French submarine Farfadet (Q7)
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Farfadet (Q7) was the lead ship of her class of submarine for the French Navy. She was built at the Arsenal de Rochefort in Rochfort and launched on 17 May 1901. She accidentally sank on 5 July 1905 with the loss of all 14 men aboard. She was later refloated and recommissioned the Follet (Q7). She was stricken in November 1913.
Farfadet was a Morse-type French submarine launched with the Lutin in 1901. It is remembered chiefly for the accident of 6 July 1905, off the coast of Tunisia, which killed all 14 of its crew. The details of the catastrophe, once released by the press, horrified France and drew national attention to the dangers of submarines, which the French Ministry of Marine was at that time investing a great deal of money in. After the Farfadet accident and the recent British HMS A8 submarine disaster (June 1905), sailors began to refer to submarines as "iron tombs", and the vessel's fate reflects that of the Russian craft Kursk almost 100 years later. The year after the Farfadet disaster, the completion of HMS Dreadnought shifted the focus of European navies, and thenceforth arguably only the German navy gave submarines and submersibles any priority.
In the early 1900s the French Navy made a concerted effort to build up its submarine fleet. The Times of London on April 5, 1904 notes that "26 submersibles of various types" were being developed by its nearest neighbour, with a total of 47 on the drawing board. At this time the vessels were listed as:
Submarines: Morse, Français, Algeríen, Naïade, Protée, Lynx, Ludion, Gnôme, Lutin, Loutre, Castor, Gustave Zédé, Gymnote, Perle, Esturgeon, Bonité, Thon, Sontfleur, Dorade, Farfadet, Korrigan.
Submersibles: Narval, Siréne, Triton, Silure, Espadon
Accident, as reported in The Times
The Times of July 7, 1905 reports that, on a routine cruise after leaving the port of Sidi Abdullah in French Tunisia, the Farfadet, heading for its home port of Bizerte in Tunisia, attempted to dive with a "skylight" (hatch) improperly shut. The guard officer tried to force it closed and then, mistakenly, tried to open it and slam it shut again. The submarine had by this point submerged; the force of the water forced the hatch down in a skewed position from which it would not move. As the submarine dived the hatch was forced from its place entirely and the guard captain blown from his position by the force of the water. Four sailors in the bow were drowned, and the weight of water in the flooded forward section caused the Farfadet to dip and dive straight down, where it became embedded in the mud at the bottom of the harbour.
Submarine pioneer John P. Holland wrote in How To Fly Like a Bird (1906) that the Farfadet had moved in such a way as to upset her ballast tank, which in turn submerged an open hatch. A similar fate was suffered by the British A8, which had spun onto its side while trying to avoid a trawler, dipping its conning tower underwater and so flooding itself, "excepting that in [the Farfadet's] case there occurred a change of speed or inclination that caused the water in her partially filled tank to move to her forward end, thus causing the common centre of gravity of the boat, and the water in its tanks, to move far enough forward to force the forward part of the boat under water. This unexpected manoeuvre, combined with her speed, forced the top of her turret under and she took enough water on board to send her to the bottom."
Attempted rescue and salvage
The Times of July 7, 1905 records that at 9am on July 7, divers reached the Farfadet and found that the crew were responding to knocks. Four hawser (steel) cables were wrapped around the submarine in preparation for the arrival of a 20-ton pontoon and crane, belonging to the Hersen Company. At 3.20pm the vessel was raised, its aft portion breaking the water so that airlocks could be opened and the air inside renewed for the surviving crew. Attempts were then made to ground the submarine in shallow water, but at 12.45 the next morning the crane broke, sending the submarine back to the bottom of the harbour. Further efforts to recover it, involving the French steamer Audax, were in vain.
On July 15, 1905, the Farfadet was raised using a floating dock, and towed to the harbour of Sidi Abdallah. That night work began on removing the bodies. The four in the forward compartment had died instantly, the eight aft when the crane had broken. It was found that the sailors had attempted to plug the airholes with their tunics. Two more bodies were found amidships.
It was found that the sulfuric acid of the engine's accumulators (batteries) had combined with the seawater to create hydrochloric acid, which had eaten away the instruments and bodies and made work on retrieval impossible until ventilators had been fitted to the aft of the vessel. The last of the crew had died after being trapped for 32 hours. Eight of the 14 crew were from Brittany.
- The Times, April 5, 1904 p7
- The Times, July 7, 1905, p10
- How to Fly As a Bird-John Philip Holland, 1906
- Le Petit Journal, July 29, 1905