Mystery Loss Of British Submarine Affray
By James Donahue
The 281-foot diesel/electric submarine Affray was on a simulated war operation when it foundered without
warning in the English Channel taking its 28-year-old commander, Lt. John Blackburn and 74 other naval officers and British
personnel to their deaths on April 16, 1951.
The cause of the disaster remains a mystery since the British government declared the ship a war grave
thus making it illegal for divers to visit the wreck or salvagers to attempt to raise it. This has fed conspiracy rumors since
first images have shown that the ship rests upright in 300 feet of water with no visible signs of damage.
There were no signals that the Affray was experiencing problems before it disappeared. The last radio
message received was: "Diving at 2115 in position 5010N, 0145W for Exercise Training Spring." After that there was only silence.
In spite of knowing the general location where the Affray went down, there were so many wrecks lying
at the bottom of the channel following two world wars that it took two months before the Affray was found and identified.
From all indications the submarine sank quickly and the crew members were unable to do anything to
stop whatever was happening inside. All four escape hatches were shut and there had been no attempt to release the emergency
buoys designed to help rescue ships locate the submarine once it was on the bottom. The hydroplanes used to control the ship
were both raised and the telegraph was in the stop position, suggesting that a frantic effort had been made to halt the submarine’s
The only thing found broken on the sub was a snort mast, which had broken off at the hull. It was
speculated that if this mast was damaged after the submarine struck bottom, it had nothing to do with the sinking. The break
might have caused some internal flooding, at least in one compartment.
The snort (or snorkel) tube served as an air intake device when the submarine was operating at periscope
depth. It was equipped with a float valve that closed automatically if the submarine dropped below periscope depth.
A Naval Board of Inquiry was held and after examining all of the available information, it was unable
to determine the cause of the disaster. Speculation ranged from sabotage to an on-board explosion.
The Affray was a relatively new member of the British naval fleet. Launched in 1944, it was one of
16 new class submarines designed for use in the Pacific Ocean against Japan.
It operated with a regular compliment of six officers and 55 men. That the sub was carrying 75 men
on the day it sank was abnormal, probably connected to the fact that the vessel was participating in war games on the open
In addition to the regular crew, the sub was carrying one sergeant, one corporal and two marines from
the Special Boat Service, a commander, a naval instructor, seven lieutenants in the engineering branch and 13 sub-lieutenants.
The latter two groups were receiving submarine officer training.
Thus it was a very packed submarine that plunged to the bottom of the channel that fateful day.