Salvage of H.M.S. Vanguard

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Information relating to the Salvage of H.M.S. Vanguard from Scapa Flow in 1958–1959.

Reminiscences of Frank Lilleker

I was surprised to know that the Vanguard is still remembered. I have great affection for the vessel for I started my career on her using antiquated diving equipment for which I had no training and my first introduction was to fall through a hatch and get myself entangled. Due to an oversight we didn't have enough air hose to make two suits, so if you got into trouble you had to get yourself out.

In the second year I introduced free diving and managed to do the most difficult jobs to prove that scuba equipment was not only for pleasure. Once free of the myopic helmet I could survey the wreck and reach areas not otherwise accessible. When I finally convinced the firm to allow me to use free gear it was the equivalent of flying over a town rather than walking through the streets, kicking up mud. The argument against free diving was that you couldn't heave strops and shackles but I found ways of doing this and by the following year standard diving was a thing of the past.

Vanguard lies in 108ft of water and, due to all the magazines blowing up, the whole ship was torn open, the turret tops and all the guns were blown out of their mountings. I found one 68 ton gun barrel that had obviously been projected high into the air and landed some 150ft away from the ship burying itself breach down to a depth of 15ft. One gun turret complete with barbette, and a conning tower were standing some distance away, propellor shafts were bent and the side armour gaped out like a peeled orange. One item I recovered was what I thought was a safe but turned out to be a flag locker.

My contract specified that I report to Rinnigill Pier at Hoy to join the Ocean Raleigh. Wages £20 per week out of which I was expected to pay for food and accommodation when ashore.

I thought a vessel with a name like that must be some well-appointed luxury yacht. Tied up to the jetty was an ancient steam drifter bearing the name. The bow had been fitted with a roller for lifting, but apart from that very little had changed from its original purpose as a fishing boat. Life, to say the least, was basic. The accommodation was a tiny mess space with bunks at either side, a curtain being drawn to cut out some of the light. The mattress consisted of three kapok lifejackets which still bore the stains and smell of fish. The only benefit, in common with most steam vessels, was that it was warm and there was always the opportunity to dry out against the boiler. As the result of part of a propellor blade having broken off the vessel had a certain rythm when doing her best six knots - I can only describe it as the music to the cartoon series "Captain Pugwash."

We arrived over the wreck and I was dressed in standard diving gear and sent down. When I had been told of the method of diving I had hoped I might be in the company of experienced men and could learn the trade from them, instead my colleague was a young man who had completed a shallow water course in London Docks. Not wishing to admit that my experience was less than his, I allowed myself to be dressed and tried to remember the few details I had gleaned from the Siebe Gorman manual on deep diving. The helmet has three valves, a one-way in the air supply to prevent the suit emptying in the event of a severed airline or pump failure. In the early days of diving it had been known for the air to fail which allowed the water pressure to exert such force the man would be found compressed into the helmet whilst the soft tissues would be drawn up the airline to the horror of the linesman who had to retrieve the remains. It is only the equal pressure inside the suit that makes diving possible. The second valve is spring loaded which allows the escape of unwanted air and is controlled by the diver to adjust his buoyancy. The third, a spitcock normally left closed, but used to expel air more quickly if he wants to control his assent. When I became more experienced I used to open the valve, take a mouthful of water and squirt this over the face glass which frequently misted, and then use my newly-grown beard to burnish the surface to perfection.

My first dive was into a mass of twisted metal and it was the only dive during which I got into serious trouble. Trying to look like a real diver I was wearing a red woolly hat and my entry into the water was as per the book. My nerves however, had got the better of me and as I descended I took too firm a grip on the shot rope which resulted in me spiralling down, winding my lines round this rope, so by the time I touched down I and the shot rope were as one. What slack was left allowed me to take one step forward and I promptly fell through a hole up to my armpits. All attempts on my part to lift out were of no avail, and under the impression that air would do the trick I asked for the supply to be increased. My next realization was that my circular window was no longer in front of my face and I was now looking at the connection between the helmet and the corset. As the suit continued to expand my hat was tilted over my eyes and nothing I could do would move it (I have never worn a hat since). I found out afterwards the reason I had become stuck - my distance line had been tied to my front weight and had obviously caught in a scrap of metal. The use of the distance line is for the diver to secure one end to the bottom of the shot rope and walk round, paying out the rope in hope of finding something of value. The mud and silt would be stirred up so unless there was some movement of tides it was often a case of feel rather than see. Finally I broke loose and headed for the surface festooned in ropes and pipes. The owner, Arthur Nundy, was not impressed and it was with great reluctance I tried again (possibly only because I didn't have my fare back home). On this occasion all went well, I regained my confidence, and from that moment I started my career in diving. I did this once again at a later date with a different ending, but I won'tgo ahead of myself.

The above photograph shows the ship's propellor which was lying free of the ship which we lifted with the later vessel.

With regard to the gun, it is of course only conjecture, but as it was standing vertically in hard ground I can only assume the barrel must have entered the water vertically to have buried itself at depth. Regarding the weight of a 12" , Arthur Nundy of Nundy Marine Metals came up with this figure, and as he had been a foreman rigger involved in the German salvage during the Cox & Danks' years, I took it to be correct. [editor's note: the 12-inch Mk XI, XI* and XII weighed 66.7 - 67.7 tons]. What is certain, every gun barrel was blown out of its trunnions and was scattered in and around the wreck.

The salvage vessel which was acquired at the end of the first year was an ex-boom-defence ship, the Barneath, and in order to get maximum lift a four-fold set of blocks were run down either side of the deck and attached to the Robertson steam winches which were each capable of pulling eight tons. The heads of these blocks were connected to a cable which was looped over the horns of the ship and at the centre of this loop was a single pulley from which hung a strop thus giving tremendous lifting power. When both winches were pulling at their maximum, the deck wasn't a healthy place to be!

I connected the strop to the gun barrel and despite lifting the stern of the Barneath out of the water, could not budge it. We decided to put a charge down the bore and cut it a few feet below the seabed. I tied a piece of wood at the appropriate distance to the firing cable so that the charge would hang in the correct position. Once the water had cleared, the next dive revealed a shining bright barrel, still in position, denuded of its marine growth, the charge apparently having slipped the wood and gone down to the breach end. One last attempt was made to recover the barrel and this time it came away, the vibration having broken the soil around it. Upon inspection we found the breach had been blown out by our efforts and this from a charge of only about 15 lbs.

I gather that the Vanguard is now a war grave. What little evidence was left of the crew could only be found in the coal/oil sludge where bones are preserved. This and the leather boots and belts still buckled were the only remains.

I remember that one of our crew, probably now long-gone, used to row over each morning when we were moored over the wreck and back again at night, walking a considerable distance to his home. At that time there were only a few families living on the Island - he showed me a postal order which had fluttered down on Flotta after the explosion.

After my disastrous start life settled down to a routine. Weather permitting we would tie up over the wreck to four buoys to allow the ship to move into position when a likely find was made. As the ship was only a drifter and not a boom vessel which came later, its capacity to lift more than a few tons on the bow meant that the propeller was almost out of the water and the homeward journey took many hours, so we tried to find items of value (copper and brass) which could be brought over the side and dropped into the fish hold.

Due to the depth two dives were permitted per day of 40 minutes on the bottom and 30 minutes for stops. If all went well one lift could be completed and the wire sent down a second time during the duration of the dive. This first lift could be hazardous for the diver might see something of value, such as a valve, and only after the lift had started and the mud settled he would find it attached to a length of pipe held only by some rotten bolts at the end of which might be another valve or something equally heavy. This would slowly rotate above his head, looking as if it would break free at any moment.

On one occasion I slung the end of a piece of pipe and when it was pulled clear of the wreckage it turned out to be a Morris barrel, a training aid which fitted inside a 12 inch barrel and allowed the gun to be used with sub-calibre ammunition. This slipped the noose of the wire when about half way up and landed back a few feet away - the second lift was made after I was clear and on stops, so did not pose a problem.

This photograph is of a firing pistol from the rear turret, its only purpose was to complete an electrical circuit to fire the primary charge in the breach. When it first came out of the water the exposed part of the butt was highly polished - an hour later it was green. Today this would have been a single button, then it was solid brass weighing about 12 lbs. I don't collect souvenirs but thought this was unique.

I kept the firing pistol not so much for what it was but that it is an example of nature taking over her own. I therefore have left the marine growth on it. No other souvenirs I'm sorry to say, I wish now that I had collected a few.

To continue with my narrative:- As the year progressed it was obvious that a steam drifter was not man enough to lift the heavier items, gunbarrels, armour etc., and it was a welcome sight to see the Barneath when we went to collect it. However, the Ocean Raleigh still supplied a couple of interesting incidents - as the Orkneys are exposed to the Atlantic storms the weather can change in a matter of minutes. So it was when we were half way out to the wreck, a storm blew up with such ferocity the vessel could make no progress and we were being driven towards one of the islands, possibly Flotta. I can't recall whether we even had an anchor on board, it wouldn't have been stowed over the bow where the lifts were made.

It wasn't my idea, but I was dressed again and given a wire and shackle, and told to look for something to secure. At first the relief of leaving the heaving boat to the bubble silence of the seabed was very welcome, but as I walked along in the gloom I envisaged what to do if I found nothing. Would I continue on, finally walking ashore to remove my helmet and watch my livelihood founder? Or what would I do if I found myself walking into a wreck, having my lines tangled whilst the ship continued to drift until I parted company with the compressor? Luck was on our side that day, for I came across an Admiralty mooring laid down many years ago, and secured to it.

A second incident happened again when the weather suddenly changed. Arthur Nundy, when working on the salvaged German ships had seen tons of coal drop from the upturned hulls to lighten them enough to get close in shore, and as coal was the most expensive item he thought we could find great piles of the finest Welsh coal lying on the seabed ready for the taking. A bucket grab was organised, I was dressed as usual in helmet etc, walking along the seabed with the drifter doing what it was best at - drifting. Every time I came across a hump on the seabed, I called the bucket down to take a bite. This went on hour after hour, because the water was shallow enough to allow continuous diving, but with no result. I made the mistake of finding one solitary lump of coal, and placed it on top of a bucket of mud - this brought renewed interest and further searching was ordered.

Again the weather put an end to the operation and I was told to surface - only then did I find that my airline and telephone had wound round the chain above the bucket and as the vessel was now moving at an increased pace and heading towards a rocky shore, nothing could be done until I was back on board. With my lines entangled this was only possible if I could make my way round the bucket .Moving at any speed in standard dress is near impossible, the only way to get any traction is to reduce the air to the minimum and bend foward to the diagonal -.I must have looked more ridiculous than usual, chasing a bucket of mud across the seabed. Finally I managed to get hold of the edge, and with much effort freed myself. The storm eased and our efforts at coalmining were never repeated.

The Ocean Raleigh was collected by a firm of breakers, and with it went the first phase of my diving career. Having progressed to a better salvage vessel I was still lumbered with helmet and boots, but that would not be for much longer.

The Barneath needed some alterations to convert her to a lifting vessel - eyes and brackets were welded in place, and for the benefit of Health & Safety a large steel vat with an airline attachment (laughingly called a recompression chamber) was installed. This was quite useless for it was impossible to control the pressure and if anyone was silly enough to complain of pains they would probably come out a midget. I took the opportunity of washing the woollens, where previously they could have stood up in their grey mantle with the accumulated salt - they were now only off white and more comfortable to wear.

We had a visit from the backets, a firm of solicitors from Glasgow who enjoyed themselves dressing up and one being brave enough to climb down the pier ladder and immerse his head.

The larger vessel meant more crew and another diver was recruited. This man, newly out of the Navy, identified us immediately as a bunch of amateurs and decided to show us how it was done. When moored up, he was dressed up to the corsellette stage when he demanded to know where was his standby diver. I said I assumed it was me, "Then why arn't you dressed?". I gently pointed out it would be of little purpose for he had all the airline (we not having enough for two sets) - "In that case I'm not going". He left that evening on a passing ferry. Naval training might be correct but the world of commercial diving is totally different.

The next diver, a chap I briefly knew, fared a little better for he managed the exploratory dive and after a quarter of an hour asked to be brought up. It was with some difficulty we got him over the rail for he had become paralysed from the waist down. After two days there was no improvement so he was transported to Kirkwall hospital and after a week sent home. I met him some years later, it had never happened again and the cause remains a mystery.

I had now become quite proficient as a standard diver, so much so I started to get careless. On one occasion I came up to a wall of steel, probably the stern, and thinking I could be clever made myself light enough to do a controlled assent with the object of landing on whatever I found up there. The reduction in water pressure meant my suite expanding and instead of a gradual rise I found myself rushing to the surface. The danger lies in either the linesman being unaware and not shortening the lines allowing the diver to fall back down with only atmospheric air in his suit, giving him the squeeze, or the diver coming up under the ship and flattening his helmet on the hull. The black shape above told me I was heading for the latter and I waited for the inevitable crunch and the rush of water. The crunch came but the water didn't. I had gone headlong into festoons of mussels so thick they cushioned my upward fall and apart from again looking ridiculous I came to no further harm,. Back down to stops where for the time being I could avoid explaining myself. Stops were boring and cold and to counter this I would lie back and study the primitive life passing the face glass - jelly fish and plankton in a great variety of shapes would hold my interest whilst the passing potato peelings gave the promise of food to come.

We had the luxury of a shower, and as the vessel was a steam ship hot water was always available. There is no better way to get the temperature back to normal. In a locker were boxes of rocket line which proved invaluable for marking lifts, also a first aid box which contained ampoules of morphine dated 1942 - as they didn't have an "inject by" date I waited for the opportunity to use them. I didn't have long to wait for we had a serious accident a few weeks later.

The fact that we had the ability to lift enormous weights didn't mean all went well. Everything depended on the final strop for it had to be weak enough to break should the lift prove stubborn. Shackles which were almost too heavy to be man-handled would be distorted out of shape, and strops made from two inch diameter wire would snap and had to be respliced, giving the crew hours of work. Therefore, to sling some immovable item would not be popular with the three deck crew who did the splicing.

Armour plate was especially desirable as the metal was pre-atomic and could be used for special purposes. For some reason the lids of the turrets had an odd shaped hole cut into one corner. The reason for this I can't imagine but it did make it possible to sling them. The deck armour was so thin that in places two three-quarter inch plates were riveted together, the designers obviously thought Naval battles would be fought at close quarters. For the same reason three torpedo tubes were installed, two tubes out from the sides and one through the stern. To enable a torpedo to be fired from the side when the ship was steaming a ramp had to be first run out to allow the torpedo to clear the ship's side without the pressure caused by the forward movement of the ship which would jam the torpedo in the tube. One of these ramps were salvaged later by my colleague, some seven tons of gunmetal.

The stern tube was apparently still in place and the sliding door closed. That part of the ship could still be recognised (together with the bow), so it was decided to blow a hole near the door to recover it and get to the tube. This was done but upon inspection the inside of the door had a circular flange against which was a roughly shaped piece of plate bolted in place, which gave the impression the tube had been removed for maintenance. The door was poor compensation for two days work and I reasoned that the tube could not be far away and an investigation was called for. The hole we had blasted would allow me to enter and after calling for more pipeline which I coiled down to avoid chaffing on the sharp edges, I made my way inside and started groping around the compartment. In the pitch blackness I made my way along and then across, still not feeling the round shape I was seeking. My time was up so I traced my line back along the way I had come only to find the airline appeared to exit a hole no bigger than my helmet. Feeling around the hole the obstruction seemed solid. I must have learnt something by this stage for rather than panic I metaphorically sat down and waited for the mud to settle. The apparent wall which had prevented my leaving was several baulks of timber which now had weight rather than buoyancy but were not heavy enough not to have moved when I disturbed the water. Once I knew that it was easy to slide the wood out of the way and return to stops. My stay on the bottom had been longer than usual so stops consequently had to be much longer. Timber was kept on warships for damage control purposes, it was usually kept together with canvas pads to shore up and make-good leaks. This tube therefore and the two others, as far as I know, are still on board so a wasted week but we were about to be redeemed, not without consequences! Enclosed photograph of a torpedo ramp. Note the last picture of the double-acting pump still had cordite attached. The condenser, I am told, was twenty eight tons of non-ferrous.

We were on our way back on a Friday afternoon after a very unsuccessful week when the weather, for a change, was warm and calm, the water having only the slightest chop except in one particular place about half way home. I had noticed this before, a calm area with a rainbow edge made by oil. The oil must indicate something, and as we were early with nothing to unload I pleaded to have a look and by sheer good luck landed alongside a tanker, the decks festooned with flexible copper refuelling pipe. The ship, I assume, was a fleet auxiliary - how it came to be lying on its side in fifty feet of water was a mystery.

I slung as many of these six and nine inch pipes I could see and this made up for our disappointment earlier in the week. However, as usual there was a down side, for what I could not see was that one of the pipes remained connected to a cast iron valve and due to the electrolytic erosion when copper and iron are together, it broke off like a carrot releasing oil fuel to pollute a wide area. We kept quiet about this episode and hoped nobody would connect us with it.

The diving season lasted from April until November, during which time I had a weeks holiday. On return I brought with me several items of free diving equipment which included a dry suit, face mask, fins, and a Heinke demand valve. As the patent for the Aqualung was still in force and the crux of the design required the exhaust and diaphragm to be together, Heinke got round this by extending the outlets in the form of two horns having a ball valve in each. This was convenient for me for I was able to hold the valve in place against a harness on my chest - the front position of the valve made for easier breathing and I had nothing on my back to get tangled. An airline meant there was no worry about running out of air, and a bypass into the suit allowed me to compensate for pressure and adjust my buoyancy. A duck's beak valve in the cuff allowed the suit air to escape if I held my arm up, but this would not happen in a normal working mode. Two marker lines with small cork floats completed the equipment.

In that first free dive I was amazed by the things I had missed. The propeller was an example because it was some twelve feet off the seabed and unless the standard diver saw it on the way down his restricted vision through the face glass and the stirred mud meant he would miss it. Another example was the turret, for unless the diver landed inside it he would have great difficulty in clambering in without disturbing the mud and there I found many useful items which could be marked including the lifting hoists and heavy hydraulic cylinders used to deliver ammunition from the magazine. All this was seen in one dive, and when I reported back Nundy saw the potential and ordered all the necessary gear to enable the change to free diving as soon as possible.

Over the next few days I surveyed the ship, the bow was recognisable with anchor chains spread out on the seabed. Looking up at the stem from seabed level it reminded me of a gutted fish for the hull had been blown out with plating hanging down on either side. I swam up to one of the portholes (or is it scuttles?) and chose to look into one at the same moment a seal decided to look out - I don't know which of us was the more shocked.

From the bow to the stern it wasn't possible, due to the damage, to know exactly what part of the ship I was looking at although the propeller shafts identified the after engine room. The stern still had some decking, in the centre of which was a saluting gun. In a tangled mass of wreckage I found the ship's bell still hanging - it proved a problem to sling because of its shape but we eventually recovered it. I understand it was normal to hand ships' bells back to the Admiralty, and what its final destination was I never knew.

We became quite proficient at recovering the twelve inch guns, I didn't find any gun smaller. First I would mark the position with a light line, then the rowing boat would plumb the line so that the Barneath could, using her mooring cables, position the horns over the spot. Next a cable was secured to the small end of the barrel after it had been taken through the lifting strop - the strop was then slid down over the small end to be positioned at the balance point using crowbars. The heavy lifting tackle was lowered and if we were lucky could be connected to the strop. Even if it missed by one foot it was impossible to swing it over, so more manoeuvring was called for. After much straining the shackle pin went home and the lift could begin.

The four-fold purchase blocks would lift up from the decks and line up with the top of the horns, the strain then being taken up. At times we didn't know what was secured (as in the case of the condenser), just a promising shape showing through the wreckage. The ship's bow would be pulled down, the wires groaning and shedding oil. If nothing happened the winches would slack off, the ship would be repositioned using the mooring cables, and the lift started again. The horns were never designed for such punishment and welds would part like rifle fire. We waited, tried again until either the strop broke, the ship heaved up and the blocks fell back on the deck, or a deep rumble and we knew whatever it was had broken through. Now the slow lift to the surface, we all wanting to be first to identify the prize. It was on one of these occasions that the accident occurred.

The work had become routine, and with it a blazé attitude towards the ever-present danger of ever flailing wires. We had completed the lift and started our preparation to leave the site, I don't know what we were talking about but I was in conversation with Arthur Nundy when he suddenly vanished. One moment all was serene, the next a crash of falling blocks the ship heaving up and the crumpled shape of Arthur some distance away. It was obvious that the wire which had been used to position us and was laying on the deck, suddenly took the weight of the gun when the strop broke. It had whipped up under Arthur's arm (it could have been worse) and sent him flying. It was fortunate he was wearing heavy clothing, in shirtsleeves it could have taken his arm off. He lay there half conscious so I felt quite justified when I emptied one of the tubes of morphine into his good arm - we returned to the pier, drove him across the Island to the only doctor who gave first aid and arranged transport to Kirkwall Hospital - a long journey by ferry.

I phoned three days later and was told he was in plaster, but the nurse said that in view of the doctor reporting his eyes were dilated he might have landed on his head so they would keep him in a few more days. I should have admitted my first aid but didn't. A week or so later he was back.

So the season continued, and as the days shortened we prepared to finish. My last act was to fill a now redundant canvas suit with explosives to be placed among the wreckage in anticipation that at the start of next year useful salvage might be revealed.

Although we didn't think in these terms it was almost a symbolic act, the passing of an era. At the bottom of the ladder I clasped my former self round the waist and together we descended for the last time. It was with great sadness I watched as the explosion dirtied the water and we steamed away.

This about concludes all I can remember of those two years. I have tried to be as accurate as possible and hope it will convey a picture of what the work entailed. I think there was some work done after 1958, but I don't think it lasted for long.

© Frank Lilleker 2001 – 2008.