Developed from the basic Holland design, the A class of submarine was the Royal Navy's first attempt at an all British submarine. Among its innovations were a proper conning tower which prevented the submarine being swamped when running on the surface. Additional torpedo tubes were also added, and the whole boat lengthened by about forty feet, which made it much more stable and seaworthy. Unfortunately, these new submarines retained the Holland's worst defect, which was a pitifully small reserve of buoyancy.
A Flotilla of A Boats
Although still largely experimental, the A boats were relatively successful, and some even saw active service in 1914 if only in a training role. However survival became of crucial importance for the crews of these submarines, because at one time or another every single on of them sank at least once, usually with fatal consequences. The A I, rammed by the Berwick Castle, sank with all hands off the Nab, near the Isle of Wight, in March 1904, and although she was raised a month later she was never recommissioned but sunk later as a target.
Submarine A 3
The A 2 was wrecked whilst on the for sale list, and the A 3 was rammed and sunk by the aptly named Hazard in February 1912 with the loss of all hands. The submarine A 4 perished during a collision in Portsmouth Harbour in 1905 when she sank like a stone and drowned all her crew, and on the 8 June 1905 the A 8 suffered an explosion whilst running on the surface and sank just off the Knapp Buoy a few hundred yards from Plymouth's Breakwater.
The A 8 was successfully salvaged and after undergoing a complete overhaul she served all through the Great War and ended her days being sold for scrap. Ironically the A 7 had been her escort on that fateful day, and nine years later, in January 1914 the A 7 was once again in the same area, exercising in Whitsands Bay.
The A 7
This time she was engaged in carrying out dummy torpedo attacks on H.M.S. Pygmy in company with a flotilla of six other submarines. On the morning of January 16, the flotilla assumed their attack positions and were ordered to dive to a predetermined depth and then resurface. It soon became apparent that the A 7 was in difficulties, when a large stream of bubbles appeared on the surface over the area where she had submerged. All the other submarines returned to the surface safely, but for the A 7 disaster had finally struck.
The Search for the A 7
The flotilla commander on board H.M.S. Pygmy sped towards the scene and ordered tugs and salvage lighters dispatched from Devonport with all possible speed. For some reason however, nobody bothered putting a marker buoy down, so when the tugs arrived with sweeping gear they could not locate the stricken submarine. In the end the Navy spent five days continuously dragging the seabed before they found the A 7. By the time divers were ready to go down to the submarine, everybody knew it was a futile gesture. The A 7's crew had all perished.
The news of yet another submarine disaster shocked the people of Plymouth so much that they set up a public fund for the widows and orphans of the unfortunate crew. The Navy was roundly condemned on all sides for its incompetence, and suffered huge embarrassment at the hands of the National Press who made sarcastic remarks about the inability of the Navy to salvage their own submarines. Meanwhile in Whitsands Bay the struggle to lift the A 7 from the clutches of a muddy seabed continued.
Wires had been passed underneath the submarine and fixed to salvage lighters on the surface. Using winches and the strength of the sea itself in a tidal lift, had so far failed to make any impression. The vessel remained firmly lodged in the mud. In the end the huge battleship Exmouth was taken to the scene, and she had a go with her massive winches.
Wires snapped, and capstans burnt out, but the A 7 just would not move. In the end the Navy, by now in danger of being buried by the abuse hurled at it by a vitriolic press, decided to leave well alone and contented themselves by holding a memorial service over the wrecksite, with a Royal Marine guard firing a salute, and wreaths being tossed upon the calm, silent waters. Thus the A 7 became a fitting tomb for all her officers and crew, and today, seventy six years later, that is how she still remains.
A 7, hatch and periscope
Of all the wrecks that I have dived on this has to be the most poignant. The phrase a war grave conjures up neat rows of white crosses, somewhere in a foreign field half forgotten. The A 7 is much, much more immediate than that. As you fin down the rope 135 feet to the bottom of Whitsands Bay, the A 7 suddenly and completely presents itself, almost as if she is still sailing towards a new destination. To all intents she is still completely intact, lying upright in the mud, down to what would be her surface marks. Her periscope is up, and her conning tower and nearly all her fittings are still in place. She is instantly recognisable from her photographs, and as you hover above her to stop the mud swirling up and obscuring her, you can on a good day see the whole length of the A 7 laid out pointing into the Bay, as if sailing quietly on to oblivion. Locked inside forever are her Captain and crew.
The Ill Fated A 7
May their souls rest eternally in peace.
N.B. This wreck is now a prohibited site. No diving is allowed.