The mixed fortunes of the submarine depot ship HMS Maidstone and its time as a prison ship for IRA internees

Every time Maidstone Councilors enter the chamber at City Hall, they rush past a ship‘s bell.

It is the bell of HMS Maidstone, named after the town, which was launched 85 years ago.

The bell of HMS Maidstone now hangs in Maidstone Town Hall

Laid down in 1936 at the John Brown shipyard in Scotland, HMS Maidstone was launched in 1937 and commissioned on 5 May 1938 in time for the Second World War.

HMS Maidstone was a submarine depot ship; Its purpose was to resupply and re-equip our submarine fleet in the Mediterranean and the Far East.

She weighed 8,900 tons, had a crew of 1,167 and could steam at 17 knots.

She had on board a foundry, coppersmiths, plumbing and carpentry workshops, electrical and torpedo repair shops, facilities for charging submarine batteries, and workshops for heavy and light machinery.

In fact, everything needed to service up to 10 submarines, including an arsenal of torpedoes and mines.

HMS Maidstone with her brood from the Third Submarine Squadron in 1964
HMS Maidstone with her brood from the Third Submarine Squadron in 1964
Submarine Commanders on the forecastle of HMS Maidstone with Rear Admiral Claud Barrington Barry, centre, and Maidstone's Captain,
Submarine commanders on the forecastle of HMS Maidstone with Rear Admiral Claud Barrington Barry (centre) and Maidstone’s Captain “Barney” Fawkes on the far right, probably taken in 1943

She also looked after the crews of the submarines with an onboard steam laundry, cinema, hospital, chapel, two canteens, bakery, barber shop and a fully equipped operating room and dental office.

HMS Maidstone had a solid wartime career, but a rather ignominious end.

She spent her final years in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, anchored in Belfast.

She was first used as a floating barracks for the army and then as a prison ship for Republican internees, including once Gerry Adams, who later served 35 years as President of Sinn Fein and also MP for Belfast West. although he never took his seat in the House of Commons.

It was a shameful task for a ship that had been the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet in 1956.

A rare color photograph of HMS Maidstone
A rare color photograph of HMS Maidstone

And a task in which it was not very good.

The prisoner area itself was at the stern and consisted of two sleeping barracks and two mess rooms.

Above it lived the warden of the prison with his staff, and above it was the deck where the internees were allowed to exercise twice a day.

The deck was surrounded by a barbed wire fence 10 feet high.

The ship was moored 20 feet from the harbor wall and connected to shore by a jetty guarded by the army.

HMS Maidstone on the Clyde in 1965
HMS Maidstone on the Clyde in 1965

On January 17, 1972, seven Provisional IRA members managed to escape.

Using boot polish as camouflage and after rubbing themselves with butter to protect themselves from the cold, they were able to climb through a porthole and shine a cable into the water, swimming parallel to the dock until they bypassed the army guards.

They then held a press conference and presented the IRA with a propaganda victory.

HMS Maidstone began her career as the mother ship of the 1st Submarine Flotilla. She was based in Gibraltar and from November 1942 in Algiers, the main Allied base in the Mediterranean, and was visited by Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

From November 1943 she was assigned to the Eastern Fleet in Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka.

In September 1944 she transferred to Fremantle in Western Australia with the 8th Submarine Flotilla to operate in the Pacific.

HMS Maidstone arrives in Freemantle Harbour, Australia, September 1945 with rescued POWs on board.  Image COFEPOW
HMS Maidstone arrives in Freemantle Harbour, Australia, September 1945 with rescued POWs on board. Image COFEPOW

At the end of the war, she was the first British ship to call at Hong Kong to pick up surviving POWs held by the Japanese.

She took them to Freemantle, where they were greeted enthusiastically by a huge crowd – and much-needed medical attention too.

She returned to Portsmouth in November 1945.

After the war, HMS Maidstone became the mothership of the 2nd and 7th Submarine Flotillas. The latter was a training squadron. She had her own berth off Portland in Dorset but still went to sea frequently.

In 1951 she was the first British warship to visit Franco’s Spain, although it was intended to land an ill crew member at Corunna rather than an official visit.

Huge crowds waited in Freemantle to greet the returning POWs.  Image COFEPOW
Huge crowds waited in Freemantle to greet the returning POWs. Image COFEPOW
Unfortunately, most of the prisoners of war needed immediate medical care: Photo COFEPOW
Unfortunately, most of the prisoners of war needed immediate medical care: Photo COFEPOW

In 1953 she joined the Fleet Review at Spithead for the Queen’s coronation. It was a grand occasion with Her Majesty inspecting 162 Royal Naval vessels, plus many from the Royal Naval Auxiliary, Merchant Navy, Fishing Fleet, Royal Lifeboats and Trinity House.

There were also guest warships from India, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, as well as six other countries, including the USA and the USSR.

After that high point, two years later came perhaps the saddest moment of Maidstone’s long career. HMS Maidstone had just returned from a NATO exercise between Iceland and Greenland with some S- and U-class submarines.

The submarine HMS Sidon was moored alongside her in Portland Harbor on June 16 when there was a sudden explosion in the Sidon’s forward torpedo room.

A rescue party from the Maidstone did their best and rescued part of the Sidon’s crew, but the boat sank within 20 minutes and 12 matelots of Sidon’s 56-man crew were lost.

The dramatic moment was captured by a Maidstone rating, who had just finished breakfast and come on deck with his camera.

HMS Sidon alongside HMS Maidstone
HMS Sidon alongside HMS Maidstone
HMS Siddon begins to sink
HMS Siddon begins to sink

The Maidstone’s medical officer, Lieutenant Charles Eric Rhodes, who had boarded to help the injured, also died, overwhelmed by toxic gases.

He was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal.

After her stint as the flagship of the Home Fleet, HMS Maidstone underwent a major overhaul in 1959 to accommodate the nation’s new nuclear submarines. From 1962 she was stationed at Faslane on Gare Loch where she was the depot ship for the 3rd and 10th U-boat Squadrons.

In 1968 it was finally decided to mothball the then 30-year-old ship.

However, the following year she was given a second life when she was refitted for 2,000 troops and sent to Belfast to serve as barracks.

HMS Maidstone with HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine alongside
HMS Maidstone with HMS Dreadnought, Britain’s first nuclear submarine alongside

On board lived among others General Sir Mike Jackson, who later became head of the British Army. Another resident, probably less well known, was Gunner Robert Curtis of the 94 Locating Regiment, Royal Artillery, who officially became the first British soldier to be killed in The Troubles on 6 February 1971.

He was 20 and his wife was pregnant with their first child.

Later that year the 2,000 soldiers moved out and 122 IRA prisoners moved in.

Maidstone’s spell as a prison ship lasted three years, after which she stayed in Belfast to provide short-term housing for the army should reinforcements suddenly be needed.

Finally, on May 23, 1978, she was towed to Rosyth where she was dismantled for scrap.

HMS Maidstone in tow in 1977
HMS Maidstone in tow in 1977
HMS Maidstone leaves Ireland to be scrapped
HMS Maidstone leaves Ireland to be scrapped

It was truly the end of an era, as HMS Maidstone was the ninth and final warship to bear the name.

The very first was named by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell and launched in 1654.

After the restoration of the monarchy, King Charles II renamed her HMS Mary Rose.

But before the last seven more HMS Maidstone were to follow.

Maidstone’s immediate predecessor, launched in 1912 and sold in 1929, was also a submarine depot ship.

The 8th HMS Maidstone, commissioned in 1912 and pictured during the First World War
The 8th HMS Maidstone, commissioned in 1912 and pictured during the First World War

We thank the Maidstone Royal Naval Association, MBC; former seaman Stephen Naghi and the charity Children and Families of the Far East Prisoners of War (COFEWAR) for helping to put this article together.

About Christine Geisler

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