This is the story of a young submariner, a stoker on board HMS Stratagem, who was killed during the Second World War.
Derek Dracup was a very distant relation of mine – a sixth cousin I believe – but his untimely death has haunted me since I first found him in my family tree.
This post about him, his submarine and his fellow crew is based exclusively on material available online. I do not have access to his service record.
I hope that relatives of all hands on board HMS Stratagem will see this as fitting testimony to their bravery and a memorial of sorts.
If they would care to provide further details or photographs – especially of Derek himself – I will add them below.
Derek’s family background
Derek was born on 22 September 1923 in Sunderland.
His mother was Mary Elsie Edna Dracup (nee Copping) (1899-1976) and his father George Edward Dracup (1896-1982). They were married in Darlington in February 1922.
Most Dracups can trace their family tree back to one of the sons of the celebrated early Methodist Nathaniel Dracup (1728-1798). Whereas I am descended from second son Thomas, Derek was descended from youngest son George (1775-1851).
His great grandfather, Edward Dracup (1841-1929), had been born in Bradford, living there and in Halifax prior to his marriage to Catherine Hall (1849-1903), a resident of Newcastle.
Their eldest son and Derek’s grandfather, George Enoch (1869-1946), was born in Newburn, Northumberland. By 1871 the family was living in Jarrow, but then moved to Newcastle in the late 1870s.
Edward was originally an engine turner, but the 1901 census describes him as a ‘marine engineer’ and the 1911 census as a fitter and turner employed in marine engineering. The family also has a lodger – a chief engine room artificer with the Royal Navy.
George Enoch became a merchant seaman in 1888. By October 1897, at the age of 28, he had achieved his certificate of competency as master of a foreign-going steamship.
The retired master mariner must have been a strong influence on his young grandson.
But George Edward – Derek’s father and George Enoch’s son – did not follow in the latter’s footsteps.
The 1911 census shows him still at school aged 15. During the First World War he served in neither the Royal Navy nor the Merchant Navy, but as a company quartermaster sergeant in the Royal Army Service Corps.
The London Gazette of 3 February 1920 confirms his appointment as an Assistant Inspector in the Insurance Department of the Ministry of Health.
By 1939 he is a fully-fledged inspector living with his wife, two children and a lodger (an assistant inspector at the same ministry) at 70 Claygate Lane, Esher, Surrey, a substantial four-bedroomed property in the commuter belt, far away from the sea.
Derek’s 1939 register entry is closed, but it is quite likely that he too is still at school. I could trace no published details of his early life.
Joining the WW2 submarine service
In September 1939 conscription was imposed on all males aged 18-41, apart from those medically exempt or in reserved occupations. Exemption from service overseas for those aged under 20 was removed in 1942.
So Derek became eligible for conscription from September 1941 and eligible for overseas service the following year. His most likely course would have been to serve initially on surface vessels before volunteering for the submarine service.
But it seems that a fair proportion of British submariners were conscripted directly into the service during the second half of the War (whereas service as a US submariner remained voluntary). One source says that conscripts were signed up for three years whereas volunteers served five.
US submariners also seem to have developed the practice of rotating out of their boats after four successive war patrols, but I could find no evidence that this was the norm for Royal Navy submariners, although more experienced men could and did move fairly frequently between boats.
In the absence of his service record it seems reasonably likely that Derek joined the Stratagem when the crew was first formed – and remained part of the crew until his untimely death.
Submarines had a reputation for danger and limited life expectancy, reinforced by Churchill’s famous statement in 1943:
‘Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariner. Great deeds are done in the air and on the land; nevertheless nothing surpasses your exploits.’
Estimates of life expectancy vary. Different sources suggest 60 days for German U-boat crew towards the end of the war, four successive patrols for US submariners in the Far East (hence the practice of rotation) and (an approximately equivalent) 12 months for Royal Navy submariners in the Mediterranean.
Roughly one-third of British wartime submarines were lost (74 of 206) as well as 3,142 British submariners. The number of fatalities was greater than the total number of British submariners at the outbreak of the War – and about one third of the total complement of 9,316 in March 1945.
But casualties were far higher at the outbreak of the war. In 1939-40 the British casualty rate was around 28%, falling to about 3% in 1944-45 when only five submarines were lost. Losses were also far greater in the Mediterranean and the North Sea than in the Far East.
Almost 3,200 men served in submarines in the Far East, of which 166 were killed and just eight became prisoners of war (all eight were members of Stratagem’s crew).
Some 22% (3,506) of US submariners who served during the war were also killed – the highest proportional fatality rate across all US military services – and 52 of their submarines were lost.
But I encountered reports that some merchant mariners chose submarine service as the safer option – and even a suggestion that submarine warfare was preferred by some because the chances of being badly maimed were lower: the likely alternative to survival intact was certain death!
The additional pay and extra rations might have been quite powerful incentives, although Royal Navy supplements amounted to roughly six shillings per day.
The US submarine service was more generous. One source recalls:
‘All personnel on Submarines got 50% submarine money and 20% sea duty pay. When added together [that] added up to about 80% extra pay.’
Another mentions an additional 10% ‘hazardous duty pay’.
Entry to the submarine service was fairly selective, involving medical and dental examinations, and the stiffness of submarine training was renowned on both sides of the Atlantic.
Wartime Royal Navy submariners undertook a six to eight week basic training course. One rite of passage was the business of learning how to escape in a test tank at HMS Dolphin, Gosport, using Davis Submerged Escape Apparatus (DSEA).
But this was not fully compulsory during the War – and the wartime tank was only 15 feet deep (compared with 100 feet from 1954 onwards).
This picture shows DSEA training underway in December 1942
Young naval officers were attracted into the service by the prospect of an early command – relatively few wartime submarine captains reached the age of 30.
Other ranks report finding submarines less hierarchical, less concerned with the artificial distinction between officers and men, regardless of competency and experience.
They enjoyed their reputation as ‘the silent service’, cultivating a certain piratical, devil-may-care attitude that was tolerated by officialdom because it helped to attract a steady stream of potential new recruits.
The obvious example is the practice of boats flying a ‘Jolly Roger’ flag, a WW1 invention revived in 1941, initially by HMS Osiris.
According to Wikipedia:
‘After this, the commanders of submarine flotillas began to issue the flags to submarines following the boat’s first successful patrol. Once handed over, it became the responsibility of the boat’s personnel to maintain the flag and update it with new symbols indicating the submarine’s achievements. A submarine was entitled to fly the flag when returning from a successful patrol: it would be hoisted as the submarine passed the boom net, lowered at sunset, and could not be flown again until another successful patrol had occurred. The Jolly Roger could also be flown on the day a submarine returned to the UK from a successful overseas deployment. Although some sources claim that all British submarines used the flag, the practice was not taken up by those submarine commanders who saw it as boastful and potentially inaccurate, as sinkings could not always be confirmed.’
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum holds several examples. There are many photographs online, including the picture below, showing the crew of HMS Utmost in Holy Loch.
This was taken in February 1942. In November of the same year Utmost was lost with all hands off Sicily.
I could find no photograph of HMS Stratagem’s crew showing off a Jolly Roger. But Stratagem was a slow starter – and also the most recently launched British submarine lost during the War.
Here is an American source capturing the nature of his fellow submariners:
‘The submarine sailor was a very irreverent individual with an avid distaste for regulations, etc. The average life span of a submarine sailor was four patrols (about a year). Despite bravado, that thought prevailed to varying degrees depending upon the individual. That premise however, was unsaid but used as an excuse for hell-raising…
…Submarine Officers and crews were very young – anyone past thirty was a very old man…
…Virtually all disciplinary action was handled internally on the boat…Unless there was a serious offence personnel transferred with a clean record.’
The photograph of HMS Stratagem (P234) below was taken in September 1943 and shows her underway on the River Mersey shortly after construction.
Stratagem was a medium-sized S class submarine, a type originally designed in the 1930s to patrol the North Sea and the Mediterranean.
She was ordered under the War Emergency Programme on 3 August 1941 and built by Cammell Laird at Birkenhead.
The keel was laid on 15 April 1942. The launch took place on 21 June 1943 about 14 months later. Following trials the submarine was commissioned on 9 October 1943.
She was placed initially under the command of Temporary Lieutenant R L ‘Bob’ Willoughby of the Royal Naval Reserve, with effect from 15 July 1943. He held the command for some eight months.
Stratagem left Birkenhead on 24 September 1943, arriving the following day at Holy Loch, the Royal Navy’s submarine base on the Firth of Clyde, for three months of trials and crew training. She was officially part of the Third Flotilla, serviced by depot ship HMS Forth.
It seems likely that Derek would have joined the submarine at this point, having completed initial training at Gosport, shortly before his 20th birthday.
This photograph shows HMS Graph (P715) – an ex U-boat commissioned by the Royal Navy in September 1941 – and HMS Unbroken (P42) active in Holy Loch. HMS Sturgeon (73S) and HMS Tigris (N63) are moored in the foreground.
HMS Stratagem had the following characteristics:
- Displacement: 814-872 tons surfaced and 990 tons fully submerged
- Length: 217 feet
- Beam: 23 feet six inches
- Draught: 11 feet
- Diving depth: 350 feet
- Engine power: 1,900 horsepower surfaced; 1,300 horsepower submerged
- Engines: two 950hp 8-cylinder diesels on the surface; two 650hp Admiralty electric motors submerged; two shafts
- Speed: 14.75 knots surfaced and 8-9 knots submerged
- Fuel load: 98 tons
- Endurance: 6,000 miles
- Complement: 48 officers and men (five officers; six in the Far East)
- Armament: seven 21-inch torpedo tubes (six forward, one aft) carrying 13 torpedoes; one three-inch deck gun, one 20mm oerliken anti-aircraft cannon and three 7.7mm machine guns.
One website explains that:
‘Like other WW2 Royal Navy submarines, with the exception of the U and V Classes…the S Class had direct drive. The power train arrangement was as follows:
The electric motors could be used as generators when the diesels were propelling in direct drive, either to charge the batteries or float the hotel (auxiliary) load. Also, in harbour with the tail clutch out, the diesels and electric motors could be used as stand-alone generating sets.’
‘To extend their radius of action, submarines operating in the Far East during the war had some of their main ballast tanks converted to oil fuel tanks, increasing the fuel load from 72 tons to a maximum of 98 tons. All boats stationed in this theatre proceeded on patrol carrying as much additional stores as possible particularly food and ammunition stowed in all manner of unlikely spaces (an ammunition locker was placed under the Wardroom table, and shells were even stored in the engine room). Naturally, this practice became a matter of some concern and, although strict regulations were imposed on the stowage of ammunition (particularly regarding temperature requirements), the rules were never completely adhered to. By these measures, the S boats managed to achieve long patrol times in operational areas; the record of 49 days was set by Sirdar.’
This detailed diagram below (click to enlarge) shows the basic design of S class submarines.
The main engine room is located to the rear of the anti-aircraft gun mounted aft of the conning tower, with the motor room directly behind. The rear escape hatch is located just aft of this, in the stoker’s mess, but there is also a hatch above the engine room itself.
Derek Dracup served as a Stoker first class and would have worn a badge on his upper sleeve showing a three-bladed propeller with a star above it.
This is the badge worn by the submariner in the foreground of the picture at the head of the post, for stokers were responsible for operating and maintaining the engines, motors and batteries.
Originally they had been tasked with shovelling coal into the furnaces powering the steam engines but, with the advent of oil-power, their role changed to that of technician, mechanic or marine engineer
The engine room (known in submariner slang as ‘the donk shop’) was their natural habitat.
This picture shows two Royal Navy stokers aboard HMS Sturgeon, prior to this boat being loaned to the Netherlands Navy in October 1943.
Life aboard a WW2 submarine
There is some powerful testimony to illustrate the hardships endured by wartime submariners, though much of it records the US experience (and British submariners were envious of the size and comparative luxury of their boats).
These extracts are from ‘Life in a submarine’ the transcript of an interview with Royal Navy Leading Signalman Derek Traylen in August 1944 (courtesy of BBC2 People’s War):
‘When out on a patrol, which may last several weeks, nobody washes, shaves or even undresses. Not that we are lazy or want to be dirty, but it’s against orders. There is only enough water carried for drinking purposes. You see there are such a lot of gadgets and the space is so limited that it’s impossible to carry more. You can imagine we get very dirty and oily but we are all in the same boat…
… Down below it gets pretty hot and sticky after a few hours. We only have the air we take down with us because if more air was let in from bottles for instance, it would increase the pressure which is already great enough. As it is all we feel like doing is sleeping which is in fact encouraged, to save that precious thing called oxygen, for when a chap is asleep he uses less than if we were awake. Of course smoking is not allowed when dived, but we may smoke on the surface except on the bridge as a lighted cigarette could be seen for miles. Off watch, pastimes are many and varied, cards, chess and ludo are the favourites, but some fellows make things with pen knives and pieces of wood, others prefer metal-work…
…There are all kinds of chaps aboard from different walks of life, each with his own fad or fancy which could get on the nerves of the rest of the crew, living cramped together as we do, if one didn’t quickly learn the lesson of tolerance. Some joined the submarine service for revenge, others for the excitement. The only thing they didn’t join for, and get most of, is monotony…
…Food is not like I used to get at home. It’s mostly tinned and dehydrated. Tinned ham and beef may sound good for a change but after a few weeks of it, it doesn’t sound so appetising. We only have one meal a day or should I say night. It’s this way. A submarine “day” is at night when for a few hours he is on the surface and it’s the only time the small electric galley can be used to prepare the food for us. Incidentally, officers and men get exactly the same food…
…Usually we are submerged all day and only come up when it is dark to charge the batteries and to get a breath of fresh air. Being a signalman on board, I am lucky as I follow the Captain onto the bridge when we surface and he is always the first one up. When he is satisfied that it is all clear, permission is given for others to come up. They take it in turns to get a breath of fresh air as it wouldn’t do for all to come up at once in case we had to crash dive…’
This photograph is of a helmsman steering an S class submarine in Holy Loch
An American submariner recalls:
‘When conditions approached that of a Chinese garbage scow junk with an over flowing head and the crew in dire need of fumigation the Skipper might decide to allow showers piecemeal by sections. You lined up to enter the shower, the Chief of the Boat turned on the water for 2 seconds and shut it down while you soaped down. You were then allowed a correspondingly brief rinse.
Each member of the crew was allotted one locker which measured about 12″ high, 18″ wide and about 18″ deep. You kept your uniforms under your mattress. Your rack had a plastic zip around cover. Your mattress was encased in a “mattress cover” which was akin to an oversized pillow case. Able to be turned over once and some even turned them inside out and got two more uses. Less the uninitiated be stunned by that you must be cognizant of lack of water for regular laundry.’
Back in the engine-room there was further discomfort. This is taken from the website of an American museum which houses the USS Pampanito:
‘On the surface, even at standard speed, the engines were deafening. The noise in the compartment was so loud that the crew could only communicate with hand signals. The main air induction supplied fresh air into the compartment. The diesel engines consumed large quantities of this air, creating a strong breeze.
When the order to dive was given, the engines were instantly shut down and all the air intakes were shut. The engines’ exhausts also had to be shut because you couldn’t let water get back into the engines. The compartment would go from roaring noise to near silence in a second. With the diesels hot from hours of operation, the temperature would soar to over a hundred degrees.’
This photograph shows part of the crew of HMS Graph (the ex U-boat) having tea in the forward torpedo room during sea trials in October 1941.
Experiencing depth charges
Detected submarines were liable to attack by surface ships dropping depth charges, set to explode as close as possible to the submerged vessel.
A direct hit or near miss could buckle the submarine’s hull, leading to the loss of all hands. But a depth charge exploding between 20 and 30 metres away could also cause major damage.
Submariners might be subjected to several hours of repeated attacks, as enemy ships passed to and fro above them. Every time a depth charge was detonated nearby a shock wave would be sent through the submarine accompanied by a sharp metallic bang. This would be followed by a much louder bang caused by the sound waves from the explosion.
If the two bangs were relatively far apart that meant the depth charge had exploded some distance away; if they were comparatively close together the explosion was nearby.
If simultaneous they would be the last sound the submariner would ever hear.
All Japanese depth charges were the same size – about 75cm long and 45cm wide – but two types were introduced.
The earlier type had an explosive charge of around 100kg, subsequently increased to almost 150kg, and this could be set to explode at depths of 30m (100 feet), 60m (200 feet) and, later on, 90m (300 feet) as well. The later type also began with an explosive charge of around 100kg, subsequently increased to up to 160kg and this could be detonated at 30, 60, 90, 120 and 145 metres.
Japanese ships were typically armed with depth charge throwers that could launch a depth charge up to 85 metres.
There are several harrowing accounts from submariners subjected to extended depth charge attacks.
This is from a description of a 17-hour attack by a Japanese destroyer on the USS Tambor in January 1944:
‘The Japanese captain pummelling the Tambor knew his business. Methodically, the destroyer made pass after pass, dropping two charges at a time, all of which exploded extremely close by. Each time the crew heard the ship’s approach, a rumble that grew louder until it roared like a steam locomotive crossing a trestle directly overhead. Then, through the hull, they heard the splash of the charges, waited as they sank, then heard and felt the explosion. The shock was like an immense hammer striking the hull. It shattered glass, sent paint fragments and cork flying, and loosened pipe fittings, causing leaks throughout the boat. A bad leak in the conning tower flooded the control room bilges and ran down to fill the bilges in the pump room below…
…. And the attacks kept coming, sometimes 30 minutes apart, but for one terrifying hour they arrived every ten minutes. The destroyer crossed them from port to starboard, then back again, then down the port side, then down the starboard side. She had a fix on the Tambor. With air leaking from the boat, and given good depth and current charts, the Japanese captain could pinpoint the sub’s location. At 0840, Kefauver recorded: “Destroyer ran down the port side, close aboard and dropped two duds. These were labelled Tambor and were close enough to be heard falling through the water.” Some crew members recalled hearing these charges land on the deck, roll off, and bounce against the side of the boat.’
Submariners trying to ride out such attacks faced extreme physical discomfort and huge mental stress.
This is from a description of the ordeal of those aboard USS Puffer when it was depth charged in October 1943:
‘With the air conditioning shut down the temperature within the ship went to a high figure. A temperature of 125° F. was reported in the maneuvering room. The after torpedo room and the engine room were the coolest parts of the ship. The forward torpedo room was practically unbearable. The humidity must have been very high, but higher in the cooler rooms than in the hot spots like the maneuvering room and the conning tower. The decks and bulkheads became clammy with condensed moisture. Rivulets of sweat would form and follow right behind a towel rubbed over a man’s body…
…The liquids available for drink, fruit juices coffee or water, soon reached room temperature. Frequently swallowing these liquids induced vomiting, yet thirst was so great the men were constantly drinking, vomiting, and then drinking again. Profuse sweating and difficulty in keeping liquids down produced severe dehydration in many cases. No one cared to eat anything…
… As the hours wore on the air commenced to get bad. Both CO2 absorbent and oxygen were used but despite that the air was very foul toward the end of the dive. Breathing was very difficult and headache was severe. An officer making the rounds from control room to after torpedo room had to stop and rest several times on the journey. A good many of the men were in a state of physical collapse. From the stupor in which they sank, it became impossible to arouse them to go on watch…Suspense was the hardest thing to bear.’
Finally here is testimony from Telegraphist Ben Skeates aboard HMS Utmost, attacked off Taranto:
‘…One of the torpedo men in the fore ends chalked up eighty-four close ones in the first eight hours….
…The enemy counter attack lasted throughout the remainder of the night, and the following day. The Captain ordering continual changes of course; heading for the gaps between the attacking destroyers that appeared from the bearings the navigating officer received from the asdic…
…We had been submerged over 24 hours, and had no facility for replacing the oxygen. The lack of oxygen was slowly contracting our breathing ability. At last when everyone was near collapse, and wheezing as if they were being slowly strangled we surfaced, and just before we hit the surface the skipper gave the order to start main engines. The diesels roared out, until the vacuum produced by the air intakes was almost high enough to burst our ear-drums…
No sooner had the Duty Officer arrived on the bridge than the asdic operator picked up HE from one of the destroyers…They must have been lying under quiet routine waiting for us to make a move. We crash-dived again….
….The surfacing operation was to us a complete success; as apart from the two or three minutes on the surface, which incidentally was a crucial factor in our escape, we had been dived for twenty odd hours. We had, by starting the diesels before opening the conning tower hatch and using the resulting partial vacuum replaced most of the oxygen starved air in the boat. We were able to continue to dodge the enemy destroyers until eventually; after we had jettisoned a load of oil and clothing through one of the torpedo tubes to give the illusion of having been hit, we broke surface.’
HMS Stratagem’s early service
Stratagem’s crew completed their trials at the end of 1943, departing for Lerwick in the Shetland Isles on 30 December and arriving on 1 January 1944. They travelled with another submarine, HMS Unswerving, and were escorted by the minesweeper HMS Arcturus.
Their first war patrol was a preparatory or ‘working up’ exercise spent searching for U-boats in the Norwegian Sea. It was uneventful and the boat returned to Lerwick two weeks later.
Stratagem then travelled south stopping at, Dundee, Methil, Harwich and Sheerness. She docked at Sheerness from 27 January to 22 February, before engaging in exercises off Portsmouth between 25 February and 4 March, and then docked again at Portsmouth, from 5 March to 23 March.
On 29 March Stratagem left for Gibraltar via Yarmouth (Isle of Wight) and Plymouth.
Willoughby had been ordered to take sick leave and she was now under the command of Lieutenant Clifford Raymond ‘Pat’ Pelly, a veteran despite his comparative youth. He had formerly commanded HMS Sturgeon (12 September 1941 to 31 October 1941), HMS P511 (30 August 1942 to 19 March 1943) and HMS Seadog (23 March 1943 to early 1944).
Pelly had been awarded the DSC on 29 February 1944 for successful attacks off the coast of Norway and operations supporting commando troops in Spitsbergen.
Born in 1917, he was a regular officer who had joined the Navy aged 18 in 1935. He was from a military background. His father was Lt Colonel Hutcheson Raymond Pelly (1887-1979) and his grandfather Rear Admiral Francis Raymond Pelly (1851-1907). Like Derek he had one younger sister.
His cousin succeeded him as commander of HMS Strongbow which later served alongside Stratagem in Trincomalee (and, after the war, his cousin rose to become a Rear Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Far East Fleet).
Pelly undertook Stratagem’s second war patrol, again uneventful. She docked in Gibraltar on 14 April 1944 but departed again on 18 April for Malta, travelling in convoy with HMS Sickle and HMS Spirit.
She took part in two exercises off Malta before leaving for Port Said on 11 May 1944. She then travelled via Aden to Trincomalee, arriving there on 10 June 1944.
Stratagem was now part of the Eighth Flotilla, composed of S class submarines supported by the depot ship HMS Maidstone. The Fourth Flotilla consisted of T class submarines attached to the depot ship HMS Adamant.
Trincomalee lies in the north east of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) just to the north of Koddiyar Bay. Its large natural harbour became the home port of the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet after the fall of Singapore.
Sri Lanka lies to the west of the Bay of Bengal opposite Thailand (formerly Siam) to the East. Trincomalee is at roughly the same latitude as Phuket.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands form an archipelago about two-thirds of the way across to Thailand. The stretch of water between these Islands and Thailand is the Andaman Sea.
The Malaysian peninsula stretches south eastwards from Thailand with Singapore at its tip. The large island of Sumatra lies parallel to the west of the peninsula stretching down to Java.
The narrow waterway between the Malaysian peninsula and Sumatra, connecting the Andaman Sea with the South China Sea, is called the Malacca Strait. It is some 800km long and typically 50-320km wide, but is also comparatively shallow – the average minimum depth is around 23 metres.
The Japanese had occupied the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Sumatra, Malaysia and Singapore since early 1942. The Malacca Strait had great strategic significance and was a vital shipping lane for the Japanese, transporting food to Japan and carrying oil, weapons and manpower to support its garrisons throughout the Pacific, especially Burma.
It also gave the Allies access to support commando activity in the Malaysian jungle, especially landing and relieving those engaged in highly dangerous covert operations.
This Google map shows the area, showing the locations most associated with HMS Stratagem’s brief Far East campaign.
Between 1940 and 1943 very few British submarines were active in the Far East, but more began to arrive from July 1943 as boats began to be released from Mediterranean duties following the surrender of the Italian fleet in September.
Depot ship HMS Adamant arrived in Trincomalee in December 1943 and hosted the Fourth Flotilla. A second depot ship, HMS Maidstone, arrived in March 1944, at which point a new Eighth Flotilla was based on her.
The Eighth Flotilla transferred to Fremantle, Western Australia, in August 1944, but the Fourth Flotilla remained at Trincomalee until April 1945.
In September 1944 the Second Flotilla also took up residence at Trincomalee, supported by HMS Wolfe.
By mid-1944 there were 26 British submarines active across the Far East. A standard pattern of submarine warfare had developed.
S class submarines with fully functioning air-conditioning could undertake war patrols lasting up to three weeks.
The period between patrols was also typically two to three weeks. Some time was taken up with exercises or resting on board the depot ships but otherwise crews were typically sent on leave, half at a time, which they normally spent either in Colombo or at a rest camp in the hills.
There was little to do in Trincomalee and those not on leave spent their leisure time drinking, playing cards, swimming or playing water polo. Those who later transferred to Fremantle found it a far more lively location.
Submarines were typically escorted out to sea before travelling across the Bay of Bengal. The real business began as they approached enemy territory, close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Here they would typically travel at periscope depth, only surfacing at night. Food was taken on surfacing, sleep commenced after the morning dive.
Even with air conditioning, which was not always reliable, British submariners struggled against the heat. Some accounts suggest several adopted sarong and sandals in preference to navy vests and shorts. Many suffered from prickly heat, boils and sunstroke – and there were occasional cases of severe dehydration.
Here are some recollections of R.G. Lapham, courtesy of the BBC’s The People’s War, who served as an electrical artificer on one of the depot ships in 1943:
‘Our submarines were operating in the Malacca Straits for a month at a time, and were also dropping off white-faced officers in canoes behind Japanese lines. When they returned from a Patrol they went immediately to the rest camp in Diyatelawa, and after fumigating the “boat “, as the Submarines were called, the spare crew stripped the boat out and brought it into a suitable state for recommissioning…
…I had become accustomed to the boats, coming in with the Jolly Roger flying from the conning tower, already updated with the different symbols for the various successful sinkings on that patrol, the deck crew would be lined up in their Submarine sweaters. Then it would come smartly alongside pass the wires across, tie up, and immediately the Captain would appear in full dress uniform including dress sword, and come sharply aboard to make a report to the Flotilla Captain.
It was not always so happy a return, I recall a “Boat” returning without the forward gun turret, where on surfacing to attack a gunboat the gun turret and gun crew were both shot away.’
Here is a contemporary photograph of Trincomalee Harbour
HMS Stratagem’s Far East campaign
Following a few exercises, HMS Stratagem commenced her third war patrol on 27 June, travelling across the Bay of Bengal to the Andaman Islands.
On 1 July she fired four torpedoes from 5,100 yards at a Japanese merchant vessel of about 1,100 tons off Port Blair, but missed. She was depth charged in turn by the escorting torpedo ships but escaped unscathed.
The following day she attacked a larger merchant vessel escorted by submarine chasers leaving Port Blair. She missed with six torpedoes fired from long range (14,000 yards).
Two days later she attacked the same ship again in a different location. Two final torpedoes were fired, again from some distance, and a hit was claimed but could not be substantiated. Stratagem returned to Trincomalee on 7 July.
Following further exercises in late July she commenced her fourth war patrol on 31 July, headed this time for the West coast of Thailand. This uneventful trip ended on 22 August.
At this point Lieutenant Pelly departed on extended leave and Stratagem was commanded temporarily by Lieutenant Profit. He led the boat’s fifth war patrol, again to the Andaman Islands, which began on 16 September and ended on 5 October. The only action was the bombardment of buildings on the shore of Great Coco Island.
On her return to Trincomalee Lieutenant Pelly again resumed command. On 10 November Stratagem departed Trincomalee for her sixth and final war patrol, this time in the Malacca Strait.
A 48-strong crew was aboard, the majority were aged under 25 including three of the five officers. The youngest were just 19. Derek was one of a dozen stokers under the command of Warrant Engineer Frederick Rayner, a veteran at 41 who had once served on K26, the Navy’s last steam-powered submarine.
Stratagem’s final patrol
The principal record of this final patrol was belatedly supplied by one of the survivors, 21 year-old Torpedo Officer Lieutenant Donald Cameron Douglas, who submitted it following his release from a Japanese POW camp in August 1945.
Douglas also had a military background, being the son of a Lieutenant Colonel. He was recently engaged to Philippa Charlotte Norris.
The first week of the patrol was uneventful. Stratagem was submerged once in the Strait of Malacca, but the crew suspected that a Japanese plane conducting search patrols might have discovered its presence.
On 17 and 18 November the boat was located off the port of Malacca, searching fruitlessly for a pier that Intelligence had reported was used to load bauxite ore.
Overnight on 18 November she continued along the Strait some 30 miles further south, only 70 miles or so short of Singapore. This was further down the Strait than other boats had ventured.
At around 15:00 on 19 November the captain spotted a convoy of five Japanese ships escorted by three small destroyers or torpedo boats.
Three torpedoes were fired at the second cargo ship in line at a range of 2,500 yards. This was the Nichinan Maru a 1,945 ton cargo vessel (the picture below shows a sister ship).
One of the torpedoes hit the ship damaging her bow section. The enemy boats gave chase causing Stratagem to dive and execute a 180-degree turn.
On returning to periscope depth, the vessel was seen to have stopped. Stratagem fired a stern torpedo at a range of 1,000 yards, much closer to the enemy than it had been before, causing the Nichinan Maru to split asunder and sink. Nine crew members were killed.
The torpedo boats renewed their counter attack but the Stratagem successfully evaded them.
It is tempting to imagine Pelly’s crew decorating the boat’s Jolly Roger flag with a stripe to symbolise its first substantive victim and toasting their commander with a tot of rum. They were properly ‘off the mark’ and, after some time in the doldrums, Pelly probably believed his luck had turned.
Overnight Stratagem returned north of the port of Malacca, seemingly intent on returning the way she had come. But, fatefully, Pelly changed his mind, returning south to the port on 21 November to lie in ambush for further targets.
At daylight on 22 November Stratagem was located off Malacca, about four miles from the shore, then moved until positioned some three miles to the south-west of the port. Douglas retired to rest along with most of the crew.
Lying at periscope depth the captain monitored several further passes by the plane conducting search patrols, as well as a Japanese warship patrolling the coast further inshore.
This was in fact the submarine chaser CH35, which had left Port Swettenham on 20 November to help escort the convoy, now bereft of Nichinan Maru. This convoy was attacked by aircraft that very evening but they caused no significant damage.
This photograph shows a similar Japanese submarine chaser. They were typically 420 tons with a top speed of around 16 knots. Each was stocked with 36 depth charges.
At some point during the morning the patrol plane must have located Stratagem, but its crew were unaware of that. The pilot alerted CH35 which promptly headed for Stratagem at top speed.
Just after midday Stratagem dived rapidly in anticipation of an imminent depth charge attack. Douglas was woken by the ‘diving stations’ order. The engines were shut off and he took up position in the forward torpedo room.
His report continues:
‘About four minutes elapsed without any further orders coming through – no one in the fore ends knowing what was taking place – then the thrash of the Japanese destroyer could be heard very loud as she passed overhead. Almost immediately a depth-charge exploded somewhere extremely close under us, lifting the stern and causing us to hit bottom hard. This charge extinguished the greater part of the lighting although one or two of the emergency lights held. About five seconds later a second charge exploded, as far as I could calculate, right amidships, extinguishing the remaining lights.’
With his torch Douglas could see water flooding through the door to the rear of the torpedo stowage compartment. He gave the order to shut the watertight doors, moving three of the crew out of the way, but the rush of water prevented the doo from being closed.
At some point an able seaman came forward from the control room. He told Douglas that Pelly had ordered the main ballast to be blown in an effort to raise the boat, but opening the valves had no effect.
By now the water inside the compartment was much deeper. Douglas says the remaining crew members started to sing, but he ordered them to don the escape equipment (DSEA sets). The first he found was defective, the second he gave to an older crew member who was panicking.
The ship’s cook – Robert Weatherhead – had been responsible for the singing and ‘kept up a cheerful narrative about the wonderful fruit cake which he had recently cooked’. This raised the spirits of the rest of the crew and prevented panic from spreading.
Both the air pressure and its chlorine content had increased rapidly and the water was mixed with fuel. They could hear air escaping from the hull forward of them.
Leading Seaman Gibbs was trying to remove the clips from the escape hatch, but the third was stuck. Douglas finally managed to shift it by banging with his fist:
‘Immediately this clip was free the hatch was blown open and Leading Seaman Gibbs was shot out so suddenly that I cannot remember him going. The hatch slammed shut again and hit me on the top of my head but immediately blew open again and I was shot out in a bubble of air.’
Stratagem was lying around 100 feet down. Douglas reports that his compartment contained 14 of the crew. Ten of them left the submarine alive, so the four remaining were presumably dead or dying.
One of the ten apparently failed to make it to the surface. Another, Cook Robert Weatherhead, was floating on the surface drowned.
Another source – a 1966 US ‘Submarine Casualties Booklet’ – contains a few further details. It says the first man was 55 years old and already ’in a bad way’ before the escape. (The crew list shows there was no-one of this age on board.) It estimates the time between sinking and escape at 15 minutes.
That left eight survivors: Douglas, Leading Seaman Gibbs, Able Seaman Robinson, Able Seaman Westwood, Able Seaman Webb, Able Seaman Ritchens, Able Seaman Phillips and Stoker First Class Howlett.
All were suffering from ‘the bends’. Douglas swam around the survivors, supplying Westwood who was in danger of sinking with a lifebelt thrown in by the Japanese, and helping Phillips who was ‘almost delirious with shock’.
Meantime CH35 circled them in the water for about 45 minutes before sending a cutter to pick them up. They were clubbed as they entered the boat and then forced to row it to the ship.
Here they were bound together and blindfolded, spending the cold night huddled on deck, sitting on top of the hatch. Still suffering from the bends, no food or clothing was provided and they were clubbed by the guards if they made a noise.
They arrived at Singapore on the evening of 23 November and were locked in separate cells, still bound and blindfolded. They were interrogated that night and daily during the first week. After a month on a starvation diet, Douglas, Gibbs and Robinson were flown to Japan where they became POWs in Ofuna Internment Camp, an unregistered establishment.
Leading Seaman Sidney Gibbs features in a story of prisoners of war rescued from Ofuna which was syndicated across many US newspapers in early September 1945.
Gibbs recalls his capture, echoing some of Douglas’s testimony but varying in some respects:
‘When the Japs picked us up they made us row, and hit us with what looked like pick handles…Aboard their ship they put us in a three by six foot room and forced us to stand with our hands held up. They gave us no food or water.’
Late in the war, Able Seaman Henry Robinson was transferred to Omori, a registered camp. Here is his registration card.
The fate of the other five is unknown. They might not have survived their time in Singapore. All five were allocated 31 December as their date of death.
I traced this photograph of one of the five, Able Seaman Westwood. Judging by his clothes it was almost certainly taken while Stratagem was still in Britain.
Nothing is known of the remaining 34 crew members on board Stratagem, how many were killed by the depth charges, how many were drowned as the submarine flooded, how many suffocated because unable to escape from the aft hatch.
The crew list below reveals that one of the officers – Lieutenant Francis Winterbottom – died on his 24th birthday.
Pelly and others in the control room must have survived the initial explosion since he is known to have ordered the ballast to be blown.
Douglas mentions that, sometime later in 1945, he was badly shaken by the Japanese producing ‘one of our signal logs’. It is not clear whether this was salvaged from the Stratagem – and, if so, by what means.
HMS Stratagem was only the second submarine to be lost in the Far East campaign. The wreck survives on the sea floor to this day.
CH35 was sunk almost exactly three months later, on 23 February 1945 off the coast of Vietnam, by American B25s from the Fifth Air Force.
Lieutenant Douglas married fiancé Philippa Norris on 10 January 1946, after being liberated from Japan. He remained in the Royal Navy, later serving on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.
His wife died on 20 February 2006, after 60 years of marriage, and he succumbed the following day. This photograph shows him with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
Sidney Gibbs died in Warrington in 1991. One source says he became a postman after the war. Henry Robinson died in Bexley in 1987.
Remember Telegraphist Ben Skeates? He joined the submarine service as a volunteer in May 1940, experiencing a narrow escape on his second boat, HMS Utmost.
Then he was hospitalised with concussion and missed the loss of his third boat with all hands in the Mediterranean at the end of 1942.
His fourth boat turned out to be HMS Stratagem. But he was diagnosed with pleurisy and so missed her final mission. He subsequently transferred to HMS Stygian, surviving eight patrols with her, and died in 2010 at the venerable age of 91.
Presumably one of the three telegraphists on the Stratagem was a rather less lucky substitute from the replacement crew.
Here is another picture of Able Seaman Westwood and five unknown crew members from HMS Stratagem, probably taken in late 1943 or early 1944, at the same time as the one above.
I find this photograph strangely moving, given what lay in store for these men a year or so later.
I have found three more photographs of crew members.
This is Telegraphist John Edward (Jack) Woolley. He may well be the man standing next to Westwood in the group photograph above. The picture shows him wearing the cap of the training ship HMS Ganges. He also served on HMS Orontes, HMS Beaumaris and HMS Carthage before transferring to submarines.
The other photographs show two of Derek’s brother stokers. The first is Stoker 1st Class Alfred (Alphie) Thorpe.
The second is Stoker 1st Class James Watson.
HMS Stratagem was not a particularly successful submarine. Her story is not celebrated, her achievements were few and her Jolly Roger flag must have been rather bare.
But Derek Dracup and forty-eight other extremely brave men sacrificed their lives over 70 years ago and, now that the wartime generation has all but died out, the very least they deserve is not to be forgotten.
HMS Stratagem: Crew List
ANSTEE, REGINALD GEORGE (25), Able Seaman (no. C/JX 145021), b. 28/11/1919 d. 22/11/1944, son of George and Annie Anstee; husband of Winifred L Rawlinson, married 1942.
BAKER, STANLEY WILLIAM (24), Able Seaman (no. P/JX 418354), b. 2/11/1920 d. 22/11/1944, son of Thomas Cornelius Baker and Elizabeth Ellen Baker.
BENZ, BRIAN (21), Lieutenant, b. 1923 d.22/11/1944, son of Frederick Charles and Anne Benz; husband of Jane Park, married 1944.
BISHOP, JAMES WILFORD (24), Leading Stoker (no. C/KX 93231), b. 12/12/1919, d. 22/11/1944, son of Joseph Charles and Hannah Elizabeth Bishop.
BOOTH, FARQUHAR (21), Stoker 1st Class (no. C/KX 171814), b. 6/9/1923, d. 22/11/1944.
BRANDON, EDMOND (25), Leading Stoker (no. C/KX 92546), b. 13/9/1919, d. 22/11/1944, son of John and Catherine Brandon.
BRODIE, THOMAS IRVINE (21), Stoker 1st Class (no. P/KX 140777), b. 14/2/1923, d. 22/11/1944, son of Thomas and Helen McVey Brodie; husband of Ruth.
BRYSON, FREDERICK (19), Able Seaman (no. D/JX 422347), b. 4/6/1925, d. 22/11/1944, son of Frederick and Louisa Bryson.
CLIFF, DOUGLAS (20), Telegraphist (no. D/JX 361448), b. 24/3/1924, d. 22/11/1944, son of Alfred and Lucy Eveline Cliff.
DICKERSON, SIDNEY JOSEPH (21), Stoker 1st Class (no. C/KX 166027), b. 1923, d. 22/11/1944, son of Joseph and Florence Edith Dickerson.
*DOUGLAS, DONALD CAMERON, Lieutenant (Torpedo Officer) (no. P/KX 91545), b. 1923, survived, d. 2007.
DRACUP, DEREK GEORGE RENDEL (21), Stoker 1st Class (no. P/KX 156066), b. 22/9/1923, d. 22/11/1944, son of George Edward and Elsie Edna Dracup.
FAULKNER, BRIAN (19), Able Seaman (no. P/JX 501087), b. 26/4/1925, d. 22/11/1944, son of John and Hilda B. Faulkner.
FRANKHAM, JOHN HENRY (26), Leading Stoker (no. P/KX 91545), b. 19/4/1918, d. 22/11/1944, son of Maria Frankham.
*GIBBS, SIDNEY, Leading Seaman, b. 1921, survived, d. 1987
GIBBONS, DENNIS FREDERICK (24), Engine Room Artificer 4th Class (no. P/MX 117062), b, 16/3/1920, d. 22/11/1944, son of Lawrence Frederick and Ethelwyn Frances Gibbons.
GRAHAM, RONALD (23), Telegraphist (no. P/JX 271174), b. 30/4/1921, d. 22/11/1944, son of Richard James Graham and Elsie Graham.
GREGSON, THOMAS WILLIAM (22), Leading Seaman (no. D/JX 303291), b. 23/9/1922, d. 22/11/1944, son of Thomas and Ada Mary Gregson.
HALL, RONALD (27), Electrical Artificer 3rd Class (no. P/MX 56030), b. 17/6/1917, d. 22/11/1944, son of George and Sally Hall; husband of Maisie Scott, married 1942.
HANDY, WILLIAM (30), Able Seaman (no. P/SSX 16409), b. 15/3/1914, d. 22/11/1944, son of Thomas and Martha S. Handy; husband of Jane H. Handy.
HAYES, JOHN (22), Able Seaman (no. C/JX 221692), b. 6/5/1922, d. 22/11/1944, son of John and Nancy Hayes.
HOWARD, GEORGE HENRY (29), Petty Officer (no. D/JX 134553), b. 4/3/1915. d. 22/11/1944.
*HOWLETT, REGINALD CHARLES (20), Stoker 1st Class (no. D/KX 164938), b. 10/10/1924, d. 31/12/1944.
LEE, GEORGE (24), Act/Petty Officer, P/JX 145964 b. 10/7/1920, d. 22/11/1944.
MCALINDEN, FRANCIS JOHN (22), Leading Seaman (no. D/JX 154467), b. 1/12/1921, d. 22/11/1944, son of John and Edith McAlinden; husband of Margaret Rose Tabb, married in 1942.
MCCAULEY, THOMAS (39), Petty Officer Stoker (no. P/K 65360), b. 12/12/1905, d. 22/11/1944, son of Peter and Sarah McCauley; husband of Teresa McCauley.
MCKAY, WILLIAM (28), Chief Engine Room Artificer (no. P/MX 58555), b. 1/11/1916, d. 22/11/1944, son of Richard and Elizabeth McKay.
MITCHELL, BRIAN HUGH (20), Able Seaman (no. P/JX 338818), b. 12/12/1923 d. 22/11/1944, son of Frank Leslie and Margaret Findlay Mitchell.
MOORHOUSE, THOMAS (22), Act/Leading Seaman, C/JX 159150, b. 15/4/1922, d. 22/11/1944, husband of Dorothy Cocker, married March 1942
PATRICK, DAVID (21), Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, C/MX 119629, b. 23/12/1922, d. 22/11/1944, son of David and Isabella Patrick.
PEARCE, LEONARD WALTER (24), Petty Officer Telegraphist (no. P/JX 144239), b. 18/12/1919, d. 22/11/1944, Son of Walter and Phyllis Gray Pearce.
PELLY, CLIFFORD RAYMOND (27), Lieutenant, D S C, b. 1917, d. 22/11/1944, son of Hutcheson Raymond and Kathleen May Pelly.
*PHILLIPS, FRANCIS JOHN JAMES (21), Able Seaman (no. D/JX 420937), b. 12/6/1923, d.31/12/1944, son of Jean Francois and Caroline Mary Philippe.
PICKARD, HARRY (28), Petty Officer (no. P/JX 137672), b. 22/8/1916, d. 22/11/1944, son of Enoch and Edith Pickard.
PRENTICE, CYRIL ERNEST (24), Sub-Lieutenant, b. 1920, d. 22/11/1944, son of Arthur Edwin and Elizabeth Annie Prentice; husband of Sarah Prentice.
PRESTON, BASIL HENRY (21), Leading Stoker (no. P/KX 154564), b. 9/8/1923 d. 22/11/1944, son of Leonard and Emily Preston.
RAYNER, FREDERICK SOMERTON (41), Warrant Engineer, b.7/8/1903, d. 22/11/1944, son of Arthur Edward and Florence Rayner; husband of Florence Catherine Parry, married 1925.
RICHARDSON, JOHN (25), Able Seaman (no. P/JX 146168), b. 27/3/1919, d. 22/11/1944, son of Thomas W. and Annie S. Richardson.
*RITCHENS, STANLEY HERBERT (24), Able Seaman (no. D/JX 148278), b. 13/7/ 1920, d. 31/12/1944.
*ROBINSON, HENRY WILLIAM, Able Seaman P/JX248187) b. 7/8/1920, survived, d. 1987
SNELL, NORMAN ERNEST (23), Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class (no. P/MX 55037), b. 25/8/1921, d. 22/11/1944.
STANWAY, FREDERICK WILLIAM (21), Able Seaman (no. D/JX 368447), b. 23/2/1923, d. 22/11/1944, son of Sarah Stanway.
THOMAS, HAROLD POWYS (25), Leading Signalman (no. D/JX 176017), b. 25/7/1919, d. 22/11/1944, son of David R. and Dorothy Thomas.
THOMPSON, LESLIE WILLIAM (21), Able Seaman (no. C/JX 392378), b. 5/10/1923, d. 22/11/1944, son of Francis Henry and Gertrude Ethel Thompson.
THORPE, ALFRED GEORGE (20), Stoker 1st Class (no. C/KX 143697), b. 14/6/1924, d. 22/11/1944, son of George Alfred and Sarah Augusta Thorpe.
WATSON, JAMES (23), Stoker 1st Class (no. P/KX 110375), b. 12/12/1920 d. 22/11/1944, son of John and Mary Dick Watson.
WEATHERHEAD, ROBERT GILBERT (26), Leading Cook (S) (no. D/MX 65040), Mentioned in Despatches, b. 11/4/1918, d. 22/11/1944, son of Harry and Eva Weatherhead.
*WEBB, PETER JACK (21), Able Seaman (no. P/JX 382419), b. 26/11/1923, d. 31/12/1944, son of Charles James Webb and Florence Bertha Webb.
WELSHMAN, MAURICE WAITES (30), Act/Chief Petty Officer, C/JX 149286, b. 28/11/1913, d. 22/11/1944, husband of Marjorie Grace Bagguley, married 1943
*WESTWOOD, ARTHUR LEONARD (24), Able Seaman (no. P/JX 220335), b. 20/10/1920, d. 31/12/1944, husband of Marjorie Hamilton, married December 1941.
WILLIAMS, ROBERT GORDON (23), Engine Room Artificer 4th Class (no. P/MX 503451), b. 5/6/1921 d. 22/11/1944, son of William Thomas Williams and Mabel Williams.
WINTERBOTTOM, FRANCIS WILLIAM LESLIE (24), Lieutenant, H.M. Submarine Stratagem, b.22/11/1920, d. 22/11/1944, son of Leslie and Caroline Elizabeth Winterbottom
WOOLLEY, JOHN EDWARD (24), Leading Telegraphist (no. P/JX 258173), b. 25/9/1920, d. 22/11/1944, son of Eric and Mary Ellen Woolley; husband of Molly Woolley, married September 1943.