The real Poseidon adventure
DRAMA AT SEA:A new documentary and book on the ‘Poseidon’ sinking – and subsequent salvage by the Chinese – throws light on the part played by Irish crew members in the dramatic rescue operation, writes CLIFFORD COONAN
THE POSEIDON WAS Britain’s most advanced submarine, a triumph of maritime modernity, when it crashed into a Chinese cargo ship on June 9th, 1931, during naval exercises near the Chinese port of Weihai.
The submarine, which had been travelling on the surface, quickly sank to the bottom of the sea, but what followed in the next few minutes was a tale of heroism and ingenuity that captured the public imagination at the time and led to new safety procedures which saved many lives in subsequent years.
Thirty of the crew members escaped through the hatches in the first few seconds, but the remaining 26 men sank 40 metres to the bottom, eight of these trapped in the watertight forward torpedo room.
Three hours later, led by Petty Officer Patrick Willis, from Kinsale, six of the submariners surfaced, freezing and barely alive, as their shipmates watched, amazed.
They were the first men ever to escape alive from a sunken submarine using a Davis lung, an early forerunner of scuba gear that included a store of pure oxygen and a canvas brake to prevent rising too quickly.
“The escape was incredible, and the way the news hit the headlines in 1931, but then completely disappeared from public consciousness intrigued me,” said Arthur Jones, who has made a new documentary about the incident, called The Poseidon Project.
This is a story with many arcs. There was the ecstatic public reaction to the tales of heroism, which even saw a stirring propaganda film made about the incident.
There was the official response, which saw the Poseidon’s captain, Lt Cmdr Bernard Galpin, blamed for the crash.
Standard navy procedure changed after the use of the Davis lung equipment, which included the development of escape chambers to allow trapped submariners to surface without suffering from the bends caused by a too-rapid ascent.
Within a decade the Second World War was raging and the Poseidon’s story was consigned to history.
The central thread that ties all these themes together is the effort by journalist and scuba teacher Steven Schwankert, a long-time Beijing resident, who spent six years searching for the Poseidon.
“What really drew me in, and kept us involved, was Steven’s obsession with the story. He put six years of his life into it,” said Jones, who plans to show The Poseidon Project at festivals later this year. Scenes from the documentary can be seen online on the website
The documentary follows Schwankert as he tries to piece together the full story of what happened, researching at Weihai and in Britain’s naval archives, meeting success and failure in equal measure.