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British Submarine HMS Seal

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Over the centuries, navies around the world have observed a hallowed tradition: The commanding officer of a warship at sea should never surrender his ship to the enemy. In the U.S. Navy, this tradition dates back to the War of 1812 with Great Britain. In June 1813, Captain James Lawrence commanded USS Chesapeake during a single-ship duel with HMS Shannon off Boston Harbor. Mortally wounded during the battle, Lawrence was carried below, where he repeatedly urged his crew, 'Don't give up the ship.' Lawrence's immortal plea implies fighting to the last man or perhaps scuttling, but never surrendering. A flag bearing that admonition was flown by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry during his sweeping American victory over the British fleet on Lake Erie in September 1813, shortly after Lawrence's death. Today, that tattered flag is displayed in Memorial Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy, where its history and significance are impressed upon midshipmen.

But history also suggests that Lawrence's implied prohibition of surrender may not always apply. Sometimes the circumstances surrounding a battle may dictate a different course of action. The tale of the British submarine HMS Seal illustrates how the exigencies of battle can force a commander to make a difficult decision.

Seal was a double-hulled, minelaying submarine of the Porpoise class, built at Chatham Dockyard during 1934–37 and commissioned in May 1939. Each of the six Porpoise-class boats could carry a full load of 50 mines located in a long, high casing above the pressure hull. The casing was fitted on a rail to the stern by a chain mechanism. The mines carried were the standard British Mark XVI self-mooring type, and were released from the boat through a hatch in the stern. The system was relatively simple, and minelaying operations were normally safe and expeditious. One disadvantage of the high casing above the pressure hull, however, was the resulting massive silhouette the boats presented when they cruised on the surface.

Seal was armed with one 4-inch gun forward on deck and two movable Lewis machine guns that could be mounted on the conning tower. She carried six 21-inch torpedo tubes forward, with one reload for each tube. Seal was powered by two diesel engines, each driving one propeller. The boat could make nearly 16 knots on the surface, but was normally restricted to four knots while cruising on battery power submerged. A standard crew for Porpoise-class boats was 59 men. A relatively large submarine, Seal displaced about 1,800 tons surfaced and more than 2,100 tons submerged.

The first and only commanding officer of HMS Seal was Lt. Cmdr. Rupert P. Lonsdale, an experienced submarine skipper who had commanded another boat before being assigned to Seal. After fitting out, Seal engaged in continuous patrol and escort duties in the Atlantic and off Norway commencing with the start of World War II in September 1939. It was not until April 1940, however, after undergoing a yard overhaul at Blyth, Scotland, that Seal carried out her first minelaying operation.

In preparation for this voyage, Seal loaded her full complement of 50 mines. Her mission, Operation FD7, was to enter the Strait of Skagerrak and proceed to the much more difficult and dangerous Strait of Kattegat. There she was to lay her minefield. The Admiralty assigned two nearby alternate sites in case Seal could not safely enter the primary minelaying location. The Kattegat was a dangerous place for a large minelaying submarine, as it was heavily patrolled by enemy aircraft and ships. Seal set out on this mission on April 29, 1940.

At 0130 on May 4, Seal entered the Kattegat on the surface, although Captain Lonsdale had trimmed down the boat so that the conning tower was awash. Daylight came early on May mornings in this northern latitude, and Lonsdale feared the imposing silhouette of his submarine would not remain undetected for long. He was right. Lonsdale dived Seal at 0230, only minutes before full dawn broke and just seconds before an approaching German reconnaissance aircraft dropped a bomb nearby, causing minor damage.

All the men aboard Seal now realized that their presence in the Kattegat had been detected and that the enemy would be searching for their boat. Proceeding at periscope depth, Lonsdale periodically checked the surface for enemy activity. Around 0800, he detected a group of anti-submarine trawlers sweeping the waters ahead of Seal, blocking her entry into the primary mining position. Lonsdale immediately chose to drop her mines in the first alternate position, which lay ahead and to one side of the area the trawlers were now sweeping. Minelaying commenced at 0900 and took only 45 minutes to complete. Lonsdale's challenge was now to extricate Seal safely from the Kattegat and return to Britain.

The captain turned Seal around and began his hazardous homeward trip. The trawlers continued their sweep, and Lonsdale played cat-and-mouse with them. He reasoned that they had to stop when listening for underwater sounds on their hydrophones; otherwise the sound of their own propellers would drown out other underwater noise. Thus, whenever the trawlers stopped, so did Seal. The trawlers continued their sweep and gradually approached the sub, which was proceeding slowly on batteries at periscope depth. Around 1500, Lonsdale detected through the periscope another group of hunters, this one to the northeast. These were modern German motor torpedo boats, each carrying depth-charge throwers in addition to two torpedo tubes. Seal now continued her cautious game of evasion. Lonsdale's goal was to evade both enemy forces until after dark, when Seal could surface and break for safety out of the Kattegat using diesel power.

The water depth was just over 100 feet, giving Seal no chance of going deep and running for it on weakening battery power. But one other possible evasive maneuver remained. Gambling that the torpedo boats and trawlers carried only hydrophones for detection, Lonsdale adjusted trim and settled Seal on a layer of salt water beneath the top layer of fresh water, at a depth of about 60 feet. The boat now slowly drifted with the current at a constant depth, rigged for maximum quiet.

As the submarine became silent, the terrifying sound of a wire scraping the starboard side of the hull could be heard. Soon the after hydroplanes jammed. However, before Lonsdale could do anything about this latest danger, Seal resumed trim, and the scraping wire seemed to have been cast off. It was now 1830.

Lonsdale ordered the crew to be served their evening meal, but at 1855 an explosion aft shattered this peaceful interlude. At first, Seal's crew believed one of the surface ships above had dropped a depth charge. When no more explosions followed, however, another cause seemed more logical. Lonsdale reasoned that Seal had become entangled in a mooring wire for a German mine, which had created the scraping sound along the hull and temporarily jammed the after hydroplanes. As the sub gradually drifted with the current, the mine had been pulled into the hull and exploded. A quick damage survey revealed that all crew members were safe, but that the aftermost mining compartment had been partially flooded, with perhaps 130 tons of sea water inside the hull. Seal's main ballast tank capacity was 380 tons; hence, Lonsdale and his chief engineer, Lieutenant R.H.S. Clark, calculated that Seal, now resting on the sea bottom at a depth of 130 feet, should have sufficient buoyancy to surface when her ballast tanks were blown. Lonsdale had the word passed that the submarine would attempt to surface after dark. In the meantime, all members of the crew were advised to rest and conserve the dwindling oxygen in the boat.

At 2230, Lonsdale made the first surfacing attempt. Seal rose forward, but her stern remained buried in the bottom mud of the Kattegat, held there by suction and the weight of seawater inside her hull. Lonsdale stopped both the engines and blowing tanks, and Seal gradually descended back to the seabed.

Conditions aboard the sub were now deteriorating. Rapidly diminishing oxygen was making many crew members sluggish and weak. Lonsdale decided to use more aggressive techniques during his second attempt to surface. Compressed air was used to blow a second group of fuel tanks and the midships freshwater tanks. In addition, the 11-ton drop keel was released from the hull. The latter decision was significant, because this release — normally resorted to only in case of extreme emergency — would preclude Seal's diving again. Despite these drastic added measures, Seal refused to surface. Crew morale sagged.

Lonsdale had compressed air and battery power for one more attempt to surface, and he knew it had to be made quickly; too many crew members were being immobilized by lack of oxygen and carbon dioxide poisoning.

For this last attempt, Lonsdale ordered two small, previously overlooked ballast tanks aft by the motor room to be blown — and told as many of the crew members as were able to move forward in the pressure hull, now noticeably up by the bow. Lonsdale, a man of faith, also requested crew members to join him in the Lord's Prayer.

At 0110 on May 5, nearly 23 hours after Seal had dived, the final effort to surface began. Using his remaining battery power to go ahead on both engines, Lonsdale blew the small after ballast tanks with Seal's remaining compressed air. Suddenly, Seal shuddered, and her stern broke free of the sea floor. At 0130, she surfaced. But her problems were just beginning.

Cautioning the crew to remain in position, Lonsdale laboriously opened the conning tower hatch and climbed to the bridge. As fresh air rushed in, many crew members, suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning, were afflicted with severe headaches and began vomiting. Fearing possible capture, Lonsdale ordered secret code books and materials jettisoned over the side and had an encrypted situation report sent to the Admiralty, which acknowledged receipt of his message. He also ordered secret asdic (sonar) gear smashed and nautical charts with minefields plotted on them jettisoned in weighted bags. It was now about 0200, and Lonsdale decided to run for the Swedish coast. At 0210 he sent a coded message to the Admiralty reporting Seal's damaged condition and his intent to run for Sweden. About 90 minutes later the Admiralty sent a fateful response to Lonsdale, but one that he unfortunately never received: 'Safety of personnel should be your first consideration after destruction of Asdics.' Failure to receive that message — which supported his subsequent decision — was to cause him severe anguish until he learned of it on his release.

Initially, only the sub's starboard engine could be started, and it soon became evident that the steering mechanism was inoperative. Lonsdale concluded that the exploding mine had bent or jammed the rudder. At this juncture the port engine started, and Lonsdale prepared to steer with the engines. But Seal could not be turned toward Sweden with the engines alone. As a final resort, the captain decided to go astern toward Sweden, which was initially successful. Hope among crew members increased that they might somehow escape. Their optimism was soon dashed, however, when the starboard engine lost lubricating oil pressure and seized up completely. Repair attempts failed, and Seal was now left to wallow on the surface, unable to dive and capable only of going in circles. It was almost 0230, with dawn close at hand. Soon the drone of an approaching German Arado Ar-196 reconnaissance seaplane spelled more trouble.

Immediately after surfacing, Lonsdale had had Seal's two Lewis guns brought up and mounted on the after end of the conning tower. He chose not to fire them as the Arado made its first attack, hoping to convince the German airmen that Seal was a disabled Swedish submarine returning to port. This ruse failed, however; the Arado commander recognized Seal's British markings and continued his attack with machine guns, cannons and two bombs.

Then a second Arado arrived in response to the alarm sent by the first pilot. This time Lonsdale himself manned one Lewis gun. But the attacks by the Arados took their toll among crew members on Seal's bridge. Lieutenant Commander Terence Butler suffered a shrapnel wound in the leg and had to be taken below for treatment. One able seaman was also wounded. Miraculously, however, Lonsdale remained unscathed in the hail of enemy fire. Now one of Seal's Lewis guns jammed, and cannon fire from the second Arado perforated the sub's port side main ballast tank, creating a pronounced list to port that could not be corrected. A larger German Heinkel He-115 bomber soon arrived on the scene and commenced a new attack on the listing Seal, whose second Lewis gun also jammed.

Lonsdale now realized that Seal was helpless and his entire crew was in jeopardy. But he was caught in a commanding officer's ultimate dilemma. The proud tradition of the Royal Navy argued against surrendering Seal, which might be salvaged by the Germans and used for propaganda purposes. Lonsdale's one alternative was to ensure the sub's destruction by scuttling her. For this purpose, the submarine was fitted with two depth charges in the bilges, set to explode at a depth of 50 feet if the boat was flooded internally by any cause. But two considerations prevented Lonsdale from scuttling his ship. First, there were no German vessels in sight to rescue Seal's crew, some of whom could not swim. Second, if the crew abandoned the boat before scuttling her, they would be floating in the sea above the submarine when her depth charges exploded, causing certain injury or death to many of them. Lonsdale was sure that Seal would sink of her own volition before she could be captured and salvaged by the enemy. She was already listing to port and was down by the stern.

Now several unidentified voices among the crew members rose through the conning tower hatch, pleading with Lonsdale to surrender the boat. After quickly reviewing the sub's condition, he reluctantly opted to do so in order to save the lives of her crew members. In his action report completed after the war, Lonsdale asserted that this decision was 'One I have ever afterwards deeply regretted, but at the same time seemed the only thing to do.'

Accordingly, Lonsdale asked that the white wardroom tablecloth be passed up from below, and he waved it at the second Arado, still lurking in the vicinity, which then landed nearby. The Arado's commander demanded that Seal's skipper swim to the aircraft. After pondering for a moment, Lonsdale turned over command of the vessel to Lieutenant Trevor Beet, the boat's navigator, because Butler was still being treated below for wounds, and swam to the Arado. Seal, barely afloat, had now been surrendered to the enemy and her commanding officer taken prisoner. The first Arado seaplane that had attacked Seal then landed alongside and took one petty officer aboard as an additional hostage.

Nearly three hours later, with the He-115 bomber still circling ominously overhead, a German converted trawler, U-Jä;ger (submarine hunter) UJ-128, hove to near the foundering sub at 0630. Her first lieutenant, Heinz Nolte, and three sailors boarded the submarine from a small boat.

Nolte, a Regular officer who spoke English, quickly went below to assess the condition of the submarine, and was appalled by the internal damage inflicted by Seal's crew. Upon request from Seal's engineering officer, Lieutenant Clark, Nolte had the submarine's wounded transferred through the engine room hatch and taken aboard the nearby German warship. Nolte then compelled Clark to accompany him on a tour of the entire boat to inspect conditions within the hull and to assure himself that no British crew members remained below who could scuttle the submarine. Clark was impressed by Nolte's apparent knowledge of submarines, particularly of the sea valves and hatches that could be opened to flood the hull. Based on this inspection, the German lieutenant decided that Seal was in imminent danger of sinking. He ordered all members of the sub's crew to be transferred to UJ-128 before she foundered. By this time, Seal was listing even more badly to port and settling down by the stern. Neither the Germans nor the British thought the boat would remain afloat.

With Seal's remaining crew members aboard as prisoners, UJ-128 commenced towing the badly damaged sub toward the small port of Frederikshavn, on the eastern coast of Denmark. Near the entrance to the harbor, Seal's list to port increased, and the German salvage tug Seeteufel took over towing duties from UJ-128. Around 1800, Seeteufel pushed Seal alongside the seawall in a secluded corner of the harbor and then secured herself to the submarine to prevent her from sinking alongside.

Salvage operations on Seal began the next day under supervision of Captain Heinrich Rsing, an experienced submariner who had formerly commanded a U-boat flotilla. He directed Seeteufel's divers and salvage crew to document and patch hull damage beneath the surface. Next, Seal's high-pressure air system and ballast tanks were repaired. The two scuttling depth charges were discovered by the Germans but left in place as too dangerous to remove. Finally, sea water was expelled from the hull and Seal returned to near normal trim.

On the morning of May 10, Seeteufel began towing the temporarily repaired sub south, through the Kattegat to German navy headquarters at Kiel, heavily escorted by minesweepers, submarine chasers and aircraft. Seal arrived there on the afternoon of May 11, greeted by a host of naval dignitaries. The commander of the German naval base at Kiel had already received his orders. Seal was to be restored and refitted as a German U-boat. Despite her sorry condition, the British submarine's perceived propaganda value justified any repair expenses.

However, German hopes for a propaganda coup from Seal soon ran into trouble. Rsing quickly concluded that it was foolish to attempt to turn her into an operational weapon. He became convinced that Seal should be scrapped as soon as all valuable secret or proprietary information could be extracted from her. Rsing reasoned that since the sub's diesel engines differed from those of German manufacture, no spare parts were available for them. German torpedoes and mines were also dissimilar to their British counterparts. Furthermore, in his eyes Seal was too big and sluggish to maneuver. He was convinced German U-boats were superior overall to Seal, and that perhaps two or three new ones could be built for the cost of refitting the British submarine as a U-boat. But despite these objections, the German naval high command ordered Rsing to proceed with renovation.

The attempt turned out to be a failure. Rsing's reasoning proved prescient, and Seal never served operationally again. Renamed UB in 1942, Seal was used primarily as a propaganda exhibit and instructional vessel. She was scrapped in 1943 and left moored as a stripped hull in a remote basin at Kiel naval dockyard. There she was sunk by British bombers near the end of the war.

Lonsdale and the crew of Seal remained German prisoners throughout the war in Europe. They were liberated by Allied forces in April 1945. In April 1946, the court-martial for Captain Lonsdale and Lieutenant Beet, who assumed command after Lonsdale's swim to the Arado seaplane, convened in Portsmouth. Beet was charged with negligently failing to take steps to ensure the sinking of Seal to prevent her from falling into enemy hands. After one day of testimony, the five-officer court-martial board honorably acquitted him. Lonsdale's court-martial followed the next day. He was charged with failing to take immediate action to engage the enemy aircraft that attacked Seal, and failing to take steps to ensure her sinking when it appeared possible she might fall into the hands of the enemy. The court-martial panel of five Royal Navy captains heard testimony for two days, but they required less than one hour to reach a verdict. Lonsdale was honorably acquitted of all charges, after which the president of the court advised him, 'I have much pleasure in handing you back your sword.' In addition to those Seal crew members called as witnesses by the court, many others among the captured crew had traveled to Portsmouth at their own expense to attend the trial. These men now surged forward to congratulate their respected skipper and shake his hand.

Shortly thereafter, Lonsdale resigned from the Royal Navy and entered theological training for the Church of England, which he served for the remainder of his working life. He died in 1999 at age 93, revered by his crew members as the skipper who had saved them from suffocation on the bottom of the Kattegat and led them by personal example and sacrifice throughout their years of imprisonment.

In retrospect, did Captain Lonsdale make the proper decision when he surrendered his still-afloat submarine in order to save her crew? Did he overlook other alternatives? Should he have fought to the last man, or scuttled his submarine even if it risked carnage among his crew, as implied by the immortal 'Don't give up the ship' admonition of Captain James Lawrence? For those critics respectful of naval tradition and not faced with the circumstances that confronted Lonsdale, his decision may seem reprehensible. He was, after all, the only Royal Navy captain to surrender his warship at sea during World War II. For others, perhaps most important the five captains serving on Lonsdale's court-martial panel, the incident suggests that unusual circumstances sometimes dictate unusual actions.



This article was written by William H. Langenberg and originally appeared in World War II magazine For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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