‘I was the lucky 13th man’

David Bartlett. Picture Malcolm Wells
David Bartlett. Picture Malcolm Wells
A fox currently being treated at Brent Lodge

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It’s 60 years since submarine HMS Sidon exploded and sank. Survivor David Bartlett recalls the most dramatic day of his life.

David Bartlett looks lovingly down the length of his pretty garden, but his gaze is not focused on anything in particular.

HMS Sidon 1952  Picture: Royal Navy.

HMS Sidon 1952 Picture: Royal Navy.

For a moment he is peering into the past to a day 60 years ago when he counted himself lucky to have been the 13th man.

He jolts himself back to the present. ‘It’s only been in the past 10 years that I’ve felt able to talk about what happened that day,’ murmurs the 81-year-old.

His skull was fractured and he suffered a deep cut to his face. He calls them superficial injuries; most people probably would not.

But compared to the 12 men in front of him, in hindsight, he escaped lightly.

They died, killed in an instant when the torpedo they were loading into HMS Sidon exploded and sank the boat 20 minutes later.

The blast happened towards the bow and blew back to the middle of the boat.

‘Two minutes earlier I’d been chatting to a steward. The next moment he was dead. He was 12th in the line. It was the day 13 was lucky for me.’

David, who was 21 and a leading seaman, had been drafted to Sidon in 1954, a year before the disaster at Portland. He remembers nothing of the explosion or the immediate aftermath.

The telegram telling his mother about his injury which should have gone to his wife

The telegram telling his mother about his injury which should have gone to his wife

He says: ‘All I do recall is that suddenly there was a blast of hot air which came down the passageway from forward. Then, nothing.

‘Everyone forward of me was killed.’

Such was the force of the explosion that the torpedo’s engine went through two of the submarine’s extremely thick steel bulkheads.

David, of Grant Road, Farlington, Portsmouth, was amidships, close to the periscope. ‘I was told I was blown 30-40ft backwards into the engine room. They found me with the engineer’s vice on my head. I had a fractured skull and a deep cut on my cheek. Apart from that I was fine.’

He spent a month in Portland Hospital before being transferred to Haslar, Gosport.

A 13th man did die that day, a lieutenant from Sidon’s depot ship HMS Maidstone. Sidon was moored alongside her preparing to sail to test her torpedoes. The lieutenant went on board Sidon with a rescue party, helped several survivors but suffocated when he breathed too much smoke into his lungs.

David was rescued by the engineer whose vice his head had smashed into. When he came round in his hospital bed and glanced around him he got a shock.

‘In the bed next to me was a mechanical engineer. He was black. I mean he was white, but his skin had turned black. It turned out he had been in the conning tower when the torpedo exploded. The hot air roared through the submarine looking for somewhere to escape and went straight up the conning tower.

‘He was charred from head to foot. It was a terrible sight, but he did survive,’ adds David.

Sixty years later his memory of that day remains crystal clear, particularly the efforts made to contact his wife Dorothy, to whom he had been married for just two months. ‘My change of next-of-kin had not been registered because it was too early in the marriage and the telegram the navy sent to say I’d been injured went to my mother who took it to Dorothy where she was working.

‘Dorothy lived at Haslemere and didn’t drive, but she did make it and when she came on her second visit she had some good news – she was pregnant with our son Dennis.’

David, who had served in HMS Alliance, now preserved at the submarine museum in Gosport, before his draft to Sidon, had not wanted to join the submarine service. He had signed up for the Royal Navy at 15 straight from Godalming Grammar School. ‘It was an unexpected draft and I was not happy, nor was my wife. I had not volunteered for submarines.

‘But while I was training at HMS Dolphin, I suddenly began to like submarines. I enjoyed the work ethic.’

After the Portland disaster David was allowed to leave submarines and joined the sixth frigate squadron in the Mediterranean for a year where he became a petty officer in charge of the sonar department in HMS Undine.

There was a spell back at Dolphin as part of the ship’s company, not as a submariner, and then during a course at HMS Vernon, Portsmouth, he was encouraged to apply to become an officer.

‘I had no education because I left school at 15, mainly because I’d missed two terms through illness and couldn’t catch up.’

He completed the course in 1961 and was promoted to sub-lieutenant in 1962.

David adds: ‘By now I was in the torpedo and anti-submarine branch and decided the diving branch looked attractive so applied and was accepted at Vernon where I qualified as a diving officer.’

His first job was a two-and-a-half-year posting to Malta with his family. ‘We had a great time. I was mine and explosives officer, basically bomb disposal, and we must have sorted about 5,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance left over from the Second World War.’

Later, as a lieutenant-commander, he was given his first command – diving training ship HMS Laleston. And it was while he was in her in the Irish Sea one day in 1976 that he received a signal which changed his life. He was to lead a team to excavate a Roman temple from the River Nile.

David left the navy in 1983 after 34 years. ‘Despite what happened at the start, I have no regrets at all. It’s been a wonderful life – perhaps a little too interesting at times.’

ROMAN RUINS

You might have thought David Bartlett would never voluntarily go under water again after his near-death experience in HMS Sidon.

But it was his choice to change career direction when he joined the Royal Navy’s diving branch at HMS Vernon in Portsmouth.

It was a move which would prompt the second most memorable time of his professional life.

For he was asked to lead a team of Royal Navy divers to Egypt to excavate from the bed of the Nile a 2,000-year-old Roman temple built in honour of Augustus Caesar.

From October 1976 until April 1977 he and his team laboriously uncovered more than 350 blocks of stone and brought them to the surface before they were numbered and dried in the sun. The temple was then reconstructed on a new island in the river.

David says: ‘The temple was submerged when the river was dammed, but we were able to work from pictures taken in 1902.

‘But when we got down there we couldn’t find it because it was buried under 50 years of silt.’

His team used a giant vacuum cleaner to suck the sandy mud to the surface and then, with the aid of wire strops and a huge inflatable canvas balloon, floated each block to the surface. ‘It was the most extraordinary job I was ever given,’ he said.