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.
Schwankert has written a book on the subject, The Real Poseidon Adventure: China’s Secret Salvage of Britain’s Lost Submarine, which is due out next year.
He was captivated by the bravery of the crew and also the achievement in saving the six lives.
“They were essentially asking themselves to do something that no one had ever succeeded in doing before. No one had ever succeeded in escaping from a downed submarine before,” said Schwankert.
He uses contemporary accounts to build a picture of the crew, and a key source is the diary of Petty Officer Walter Jeffery. One of the more vivid descriptions in the Jeffery diary is of Patrick Willis. Born in Kinsale on St Patrick’s Day in 1897, he joined the Royal Navy on March 17th 1915, and had a gallant war, winning medals while serving on surface ships during the First World War.
The picture of Willis, whose nickname was “Spike”, that emerges in Jeffery’s account, is not flattering. His “two obsessions were beer and women, and his observations upon women were vile and obscene. He upset many a young married man in the crew with his coarse and pointed remarks.” But he was all business when it came to his duties and this clearly counted for much when he led the survivors to the surface. Another crew member, Vincent Nagle, was also from Cork.
During his five-year search, Schwankert meets with descendants of crew members who died, two of whom later travel to the site of the sinking to lay a wreath and search for a memorial to the men who died.
Some of the most moving moments in the documentary are when the descendants come across new information about what happened on that day, and what became of the Poseidon and its crew. There is one moving scene where we see David Clarke watching old newsreel footage and seeing, for the first time, his grandfather, survivor Reginald Clarke, receiving a medal.
There are fresh, often uncomfortable revelations about how the crew members escaped, such as looking at some of the tough decisions Willis had to make when trying to rescue the crew.
There is also the remarkable discovery that the Poseidon had been raised by the Chinese in 1972. The documentary also tries to find the original gravestones of the crew members who died.
“What I can say is that I feel absolutely, stupidly lucky for stumbling on the story of the Poseidon,” says Schwankert.
The Real Poseidon Adventure: China’s Secret Salvage of Britain’s Lost Submarine by Steven Schwankert is due out next year, published by Hong Kong University Press