Spending their time submerged in the deep, dark, depths of water and hiding from the enemy, military submarines are elusive by nature. It would be extremely unusual then to see and walk around one of these interesting watercrafts — especially one from World War Two.
With that in mind then, an opportunity to step onto the only surviving British Second World War-era submarine, HMS Alliance, in all its glory is bound to provide a very special experience. And after a big restoration project, exactly that is now a possibility — the submarine, based at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Portsmouth, forms one of three major exhibitions marking 100 years of untold stories at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
HMS Alliance was designed during WWII for service in the Far East, launching in 1945, as victory was achieved. Over her 28-year career, she held the world record for longest dive by a submarine, staying immersed for 30 days, in 1947, served during the Cold War, and was retired in 1973.
Seven million has been spent restoring the historic vessel, a memorial to 5,300 British submariners, and tours on board the 281ft sub will include new lighting, soundscapes and smells to form a unique experience. Visitors will also be able to peer through the working periscopes to view Portsmouth Harbour and can discover more about every decade of the submarine’s service from the 1940s to the 1970s, reported the MailOnline.
Making the experience even more unique are former submariners who will be heading guided tours and offering interesting insights into their time serving in the Navy.
“She is the last Second World War submarine that the public can visit and walk through and what we have done during the refurbishment is we have tried to reflect her as she was in her working life in the Forties, Fifties and Sixties,” commented Guide, John Buffery, from Gosport, who served on RN submarines during the Cold War.
“It did get a bit smelly, the gas, the diesel smell permeates, gets in your clothes, gets in your hair, gets in the pores of your skin, hygiene was not really a concern, we got dirty, we wore the same clothes, we didn't wear uniform, we wore t-shirts, shorts, trainers, any old rags which we would afterwards just throw away,” he added.
Another submariner, Bill Handyside, now 86, from Portsmouth, has his experiences as an engine room artificer onboard HMS Alliance from 1956 retold as part of the exhibition.
He said: "When you are on the surface you are rolling around and you feel sick and it's horrible and you can't wait to go down and once you go down it's lovely and it's stable.
"Everybody says that submariners were volunteers, when I left the navy I looked at my discharge papers and they said I had volunteered but I didn't and most of my friends didn't, we were drafted into the subs, there was no such thing as volunteers."
Researching WWII Naval Records
In 1939 at the beginning of World War II, the Royal Navy was the largest in the world. It still suffered some big losses in the early stages though, including the battle ships HMS Courageous, HMS Glorious and HMS Hood in the European Theatre, and HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off Singapore.
The Navy's role during World War Two was to provide cover during evacuations and operations; guard the sea lanes enabling British armed forces to fight in remote parts of the world such as North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Far East, and escort convoys across the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans and protect them from air, surface and submarine attack.
Although there are large numbers of naval records relating to the Second World War, it is difficult to isolate specific Royal Navy records for losses of the Second World War. This is partly due to the integration of the three armed services, and to the addition of the British merchant fleet and its resources, as well as civil government and allied forces.
A preliminary British military report on war casualties in June 1946 listed the numbers of war dead by Navy, Army, Air Force, Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service, Merchant Navy, British Home Guard and Civilians. Records indicate 50,758 Royal Navy deaths as well as 30,248 Merchant Navy deaths, and include figures from the losses of Newfoundland and Southern Rhodesia.
Perhaps your ancestor served in the Royal Navy?
If you need some more help researching these records take a look at the Forces War Records guide on Royal Navy Research. We also have a range of historic documents and records in our collection including the Royal List of Retired Officers.