Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A British Submariner took the helm in Tenerife

Ever since 1892, when the Reverend Thomas Gifford Nash took the first service at the newly built All Saints Church in Puerto de la Cruz, on the island of Tenerife, it has been a source of comfort and strength to thousands of residents and visitors. The beautiful church is one of the pillars of the British community in the Canary Islands and has been proudly served by a flock of faithful members of the congregation, always willing to give of themselves to maintain a strong sense of community.

All Saints Church, Tenerife (courtesy All Saints Church, Puerto de la Cruz)

But All Saints, to survive all these years in a foreign land, through crisis, two world wars, a civil war, and dwindling worshipers in modern times has also required the patient leadership of a good many dedicated chaplains, some of whom have stood the test better than others. Almost every one of them made a valuable contribution to the spiritual life of the British community. Nevertheless, as in the case of so many quiet-living British residents who have come and gone, some of them also had untold, brilliant and sometimes remarkable careers before arriving on the island.

Canon George Seaver, for example, who was chaplain at All Saints for a short time in the 1960s, was an Irish bachelor who had served for many years in the Colonial Office. During his posting to Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, as District Commissioner he became interested in missionary work and began to investigate the life of Dr David Livingstone. In fact he wrote a remarkable biography of the Scottish missionary. Whilst serving at All Saints in Puerto de la Cruz he was amazed to come across descendants of Livingstone’s great friend and his family's benefactor, James Young of Durris, Scotland.

James Young (from "Parrafin Young and Friends", by Mary Muir Leitch)

As a personal anecdote, George Seaver came to see me in 1968 when I was a schoolboy in England and presented me with a book “The Adventures of Bam” which he had written for his niece, Rosemary. It is about a little African boy in what is now Zambia. In an envelope tucked inside the book was an accompanying letter in which he told me to let my mother read the book once I returned home to Tenerife. You see, he knew that my mother had grown up in Rhodesia and that she would probably appreciate it more than I.

The Adventures of Bam (from my private collection)

Another example was the Reverend Canon Rupert Philip Lonsdale. He was born in Dublin in 1905 and educated at St. Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne. He joined the Royal Navy straight from Royal Naval College, Osborne on the Isle of Wight in 1919. His career was meteoric, from entering the submarine branch of the RN in 1927 to being promoted Lt. Commander in 1936.  

Lt. Commander Rupert Philip Lonsdale (photograph courtesy of the Daily Telegraph)

After gaining valuable experience as a submarine captain in three different and ageing vessels, Lt. Commander Lonsdale was given command of a new mine-laying submarine, HMS Seal. It was a Porpoise Class submarine, built at the Chatham Dockyards and launched in 1938. The submarine was commissioned in January 1939 and in August Lonsdale received orders to sail to the China Sea. He was to join the 4th Submarine Flotilla which was based there. On the way, whilst taking on supplies at Aden, war against Germany was declared. Two days later, on 5th September, HMS Seal began her first series of wartime patrols off the southern entrance to the Red Sea. 

In Will Not We Fear, Warren and Benson refer to Seal’s company as “one of the biggest collection of scallywags that the Submarine Service could put together” and that Lonsdale was considered “too much of a gentleman to be a good submarine captain”. Nevertheless, it soon became very clear that, in his quiet and fair manner, he had turned the crew into a very gallant and professional team and that every man held their commanding officer in very high esteem.

HMS Seal (courtesy - Royal Navy Photos)

Lonsdale was ordered to take Seal back to Portsmouth at the end of September. Just four days after docking he received orders to begin the first of many successful patrols carried out during the following six months, in the North Sea and in the Atlantic escorting convoys. On 30th April, 1940 he set sail from Immingham in the Humber estuary where he had been equipped with a complete outfit of mines. It was to be Seal's 11th war mission and Lonsdale's new orders were to begin laying a mine barrier south of the Swedish island of Vinga in the Skagettak channel. The plan was to disrupt German iron ore ships on their transport route to Norway

In spite of HMS Seal being too large to operate in such waters, and continuously needing to dodge German anti-submarine trawlers and machine-gunning spotter-planes, Lonsdale persisted until the early hours of 4th May, 1940 when his submarine was attacked by a German HE 115 aircraft from Aalborg.

Damage was only slight and Lonsdale completed laying his last 50 mines in the required location. But the incident with the aircraft marked the beginning of the end for the submarine because the aircraft had alerted German surface ships and the hunt was on. Evasive action forced Rupert Lonsdale to take Seal into an uncharted minefield and that same afternoon the submarine’s hydroplanes caught on a German mine-mooring wire. The subsequent explosion sent the Seal to the seabed with damage to the stern and severe flooding. There was no option. They would have to lay low on the seabed and try to carry out urgent damage control until it was after dark before attempting to surface.

Unfortunately the submarine appeared to have also become entangled in nets and cables. Three attempts to release his ship failed and the situation became desperate. The lights began to dim as a result of failing batteries, electrical short-circuits were fouling the little air available and the carbon dioxide was slowing everyone down. Even so, Lonsdale continued ordering that various emergency measures be taken. Although these had no effect, the crew were highly impressed by their Captain’s quiet resolution and faith. In fact, it may have been his deep faith that saved his crew from certain death. 

Lt. Commander Lonsdale summoned as many members of the crew who could climb the steeply sloping submarine to prayers in the control room. In a firm and steady voice he recited the Lord’s Prayer and a prayer of his own whilst one last attempt was made to move the stranded submarine by blowing tanks and using the motors again. Whether it was Lonsdale’s prayers, the weight of most of the crew in the control room shifting the balance, the final technical attempts or a combination of all, HMS Seal suddenly became un-stuck and began to rise to the surface. 

Once on the surface it was clear the steering gear was damaged. Even so, Lonsdale attempted to take the submarine into Swedish waters by putting the engines in reverse. It was impossibly slow progress and an hour after surfacing HMS Seal was spotted by a German AR 196 seaplane. Oberleutnant Mehrens, the pilot, attacked HMS Seal with two bombs and machine gun fire. A few minutes later a second seaplane flown by Oberleutnant Schmidt joined in and several of Seal’s crew members were injured. The British submarine put up a good fight with its Lewis gun until this jammed. Lt. Commander Rupert Lonsdale made various attempts to scuttle his submarine and he assumed it would end up sinking, but she remained afloat, albeit listing heavily. In the end he placed the survival of his crew first, waved a white wardroom table cloth in capitulation and swam across to one of the seaplanes, surrendering HMS Seal to Oberleutnant Schmidt.  Indeed it was the two seaplane pilots that actually carried out the formalities of capturing the British submarine before German surface craft arrived on the scene and towed the submarine to the German base at Keel.

The stricken and surrendered HMS Seal being towed towards Keel 
(Note what may have been the wardroom tablecloth on the number one periscope)

HMS Seal was the only British ship to have surrendered during the war and Rupert Lonsdale is thought to have never forgiven himself although he and his crew had managed to destroy most of any sensitive documents. The Germans made a great deal of propaganda over the capture, of course. They repaired the submarine and used her for training exercises. They also used the Seal’s torpedo technology to improve their own design.

Lonsdale and his crew spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war, during which time he found increasing comfort in Christianity. Upon release in 1945 he was mentioned in dispatches for his services as a POW and promoted to Commander. But he also faced a court martial, the usual consequence for losing a ship. The Court, having heard all the evidence and how the crew supported their captain, acquitted Lonsdale with honour after just half an hour and he was greeted by cheering fellow officers and crew members outside.

Lonsdale commanded a minesweeper until he retired in 1947 to join the church. He became vicar of Morden and Almer in Dorset in 1951 but then decided to take on the chaplaincy of the Oasin Gishu district of Kenya from 1952 until 1958. After a short spell as rector of Bentworth and Shalden in the Winchester diocese he returned to Kenya and became Canon of Maseno in 1964. He was vicar of Thomham with Titchwell in Norfolk from 1965 until his retirement in 1970. It was then that he spent three very happy years as chaplain at All Saints in Puerto de la Cruz.

By John Reid Young

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

Author of books "A SHARK IN THE BATH AND OTHER STORIES" and "THE SKIPPING VERGER AND OTHER TALES", collections of short stories set in Tenerife and the Canary Islands". (For more information click on the images to the right of this page).

Owner of Tenerife Private Tours....

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