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The mixed fortunes of the submarine depot ship HMS Maidstone and its time as a prison hulk for IRA internees


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Every time that Maidstone borough councillors enter the chamber in the Town Hall, they troop past a ship's bell.

It is the bell of HMS Maidstone, named after the town, which was launched 85 years ago.

The bell from HMS Maidstone now hangs in Maidstone Town Hall
The bell from HMS Maidstone now hangs in Maidstone Town Hall

Laid down at the John Brown ship-yard in Scotland in 1936, HMS Maidstone was launched in 1937 and commissioned on May 5, 1938, in time for the Second World War.

HMS Maidstone was a submarine depot ship; her purpose was to re-supply and refit our submarine fleet in the Mediterranean and the Far East.

She weighed 8,900 tons, had a complement of 1,167 men and could steam at 17 knots.

She had on board a foundry, coppersmiths, plumbing and carpentry shops, electrical and torpedo repair shops, plants for charging submarine batteries and heavy and light machine shops.

In fact, everything required to service up to 10 submarines, including an arsenal of torpedoes and mines.

HMS Maidstone with her brood from the third submarine squadron in 1964
HMS Maidstone with her brood from the third submarine squadron in 1964
Submarine commanders on the foredeck of HMS Maidstone with Rear Admiral Claud Barrington Barry, centre, and Maidstone's Captain, "Barney" Fawkes, on the far right, probably taken in 1943
Submarine commanders on the foredeck of HMS Maidstone with Rear Admiral Claud Barrington Barry, centre, and Maidstone's Captain, "Barney" Fawkes, on the far right, probably taken in 1943

She looked after the subs' crews too, with an on-board steam laundry, a cinema, hospital, chapel, two canteens, a bakery, barber shop, and a fully equipped operating theatre and dental surgery.

HMS Maidstone had a sound war career, but a rather ignominious ending.

Her last years were spent in Northern Ireland during the time of The Troubles, where she was moored in Belfast.

She was first used as a floating barracks for the Army, and then as a prison ship for Republican internees, including at one time Gerry Adams, who later served as the President of Sinn Fein for 35 years and was also the MP for Belfast West, though he never took up his seat in the House of Commons.

It was a shameful task for a vessel that in 1956 had been the Flag Ship of the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet.

A rare colour photo of HMS Maidstone
A rare colour photo of HMS Maidstone

And a task it was not very good at.

The prisoner holding area itself was at the stern and consisted of two bunkhouses and two messrooms.

Above these, lived the prison governor and his staff, and above that was the deck, on which the internees were allowed to exercise twice a day.

The deck was surrounded by a 10-foot high barbed wire fence.

The ship was moored 20ft off the harbour wall and connected to shore by a jetty guarded by the Army.

HMS Maidstone at the Clyde in 1965
HMS Maidstone at the Clyde in 1965

On January 17, 1972, seven Provisional IRA members were able to escape.

Using boot polish as camouflage and after smearing themselves with butter as a protection from the cold, they were able to climb through a porthole and shin down a cable into the water, swimming parallel to the dock until they had bypassed the army guards.

They subsequently held a press conference, handing the IRA a propaganda victory.

HMS Maidstone began its career as the mother ship to the 1st Submarine Flotilla. She was based in Gibraltar, and from November 1942, at Algiers, which was the main Allied base in the Mediterranean, and where she was visited by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

From November 1943, she was assigned to the Eastern Fleet at Ceylon - now Sri Lanka.

In September 1944 she moved with 8th Submarine Flotilla to Fremantle in Western Australia to operate in the Pacific.

HMS Maidstone arrives at Freemantle Harbour, Australia, in September 1945, with rescued POWs on board. Picture COFEPOW
HMS Maidstone arrives at Freemantle Harbour, Australia, in September 1945, with rescued POWs on board. Picture COFEPOW

At the end of the war, she was the first British ship to enter Hong Kong to pick up surviving POWs who had been held captive by the Japanese.

She took them to Freemantle, where they were given a rapturous welcome by huge crowds - and also much-needed medical assistance.

She returned to Portsmouth in November 1945.

After the war, HMS Maidstone became mother ship to the 2nd and 7th Submarine Flotillas. The latter was a training squadron. She had her own mooring off Portland in Dorset, but still frequently took to sea.

In 1951, she became the first British warship to visit Franco's Spain, though it was to land a sick crewman at Corunna, rather than an official visit.

Huge crowds waited at Freemantle to greet the returning POWs. Picture COFEPOW
Huge crowds waited at Freemantle to greet the returning POWs. Picture COFEPOW
Sadly most of the POWs needed immediate medical treatment: Picture COFEPOW
Sadly most of the POWs needed immediate medical treatment: Picture COFEPOW

In 1953, she joined the Fleet Review at Spithead for the Coronation of the Queen. It was a huge occasion, with Her Majesty reviewing 162 Royal Naval vessels, plus many from the Royal Naval Auxiliary, the Merchant Navy, the fishing fleet, Royal Lifeboats and Trinity House.

In addition there were guest warships from India, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and from six other countries including the USA and the USSR.

After this high, two years later, came possibly the saddest moment in Maidstone's long career. HMS Maidstone, had just returned from a NATO exercise between Iceland and Greenland with some of it’s flock of S and U-class submarines.

The submarine HMS Sidon was tied up alongside her at Portland harbour when on the June 16 there was a sudden explosion in the Sidon's forward torpedo compartment.

A rescue party from the Maidstone did their best and saved a number of the Sidon's crew, but the boat sank within 20 minutes and 12 matelots from Sidon's 56-strong crew were lost.

The dramatic moment was caught on camera by a Maidstone rating who had just finished breakfast and had come on deck with his camera.

HMS Sidon alongside HMS Maidstone
HMS Sidon alongside HMS Maidstone
HMS Siddon begins to sink
HMS Siddon begins to sink

The Maidstone's medical officer, Temporary Surgeon Lieutenant Charles Eric Rhodes who had gone aboard to help the injured also died, overcome by poisonous gases.

He was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal.

After her spell as flagship of the Home Fleet, HMS Maidstone was given an extensive refit in 1959 so that she could accommodate the nation's new nuclear submarines. From 1962, she was based at Faslane on the Gare Loch, where she was the depot ship to the 3rd and 10th Submarine Squadrons.

Finally in 1968, the decision was taken to mothball the ship, then 30 years old.

However, she was given a second lease of life the following year when she was refitted to accommodate 2,000 troops and sent to Belfast to serve as a barracks.

HMS Maidstone with HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine alongside
HMS Maidstone with HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine alongside

Among those living on board was General Sir Mike Jackson, who went on to become the head of the British Army. Another resident, probably less well known, was Gunner Robert Curtis of the 94 Locating Regiment, Royal Artillery, who on February 6, 1971, became officially the first British soldier to to be killed in The Troubles.

He was 20 and his wife was pregnant with their first child.

Later that year, the 2,000 soldiers moved out and 122 IRA prisoners moved in.

Maidstone's spell as a prison ship lasted three years, after which she remained in Belfast to provide immediate short-notice accommodation for the Army in case reinforcements were suddenly needed.

Finally on May 23, 1978, she was towed to Rosyth where she was broken up for scrap.

HMS Maidstone under tow in 1977
HMS Maidstone under tow in 1977
HMS Maidstone leaves Ireland to be scrapped
HMS Maidstone leaves Ireland to be scrapped

That really was the end of an era, as HMS Maidstone had been the ninth and last warship to bear the name.

The very first had been named by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, and launched in 1654.

On the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II renamed her HMS Mary Rose.

But another seven HMS Maidstone's were to follow, before the final one.

Maidstone's immediate predecessor, launched in 1912 and sold in 1929 had also been a submarine depot ship.

The 8th HMS Maidstone, commissioned in 1912 and pictured during the First World War
The 8th HMS Maidstone, commissioned in 1912 and pictured during the First World War

We would like to thank the Maidstone Royal Naval Association, MBC; former sailor Stephen Naghi, and the Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War charity (COFEWAR) for assistance in compiling this article.

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