Walter William Lewin

Stoker 1st Class C/K 61449, Royal Navy Submarines
Died 20 July 1941, aged 36

Walter was one of the seven children of James William Lewin (1876-1907) and his wife Beatrice Eleanor (nee Sutton, c.1876- 1928), who were married at Christ Church, Epsom on 3 November 1895. The full list of children is as follows.

NameBornDiedFurther information
William John12/9/18962/6/1942 at The Sewage Farm, EpsomLatterly of 2 Woodcote Side, Epsom
Eleanor Isabella2/3/18988/1898 (5 months)-
Ernest William27/4/18992/1910 (10 years)-
Beatrice Annie10/3/190122/11/1948 EpsomMarried Frederick William Hince 22/5/1926 Christ Church, Epsom
Clara23/6/19031958?Married Charles Albert Goodwin 1921
Walter William16/11/190420/7/1941See below

Broadly speaking, most of the extensive Lewin clan lived at Epsom Common in Isabella Cottages, Stamford Green; they ran Lewin's Laundry and many of them worked in the business. Walter followed in the family footsteps for a short while but in June 1923 he signed up for twelve years in the Royal Navy.

The Lewin family.
The Lewin family.
Left to right: Beatrice Annie, Walter William, Beatrice Eleanor, William John, Clara and Albert.
Image courtesy of Terry Friday

On 28 March 1932 at Christ Church Walter, then based at Southampton in the submarine service, married Emily Jane Ede (born 26 April 1909), daughter of John and Mary Ann Ede of Epsom Common. I am not aware of any children of the marriage and it seems that Walter and Emily maintained a home in Stamford Green. I am not sure if Walter left the Navy after his twelve years expired and then rejoined at the outbreak of war, but in any event he was part of the crew of the new HM Submarine Umpire (N82) when she left the builder's yard in July 1941.

HMS Umpire was a U-class submarine, one of 49 such boats built just before and during World War 2. They were small vessels and all but two of them, HMS Umpire and HMS Una, were built by Vickers-Armstrong. Umpire and Una were constructed at Chatham and were virtually identical, although Una was commissioned later than Umpire. There are few extant photos of Umpire, since she sank just a few days into her maiden voyage, but there are many of Una and the one below is particularly good in showing the scale of man to boat.

HMS Una at Malta, 1943.
HMS Una at Malta, 1943. Photo by Lt F G Roper.
Image Source : Imperial War Museum © IWM (A 14467)

HMS Umpire was commissioned on 10 July 1941 and set sail from Chatham en route to Dunoon to join the 3rd Submarine Flotilla. The commander was Lt Mervyn Wingfield and the first lieutenant was Peter Bannister.

Lt Cdr Mervyn Wingfield DSO, DSC
Lt Cdr Mervyn Wingfield DSO, DSC,
photographed at Tricomalee in 1943, then commanding the T-class submarine HMS Taurus.
Image Source : Imperial War Museum © IWM (A 21522)

The boat stopped overnight at Sheerness to wait for a merchant convoy, which then proceeded up the East coast escorted by motor launches and Admiralty trawlers. Just off Aldeburgh, Suffolk a Heinkel bomber attacked and Umpire dived successfully for the first time. That same night there was a problem with one of the two diesel engines and she had to stop (there were also two electric engines): the problem could not be fixed, however, and she had to slow down because the one working diesel engine had insufficient power to maintain the necessary speed. A motor launch dropped back as an escort and they proceeded at reduced speed.

Umpire was then involved in a near-miss with an approaching southbound convoy. It was dark and none of the ships were showing lights because of the likelihood of prowling E-boats. Nevertheless, visibility was reasonable, but crucially Umpire had lost contact with the motor launch. The rule at sea was that in a channel ships should keep to the starboard side, so they would pass oncoming ships port to port. For some reason the southbound convoy approached on the port side and extended across Umpire's starboard bow. It was too risky to alter course to starboard so Umpire steered slightly to port and a collision was avoided by a distance of approximately 200 yards. Unfortunately, the avoiding manoeuvre had put Umpire directly in the path of an oncoming escort trawler, the Peter Hendriks (later renamed Lord Rivers), which had not seen them. The trawler had right of way and ordinarily Umpire would have steered to starboard but could not do so because of the proximity of the southbound convoy. So Wingfield ordered hard-a-port, which should have averted disaster, but at the last moment the trawler spotted the submarine and turned to starboard. Wingfield's desperate order of full-astern came too late and the trawler rammed Umpire in the bow; she lurched and then sank in under 30 seconds. The next picture shows the trawler Paul Rykens, which was identical to the Peter Hendriks, in the background.

HMT Paul Rykens and the Boat Pool, Oban.
HMT Paul Rykens and the Boat Pool, Oban.
Painting by Stephen Bone 1943.
Image Source : Imperial War Museum © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3125)

A graphic account of HMS Umpire's last moments appears in the book called 'One of Our Submarines' by Edward Preston Young, then a Lieutenant. Young was off duty aboard Umpire when it sank and in 1952 recorded his wartime career (he was awarded the DSO, DSC and Bar for subsequent exploits and was also the man who, before the War, had designed the striking original covers for Penguin paperbacks). Mervyn Wingfield was in the conning tower when the trawler struck, together with Tony Godden, the officer of the watch, and two lookouts. All four of them were flung into the water at the moment of impact. Wingfield, only semi-conscious, tried to keep Godden afloat but he then lost consciousness altogether and was picked up by another ship. Godden and the lookouts drowned.

Meanwhile a terrible drama was unfolding in the sinking submarine. Bannister ordered the watertight doors shut and then there was an almighty crash and an electrical explosion. Umpire lurched and plunged straight to the bottom. Water was pouring into the boat through the ventilation shaft and, if it reached the battery cells, lethal chlorine gas would be formed. Young said in his book that, with hindsight, he could and should have shut off the ventilation shaft, but the situation at the time was mayhem and everything was happening very fast. The boat was only 60-80 feet down and Bannister thought she might surface if they blew the ballast tanks, which they did, but nothing happened. The water still poured in and the electrics were spitting and flashing. Young said that there was no panic but they were all suffering from a kind of mental concussion. A plan was formed that four men, including Bannister and Young, would try to escape via the conning tower, whilst others could get out via the engine room hatch. For Bannister and Young it was a case of opening the hatch to the conning tower, taking one deep breath, with water pouring in, and launching themselves upwards. The two officers made it, together with one of their companions, and Young was subsequently picked up by a motor launch.

HMT Paul Rykens and the Boat Pool, Oban.
Lt Edward Young RNVR,
pictured in command of HM Submarine P555 (formerly US Submarine S24), 1943.
Image Source : Imperial War Museum © IWM (A 15863)

Other men, who had escaped via the engine room, eventually straggled to the surface but, by then, Bannister had disappeared. Reports vary as to the number of men on Umpire - 37 being a much-quoted number - and 22 of them died. Umpire, stripped of anything useful by an official salvage team, is still on the bottom, a protected site, lying in 18 metres of water off Sheringham Shoal, Norfolk, about 15 miles from shore and now within the site of the Sheringham Shoal wind farm (see their Summer 2012 newsletter for an image of the wreck). She had lasted a little over one week from commissioning.

Captain Mervyn Wingfield DSO, DSC, as he later was, had a very distinguished career in the Royal Navy and one of his many wartime achievements was the sinking of the Japanese submarine I-34, the first Japanese submarine to be sunk by a Royal Navy submarine (HMS Taurus). Walter Lewin is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial (Panel 47, 3.). His widow, Emily Jane, married Frederick G Scutt in 1951 and died in 1969.

Note: Although Walter's rank was Stoker 1st Class, there was obviously nothing to stoke on a diesel/electric powered submarine. Stokers on submarines operated and maintained equipment in the engine room under the supervision of Engine Room Artificers.

Linda Jackson, May 2016

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