The Tragic Twists of HMS Olympus

For as long as people have set out upon the water, seafarers have been a superstitious lot, wary of bad omens and blaming ill fortune on powers beyond the realm of mere mortals. Inexplicable events meld with nautical lore, serving as explanations when no logical answer will fit.  Bad luck to those who set sail on Friday the 13th, whistling onboard a vessel will bring ill winds or no winds at all, killing an Albatross is as bad as being a Jonah, and never leave dock without your mascot or lucky charm. In this nether region of myth and superstition we delve into the story of one the most tragic wartime losses for Britain’s submarine service, the sinking of His Majesty’s Submarine Olympus.

A New Design, the “O” Class

In May of 1922 the British Admiralty developed a new long-range submarine, the “Overseas Patrol Type”. Designed with the wide expanse of the Pacific in mind, HMS Olympus and many of her sisters were originally intended to be delivered to the Royal Australian navy, but the economic crisis of the 1920’s caused the Admiralty to change her destiny, and the “O” class submarines were kept for the Royal Navy instead. The first production line, designated “Oberon” class would eventually exhibit a tragic design flaw as the riveted construction of the outboard diesel fuel tanks would loosen over time. This poor design resulted in the loss of three boats early in World War II when leaking fuel allowed Italian destroyers to locate and destroy the submerged vessels. Once this issue was discovered the riveted tanks were welded and the problem resolved. The next transition of the “O” type submarine was the “Odin class” whose members bore the names of mythological entities, as such HMS Olympus, named after Zeus’s home in the clouds, where the Gods dabbled in the lives of mortals for their amusement and pleasure. On a more practical note, the “O” class were the first British submarines to be fitted with hydrophones and ASDIC {sonar} for locating ships or submerged submarines as well as a quick diving “Q” tank allowing them to submerge more rapidly than their predecessors and attain periscope depth (34 feet) in just over a minute.

Built by the William Beardmore Shipyard in Glasgow Scotland, the 284- foot long, 2038-ton (submerged) vessel was launched into the Clyde River on December 11, 1928. Like most submarines of the time the primary armament was eight (six forward, two aft) 21” torpedo tubes, augmented by a uniquely configured 4” deck cannon tucked into the fore end of the conning tower, with two smaller machine guns located aft of the tower.  Many British submarines have a ship’s crest mounted on a shield-shaped plaque in the wardroom. The HMS Olympus emblem was a brace of lightning bolts striking down from the clouds across a blue background. Her motto, “Fulmen a sereno”, literally meant a, “bolt from nowhere”, to imply they would strike without warning, the very purpose for which the attack submarine is built.

As her overseas design dictated, HMS Olympus joined the 4th Flotilla (China) based out of Hong Kong to operate in the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean serving His Majesty’s interests. During the inter-war period 1930-1939 the submarine and her crew was mostly enjoying the exotic duty station. Records show her crew won the Submarine Flotilla football (soccer) cup, her officers won the Station Sampan race and the HMS Olympus won the Flotilla regatta. For now, luck was with the submarine and life was good for the crew. The only blemish during this period was an incident in which HMS Olympus, in-route to Wei-Hai-Wei, collided with a Chinese junk causing minor damage and a small measure of embarrassment. Shortly after the event John “Johnny” Capes, a new stoker, joined the HMS Olympus crew. If that name seems familiar to some, in a fascinating side story, years later Capes was taking passage aboard another British submarine, the HMS Perseus, when it struck a mine and sank in the Aegean Sea. Trapped in the after-torpedo room, Capes opened the escape hatch flooding the compartment, and wearing a Davis escape lung ascended 190 feet to the surface. Johnny Capes would be the sole survivor of the HMS Perseus in a rare example of escape from a sunken submarine.

First War Patrol in the Antarctic Wastes

With the onset of war HMS Olympus was ordered to the Antarctic to patrol the Prince Edward Islands and Isles Crozet. In short notice, they had to procure charts for this remote area, which they did but in a language other than English. The haste in which they sortied had them in Antarctic waters with only summer clothes, and the harsh conditions they found in the frozen wastes created a series of mechanical faults.  Ice floes damaged the exterior of the submarine and during one particularly rough surface crossing they encountered waves over thirty-five feet tall, which broke one of the torpedo’s in its launch tube. The mission was hard on the crew and to add to the discomfit, rations were soon limited to hard biscuits and tinned beef. The one high point during the cruise was when HMS Olympus joined the epic chase for the German battle ship Admiral Graf Spee, although they missed her by nine hours.