Caixin OnlineSociety & CultureBook Review Poseidon: China's Secret Salvage of Britain's Lost Submarine
12.13.2013 15:39

Poseidon: China's Secret Salvage of Britain's Lost Submarine

By Bill Purves
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APoseidon is a drama which opens with the death of the protagonist. HMS Poseidon was a British submarine which sank after a collision with a Chinese freighter a few nautical miles off the coast of Shandong in 1931. Twenty-one of the crew of 56 were lost, two after escaping from the sunken wreck. Steven Schwankert is a semi-professional scuba diver based in Beijing who learned of the sinking while searching for dive sites in Chinese waters and was fascinated by the little-known story of the sinking and its aftermath. Poseidon tells the story of his research.

It's actually two books in one. The first hundred pages tell the story of the ship and its crew. The sinking is described in great detail, and the survivors are then followed up through the second world war and beyond. The book then changes gear abruptly. Imperial measures give way to metric and Wade-Giles spellings yield to pinyin as Schwankert recounts his researches over the final half of his book.

They were extensive. Much of the material came from the British National Archives and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, near Portsmouth. But some of it came to light at the site of the sinking, and some crucial findings even in Hong Kong, at the Central Library and the Aberdeen Boat Club. This second section brings to mind Verner Bickley's Searching for Frederick, padded out as it is with details of his train trips and what he had for supper. But the story overall is engrossing.

The sinking was along the lines of totalling Daddy's BMW that you borrowed for the school dance—a typical military snafu. Poseidon had just been commissioned and sailed out to the British naval base at Weihaiwei. It had been there just a few weeks, and a lieutenant was doing his first practice attack on a target ship. Maneuvering for a shot, he turned into the path of a passing freighter. Eight of the sailors were trapped in the forward torpedo compartment, and five of them managed to get out alive using some new self-rescue equipment in which they had received very little training. Schwankert the diver gives us an exciting and very detailed description of their predicament and their escape. If you're not quite sure why divers get "the bends," you'll know after finishing Poseidon.

While no doubt an expert diver, Schwankert is not, apparently, a very systematic expositor. After reading his dramatic account of the collision, it remains unclear how the lieutenant could have been so befuddled that he failed to notice the approaching freighter. Schwankert's explanation is simply not clear. It's only four chapters later in the account of the captain's court martial that we realize what really happened. The submarine was navigating on the surface, but they were pretending to be submerged, so the control room was sealed and the lieutenant's only view of the outside world was through the periscope. He was so intent on his maneuvering that he didn't think to swing the periscope around and look for approaching traffic, which of course would have been unnecessary had they really been submerged. Schwankert of course understood all that, but he neglects to explain it to his readers. Fortunately, he's not a solicitor.

Something similar happens again when he goes looking for the graves of those who died after escaping. Schwankert takes the reader with him on a complicated walk around the site of the old British naval station without setting the scene sufficiently for readers to be able to follow his progress. His search was ostensibly fruitless though his explanation of why it failed is murky, perhaps in this case intentionally so, as the site is still an active PLA base.

The index is similarly mystifying. There's a passing mention in the text that the captain was educated at a school which counts Somerset Maugham as an alumnus. This earns Maugham an index citation, along with Cab Calloway and Al Capone, but Japan, which comes into the story again and again, is not cited, nor are the National Archives.

But don't let that put you off. You'll need to keep your wits about you to fill in some of the missing information, but if you take the trouble, you'll be rewarded with an exciting and interesting tale of a little-known episode in British naval history.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People's Republic.

Reprinted with permission from The Asian Review of Books

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