1926 Submarines and HMS Titania | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

1926 Submarines and HMS Titania

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1926 Submarines and HMS Titania

When / Where: A note on the back of the photo answers both questions -

Back of photo

H.M.S. "Titania"
Hongkong 1926 

Gwulo talk: More photographs of old Hong Kong and the tales they tell

When: Wednesday, 20th November at 7pm

Where: Harold Smyth room, St. John's Cathedral

Details and booking: http://www.cab.org.hk/Old_Hong_Kong.png

What: If you think this looks like mother duck with her ducklings, you're not far off the mark. HMS Titania, the ship on the right, was a Submarine Depot Ship. It provided supplies to, and accommodation for, the submarines and their crews.

From left to right we have [1]:

  • L? - not clear, maybe "L8"?
  • L3 (1916-1931)
  • L4 (1916-1934)
  • L5 (1916-1931)
  • L19 (1917-1937)
  • L2 (1917-1930)
  • HMS Titania (1915-1949)
The submarines are all members of the L-class. The dates above show they entered service late in WW1, and were scrapped during the 1930s. HMS Titania had a longer life, serving several generations of submarines and making it through two world wars.

Who: I bought this thinking of R E Jones, author of one of the wartime diaries we're serialising [2]. His family say he first visited Hong Kong as a submariner with the Royal Navy. Could he be one of the men shown in this photograph?


Unfortunately not, as we've since seen his service record which tells us where he was in 1926 [3]:

R E Jones service record

I believe his move to submarines began with the entry dated 27 Feb 1926, when we see him move to the "ship" Vernon. HMS Vernon was actually a shore establishment, training sailors to work with mines and torpedoes [4].

On 2nd October he moves to HMS Dolphin, the location of the Royal Navy Submarine School [5]. Training must have gone well because on 26th November he joins HMS Cyclops. Like Titania, Cyclops was a Submarine Depot Ship, but based in the Mediterranean at that time [6]. His visits to Hong Kong must have come later.

So no R E Jones in this photo, unfortunately. Then what about the men we can see - what was their life like?

Not an easy one, according to this account of life onboard submarine J3 in 1918, by G. Hawthorne [7]:

On these patrols we never washed, shaved, or took off our clothes and after a couple of days at sea were hardly on speaking terms with each other. We lived in a strange and weird dream world, just doing our watches, maintaining the boat, facing unsavoury meals, attending to diving or action stations and then sleeping as much as possible. This was particularly so in my case, because there were only two 'Sparkers' so we were on watch and watch about. The remainder of the crew were in three watches, so they did one on and had two off. As there were only six bunks available for the seamen and stokers, crew members just lay on the decks, wherever they fancied and fell asleep. We all became terribly constipated and many had bad sores from the arsenic in the oil fuel. However, after returning from a trip, we longed to be out on patrol again, always hoping to bag something.

There is a very good description of conditions at sea, which I picked up somewhere. 'The wind was rough and the sea mountainous. The motion of the boat was a perpetual swinging, swaying, racking, rolling and listing. Inside the humidity was intolerable; moisture condensing on the cold steel hull ran in streaks to the bilges; food turned rotten and had to be thrown overboard. Bread became soggy and mildewy. Paper dissolved. Our clothes were clammy and never dry and whatever we touched was wet and slimy. The air we breathed was a mixture of hydrogen and chlorine from the batteries, foul air, the smells of cooking and unwashed bodies, of arsenic and oil fuel and finally carbon monoxide. No wonder we hardly spoke to each other!'

Coincidentally, Hawthorne's depot ship at the time was the same Titania shown in the photo above.

The little I know about submarines in Hong Kong comes from today's search on the internet. If you can tell us any more, please let us know in the comments below.

Regards, David


Titania and her submarines left Portsmouth for Hong Kong in 1919. The journey took over five months, though three of those were spent in Malta. We can follow their route through Titania's log-books []:

  • 28 October 1919. Place: Portsmouth. Person: Other: Lt. Com. ~ Gill: joined ship for passage
  • 29 October 1919. Place: Off Nab Lt Vessel. Other: Submarines took up cruising formation in 2 divs in line ahead.
  • 3-8 November 1919. Place: Gibraltar.
  • 13 November 1919 - 18 Feb 1920. Place: Malta.
  • 22-25 February 1920. Place: Port Said
  • 26-28 February 1920. Place: Suez
  • 7-9 March 1920. Place: Aden
  • 19-26 March 1920. Place: Colombo. Other: Started Tropical routine
  • 1-2 April 1920. Place:Penang.
  • 4-8 April 1920. Place: Singapore.
  • 14 April 1920. 
    Place: Sighted: 0123 Gap Rock Lt: N20E
    Place: Sighted: 0515 Waglan Lt: N56E
    Place: Visited: 1017 Secured to "Storm Signal Buoy" Hong Kong
    Other: submarines secured alongside


  1. The dates of commissioning & scrapping of the submarines are given at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_L-class_submarine, while Titania is described at http://www.naval-history.net/OWShips-WW1-50Titania1.htm
  2. R E Jones' wartime diary: http://gwulo.com/node/9660
  3. R E Jones' service record: http://gwulo.com/node/16238
  4. HMS Vernon: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Vernon_(shore_establishment)
  5. HMS Dolphin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Dolphin_(shore_establishment)
  6. HMS Cyclops: http://www.battleships-cruisers.co.uk/hms_cyclops.htm
  7. HMS Titania 1917-1918 by G. Hawthorne, http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol051gh.html
  8. Log-books: HMS TITANIA - October 1919 to December 1921, UK out, China Station  (Part 1 of 2).

Reference: ED001

Date picture taken (may be approximate): 
Friday, January 1, 1926


Given the year 1926, naval men, including Prince George were despatched from Titania, Hawkins and the submarine L2 to help contain the Hong Kong Hotel fire on New Year's Day, 1 January 1926.

That's very interesting Moddsey.  My great uncle was serving on the L class submarines at that time, with Titania as the depot ship.   I wonder now if he was despatched to help contain the fire. 

That is interesting.

Good to hear about the family conenction too - could Nashie's great uncle be one of the men in the photo? Any idea which of the submarines he was on?

Regards, David

He could well be on the photograph which makes it so interesting to me.    During 1926, he was assigned to L19, L8 and L7 as well as Titania. He spent a total of 3.5 years on China Station serving on both the submarine depot ships and the L class submarines themselves.  

Would your great uncle have any photos of Hong Kong and the L class submarines of the period? If available, it would be interesting to view them.

Barbara Anslow writes:

In Hong Kong in 1929 when I was 10, my parents took my sisters and I to visit a submarine then dockside.  We found it very claustrophobic.  Afterwards I wrote a poem about it, beginning 'One day I went on a submarine, for the very first time of my life...'    I forget what came next, but the poem ended, 'And the sailors who go on submarines do a very noble deed.' 

The description on Gwulo of living conditions on submarines is so graphic... I still think submariners do a very noble deed!



Unfortunately we have no photos of the submarines themselves in Hong Kong.  We only have a few photographs of the submarines and men participating in various activities in Wei Hei Wei, the summer port for the Submarine Flotilla. 

Sadly my great uncle died in a submarine accident in 1929 in the waters of St David's head, a year after his return to the UK from spending 2.5 years on the China Station.  He only had three months left of a a 12 year engagement with the RN.  

I noticed a medal hanging up in a cabinet in my tailor's shop in Wanchai. Bob Yu the military tailor. Presented to him in 1976 by the Queen of the Fairies Lodge. He told me they were based at Tamar. A lodge of the Royal Order of Antediluvian Buffaloes. Named after HMS Titania I believe and originally based up in Wei Hai Wei until the lease was surrendered in mid-1930s.  I hope the photo posts here. If not I'll try again. 

I have posted a photograph of the medal ( referred to as a jewel I think). but I can't work out how to link it to this page. I also came across this article whilst googling around. Familar story about foreign graves in China, but has a photgraph of Petty Officer Sells in full Buffaloes regalia.


HMS Titania - Queen of the Fairies Lodge - Royal Order of Antediluvian Buffaloes - ROAB
HMS Titania - Queen of the Fairies Lodge - Royal Order of Antediluvian Buffaloes - ROAB, by Happy Valley


My Great Uncle, John Edward Barrow, was an Engine Room Artificer in the Royal Navy.  In 1919 he was assigned to HMS Titania and he sailed from England to Hong Kong.  According to my family members, he spent a lot of time aboard submarines.  After HMS Titania docked in Hong Kong in April 1920, he left the Royal Navy and settled in Hong Kong.  He began work at the China Light and Power Company and he remained in Hong Kong until 1938, when the political situation had changed and he felt he should leave.  He returned to England and never came back to Hong Kong.  Some of his friends who decided to stay in Hong Kong had very bad experiences during the Japanese Occupation.  I am gradually reconstructing his story from whatever fragments I can find.  The story of HMS Titania here on this website is interesting.

If any readers know of other crew members of HMS Titania who sailed to Hong Kong and arrived in April 1920, please get in touch with me. 

HMS Titania made at least 4 trips to Hong Kong in the 1920s.  The first was in April 1920 when dhe srrived in Hong Kong for the first time.  My Great-Uncle Edward Barrow was a crew member.  He left the Navy at that time and settled in Hong Kong.  The Wikipedia page for the Hong Kong Second Division League https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hong_Kong_Second_Division_League mentions that HMS Titania fielded a football team in the 1922/23 and 1923/24 seasons.  Was HMS Titania in Hong Kong at the time?  The next mention of HMS Titania is in 1926.  I have started a Wikipedia page for HMS Titania https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Titania and will try to pull information together into a story.    

HMS Titania and submarines L3, L15, L19, L20 and L33 will leave Hong Kong for Home on 3 November 1929. HK Telegraph 2 November 1929 refers.

My husband’s grandfather, Captain William Richmond Fell, CMG, CBE, DSC, RN, (1897-1981) was a Lt Cdr in the IVth Submarine Flotilla operating out of Hong Kong in the 1920s.  He later commanded HMS Titania when she was depot ship for the X-craft that undertook the successful attack on the Tirpitz in World War 2.
We have a copy of ‘Light Airs’, vol 6, the unofficial and lighthearted journal of the flotilla and letters of thanks from a mission school and a White Russian emigré on whom Lt Cdr Fell called while on patrol.  Details to follow.

My great-uncle sailed with HMS Titania to Hong Kong in 1920.  My interest in this ship has led me to collect together every scrap of information I could find about the ship on the Internet and collate it in one place.  The result is a page on WikiTree, where you can see a potted history of the ship, and details of some people who served aboard.  There are hyperlinks to biographies of commanders and other individuals associated with the vessel. If you have any thoughts on it, let me know.  Note, you will need to copy the address and paste it into the address window.  Clicking on the hyperlink doesn't work.  It is something to do with the brackets in the address. 


William Richmond Fell was in command from early in 1943 to 18 Jan 1944.  Titania was based at Holy Loch at the time. 

Nashie, my husband has inherited from his grandfather quite a few photos of submarines and their crews at Wei Hei Wei in 1928 and 1929, but it sounds as if they may not have coincided by a month or so. What was your great uncle's name and when exactly did he leave the China Station? How sad that his death was caused by a submarine accident. 

"Light Airs" vol 6 has now surfaced. It consists of 20 pages - 21 with the cover. We could photograph each page for uploading to Gwulo, if people are interested. Would you like us to do this? It was printed by Kelly & Walsh Ltd., Hong Kong.

Yes please, I'd like to see that.

We have now managed to scan the twenty pages of "Light Airs" + cover, prelims and Editorial, so 23 pages in all. I'm going to try to upload it as a "Book". I hope people will enjoy reading it.

I came across the above title in Google Books when looking up Lt J. Cresswell, who appears in several of WR Fell's photos of 1929. Cresswell was Senior Submarine Officer of the Reserve Submarine Flotilla in Hong Kong in the 1920s and responsible for advising the Commander of the dockyard on the disposition of the L Class submarines in his charge, several of which were without motive power. Cresswell bore part of the blame for failing to order the closing of the water tight hatches in HM Submarine L9 ahead of the 18 August 1923 typhoon. Arranged year by year, the accounts of accidents involving submarines, the loss of life and near death experiences make grim reading. The above incident is described under "1923".

I have just received an e-mail from Rae Shaw, (Raymond Jones' daughter whom he refers to as "baby Rae" in his diary). She has told me that to the best of her knowledge one submarine on which her father served bore the number L56. She mentioned that another ship on which he served, (which she thought was a submarine), was HMS Oswald.

I wonder if anyone with a knowledge of nautical matters could confirm the latter?

Reference can be made here

More on Mr Jones's time in submarines ...

The wikitree link given by Malcolm Cowan above confirms the existence of L56 as one of the L Class submarines. It also lists HMS Oswald (N58) as one of the Odin Class submarines.