Raising a glass of birthday brandy

spender_2038844fAs I write this, I raise a small glass of brandy and ginger and pronounce a toast to my father, Tony Spender.  He died almost two years ago, in October 2011 but today, May 8, would have been his 93rd birthday, an occasion to be marked by the far-flung clan with several glasses of the hard stuff.

Over the years, his birthday, which he always pointed out was also VE Day, would usually involve one or two of my siblings, and the occasional nephew or niece, taking both of our parents down the short walk to the Kingsdon Inn, a thatched Somerset pub lying next to a village green unchanged over the centuries except for the small children’s playground by the entrance.

And there they would enjoy a birthday meal and a decent bottle of wine, accompanied perhaps by some virulent talk on the fools in Westminster or Brussels. My father would invariably fiddle with his ear trumpet and miss the punchline which would annoy him intensely. But there would be laughter and perhaps a few anecdotes.

Many of my father’s own anecdotes sprung from his adventures as a submarine captain during the Second World War. Those six years, which took him from the age of 19 to 25, were his growing up time, they were scored across his being as if with a branding iron. Even in his later years, when events of yesterday became a touch vague, he could remember events of 70 years earlier with clarity and precision.

One of the best known-stories which I always enjoyed hearing him tell – especially after I had seen the film Morning Departure – was about the time in 1943 when his new submarine HMS Sirdar plummeted to the bottom of the ocean during sea trials and got stuck in the mud.  He wrote about it in his memoirs and it led his obituary in the Daily Telegraph.

The way he told it was always modest, as if events that day had been decreed by the Almighty and that he just got on with his job. And he was lucky that he got it right.

It was only as I grew older that I began to recognise how good he must have been as a leader of men. A submarine full of sailors stuck at the bottom of the ocean staring death in the face. The tension, the atmosphere, it only needed one to crack and surely the rest would follow. And yet he held it together.

“I think there was one fellow who got the wobbles,” he told me. “But we just locked him in my cabin and got on with it.”

Of course, tales of this sort when told among the family can take on a life of their own so it is always interesting to discover an alternate view of the same event. Hence, I was fascinated after his death to find a slim book in his study called More Submarine Memories (published by the Gatwick Submarine Archive, 1997) in which one of the crew of HMS Sirdar, Ben Stokes, gives his view of what happened that day. It isn’t exactly the same as my dad’s view of things but then they had different roles. What is slightly awesome for a son is to read about how his father is viewed by the men he commanded.

Here is an edited version of Ben Stokes’ account, for which I thank him heartily.

 “For those of you who are not Christians, thank God!”

What better end to an ordeal than those words spoken by our CO on the evening of 25th September 1943.

HMS Sirdar

That morning at 0800, we slipped our wires and set our course to carry out the necessary trials and working up practices to enable us to become operational. Our destination was Loch Ranza off the Isle of Arran to rendezvous with our sparring partner (a motor yacht) to carry out all the necessary evasion and attack programmes laid out to examine the competence of the CO and the crew.

This was the usual procedure with new boats and new crews; for 80 percent of the crew this was going to be their first operational boat, our ages varied, all from different walks of life.

We were in Loch Ranza. Diving stations. I was in the W/T office, my diving station was at the Navigator’s table on the attack log and responsible for Q tank. As I stepped out of the W/T office and into the Control Room, the klaxon sounded. Then it happened. An uncontrolled and unbelievable dive.

With our foreplanes not operating due to some malfunction, we plunged down at an angle, completely out of control, eventually hitting the seabed with some speed at approximately 460ft for’d and 440ft aft. On the way down, due to the angle, all of us in the Control Room were hurled forward to land on a deck that was covered with a few inches of bilge water.

The ERA (Engine Room Artificer) had opened  the main ballast tanks to dive had been unable to shut them. He was thrown towards the Wardroom.

The severity of the plunge caused all the bulk head doors to come off their clips.

It was while I was gripping the aft periscope standard that I had the amazing experience to witness true grit and endeavor at its best. Our Captain had obviously shut the upper hatch and he literally fell from the top of the coning tower to the bottom, arriving in the Control Room with one arm attached to the bottom rung of the Control Room ladder – keeping his balance he stretched over to shut the main vents.

With the two depth gauges in the Control Room flickering the gravity of the situation, we all wondered what we were going to do next.

And that came down to one man.  Our CO. The man in charge.

With the severity of the plunge we had one casualty. Our cook had a nasty leg wound, caused by the bulkhead door coming off its clip. His blood flowed freely as the bilge water but the west country Coxswain eased his pain.

The rest of us assumed our various stations albeit with difficulty. Because of the angle you could not stand upright. You had to hold on to something. Anything.


At this depth we knew there was little hope of escaping with the aid of our trusted DSEA escape apparatus. We awaited to the Captain’s orders. With deliberate intention he called for reports, fore and aft, of any damage. We were relieved to hear that all was in order. He then made clear our position; we were nose first in a sandy bottom, at an angle and at great depth. Our aim now was to loosen ourselves free.

Sirdar 1 001
Members of the crew of HMS Sirdar in the Pacific

“Full astern, both motors,” came the order. But all we heard was a continuous grinding noise. No movement, no relief. The next plan was fire our underwater gun, which was aft. This would at least give those up top an indication of our position, not that they could do anything about it.

More attempts at full astern were all unsuccessful and with time progressing towards midday our Captain issued orders that we should try to relieve some of the weight up for’d by shifting it to the after end. It was here that the crew came into its own. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, we now all had a job to do and that broke the tension. Jokes began to fly, most of them unprintable, about life in the navy. Anything of weight was dragged from the fore ends to aft. Because of the angle, though, most had to be hauled along the deck.

Time passed unnoticed. A few orders were given; full astern but again no movement. Getting on now towards 1700; it seemed a lifetime. But food or drink never entered our heads at any stage. My only thought in moments of silence was the sadness that my wife would experience on the notification of my demise by telegram the following day, September 26th, our first wedding anniversary.

Our Captain now made it plain that he would keep on trying our motors and pumping everything out; that would be our best chance of extricating ourselves. Exhaustion was evident, concern was apparent but faith was in the man in charge. The blowing of the tanks and the grinding of the motors made the atmosphere in the Control Room one of unbelievable hope and expectation.

With the pumping out and the shifting of the weight all went well. Within minutes all eyes were on depth gauges rising rapidly. Relief turned to euphoria. Our ordeal was over; we were on the surface. What a feeling. Words were lost; instead a series of determined handshakes, broad grins and I am sure a few muffled prayers.

Our natural jubilation was halted by the order from Spender.

“Up periscope.”

HMS Sirdar came through its brush with the mud and went to have a distinguished war in the Pacific
HMS Sirdar came through its brush with the mud and went on to have a distinguished war in the Pacific

A swift look around, down periscope. Then without any emotion although visibly relieved, he reminded us all we had to thank Him up top. The Captain then told us that we had mud clinging to our forecasing as aft as our gun platform – it was later found out after our dry dock inspection we had two large rocks embedded in our torpedo apertures.

We returned to our depot ship at approximately 1900 having had a period of 11 hours on the bottom. I can never express fully the relief and jubilation that prevailed throughout the boat.

We had a boat which had performed miraculously at a very deep depth, a captain who kept his cool and a crew now closely knitted together through calamity. Our faith and confidence for the future was centred on one man, our CO. And after 53 years I am still at a loss to understand why there was no recognition of Lt Spender’s courage, resourcefulness and bravery on September 25th 1943.

Like my father, Ben Stokes has also passed away now. But I hope the pair of them and their other shipmates are enjoying an extra brandy in whichever celestial bar they happen to find themselves.

Happy birthday – and cheers!

©Barney Spender 2013