Rupert Lonsdale, British Warship Captain, Dies at 93
By Richard Goldstein, , May 31 1999
Cmdr. Rupert Lonsdale, who became the only British captain to surrender a warship on the high seas during World War II when he gave up his crippled submarine to save the lives of its 59 crewmen, died April 25 in Bournemouth, England. He was 93.
In the early morning of May 4, 1940, Lonsdale took his submarine, the Seal, into the Kattegat, the strait between Denmark and Sweden, and placed 50 mines in German shipping lanes.
While the submarine remained submerged that evening, a German mine exploded, flooding much of the boat and sending it to the bottom, a depth of 100 feet.
Lonsdale oversaw two efforts to free the Seal, which was mired in mud at an angle, but each attempt failed. With oxygen supplies and battery power dwindling, the skipper called upon the crew to recite the Lord's Prayer. Soon afterward the sailors applied maximum power again, and this time the submarine popped loose, resurfacing 23 hours after it dived.
"Our faith was answered in a way that to many of us seemed miraculous," Lonsdale said later.
But when first light arrived at 2:30 a.m. on May 5, an hour after the submarine had been refloated, it was spotted by German aircraft, which bombed it and riddled it with machine-gun fire.
The Seal's steering was inoperable, it had lost the ability to dive, its sailors were exhausted and ill from their prolonged period under high pressure, its guns jammed, it was on the verge of sinking and it lacked explosives for scuttling.
Lonsdale's officers implored him to surrender.
"Have the wardroom tablecloth passed to me, please," he ordered.
The captain fashioned a white flag and attached it to the conning tower. When a German seaplane put down nearby, he swam to it upon orders of its pilot and was taken captive.
It was his 35th birthday.
Lonsdale was flown to a German naval base, followed by his crewmen, who were taken there aboard the trawler that towed their submarine. The sailors had smashed the Seal's top-secret equipment before surrendering, but the Germans were later able to improve their torpedoes by adapting the superior British detonating devices -- called contact pistols -- from the Seal's torpedoes.
The Seal was refitted as a U-boat at the German naval yard in Kiel, but it never proved seaworthy enough to hunt British submarines and languished as a training vessel. It was later sunk in an Allied bombing raid at Kiel.
Apart from two coastal craft that the Germans later captured and several vessels at foreign bases abandoned by the British, the Seal was the only British warship to fall into enemy hands during World War II.
Lonsdale and his crewmen remained prisoners for the duration of the war, the skipper awaiting an inevitable court-martial for surrendering his boat.
"This man's modesty was such that he had not begun to realize that there was even the slightest possibility of his being considered not a coward, but a hero," C.E.T. Warren and James Benson wrote in "Will Not We Fear" (William Sloan Associates, 1962), an account of the Seal's surrender.
Lonsdale might have felt different had he known that after he informed submarine headquarters of his plight upon resurfacing, it had radioed back that "safety of personnel should be your first consideration" after destruction of highly sensitive equipment. That message had never been heard by the Seal because its receiving apparatus was disabled.
In April 1946, Lonsdale was tried at a court-martial in Portsmouth, England, on charges that he had not attacked enemy aircraft and had failed to assure the sinking of the Seal when it appeared she might fall into enemy hands.
"This act is one I have ever afterwards deeply regretted, but at the time it seemed the only thing to do," the skipper told the court of five naval captains in recounting his surrender.
They heard testimony recalling Lonsdale's bravery and devotion to his men, and after 45 minutes of deliberation, the president of the panel returned the skipper's sword to him. Lonsdale had been acquitted with honor. His former crewmen crowded around and shook his hand.
Rupert Philip Lonsdale was born in Dublin, Ireland, and joined the British Navy as a teen-age cadet. After serving aboard a cruiser and a battleship, he entered the submarine service in 1927. He retired from the Navy a few months after the court-martial and began a second career in the clergy. After studying at Ridley Hall theological college in Cambridge, he became a priest in the Church of England in 1949. He retired as a canon emeritus.
He is survived by his wife, Ethne Irwin, and a son, John.
Long before the court-martial that cleared him, Lonsdale's courage had been recognized by his superiors. Four days after he surrendered, his fate not yet known to British authorities, he was formally cited for his previous submarine patrols under hazardous conditions off the Norwegian coast.
The Royal Navy hailed him "for daring, endurance and resource against the enemy."
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov