Following a number of 19th century experimental craft in various countries which became known as submarines, the Royal Navy from 1901 embarked on a building programme of submarines. This started with the Holland Class, built at Barrow by Vickers under licence from America, quickly followed by several alphabetically identified classes, the first of which was the A-Class. Here, MAT volunteer Roger Burns relates the history and tragic sinking of HMS A-3 in 1912 due to an accidental collision.
A brief history of submarine development can be read here which includes the first A-Class submarine, HMS A-1. Royal Navy submarine A-3, Figure 1, was the third of 13 A-Class submarines built between 1902 and 1908, all built by Vickers, Sons & Maxim Ltd., Barrow-in-Furness. The A-Class, conceived for coastal defence at a time when the Admiralty had not embraced the potential offensive capability, underwent design enhancements as each was built and, essentially, comprise four sub-classes, the second of which includes A-3. The overall dimensions however remained the same, 105ft (c.32m) long, beam 12ft 9in (c. 3.88m) with a draught of 10ft 8in (c. 3.25m), and its steel hull displaced 190 tons surfaced and 207 tons submerged. Except for A-13 which had a Vickers diesel engine, they were all powered via a single 3-bladed screw from a single petrol engine when surfaced and from a single battery powered 150hp electric motor when submerged. The petrol engines were 16-cylinder, 450bhp units built by Wolseley, part of the Vickers Group, and propelled A-3 at 11+ knots surfaced, and using the electric motors, at 6 knots submerged under service conditions; the respective ranges were 600 miles at full power (design) but achieving 325 miles at full power in service, and 20 miles at 6 knots in service. Armament comprised four torpedoes fired through two forward facing 18in (c.45.7cm) tubes. The design complement was two officers and nine ratings.
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A-3 was laid down in November 1902, launched on 9 May 1903 by Miss May, daughter of Admiral May, Controller of the Royal Navy, and completed on 13 July 1904. Its routine service history is unremarkable but two events are noteworthy.
On 15 March 1905, Queen Alexandra was aboard the Royal Yacht, Victoria and Albert in Portsmouth Harbour, and A-3, also in the harbour, was ordered alongside, whereupon the Queen and children descended into the submarine for a half-hour inspection.
The second occasion was on 5 February 1906 when the A-3 was travelling at between 10 and 11 knots in a heavy sea at Spithead, just beyond the Nab Tower – Leading Seaman Ernest Thompson was climbing round the conning tower to relieve leading seaman Henry Head from bridge duty, when Thompson slipped and, struck by a wave, fell overboard. Head, a witness, was giving evidence to the coroner’s enquiry on 8 June 1906 at Portsmouth Town Hall and, continuing, described how Lieutenant Cromie immediately jumped into the sea to assist Thompson. Cromie, also a witness, spoke how he reached Thompson but fell unconscious. Cromie was rescued but Thompson disappeared when Cromie lost his hold and although he was rescued, Thompson was never seen again. The jury returned a verdict of “Death from accidental drowning” and added a rider “expressing high appreciation of the courage displayed by Lieutenant Cromie in his humane endeavour to rescue the deceased, and they regretted that his gallant efforts were unsuccessful”, as reported in the Portsmouth Evening News of 8 June 1906.
The Loss of HMS A-3
It was 09.30 on 2 February 1912, a cold blustery day with some snow showers, when HMS Hazard, a submarine depot ship converted from its original role as a Torpedo Gun Boat in 1901, departed Portsmouth harbour to conduct exercises with several A-Class and C-Class submarines, including the A-3. On the surface over the Princessa Shoal about one nautical mile east of the Isle of Wight, A-3 with 14 crew was to the starboard of the Hazard preparing to dive as part of the ongoing exercise and then dived at about 10.37. Lookouts aboard the Hazard saw no further signs of A-3. At 10.53, Hazard felt a strong shock through the vessel indicating a collision with something under the hull near the stern, engines were stopped, watertight doors closed, followed immediately by large quantities of air breaking the surface, indicating to Commander Alexander Palmer the position of A-3 as he testified at the subsequent coroner’s some weeks later. He further testified that the position was immediately marked with buoys and that wireless messages were sent to Portsmouth requesting salvage vessels.
Salvage operations got under way immediately, involving the Hazard, HMS Antelope and HMS Liverpool. The weather was poor with a north-easterly gale, bitterly cold, and it was not until daylight was fading on 3 February that A-3’s hull was found in 14m of water near the East Princess Buoy – the 32 hours taken to find the submarine was not only due to the adverse weather but also because the seabed in the area had deep and shallow channels, it was unclear in which direction the submarine was heading when struck, and it was known that a waterlogged submarine can travel some distance before settling. Tugs and Lighters had also been deployed with dockyard workers on board – one Lighter, buffeted by the weather, broke free from its mooring and the restraining hawser, now severed, injured several of them. Theories were voiced as to what happened to cause the collision, and it was thought that Hazard’s propellers may have ripped a hole, causing the sudden release of air which implied that there was a sudden inrush of water, and the crew would have been drowned very quickly. The newspapers were quick to write about the problems that the A-Class had had, first with the loss of the A-1, in similar circumstances in the same area, and more recent accidents with and losses of other submarines. Read about HMS Hazard here.
Messages of sympathy were received from King George, Queen Alexandra, President Fallieres of France, the French government, the Naval Attachés of France, Japan, Russia, Turkey, Austria, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the United States of America, the Czar of Russia, the King of Norway, and the Chilean Naval Commission in London. Admiralties of Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States also sent messages. It is noticeable that most of these countries had been or were developing their own submarines.
However, it was not until 12 March 1912 that the A-3 was lifted and taken to the South Lock at Portsmouth harbour, where the water within the submarine was pumped out in two hours, and the crew removed during the night to the RN Hospital Haslar mortuary. The weather had not been kind, gales and rough seas frequently preventing work, and strong currents limited the salvage to short periods between tides when divers could operate in the slack water. There was considerable debate in the media and in Parliament about the availability of Royal Navy salvage vessels and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, assured the House that vessels were available and that a large capacity one was under construction.
The Inquest and Funerals
The inquest was opened at the Haslar hospital on 13 March. Lieutenant Craven, the usual commander of A-3, identified the bodies, testified that he had examined the submarine finding a hole nearly 8 ft (c. 2.44m) long, medical evidence was given that death was due to drowning, and the inquest then adjourned for the funerals that day. Lieutenant Campbell’s body was conveyed for private burial in Oban, Scotland, and the remaining 13 were interred with honours at Haslar Naval Cemetery near where other submariners were buried. Within the Cemetery, the names of those who died aboard A-1, A3, A-5 and A-8 are inscribed on a Grade II listed obelisk, with details here.
The inquest resumed the following day, and evidence was given that Hazard’s rudder had caused the hole in A-3, and that the submarine had struck the Hazard’s port propeller shaft and damaged the propellers. No evidence was found as to why the submarine had struck the Hazard, and an accidental verdict was returned, with no blame attached to anyone.
Final Resting Place
The submarine, without repairs, was towed by the tug Seahorse to Portland and, following some experiments with mines, was used as a target at 2,000 yds (c.1,800m) for HMS St. Vincent, whose third round caused A-3 to sink. In 1993, the wreck was sold by the Admiralty and in 2016, the A-3 became a Protected Wreck, the notice of which includes archaeological remains.
Very soon after the initial sinking, a Disaster Fund for the families was created and the story of Lily Armstrong is particularly sad. Born in 1881, she had in July 1909 married Charles Armstrong, an Engine Room Artificer when he was lost on A-3, and they had two sons, William born in 1910 and George in 1912. In 1919, Lily married Andrew Wallace, and he too was an Engine Room Artificer aboard submarine HMS L-24 when he was lost in another accidental collision in 1924, leaving 11-month-old daughter Lilian, his two step sons and Lily.