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In January 1950, a snort mast was fitted to the Affray. That device was a long steel tube fitted to the hull serving as a snorkel which when raised allowed the submarine to increase the amount of time it could remain under water. The mast had a head valve at its top to prevent the entry of sea water when raised and a large valve where that induction system entered the sub's engine room. Leading stoker mechanic William Day was responsible for raising and lowering the snort mast. He listed defects encountered on exercise, saying that

During the refit at Portsmouth there were reported hostilities between the non-naval staff working on the sub and service personnel, and repair and maintenance work took longer than expected. There were excessive delays. During that time, oil was also found to be leaking into a battery tank.

During that period, Lieutenant Commander John Blackburn was given command of the Affray in January 1951. He received orders on 3 April that his sub would put to sea at 1700 hours on Monday 16 April for a week-long practice war patrol in the English channel. The exercise was code-named Exercise Training Spring. The aim of the exercise was to provide trainee executive and executive officers with submarine experience at sea under wartime conditions. The sub would also carry a small number of commando cadets from the Royal Marine amphibious school at Eastney.

The crew of the Affray worked long hours to overcome engine problems and to prepare the sub for sea by that deadline. Nevertheless, there were still concerns about its seaworthiness. First Officer Lieutenant Derek Foster shared his fears with his wife. She reported later:

Despite that, on 10 April the submarine was given an updated safety certificate and ordered to sea on 11 April to test its main engines. Only half the crew were taking part, with a further 10 drawn from reserve or spare crews. No defects were found after four hours at sea, except that the yellow indicator buoy which floats to the surface as a marker in the even of sinking had come adrift. Its hatch was later secured with wire. Doubts still continued about the seaworthiness of the sub. Sergeant Jack Andrews, one of the Marines who were to be the passengers on the Affray, expressed to his brother the night before sailing that he was far from happy about taking passage on it.

A crew of 85 officers and ratings were summoned to join the Affray on Monday 16 April, 23 more than normally carried in peacetime. Twenty-five of them joined the boat for the first time. They had no experience of working together. Thirteen ratings were
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then discharged because of shortage of space. Able Seaman Edward Hickman, a member of the Affray’s crew, commented of the crew:

At 1700 hours on 16 April the Affray slipped its mooring and headed for the English channel. It was last sighted near the entrance to Portsmouth harbour passing south-easterly. At 2056 hours its captain signalled that he was diving at 2115 hours for Exercise Training Spring. That was the last signal received from the Affray.

The sub was due to send an on-the-surface signal the following morning—17 April—between 0800 hours and 10 am. By 10.40 am, nothing had been received and at 10.45 am Captain Brown of the Submarine Flotilla alerted his flag-officer, Rear-Admiral Sidney Raw, about his anxiety for the boat’s safety. Initially, it was thought that the sub was experiencing a radio transmitter problem, but by 1100 hours Rear-Admiral Raw transmitted an urgent message—Subsmash One—indicating that the safety of the Affray was in doubt. That was an immediate call to action, signalling ships and aircraft to begin the search for the Affray.

Repeated emergency signals were sent to the Affray, but with no response. By 1255 hours every ship in the home fleet flotilla had been summoned to join the air and sea search, including the Reclaim, which was the Navy’s only deep-diving and submarine rescue vessel. Foreign ships also joined to assist in the search for the Affray.

At 2155 hours the submarine Sirdar reported that it had picked up faint signals on its ASDIC sonar listening device in the vicinity of the Affray’s diving position. Hopes were raised, but they were soon dashed when no response was received from charges sent overboard to encourage any survivors to attempt escape—that was the normal procedure for signalling that ships were ready to lift any escapees from the water. The search went on, and James Callaghan—then Parliamentary Secretary to the Admiralty, and later Prime Minister—reported to this House that over 40 surface ships and seven submarines were taking part, but with no success.

At 1945 hours on Thursday 19 April, 69 hours after the Affray had dived for the last time, the emergency signal Subsmash was cancelled. Rear-Admiral Raw said in a message to the Admiralty:

A limited search continued and eventually, in June, after a sweep of the sea bottom with sonar equipment and with the use of a newly invented underwater television device, the sub was found a considerable distance from where earlier soundings had identified, in an area that had been swept earlier in the initial search and rescue. All the visual evidence pointed to the fact that whatever happened to the Affray occurred very quickly, taking her crew by surprise. The snort mast was snapped off. Divers eventually raised the broken snort mast from the sea bed.

A board of inquiry set up by the Navy to investigate the loss of the Affray heard evidence that the snapping of the snort mask resulted from metal fatigue and poor
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welding. The inquiry was held in secret and its papers were released only under the 30-year rule. The board followed closely the conclusions already reached by the Admiralty’s First Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief, dismissing other theories of mechanical failure, or human or drill error.

The snort mast theory could have been proved by ascertaining whether there had been an attempt to shut off the induction valve fitted at the point where the snort entered the hull. If that was shut, the snort would not be responsible and another cause would need to be considered, possibly internal explosion. However, the site of the boat was inaccessible, and with the boat shifting it was thought too dangerous for divers to inspect.

Doubts quickly began to emerge within the Admiralty about the snort mast theory. Some officers thought that the board had closed its eyes too quickly to other possible causes and that the theory could not be reconciled with the lack of assessed external damage to the hull of the sub. The failure to allow for the working up training of the crew pointed to a possible drill failure. Why any material failure should occur as it did was also not explained. Discussion took place with the Minister concerned over whether the sub should be raised, but that was dismissed as too difficult and costly. It was stated in Parliament that the relatives unanimously did not want the sub disturbed, but relatives later confirmed that they had never been consulted on the matter.

In November 1951, in a statement to Parliament, James Thomas, the then new First Lord of the Admiralty, concluded:

He explained the snort theory and the possibility of a major battery explosion, which could also have been linked to a crack in the snort mast. He confirmed that the risk of failure precluded attempts to raise the sub.

The Navy, using HMS Reclaim’s divers, attempted various methods to check the snort theory, including the use of what were, at that time, primitive X-ray devices, but with no success. Continuing concerns were expressed in the Admiralty about why the Affray was sent to sea with a crew that had not been given time for working up after a protracted refit. We now know that a letter marked private and confidential was issued to Captain Hugh Browne, captain of the 5th Submarine Flotilla, which stated:

This letter was never made public at the time, and has been discovered only recently.

The Navy then closed its file on the Affray. Nobody took responsibility for allowing the Affray to put to sea in circumstances considered by naval staff to have been unacceptable. However, for more than 50 years questions over the Affray have not gone away, especially for the remaining relatives. The central question, of course, is why was the Affray lost. The snort mast failure theory could be resolved using today’s technology to examine the sunken sub in order to determine whether the valve
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at the base of the snort mast was in an open or closed position. However, in 2001, the Government designated the Affray as a protected site and announced a ban on diving in order to protect the Affray and other sunken ships from disturbance by trophy hunters—that measure was supported by all across the House. Nevertheless, exceptions have been made, to enable the recovery of bullion from HMS Sussex, for example. Mounting an official dive on Affray could assist in shedding light on what happened to the boat and help in providing closure for the remaining relatives.

A disaster appeal was launched at the time of the loss of the sub by the mayors of Portsmouth and Gosport and it gained huge support across the country and raised more than £170,000 for the relatives of the crew. That has been disbursed over the years in supporting the families. The HM Submarine Affray disaster relief fund trust remains active, but it is not publicly known how much is left in the fund and all queries to the trustees are referred to the Official Solicitor at the Public Trustee Office. No information has been forthcoming. The few remaining relatives still receive very small amounts of financial support. It is their view that any funds left should now be distributed to the relatives for whom they were originally intended and/or given to naval charities for similar deserving cases.

I have raised several issues in this debate to which it is clearly beyond the ability of a Minister to respond in a brief, time-limited Adjournment debate. I ask the Minister, therefore, if he would agree to meet me, other interested hon. Members and the Affray relatives so that we can discuss the issues, allow the relatives to express their views and examine whether we can seek further evidence to determine what happened to those who lost their lives on board Affray. In my view, we owe nothing less to the memory of those who lost their lives so tragically in the service of their country.

8.1 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) on securing this debate on the loss of HMS Affray in April 1951, and I acknowledge his concerns for his constituent who lost her father in that tragedy.

As my hon. Friend said, HM Submarine Affray was an A-class submarine completed in 1946. The class had originally been designed for operations in the far east during the latter part of the second world war. The submarine used a diesel-electric power plant, with diesel engines being used for surface propulsion and charging of the batteries. The batteries powered electric motors for underwater propulsion.

Some time after completion, Affray was fitted with a snort mast. That was a tube whose head was above water permitting the submarine to run its diesel engines while at periscope depth, reducing the chances of it being detected by surface ships or from the air.

On 16 April 1951, Affray left Gosport on a training exercise. As well as most of her normal crew, she was carrying a training class of officers and some Royal Marines in training. My hon. Friend referred to that issue. While the captain was censured for allowing Affray to sail with officers under training and Royal Marines on board, there was no evidence that the crew
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was inexperienced in submarine operations. The judge of whether a ship is safe to go to sea has to be the commanding officer. In that case, he was an experienced and decorated submariner and the captain of the 5th Submarine Flotilla.

The submarine was scheduled to carry out a series of exercises. She was scheduled to make a surfacing report by radio at 1000 hours on 17 April. That signal was not received and consequently Operation Subsmash was ordered in accordance with standard submarine search and rescue procedure. That began at 1100 hours on the same day. Over the next few days, many ships and aircraft were involved in the search for Affray, to no effect.

Some weeks later, the wreck was detected and identified north of the Channel islands, lying in 260 ft of water. In the succeeding months, the diving tender HMS Reclaim dived on the wreck in an attempt to discover the reasons for her loss. One of the discoveries made was that the Affray’s snort mast had broken off and that that might be connected to her loss.

A board of inquiry was convened under the presidency of Rear-Admiral R. M. Dick. It presented its interim finding to the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Arthur Power, on 19 July 1951. He forwarded that finding to the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fraser, on the same day.

The board considered a number of possible causes for the loss, including battery explosion, material failures, operating errors, mines and collision. Of these, material failure was considered the most likely immediate cause.

The board of inquiry therefore concluded, with the reservation that

that the submarine was lost due to the sudden snapping of the snort mast. It determined that that was caused by a material failure resulting from the mast’s brittle condition, that the submarine was overwhelmed by the resultant rapid flooding, and that death would have come very quickly to the crew.

The Board of Admiralty signalled the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, on 24 July that it was by no means as certain of the cause of the loss. It asked that further diving work be carried out on the wreck to try and establish why the Affray went down. Further efforts were made but, even so, no firm conclusions could be reached and diving was abandoned in early November 1951.

John McDonnell: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, but I should like to put it on the record that the error of judgment identified by Captain Hugh Browne was never reported by the board of inquiry to Ministers, and then on to this House.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am not sure what my hon. Friend means by his reference to an error of judgment. Perhaps we need to talk about that matter outside the House.

A particular point to which the investigations were directed was to ascertain the position of the snort
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induction valve since, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that would have confirmed whether the Affray was actually using the snort mast at the time of the accident.

Meanwhile, the board of inquiry made its final report on 6 August 1951, and its conclusions were broadly similar to those of the interim inquiry. The report found that the submarine was lost because of the material failure of the snort mast, which broke off without warning. The resultant rapid influx of water resulted in the submarine dipping markedly by the stern, becoming increasingly heavy and sinking to the bottom.

The board of inquiry report stated that the rapidity of events did not allow the release of position indication signals. It believed that the crew died rapidly, that the submarine was materially sound and that the crew had confidence in her and her captain. Finally, the report stated that the search organisation was rapidly and energetically implemented.

On 14 November 1951, the First Lord of the Admiralty—Mr. J.P.L. Thomas, the then political head of the Royal Navy—made a statement to the House. He noted that there was no certainty as to the reasons for the loss of the Affray, although the broken snort mast might be either cause or consequence. He also stated that any attempted salvage of the Affray would take up large resources, that it might not be successful and that it would put other lives at risk. He said that he had therefore decided that no such attempt should be made. An obvious consequence of that was that any recovery of bodies could not be prudently undertaken.

I am aware of the recently published book about the loss of the Affray, and of the suggestions that it makes. A study of those suggestions has been carried out by the naval historical branch, and it has been concluded that there is no reason to disagree with the findings of the board of inquiry.

One suggestion made in the book is that somehow there was collusion between the First Sea Lord and the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, while the board was still sitting. The contention is that those individuals had decided to find that the loss was due entirely to the fractured snort mast and that the outcome of that collusion was relayed to the board. However, that directly contradicts the doubt expressed by those same people about the reasons for the tragic accident, and the fact that they ordered further diving to be carried out in an attempt to ascertain more information. The allegation of collusion does not stand up and there appears to be no documentary evidence that such collusion took place.

In 2002, the remains of the Affray were designated as a controlled site under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. In consequence, no diving or other underwater operations may take place within a defined zone around the wreck without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State for Defence.

Submarines of the same class as Affray have been out of service for more than three decades, and no diesel-electric submarines have been in Royal Navy service for several years. The subsequent safety record of the Royal Navy
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submarine service has been excellent; indeed, Affray was the last submarine lost at sea. A submarine is a complex ship operating in an environment that is intrinsically hostile, even in peacetime.

Although it is deeply regrettable that the Affray accident resulted in such severe loss of life, including that of the father of my hon. Friend’s constituent, I do not think reopening the investigation will give scope for learning significant lessons today. I hear what my hon. Friend says, but we have to balance the potential for gain in reopening the investigation with the intrusion on what is, in effect, a military grave.

I shall consider my hon. Friend’s request for a meeting, but I do not want to appear cruel or callous so I do not want to hold out hope that I am minded to reopen the investigation. After such a huge length of time, I really do not think that there is reason to do so. I shall talk to my hon. Friend after the debate about the point he raised in his intervention and will try to understand it further. I shall reflect on his request for a meeting but I do not want to promise it at this stage.

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