The forgotten logbook of a former Royal Navy diver has revealed a fascinating insight into attempts to raise a unique First World War submarine that sank more than 80 years ago as the result of a tragic accident.
The faded and yellowing diary was rediscovered by the family of Plymouth-born Albert “Bob” Smale who, as a 23-year-old recently-qualified navy diver took part in a year-long salvage operation to raise the world’s very first underwater aircraft carrier, HMS M2.
Lee Smale, 62, pictured with his father’s logbook
The world’s first underwater aircraft carrier HMS M2 in action with her two-man Parnell Peto biplane – the ship sank while on a routine training exercise off West Bay, Dorset, in 1932
Lieutenant Commander Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabbe disappeared in the murky waters of Portsmouth Harbour
Albert ‘Bob’ Smale during his Royal Navy career, in which he served as a diver
Lee Smale, 62, of Plymouth, the youngest son of four children born to Bob and Gladys Smale, remembers his father’s logbook from childhood.
He said: “The logbook had always been in the family but we’d never really given it much thought. He died in 1968 but it was only when we began sorting through my mother’s things when she moved into sheltered accommodation that it resurfaced.
“But looking through all his belongings and coming across the logbook again, the family recognised its significance.”
The M2 was one of four “M” class submarines put into service during the First World War and following the cessation of hostilities was modified to carry a small two-seater Parnell Peto biplane.
Intended for aerial reconnaissance during advance scouting missions, the aircraft had hinged wings to allow it to fit within a specially designed watertight hangar. Launched by hydraulic “catapult”, the Peto was recovered via a deck-mounted crane on its return.
On January 26, 1932, during a routine training exercise off West Bay, Dorset, after advising her support vessel of her intention to dive, all contact with the M2 was lost and the submarine disappeared without trace.
A major search ensued but with her position unknown it was eight days before the M2’s location was eventually discovered. All of the vessel’s 60-strong crew lost their lives in the tragedy – believed to be a direct consequence of a failure to secure the submarine’s hangar doors before diving.
Lying upright on the seabed at a depth in excess of 30 metres, the Royal Navy salvage team, hindered by the strong tidal currents that swirled around the M2, worked around the clock for 11 months to seal the hull before filling the vessel with air to refloat the stricken submarine.
However, as the salvage attempt reached its final stage, and only six metres from the surface, a heavy gale resulted in the operation being aborted and the M2 dropped back down to the seabed.
The neat handwritten pages of the logbook initially record Mr Smale’s diver training, but further examination revealed a passage dedicated to the M2 salvage work carried out by himself and his colleagues.
Under a heading entitled “M2 Salvage,” Mr Smale describes the “method of sealing hatches with cement”.
“Hatch is closed down and then a layer of small bags filled with cement is placed on top, and then a few buckets of loose cement is put on to fill in the spaces between bags,” he wrote.
The logbook also contains a detailed hand-drawn illustration of the submarine showing its position, features and amendments before the failed lifting operation.
The difficulties of working at such a depth, contending with strong tides, poor visibility and bad weather while dressed in the heavy brass helmets of the era are also conveyed in detail in a collection of newspaper cuttings pasted among the book’s pages.
The Dorset Echo newspaper reported: “He has an electric torch swung around his neck. The feeble illumination of this helps him when the torch is held close, but his principal asset is a sense of direction acquired by experience and that astonishing sensitiveness of touch which utter darkness gives to a diver as to a man who is blind.”
“My dad had quite a varied and distinguished career,” said Lee, who also has a certificate in recognition of his father’s Mention in Dispatches during the Wanhsien Incident on the Yangtze River, China in 1926.
Going on to achieve the rank of Petty Officer, Bob Smale was a contemporary and close friend of Lionel “Buster” Crabb, the Royal Navy frogman who disappeared in mysterious circumstances at the height of the Cold War.
Lieutenant Commander Crabb, came to prominence for his pioneering work in underwater bomb disposal during the Second World War and while he had all but retired by 1955, just a year later he was recruited by MI6 to investigate an advanced propulsion system used by the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze during the vessel’s visit to the United Kingdom.
On the evening of April 19, 1956, Crabb descended into the murky waters of Portsmouth Harbour on what was to be his final mission and was never seen again.
Several months later the headless and handless corpse of a diver was discovered floating in a nearby harbour, but this was not the end of Commander Crabb’s story.
At the inquest into Crabb’s disappearance, the coroner’s report suggested the body was in all probability that of the missing 47-year-old OBE and George Medal holder – despite the lack of firm evidence which could have been provided by fingerprints or dental records.
Unsurprisingly, various theories abounded as to Crabb’s fate: he was killed by a Soviet sniper; eliminated by MI5 or even defected to the USSR to head their military diving team.
However, Lee Smale is adamant that his father’s friend did not die on that fateful night.
“He and my father were apparently very close and he told members of the family at the time that he didn’t believe for one minute that Crabb was dead,” he said.
With her protected status as a War Grave, the wreck of HMS M2 has now become popular dive site with recreational scuba divers.
Allowed to dive her remains on a “look-but-don’t-touch” basis, the modern-day diver can observe the M2’s final resting place, just as Bob Smale did more than 80 years ago.
Source – This is Cornwall