There is a Navy tradition that says a change of name of a new ship was bad luck. This superstition proved tragically true for HMS Vandal. She had been launched as HMS Unbridled but her name was changed to Vandal before she left the fitting out yard.
The Vandal was a U Class – Group II coastal submarine built by Vickers-Armstrong Limited of Barrow in Furnace (Yard No837). Launched in October 1942 and completed in February 1943 the Vandal measured 192.3′ x 16.1′ x 15.2′ and her tonnage was 540dt surfaced, 730dt submerged. She was powered by twin props and was a diesel electric boat. Her armament was 4@ 21″ bow tubes; 1@ 3″ deck gun and 3@ AA machine guns.
In the second week of February 1943 the newly fitted out Vandal left her berth at Barrow and headed north, manned by a crew of novice submariners, to the Clyde for working up manoeuvres. She arrived at Dunoon on 20th February and docked alongside the depot ship of the 3rd Submarine Flotilla – HMS Forth. Her initial acceptance trials were carried out in the shallow, sheltered waters of Gareloch and Vandal passed these tests with flying colours – she was an excellent ship. The next stage of her trials was a three day, unescorted voyage during which she was not expected to report her position or movements. She was under the command of Lieutenant John Stirling Bridger RN. On the second night of these trials she anchored in the quiet of Lochranza on the north west corner of Arran. It was to be her final night afloat.
She left the anchorage at 8:30am on the morning of 24th February and was never seen again. Her schedule for the day had her heading for Inchmarnock and completing her exercises with a 200 feet dive into the Arran Trench. Amazingly Vandal’s failure to return as planned to her base at HMS Forth that night was not reported until the next day. Captain H M C Ionides, Flotilla commander, was later censured by the Admiralty and he lost his command two months later. It is unlikely that an earlier alert would have saved the ship as the information on her whereabouts was very vague. A search was finally initiated and the area between Inchmarnock, Ardlamont Point and the north of Arran was scoured by air and sea. There were reports of some indications to the location of the wreck – a noise that sounded like hull tapping was heard nine cables south of Sgier Mhor, a white smoke candle was spotted in the Lamont Shelf and an oil patch was spotted from the air two miles north west of Lochranza. It was this final report that was to lead to the discovery of the wreck 50 years later. In 1943 the search commander did not deem the oil patch as significant and, of course, the Vandal and her crew of thirty seven was not found. The search was abandoned on Saturday 27th February and a short, inconclusive enquiry was held aboard HMS Forth. There was only one survivor of Vandal’s crew, Larry Gaines. At the time Gaines was too ill with earache to sail with the ship, and was replaced by a younger, less experienced crew member. For 60 years Gaines had blamed himself for the loss, as he believed his replacement had not secured the aft engine room hatch, one of his final checks before diving.
The wreck of the submarine was discovered more than fifty years later – she had indeed sunk within sight of Lochranza. She lies in position 55° 43.641’N, 05° 19.604’W in 101 metres of water. She lies with a thirty degree list to port and is of course a war grave.
A team of divers investigated the wreck of HMS Vandal in August 2003 hoping to establish the reason for her loss, based on the evidence visible on the seabed. While nothing was found that allows an absolute conclusion about the cause of the disaster, expedition leader Nick Gilbert has postulated a very credible theory based on what was observed by the dive team.
They found a four foot section of the stern was missing and, critically, despite Larry Gaines’ concerns, the aft engine room escape hatch was, in fact, closed. However, the forward escape hatch was open. All other hatches and external openings to the sea were discovered to be closed and there were no external signs of hull damage or collision. The mooring lines were neatly stowed around both midships and stern bollards, and the forward hydroplanes were in their stowed position which would appear to indicate that the Vandal was on the surface when the incident occurred.
The area that Vandal lies in was used by submarines performing log calibrations over a measured mile so it is possible that calibration work on the ships’ Ottway log was being carried out. Maintenance of the log on a submarine can be hazardous as any problem encountered during the operation can breach the pressure hull and cause a flood. In the case of HMS Untamed (which sank three months after Vandal) incorrect procedure whilst carrying out log maintenance was the main contributing factor to the boat and her entire crew being lost. The open forward hatch would imply there were survivors in the forward compartments of the submarine and those not killed in the initial flooding in the aft compartments might have therefore attempted to use the forward escape hatch to leave the submarine and tried to make it to the surface, an endeavour that ultimately ended in failure. Alternatively, any of the crew alive in the forward compartments of the vessel may have escaped through the forward hatch while the ship was still on the surface and perished in the cold waters of the Clyde. No bodies were washed ashore at any point so this seems like an unlikely scenario.