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Today in history… first loss of war was a double tragedy

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Just a week into the Second World War, Britain lost her first submarine of the six-year conflict, but the true and tragic circumstances of the loss of HMS Oxley would not be revealed until many years later.

Built by Vickers-Armstrong at Barrow-in-Furness, HMS Oxley (pictured) was an Odin-class submarine named after sailor and explorer John Oxley. Launched in 1926, she and a sister-sub, HMS Otway, were commissioned into the Royal Australian Navy, together making what was then the longest journey by any submarine unescorted by a surface vessel.

Unfortunately, once in Australia, they became something of a white elephant. The worsening financial conditions which led to the Great Depression meant the underfunded Australian Navy could barely afford to operate the new submarines, apart from regular diving exercises to keep them operational.

Eventually, ongoing maintenance costs for the two submarines prompted the Australian government to offer them to the British Royal Navy and they set sail from Sydney in April 1931. Once back in British waters they were based at Portsmouth as part of the Royal Navy’s 5th Submarine Flotilla.

By the late 1930s HMS Oxley was already considered outdated and nearing the end of her operational life, but the outbreak of war in September 1939 meant all vessels were immediately pressed into active service. HMS Oxley and her crew of 54 were assigned to patrol duties off the coast of Norway, and it was there that she would meet her ignominious fate 80 years ago today, on September 10th, 1939.

Oxley was one of five British submarines assigned to patrol sections of the Norwegian coast. Another was HMS Triton, a more modern design launched just two years previously. Shortly before 9pm on September 10th, Triton was on the surface to recharge her batteries when her lookout spotted an object in the water some distance off her port bow.

It was soon recognised as another submarine, surfaced and lying low in the water. Over a period of several minutes, Triton’s signalman sent three challenges using the box lamp ­– a system of communicating with flashing lights – but none were answered. Triton’s Commander wondered if the other boat might be HMS Oxley, but she was meant to be patrolling much further away.

When Triton’s crew were unable to identify the suspect vessel from her silhouette a fourth challenge was sent, this time in the form of three green rifle-grenade flares. When still no response came, Triton’s commander decided he was looking at a German U-boat and gave the order to launch two torpedoes. Less than a minute later, an explosion was heard.

When Triton moved into the area to investigate, cries for help were heard and three men were spotted struggling in the water amid oil and debris. Two were pulled to safety, but the third disappeared under the surface before he could be rescued.

To their horror, the rescuers realised the men were British, one of them HMS Oxley’s commanding officer and another a lookout. The three men had been on HMS Oxley’s deck when the torpedo struck, but there were no other survivors.

A Board of Enquiry, held in secret, found Triton’s commander had done all he could in the circumstances to make contact with the other vessel and could not be blamed for assuming she was an enemy U-boat. Oxley had been out of position and failed to respond to any of Triton’s challenges.

It was quickly agreed that the loss of Oxley to ‘friendly fire’ would be extremely bad for morale so early in the war, so a story was concocted that an accidental explosion had sunk the ageing submarine. After the war ended, pressure for more details from family members of Oxley’s crew led to a new claim that Oxley had sunk after a collision with Triton. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the full truth surrounding the sinking was finally made public.

All of Oxley’s crew are commemorated on the Dundee International Submarine Memorial, since she was operating out of Dundee when she was lost.

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