Single Project


LOCATION: -4.70, 53.09

The most recent surveys have confirmed that this wreck is the H5.

‘I regret to report that Submarine H.5, having failed to return from patrol, is considered to have been lost with all hands. It is further considered that she was the Submarine referred to in the following message from Vice Admiral, Milford Haven: observing that her line of patrol was in Lat 53 6N between Long 4 30’ and 4 50’ W.

Message begins: “Master of S. S. RUTHERGLEN reports that his Vessel rammed Submarine 2030, 2 nd. March within position Lat. 53 4’ N, Long. 4 40’ W. Submarine was crossing bow at considerable speed. After collision cries were heard and men seen in the water, also there was a strong smell of petrol vapour. Forepeak of “Rutherglen” is flooded”. Ends.’

So began the report sent on 7 March 1918 by Captain Martin Nasmith, Victoria Cross (V. C.) to Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayley, Admiral Commanding Western Approaches.

By the end of 1917, American and British forces were cooperating in their efforts to hunt down U boats in the Irish Sea. Early in 1918, ‘Operation GF’ was put in place in which eight British submarines collaborated with the USS BUSHNELL and seven AL-class submarines around the coast of Ireland and in the Irish Sea. As part of the partnership, US naval officers undertook familiarisation trips on board the British submarines. Such was the secrecy of the whole operation that convoy escort ships and merchant ships were not told that there were British submarines operating in the area.

On 26 February 1918, the British submarine HMS H5 sailed from Berehaven under the command of Lieutenant A. W.  Forbes, Distinguished Service Order (D. S. O), with US Navy Liaison Officer Earle Childs on board for instructional purposes, and was expected to return to port on the morning of 6 March. On 2 March, however, the SS RUTHERGLEN reported at Milford Haven that it had rammed a submarine crossing its bow at considerable speed in position Lat 53° 4N, Long 4° 40W. It was further reported that cries had been heard and that men were struggling in the water. Under orders to not risk falling victim to other submarines nearby, RUTHERGLEN pressed on. There were no survivors.

In light of RUTHERGLEN’s report and the disappearance of H5, Captain Nasmith recommended leaving the RUTHERGLEN crew under the impression that they had indeed sunk an enemy submarine and paying the standard reward for such a feat.

H5 arriving at Killybegs, Ireland. Source: National Museum of the Royal Navy, neg 6001.

HMS H5 was an ‘H’ Class submarine, based on the American 602 design. Parts were ordered from the USA for assembly in Canada. Once completed, they were among the first submarines to cross the Atlantic. Her armament was four 18-inch (45.72 cm) bow torpedo tubes for eight torpedoes. H5’s standard complement were twenty-two crew, but by 1918, H5 would house twenty-six men.

Lieutenant Cromwell Hanford Varley was assigned as one of H5’s first commanders. Operating for a time from Harwich, she sank U 51 on 14 July 1916.  Later spending her time in the Irish Sea at Queenstown and Rathmullen, from September 1917 she joined a flotilla of submarines based at Berehaven in Bantry Bay and at Killybegs, Ireland. Working from the depot ships HMS VULCAN and HMS AMBROSE, it was her role to intercept German U-boats operating around the Irish coast, and in the Western approaches and Irish Sea. After Varley left H5, Forbes took over, being an officer of great repute and highly regarded by his superiors, including Nasmith. By 1918, her crew consisted of twenty-six men. Five men held Distinguished Service Medals, and the commander held a Distinguished Service Order. One crewman was possibly descended from the famous Anson family.

The crew of H5 had perished due to five unfortunate circumstances. First and foremost, the presence of U-boats in the Irish Sea meant that picking up survivors was a risk to any ship that attempted it. The experience of two Royal Navy cruisers that were torpedoed after stopping to help sailors from one of their own ships in 1914 had led the British Admiralty to advise that ships should abandon survivors to save themselves. Secondly, British submarines, like their German counterparts, varied greatly in their shape and size. Without special knowledge of British submarine outlines, observers who were unused to such new weapons would often have to rely on identification marks to discern friend from foe. The number of submarines lost to friendly fire in the Great War is low compared to the total sunk. Out of a minimum of fifty-six lost in total, only four sank due to friendly fire. Nevertheless, almost all of those incidents involved a signal or insignia being confused, missed, or not identified in time by friendly units. This was exacerbated by the third and fourth factors–it was night time, visibility was poor, and merchant traffic did not know of H5’s presence.

Crew of H5. Officers (left to right): Lt W l Thompson, Lt Cromwell Varley, captain, and Lt Frank Busbridge. Source: National Museum of the Royal Navy, neg 10599.

Lastly, the lack of offensive weaponry on the RUTHERGLEN meant that had H5 been a German submarine, fight or flight would have been the merchant vessel’s only way to survive the encounter. In fact, only four months after the RUTHERGLEN had rammed and sunk the H5, she fell victim to a U-boat in the Mediterranean.

Today, the crew of H5 are commemorated on panel twenty-nine at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, and at the Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth Naval Memorials. Lieutenant Childs is commemorated at the American Cemetery, Brookwood. He was the first American submariner to die in the First World War.

HMSM H5 has been protected as a Controlled Site under the Protection of Military Remains Act (1986) since December 2001. The statutory instrument currently in place defines a restricted area radius of 300 metres centred on 53 05.483N, 04 41.975W (statutory instrument 2008/950). The Protection of Military Remains Act (1986) makes it illegal to conduct any operations (including any diving) within the controlled zone that might disturb the remains unless licensed to do so by the Ministry of Defence.


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