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Thetis Down: The Slow Death of a Submarine

 

Tony Booth

Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Maritime, 2008

15.4 x 23.3 cm format, paperback, 220 pages

36 B&W illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index

MSRP £14.99

ISBN: 978 1 52676 660 1

 

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One aspect of being enthusiastic about history in general and naval history in particular is that there exists a seemingly endless list of people and events of whom one has never previously heard. With apologies to our UK members, the accidental sinking of HMS Thetis in 1939 was for me one such subject. It's difficult to review a book like Thetis Down without giving away too many plot spoilers, but I will try. The essentials of the incident are these: HMS Thetis was a T-Class submarine launched in the spring of 1939. On 1 June she departed Liverpool for her diving trials with 103 souls aboard; 99 of them would not return alive. It remains to this day the worst submarine disaster in Royal Navy history. Interesting side note: Thetis actually sank twice, in the latter instance with all hands -- but I'll leave it to you to read the hows and whys of that for yourselves.

 

Thetis Down is a narrative by parts. Roughly the first 40% of the book chronicles the events of the sinking and the various attempts made to rescue the crew. Those attempts took the better part of two days. Thanks to the fact that Thetis sank in relatively shallow water, four people were able to evacuate her via an escape chamber. Why only four? Of course, you'll need to read the book to find that out. Because those four escaped, and more particularly because of who those four were, we are given a fair amount of information regarding events inside the boat on that fateful day. It's a very moving story, especially because 103 is nearly double the normal complement of a T-Class boat. Why were so many people aboard? Again -- read the book to find out! This much I will divulge -- when the contributing factors of the accident are divulged, it really says something striking about just how technologically and mentally demanding the task of operating a submarine is, and how terribly unforgiving the slightest neglect of any aspect of that operation can be.

 

The rest of the book is about evenly split between an account of salvaging the boat and a description of the various tribunals and legal proceedings that followed. Tony Booth does an excellent job both of researching these events and elucidating them in his book. I only wish that my personal interest in the scope of these latter subjects was equal to his effort in setting them to paper. For me, the high point of the book is naturally the drama of the sinking and attempted rescue. That portion of the book is a real page turner. The salvage I also found fairly interesting because of its particularly macabre nature. The legal wranglings though? Meh -- not so much. That's not Mr. Booth's fault by any means -- it's just that I'm not a fan of courtroom dealings, regardless of how pertinent they might be to the subject.  Other folks may find this portion absorbing.

 

It's not hard to see how the sinking of Thetis might not loom large in the memory of those of us on this side of the pond. After all, it was a British boat, and events on the world's stage a mere three months later made the loss of a single submarine pale in significance. Interestingly, though, Thetis played a part in those later events, both in action at sea and in changes to submarine design and operation put into effect as a result of scrutinizing her tragic accident. But I won't divulge too much about those -- if you are a fan of all things "silent service," I can definitely recommend this as a book to add to your library. Lastly, the story of HMS Thetis may not be entirely over -- Booth informs the reader that there still exist to this day sealed records related to the accident. So perhaps at some future date Mr. Booth will need to issue a revised and updated edition of his work. Stay tuned!

 

CDC

 

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