Lonsdale file photo [9293]

Rupert Lonsdale

Given NameRupert
Born5 May 1905
Died25 Apr 1999
CountryUnited Kingdom


ww2dbaseLonsdale was born in Dublin shortly after the beginning of the 20th Century, the son of a civil servant who worked for most of his life in Nigeria. Both of Rupert's parents were Christian, but when their son was a teenager, he had chosen similar convictions for himself. Educated at St Cyprian's School in Eastbourne, he decided to pursue a naval career, so attended the Royal Naval College, Osbourne. Beginning in the submarine branch of the Royal Navy, Lonsdale was assigned as First Lieutenant of XI, an experimental submersible craft with four 5.2 inch guns and displacing 2,780 tons, making her the largest of this type of vessel before the advent of nuclear types. In 1934 he passed the demanding submarine command course, and was assigned his first command, a vessel of 440 tons, HMS H44, a legacy of the First World War. In 1935 he married Christina Lyall, but she died in 1937, as did their son. Lonsdale was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander in May 1936, and in 1937 assumed command of the newer vessel, HMS Swordfish.

ww2dbaseHe received his next command, HMS Seal, on 1 November 1938, and commissioned her in May 1939. Lonsdale observed that HMS Seal's company was "one of the biggest collections of scallywags that the Submarine Service has ever put together", who considered Lonsdale to be "Too much of a gentleman to be a good submarine captain". However in a very brief time, through no discernible means, the captain had gained the complete respect and confidence of the ship's crew. After conducting successful missions in the South China Sea, Aden, and a patrol in the North Atlantic and North Sea, Lonsdale was given orders to cross the Skagerrak, to lay a minefield in the Kattegat. It would prove to be Seal's last mission, as it was impossible for a vessel as large as her. Lonsdale's immediate superior at the Admiralty, Captain Bethall, failed to persuade Admiral Horton to reconsider, and the submarine sailed on 29 April.

ww2dbaseUpon arrival in the correct zone, Lonsdale's submarine was spotted and hunted by German anti-submarine trawlers at 0227 hours on 4 May. Somehow HMS Seal managed to lay her mines, and took evasive action to escape the area. The submarine had been underwater for sixteen hours already. A German mine exploded nearby that evening at 1700 hours, breaching Seal's hull, the vessel filled with water, and sunk to the seabed. Even as the supply of breathable air dwindled rapidly, the crew were impressed by the resolution and confidence of their captain, as they waited for dark to fall before they attempted to lift their ship. The initial three attempts to raise Seal from the sea floor failed, she was stuck. As a devout Christian Lonsdale led the crew in prayer, and the final, frantic attempts to raise the craft were made. Much to the relief of all aboard, the vessel lifted from the seabed and continued rising to the surface, and the ship's company considered it a miracle. The vessel was over 27 meters below the surface. The crew's rejoicing that they would not die on the sea floor was stifled by the realisation that HMS Seal was a sitting duck, unable to dive for cover if it were spotted by any passing Germans. Lonsdale decided decided to proceed to the Swedish coast, a course of action that Admiral Horton learnt of by signal ashore, to which he responded "Understood and agreed with. Best of luck. Well done". Bullets and bombs from a German Arado 196 seaplane silenced Seal's Lewis machine guns, rendering her defenceless. Lonsdale destroyed the confidential papers and asdic equipment, so it would not fall into enemy hands. The seaplane circled its prize like a vulture over a carcass, landing on the water not far from the British submarine. Brandishing guns towards the defenceless crew, the Germans aboard the seaplane demanded to know who was the captain of the submarine. Lonsdale sheepishly raised his hand, and was barked orders to swim out to the plane. After turning command of HMS Seal over to the second in command, Lonsdale did as the German officers ordered. The important captive was lifted from the water, Lonsdale became a prisoner of war on his 35th birthday. He felt guilty, even though he had done all he could to ensure the welfare of his ship's crew. A message from Admiral Horton that had been received aboard HMS Seal on the day Lonsdale decided to proceed to the Swedish coast, but not decoded due to destruction of ciphers, would have relieved some of Lonsdale's guilt, it read: "Safety of personnel should be your first consideration after destruction of asdics". Lonsdale's sacrifice did not assure that Seal would return home, one of the German anti-submarine trawlers, UJ28, returned at 0630 hours the next day to take the submarine's crew captive. The officer now in charge of the submarine surrendered her to the Germans, making HMS Seal the first British ship to surrender to the enemy since the war of 1812. The Germans towed their prize to port, and attempted to exploit the captured vessel for its maximum propaganda potential. Lonsdale was unaware of this turn of events until he saw her while at a camp in Kiel. Attempts to re-equip her, recommission her into the German Navy, and use her against the British were not feasible, so the Germans scuttled her themselves, with bombs from RAF planes destroying the remains. Over the next five years Lonsdale and the crew were held captive in prisoner of war camps across Germany. Lonsdale's faith brought increasing comfort him to him during his captivity, and he often enjoyed the respect of his captors. The crew had been adopted by the village of Seal near Sevenoaks in Kent, who supported the crew through their captivity. Lonsdale allowed his men to utilise his limited ration of mail to receive packages on their behalf, and tried to boost their morale whenever possible. This was evident when he wrote:

Within the last few days I have had a talk with each one of my crew who are in this camp. Despite a hard winter, enforced idleness, and the unnatural life led by any prisoner they all look fit; I cannot emphasise this too much; they really look well. Which is a great credit to them and I would be grateful if you could let their next of kin know as you kindly did before.

ww2dbaseAfter their release in 1945 the crew visited the village of Seal to express their thanks. Lonsdale himself faced court martial for losing his hip to the enemy. After only thirty minutes he was acquitted with honour, then promoted to the rank of Commander, and placed on the retired list. Observers noted that "his modesty was such that he had not begun to realise that he was being considered, not as a coward, but as a hero". His last command was the Algerine-class minesweeper, Pyrrhus. Lonsdale and Seal's crew remained firm friends after the war. The conclusion of the war was not the end of hardship for Lonsdale, he continued to experience highs and lows in his personal life: he married Kathleen Deal, his second wife, who died of cancer in 1961. Over his desk he hung a picture with "Faith sees through the tears" written on it, he would need to glance at that picture in many moments of grief throughout the years. In 1946 Rupert Lonsdale received an honourable discharge from the Royal Navy, most of the time of his service being spent in German POW camps. In various German POW camps throughout the war Lonsdale retained his faith through it all, and acted as a spiritual leader among the prisoners. He continued his religious work after the war. In 1946, he studied at Ridley Hall in Cambridge to prepare for ordination; in 1949 he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, his first curacy being a mission church at Rowner; he became the vicar of Morden-with-Almer at Dorset in 1951; he volunteered as the District Chaplain of the White Highlands in Kenya in 1953, this was quite a large commitment because the position required a five year tour. Lonsdale volunteered to live in the bush as a hostage of Mau Mau rebels to demonstrate Britain's benevolent intentions. In 1958 he returned to England and took the position of vicar of Bentworth-with-Shaldon in Hampshire, but in 1960 he returned to Kenya for another tour. He became a Canon-Emeritus, and his last full-time incumbency was as vicar of Thornham-on-Titchwell between 1965 and 1970. He oversaw the European diocese of the Anglican Church at Gibraltar. He married Ursula Sansum, a former WRNS officer during the war, who became his third wife, died of a brain tumour in 1986. He married Ethne Irwin in Malta during 1989. He returned to England and served for some time in the clergy hospice at the College of St Mark in Audley End. Lonsdale died at the ripe old age of 93. He was survived by his last wife, and their adult son, Dr John Lonsdale.

ww2dbaseSources: D. Stephens, War and Grace: Short Biographies from the World Wars, Wikipedia.

Last Major Revision: Jan 2010

Rupert Lonsdale Timeline

5 May 1905 Rupert Lonsdale was born.
25 Apr 1999 Rupert Lonsdale passed away.

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