Obituary: Canon Rupert Lonsdale

RUPERT LONSDALE was forced to surrender his ship in the Second World War, for which he was court-martialled and honourably acquitted. Before they were captured by the enemy, he led his ship's company in the Lord's Prayer as their damaged submarine threatened never to surface. After the war he retired from the Navy, and became an ordained member of the Church of England.

Lonsdale was born in 1905 and in 1919 joined the Royal Navy. He entered the Trade, as the submarine branch of the service is known, in 1927 and within four years was First Lieutenant of XI, the enormous experimental submersible with her four 5.2-inch guns and displacing 2,780 tons - by far the biggest craft before the nuclear boats. In 1934 he passed the submarine command qualifying course, so demanding that it is known as the Perisher.

His first command was H44, a legacy of the Great War, of 440 tons, with four torpedo tubes and a machine-gun; in 1937 he took over the newer Swordfish for a year. His next command, Seal, 1,520 tons, was being built in Chatham Yard - she had a 4-inch gun and two machine-guns, and was the last of six boats designed primarily as minelayers: only one survived the war.

Lonsdale was promoted Lieutenant-Commander in May 1936; one of his contemporaries was David Luce, later First Sea Lord. His wife, Christina Lyall, died in September 1937, giving birth to a son John, their only child; the bereaved father was appointed to Seal in command on 1 November 1938 and commissioned her in May 1939. On 4 August she sailed for the China station; within a month she was at war, detained at Aden whence she made two ad hoc patrols watching the Italians.

Back in home waters she did one North Sea patrol before an unexpected 14-day crossing to Halifax, Nova Scotia, augmenting a convoy escort in case it attracted an attack - an unusual and questionable role for her class. She got home in time to grant Christmas leave and then, based at Elfin, a temporary establishment at Blyth, settled to a North Sea patrol routine soon dominated by the Norwegian campaign.

Her last mission was to transit the Skagerrak and lay a minefield in the Kattegat. This was a hairy prospect for any boat; for one as big as Seal it was particularly daunting. Lonsdale's captain failed to persuade Admiral Horton, a legendary submariner himself, to reconsider his orders and on 29 April Seal sailed.

She found German trawlers sweeping her target area, laid low on the bottom to await their departure, but exploded a German mine which damaged her stern. Her hull began to fill. Lonsdale decided not to abandon ship by using the Davies escape gear, but to try and make for the nearby Swedish coast.

He managed to reach the surface but enemy aircraft strafed the conning tower, summoned patrol craft and kept the boat under attack. The crew were exhausted by fumes and there was no realistic alternative to surrender; an attempt to scuttle the boat failed. 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. Ironically, he was mentioned in despatches four days later for his previous patrol work.

His fame as a captain is secure. 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, no 1".

During his five long years of imprisonment, Lonsdale enjoyed the respect of his captors and found increasing comfort in his Christianity. But he was inconsolable. As the inevitable court-martial loomed with liberation (anyone who loses or hazards a ship is court- martialled), "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's agony would have been assuaged had he received two signals made by Horton in response to his surfacing signal giving his intention to make for Sweden - "Understood and agreed with. Best of luck. Well done." This was followed by "Safety of personnel should be your first consideration after destruction of Asdics [an anti-submarine device]". Alas, they did not get through.

Six years after Seal had become UB in the German navy - her only intelligence value being a certain amount of information about her torpedoes - Lonsdale was tried at Portsmouth, on 10 April 1946; it took the court just over half an hour to acquit him. He was mentioned in despatches in June that year for his services as a POW, promoted Commander and placed on the Retired List at his own request.

His last command had been the new Algerine-class fleet minesweeper Pyrrhus, which he had worked up from Glanton before joining an operational flotilla at Portsmouth in January 1946. With the exception of the Engineer Officer, his wardroom was entirely RNVR; again, there was that rapport with the ship's company. They knew he had leave accruing from his time as a POW, and were not surprised at his quiet departure until they read in the newspapers of his trial and acquittal.

Lonsdale went to Ridley Hall in Cambridge in 1946 to prepare for his ordination; he became a priest in 1949. His first curacy was with a mission church at Rowner, significantly perhaps near Dolphin, the submarine base at Gosport. He was vicar of Morden-with-Almer in Dorset from 1951 to 1953 and then spent five years in the White Highlands of Kenya as a District Chaplain.

He volunteered for this mission because he thought that his own five years as a prisoner should help him to befriend the Mau Mau rebels, with whom at one point he offered to live in the bush as a hostage, as evidence of Britain's benevolent intentions. He went back to England to be Vicar of Bentworth-with-Shaldon in Hampshire (1958-60) but then returned out of affection to Kenya for another tour of duty. Now a Canon Emeritus, his last full-time incumbency was Vicar of Thornham-with-Titchwell (1965-70) on the north Norfolk coast, near to Nelson's birthplace in his father's parish of Burnham Thorpe.

Lonsdale then retired to Hampshire, and among several part-time chaplaincies for the Church's European diocese based on Gibraltar was a three-year stay in Tenerife (1970-73) before he returned to England for some time in the College of St Mark at Audley End, until it ceased to be a clergy hospice.

He was married three times after the war, first to Kathleen Deal, whom he took out to Kenya, and who died in 1961, then to Ursula Sansum, of whom he first knew as a WRNS officer, who also supported him in Kenya (she died in 1986), and finally to Ethne Irwin, whom he married in 1989 in Malta, and with whom he returned to England in 1996. She survives him, as does his son John Lonsdale, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who spent his National Service on secondment to the King's African Rifles in Kenya before specialising in East African history.

In 1960 Rupert Lonsdale was asked by C.E.T. Warren and James Benson for his help with their book about the loss of Seal, Will Not We Fear (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: "Now that the tale is written I recoil all the more from any publicity, but the one reason for my co- operation remains." There is also a simple but eloquent tribute from him to his ship's company.

The authors saluted him by prefacing his foreword with the first seven verses of Psalm xlvi from which they drew their title.

Rupert Philip Lonsdale, naval officer and priest: born Dublin 5 May 1905; ordained deacon 1948, priest 1949; married 1935 Christina Lyall (died 1937; one son), 1953 Kathleen Deal (died 1961), 1963 Ursula Sansum (died 1986), 1989 Ethne Irwin; died Bournemouth, Dorset 25 April 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace