Rupert Lonsdale

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Rupert Lonsdale
Born (1905-05-05)5 May 1905
Died 25 April 1999(1999-04-25) (aged 93)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
Years of service 1927-1946 Honourable discharge
Rank Commander
Commands held HMS Seal
Battles/wars World War II Prisoner of War
Awards Mentioned in despatches
Other work Anglican vicar

Rupert Philip Lonsdale (5 May 1905 – 25 April 1999) was a British submarine commander, prisoner of war and Anglican clergyman. He was forced to surrender his boat in World War II after he had succeeded in rescuing her and her crew from the sea bed after she struck a mine. He was honourably acquitted at the inevitable court-martial after spending five years as a prisoner of war. After the war he took holy orders serving in several Anglican parishes and in 1952 volunteered to go as a District Chaplain to Kenya to help find a peaceful solution to the Mau Mau Uprising.

Early life[edit]

Lonsdale was born in Dublin and educated at St. Cyprian's School, Eastbourne and RNC Osborne. He began in the submarine branch of the service in 1927 and within four years was first lieutenant of XI, a large experimental submersible. With four 5.2-inch guns and displacing 2,780 tons this was by far the biggest craft before the advent of nuclear vessels.

In 1934 he passed the demanding submarine command qualifying course, and his first command was H44, a legacy of World War I, of 440 tons, with four torpedo tubes and a machine-gun. Lonsdale was promoted lieutenant-commander in May 1936 and in 1937 he took over the newer Swordfish for a year.

HMS Seal[edit]

Lonsdale's next command on 1 November 1938 was Seal, which he commissioned in May 1939. The ship's company "one of the biggest collections of scallywags that the Submarine Service ever put together" were confronted by a slight quiet man who was considered "Too much of a gentleman to be a good submarine captain". However, in a very short time, by no perceptible means, Lonsdale had gained the complete respect, faith and confidence of his crew.[1] After missions in the China Sea, at Aden, on the North Atlantic and North Sea Patrol, the submarine’s last mission was to cross the Skagerrak and lay a minefield in the Kattegat - an almost impossible task for a submarine as large as Seal. Lonsdale's superior, Captain Bethall, failed to persuade Admiral Horton to reconsider his orders and the ship sailed on 29 April. She was held in check by German anti-submarine trawlers in the area, but managed to lay her mines. She was hunted by two German search flotillas and took evasive action to escape the area when she went into an uncharted minefield. A German mine exploded while she was on the sea bed, damaging her stern and filling her hull. The attempt to resurface had to wait several hours until it was dark. However, in spite of three attempts, the damaged submarine failed to lift from the seabed and air quality deteriorated significantly. Throughout the incident the crew were impressed by the quiet resolution and faith of their captain. As a devout Christian, Lonsdale summoned his ship's company to prayer, and led them in the Lord's Prayer. After taking several last desperate measures, he made another attempt and the submarine finally lifted. Once on the surface he tried to make for the nearby Swedish coast and the crew destroyed the secret Asdic equipment and confidential papers. The stricken submarine was spotted and attacked by enemy aircraft. Lonsdale sent his crew below, and under intense fire tried to hold the aircraft off with Lewis guns until these jammed. The submarine was without motive power, unable to dive and without any defences and there was no realistic alternative but to surrender. Various action were taken towards scuttling the boat but it managed to stay afloat.[2]

Prisoner of War[edit]

Early on 5 May 1940, his 35th birthday, Lonsdale swam to a seaplane and into captivity. He had done all that could be done but he never forgave himself. Later it was revealed that Horton had sent two signal in response to his surfacing signal giving his intention to make for Sweden - "Understood and agreed with. Best of luck. Well done", followed by "Safety of personnel should be your first consideration after destruction of Asdics". These were not received because the ciphers were destroyed, but they would have helped him justify his actions to himself. He was mentioned in despatches four days later for his previous patrol work.[3] During his five long years of imprisonment, Lonsdale enjoyed the respect of his captors and found increasing comfort in his Christianity. He maintained contact with the village of Seal who had adopted the crew. Once 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 emphasis this too much; they really do look well. which is great credit to them and I would be grateful if you could let their next of kin know as you kindly did before. He worked hard to maintain morale and used his limited ration of mail on behalf of his crew members.

After the war, Lonsdale was mentioned in despatches in June 1945 for his services as a POW, promoted to commander and placed on the retired list at his own request. His last command was the new Algerine-class minesweeper Pyrrhus, which he brought up from Glanton before joining an operational flotilla at Portsmouth in January 1946. However he had to face the court-martial for the loss of his ship during the war and "his modesty was such that he had not begun to realise that there was even the slightest possibility of his being considered not as a coward but as a hero". Lonsdale was tried at Portsmouth, on 10 April 1946, and it took the court just over half an hour to acquit him with an honourable discharge.[4]


Lonsdale went to Ridley Hall in Cambridge in 1946 to prepare for his ordination and became a priest in 1949. His first curacy was with a mission church at Rowner, near HMS Dolphin, the submarine base at Gosport, followed by becoming vicar of Morden-with-Almer in Dorset in 1951. In 1953 he started a five-year tour in the White Highlands of Kenya as a district chaplain. He volunteered for this mission because he thought that his five years as a prisoner of war should help him to befriend the Mau Mau rebels, and at one point he offered to live in the bush as a hostage, to demonstrate Britain's benevolent intentions.[5]


In 1958 he returned to England to be vicar of Bentworth-with-Shaldon in Hampshire but then in 1960 returned out of affection to Kenya for another tour of duty. He became a canon emeritus, and his last full-time incumbency was from 1965 to 1970 as vicar of Thornham-with-Titchwell on the north Norfolk coast. Lonsdale retired to Hampshire, but held several part-time chaplaincies for the Anglican Church's European diocese based on Gibraltar. This led to a three-year stay in Tenerife (1970–73) before he returned to England for some time in the clergy hospice at College of St Mark at Audley End. Lonsdale died at Bournemouth, Dorset.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Lonsdale’s personal life was riven with tragedy. His first wife Christina Lyall whom he married in 1935 died in 1937 in childbirth.[6] After the war he married Kathleen Deal, whom he took out to Kenya, but she died in 1961. Next he married Ursula Sansum, a former WRNS[Note 1] officer, who also supported him in Kenya but she died in 1986. Finally he married Ethne Irwin in Malta in 1989. She survived him as did his son John Lonsdale, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who has specialised in East African history.[citation needed]

In 1960, C. E. T. Warren and James Benson asked Rupert Lonsdale for his help with their book about the loss of Seal, Will Not We Fear: The Story of His Majesty's Submarine "Seal" and of Lieutenant-Commander Rupert Lonsdale (1961). He eventually agreed, provided that he was allowed to write a foreword making it clear that he would never have suggested that the book be written, that he was a reluctant contributor, and then only in the trust that it might help some readers to find faith in God. Afterwards he said "Now that the tale is written I recoil all the more from any publicity, but the one reason for my co-operation remains." The book includes a simple but eloquent tribute from him to his ship's company and the authors prefaced his foreword with the first seven verses of Psalm XLVI from which they drew their title. As Sainsbury wrote,[5]

his quiet and considerate approach to command succeeded to an unusually high degree. His men knew something of his steady reputation from his previous command; most were aware of his bereavement. The few critics or doubters soon found themselves converted to the admiring majority, for Lonsdale was firm but fair to all. He never sought popularity, or lost his temper. He was no piratical extrovert, no swashbuckler. Many of his orders sounded like civil requests. "Sixty feet!" - the captain's order to submerge - was usually "Sixty feet, please, Number 1".


  1. ^ Women's Royal Naval Service


  1. ^ C.E.T.Warren and James Benson Will Not We Fear George G Harrap & Co, 1961 pp17-18
  2. ^ C.E.T.Warren and James Benson Will Not We Fear George G Harrap & Co, 1961 pp46-138
  3. ^ "No. 34845". The London Gazette. 7 May 1940. p. 2786. 
  4. ^ C.E.T.Warren and James Benson Will Not We Fear George G Harrap & Co, 1961 pp139-228
  5. ^ a b c A. B. Sainsbury The Independent, (London), Obituary of Rupert Lonsdale 13 May 1999
  6. ^ C.E.T.Warren and James Benson Will Not We Fear George G Harrap & Co, 1961 p17

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