Even though, in the early part of the war, the submarine was generally able to evade the measures used against it, many were lost by both sides. More than one of them went down with living men trapped inside and — the drive for self-preservation being the strong force that it is — many attempts to escape from sunken submarines were made.
None exceeded in ingenuity and persistence the case of a British petty officer, Stoker Petty Officer William Brown, who survived when his submarine, the E-41, sank after a collision with a sistership in August, 1916, off the port of Harwich.
The situation in which Brown found himself in the sunken submarine was bad. The boat was filling with water. The lights were shorted out except for occasional flickers. No one else was left in the submarine alive.
The immediate danger was the rising water, so Brown sealed himself in the engine room where he normally worked. He soon realized, though, that with water building up in the compartments on both sides of him, the relatively thin metal bulkheads would soon cave in and drown him in a sudden flood of seawater.
To counteract this dangerous imbalance of pressure Brown opened up the engine room speaking tubes to admit additional water slowly. By thus fighting water pressure with water pressure he reduced the threat to the thin bulkheads, but water in the engine room soon rose to his knees, and then to his waist.
His problem now was to find a way out of what would otherwise be his tomb. Groping in almost continuous darkness blacker than the darkest night, he tested every exit of the room. None would open.
The rising water had by now reached the short-circuited electric control panel, and as he felt for a way out he was repeatedly jolted by severe shocks. Chlorine gas — the nightmare of submarine disasters — fumed from damaged propulsion batteries, choking him as he breathed.
It was at this point, faced as he was with the imminent prospect of death and beset by trials cruel enough to shatter a man's sanity, that he reasoned out a method of escape which flew directly in the face of his natural instinct to hold back the seawater which would drown him.
Above his head was a hatch which opened up out of the submarine. It was through this hatch that torpedoes were brought down into the boat. Brown had tried to open it, but without success — the weight of countless tons of seawater kept it firmly closed. If he had had the strength of a hundred men he still could not have budged it a fraction of an inch.
His daring decision was to do exactly the thing which at first would seem to be the last thing he would want to do. He decided to flood the engine room, having deduced (correctly) that it would flood to a point where the pressure inside would equal the pressure of the sea outside. He reasoned that when the pressure inside was equal to that outside, he would be able to lift the hatch almost as easily as if the submarine were on the surface, and escape into the sea. His reasoning was sound, but there were unforeseen complications.
Overcoming fears of flooding, Brown opened the valves that would admit seawater into the engine room. Soon it was gurgling up in the fitful darkness, and the pressure in the room quickly rose. Before Brown was ready, it pushed the overhead hatch open slightly and a large bubble of air escaped into the sea. The escape of air immediately reduced the pressure in the engine room, and the hatch clanged tightly shut in its place.
Examining the hatch with his fingertips, Brown found that there was a retaining pin still in place, holding the hatch so that it could rise only a few inches — not far enough for him to slip out even when the pressure inside the engine room had again built up sufficiently to lift the hatch.
Working over his head in darkness made eerie by occasional flickers of light from the room's lightbulbs, he found he could not remove the pin by hand. The only way to remove it was to work a gear on the deck at his feet which controlled it. Taking a deep breath heavily charged with corrosive chlorine fumes, he dropped under the water and turned the gear, removing the pin.
Everything seemed ready now for Brown's life-or-death try at escape, and he opened a scupper which permitted additional flooding. Quickly the pressure in the room built up again, but again his escape plans were frustrated. Instead of the air escaping in a single great rush with which he hoped to be carried out of the submarine and into the sea, the air escaped in small gulps, and after each gulp the escape hatch closed solidly in place until the pressure in the room built up again.
"I tried three times to raise the hatch properly," Brown said, "but only succeeded in getting it up about halfway. With that, the air would rush out and the hatch would fall down again. So I felt around and found two of the clip bolts and returned them to their positions, the idea being to raise sufficient pressure again, and then knock the bolts away, hoping to be blown out by pressure."
The first time he knocked away the clip bolts, the pressure was still not enough to open the hatch all the way. It snapped back on the stoker's hand, crushing it. As a final resort he removed a set of heavy plates which had closed off openings in the submarine's hull, and thus added to the flooding. The water level built up until only his face, turned up toward the torpedo hatch only inches away from his nose in the darkness, was out of the water.
In his last effort he knocked the clip bolts loose again with his uninjured hand. A tremendous surge of pressure blew him up through the hatch and out of the submarine. He bobbed to the surface, where a British destroyer, HMS Firedrake , standing by at the scene of the disaster, picked him up.
The commanding officer of the submarine squadron of which the sunken submarine had been a part praised Brown for
"an extraordinary example of unfaltering courage and perseverance, and refusing to acknowledge defeat. After all, he was quite alone in almost complete darkness, receiving electric shocks and toward the end suffering from the effects of chlorine gas and a badly crushed hand. Yet in spite of continual disappointments and setbacks, he worked for nearly two hours, keeping his head to the last, and on his seventh attempt at opening the hatch, he succeeded and escaped."
He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
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