History 6: Finding HM Submarine A7
A diver on the A7 submarine in the 1980's
The Royal Navy divers who last visited the A7 in 1914 would have seen the hull angled up approximately 30°, bows 10m off the seabed, 7m of the stern buried in the seabed, the towing eye broken, some probable damage to the cutwater and a 6 ½ in. steel hawser left wrapped around the hull aft of the conning tower. After the funeral service over the wreck of the submarine in March 1914 the site was abandoned.
The A7 was then forgotten until 1972 when a Mr Calkin reported to the UK Hydrographic Office that there was a fishing boat trawl fastener in that area. The submarine was subsequently relocated in 1972 by the RN hydrographic survey vessel HMS Woodlark.
Sports divers first visited the wreck of the A7 on 13 August 1981 after locating her with an echo sounder. The underwater visibility on the first dive was from 5 to 7m, the submarine was reported as being upright, partially buried in a thick blue clay seabed, with the periscope bent slightly aft, and a number of conger eels were noted in a hole in the hull aft of the conning tower.
When first seen, A7's compass binnacle was not attached to the hull but was lying on the seabed on the starboard side. The binnacle was recovered by the divers, still with both iron compensating balls attached, compass working and light bulbs inside the waterproof housing intact. Fortunately, the binnacle was cleaned and restored rather than being sent to the scrapyard to be exchanged for money, a fate which has occurred to many interesting and historical objects recovered from shipwrecks around Plymouth.
A7's binnacle at the RN Submarine Museum
The first officially recorded dive on the A7 was in September 1985 by the Royal Navy clearance diving team from Plymouth and they confirmed that the wreck was the A7. The submarine was described as being in good condition, lying upright but partly buried up to the waterline with the top of the hull just 1m clear of the seabed. The conning tower was intact, the periscope was in place and both the torpedo loading hatch and conning tower hatch were closed.
At this time the wreck was occasionally visited by sports divers but it was not a popular site, being small there was little to see and in the days before satellite positioning sysems the small boat was hard to find. The submarine was of particular interest to divers who recovered metal from shipwrecks for scrap, as at that time the A7 was rumoured to have a conning tower made of gunmetal and mercury for ballast, both valuable if they could be recovered and sold. In 1994 divers reported that the portholes and conning tower hatch were still in place. In 1998, divers noted a small hole on her starboard side large enough to shine a torch into. On the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1995 a white ensign was attached to the periscope as a memorial to the crew of the A7.
Plymouth diver Peter Washburn had seen that a hole had been made in the hull that appeared to have been systematically enlarged to allow access to the interior, so this prompted the publication of a newspaper article to warn local sports divers that the submarine was a war grave and should not be touched. In September, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) warned divers about theft of items from the submarine and the police started making enquiries about what had already been taken. In December 1999 the police arrested local dive boat skipper Roger Webber in connection with the recovery of the binnacle from A7.
In 1981 when the binnacle was recovered, local divers would regularly remove copper and brass items from the many WWI and WWII shipwrecks off Plymouth and take them to the scrapyard to be exchanged for cash. Mr Webber had not done this and had kept the binnacle, unfortunately he had not been declared to the Receiver of Wreck after it was recovered as was required by law. At that time local divers were under the false impression that the Receiver of Wreck only dealt with salvaged cargoes; Mr Webber was quoted as saying ‘In those days it was perceived that the Receiver of Wreck was only interested in commercial salvage. I believe that the new Receiver of Wreck agency (Maritime and Coastguard Agency) have fully acknowledged this by announcing their intention to have an amnesty.’ In May 2000, the MoD dropped its proposed court case against Mr Webber after he agreed to accept a police caution for the offence of theft by finding. The binnacle was then handed to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport where it is now on display.
The A7 was designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act (Designation of Vessels and Controlled Sites) Order 2002, Statutory Instrument No.1761 which came into force on 30th September 2002. Once in force all divers were banned from visiting the site without permission.
The last report from visiting divers was from August 2002, just before the site was designated. The report said that there was a considerable amount of trawl net draped over the port side, the navigation lights had been removed from the conning tower and it was possible to see into the hull through holes in the hull. The hawsers used to try and raise the hull were also noted. A small dedication plaque was left on the top of the conning tower on the last day that diving was allowed on the site, a plaque that is unfortunately no longer on the submarine.