Naval officer unravels mystery behind WW1 submarine buried under park

Dunkirk: Military historian discusses World War Two shipwreck

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A naval officer is thought to have unravelled a 90-year-old mystery about a submarine that residents are convinced lies buried underneath a public park. Since the 1930s, the locals from Dartmouth in Devon have speculated that a wreckage lying beneath the town hall park was an old submarine, a rumour which circulated across the town for decades. But what was once merely thought of as a local tale may actually be a matter of fact, according to Tom Kemp, an officer from Britannia Royal Naval College. The naval man claims that, after investigating documents and photographs, he has narrowed down which type of submarine really lies buried under Coronation Park.

The park opened in 1937 in time for the coronation of George VI and used to function as a breaker’s yard for unwanted ships from the First World War. The site was purchased by the local authority in the late 1920s, which was then filled to create the park which was once just mud flats, and since then, residents have frequently made reference to a submarine under the park.

After ruffling through documents and photos, Mr Kemp says he has narrowed down the identity of the mystery vessel to two models of submarine – HMS A8 and HMS E52. The A8 was a smaller model and had been largely broken up by 1923. But the other, larger sub was reportedly a much bigger challenge to dismantle.

He said: “The story of ‘the submarine under the park’ has fascinated and intrigued visitors to Dartmouth for years – and I count myself among them, This has been a case of following a very cold trail of breadcrumbs.

“I had been desperately hoping to find a bill of sale or something along those lines with a name on it, but I had to go a little further off-piste to find my answers.”

But unless a proper dig to excavate the park is carried out to formally identify the boat, Mr Kemp says this is as far we can go using contemporary records

He said: “The ‘submarine under the park’ has a name and a story worth telling, It’s another unseen-but-enduring bond between BRNC, Dartmouth and the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service.”

Since the First World War, the UK has had scores of ships and submarines, including a large number that were seized from the defeated Germans.  Many residents of the Dartmouth have claimed that the alleged submarine hidden beneath the park’s grounds is either a British boat or a German U-boat.

While Mr Kemp may have made a spectacular discovery, this is not the first time that the Devon town has been made aware of a submarine from the First World War in its remit.

The HMS/m D1, which was a forerunner to the Royal Navy’s patrol submarines and helped to ramp up Britain’s defensive might in battle, was granted national protection on the advice of Historic England back in May last year. 

The sub was deliberately sunk in 1981 and used as a target to test submarine detection equipment after secretly being launched in 1908 and commissioned in September 1909. It was used as the prototype for the D-class submarine, which was the Royal Navy’s first long-range diesel-powered submarine. 

The wreck’s protected status means it can be dived, although its contents are protected by law and are not allowed to be moved. A team of specialist divers stumbled across the submarine during an investigation and notified their discovery to Historic England.

Lead diver Steve Mortimer, who was part of the team searching for the remains of German U-boats when they came across the wreck, said: “Every diver dreams of identifying a historically important wreck.”

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Historic England’s chief executive Duncan Wilson said: “This is a fascinating survival which deserves protection as an important part of our seafaring history.”

Another WWI sub, known as the Mewstone Submarine, is another wreckage that divers can go and visit, and was originally thought to be located in south Devon. 

Kendall McDonald, a popular writer who investigates wrecks, says: “The report of this small German submarine jammed into a gulley at this popular diving site – and with her bow in only 12m of water – was the Devon diving sensation of 1984.

“The wreck is said to be that of a World War I German U-boat.  She is about 100ft long and is at an angle of 45 degrees in the gulley which runs down from the sub’s bow in 12m to her stern in 26m just south of the Little Mewstone.  There are no periscopes to be seen and no propeller, although the boss is still there.”

However, according to The Ships Project, the submarine M2 actually lies off the coast of Portland, not south Devon. 

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