Naval officer ‘solves’ 90-year mystery of the ‘submarine in the park’ in Devon town

Topic: CommunityLocal Initiatives Storyline: Museums

A Royal Navy officer believes he could have solved a mystery/urban legend which has intrigued a Devon town for nearly a century.

Since the 1930s, residents of Dartmouth – home to Royal Navy officer training for more than 150 years – have been convinced there is a wreck of a submarine buried under the town’s premier park.

But now Tom Kemp, an officer from Britannia Royal Naval College thinks he may have solved the mystery.

Lieutenant Kemp, who teaches navigation to future generations of naval leaders at the college, has pored over contemporary documents and photographs and thinks he has identified the submarine unceremoniously buried alongside rubble and other landfill beneath Coronation Park.

The five-acre park at the foot of the hill which is occupied by the naval college was once mud flats.

After the end of the Great War, Britain had a surplus of ships and submarines – not just her own, but also scores of vessels seized from the defeated Germans.

Many were driven ashore, left up creeks and anchorages… and then generally forgotten about as they decayed over decades; two German destroyers beached on Whale Island in Portsmouth were forgotten for a century until historians formally identified them.

Coombe Mud and neighbouring Sandquay in Dartmouth became a similar breaker’s yard for unwanted WW1 warships, including at least two of submarines.

The site was purchased by the local authority in the late 1920s and filled in to create the park – opened in 1937 in time for the coronation of George VI, hence the name – and surrounding road network drivers would recognise today.

And ever since, in oral and written histories of the Devon town, Dartmouth folk have referred to the submarine under the park – sometimes claiming it’s a British boat, at others a German U-boat.

“The story of ‘the submarine under the park’ has fascinated and intrigued visitors to Dartmouth for years – and I count myself among them,” said Tom.

“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.”

He’s ploughed through contemporary documents and records and come up with two names as likely candidates: HMS A8 and HMS E52. The smaller A8 was largely broken up by 1923, whereas the larger E52 proved a greater challenge to dismantle.

She was one of 58 boats in her class built for the fledgling Silent Service. The E-Class were the mainstay of the submarine force, especially during the opening month of the war, scoring the first ‘kill’ by a British boat (the German light cruiser Hela) and VCs earned in the Dardanelles campaign.

As for HMS E52 herself, she sank the German U-Boat UC-63 when surfaced, catching her crew off guard and torpedoing her at point-blank range, killing all but one of the men aboard and earning her skipper, Lieutenant Commander Philip Esmonde Phillips, the Distinguished Service Order for ‘services in action with enemy submarines’.

Without excavating the park and formally identifying parts from the boat, Tom believes this is as far as we can go with contemporary documents and records.

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