Early in 1999, Chief Petty Officer Owen O'Keeffe of the Irish Naval Service was visiting Old Church Cemetery near Cobh, County Cork. The purpose of his visit was to do some research on U S Navy graves dating back to the First World War. In the course of his search for the American graves, Owen O'Keeffe came across five particular graves which had like headstones. The graves were very neglected and overgrown and the headstones which were in the form of crosses were moss covered.
On discovering, through research, that the graves were those of Royal Navy Submariners who were killed in an explosion onboard H M Submarine A5 in February 1905, Owen O'Keeffe decided to do something about restoring the graves. As well as the restoration task, Owen decided to research the cause of death of the occupants of the five graves.
HM Submarine A5 was built in Barrow-in-Furness launched in March 1904 and commissioned on 11 February 1905. Her displacement was 190 tons surfaced,length 105 feet beam 12.5 feet and a draught of 10.5 feet, so she was tiny by today's standards or even those of the immediate post war era. The A5's engines were powered by petrol and she had a range of approximately 300 miles. Her armament consisted of two 18 inch Bow Torpedo Tubes and she carried 4 torpedoes, two in the Tubes and two spare. A5's crew consisted of 2 officers and 9 ratings.
H M Naval Base Haulbowline located on the western side of Cork Harbour was quite large and had a dockyard and dry dock capable of holding a vessel of cruiser size. The Base was almost entirely self-contained and even had its own hospital. The design of the buildings were and are very similar to the buildings in Royal Navy bases world-wide. Cork being a natural harbour is the ideal location for a Naval Base. The ships based at Haulbowline would have looked after the Western Approaches area of the Atlantic. Cobh in Cork Harbour of course was also the last port of call of western bound trans-Atlantic Liners.
Once commissioned, A5 accompanied by her depot ship, H M S Hazard, sailed from Barrow-in-Furness and calling at Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire), Co Dublin and Dunmore East, Co Waterford before arriving at Queenstown,(now Cobh), Co Cork on 13 February 1905. H M Submarine A5 was the first submarine to be seen at the Haulbowline Naval Base. She attracted a great deal of attention and a large number of people were out to view the new arrival. Apart from being the first submarine to arrive at the Haulbowline Naval Base, the public were aware that a sister ship of A5, the A1, had been sunk during 1904 when in collision with a Liner.
On arrival in harbour the A5 berthed alongside "Hazard" which in turn was moored to a buoy. The crew moved over to the depot ship which must have been a great relief when one considers the noise from the engines and the very cramped conditions within the small submarine when underway. It is difficult to imagine how the crew were able to get much sleep because of the engine noise etc.
During 14 and 15 February 1905, preparations were underway for A5 to carry out some exercises, in a type of shop-window effort to demonstrate her capabilities to the Commanding Officers of ships present in the naval base and some 60 to 70 naval officers who had arrived at Haulbowline to witness the exercises and attend a subsequent lecture on submarines. These exercises were scheduled for 16 February and it was immediately prior to sailing on that fateful day that the submarine commenced refuelling from "Hazard". The A5's engines were petrol fuelled. Refuelling was completed at 0805.
Approximately two hours later an explosion occurred inside A5 toward the stern, this was followed by a second explosion some thirty minutes later. The second explosion was located in the conning tower area. So great was the force of the explosions that members of the crew were actually blown out of the boat through the main hatch, into the water and subsequently two crew members were picked up by a tug.
The following were either killed by the explosion or died subsequently from injuries received:
- Sub-Lieutenant F C Skinner
- C E R A Charles Sinden
- P O 1st Class Arthur Manley
- P O 1st Class William J Pryor
- Leading Stoker Earnest Goldthorpe
- Stoker Harry Davis
The remainder of the A5's crew were injured but survived:
- Lieutenant H G J Good Commanding Officer
- Chief Stoker Thomas Winstley
- Acting E R A John B Randall
- A B Edwin W Hughes
- A B Edward Banham
Sub-Lieutenant Skinner's remains were taken to his home town, Bedford where he was buried with full military honours. The remains of the five ratings were interred in Old Church Cemetery near Cobh, with full military honours on 20 February 1905. It was a funeral the like of which has never been seen in Cobh since. Bands and pipers from H M S Emerald, the Royal Gordon Highlanders and that of the Admiral in charge of the Haulbowline Naval Base, Rear Admiral McLeod. The town of Cobh actually closed down for the duration of the funeral, in a mark of respect to the deceased submariners.
An official Inquiry and an Inquest were held in Haulbowline Base and Cobh Town Hall respectively, into the cause of the tragedy. The result was that the first explosion occurred towards the stern of the A5. The cause of the explosion was the vapour from the petrol mixing with the air and being ignited by a spark from the electric switch when the submarine's main motor was activated. Smouldering clothing or electric leads, resulting from the first explosion, was the cause of the second explosion under the conning tower.
In March 1905, A5 was taken back to Barrow-in-Furness where she underwent major repairs. She rejoined the Fleet in October of that year and continued as part of the Home Fleet until December 1915, when she was paid off for disposal. A5 was "broken-up" in Portsmouth Dockyard in 1920.
The Irish Naval Service, in response to C P O Owen O'Keeffe's good work, donated a granite block with a brass plaque giving details of the A5 tragedy, and this was unveiled in March 2000. The ceremony was attended by Members of the Cork & County Branch of the Royal Naval Association, whom C P O O'Keeffe had contacted in the course of his research. The Cork and County Branch R N A laid a Wreath at the A5 Memorial following Ireland's Sea Sunday Service in July 2000 and will continue to do so in the future. Owen O'Keeffe is now an associate member of Cork R N A.
Because the accident occurred before the First World War, the graves do no come under the ambit of the War Graves Commission, which probably accounts for the neglect. Another neglected monument to naval personnel killed in a gun turret explosion on H M S Mars in 1902, has been located in the graveyard. Cork and County R N A intend holding a Commemoration Cermony at this monument in 2002 to mark the centenary of that tragedy and the A5 disaster will be similarly remembered in 2005. In the meantime it would be interesting to know if the War Graves Commission can give any assistance towards these neglected graves.
Since the restoration of the graves, there has been a visit, by a grandchild of one of the victims of the tragedy. The note on the wreath apologised for taking so long to visit the grave. Perhaps there are other relatives of these submariners who would like to visit the graves.
Information on the A5 graves may be obtained from:
Mr John Gregory,
Secretary Cork & County R N A,
44 Silversprings Court,
Telephone: 353 21 4500979
On Sunday 13th February 2005 there was a memorial service for the A5 "Forgotten Submariners".
An Ecumenical Memorial Service, led by the Reverend Daniel Owen, Rector of the Parish of Cobh and Glanmire, was held at the Church of Ireland (Anglican) Christchurch in Cobh . The chaplain of the Irish Naval Service read the Gospel and relatives of those lost In A5 read the lessons.
Cermonies were held The ceremony at the Old Clonmel graveyard, Cobh The Mayor and Councillors of the Cobh Urban District Council attended. The LE Eithne, and H.M.S. Richmond visited Cobh to mark the annivesary