Experts locate WW1 submarine in town park

03 - E52 alongside - Neg 6186

Scientists believe they’ve confirmed an urban legend of more than 80 years by ‘finding’ a Royal Navy submarine buried in a town park in Dartmouth, in the English county of Devon.

Experts from the University of Winchester used ground penetrating radar to scan the site where the old boat was believed to rest – along with landfill – which created Coronation Park, on the banks of the river Dart.

The vague outline of what is thought to be HMS E52 can be made out on the resulting scans – as well as a second object, a German torpedo boat, longer but also more narrow.

The findings were made by Dr Simon Roffey, reader in archaeology, and Dr David Ashby, who manages Winchester University’s soil laboratory.

The pair were intrigued by the research of Lieutenant Tom Kemp, who last year put a name to the submarine locals had talked about for years.

After extensive research in the archives, serving submariner Kemp – who teaches navigation at Britannia Royal Naval College overlooking the town – identified the craft as HMS E52.

But for confirmation that there really is a boat under the park, technology was needed. The park covers an area of around 20,000 square metres – roughly the size of three football pitches — and 80 times the size of the submarine.

A graphic shows where the submarine, and German destroyer, are thought to lay
A University of Winchester graphic shows where the submarine and German destroyer are thought to be located

Working with Kemp, the scientists focused on the corner of the park close to a spot where canoes ­and dinghies are stored, which was thought to hide the submarine.

The radar sent sound pulses through concrete and tarmac, but anyone expecting the tell-tale outline of a submarine and conning tower will be disappointed.

Whatever was buried in the park 80 years ago, says Kemp, “probably bears very little resemblance to a submarine anymore.”

To the trained eye, however, the concentrations of red on the radar scans suggest large metallic objects lying about one metre beneath the surface.

The team has come to the conclusion that E52 probably lies in the northeast corner of the park, while roughly at right angles to it is another large metallic object, most likely a German torpedo boat destroyer, S24, bought for scrap like E52 after WW1.

The positions of the two ‘finds’ corresponds with a contemporary aerial photo of Dartmouth in the 1920s, which shows the submarine and another craft sitting on the mudflats.

DARTMOUTH MUSEUM Image caption, The landscape of Dartmouth has changed considerably over the years
Image courtesy of Dartmouth Museum

“The ‘submarine under the park’ is a local legend, and it could make a wonderful tourist attraction if we could identify its exact location,” says Dr Roffey, a former RN submariner who served in O-class boats in the 1980s.

“We know that there was a torpedo boat there, but everyone assumed that it had been moved. Maybe it was stuck fast in the mud and they just left it there.”

To compound the challenge of identifying the submarine is another Dartmouth urban legend, which also suggests that US troops who camped in the park in the latter stages of WW2 buried some of their kit in the park rather than ship it home when they left.

The team is seeking permission from the local authority to dig small bore holes in the park to hopefully identify a piece of equipment or metal unique to E52.

“It’s been my personal hobbyhorse for the better part of the past year,” says Kemp. “Confirming the final resting place of one of His Majesty’s submarines – and a pretty successful one at that – would serve to remind and reiterate that our naval heritage is all around us and can often be clawed back from obscurity. Our time and energy could scarcely be better spent.”

In 2022, MIN reported Greek divers had located the wreckage of an Italian submarine, 80 years after it was sunk by Allied Forces in the Aegean Sea during World War II.

The same year, a medieval shipwreck was discovered in Norway’s largest lake. Archaeologists working for the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment made the discovery while hunting for unexploded WWII ammunition, confirming it as one of the country’s oldest-ever shipwrecks.

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