The fortunes of submariners could change very quickly. Once a submarine was detected they were invariably subjected to relentless depth charging. If successfully attacked the chances of anyone on board surviving were very slim. The accounts of men who did survive a depth charge attack and escape from a submarine are rare.
In November 1944 HMS Sturgeon, commanded by Lieutenant G. R. Pelly, was patrolling off Malacca, Malaysia, attempting to discover, from periscope depth, what use the Japanese were making of the port. The officers were aware of a Japanese destroyer working close inshore and of a flying boat apparently searching the area, so thought that their presence might be suspected. Exactly how they were discovered is not clear from the surviving officers account.
Lieutenant D. C. Douglas, Royal Navy, had finished his watch at 0830. He was only able to submit his official report after he was released from POW camp in 1945:
At approximately 12.10 I was awakened by the order, ‘Diving Stations’. As soon as I arrived in the tube space the order, ‘Shut off for depth-charging,’ was passed.
This was carried out and a report sent to the control room. About four minutes elapsed without any further orders coming through — no one in the fore ends knowing what was taking place – then the thrash of the Japanese destroyer could be heard very loud as she passed overhead.
Almost immediately a depth-charge exploded somewhere extremely close under us, lifting the stern and causing us to hit bottom hard. This charge extinguished the greater part of the lighting although one or two of the emergency lights held. About five seconds later a second charge exploded, as far as I could calculate, right amidships, extinguishing the remaining lights.
By this time I had a torch in operation and could see water flooding through the door at the after end of the torpedo stowage compartment. Immediately I gave the order, ‘Shut water-tight doors’ and turned to make sure that the three ratings in the tube space were brought out of that compartment before the door was shut.
By the time this door was shut, the water was flooding very much faster and had risen above the deck boards in the torpedo stowage compartment. It was now above our knees. It was flooding through the after door so fast that the ratings were unable to shut this door. The position of the stop (retaining door in ‘open’ position) on this water-tight door was such that to remove it one had to stand in the doorway as the port side of the door was blocked by stores. Hence, due to the furious rate of flooding, this stop could not be removed.
According to Able Seaman Westwood, who came forward from the control room, the captain gave the order for main ballast to be blown as soon as he found that the ship was being flooded. The valves on the panel were opened without effect.
In what appeared to be an incredibly short time, I was keeping above water by clinging on to a hammock which was slung from the deckhead. The crew in my compartment began to sing but I ordered this to stop and told the crew to get out and put on DSEA sets.
The first I managed to reach had a defective valve on the oxygen bottle and I could not move it. The second was in working order and I put this over the head of one of the older ratings who was panicking and in tears due to the pressure effect on his eyes. The pressure in the boat at the time was immense and the chlorine content in the air considerable. The water all round us must have been full of oil fuel as we were all drenched with it, although I did not notice it at the time. The air could be heard to be escaping through the hull forward and the water was still rising fast.
At this time Leading Seaman Gibbs was in the escape hatch trying to slack back the clips. He shouted to me that he could not move the third clip. Speaking was nearly impossible due to the pressure. I swung up into the trunk alongside Gibbs and tried to remove the clip. After what seemed like an hour, and what I suppose was really a minute, I managed to move the clip by hammering it with my fist. By this time there was no hope of using the escapetrunk as the water was already up to the metal combing which houses the twill trunking.
I took off the last clip and as I did so, the hatch commenced to open. Immediately this clip was free the hatch was blown open and Leading Seaman Gibbs was shot out so suddenly that I cannot remember him going. The hatch slammed shut again and hit me on the top of my head but immediately blew open again and I was shot out in a bubble of air.
Ten of the men in the compartment, which contained 14 at the time, are known to have left the submarine alive although only eight were picked up. The ship’s cook was later seen to be floating, face downwards, on the surface but was obviously drowned. Another rating was seen, while in the submarine, to have on a DSEA set and apparently working it correctly; although he was observed to leave the boat he was not seen on the surface. The Japanese destroyer had dropped two more charges after we were hit but these were not so close and did not seem to harm us although they probably accelerated the flooding.
Throughout the above experiences the behaviour of the crew in my compartment was magnificent. I should especially like to mention the ship’s cook (Leading Cook Weatherhead) who kept up a cheerful narrative about the wonderful fruit cake which he had recently cooked and who showed great bravery and coolness throughout the dreadful experiences in the flooded submarine. This rating was responsible for the singing and by his behaviour greatly assisted in preventing panic. It is with deepest regret that I have to report that this extremely brave rating failed to survive the ascent to the surface.
Lieutenant D. C. Douglas was one of only three men out of the ten survivors to survive Japanese POW camps.