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Warship Wednesday21st September 2022

Warship Wednesday: HMS STARFISH

HMS STARFISH was a Chatham-built S-class submarine who served the Royal Navy during the Second World War, until she sunk in 1940.

In this month’s Warship Wednesday, written by volunteer Erika Balban, we learn about her experiences during the Second World War, subsequent surrender of her crew and life within a Prisoner of War (POW) camp.


STARFISH was part of the first batch of S-class submarines, often called the SWORDFISH class, and she was completed in 1933. The purpose of S-class submarines was to navigate the North, Baltic and Mediterranean Sea, and their small size made this possible.

Most of STARFISH experience of Second World War was uneventful, but on 9 January 1940 she met her fate. She was attacked by a German minesweeper M7 off Heligoland and was badly damaged and forced to surrender.

There was a technical issue with the torpedoes and transmission problems, as the Petty Officer Clark did not confirm the torpedoes to be ‘ready’ for attack. It was concluded that both hydroplanes were inoperative. It was only when the enemy passed overhead, the crew realised they were in danger.

Due to a confusion of orders after the call to disembark ship, all crew were taken as prisoners of war before the submarine sank. Consequently, the British suspended their operations in Heligoland Bight because of their repeated losses.

The report claims that the treatment of the solders in the camp was ‘correct and humane.’

The prisoners of war were transferred to Stalag X-B, a camp in North West Germany, and later transferred to Marlag und Milag Nord, a different camp on the outskirts of Bremen.

One of the prisoners of war on the ship was Donald Henry Bowra, a stoker on HMS STARFISH. His log book is in the Historic Dockyard archives, and it notes his experiences whilst being a POW, interspersed with photos of the crew and political cartoons.

Image: Donald Bowra

Throughout the log book, there are poems written by his crew, exploring their emotions at the time. One of the most notable is:

Sons of the sea, to Marlag they went

But their hearts were still bold

Their pride still unbent

But when it came to the tunes

From out of the blue

Neighbours gave it as regular as the

Old Marlag stew

A newspaper clipping confirms that he was a prisoner of war and gave the good news to his Auntie and Uncle that he was alive. In total, he spent 5 years and 5 months captive, and was liberated in Lubeck in May 1945. Back in England, he returned to the general service but was discharged in August 1947.


With thanks to Michael Bowra (son of Donald) for getting in touch and providing additional information to expand this month’s Warship Wednesday blog.

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