Friday, October 27, 2023

Submarine Disasters Through History

Since the first submarines were tested in the 1700's and 1800's there have been revolutions in design until we see the sleek and silent boats that patrol the world's oceans today. (Note - a submarine is always referred to as a boat, never a ship.) But while ever there have been these innovations, there have been accidents, mistakes and in many cases major disasters. So here are few notable submarine tragedies that have made headlines over the years, some are today household names, others are remembered only by a few historians. All are important to learn from and every one of them has sailors who will no longer go back to their families, on eternal patrol. 

HL Hunley - Designed by Horace Hunley, this cigar-shaped submarine was the first underwater contraption to successfully sink a surface ship during the American Civil War. USS Housatonic was laying at anchor off South Carolina on the night of 17 February 1864 when a the Hunley rammed her torpedo into the side of the ship and immediately reversed. As the sub retreated the explosives detonated and the Housatonic went down. Hunley and her eight crew were never seen again until her wreck was discovered by E. Lee Spence in the 1970's (not by Clive Cussler, as is often claimed). The wreck of Hunley was raised in 2000 and is now in a nearby museum, her eight crew were given a proper burial. What is less well known is that this was the third time Hunley had gone down, twice during previous trials saw her fail to surface leading to the deaths of 13 people. 

Affray - The Amphion-class submarine HMS Affray was launched in 1944 but commissioned too late to serve in the Second World War. She was refitted with a snorkel mast in 1949 and proceeded to sea as normal with no issues. On 16 April 1951 she set out to take part in a standard exercise and submerged carrying a total of 75 crew including a number of people brought to conduct special operations and training. On the next day Affray missed her usual status report and so a search began for the submarine. Not a trace of her was found until two months later when the Affray was found on the seabed off the island of Alderney. A recovery of the snort mast suggested that this contributed to her loss. Today there are twin memorials to the disaster in both Gosport (above) and Alderney. 

Thresher (right- One of the first American nuclear submarines and with the latest designs in weaponry and propulsion, the USS Thresher was taking part in trials with the submarine rescue ship USS Skylark in off the coast of Massachusetts on 10 April 1963 when suddenly all contact was lost with the submarine and her 129 crew. Despite a huge search operation, the wreck was eventually located on the seabed in thousands of small pieces. An investigation came to the conclusion that the Thresher must have exceeded her critical depth limit and imploded.

Dakar (below- Launched as the Royal Navy's HMS Totem, she was sold to the Israeli navy in 1965 and renamed INS Dakar. On 25 January 1968 she was at sea with a crew of 68 when she vanished on her way to her new home port, having never actually made it to her new owners. The wreck was discovered in 1999 but the cause of her loss remains a mystery. She was the first submarine in a number of major losses that made 1968 a terrible twelve months for submariners.

Minerve - The French diesel-electric submarine Minerve was launched in 1961 and had a successful career at sea over the coming years. She had sailed from Toulon on her final voyage and on 27 January 1968 submerged just 25 miles away from her base when she suddenly lost contact with everybody. The submarine and her crew of 52 would not be found until 2019 when the wreck was finally located by a search team over fifty years later. 

K-129 - The Golf II class Russian submarine K-129 vanished in the Pacific on 8 March 1968 and a search by their support vessels found no trace of the submarine or her crew of 98. Eventually the search was called off, but in the meantime American listening stations had not only picked up what they believed to be the submarine sinking, but they knew roughly where it was. In the August of that year a survey ship located the wreck and confirmed it's identity. A top secret operation was now launched and the offshore drill ship Hughes Glomar Explorer was built especially to recover the submarine. The mission was a partial success and the ship recovered a large portion of the sunken K-129, the story eventually being public knowledge in 1975. 

Scorpion - The American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion was observing Soviet naval activity in mid-Atlantic on 22 May 1968 when all contact was lost. With 99 crew on board, there have been many theories as to what happened to the boat, one book claiming a Russian torpedo attack sank her, others say that a catastrophic failure of the hull led to implosion. The wreck is very much like that of the Thresher, many pieces of the boat scattered over a wide area. Both Thresher and Scorpion were visited by ocean explorer Robert Ballard in the weeks before his successful search for the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. 

Kursk - One of the world's largest submarines, the Russian Oscar II class Kursk was launched in 1994 in the shadow of the fall of the Soviet Union, at over 500 feet in length and with a beam of 60 feet, she had two nuclear reactors and was a formidable enemy for those who would ever choose to pick a fight with the Russian navy. But this submarine met disaster on 12 August 2000 when, in the middle of a huge exercise in the Barents Sea, a torpedo explosion ripped the submarine's bow open and she plunged to the seabed. It took two days to reveal the disaster to the world, by then all 118 crew were dead. The wreck of the Kursk was raised a year later and scrapped, the Russian military being blamed for using out-of-date and dangerous torpedoes.

Titan - In one of the most headline-hitting sub-surface incidents in recent years, the commercial submersible Titan was built by OceanGate, a company that carried out exploration of the deep ocean using home-made submersibles and unfortunately cutting corners with costs and safety. The company offered paid trips to the wreck of the Titanic where a "mission specialist" would pay $250,000 to join the expedition. On 18 June 2023 the Titan was launched with five people on board, one of them the CEO of OceanGate, for a dive to the wreck with the French pilot and three "Mission Specialists." The sub failed to return to the surface and a huge rescue operation was launched. Four days later wreckage on the seabed confirmed that Titan had imploded and there were no survivors. 

Today there are many memorials to the lost submarines of the world. During the two world wars around 1000 submarines went down, within the last few years alone a number of them have sunk belonging to Argentina, Russia and Indonesia, their crews forever entombed in their steel coffins. A memorial in London on the side of the River Thames commemorates the lost Royal Navy submariners (below), another in Kiel lists every member of crew lost on every U-boat. While submarine disasters these days are rare, they are still a possibility, as is shown with the recent loss of the Titan. All we can do is send our thoughts to those who have lost loved ones and hope that lessons will be learned. 

Friday, July 28, 2023

Mark Terrell – Royal Navy Diver and a Man of Many Talents

In 1997 I was front page of my local newspaper, the Bridlington Free Press, talking about the wreck of the Bonhomme Richard off the East Yorkshire coast, asking for anybody who could help to get in touch. Several people did, including a man named Mark Terrell, who invited me round to his flat in Park Avenue for a tea and a chat.

My friend and I greeted him and sat down in his living area while he talked about the seabed off the coast and the compilation of sediment, rocks and sand. It turned out that he was a diver years ago and quite an innovator, but first he would make us tea. “It’s Smokey Tea,” he said to us. “You might have to pick the bits out with your teeth.”

We did not have a clue what he was going on about until we saw what he gave us, no idea what it was to this day but indeed there were bits floating around like small planks of wood. Mark found our faces hilarious as we took a sip and politely put it down, him still laughing of course.

Mark became a friend over time and I went to see him a few times over the years and he told me how easy it was to make my own diving kit and regulator (as a 17/18 year old there was no way I could attempt that!) and then told me how he had written a paper on the brain. This guy was super-intelligent and, it turned out, ex Royal Navy, although he did not tell me just what he did in the Navy during his career.

Born on 15th August 1925, Mark Terrell started his life in London during the inter-war years, joining the Royal Navy as an officer in 1939, taking up his training at Dartmouth that year and specialising in underwater aspects which included diving and submarines. One of his jobs that made the papers was that of the French trawler Vert Prairial which had grounded on 14th March 1952 off the Cornish coast, a team of Royal Navy divers being sent to the wreck to attempt to recover the missing eight bodies from the crew of 17 who had been all lost. After a thorough search in dangerous conditions, the wreck was empty.

Several years after this Mark and his diving buddies were in the papers again when, in the murky waters of West India Dock in London a live 1600lb Second World War German mine had been discovered. A team of divers was assembled on 26th January 1957 consisting of Commander Gordon Gutteridge and Lieutenant-Commander Mark Terrell along with a number of others who were now being kitted up to deal with this unexploded ordnance problem. The mission to dispose of the mine went on for eight hours in the cold winter gloom, 26 feet down in the Thames, but at long last it was mission accomplished. For this Mark was awarded the MBE.

That year, at the age of 31, Mark left the Navy after 18 years’ service and started a company named Underseas Ltd with a few others, a career that he carried on with for seven years before he left to be an independent marine consultant where he was able to pursue his true love which was science and writing. During this time he went on to develop a number of devices that were tested and used in the diving industry, penning his book The Principles of Diving in 1965. Staying with the theme of underwater exploration, he appeared on a BBC documentary around the time of the mine incident talking about the Loch Ness Monster in “Legends of the Loch,” diving into the calm waters of the Scottish lake searching for Nessie (although he did not actually believe it existed), looking at whatever was down there although finding nothing of interest.

His work on researching the human brain went in a new direction in 1988 when he became involved in a group of students whereby new models were developed and innovative research opened new avenues of study, this eventually taking over 20 years of work where he wrote a privately published book The Resonant Triad.

His travels with the Royal Navy did not end with his discharge, the 1980s saw him moving to a Greek island where he spent many days in the sun before heading to the East Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington where he settled down in what became his favourite place. It is here where I spent many hours chatting to Mark and getting to know him, a kind and gentle figure who spoke with a low voice and was always welcoming. I helped him move to another apartment in the summer of 2006 where he accidentally fell over his own things, at first I was worried but he laughed it off as he had a soft landing on a mountain of paperwork. I said goodbye to him and that was the last time I saw him.

Mark later went on to have a bad fall which, combined with a progressive illness, led to him being in the Meadows Care Home in Northamptonshire. While he did continue to keep fit as much as he could and still keep an active mind, he eventually passed away on 18th January 2011 at the age of 85. His body was donated to London Medical School as per his last wishes.

(Many thanks to his daughter Katherine for helping me with the information on his early life and naval career).

Friday, May 26, 2023

Southampton Airport Crash - Miracle on the M27

On 26th May 1993 an aircraft was inbound to Southampton (Eastleigh) Airport awaiting permission to land after a short flight from Oxford, so early that the airport had not even opened when the plane took off. The 12 year old Cessna 550 Citation II executive jet had seating for 9 people but today carried no passengers, just the pilot and co-pilot making the regular scheduled commute between the two airports. 

Following a rainy night, the runway was now wet and carried a large amount of water. Eight passengers were due to board the aircraft for a short flight to Eindhoven and on this morning the airport was actually unaware of their arrival otherwise they would have had to prepare for a very early arrival before the airport officially opened at 0700. 

Chris Rundle was the Air Traffic Controller at Southampton Airport that morning. Carrying out pre-opening checks while the second ATC was getting ready to carry out his airfield inspection in heavy rain, down below the Fire Crew were carrying out their early morning inspections ready for the airport opening. Three years previously he had been involved in an incident that had made headlines when a pilot of a British Airways jet had been sucked out of the cockpit window, Chris being the one to talk the aircraft to a safe landing where they found that miraculously the pilot, Captain Tim Lancaster, had survived the ordeal. But today was his last shift for a couple of weeks as he was getting married at the end of the week so he was looking forward to the wedding and some time off.

Suddenly a call came through from the private jet asking for permission to land early, claiming it had permission from the Operations Department to land before they opened, Chris advised him that the airport was closed and that the weather was terrible, but the pilot insisted on landing on Runway 22. At this point he could not give them permission because firstly the airport was not open which made them unlicenced an secondly it was not safe to do so. He said that he was attempting to land on a very wet runway with a  15 knot tailwind, the pilot acknowledged and made his approach.

The heavy thunderstorm was making visibility difficult, but the wheels touched down on the runway, the aircraft was now suddenly out of control and refusing to stop. The end of the runway was getting closer and the pilots frantically tried to reduce speed but nothing could be done.

The nose of the Cessna 500 smashed through the barriers and plunged down an embankment and onto the M27, spinning 180 degrees and finally coming to a stop in the central barrier, crashing into two vehicles along the way. The aircraft began leaking fuel onto the motorway and to the horror of those who could see it, the plane then burst into flames.

Chris Rundle looked on in horror from his position in the tower. “As the aircraft landed it was obvious that it was going too fast and was apparently aquaplaning so as it went off the end of the runway I sounded the crash alarm and luckily the Fire Crew responded immediately, one vehicle heading for the end of the runway, the other heading for the motorway slip road to get to the aircraft where they found that the crew had evacuated the aircraft and commenced firefighting long before the Eastleigh Crew arrived.”

Incredibly there were no deaths. The two pilots managed to get out and the emergency services were on scene to deal with the crash. Like a well-oiled machine, the motorway lanes were closed, traffic diverted and wreckage removed. The official Air Accidents Investigation Branch report a year later announced that the cause of the crash was blamed on the pilot landing with a tail wind that was outside the limits of what should be attempted.

In 2021 this incident appeared in my book Britain’s Lost Tragedies Uncovered where images of the plane crash taken by passing motorist Martin Cole and an interview with police officer Adrian Walder built up this story and showed that this was one disaster that could have been so much worse if it had been later on in the morning or if the motorway had been crowded with traffic. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

The Fires of Bridlington

Bridlington Fire Station today
Fires devastate communities, destroy buildings and cost countless lives all year round. Even a small town like Bridlington has been no exception and over the years has had a number of major incidents that have led to several buildings being destroyed forever, with a modern day tragedy that left the town in shock. 

1660 - Reports of a fire at a Bakers in High Street. The first fire engine would not be introduced into the town for another hundred years. 

20 October 1906 - Bridlington Spa had only opened in 1896 before fire consumed the building. The elegant glass dome was one of only a small amount of the building that survived, but with the dedication of the builders the New Spa Theatre was opened less than a year later. 

25 August 1923 - The popular venue for drinking, dancing and music caught fire one Saturday when hundreds of tourists were in the area, many of whom descended in the vicinity for a closer look. Situated at the top of The Promenade, Floral Hall was gutted and had to be demolished, never to be rebuilt. 

29 January 1932 - Bridlington Spa once again became the focus of a fire fight as another blaze threatened to destroy the theatre, but luckily the damage was not as bad and it was re-opened just months later (pictured above in 1911 postcard).

Royal Victoria Rooms on fire
22 September 1933 - The Royal Victoria Rooms was the former Town Hall but also had multiple uses as an entertainment venue (cinema), several bars, meeting halls and a number of homes attached. On the night of the fire 19 year old Kathleen Hackett woke up to find the building ablaze and ran across the roof top to awaken her neighbour, her actions eventually saw all 10 people leave the building and no lives lost. The local police helped the businesses by dragging jewellery and bar items into the street away from the fire, thus saving livelihoods in the process. In 2017 Kathleen's grand-daughter and the Town Mayor unveiled a plaque dedicated to her bravery at the site of the Rooms. 

World War II - A number of air raids led to fires and collapsed buildings across the town, 27 people were killed and dozens more injured. The rescue and recovery efforts led to the first ever George Cross (Thomas Alderson) and a George Medal (Ernest Barker) being awarded. 

Pictured here is Prince Street in August 1940 after Woolworths and Foley's Cafe was hit by bombs leaving over a dozen trapped the the cellars. 

22 August 1995 - Fire takes hold of Emmanuel Church on Cardigan Road, over 70 fire fighters tackled the overnight blaze but the church was too far gone to save. The remains were cleared away and a new more modern building rose in its place, opening in December 1998.

11 November 2010 - In what is probably the most tragic incident to hit Bridlington in modern times, a cigarette started a blaze at a family home in Clarence Avenue. By the time emergency services had got to the house, three children were dead and their mother Samantha Hudson was in a critical condition. Two years later she became the fourth victim of the fire. Today they are buried together in Bridlington Cemetery. 

Fire can take hold any time, it gives no warning and takes no prisoners. It takes seconds to check your smoke alarm and could save your life and the life of your family. History has shown us that no buildings is immune, some of the most iconic places have been hit by fire - The Cutty Sark, Notre Dame Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Kings Cross Underground station and the Bradford City Football ground. 

Contact me at for more information on historic fires or to purchase copies of my book on the Royal Victoria Rooms. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Oil Tanker Disasters

Since oil was first shipped across the seas there have been  disasters that befell the ships that transported it, taking a thick, black liquid across a stormy patch of water would be bad enough, especially during the two World Wars when torpedoes would cause devastation to these ships, but it was the modern day that saw the worst environmental disasters as these ships were being built bigger, and the threat of losing one of these to the rocks became more frequent. 
Today there are fewer tanker disasters, regulations now say that any tanker must have a double bottom in order to at least give the cargo a chance to be recovered if a ship comes to grief. But it hasn't always been that way. 

1967, 18 March - The supertanker Torrey Canyon grounds on Seven Stones Reef off the Scilly Isles after the captain decides to take a short cut in a journey starting the month before in Kuwait. The ship soon breaks up but all 119,000 tons of oil was released into the sea creating Britain's worst oil spill. The government realised that the slick was heading for the southern coastline and so decisions were made to bomb the wreck and burn off as much oil as possible. The bombings were a success and the images of the flaming wreck of the Torrey Canyon made headlines around the world. 

1978, 16 March - After her rudder jammed off the coast of France, the crew of the VLCC (Very Large Crude Carrier) Amoco Cadiz now found themselves needing to shut the engines down in order to quickly get repairs underway. But the strong winds and heavy seas grounded the ship on the coast of Brittany. Attempts to save the ship were beaten back and the ship was smashed on the rocks, being pulled off and thrown back on again, in just over a week the wrecked ship had released her entire cargo of 220,000 metric tonnes onto the beaches. Dig deep enough today and the black sand still bears the scar of the disaster. 

1989, 24 March - The VLCC Exxon Valdez was making her way through Prince William Sound in Alaska when she grounded on rocks following her departure just moments before. 37,000 tonnes of her cargo of crude was spilled but thankfully the ship was saved, as was most of her cargo still remaining on board. This was the worst oil spill in US history until 2010 when it was overtaken by the explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. 

1992, 3rd December - The double-bottomed tanker Aegean Sea ran aground off the Spanish coast of
Galicia in bad weather. Normally the disaster would be bad enough with the spilling of the cargo, but before the day was over the ship had caught fire and a huge blaze lit up the coast for several days. 67,000 tons of oil was spilled but before the fire the salvage teams did manage to save 12,000 tons by pumping it out in time. The ship later broke up and her anchors are now a nearby monument. 

1993, 5th January - The Liberian registered Braer loses power in a storm and runs aground at Garths Ness in the Shetland Islands. For the next few days the ship slowly loses oil into the raging sea as salvage teams try to get the ship off the rocks. But in less than a week the ship breaks her back and spills the entire cargo of crude oil into the sea, devastating the coastline and causing the deaths of thousands of birds. Incredibly the stormy weather actually helps disperse the oil, but that which came ashore was bad enough. 

1996, 15th February - While heading to the Texaco berth in Milford Haven, the Sea Empress grounded after developing a steering issue. Although tugs managed to pull her off the rocks and steady the ship, thousands of tons of the 128,000 ton cargo of crude were already spilling into the sea. The next few days saw even more disaster as the ship was grounded again as bad weather prevented the ship from being moved, eventually the Sea Empress was towed into Milford Haven and the ship repaired. The pilot in charge of the ship was demoted after a two day inquiry found him guilty of incompetence. 73,000 tons of oil was leaked into the sea, becoming the third larges spill in Britain, the 12th largest in the world. 

1999, 12th December - The Erika was making her way through the Bay of Biscay when heavy weather caused the ship to break in two. The tanker sank and caused an oil spill over hundreds of miles of French coast. 

2000, 13 November - During a storm a tank on board the tanker Prestige burst off the Spanish coast releasing heavy fuel oil into the sea off Galicia. Despite efforts to contain the spill and save the ship, she sank on 19th November the little fuel oil remaining on board had to be pumped out of the wreck using deep sea ROV's at 4000 meters down. 

Thankfully today tanker disasters and major oil spills are not as common, new regulations, ship safety and clean-up operations have all been implemented to limit the damage should anything like this happen again. But accidents do happen and, as is clear with these few mentioned here, the weather plays a big part in causing these vessels to come to grief. Hopefully disasters on this scale are now a thing of the past. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Mass Murder on the ferry Prins Carl

Many people will have heard of the terrorist attack on the liner City of Poros in 1988 which left nine people dead, but who has heard of the murders that took place on 16th May 1900 on board the Swedish ferry Prins Carl? This was a case that shocked Sweden at the time and led to a brutal execution. 

25 year old criminal Johan Filip Nordlund had just been released from prison following his conviction for theft, something he did not stop at even after multiple sentences for the same type of crimes over and over again. But this time he was going to do something off the scale - so he boarded the Prins Carl in the port of Arboga, bound for the capital Stockholm. 

The steam driven Prins Carl was small vessel; built in 1874 she was 114 feet long and was able to carry out short trips across the inland rivers and lakes for overnight passages between ports. On this night however, the crossing would not be a calm one, as the ship sailed around 2000 hours and headed down river on its journey east. 

At around midnight Nordlund began shutting doors around the vessel, armed with a revolver in each hand, a knife and a dagger in his belt, he began shooting at anybody he came across. Pulling out the knife he then proceeded to attack the captain, Olof Ronngren and one of the female passengers and a young boy, one of the crew being shot in the shoulder in the meantime. In the smoking room a group of men playing cards heard the commotion and tried to get out, finding the door locked from the outside they tried breaking out, eventually being successful - but Nordlund simply gunned them all down as they fled for their lives. The killer ran down to the engine room after he shouted down for full speed ahead, this aroused suspicion as the ferry was already doing that, the engineer barricaded himself in the engine room and thankfully escaped being shot. 

In just a few minutes the Prins Carl was a scene of carnage. Dead and injured lay around the decks, chaos as he smashed the place up as he went around looking for more victims. His aim was to rob the passengers and make away with the ships cash - something that he actually failed to do. By now another steamer was getting close and looked like it was going to investigate, so rather than carry out his robbery instead he single handedly launched one of the ships lifeboats and rowed away from the scene. He had left a total of five dead and eight injured and had only managed to steal a total of SEK 845

Escaping from the Prins Carl, Nordlund got a change of clothes from somewhere and that morning made plans to flee the area. As he waiting on the platform of a train station he was arrested by police following a tip off from a member of the public after news went out with a description of the wanted man. He confessed that he was about to commit further carnage on the train. 

Johan Nordlund did not even try to justify his crimes, nor did he plead insanity or try and avoid the inevitable sentence. On 10th December 1900 he was executed with an axe and later buried. For the Prins Carl, she went to several different owners and photographs of her in 1934 show a burned out hulk of a vessel on t

he stocks under repair. She was sold in 1936 and renamed Lars Simson, before being scrapped in 1939. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Fire in Shirley Towers

In 2017 Britain was shocked by the images of the burning Grenfell Tower in London in which 72 people were killed, but the fires that have been taking over high rise apartments have been a problem for many years. One such fire occurred on 6th April 2010 in the 15 storey Shirley Towers in Southampton.

That evening a lamp set the nearby curtains on fire within Flat No 72 on the 9th floor and very soon a call was made to Hampshire Fire and Rescue at 2010 hours. In less than two minutes burning debris was falling from the window onto the ground below. Firefighters soon arrived on scene just four minutes after the call and rigged themselves up for an entry into the apartments to tackle the blaze, although there was instant confusion as to the layout of not only the flat but the entire building. Entering the flat it soon became apparent that the smoke was reducing visibility to almost zero.

In the meantime the temperatures inside where the firefighters were exceeded 1000 degrees Centigrade and at this point it was figured that the teams would have to withdraw. Four attempted to escape – two required hospital treatment for burns when they got back down, but two others were nowhere to be seen. James Shears and Alan Bannon had been overcome by intense heat and tangled up in a bunch of cables that had suddenly appeared from the ceiling when the fire had caused the trunking to melt.

Trapped in the burning flat, the two firefighters died at their post less than half an hour after the first call. The other teams work hard into the night to extinguish the raging inferno, with success by 2230 hours and now the casualties can be removed from the site.

The tragic deaths of two firefighters hit the service hard, they were popular and hardworking guys who were professional and experienced. To lose their life in a tower block fire was shocking especially when it was revealed that the block did not have sprinklers.

The legacy of the deaths of Shears and Bannon are that sprinklers were ordered to be fitted to several tower blocks and the wiring within these flats will now be encased in metal rather than plastic that can melt. For firefighting equipment, the anti-snagging strap allows things to fall onto the air bottle without hooking on and holding down the wearer.

But for Shirley Towers, the flat was later refurbished and today it looks like nothing had ever taken place. For the two firefighters who perished that night, their names are on the memorial outside Hampshire Fire and Rescue HQ, but the true legacy of these two people is that the memory of their bravery lives on.