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On This Day15th December 2023

On This Day – HM Submarine TALENT

On This Day in 1954, No.3 Caisson broke free, allowing the river to flood into the dock. HM Submarine TALENT, in dry dock for repairs, was swept out of the dock and driven across the River Medway.

Thick fog, night-fall, and high tides hampered the search and rescue operations. TALENT was found the next day stranded high and dry on a mud bank. The accident claimed four lives and injured 33, some seriously. After this accident all caissons at Chatham that were on the river were chained down to prevent them lifting and they were inspected more regularly to ensure that they were full of water.

On Sunday 2nd January 1955, a memorial service was held in The Royal Dockyard Church to commemorate those that had lost their lives during the disaster.

Eyewitness accounts

Alan Rayner

Apprentice

“On the 15th December 1954, I was working on No.3 caisson as an 18-year-old apprentice. My skipper was Reg Hill and the skipper’s mate was George Marchant (they always worked in pairs).

We were on top of the caisson. Our job was to survey the structure – drilling little holes, checking the thickness of the material. Using a calculation from the Drawing Office, we also used to drain the tidal chamber and put pig iron in to compensate for the loss of buoyancy.

This caisson was one of the only two box caissons left in the yard.

We were in the middle of doing that when we got a call from our office (from our Chargeman – who was the last caulker in the yard) and were told to stop what we were doing and go down to the locks. As we were walking up the north side of No.3 dock, I remember one of the vessels that took coal to Rochester Gas Works going by.

It was a really dull, dismal day and slightly misty. There was also an extremely high tide.

The accident happened around 3pm – 3:30pm (tea break time). We saw it through the mist from where we were by the locks – the caisson hit the back of the submarine which punctured it and it carried on up the north side of the submarine, creating a tidal wave and dragging everything with it.

Fortunately, the river traffic was clear and the submarine managed to get across the Medway and land in Whitehall Creek where it beached itself.

The local fire brigade were involved in pumping out the submarine. It was stabilised with cranes and eventually brought round into the dock. In the end we carried out temporary repairs to No.3 caisson, got it back in place and pumped the dock out – the dock blocks were all over the place.

Four people lost their lives and it could have been a lot more if it had happened at another time of day. Tea break meant that not as many people were working on or near the submarine at that particular time.

I often think, if we hadn’t got that phone call, I might still have been on top of that caisson and it might have been a very different story – which is a very scary thought indeed.

Peter Sargison

Apprentice

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