- Smith, Peter
- History - WW1
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Otway I, HMAS Oxley I
- March 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Oxley became the first allied submarine casualty of World War II. Due to wartime propaganda, news of her loss was relayed to the families of the crew and people Britain that she had been accidentally rammed by Triton. It was not until the 1950s that the public was made aware that the loss of Oxley was due to friendly fire.
So how did Oxley end up in the wrong patrol area? A Board of Inquiry with CAPT P.K. Kekewich RN as President was convened onboard HMS Cochrane on Saturday 23 September 1939 with eleven witnesses, nine from Triton and two from Oxley, to give their account of the circumstances which contributed to the loss of the submarine.
The first to give his report was LCDR Steel. Other officers and men from Triton described their duties and actions at the time of the sighting of the submarine. Those on the bridge were able to validate their captain’s actions.
LCDR Bowerman was asked to recall the details of his reckoning from 1400 onwards on 10 September. He recalled that from 1400 onwards Oxley was submerged at periscope depth with a speed that varied between two to three knots on a course of 156 degrees. At 1500 after Supersonic Transmission (SST) communication with Triton (which the HTD ((HTD (Higher Telegraphist Detector) is an earlier name for a sonar operator. HTD Operator was a Wireless Telegraphist who manned the WT office while on the surface and the Fessenden Gear or sonar when dived.)) operator stated was 7¼ miles away) and was operating close to land, he assumed Oxley’s position was 1½ miles inside the eastern limit of the patrol sector. He changed course westwards on 240 degrees for two hours and then returned back to the original course until surfacing at 2030. Although he had made an allowance for current he discovered after surfacing that it was stronger than predicted at .8 knots. Also on surfacing the loom of Obrestad and Egero Lights could be seen, but the actual lights could not be sighted due to misty rain. However, bearings by Relative Bearing Ring gave Bowerman a position about two miles inside the eastern limit line and about eight miles to the south-east of his patrol position. He stated that he set a course of 336 degrees and a speed of five knots.
Bowerman was then asked had he communicated with Triton later in the day. He replied:
Yes, at about 1900, getting a bearing range and course of Triton being 010 degrees, 4,900 yards, 334 degrees respectively. However the information was not verified due to lost communication.’
Bowerman considered the information given was improbable and he had decided to go with the original 1500 information, as it was more definite.
The next question was:
‘Describe the event following your surfacing.’
‘After I had set course towards my position Lieutenant Manley came up on the bridge to take over the duties of Officer of the Watch. This was about 2045. I warned him of the possibility of sighting Triton or HMS/M Sterlet consequent on the SST communication earlier in the day. I left the bridge about 2050 and checked Oxley’s position and course on the chart, after which I went to the wardroom about five minutes later. I was in the wardroom for a few minutes when I received a report from the OOW that a submarine was sighted on the starboard side. I at once went to the bridge. On emerging from the upper conning tower the OOW told me that a submarine was just abaft the starboard beam and had fired a grenade. He told me that we had fired a grenade in answer but it had failed to function. I asked him if he had made the private signal reply. His answer was yes but must have been hesitant or doubtful because I remember telling him to make it again to be certain. He had just commenced making it and I had by this time got out of the conning tower and was looking to starboard although my eyes were not by that time accustomed to the light when I saw a flash immediately beneath me and heard a dull explosion and the boat shook. She seemed to list to port and break in two from the centre.’