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Our First Fighting Submariners: Navy, Part 10



Submarine H-8 in drydock in Montreal, June 1917.

One of the most remarkable, and best documented, Canadian naval stories of World War I is that of its small band of intrepid submariners. Only a handful of men, they provided the home war establishment with its most lethal weapon, and a very elite cadre saw extensive active service overseas in British submarines, setting a number of memorable firsts in the process. Their exploits, fully recounted in Dave Perkins’s wonderful book, Canada’s Submariners 1914-1923 (1989), also reveal how incredibly dangerous submarine service was in those early days, especially under wartime conditions.

As recounted in a previous column, the very existence of a Canadian submarine service in 1914 was a fortuitous accident, and that tiny service provided some of the key personnel needed to get the Montreal-built H-class submarines to Britain in early 1915. With the latter went Lieutenant B.L. Johnson, Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve, in command of H-8 and Sub-Lieutenant W.K. Maitland-Dougall, Royal Canadian Navy, as third officer of H-10. Five other RCN sub-lieutenants followed these pioneers into the British submarine service before 1918, but only Johnson and Maitland-Dougall held command at sea during the war. Theirs is a remarkable story.

Immediately upon arrival in the UK in mid-1915 the H-boats went into refit while the British figured out what to do with the two Canadian officers. Maitland-Dougall, barely 20 years old but a professional naval officer, went to the Submarine Officer Training Course as expected. Once formally qualified, he returned to H-10 as third officer. Johnson presented the British with a different problem: he was older, a reservist, and had no formal naval training. The staff of Commodore (Submarines) recommended assignment to a training submarine to fully qualify for command. Johnson refused. After all, he had commanded his own ship for 12 years before joining the navy, and had already successfully commanded a submarine. If he now had to ‘re-qualify’ for sub command Johnson preferred to go into general service. Fortunately, Commodore (S) agreed, and Johnson was confirmed in command of H-8 as a Royal Navy Reservist (RNR), the first reservist ever to command a British submarine, and the only volunteer reservist to do so until 1943, when another Canadian got a command.

In the late summer of 1915, Johnson’s H-8, and H-10 with Maitland-Dougall as third officer, were assigned to the Harwich Flotilla in the lower end of the North Sea. They patrolled off the German ports, and guarded British-laid minefields in German waters. Maitland-Dougall’s first war patrol was to the Frisian Islands in December to protect such a minefield from German sweepers, while Johnson’s wartime career—and life—nearly ended a month later while on patrol in the Ems estuary. During the latter patrol, the weather turned vile and another sub, H-6, ran aground on the Dutch side and the crew was interned. The rest of the patrol got back to port but H-8 was posted as missing, as Johnson and his intrepid submariners fought their way home through a winter gale.

H-8 was back off the Frisian Islands again in late March 1916, when Johnson had perhaps his closest brush with death. A day after coming under fire from an enemy minesweeper, H-8 was suddenly driven down by what appeared to be the shock of collision. The submarine’s bow struck bottom at 100 feet, and there it remained. Johnson’s first attempt to pull the sub off by going full astern on his electric motors failed when the circuits blew under the strain. H-8’s artificers had to tear the middle part of the sub apart to make the repairs. When Johnson ordered the electrical motors to full power, once again the circuits held. H-8 rose to the surface and Johnson was able to inspect the damage. He found much of the forward casing of the sub smashed, the ends of the torpedo tubes gone and the warheads lost, and several of the forward ballast tanks flooded. The gyro compass was also out of order and the magnetic compass misaligned. Johnson remembered the wind direction from before the incident and fashioned a new compass card to allow them to use the faulty magnetic compass. With that and a few other hasty improvisations H-8 set off for Harwich, 160 miles to the west. They arrived without incident, right on their landfall, the next morning. As Perkins recounted, “Even German propaganda later admitted that they were both very brave and very fortunate to have attempted, and successfully pulled off, such a fine feat of seamanship.” Investigation concluded that H-8 had detonated a British-moored mine, but that only one-tenth of the charge had exploded. Had the full mine gone off, it would have been the end of H-8 and her crew. Johnson, exonerated and commended for his action, was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander and sent on leave.

When Johnson returned to duty in May 1916, he was given command of D-3, a fairly modern British-built submarine, with Maitland-Dougall as his first lieutenant. The two Canadians were to serve together in D-3 for the next year. By this stage they had been joined in the British submarine service by two of Maitland-Dougall’s classmates from the Royal Naval College of Canada, J.M Lawson and Ronald Watson; now they were four.

D-3 was assigned to the North Sea as well, to the 8th Flotilla based at Harwich. The first patrol with Johnson in command was to Dogger Bank, in the south central area of the sea, in early June. During that patrol most of the crew became seriously ill from arsenic gas rising from the antimonial lead in the batteries. Johnson was particularly affected by arsenic poisoning, and found it difficult to stay awake during the enquiry that followed; the younger Maitland-Dougall and other crewmen were less seriously affected. But the whole crew was sent on convalescent leave while D-3 had her batteries replaced.

When they returned to duty, now with the 3rd Flotilla based in the Humber River, Johnson, Maitland-Dougall and D-3 spent most of their time on coastal patrols and training duty. It was not until February 1917 that D-3 returned to operational patrol on the Dogger Bank, a nasty place to be during winter gales, with steep seas piling up over the shallow bottom. On the second such patrol D-3 was nearly lost when her diesel engines drew seawater through their exhaust ports, making them unusable. Without them D-3 could not get home; even the batteries could not be recharged. There was no alternative other than to disassemble the diesels and rebuild them. The process took days, as the engineers tore apart the engines, laying out parts the length of the sub, cleaning out the salt water and then putting it all back together. The fact that they would be driven to such lengths and be able to accomplish a complete engine refit at sea during a storm speaks volumes for the nature of these early submarine operations.

While Johnson was battling winter weather on Dogger Bank, the war at sea took a major turn when Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare on the Allies in February 1917. Losses rose very quickly. Within a month, D-3 and her flotilla were reassigned to Ireland for anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic. This proved to be no less dangerous work; Allied surface and air forces were inclined to treat all submarines as enemies, and Johnson and Maitland-Dougall were now in the thick of it.

In March and early April 1917 these Irish-based submarines operated with ‘Q-Ships’, heavily armed vessels that were disguised to appear as vulnerable merchant ships, as bait. The Q-Ship was to lure the unsuspecting U-boat into a surface approach and into the sights of a waiting, submerged hunter. It was not a very successful tactic, and the Germans soon learned to fire first—with torpedoes —and ask questions later. Such was the case with Q-27, when she met U-61 in mid-March off Galway Bay; D-3 picked up some of the survivors eight days later.

Johnson had his best chance for success in this anti-submarine war in late April, in the approaches to the North Channel. On the 21st he sighted the iron-hull barque Arethusa standing-in for a Scottish port, and decided to shadow her to see if any U-boats turned up. Soon UC66, a minelayer trolling for other targets, came along. By the time Johnson got D-3 into a firing position, the U-boat was actually lying alongside the barque and he had to delay his attack until she pushed off for fear of hitting Arethusa. Once assured of a clean shot, Johnson fired two torpedoes—the first ever fired in anger by a Canadian submarine commander—at UC66. With the torpedoes away Johnson ordered a slight increase in depth, which was misunderstood by his crew. D-3 plunged to more than 100 feet before he regained control and worked his way back up to periscope depth. In the meantime, a very satisfying explosion was noted at exactly the right time for the torpedo run from D-3 to UC66. Johnson assumed he had struck the U-boat and was surprised, therefore, when upon surfacing on the other side of the barque he spotted another submarine; it seemed that two had been attacking the ship. He fired D-3’s stern tube at that U-boat, but it got away. Meanwhile, Arethusa sank and her crew, in their boats, headed for shore. It was later that Johnson learned that the satisfying explosion was the scuttling charge going off in Arethusa, and the second U-boat was none other than UC66.

Johnson was equally unlucky during his second attack on a submarine, but the consequences were better. In May he fired two torpedoes at an unknown sub in his patrol area. Flotilla commanders had failed to co-ordinate deployments and the target was actually E-48, which had been assigned the same area. Fortunately, E-48’s watch spotted the torpedoes and the submarine took successful evasive action; one passed just 10 yards ahead, one 20 yards behind. It was good shooting, but also a lucky break for Johnson and the crew of E-48.

The extensive use of submarines in an anti-submarine role soon led to a request by the Admiralty that the Canadian submarine fleet—CC.1 and CC.2—be deployed to the Mediterranean for operations. This was no simple task, since these tiny submarines were nearly half a world away. Nonetheless, Ottawa agreed and with Lieutenant-Commander Bertram Jones in overall command aboard HMCS Shearwater, now the RCN’s submarine tender, the two submarines left Esquimalt harbour June 21, 1917, for Halifax en route to the war in Europe. By the end of July they had reached Balboa, at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. Their passage through that system was the first by any British warship. They did not complete their epic 7,300 mile transit to Halifax until Oct. 14, and by then they were simply too beaten to go any further. As a result, CC.1 and CC.2 were assigned to harbour defence, and then refit in early 1918. Unfortunately, they were both in dockyard hands when the large U-boats arrived in Canadian waters in the summer of 1918. Otherwise, they, like their counterparts in Britain, would have been used for anti-submarine patrols, and they would have been the only real threat to the U-cruisers that the RCN could have mounted.

When D-3 went into refit in June 1917 Maitland-Dougall was reassigned to command D-1, the first professional RCN officer to command a British warship. D-1 was used primarily for trials and training, but it confirmed Maitland-Dougall’s fitness to command, and he took over D-3 from Johnson in late November when the senior Canadian submariner took command of E-54. That same month Johnson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his “gallantry aboard H-8” during the mining incident of March 1916. Johnson commanded E-54 without notable incident until he was relieved in May 1918 due to illness. It was Maitland-Dougall, the young professional naval officer, who would achieve tragic notoriety in 1918 and become the first Canadian submariner to die on active duty.

D-3 did one Atlantic patrol under Maitland-Dougall before being transferred to the English Channel for anti-submarine service. This was, perhaps, the most dangerous place of all to be in a submarine—for either friend or foe. The whole area was heavily patrolled by Allied naval and air forces, and elaborate recognition procedures were in place to prevent friendly submarines from being sunk on sight. As complicated as this was, the presence of French patrols compounded the problem, and submariners had to get things right or suffer the consequences. It did not take Maitland-Dougall long to find out. In February 1918 he failed to follow proper recognition procedure when he saw several Allied destroyers and simply submerged. D-3 was immediately attacked by HMS Achates using their new, and very powerful, depth charges. When D-3 eventually surfaced and made contact with Achates, Maitland-Dougall was warned of the presence of a U-boat nearby and had to admit that the sub was his own. A reprimand from the Admiralty followed.

Unfortunately, the ultimate sanction followed Maitland-Dougall’s failure to exchange proper recognition signals with a French airship on March 12, halfway between Brighton and Le Havre. Maitland-Dougall had never encountered a French air patrol before, and the mis-communication resulted in an immediate attack by the lumbering dirigible. Machine-gun fire laced the conning tower of D-3 as Maitland-Dougall took the sub down, and a series of six 52-kilogram bombs were dropped. By the time the airship regained control of itself (from the sudden loss of ballast) and returned to the site, four men were found in the water. The French were able to descend close enough to the surface and turn off their engines long enough to actually speak to the survivors, but the dirigible was now too light to get low enough to rescue the men. Subsequent searches were unable to locate them. D-3 perished with her whole crew, earning the dubious distinction of being the only British submarine sunk during the war by aerial bombs.

With Maitland-Dougall lost, the final stage of the Canadian submarine war in Europe was carried on by four young RCN officers: R.C. Watson, who assumed command of V-3 in October 1918, W.J.R. Beech the first lieutenant of L-8, R.W. Wood the first lieutenant of E-38, and J.G. Edwards the first lieutenant of E-55 (R.F. Lawson returned to general service in late 1917 after serving as first lieutenant of H-10 for a year). These men, and several others, served in British submarines for some time after the war.

As things turned out, Johnson was also on his way back into the fray by the time the Armistice was signed. The Admiralty persuaded him to bring the last group of H-boats to Britain in late 1918. As Senior Officer, H-Boats USA and in command of H-15, Johnson arrived in Bermuda on Nov. 12. When he finally returned to Vancouver in June 1919 Johnson was, as Perkins concluded, “relegated to the doghouse” by both family and the Pilotage Service, each convinced he had been swinging the lead in England since the war ended. Perhaps. But he was also the only Canadian to survive the entire period of the war in submarine service, itself an astonishing story of determination, skill and pure blind luck.


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