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They Were Just Skulls

John Johnson-Allen

The Naval Career of Fred Henley, Last Survivor of HM Submarine Truculent.
Few people, even in the Navy, are even aware of this dreadful incident [the loss of submarine HMS Truculent in the Thames] and certainly not the details of human error that led to this huge loss of life. The account is gripping, and explains the strange title of the book.

John Johnson-Allen has put Fred Henley’s personal accounts in the context of world-changing events, and in particular provides a wonderful snapshot of the Royal Navy of that era.
• An incident-filled naval life during WWII seen through the eyes of a young man
• Features the tragic loss of HMS Truculent and includes eye-witness accounts from survivors

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The Naval Career of Fred Henley, Last Survivor of HM Submarine Truculent. This compelling story is the result of many hours spent recording the memories of Fred Henley. His life at sea is at the centre of his being and his own words are at the heart of the book. At the age of 14 Fred worked on a Thames sailing barge, then after his training at HMS Ganges, he joined his first ship which took him from the icy Arctic Ocean to the heat of West Africa where the Bismarck and her support ships were hunted. His experiences included visiting Archangel, sailing on Arctic convoys, capturing German supply ships, the failed attack on Oran, landings in Piraeus, Salonika and the French Riviera and operating with special forces in the Greek Islands. There is inevitably some humour when Fred recounts his encounters with girls. The book then explores the tragic loss of his last submarine, HMS Truculent. In the cold January waters of the Thames Estuary, within sight of Southend, over 60 men were lost in a major disaster, just five years after the end of the war. The voices of the survivors are heard telling how they stood in complete blackness in a sunken submarine, waiting for the water to come in so that they could escape to the surface, only for all but a few to drift away and die in the darkness. The story concludes with happier times with Fred visiting ports in the Mediterranean during peacetime as a married man.

ISBN: 9781849954044
Format: Paperback
Author(s): John Johnson-Allen
First Publishment Date: 1 December 2018

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  1. Lord Admiral West of Spithead, who contributes the Foreword, describes the book as a ‘wonderful snapshot of the Royal Navy of that era’. review by Jon Wise on 07/03/2019

    Remarkably, Fred Henley’s 17-year career at sea began in the dying days of the age of sail as a mate on a Thames sailing barge. These handy, flat-bottomed cargo carriers were versatile and highly manoeuvrable; their miniscule crews meant that Fred, at the tender age of fourteen, was expected to do a man’s job. He entered the Royal Navy at fifteen, survived initial training at the formidable HMS Ganges and at the end of 1940 was drafted to the heavy cruiser HMS London.

    His wartime career, after his spell in London, involved a succession of coastal forces’ vessels which, as the fighting drew to a close in 1944-45, found an important role in the Mediterranean, particularly in the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. It was fortunate that Henley had signed on for twelve years because, at the war’s end, there was mass redundancy which saw the RN shrink from 650,000 to 195,000 personnel in just two years. He decided in January 1947, with a future career ‘outside’ to consider, to specialise in sonar which crucially had just become part of the Electrical Branch. Attracted by the extra pay he then volunteered for the Submarine Service which in October 1949 brought him fatefully to Chatham and to HMS Truculent.

    The author, John Johnson-Allen, is well-versed in the use of ‘oral history’ having employed the technique successfully in two of his books – Voices From the Bridge and They Couldn’t Have Done It Without Us (the latter about the Merchant Navy’s role in The Falklands War). In They Were Just Skulls, the author recorded eight hours of interviews with what he describes as ‘a very sprightly 95-year old Fred’. This allows the true ‘voice’ of the central character in this book to be heard with all the matter-of-factness and emotional reserve which typifies those of his generation. While Allen provides the narrative context he uses fairly lengthy tracts of Fred Henley’s account which bring to life both the ordinary and the extraordinary events he lived through in his youth.

    The actual sinking of HMS Truculent in the Thames Estuary in January 1950 and what happened subsequently is, of course, the central focus. Over sixty crew members and Chatham Dockyard workers were lost; fourteen survived including Henley who, by chance, was on the conning-tower (as it was called then) when the ice-strengthened bows of the Swedish coastal tanker Divina ploughed into the starboard side of the submarine.

    He was washed off the boat along with four of the five officers on board. Subsequently, he was required to give evidence at the Admiralty Board of Enquiry, the CO’s Court-Martial, and then the Civil Inquest after Truculent was finally raised. The Court Martial found Lt. Bowers guilty of the lesser charge of negligently or by default hazarding his ship. The author, unequivocally, argues that the ‘unforgivable lack of knowledge’ by the officers present on the conning tower that night of the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collision at Sea caused the chain of events leading to the disaster. Ironically, it was the decision to consult the Seamanship Manual for clarification which the off-duty Henley was instructed to bring from below which probably saved his life.

    Lord Admiral West of Spithead, who contributes the Foreword, describes the book as a ‘wonderful snapshot of the Royal Navy of that era’. It has that quality but also provides a broader insight into the way society has changed in the intervening years, for example in our understanding of the effects of trauma. Fred Henley was unable, or even subconsciously unwilling, to identify his former shipmates after they had been recovered from Truculent because he was clearly at the end of his tether at the final stage of the long investigation into the loss of the submarine. In his account he says simply and poignantly, ‘They were just skulls’.
    Who can blame him?

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