Warship Wednesday: Oct. 2, 2019, HMs Unlucky Killer No. 13
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday: Oct. 2, 2019, HMs Unlucky Killer No. 13
Here we see the Royal Navy’s K-class steam-powered (not a misprint) submarine HMS K22, bottom, compared to a smaller and more typical example of HMs submarine fleet during World War I, the HMS E37. As you can tell, the two boats are very different and, by comparing specs of the 800-ton/2,000shp E27 with the 2630-ton/10,000shp K22, you can see just how different.
A brainchild that sprang from the pipe-dream by Jellicoe and Beatty of creating submarines fast enough to operate with the Grand Fleet, these massive 339-foot submarines were designed on the cusp of World War I and a full 21 were to be built. Whereas other subs around the world were gasoline-electric or diesel-electric, the K-class would be steam-electric with a pair of Yarrow oil-fired boilers (! on a submarine!) for use with turbines on the surface, giving them an impressive 24-knot speed.
When you keep in mind that the standard British battleship of the time, the brand new Queen Elizabeth-class “fast” battleships had a max speed of 24-knots, you understand the correlation.
The K-class would use their speed to their advantage and, with a heavy armament of eight torpedo tubes and three 3-4-inch deck guns, press their attacks with ease. For all this surface action, they had a proper bridge (with windows!) and even stacks for the boilers.
In short, they were really large destroyers that happened to be able to submerge. When using one boiler they could creep along at 10 knots for 12,500 nautical miles– enabling them to cross the Atlantic and back and still have oil left.
When submerged, they could poke around on electric motors. With all this in mind, what could go wrong?
Well, about that…
The K-class soon developed a bad habit of having accidents while underway. This was largely because for such gargantuan ships, they had small and ineffective surface controls, which, when coupled with a very low crush depth and buoyancy issues meant the ships would often hog and be poor to respond under control, along with having issues with dive angles like you can’t believe.
In short, they were all the bad things of a 300-foot long carnival funhouse, afloat.
Further, since the boilers had to be halted to dive (who wants burnt oil exhaust inside a sealed steel tube?) if these submersibles could dive in under five minutes it was due to a well-trained crew. Then, due to all the vents and stacks that had to seal, there were inevitable leaks and failures, which on occasion sent seawater cascading into the vessel once she slipped below the waves.
Of the 21 ordered, only 17 were eventually completed and these ships soon earned a reputation as the Kalamity-class because ships sank at their moorings, suffered uncontrolled descents to the bottom of the sea, ran aground, and disappeared without a trace. This led to improvements such as a large bulbous bow (note the difference in the bow form from early images of these subs to later), though it didn’t really help things all that much.
With all of this, we should double back around to the K22 mentioned above in the very first image. You see, she was completed as HMS K13 at Fairfield Shipbuilders, Glasgow, Scotland.
Launched 11 November 1916, K13 was sailing through Gareloch on 29 January 1917 during her sea trials when Kalimity raised its head.
On board that day were 80 souls– 53 crew, 14 employees of a Govan shipbuilder, five Admiralty officials, a pilot and the captain and engineer of sister submarine K14. While attempting to bring the decks awash, icy Scottish seawater poured into the engine room of the submarine, killing those stokers, enginemen and water tenders working the compartment. A subsequent investigation found that four ventilator tubes for the boilers had not closed properly.
Fifty men were left alive on the stricken ship, which by that time was powerless at the bottom of the loch. The two seniormost present, K13‘s skipper Lieutenant Commander Godfrey Herbert and his K14 counterpart, Commander Francis Goodhart, tasked themselves to make a suicidal break for the surface on a bubble of air released from the otherwise sealed off conning tower to get help– though only Herbert made it alive.
Once topside and picked up by another waiting submarine, Herbert helped pull off a what is noted by many as the first true Submarine Rescue which involved dropping airlines to the submarine while the 48 remaining men trapped inside endured a freezing, dark hell for 57 hours until they were able to be brought to the surface as the buoyant end of the submarine, pumped full of air pressure, broached the surface and a hole was cut to remove the survivors while the ship was held by a hawser.
The crew of E50 witnessing K13’s rapid dive closed in on the area discovering traces of oil and escaping air breaking the surface. The first rescue vessel arrived around midnight. Divers were sent down to inspect the submarine and just after daybreak on the 30th morse signals were exchanged between the divers and the trapped crew. At 1700 an airline was successfully connected, empty air bottles recharged and ballast tanks blown. With the aid of a hawser slung under her bows K13 was brought to within 8 feet of the surface. By midday of the 31st K13’s bow had been raised ten feet above the water. By 2100 the pressure hull had been breached using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment the survivors being transferred to safety
However, K13 slipped below the surface once more, taking her dead back to the bottom with her. Raised two months later, she was repaired, the bodies of 29 lost in her engine room removed as was the fallen skipper of K14 (while one body other was recovered from the loch, the remaining men were never found), and she was recommissioned as K22.
Seeing some war service with the 13th Submarine Flotilla (again with that number!) K13/22 was involved in a collision at night with sistership K14 in a chain reaction event that left two other sisters, K6 and K17, sunk. In all 105 of HMs submariners were killed in one night in 1918 aboard K-boats without a single German shot fired.
By this time, the “K” had changed from Kalamity to Killer and volunteers assigned to these boats called themselves the “Suicide Club.”
Soon after the war, the RN divested themselves of the K-class though they were still relatively new, scrapping most of them in the early 1920s.
K13/K22 survived until she was sold for scrap in December 1926 in Sunderland.
A third, erected in 1961, is in Carlingford, New South Wales, Australia, and was paid for by the widow of Charles Freestone, a leading telegraphist on K13 who survived the accident and emigrated down under.
The Submarines Association Australia (SAA) visits and pays their respect to the marker in Oz every January 29 while Sailors from HM Naval Base Clyde and the RN Veteran Submarine Association pay theirs at the markers in Scotland.
“Although technology has revolutionized submarine safety over the past century, the special bravery, ethos, and comradeship of Submariners and the Submarine Service endures,” said Command Warrant Officer of the UK Submarine Service Stefano Mannucci on the 99th Anniversary service in 2016
Last week, Veterans and serving submariners at Helensburgh unveiled a plinth to mark the sinking of the Submarine K13.
“The plinth was commissioned by the West of Scotland Branch of the Submariners Association and before it was unveiled, the Branch President, retired Commander Bob Seaward, OBE explained how the plinth represents a link connecting the town and its residents to the Naval Base and the submarines which have been sailing past the town for over 100 years,” noted the Royal Navy.
K13/22 is also remembered in maritime art.
As for her skipper on that cold January day a century ago, Capt. Godfrey Herbert, DSO with Bar, having served in the Royal Navy through both World Wars, died on dry land in Rhodesia at the ripe old age of 77.
Displacement: 1,980 tons surfaced, 2,566 tons dived
Length: 339 ft. (103 m)
Beam: 26 ft. 6 in (8.08 m)
Draught: 20 ft. 11 in (6.38 m)
Twin 10,500 shp (7,800 kW) oil-fired Yarrow boilers each powering a Brown-Curtis or Parsons geared steam turbines, Twin 3 blade 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m) screws
Four 1,440 hp (1,070 kW) electric motors.
One 800 hp (600 kW) Vickers diesel generator for charging batteries on the surface.
24 knots (44 km/h; 28 mph) surfaced
8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) submerged
Surface: 800 nautical miles (1,500 km; 920 mi) at maximum speed
12,500 nmi (23,200 km; 14,400 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)
Submerged: 8 nmi (15 km; 9.2 mi) at 8 kn (15 km/h; 9.2 mph)
Complement: 59 (6 officers and 53 ratings)
4 × 18-inch (460 mm) torpedo tubes (beam), four 18-inch (450-mm) bow tubes, plus 8 spare torpedoes
2 × BL 4-inch (101.6 mm) Mk XI guns
1 × 3 in (76 mm) gun
Twin 18-inch deck tubes originally fitted but later removed.
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