Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Happy birthday Dad

It's ten years since the Ladbroke Grove train crash near Paddington, which happened on my father's birthday. He was the guard on the train that was crashed into at Ladbroke Grove, and suffered from PTSD for two years, before moving to Greece, where he now lives. I had a version of the following article published in a family history magazine last year, this is an abridged version to show what a hero the man really is...

Ten years ago, my father survived the Ladbroke Grove disaster at Paddington, having been the conductor on the Great Western train which was crashed into. Although he was fortunate enough to have been spared any physical injury, he did end up receiving treatment for post traumatic stress disorder, and in order to be spared any further stress he eventually moved to Greece in 2003, where he now lives in his retirement.

In an earlier incarnation, my father had worked as a submariner in the Royal Navy. I knew that he had been a torpedo instructor at Faslane for many years, but did not know too much about his career before that, other than tales of manning Green Goddesses during the firemen’s strike in Helensburgh in the Seventies. After the awful tragedy at Ladbroke Grove, it soon transpired during his subsequent treatment for PTSD that this was not in fact the first disaster that he had been involved in. By now able to talk about the previous incident, he related to his counsellor, and then to his family, an extraordinary tale.

My father had joined a nuclear hunter-killer submarine as an able-bodied seaman in August 1966, eager to set sail on his first tour. Life for submariners in this day and age consisted of long tours of duty under the water, often for months at a time without surfacing, and in the midst of the Cold War, there was plenty of work to be done in keeping checks on the enemy fleet. This work often led the British into enemy waters on missions known in naval jargon as “sneakies”.

In October 1968, the submarine was ordered on just such a trip into the Barents Sea to observe a particular Russian submarine which was testing a new missile system, the capabilities of which the British wished to gain an insight into.

Creeping up on the Russian vessel by hiding behind its twin propellers – a sonar blind spot – my father’s submarine was able to maintain a close eye on her enemy counterpart for several days undetected. But after a few days, the Russian submarine suddenly realised that it was being followed. It turned and performed a manoeuvre that every British submariner feared – a “Crazy Ivan” – whereby the Russians tried to ram the boat.

My father had just gone off duty, and was in the mess, when suddenly he felt a huge crash, with the submarine suddenly tipping 65 degrees to heel and 35 degrees bow up. A coffee tin flew past his face into the clock, shattering its glass pane, and amidst all of the chaos, he was ordered immediately back to the bridge.

Making his way through scenes of utter chaos, he soon arrived on the bridge. Upon reporting for duty, the captain ordered my father to relieve the rating at the planes control, who was controlling the direction in which the submarine was moving. The rating was terrified and screaming at what had just happened, and my father was forced to punch him to get him to let go of the control and come to his senses.

The damage had been phenomenal, the Russians having rammed straight through the British vessel. The periscopes were put out of action, the compass, radio mast, and of course, the conning tower, also known as the “fin”, was in pieces. The captain immediately order the ship to surface to offer the Russians aid, but when he realised that his position was being relayed to the rest of their fleet, he quickly took the submarine back underwater. For the next few days, a game of cat and mouse ensued as the Russians tried to find their intruder, but fortunately the British submarine made it safely back to the Shetland Islands.

Having reached Lerwick, the navy called out a couple of carpenters by helicopter overnight, and between them they erected a huge wooden scaffold over the damaged fin and covered it with a black tarpaulin, making it seem from a distance that there was no damage. She then made her way to Barrow-in-Furness, where a cover story was put out that the vessel had hit an iceberg!

To try and find out more on the incident, I searched the internet, but there was absolutely nothing to be found, and so I decided to look for newspaper coverage of the event. Although I live in Scotland, I travelled back to my home town of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland and found an article in a newspaper from 1968 in the local library which was entitled “Carrick Seaman in Ice Sea Crash” (Carrickfergus Advertiser, Oct 31st 1968). No doubt my grandmother had a lot to talk about in the town back then! I later found another brief article in The Times (Oct 19th 1968) entitled “Ice Damages Nuclear Submarine”.

In an attempt to find more about what really happened, I took a flight from Glasgow to London, and visited the National Archives at Kew, to see if I could gain access to the submarine’s logs. Normally these files are declassified after thirty years, but to my surprise, I discovered that whilst every month surrounding the incident had been declassified, the records for the month itself were missing.

Having hit a brick wall, I decided to upload a brief version of my father’s account onto my family history website, and for a few years I thought nothing more about the tale.

Out of the blue, in July 2007 I received an e-mail from the editor of Warships International Fleet Review magazine, who had written a book on all of the navy’s ships to have held the same name as the submarine. He had just read an article in the North West Evening News about the incident, and as he was in the middle of updating his original book, was keen to find out more about what had happened. Having been aware of the story, he had also found it difficult to corroborate. Could I help?

I traced the newspaper in question, and discovered that they had in fact found the story on my website and turned it into a feature entitled “Did the Russians Hit Barrow Sub?”!!! To my delight, the article had two photographs showing the vessel, both before and after repairs to its damage. Not only that, but with the newspaper having placed their article online, I was soon contacted by a former shipmate of my father, who confirmed the whole story. Whilst my father had been in the control room, the shipmate had been working in the rear of the vessel at the time, and remembered being hurled from one side of the engine room to the other.

A few days after the first article in the Barrow paper, a follow up piece appeared, with two more submariners also claiming that the whole story had been true. I traced one of these gentlemen, and found the same story again. He was able to add the detail that the submarine’s damage was so severe that they could only move at a rate of 8 knots, making the journey back a long and terrifying event for all of the crew.

But despite the official records, for my family, all of this work confirmed everything that my father had claimed was true. Despite the horrors at Ladbroke Grove, his actions in the immediate aftermath on board the train in 1999 had already made him a hero in the family’s eyes, but now we know that he had been a hero long before my generation was even around. Having finally come through the trauma of the Ladbroke Grove crash, on his recent birthday I managed to purchase a cigarette lighter through eBay which had the crest of the submarine on which he served on the front, and I had an inscription placed on the side of it on behalf of my children:

“To Grandad, With Love on Your Birthday – You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down”.


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Ina said...

Wonderful story Chris. You must be very proud of your dad.

Happy birthday to him.


Chris Paton said...

Och, he has his moments! :)


Jock Tamson said...

What a great story Chris !!Thank you for sharing this.

Chris Paton said...

Cheers Jock!