M2 submarine disaster commemorated 75 years on

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Monday, September 3, 2007

In the autumn of 2007 The Nautical Archaeology Society undertook a series of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the loss of 60 sailors and airmen when their unique aeroplane-launching submarine sank during exercises off Lyme Bay, Dorset.

The History of the M2 Submarine
The M2 was one of four M-class submarines. In addition to the traditional torpedo armament, these submarines all carried a single 12-inch turret mounted gun in front of the conning tower that could hole a battleship. The M2's gun turret was removed in 1927 and replaced with a hanger and launching catapult for a seaplane.

On the morning of 26 January 1932 the M2 was taking part in submarine exercises in the eastern part of Lyme Bay. Several other ships saw the M2 dive. It was not seen again. The M2 failed to return to Weymouth that evening.

Given the vulnerability of submarines on the surface the crew of the M2 underwent regular drill in order to surface, launch the plane and dive again as quickly as possible. It is thought that it was during one these drills that disaster struck: trying to improve their launch speed, the hanger doors were opened a few seconds too early in anticipation of breaking the surface. Having opened the doors too early, the submarine took on water and sank rapidly.

The M2 was found eight days later by Navy hardhat divers, sitting upright and intact. They reported that the hanger doors were open, as well as the 21-inch access hatch that connected the hanger to the submarine. Entangled in the wreckage of the plane were the bodies of aircraft technician Leslie Gregory and Leading Seaman Albert Jacobs. The rest of the 58 crew had drowned inside where their remains rest to this day. Had the access hatch been closed after the two crewmen entered the hangar, the remaining crew may have survived. The salvage operation lasted 11 months, involving 26 divers and 1500 dives, before being called off just before Christmas.

The 75 Anniversary Commemorations
The highlight of the 75th commemorations was the flying of a White Ensign from the conning tower the wreck of the M2 submarine by Ministry of Defence service personnel and recreational divers who dived the wreck between 3rd - 5th September 2007.

The Ensign was flown on behalf of project partners the NAS, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and the Dorset Branch of the Submariners Association with the permission of the Ministry of Defence.

At 5.30pm on the 4th September 2007, Julie Decarteret, the great niece of crewman Jack Lewis dropped a wreath from a Lynx Helicopter, kindly supplied by 815 Squadron from RNAS Yeovilton.

A memorial service also took place at St.Andrew’s Church in Southwell, Portland on 9th December 2007 to commemorate the Royal Navy’s abandonment of its salvage attempts that month in 1932.

In November 2006 the wreck was designated a Protected Place under the Protection of Military Remains Act (since November 2006). “We wish not only to remember the 60 sailors and airmen who lost their lives in the disaster, but also to remind the public and recreational scuba divers of her protected status” says Mark Beattie-Edwards, Programme Director with the NAS.

Commander Rupert Best DL, President of the Dorset Branch of the Submariners' Association, said: "We are most grateful to the Nautical Archaeology Society for all that they are doing to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the loss of the M2 in 1932. In the early days, submarines often operated at the limits of technology and lives were lost as new concepts and techniques were developed and brave men explored the operational and technical boundaries of undersea warfare. It was such people as these who performed so valiantly and with such sacrifice during the Second World War. Today's submariners are the inheritors and beneficiaries of their dedication and professionalism. M2 was a unique example of a new design in an age of innovation and we honour her crew and all those submariners who died for their country in peacetime, just as we grieve for the families they left behind."

The project partners have produced a commemorative card based on one sent in 1931 by Stoker Jack Lewis, a crewman on the M2 who died when it sank. The original card has recently come to light and has been made available to the project and the Submariners Association.

Project Supporters
The Project received significant support from the following organisations, without which the commemoration would not be possible.

  • Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI)
  • British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC)
  • Sub Aqua Association (SAA)
  • Dorset County Council
  • Divedorset
  • Periscope Publishing

Jane Maddocks, Wreck Protection and Underwater Heritage advisor for the British Sub-Aqua Club has stated that '"for years the M2 has been an iconic dive, but we should never forget that the crew are still inside the boat. This means that we should dive her with respect. As a past Diving Officer of HMS Dolphin Sub Aqua Club I know that this boat is special, and that submariners who dive her still feel an affinity with those inside the hull. The BSAC is proud to sponsor the commemoration event."

Suzanne Pleydell, Group Manager, Education and Instructor Development at PADI says that "sport divers often take such an active role in researching, discovering, managing and protecting our maritime heritage; PADI are delighted to be able to help raise awareness about our nautical history, the laws in place to protect sites and to be involved in commemorating the tragic loss of lives of so many sailors and airmen."

The project also received considerable support from the local Dorset diving industry through the generosity of Divedorset, who are providing support boats throughout the diving operations. "Divedorset is keen to support any venture which seeks to raise the profile of Dorset's rich maritime heritage whilst remembering those lost at sea."