Part of the first batch of S-class submarines to be ordered, the HMS Seahorse was laid down in September 1931 in Chatham Dockyard. She was subsequently launched in September 1932 and commissioned in October 1933 under the pennant number 98S.
As an S-class submarine, the Seahorse was designed for patrol in European waters, such as the North, Baltic, and Mediterranean seas. She had a length of 202 feet and 6 inches, a beam of 24 feet and a mean draught of 11 feet and 11 inches.
In September of 1938, she was involved in an accidental collision with the F-class destroyer HMS Foxhound, leading to repairs being needed on both vessels.
When the Second World War began, Seahorse was placed onto patrol duty. Under the command of Lt. Dennis Staunton Massy-Dawson, she carried out six patrols in the Northern Sea between August and December of 1939, docking in at Rosyth, Dundee, and Blyth after her patrols. Further mishaps would follow during this time. As she was returning from her first patrol of the war, she was erroneously attacked by the British aircraft Anson K8845. Luckily, most of the detonated depth charges missed the vessel, and no serious damage was caused. During her second patrol, the Seahorse fired three torpedoes at German U Boat U-36 but missed each time.
What would become her final patrol began on the 26th of December 1939 after leaving Blyth. It would be the last time she was ever heard from, after disappearing in the Heligoland area. She was expected back to port on 9th January 1940, but never returned. Weeks later, German radio reports would confirm that an unidentified British submarine, presumed to be the Seahorse, had been sunk.
HMS Seahorse was one of the earliest British submarine losses of the war, and the first submarine lost to enemy action, three months after the accidental sinking of the HMS Oxley by friendly fire. She was also the first submarine loss of the war with no survivors. Her loss was part of a devastating loss of three submarines, the Seahorse, Starfish and Undine, in just two days.
As the vessel frequently docked into Blyth after patrol, the Seahorse and its loss hold a special place in local memory of the war. One local story shows just how stinging this early loss, and the uncertainty surrounding it, was…
On Christmas Day of 1939, several crewmembers of the vessel headed over to the Astley Arms pub in Seaton Sluice, just 3.5 miles south of Blyth. While there, ERA Leonard J. ‘Tug’ Wilson took part in and won a sweepstake for a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky. However, as they were due out on patrol the next day, neither Tug nor any of his fellow crewmates could drink it. The landlady of the pub agreed to keep the bottle safe for them until they returned, placing it on a shelf behind the bar.
None of the crewmen who had gone to the Astley Arms that night ever returned to collect that bottle. Landlady Lydia Jackson kept the bottle of whisky, winning ticket label attached, on the very same shelf for over thirty years. When she retired in 1971, the bottle was donated to a museum in Gosport, where it remains on display today. A symbolic replacement bottle of Johnnie Walker has been placed in the Astley Arms, in the same spot that the original bottle had once sat in.
It still remains somewhat unclear exactly what the fate of the Seahorse was. The prevailing theory early on was that she had been mined, while German sources placed her as having been sunken by Sperrbrecher IV on the 29th December. Post-war discoveries, however, suggest that she may have in fact been depth charged by the German 1st Minesweeping Flotilla in early January. An exact location for the wreck of the HMS Seahorse has yet to be confirmed.
This month’s Warship Wednesday blog was written by Deanna Cornhill-Demetriou, a final year undergraduate Religious & Asian Studies student from the University of Kent.