SUBMARINE COMMANDER, YACHTSMAN
23-6-1910 - 21-9-2012
COMMANDER BILL KING, who has died aged 102, was the only man to be in command of a British submarine on the first and last days of World War II; he later circumnavigated the globe solo at his third attempt, passing five of the great capes.
During the war King commanded the submarines Snapper, Trusty and Telemachus, his world bounded, as he put it, "by the chart table, the periscope and the bridge, hardly daring to sleep, a most disagreeable place, smelling of diesel oil, chlorine and unwashed bodies".
His first war patrol ended badly when he was attacked by the RAF off Harwich in Essex - though he suffered a direct hit, he was able to return to harbour. Then, between December 1939 and July 1940, in several aggressive patrols King's Snapper sank six ships, including a German tanker, Moonsund; off southern Norway he torpedoed the merchant ship Florida, the
minesweepers Jan Behrens and Carsten Janssen, and the armed trawlers Portland and Cygnus. In May 1940 he was awarded a DSO.
Another patrol was eventful in a different way. After days without a navigational fix, Snapper grounded on sandbanks off the Dutch coast, but by skilful manoeuvring King managed to bring his boat back to sea. Instead of being court-martialled, he was invited by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to recount his experiences over brandy and cigars. In September 1940 he was awarded a DSC.
Next came a less noteworthy period in command of the newly built Trusty in the Mediterranean. But on Boxing Day that year he was sent to the Indian Ocean to help stem the advance of the Japanese. In Singapore he was bombed while supposedly in a safe anchorage, and found the admiral to be depressed about the state of the island's defences. Without any clear orders, he carried out two fruitless patrols in the South China Sea, and after the fall of Singapore entered Surabaya for repairs to a potentially fatal oil leak that was betraying his presence to ships and aircraft. Later in 1942, however, he sank the 7000-tonne transport Toyohashi Maru and the troop carrier Columbia Maru.
King was promoted to commander in June 1943 and might have expected a staff or squadron appointment. Instead, in January 1944, he took command of the new Telemachus, which then deployed to the Far East. On July 17, on his first war patrol, King surprised the Japanese submarine I-166 off Singapore, sinking it with a salvo of torpedoes. "My green crew tasted success early and I felt the confidence rise in them. They looked at Telemachus with new eyes - the damn thing worked!" For his outstanding courage, skill and determination King was awarded a bar to his DSO.
King was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel William de Courcy King, DSO, who was killed on the Western Front in 1917. Bill was brought up by his mother and his grandmother, who in her 70s took up sailing in the Western Isles in a 16-metre yawl called Imatra. His mother, believing that young Bill required some discipline in his life, packed him off to Dartmouth when he was 13 years old.
His first ship was the new battleship Nelson, but, needing the extra six shillings a day for serving in submarines, King volunteered for "the Trade" in 1931. His first boat was the submarine Orpheus on the China Station, where he spent four years. Next he served in Starfish during the Abyssinian crisis, and by 1936 he was second-in-command of Narwhal. He passed his "perisher" (submarine command course) in 1939, then took command of Snapper.
In 1946 King declared himself fed up with postwar rationing, and took a trials submarine to Northern Ireland to feast his crew on unrationed steak, eggs and bacon. But the visit had an ulterior motive: he crossed the border with the Irish Republic to woo the "tall, slim, and willowy" Anita Leslie, whom he had met three years earlier while skiing in wartime Lebanon.
His protracted service in the war had left King feeling "like an overwound clockwork mouse", and he decided to resign from the navy. Years later he would remark that all his friends had died in the war, and ended after-dinner speeches by asking "What was the point?" of the conflict. He and Anita - an author and a distant kinswoman of Winston Churchill - married in 1949 and embarked on an extended honeymoon sailing around the West Indies in the yacht Galway Blazer.
They bought the romantic - but roofless - 12th-century Oranmore Castle on the shores of Galway Bay along with 60 hectares that King reclaimed from bog and rock to start an organic farm.
In August 1968 he set off from Plymouth to circumnavigate the world single-handed, in the junk-rigged Galway Blazer II. He described his odyssey as "a lonely venture intended to unwind the springs of tension which had never quite been eased out of my deepest being since submarine days".
In submarines he had lived on "a soaplike meat substitute" (Spam), the smell of which haunted him still, and on this voyage he subsisted on a diet of raisins; wholemeal biscuits; almond nut paste for protein; and, for vitamin C, cress grown in jars. This was supplemented by the occasional flying fish that landed on board.
King's voyage ended on October 30, when he was dismasted in the worst storm
he ever witnessed in his lifetime at sea; he had to be towed into Cape Town. He made two further attempts to circumnavigate the globe: in 1970 he got as far as Perth, Western Australia, where ill health caused him to abandon the journey, but in 1971 he finally achieved his ambition.
King was a believer in extrasensory perception and in the so-called "third eye", ; on several occasions, he said, he had been able to sense imminent danger, saving not only his own life but the lives of those around him. On his journey in 1971 he was below deck, in the cabin of Galway Blazer II, when his "third eye" made him turn towards the lee side of the boat just before it bulged inwards as it was struck by a giant shark. King rushed on deck to see a swirl of water and a trail of blood astern as he quickly tacked, to bring the hole out of the water. The new tack meant there was "nothing between me and Antarctica", and for three days he struggled to make a repair that would enable him to turn back.
King finally reached Plymouth in 1973. During his successful circumnavigation, under the Irish tricolour, he had rounded the Cape of Good Hope; Cape Leeuwin;
South-East Cape in Tasmania; the South-West Cape, Stewart Island, New Zealand; and the Horn. For five months and one day he was out of radio contact. It was during this isolation that King realised it was no longer painful to recall his submarine years; that he was just living for fun; and that all he had to do was to stay alive.
King wrote several books, including two autobiographies: The Stick and the Stars (1958), which was principally about his war experiences, and Adventure in Depth (1975), about his sailing exploits.
His wife predeceased him in 1984, and he is survived by their son and daughter.