Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Remembrance Sunday 09 : the story of HMS Seal

Remembrance Sunday 09

Isaiah 9.1-6, Romans 8.18-25

I was taking an assembly in Seal School earlier this week, as I do regularly. I showed the children a picture of our village sign – I’ve reproduced it on the service sheet. Many of them recognised it and knew where it was. But what were the images on it? The church was obvious, but what, I asked did they make of the picture in the bottom left hand corner. They could see a seal and some waves and a crown, but was it just a play on the name of the village? Many of you here know the answer to that question, and could tell the story far better than I, but I’m hoping you’ll bear with me, because I also suspect that there are many who don’t, and it is a very dramatic and moving story, worth hearing and worth thinking about on this Remembrance Sunday morning.

The picture is a representation of the badge of the submarine HMS Seal, a mine-laying submarine built just before the Second World War. She was commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Rupert Lonsdale, a quietly devout Christian whose wife had died in childbirth just a year or so before he took command. In April 1940 Seal was sent on a mission to lay mines in the Kattegat, between Denmark and Sweden. It was a dangerous and difficult mission, but Seal did her job and began to make her way home. She’d been damaged during the mission, though, and progress was slow and difficult, especially when she realised that there were German anti-submarine trawlers out hunting for her. She dived, intending to wait till they had lost her trail. What the crew didn’t know was that they had somehow snagged a wire attached to a German mine and had been dragging it along with them. Now that they had come to a stop, the mine was swept by the current, straight into the stern of the boat. There was a huge explosion and water began to rush in. The crew scrambled forward, shutting the watertight doors as they went. All 60 men on board were safely accounted for, but Seal was lying at an angle, her stern weighed down by the water and sticking in the soft mud of the sea floor.

It was early on a summer evening when all this happened, so they had to wait several hours till it was dark enough to try to surface. At 10.30pm they blew the ballast tanks and started the engines, hoping to lift Seal off the sea bed. But Seal was stuck fast  – in fact the angle at which she was lying got even steeper. They did some emergency repairs and tried again. Still no movement. Several hours had passed and the oxygen levels were falling dangerously low. The carbon dioxide they were breathing out was building up as well, slowly poisoning them. They all knew how vital it was that they should surface soon. Even the smallest tasks were becoming an almost impossible strain for the crew as they weakened. A third attempt was made, using every trick they could think of. But still the boat lay on the bottom. It looked utterly hopeless. Many of the crew could no longer even stand.

Lonsdale ought to have been desperate, but if he was, he didn’t show it. Instead he announced to the men that he intended to pray. Many of them privately thought this was completely pointless, but they respected him enough to keep quiet. So Lonsdale prayed in a loud voice, so it would carry to the men who were spread through the boat, slumped in exhaustion. "Dear God, we have tried everything in our power to save ourselves and we have failed. Yet we believe that you can do all things which are impossible to men. Please, O Lord, deliver us."
He led the men in the Lord’s Prayer, and then suggested that they said their own prayers in the quiet of their hearts. As they prayed, he had an idea. Why it hadn’t occurred to him before now he didn’t know - it seemed to have come out of nowhere. It was a bit far-fetched. It might not work, but at this point anything was worth trying.

Lonsdale ordered the men to make their way forward, as far as they were able. If only they could increase the weight in the front half of the boat it might just tip it and help it to pull free of the mud. The men began painfully to move forward – many were only able to crawl. Someone threw down a rope and they clung to it, pulling themselves upwards. When they had all gone as far as they could, the engines were switched on and they waited to see what would happen. Surely the weight of sixty men couldn’t make a difference, but as they waited they felt the sub start to move. Inch by inch she began to level out and then to rise to the surface. The hatches were thrown open and at last, fresh air came pouring in.

It would be wonderful if that was the end of the story - a classic tale of courage, ingenuity and triumph against all the odds…But, of course, it wasn’t, because Seal had surfaced in enemy waters, and soon they were under attack from German aircraft. Seal was too badly damaged either to fight back or to escape and Lonsdale, with great reluctance, surrendered, having destroyed all the confidential documents and equipment. He and the crew were taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in POW camps. That’s where Seal village comes into the story, of course. Seal had adopted the submarine before the war, but now everyone swung into action, sending letters and parcels and supporting the crew’s families until they came home. HMS Seal, though, was towed into a German harbour, and eventually, briefly and unsuccessfully, was pressed into service in the German navy.

Any captain surrendering a vessel automatically faces a court-martial, and Lonsdale  knew throughout his captivity that this would happen to him. In fact Seal was the only British Naval vessel to be surrendered during the entire war. In the event Lonsdale was honourably acquitted. The court recognised that to have done anything but surrender would have condemned not only himself but also the crew to death, for no real purpose. But his widow told me that, though the court acquitted him, to his dying day he never really acquitted himself, never forgave himself for surrendering. It went completely against the grain of the traditions of the Navy; the captain is supposed to go down with his ship rather than hand her over. During their imprisonment he and his crew also faced intermittent hostility from other prisoners who falsely believed that the surrender of Seal had led to valuable secrets falling into German hands.

When we know this latter part of the story, suddenly that simple tale of miraculous salvation becomes a much more complex, darker story, but much more real too. I’ve never been caught up in a war, but I’ve heard enough stories from those who have to know that it is rarely straightforward, any more than the rest of life is. Equipment fails. People aren’t what they seem - I think of the five soldiers killed this week by an Afghan policeman they were training, and the Americans killed in Fort Hood by a US military psychiatrist. Messages are misunderstood, or don’t get through at all.  Lonsdale might have been able to forgive himself more easily, for example, if he’d known that the Admiralty had sent a message telling him that the safety of the crew should be his priority after destroying confidential documents and equipment – in other words, that he should do exactly what he did. But he didn’t get the message, because he’d already destroyed the codebooks he needed to decipher it. Lonsdale bore a heavy load as he tried to reconcile the ideals of the Navy with the messy reality he faced on that stricken submarine. It seems to me that his story is a warning to us today to be aware of the expectations we still place on those who fight on our behalf, which may be equally unrealistic.

War can teach us many things. It can show us how heroic people are, and how brutal, how selfless and how selfish. But if it teaches us nothing else it should teach us humility, the limitations that come with being human. War is a demonstration of those limitations in itself, of course, a sign that all our attempts to find a peaceful solution have failed. We do no one any favours, though, if we confuse the fictional wars of the blockbuster novel with reality, and expect always to find clear lines between success and failure, glory and shame. Courage comes in many forms.

Rupert Lonsdale didn’t just have huge personal strength and resources, but also the wisdom and true courage to see when he had come to the end of them, and the ability to look for help beyond himself. "Dear God, we have tried everything in our power to save ourselves and we have failed," he prayed, “yet we believe that you can do all things which are impossible to men. Please, O Lord, deliver us."

In the reading we heard today, St Paul talks of the whole of creation groaning, longing for a world of peace and freedom that God wants for his children. Paul faced the might of the Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world had ever seen, and he was well aware how puny he was by comparison. If this grand vision were to come to be, it would not be through his own strength, but by God’s grace.

Today, men and women – military and civilian - in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in many other conflict zones around the world face what must often seem like an equally impossible task. I have two prayers to offer for them.  My first is that they will discover that strength which Lonsdale and his crew knew – the strength which comes, paradoxically, from realising that they don’t face these trials alone. My second is that we will have the wisdom to know when our demands on them are unrealistic, and the compassion to help them when they are crushed by those demands. 

God’s call to each of us is to do what we can to build a world of peace, but he longs for us also to know that  when our own powers are exhausted there is a Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace, there at our side.