Retro: Sheffield submariner died in tragic accident

Ernest Brookes - pictured third from left back row -'Died on British submarine HMS Truculent in the Thames Estuary - 12th January 1950
Ernest Brookes - pictured third from left back row -'Died on British submarine HMS Truculent in the Thames Estuary - 12th January 1950
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A young Sheffielder who decided that life on board a navy submarine would bring excitement and money was killed in a terrible peacetime accident while on board just over 65 years ago.

Able Seaman Ernest Brookes was a stoker mechanic on board the HMS Truculent, a T-class submarine, which sank in the Thames in January 1950.

Ernest was only 21 years old and newly married.

His nephew George Brookes, a retired YEB engineer who lives with his wife Rita in Whiston, Rotherham, has spent many years trying to find out more about Ernest, most importantly where he was buried.

He had just about given up hope when he got in contact with Retro and we were able to find out where Ernest’s grave is.

George said: “He was my father’s younger brother. Although I never remembered him, he used to send letters from the navy and he always closed by asking how I was.”

George said that Ernest joined the submarine section of the navy in April 1947, adding: “He sent a note to my parents saying ‘it will be more exciting for me and it’s more money’.

“He found the routine on a naval ship very wearing with all the procedures there.”

While he was in the navy, Ernest married Irene Turton, who lived at 107 Morgan Avenue in Parson Cross, in St Cecilia’s Church. George said Ernest was allowed leave because Irene was pregnant.

He returned to the Truculent, which was sunk in the Medway estuary of the Thames on January 12, 1950, following a collision with the MV Dvina.

The official records of the accident show that the Truculent had been on trials following a refit at Chatham in Kent. The submarine had its usual complement of 60 crew on board, plus 18 dockyard officials.

The Dvina was travelling on the Thames, bound for Ipswich with a cargo of paraffin.

A ship showing three lights appeared ahead of the submarine, which was on the surface, at 7pm. The crew thought the vessel was stationary.

The order was given to pass it on the port side as the Truculent would have run aground had it passed on the starboard side.

When the cargo ship appeared out of the darkness, it became clear that the Dvina was showing an extra light because it had an explosive cargo on board.

A collision was by then unavoidable and the submarine sank. Five men on the bridge who were swept off were picked up by a Dutch vessel.

Six men died in the collision, which left 67 men alive when the Truculent sank in 60 feet of water.

Following the loss of another submarine, the Untamed, the crew believed that the build-up of carbon dioxide was a big danger than risking the cold water, particularly with extra guests on board.

The submarine also sank near a busy shipping lane, so the crew decided to make their escape quickly.

To do so, they had to swim up through the submarine hatch which had been made airtight as the submarine began to sink.

Tragically, they reached the surface before any rescue boats had arrived and all but 10 men were swept away and drowned or died of exposure.

A court of inquiry later ruled that the Truculent should take 75 per cent of the blame for the accident. The disaster led to the introduction of an extra ‘Truculent light’ at the back of British submarine fins, to make them more visible on the surface.

Documents sent to George by the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum show that Ernest’s body was spotted floating in the Thames near Shivering Sands army fort on May 18, 1950 by the first mate of the MV Actuality. The vessel recovered the body.

Ernest’s wife Irene and her mother Emily Turton were given rail warrants to travel to his inquest at Chatham Naval Hospital, Kent.

Irene had to give evidence to identify Ernest’s gold wedding ring and to confirm that he had an operation scar on his back.

The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death and his family asked that Ernest’s body should be returned to his home in Parson Cross for a private burial.

When George started looking into Ernest’s death, he discovered that the navy papers did not record where Ernest was buried and no-one in the family knew.

Over the years he contacted the submarine museum and Sheffield Archives but no-one could track down Ernest’s grave. He even tried funeral directors but they were unable to help.

When he contacted us at Retro, we were able to find Ernest’s grave using the Sheffield Indexers website,, which is doing an invaluble job of making city burial records available online.

When we searched for Ernest on the site, more records had been uploaded than when Sheffield Archives looked last year.

When we rang George to tell him, his reaction was: “Closure at last.”

The website shows that Ernest is buried in the same grave as Joseph Cawley of Leicester Street, who died in 1933, and a widow, named as Elizabeth Emily Cowley, of the same address, who died two years later.

George said that they are members of Irene’s family.

He has been to visit the grave now but was saddened to find that Ernest’s name does not appear, although the cemetery records confirm that it is his final resting place.

Ernest’s name does, however, appear on a memorial to the Truculent crew in Chatham, Kent.

A memorial service is held every January in the former Royal Navy church at St George’s Centre, Chatham. The last surviving member of the crew, 91-year-old Fred Henly, attended this year.

George said that Ernest’s child was a baby in arms at the funeral but he does not anything about the child and would love to find out.

To contact George, get in touch with us here at Retro.