Did a cat’s sixth-sense help keep the crew of a submarine paid for by the people of Colchester alive?
- Credit: Archant
Colchester raised £435,223 to buy a Second World War submarine. Why have we forgotten that? asks Steven Russell.
James Gregan was at Gatwick Airport, about to fly to Barbados for a Caribbean cruise. He bought a “holiday read” totally different than anything he’d usually choose. “Normally, I’m a fiction fan. I picked this one up and it completely changed my life. Honestly.”
Crash Dive really sparked his imagination ? leading telegraphist Arthur Dickison’s account of 18 months on the submarine HMS Safari in 1942 and 1943: from the tedium of long sea passages to stalking enemy convoys. It left James hungry to find out more about life at sea during the Second World War. When he returned home, he devoured every book he could find.
“The thing that fascinated me is four people in a nine-by-seven cabin where they had to eat, sleep and work. And the smells… I don’t think anybody will ever be able to duplicate the smells.
“You imagine: you’ve got diesel fumes, garbage. You’ve got chlorine gas coming through. You’ve got the smell of human sweat. Most of them walked around in the nude, because it was too hot. No air. The submarine is a war machine. Humans come second. So they had to put up with really awful working conditions.”
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It was 1999 when James came across Crash Dive. Later, ill and needing something to take his mind off things, he decided to do some in-depth research on one wartime submarine.
What better than HMS Unruffled? He’d heard about the sub – had seen a plaque dedicated to it in Colchester Town Hall – but knew little else. Putting together the full story took three years of investigation, including a couple of trips to Malta. But it’s been a passion.
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The UK Government had introduced a war bonds scheme to help provide ships for the Royal Navy. The garrison town of Colchester was charged with raising £250,000 to build a submarine – HMS Unruffled.
Did it rise to the challenge? Oh yes. It raised an amazing £435,223.
It’s staggering, says James. “The people of Colchester went full-steam. They held fetes; they held all kinds of bazaars; they held dances. That’s an unbelievable amount of money to raise during wartime. They must have been really proud.”
Made by Vickers Armstrong at its Barrow-in-Furness dockyards, it was ordered in the summer of 1940 and commissioned into service in the spring of ’42.
Originally known as P46, she became HMS Unruffled after Prime Minister Winston Churchill ruled all vessels should have names. It patrolled the oceans for three and a half years – mainly in the Mediterranean.
Unruffled claimed nearly 40,000 tons of enemy shipping – which earned it a place in the top 10 most effective subs, says James – and even accounted for one train passing on a line close to the shore.
Life at sea was unquestionably dicey. After attacking an Italian cruiser, the captain noted: “Passing between two screening destroyers, we arrived in position to fire a four-torpedo salvo at 1,500 yards’ range.”
Unruffled featured in 20 wartime patrols, including a crucial involvement in Operations Torch (the British-American invasion of French North Africa), Pedestal (to save Malta) and Husky (the allied invasion of Sicily), as well as special operations.
And then it retired – battered and bruised, but triumphant. For it had not lost a single man.
Its reward? A final voyage – to Troon in Scotland – where she was unsentimentally scrapped in 1946, as were other subs. Post-war Britain was absolutely desperate for metal.
Three days after Christmas, 1943 – after a busy and hazardous 18 months or so that included those major operations – 28 officers and crew of Unruffled attended a day of celebrations in Colchester, the sub’s spiritual home, and a civic reception at the town hall.
Captain John Stevens gave six speeches that day. Lunch at the George Hotel in the High Street featured Crème St Germain, followed by roast goose, apple sauce, Brussels sprouts and roast potatoes. Mince pies and coffee rounded things off.
In the afternoon, the crew made an appearance at the Regal cinema, where the audience gave them a warm welcome. Later came tea, supper, and a dance.
The next day saw a visit to Colchester engineering firm Davey Paxman, which had provided the diesel engines for Unruffled and sister ships.
Busy, and headline-grabbing. So how come James now calls Unruffled “this forgotten submarine”? Stop 1,000 people in Colchester town centre and… “nobody would know about it”, he says, finishing my sentence. “It’s sad.”
Yet, as James explains, “The children at the schools used to send them (the crew) letters, and women used to knit clothes. The unfortunate thing was, they weren’t too fond of the clothes because they were in the Mediterranean, in the sweltering heat.
“However, what they did appreciate was the underwear, because when they came home, they came home to the cold. Massive shock!” The town also sent food.
In December, 1942, the grateful Admiralty had presented Colchester with a plaque. It featured the phrase “Burdened but Unruffled” and was hung in the town hall.
“For reasons that are not clear, the plaque at some time was removed and, subsequently, mislaid,” reports James. “Many years later it was rediscovered and on March 14, 2012, the date of the 70th anniversary of 1942 Warship Week, was reinstalled in its pride of place in the foyer of the town hall.”
It’s recently slipped out of the spotlight once more, he says – now in a conference room, after the spot where it was became part of a register office.
He’s sent a letter and copy of his new book Burdened But Unruffled: The Story of a World War II Submarine and its Crew to the mayor, and hopes the plaque might again be given a prominent home where visitors can readily see it.
Seeing that the big effort came about 75 years ago – one generation, more or less – I’d have thought Unruffled would have a wide and permanent place in local folk-memory. It seems not. “I’m wondering if it’s because it’s a garrison town,” ponders James. “We remember the soldiers of Colchester. They’re still on active service. So perhaps Colchester is more akin to that than the Royal Navy.”
Probably the generations have simply moved on, too – and it doesn’t help that the UK lacks a single ex-Second World War submarine that people can look at in a museum.
“To me, they (the crews) are heroes. That was a really difficult task they undertook, something I couldn’t have done, under such awful conditions. I think people have just forgotten. It’s not only P46, it’s every single one. We lost half the submarines we launched. I wanted to try to bring this submarine ‘back to life’.”
His paperback examines the lives of the crew, living conditions, menus and patrol routines. There are detailed accounts of every encounter; “every moment of fear and every hour of glory”.
Much of what James uncovered was intriguing. He’d never heard of the Coppists, for instance – Combined Operations Assault Pilotage Parties.
These men, with the sub, risked their lives to glean information about potential landing beaches for an assault: noting rocks and other obstacles, defensive positions, the layout of the beach, and suchlike. Their dangerous but vital work was often carried out under the noses of their foes.
“Stevens (Unruffled’s captain) was full of admiration for the brave Coppist codenamed ‘Party Inhuman’, who on occasions would paddle or walk close enough to hear Italian soldiers guarding the coast, or singing O sole mio to while away the tedium of night watches.
“P46 undertook a number of clandestine patrols, allowing members of the Combined Operations Beach Party to make submarine periscope surveys, as well as examination of potential assault beaches.”
James is thrilled his book is the first to name all the Coppists who travelled with Unruffled.
It took some persistence. He couldn’t get his hands on all the details he’d like of Operation Husky, for instance, as the sub had taken on a party of these semi-secret agents and the information is still kept under wraps by the 100 years rule. In other records, the Coppists were identified only by pseudonyms. It demanded patient research, the cross-referencing of material and talking to people. “I had to put my Sherlock Holmes hat on,” he smiles.
Something else that surprised him was that Unruffled sunk an Italian merchant vessel carrying Indian prisoners of war. “That has discreetly been hidden from the records. I just found a very small reference, and that led me to the Italian archives.”
Between 150 to 500 people drowned. There were no survivors. It was one of the many tragic episodes of the war, he says. The submariners could not have known innocent PoWs were on board.
It’s clear the stories of Britain’s submarine crews have touched James’s heart. He describes how he tried to find the Jolly Roger flown by HMS Safari – the sub that ignited his passion.
A couple of possibilities – one in Malta, another at a Manchester pub once run by ex-submariner Arthur Dickison – both turned out to be copies. Then, by chance, he learned a museum had it, though it wasn’t on display because it was deemed too valuable.
James was, however, allowed to handle it. “I not only touched it, I cried. I never do that. Never. Unbelievable. It was flown on a submarine. All of them (the crew) would have touched it. What memories. And it was just lost in oblivion, sitting on a shelf.”
James has long hunted for Unruffled’s Jolly Roger, too. It’s proving elusive, and he suspects someone has it at the bottom of a drawer. Maybe one day…
Oddly enough, James didn’t start off planning to write a book. Researching the story of Unruffled helped him get through a difficult time, but he ended up with a mass of data and wondered what to do with it. The former journalist decided to put pen to paper.
Having pulled that off, he’s started another: a fictional story of a submarine’s cat, inspired by the true tale of Unruffled’s Timoshenko (see panel).
And there’s a potential third book, too: about cold war submarines. James has interviewed a number of ex-submariners. “Some of the exploits they’ve told me about are hilarious.” But that’s going to have to wait until after the cat story. “I’m hoping that’s one Disney’s going to want!”
* Burdened but Unruffled is £12.99 and can be bought from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmith and Google Books.
A feline guardian angel
One of the most astonishing aspects of the Unruffled story is Timoshenko: the resident cat said to be able to warn of an approaching enemy.
Certainly the submariners believed in the power of his animal instinct.
“The crew was convinced that he was a lucky mascot – to such a degree that on one occasion, when he went missing, departure for a patrol was delayed 24 hours on the orders of the captain,” says James, who is sure Timoshenko played a major part in Unruffled’s survival.
“When something in the atmosphere told him there was danger about, he used to run up and down the corridor and be uncontrollable.”
There is a number of different stories about the origins of Timoshenko, but it’s likely a Wren gave it to a rating when the sub was at Gibraltar.
“I thought it was brilliant that when they left Gibraltar the first officer said to the captain ‘All ratings on board, sir; all ready to go, including Timoshenko’.”
James Gregan hails from Fulham, his parents bought a smallholding at Tiptree.
Dad Tom also bought land at Tiptree used for growing strawberries and in the winter, when there was less to do, Tom and a son started making birdtables. They proved popular the site is now Tom’s Farm Shop & Garden Centre, specialising in timber garden products
James, meanwhile, worked on Colchester-based Lloyd’s List – daily maritime and shipping news – for about 10 years
Then he became editor of the weekly Lloyd’s Loading List – freight-forwarding and logistics news
About 20 years ago, in Sweden for work, he didn’t feel well, he explained: “I got to Stansted, had a heart attack. I didn’t know what it was. Unfortunately, I ended up with a triple bypass; health problems.”
The career with Lloyd’s came to an endHe’d been offered other jobs in publishing, but it no longer appealed. “It was 24/7, really. I never saw my children grow up. I was either abroad, away from home or at work.”
Instead, James, who has been married to Deborah for 40 years, became a director of the family garden centre.
Here’s the science bit
• Unruffled was 196 feet and 10 inches long
• Beam (widest width): 16 feet and one inch
• Had two Colchester-made Paxman diesel generators, plus associated electric motors
• Carried eight to 10 torpedos
• The average age of a submariner was just 21 years