This story records what was probably the most frightening two minutes of my life.
It was a 0400 hrs on a Thursday morning in early April 1964. The day arrived just like a hundred other mornings aboard a British submarine at sea. Roughly roused from the tranquility of sleep it was my turn to go on watch. My name is Fred Rodgers, but aboard Alcide I go by the nickname Ben. Just about everyone in the navy has a nickname. For example, with the surname Reynolds you’d be known as Debbie. Please don’t ask, I have no idea how I came by the name Ben. I’m a Leading Seaman having served for a little over five years in the Submarine Service. I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland and joined the Royal Navy in 1955.
Reluctantly climbing out of my warm bunk I slowly lower my feet on to the deck. At sea we never change clothes or undress so I’m ready to go on watch. Before heading for the control room I pay a visit to the head. The boat is running normal and quiet as I take up my duty in the control room. The watch change continues with bleary-eyed submariners dragging themselves to their various duties.
The Royal Navy “A” class submarine was cruising at four knots one hundred feet below the surface of the North Atlantic. Our job was to patrol in a designated zone listening for intruders, the polite name for Russian’s. The cold war was in full swing. I was sitting at the fore plane’s control dreading the four long hours ahead. The stale damp air in the boat was a familiar mixture of body odor and diesel fumes. The harsh white overhead lights hurt my still sleepy eyes.
At approximately 0430hrs the morning kye (hot chocolate) arrived. The officer of the watch gave permission for one all round. One all round was the signal to light up; smoking out of necessity was a restricted privilege aboard a submarine. The watch was relaxed with the boat in the hands of George the autopilot. George was designed to control course, speed and depth. Nevertheless, we were vigilant as George could be notoriously unreliable at times.
While keeping a keen eye on the depth I helped solve the world’s major problems with my fellow watch-keepers. After much debate we selected the best car of the year. We touched on the problems of religion, politics and anything else that came to mind. Around 0730hrs a wonderful aroma of bacon frying in the galley invaded my nostrils. I was hungry and anxious to see my relief. At a few minutes after 0800hrs I headed aft to collect my breakfast. The tiny galley on an “A” class boat is located in the after part of the control room beside the engine room door. Weary from four hours on watch I leaned against the bulkhead watching eggs sizzle on the grill. As the chef piled two eggs and several rashers of bacon on my plate I sensed the deck angle change downward. I smiled as I listened to the officer of the watch berating the plainsman who had just relieved me. “Come on lad wake up and watch your depth”. I knew he couldn’t blame George. It had been shut down at the watch change.
Suddenly it was clear the downward angle was not the fault of the planesman – we appeared to be in a steep dive!
In a matter of seconds we were at 200 feet. The 1st Lieutenant rushed into the control room, immediately taking charge of what was rapidly becoming a serious situation. The order to shut off for going deep sounded throughout the submarine. The captain’s cabin is located above the control room outside the main pressure hull. Our skipper was asleep in the cabin. Going deep meant the lower conning tower hatch along with every other hatch inside the boat was quickly shut. This effectively left the captain isolated and alone outside the main pressure hull. I assisted in shutting the engine room door and all valves passing through the bulkhead. I returned to the control room to report that part of ship sealed.
Events now seemed to evolve in slow motion as the crew went about their duties sealing the boat for the deep dive. Every eye in the control room focused on the rapidly descending depth gauge readings. Passing 400 feet the 1st Lieutenant ordered the one thing we were waiting for, “blow main ballast”. This would surely correct the uncontrolled descent and allow us to regain buoyancy. The sound of air screeching into the ballast tanks was reassuring as we waited for the boat to level off and start rising. I stood breathless and motionless unable to take my eyes off the depth gauge.
I wasn’t alone. It seemed every man in the control room was frozen in time eyes firmly fixed on the same gauge. When the blow was completed an eerie and utter silence returned to the boat.
We were still sinking. Blowing the tanks had not even slowed us down. The sea bottom perhaps two miles below we would never reach in one piece. As we passed through 600 feet the 1st lieutenant threw his shirt over the depth gauge. It effectively broke our trance like concentration.
Now in the silence, we heard the first groans and creaks as the hull compressed under the enormous sea pressure. The feeling of being trapped in a steel tube as it plunges toward its crush depth is terrifying. Powerless to do anything, I stood fearfully awaiting the end. I wondered would people know what happened to us or if we would be thought of as dying bravely. I thought of never seeing a blue sky or green grass again and other strange thoughts. I ask myself the silly question of why I’d volunteered for the submarine service. I remembered the lessons we were taught during training. An “A” boat has a maximum depth of 500 feet. The hull was designed and thought to withstand sea pressure to 1000 feet. That theory wasn’t very reassuring at that moment, and the builders weren’t here to actually attest to its accuracy. Besides which, Alcide was more than twenty years old, the pressure hull would have certainly deteriorated during that time.
I was gripped by a fear never before experienced, while outwardly I tried to maintain an appearance of calm. As we continued our descent a strange feeling of calm did indeed over take me. I relaxed realizing I was no longer in control of events unfolding around me. Through the fog of these thoughts and theories, I became aware my right hand was hurting. I had a death grip on a stanchion but couldn’t let go thinking I might be adding strength to the hull.
Suddenly a voice pierced my silent reverie. “Bubble rising sir” I wasn’t at first sure I’d heard correctly. Maybe I was dreaming and this was naturally what I’d want to hear. However, shifting my weight to allow for a sudden upward sweep of the deck, I knew we were rising! The boat was now racing toward the surface at about the same speed we had dived moments before. Clearly no one wanted to slow our ascent even though sonar could not safely report surface contacts at this speed.
When we broke surface a relieved skipper was the first man on the bridge. Trapped alone in his tiny cabin not knowing what was happening must have been a frightening ordeal. The entire experience had only taken minutes. Yet for those of us in the control room minutes had seemed like hours. The first question everyone asked. “What happened?” “What caused the sudden dive?” I wasn’t so concerned with the cause, just happy to be alive and back on the surface. Still hungry, my thoughts quickly returned to my breakfast.
On reaching the seaman’s mess I found it alive with chatter about the recent event. I think it was mostly bravado hiding fear. Shipmates eagerly related tales of worse experiences (supposedly) on other boats. “On such and such we hit the sea bed at 800 feet!” “Oh yeah! On my last boat we sank stern first and were stuck on the sea bed for hours!” And so the stories went on. Personally it was the most terrifying experience of my life. I truly believe I’d walked through the valley of the shadow of death that morning and only by the grace of God had survived.
But what really happened? What caused the steep dive? How deep did we actually go? These are questions I can’t answer with any certainty. The best theory offered and perhaps the actual cause was an iceberg. Icebergs are generally made up of fresh water and as they move into the Gulf Stream they melt.
That morning it is possible the submarine entered at the top of a huge pocket of fresh water, the remains of an iceberg. With the difference in water density between salt and fresh we immediately became very heavy and dropped like a stone. Only when we exited at the bottom of the berg did we regain our buoyancy.
How deep we went that morning is open to speculation. Perhaps somewhere near 800 feet. Had the berg been a few feet deeper maybe I wouldn’t be telling this story – who knows?