Dateline: September 21, 1918: We occasionally hear tell of people trapped in submarines and when such stories appear, our hearts can only go out to them and we pray that the serendipitous hand of fate will make some adjustment in which to benefit the outcome in favour of life.
So it must have been heartening on September 21, 1918, to read the story of one ‘British stoker’, locked alone in a submarine boiler room, trapped in near darkness, with rising waters, regularly receiving electric shocks from the partially submerged equipment around him and still suffering from the effects of chlorine gas and as if all that wasn’t enough, labouring on with a badly crushed hand.
This stalwart had already tried and failed to open the escape hatch on six occasions, his submarine having sunken due to an accident in home waters.
But, as the story explains, he kept his head to the last and at the seventh attempt, as the waters crept up so high that he had to tilt his head against the metal wall of the interior, he succeeded in opening the hatch.
The petty officer had earlier selflessly made sure others made it to the conning tower to escape and was on route there himself when the submarine lurched, taking on a great volume of water. To avoid drowning he had to lock himself in the engine room. Sea water combined with the batteries to produce chlorine gas.
Most remarkable of all, though, was the manner of his escape, because in order to equalise pressure and open the escape hatch, he had to let more water into the engine room.
This he did, thrice attempting to open the hatch and once trapping his fingers in the process. With “air up to the coaming of the hatch”, he finally managed to break free.