A Barrow-built submarine from the Second World War-era is now on display in a Portsmouth museum today as part of an £11.5 million visitor attraction.
The only surviving British Second World War-era submarine will go on display today in a major new trio of exhibitions launched telling 100 years of “untold stories” of the Royal Navy.
The £11.5 million visitor attractions at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Hampshire, financially supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, includes the only surviving British Second World War-era submarine.
It has been designed to give the public an insight into life at sea protecting British interests around the globe during the major conflicts of the past century as well as in peace-time.
The HMS Hear My Story exhibition tells the stories of 1,000 men and women who have served in the Senior Service in the past century.
Visitors entering the £4.5 million permanent exhibition, which is located just a few yards from HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, pass by the imposing sight of the four inch gun from HMS Lance which fired the first British shot at sea of the First World War on August 5 1914.
A day after Britain declared war on Germany, Lance and its sister ship Landrail engaged and sank the German minelayer Konigin Luise off the Dutch coast – the first casualty at sea of the war which was to claim 43,930 Royal Navy lives.
Matthew Sheldon, project director, said: “Through the exhibitions, we’ll be telling the undiscovered stories from the ordinary men, women and ships which have shaped the Royal Navy’s astonishing history over the century of greatest change.
“Housed in the country’s most significant naval storehouse from the Georgian period, the state-of-the-art interactive displays and exhibitions will bring the collections alive and into the 21st century for everyone to discover.”
Explaining the importance of the navy and its 450,000 sailors to the war effort, he said: “It is vital to understand that we had to control the seas, both as a way of bottling up the German fleet but also so that trade could not get through to Germany, so if you had control of the seas it can have a huge economic impact on an economy like Germany’s.
“They couldn’t later in the war get supplies in by sea – so it wasn’t all about wanting great Trafalgar-style battles, it could also be about gaining slow control over the enemy.”
He added: “In the early months, the navy had the vital role of getting our forces to France, if we had not controlled the Channel none of our expeditionary forces would have got to France to fight and very famously in August over a number of days the navy got 100,000 men to France without anyone getting their feet wet, without casualties.”
Among those whose stories are told in the exhibition is 90-year-old Wren veteran Dorrie Thomas who worked as a telegraphist in 1942 aged 17.
Having learnt Morse code as a Girl Guide with extra tuition from her father, who was a signaller, Mrs Thomas went on to provide communications from Aberdeen to the Arctic Convoy and the Channel Fleet.
And it was her privilege on VE Day to send the message to all of the Royal Navy’s ships to “Splice the Mainbrace” which means to have an extra tot of rum and celebrate the end of the war.
Mrs Thomas, of Gosport, Hampshire, said of the exhibition: “It’s continuing our social history because when you think about it we are all part of our social history.
“Schoolchildren now do not even know who Winston Churchill is and this is the only way to educate them.”
Highlights include the first public display of a First World War Victoria Cross medal, oral testimonies from the D-Day landings through to the remains of a motorbike used by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
The museum is also opening its temporary exhibition Racing To War: The Royal Navy And 1914, which charts the Anglo-German naval arms race – which was a fundamental cause of the outbreak of war – and focuses on key personalities of the era including Churchill and Sir John Fisher who transformed the navy leftover from Victorian times into a military machine capable of maintaining Britain’s supremacy at sea.
Duncan Redford, senior research fellow at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, said: “The Royal Navy’s legacy since 1900 is fascinating both during war and peace.
“It has been a privilege to give a real insight into the lives of the men and women who have served our country throughout the last century.
“Visitors will be able to discover the real Royal Navy, its prowess in the build-up and during the First World War as well as its thousands of untold stories.”
And the third exhibition to open this week is the newly restored submarine HMS Alliance based on the other side of Portsmouth Harbour at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport.
The £7 million conservation project has transformed the Second World War-era submarine from a rusting wreck to a shining memento of 20th century engineering which looks as if it is ready to enter the waters again for the first time.
The submarine, which served between the 1940s and 1970s, has been kitted out to give the visitor an experience of what life would have been like on board – from recreations of combat scenarios, to the sounds and smells of the kitchens and mess areas.
And in the spirit of the exhibitions telling the story of the personnel, the volunteer guides are all former submariners.
Guide John Buffery, from Gosport, who served on RN submarines during the Cold War, said of HMS Alliance: “She is the last Second World War submarine that the public can visit and walk through and what we have done during the refurbishment is we have tried to reflect her as she was in her working life in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.”
Describing life onboard, he added: “It did get a bit smelly, the gas, the diesel smell permeates, gets in your clothes, gets in your hair, gets in the pores of your skin, hygiene was not really a concern, we got dirty, we wore the same clothes, we didn’t wear uniform, we wore t-shirts, shorts, trainers, any old rags which we would afterwards just throw away.”
Another submariner, Bill Handyside, now 86, from Portsmouth, has his experiences as an engine room artificer onboard HMS Alliance from 1956 retold as part of the exhibition.
He said: “When you are on the surface you are rolling around and you feel sick and it’s horrible and you can’t wait to go down and once you go down it’s lovely and it’s stable.
“Mostly we worked hard and we played hard, when we went ashore we drank a lot.”
He added: “Everybody says that submariners were volunteers, when I left the navy I looked at my discharge papers and they said I had volunteered but I didn’t and most of my friends didn’t, we were drafted into the subs, there was no such thing as volunteers.”
Chris Munns, director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, which visitors reach via a boat-trip providing a harbour tour, said: “A visit onboard HMS Alliance will assault all the senses and really bring to life what it is like to work and live on a submarine.
“We are very proud of HMS Alliance and delighted that she has been saved for future generations.”
The exhibitions, which have gained funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, are to open on April 3.