A tragic case of mistaken identity

Crew of the submarine J6. Uploaded by Trevor Torkington, with permission from the family of Atholl Davaar Lamont

On 15 October 1918 HM Submarine J6 was sunk in October 1918 by ‘friendly fire’ when British Q ship Cymric mistook her for the German submarine U6. Sixteen of the crew of the J6 lost their lives. In this guest blog post, Trevor Torkington tells the story of this tragedy at sea.

  • Background

Q Ship Cymric was a merchant ship, with concealed weaponry, designed to lure enemy submarines to the surface where they could then be engaged in combat. The Commander of Cymric in October 1918 was Frederick Henry Peterson. Peterson was a Royal Naval Reserve officer who was commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant in December 1914 and promoted to Lieutenant in 1915. A highly decorated officer, he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar, and also the French Croix de Guerre. In May 1917 he was wounded in action and hospitalised for 6 weeks, but by 29 September was back at sea where his record states that he was involved in sinking an enemy submarine by gunfire (the date suggests that this was submarine UC-55).

Q Ship Cymric. Image in the public domain

 

  • A costly mistake

On 15 October 1918, Peterson was on the bridge of the Cymric and had already that day spotted two submarines on the surface which had given him a wide berth. But at 3.40pm another submarine came into view on an opposite course to his own. ‘Action Stations’ was sounded but as Peterson thought the vessel might be friendly he told his crew to stand by. As the submarine came closer he was able to make out its letter and number – U6. He gave the order “action”, the White Ensign was raised and the Cymric’s guns exposed. Shortly thereafter the Cymric fired upon the submarine.

After about the 11th round had been fired Peterson spotted what he thought was black smoke signals, and near the stern of the boat a man waving a white object. He briefly called for the guns to cease fire but as the submarine continued its course and speed he believed it to be a ruse and ordered the guns to open fire again.

After chasing the ‘U-Boat’ into some haze, he saw signals for help from the submarine. He closed the Cymric and put out a boat to pick up survivors, and only then became aware of the submarine’s true identity. It was the British submarine J6. Sixteen men were killed, 7 of whom were believed to be in the after compartment, trapped when the water tight doors were closed in an effort to save the boat.

Amongst those who died aboard the J6 was Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Athol Davaar Lamont. His son, also called Athol Davaar, was born several months after the sinking. He followed his father into the navy but was sadly killed while serving aboard HMS Daring in the Second World War. His ship was sunk by U-23 on 18 February 1940 while escorting Convoy HN12 from Norway.

  • Court of Enquiry

A Court of Enquiry was held on HMS Titania (the depot ship for the eleventh submarine flotilla) in Blythe the day after the incident. Peterson was the first to give evidence, followed by other members of the Cymric’s crew. All but one of the crew believed the submarine to be German but in his evidence, the Cymric’s Skipper, Elam James Taylor, stated that he recognised it as a British submarine before the guns fired but did not tell anyone. Strangely the Enquiry did not question him further on this.

Surviving crew of J6 gave their evidence last. Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Warburton DSO, the submarine’s commanding officer, was in his bunk when the firing started. When he reached the coning tower the signalman was killed as he was about to fire recognition signals. Warburton took charge of the signal gun and ordered one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Robbins RNR to fall the hands in to the unengaged part of the submarine and also to take off his shirt and wave it at the Cymric. Having fired further recognition signals, Warburton went below, and realising, the submarine was lost he ordered his crew topside.

The Court of Enquiry strongly criticised Peterson for his over zealousness but proposed no further action be taken. There was some doubt as to whether he had access to the latest silhouettes to identify British submarines and it was thought that the Officer of the Watch of the J6 (who was sadly killed) had approached the Cymric “unduly close”. In reaching their decision they may have been swayed by Warburton’s evidence stating that both Peterson and his first officer, Lieutenant Charles Murray Mutch, dived into the sea fully clothed to help rescue drowning men (something that both officers did not mention in their own statements).

It is not proposed to submit that Lieutenant Peterson be tried by Court Martial; this officer has done excellent service and the fact that Officers and Men of HM Service have lost their lives through his action is sufficient punishment.

In his letter to the Admiralty summarising the outcome of the enquiry Admiral Beatty concluded that

It is not proposed to submit that Lieutenant Peterson be tried by Court Martial; this officer has done excellent service and the fact that Officers and Men of HM Service have lost their lives through his action is sufficient punishment.”

Sadly, HMS J6 wasn’t the only submarine to be lost due to friendly fire. HM Submarines H5, D3 and G9 were also sunk due to their being mistaken for U-Boats.

Portsmouth Naval Memorial, where some of those lost on HMS J6 are commemorated. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

  • Legacy

An order under the Official Secrets Act prohibited mention of this incident until 1969. The wreck of the J6 was discovered by divers off the Northumberland coast in November 2011. They returned several months later and placed a wreath on behalf of the families of the deceased. One hundred years after the sinking, we pay tribute to those who lost their lives by remembering them together in this Lives of the First World War Community.

 

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2 Responses to A tragic case of mistaken identity

  1. Athol Walton says:

    Thank you for this comprehensive remembrance of the tragic event. I am sure all surviving family members greatly appreciate your excellent work.

  2. Mark Hone says:

    A detailed obituary of Sub-Liutenant JRI Brierley of J6 can be read on the Centenary Roll of Honour section of the Bury Grammar School Archives website

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