wake of the attack on Kronstadt, it was late in the month when Bakhtin and the Pantera ventured out to face the British again. On August 31st, Bakhtin’s men sighted two British warships including the modern V-class destroyer HMS Vittoria under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Vernon Hammersley-Heenan and which had been configured for laying mines. Bakhtin and his men stalked the British ship for over a day spending much of the time submerged to avoid detection.

HMS Vittoria v-class admiralty destroyer Royal Navy

HMS Vittoria

Finally, the next day Bakhtin was presented with his opportunity to attack as the Vittoria and HMS Abdiel anchored off the island of Seiskari in the Gulf of Finland. Bakhtin fired a pair of 18inch torpedoes toward the British ship one of which missed but the other struck the side of the vessel blowing a hole in the hull. Less than five minutes after being hit, the 22-month old Vittoria had completely sunk taking eight of her crew with her. Bakhtin observed the Abdiel powering up and with depleted batteries, decided to withdraw rather than attempt to attack it too thus allowing the British ship to go to the rescue of their comrades who had survived the sinking of their ship.

Despite this victory, the Russian submarine threat was proving more of a concern for British sailors than their actual impact on the strategic situation. The main threat to British ships remained the many minefields that had been laid in the region with another V-class destroyer, HMS Verulam, being lost to one just three days after the Vittoria was sunk. Unfortunately for the British Admiralty and Cowan in particular, these losses had a profound impact on the already suffering morale of the British crews. The British government had repeatedly made claims that those British servicemen fighting in the Russian Civil War were volunteers but it seemed this did not extend completely to the Royal Navy. Many of the British sailors were quite sullen over the fact that the war they had joined up to fight was now over yet they were still being ordered to risk their lives in combat on behalf of a foreign nation. Added to this was the threat from the much-vaunted underwater menace that was the submarine which along with the hundreds of mines meant many sailors were left wondering if their ship would suddenly blow up from underneath them. This mood was only worsened by the freezing weather experienced in the early months of 1919, the poor conditions onboard many of the destroyers in which crews had to spend a considerable amount of time and Cowan’s repeated cancellation of shore leave in order to achieve his latest aims.

What started as a morale problem quickly escalated and even spread beyond the ships in the Baltic. The First Destroyer Flotilla was due to set sail for the Baltic Sea in early October 1919 but upon hearing this, over 150 seamen abandoned their posts and attempted to make their way to London to present their protests to Whitehall. Over 100 of them were arrested as they travelled by train but 44 of them made it to London although the effort was in vain and they too were arrested and imprisoned. The First Destroyer Flotilla was reinforced with volunteers from battleships and cruisers and set sail on October 14th although with only half the number of destroyers it had expected to have. Even if the crews reported to their ships there still seemed to be a conspiracy to stop them. Socialism was spreading amongst the working class in Britain after the Great War that was seen as a calamity brought upon them by the ruling classes. This led to support for the Bolsheviks and resulted in several refusals by dock workers to load ships headed for the Baltic.

Cowan’s biggest ships weren’t exempt from disruption by disgruntled sailors. In November 1919, discipline aboard Vindictive was seriously breaking down in the wake of cancelled leave during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark leading to Royal Marines having to break up a group of protesters. Later, two stokers were caught trying to sabotage the engines and when news of this got out it only encouraged further dissent leading to the captain enforcing harsh punishments on men he identified as ringleaders. The following month, aboard the cruiser HMS Delhi a quarter of the crew refused to report for duty.

By now the situation on land was becoming more and more hopeless for the White Russians and their foreign allies. While the Royal Navy had largely kept the Bolshevik fleet at bay, the failure of the White Russian General Nikolai Yudenich to capture Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and the continued collapse of anti-Bolshevik forces made the allies realise that the war was lost and in December 1919, Cowan began withdrawing his fleet. They had however secured the independence of Estonia and Latvia but it had cost 112 British sailors’ lives. Cowan would continue on in the Royal Navy commanding the Battlecruiser Squadron from HMS Hood before retiring as a full Admiral only to return to service in World War II. He was captured by the Italians in 1942 in Libya but was repatriated a year later. He retired a second time in 1945 and died in 1956 aged 85, the last of the Cowan Barons.

Alexander Bakhtin and his crew returned home as heroes with the Pantera itself finding a special place in the hearts of the revolutionary Russians, it being the first submarine of the Red Navy to sink an enemy vessel in combat. It later dispensed with its imperial-given name, instead adopting the name Kommisar and remained in service long after its surviving sisters had been withdrawn ending its days as a harbour training vessel.

Bakhtin however would not be so fortunate. His immediate fame was short lived when in 1924, two years after Lenin’s death and Stalin’s rise to power in the new Soviet Union, his noble heritage was made public and he was stripped of all his revolutionary accolades before being sent to the Solovki gulag in the Solovetsky Islands of the White Sea. There he endured five years of hard labour that seemed to considerably age him beyond his 34 years when he was released in 1929. Two years later he contracted tuberculosis and died almost unnoticed by the people of the revolution he had fought and killed for.

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British Army Bayonet Training Manual, 1916

The following extracts are taken from a US-produced reproduction of the British Army’s Bayonet Training Manual revised in 1916 to take in to consideration the nature of the fighting on the Western Front of World War I. With the US declaring war on Germany and the other Central Powers on January 9th 1917, they looked to take advantage of the lessons the Allied powers had learned in the previous two and a half years and apply them to their own troops.

Source: Archive.org.


100 Years Ago Today…Jutland

It’s been 100 years since one of the most decisive naval battles of the 20th century. The Battle of Jutland took place between May 31st to June 1st 1916. The battle has been viewed by historians as a tactical defeat but a vital strategic victory for the British that helped contain the German surface fleet in port for the rest of the war.

The First British Fighter Pilots

During the summer of 1912 the British Army based at home in Britain conducted their annual military exercises to hone skills and test new techniques. As normal, two opposing forces were assembled to “fight” each other designated Blue Force and Red Force but in 1912 both sides were given an air component from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The RFC was barely out of the womb having been formed on April 13th of that year and the small cadre of pilots were keen to show their stuff. With the aircraft themselves being very primitive the only real mission they could carry out was reconnaissance and so the pilots went about tracking the “enemy” forces as they made their way to the battlefield. This gave an unparalleled view of the tactical situation to the opposing generals whose orders were given based on the intelligence the new-fangled machines offered. In fact, it was an aeroplane that allowed Blue Force to defeat Red Force when a Blue aircraft spotted a concentration of enemy troops and reported them back to the Blue Force commander, Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson. Grierson was therefore able to meet them on more favourable terms for his own side which led to his men’s success.

Despite this there was still a lot of scepticism in the Army about the importance of military aircraft in the wake of the exercise, especially amongst officers assigned to Red Force, but Grierson immediately recognised both the advantages and the dangers they brought to the battlefield. With remarkable foresight he wrote of the aircraft’s role in the future;

So long as hostile aircraft are hovering over one’s troops all movements are likely to be seen and reported. Therefore, the first step in war will be to get rid of hostile aircraft.

Wright flyer machine gun

Wright brothers with their armed Military Flyer (Wright-Borthers.org)

Unwittingly, Grierson had in a sense made some of the first comments on the importance of control of the air above the battlefield before the term “air superiority” came in to common usage. In America, Britain, France and Germany experiments were already being carried out to arm aircraft for combat with even the Wright Brothers themselves suggesting a machine gun could be fitted to their revolutionary Wright Flyer – the very first true aeroplane! However, the experiments were still largely experimental when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 sparking World War I. Thus the armies of Entente (Britain and France) met the Germans and Austro-Hungarians with aircraft carrying out their vital reconnaissance role and just like in 1912 they were proving very good at it.

The need to take down enemy fliers was obvious and some airmen became obsessed with finding ways to do just that. Some pilots in the field experimented with all kinds of possible methods to deprive the enemy of the advantages of flight the most legendary of which was the grappling hook method whereby one plane would attempt to snag the wings of an enemy plane as it passed over it. While almost comical now, the aim of bringing down enemy fliers was no joke to these men and the first aircraft to be deliberately brought down by another in combat was actually the result of a ramming by a Russian pilot on 8th September 1918 of an Austrian reconnaissance plane.

The obvious answer of course was to take a gun up and shoot the enemy plane to either disable its engine or kill its pilot but this brought a whole host of problems with it since the machines were not suited to combat or carrying heavy weapons. As a stop-gap measure pilots and their observers carried pistols and rifles with which to shoot at any enemy planes they may encounter while carrying out their reconnaissance duties. This was an extremely difficult task for even the best shot. The aircraft were hardly stable gun platforms and the target aircraft was often manoeuvring in three dimensions and returning fire with their own rifles.

It would be two Frenchmen who would be credited with the first air-to-air victory using aerial gunnery. On 5th October 1914, Joseph Frantz and his observer Louis Quenault flying a Voisin LA fitted with a machine gun attacked a German reconnaissance plane sending it crashing to the ground. The French machine was hardly suited to the fighter role and the weight of the crew and the gun severely restricted performance but true air combat had, somewhat clumsily, been born.

The Royal Flying Corps were already well in to developing the first dedicated fighter aircraft in the shape of the Vickers FB ‘Gun Carrier’, a pusher-plane with a machine gun mounted in the nose but it would not be ready for deployment to France until mid-1915. In the meantime, the RFC’s reconnaissance planes such as the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2 and the Avro 504 had to rely on the observer firing the standard infantry weapon, the Lee-Enfield .303 bolt action rifle, at any enemy planes they might encounter. The comparatively small number of aircraft available to both sides in the early days of the war meant that there were few encounters and when there were it would often end with both sides running out of rifle rounds and then resorting to waving as they both turned for home.

Avro 504

Avro 504 (Ed Coates)

That changed on 25th August 1914. No.5 Squadron RFC was operating Avro 504s from an airfield at La Cateau in Northern France and amongst their number was Second Lieutenant C. W. Wilson and Lieutenant Euan Rabagliati. On this particular day, news fed back to La Cateau that a German aircraft, a Taube, had been spotted by ground forces to the south of the airfield. The squadron’s commanding officer, Major John Higgins, ordered Wilson and Rabagliati to take off in their Avro 504 and go after it. The terms “scramble” or “Quick Reaction Alert” had not yet been brought in to existence within British military aviation but this sudden launching of aircraft to intercept an enemy machine was very much in that spirit. The aircraft lifted off with Rabagliati in the observer’s seat armed with his Lee-Enfield and over one hundred rounds of ammunition.

Taube aeroplane

Taube aeroplane (commons.wikimedia)

Proceeding south towards the last known position of the Taube, the two British airmen must have known that their chances of shooting down the German plane were slim to say nothing of finding it in the first place; once airborne they were out of contact with the observers on the ground who first spotted the aircraft. Their Avro 504 chugged its way south with both men scouring the sky with their eyes looking for the unique shape of the German-built Taube and soon they spotted their bird-like quarry soaring almost majestically over the British side of the lines. Given the slow speeds of the two aircraft (less than 80mph) any attempt to sneak up on the German was futile and it was not long before the solitary pilot spotted the British biplane coming towards him.

The first dogfight between a British and German aircraft was about to begin.

The German pilot was no beginner and knew enough that he lacked the speed to outrun the 504 and if he flew straight and level then he would make himself a tempting target for Rabagliati with the rifle. He therefore took out his Mauser pistol fitted with a wooden stock and turned in to the direction of the British aircraft. The two planes began circling each other like two lions battling to be the alpha of their pride while both the German and Rabagliati exchanged fire with their respective handheld weapons. A pattern was set whereby the two aircraft flew in tight circles to keep the other from getting a clear shot while exchanging fire as the distance closed and reloading as the distance opened. At more than one point, in the heat of the fight, the two planes came unnervingly close to colliding but even at this distance hitting one another was frustratingly difficult and after expending nearly all his ammunition Rabagliati knew he only had a few shots left before they would have to disengage.

Then suddenly, after discharging yet another .303 round at the German with the hefty rifle the German aircraft pitched upwards before the nose dipped forward. Rabagliati saw that the pilot, having been hit by one of his rounds, had slumped forwards on his controls sending the Taube in to its final descent to Earth. It crashed ahead of an advancing British infantry unit which rushed to the scene of the crash and confirmed the pilot was dead. As such Rabagliati is credited as scoring the first British air-to-air victory but it had been a close call; an ammunition check upon his return to La Cateau showed he had astonishingly fired over 100 rounds with his bolt action rifle during the battle.

NEWS: First World War U-Boat wreck identified

Despite having been discovered by divers working on behalf of Scottish Power Renewables and its partner Vattenfall in 2012 researchers have only now been able to positively identify a  German World War I U-Boat laying 56 miles off the coast of East Anglia. The wreck is of the Imperial German Navy’s U-31 which set sail for a war patrol from Wilhelmshaven in January 1915 – almost 100 years ago exactly. Contact with the 31 officers and men was lost soon after and it is now believed that the vessel was sunk by a British defensive mine.

Mark Dunkley, marine archaeologist at Historic England, told Sky News;

After being on the seabed for over a century, the submarine appears to be in a remarkable condition with the conning tower present and the bows partially buried. Relatives and descendants of those lost in the U-31 may now take some comfort in knowing the final resting place of the crew and the discovery serves as a poignant reminder of all those lost at sea, on land and in the air during the First World War.

NEWS: First Sikh WWI memorial in UK unveiled

The Memorial (raf.mod.uk)

The Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum (raf.mod.uk)

A memorial commemorating the Sikh soldiers who fought with the British Indian Army in the First World War was unveiled by Major General Patrick Sanders CBE DSO, businessman Peter Singh Virdee and the monument’s chairman Jay Singh-Sohal at a ceremony at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. An ardaas prayer was recited and as well as the sounding of a traditional Sikh war cry, a one minute silence was observed by the guests.

The memorial is the first of its kind in the UK and serves to recognise the Sikh contribution to the British war effort. It was funded via a campaign on the Kickstarter website where more than 200 people from various faiths and backgrounds contributed anywhere between £1 to £1,000 to fund the cause.

Jay Singh-Sohal, the monument’s creator and charity chairman said:

It’s been a long time coming, but we finally have a dedicated memorial which will stand the test of time and attest to future generations the gratitude we have for the sacrifice and valour of our forefathers. This memorial is mindful of our glorious past and will inspire future generations to undertake public service as confident and proud British Sikhs. It is already attracting visitors from abroad, and will be a place of pilgrimage for people from all sections of our society to recall the bravery of a martial race that fought for Britain simply because it was their duty to serve and desire to seek glory in battle against tyranny and oppression.

Remarkably, while the Sikh population of India during the First World War was less than 1% of the total population they constituted around 20% of the British Indian Army. For their heroism, the Sikh soldiers received 29% of all Indian Orders of Merit awarded during the war and 24% of all Indian Distinguished Service Medals.

HMS D3 – A Case of Mistaken Identity

HMS D3 (histomar.net)

HMS D3 (histomar.net)

The First World War changed the nature of military conflict beyond recognition. Not since the Battle of Agincourt where French Knights in armour found themselves rendered obsolete by new weapons had war been revolutionised so quickly. The new wars being waged under the sea and in the air both came of age and on a handful of occasions these two arenas clashed. Unfortunately this led to tragedy in March 1918.

HMS D3 was commissioned on August 30th 1910 at a time when the infantile Submarine Corps was still considered something of a pirate branch of the Royal Navy being viewed in a similar fashion to how regular servicemen once viewed British privateers. The third of the D-class submarines, an improved version of the previous C-class, HMS D3 operated in northern waters for the bulk of the war helping to enforce the blockade against Germany and contain the Imperial German Navy. Her first taste of combat was anything but glorious however when the submarine fired on another submarine believing it to be a German vessel when in fact it was HMS E48. Fortunately the torpedoes missed but the incident would have ghostly echoes upon the story of HMS D3.

On March 7th 1918 the submarine set off for another war patrol of the English Channel under the command of Lieutenant William McKinstry Heriot-Maitland-Dougall of the Royal Canadian Navy. The situation at sea as well as on land had swung well in favour of the Allies although the German surface fleet remained alive it refusing to come out of port in force for the Royal Navy, now supported by the US Navy, to destroy it. This left the Imperial German Navy’s U-boat fleets to keep the fight alive and they had proven dramatically that they had the power to alter the course of the war first by demonstrating how vulnerable the Royal Navy was to submarines when three Cressey-class cruisers were sunk in a single engagement by just one submarine and then by sinking the liner Lusitania which effectively brought the United States in to the war on the side of Britain and France. U-boats therefore became high priority targets for the anti-submarine forces of the Allies.

The crew of HMS D3 (histomar.net)

The crew of HMS D3 (histomar.net)

After being escorted to the patrol area by a British destroyer so as to allow the submarine to pass through British defences without being mistaken for a German vessel the destroyer turned back for the Isle of Wight leaving D3 to begin hunting for German vessels. A World War One submariner’s life was a tough one even more so than later in the Second World War. Their vessels themselves were just as likely to kill them as the enemy and so just volunteering for the Submarine Corps was an act of courage alone. Even when everything was running smoothly as far as the submarine was concerned life was cramped, uncomfortable and lacking in privacy as the crew almost literally lived on top of one another. Officers and crew transferring from big ships were often amazed at how lax the discipline on submarines were in comparison for there just wasn’t the room for the usual pompous nature of life in the Royal Navy but this in turn bred new types of crew. Submarine crews were tighter teams and the feeling of brotherhood amongst those who served in the underwater branch of the Royal Navy was unparalleled so losses, and there were many, were felt throughout the force.

On March 12th 1918 HMS D3 was just two days from being relieved of her duties by another submarine when at shortly after 1400hrs the lookouts on the coning tower spotted an object above the horizon to the south-west of their position. They quickly identified it as an airship and reasoned that it must be an allied aircraft given that by this point in the war German airships seldom ventured beyond the Western Front in France. The officer of the watch saw the airship turning towards them and having identified French roundels on the aircraft ordered that recognition rockets be readied to signal that they were a friendly vessel. A series of signal rockets were set up aft of the coning tower and the order was given for them to be fired. The brightly lit rockets shot upwards and in the wind arched over in the direction of the airship passing ahead of it as it droned forward towards the submarine.

In just a few seconds all hell broke loose on the deck of the submarine as bullets raked the hull from a machine gun mounted on the French airship. It was immediately obvious that the French had mistook the signal for an attack and were retaliating. Knowing the airship had bombs onboard Lieutenant Heriot-Maitland-Dougall gave the order to dive and the crew tried desperately to clamber inside their vessel as the airship droned closer, its machine gun still spewing bullets at the exposed crewmembers. As the submarine disappeared beneath the waves the airship was almost overhead and dropped two of its four light bombs which fell around 20m from the submarine.

The airship then made a second attack and dropped four bombs around the last known position of HMS D3. One by one the bombs exploded sending huge plumes of spray up in to the air before suddenly the coning tower broke the surface again. Heavily damaged from the French attack the crew made an effort to abandon their vessel but only four crewmembers made it off before the submarine disappeared below the surface for one last time.

The French airship cut its engines and began to descend in an effort to rescue the men and take them “prisoner”. Without the noise of their engines they heard the men speak as one of them shouted in English, “You’ve got us!” It was only then the French realised their mistake and made frantic efforts to organise a rescue for their Allies but it was all in vain. The French were unable to radio for assistance nor offer assistance themselves and by the time a vessel did reach the area the survivors had joined their comrades in the watery grave of HMS D3.

Naturally an investigation was launched and the commander of the French airship designated AT-0, Lieutenant Saint-Remy, was initially blamed by the British for the loss. However the investigation revealed that there was a certain degree of blame for both sides to accept. Attention was brought on the signal rockets fired by D3 which Saint-Remy took for an attack. It seems that the rockets were somehow rendered ineffective for the purposes of identification either because of atmospheric reasons such as haze or that the French crew, busy flying their airship, failed to properly identify them before they passed nearby leading them to the conclusion that they were under attack.

The investigation placed some blame on the British crew also. Signal rockets were common practice for the Royal Navy but the French Navy operated on the tactic of using smoke markers on the rear of their ships to identify them to Allied aircraft. The French argued that had the British crew done this instead of firing rockets then the attack would never have happened. But even they conceded that both sides should have been aware of their opposite number’s methods of identification. In the end Lieutenant Saint-Remy and his crew were exonerated of blame.

29 men died when HMS D3 sank in an example of what is now termed as friendly fire. The vessel has the somewhat sad distinction of being the only submarine to have been successfully engaged and sunk by a French aircraft in World War One.