Remembrance Day: Did a ‘Cowichan Curse’ sink Israeli submarine?

A Totem seaman poses with ‘Shonkie,’ the smaller of two Cowichan totem poles aboard HMS Totem. (Historical photo)A Totem seaman poses with ‘Shonkie,’ the smaller of two Cowichan totem poles aboard HMS Totem. (Historical photo)
HMS Totem before modernization. (Wikipedia)HMS Totem before modernization. (Wikipedia)
HMS Totem after modernization. (https://www.maritimequest.com/warship_directory/great_britain/submarines/)HMS Totem after modernization. (https://www.maritimequest.com/warship_directory/great_britain/submarines/)
Good luck in picking out the totem pole which supposedly shows on the bridge of the Second World War British submarine, HMS Totem. (Wikipedia)Good luck in picking out the totem pole which supposedly shows on the bridge of the Second World War British submarine, HMS Totem. (Wikipedia)
HMS Totem in Plymouth Sound, 1944. (Wikipedia)HMS Totem in Plymouth Sound, 1944. (Wikipedia)

By T.W. Paterson

I wanted to write this story for years. But I was missing a key element so I set it aside. I’m still missing that key element — the link between a Cowichan totem pole and the mysterious loss of an Israeli submarine.

But I’m going to tell you the story, anyway, what I know of it; it’s a story that could be right out of television’s iconic Twilight Zone!

•••

T-3 Class submarine HMS Totem, (she and her sisters were distinguished by their large, bulbous bows), the only vessel of that name to serve in the Royal Navy, was launched as the P 352 at the Devonport Dockyard, Plymouth, Eng., on Sept. 28, 1943. By the time she was commissioned on Jan. 9, 1945, the Second World War in Europe had just four months to go.

Her commanding officer from August 1944-April 1946 was Lieut. Michael Beauchamp St. John, DSC, RN, and she was powered by two diesel engines on the surface and twin electric motors when submerged. With a range of 4,500 nautical miles at a cruising speed of 11 knots (20 km/h) surfaced, she had a maximum depth of 300 feet and a crew of 61. Her armament consisted of torpedoes, a four-inch deck gun and three anti-aircraft machine guns.

On April 8, 1945, after three months of practice and trials off the Scottish west coast she set out on her first and only war patrol off the Kors Fjord near Bergen, Norway. It was uneventful and on V-E Day, Totem sailed for Gibraltar before continuing to Australia for a lengthy visit.

Here’s where we first encounter the missing link I told you about. Wikipedia shows two small photos of HMS Totem in 1945; in the caption it notes, “Her totem pole is the cross-like object on the forward part of the bridge.” (You’ll need a microscope to see it.) And: “The submarine was presented with a totem pole by the Cowichan Tribes in 1945… The pole was fitted to the front of the bridge fin when the submarine was in harbour.”

We’ll come back to this…

But back to the HMS Totem: with war’s end only she and two sisters of the same late model class — they were welded rather than riveted — were kept in service and upgraded with snorkel masks, the brilliant German device that allowed them to breathe underwater.

Even as early as January 1948 the Cold War was underway although this didn’t stop Allied nations from scrapping their surface vessels wholesale. As a result, it was decided that, in future, British submarines would “strike the enemy on his home ground” by laying mines and ambushing Soviet submarines in their home waters.

HMS Totem was one of eight submarines to be extensively modified, 1951-53, with “super T-conversions” that gave them higher speed and quieter operation underwater. They were lengthened 14 feet to accommodate new switch gear, an extra pair of electric motors and new batteries. To streamline the hull the deck gun was removed and a taller bridge fin, to enclose the periscope and masts, was installed. Her radar and sonar were updated and her top speed increased to 18 knots (33 km/h) thanks to the removal of her old-style radar aerial. She could now cover a mile in four minutes at top speed and, submerged, achieve 12 knots (22 km/h).

In 1953 Totem participated in the Royal Navy’s celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Two years later, while conducting an intelligence probe in the Barents Sea, she was attacked by Soviet naval forces. She had to dive to 280 feet (just 20 feet short of her maximum depth capability) to evade depth charges then slip through a minefield to escape. This was in ‘peacetime,’ it should be noted! After, it would appear, a lengthy lay-up she spent two years in refit in Malta before returning to Portsmouth in January 1963 to join the 1st Submarine Flotilla at Gosport. But her career with the Royal Navy was almost done and in 1965 she and her T-Class sisters, Truncheon and Turpin, were sold to Israel. In 1967, Totem, now INS Dakar, was commissioned into the Israeli Sea Corps, Lieut.-Cmdr. Ya’acov Ra’anan commanding.

The transfer ceremony was brief, even cursory; a former Totem seaman recalling years later that as he lowered the White Ensign for the last time, an Israeli sailor raised the blue and white, six-pointed star of his homeland. That was it. Then it was off to Iceland for sea and dive trials before returning to Portsmouth.

When, on Jan. 9, 1968, the newly-christened Dakar cleared Portsmouth for Haifa she had 69 on board — nine more than her wartime complement. She arrived at Gibraltar without incident on the morning of the 15th then headed across the Mediterranean at snorkel depth, as per instructions, continuing to carry out training exercises; scheduled to arrive in Haifa, Feb. 2, but finding that he was making better time than anticipated, Cmdr Ra’anan radioed Haifa to request entering port ahead of schedule. Permission was granted to enter on the 29th.

However, when he asked to enter on the 28th, he was denied because arrangements for the welcoming ceremony couldn’t be rescheduled. Early on the 24th Dakar reported her position to be 100 miles west of Crete. She sent three more radio transmissions over the next 18 hours but without giving her position. Her final broadcast was sent at 00:02, Jan. 25. That was the last ever heard of INS Dakar, ex-HMS Totem, and her company of 69. She had vanished with all aboard.

It was the British Admiralty that reported her to be overdue, the following day. Six countries — Israel, Britain, the U.S., Greece, Turkey and Lebanon — joined in the massive search that followed, even as Israel refused to admit that Dakar was missing. Instead, they limited themselves to asking that commercial vessels be on the lookout for the overdue submarine.

Further attempts at official denial proved fruitless when, on Jan. 27, “a radio station in Nicosia, Cyprus received a distress call on the frequency of Dakar’s emergency buoy, apparently from southeast of Cyprus. But no further traces of the submarine were found and, on Jan. 31, all non-Israeli forces abandoned their search at sunset. Israeli forces continued the search for another four days, ceasing at sundown on Feb. 4, 1968.

Israel stated that Dakar was involved in crash diving exercises on its return voyage and was probably lost as a result of a mechanical failure. On April 25, 1968, Vice Admiral Avraham Botzer, commander of the Israeli Navy, stated that Dakar sank on Jan. 24. 1968, two days before being reported missing, due to “technical or human malfunctioning” and not foul play.

In January 1970, however, an Egyptian newspaper claimed that an Egyptian minesweeper had sunk Dakar with depth charges, Jan. 23, 1968. Twenty-five years later, in a newspaper interview, General Mohamed Azab stated that the Egyptian frigate Assyout, while returning from a training exercise, had attacked a foreign submarine just two miles off Alexandria after spotting its periscope. Contact was broken off when the submarine dived and General Azab thought it had “crashed into the sea bed”.

But without wreckage no search was made as the Egyptians surmised that the submarine’s commander had crash-dived in less than the minimal 40 metres necessary. There was no evidence to substantiate the Egyptian claims, however, according to the Israeli government.

Earlier, just over a year after Dakar vanished, the first clue was found: one of her two (bow and stern) emergency marker buoys drifted ashore southwest of Gaza. These buoys had been attached to 600-foot-long (200-metre) cables; because only 26 inches remained with the retrieved buoy, naval experts concluded that the buoy had originally remained with the submarine and was severed later. This suggested that she was resting, roughly, 500-1,000 feet down and likely 60-odd miles off her intended route.

All of which proved to be incorrect and for 31 incredible years — 25 search expeditions! — the Israelis, who were determined to recover the remains of Dakar’s company for proper burial, concentrated their search along her projected route. Thanks to improved relations with the Egyptian government they were able to search the waters north of Sinai. They also checked the waters off the Greek island of Rhodes, and the U.S. Navy contributed two aircraft for further sweeps of Egyptian waters.

The ongoing hunt for clues to Dakar’s resting place took an unusual turn in October 1998, 30 full years after her disappearance, when the Israeli government placed ads in Turkish, Egyptian, French Greek and Russian newspapers, offering up to $300,000 reward for any information leading to her location.

The net finally began to close in May 1999 when, armed with “information received from U.S. intelligence sources,” a joint Israeli-American search expedition detected a large object on the seabed, 9,800 down metres, between Crete and Cyprus. Underwater cameras showed Dakar pointing to the northwest and resting on her keel. She’d suffered catastrophic damage; her conning tower was lying alongside the hull and her stern section, which had snapped aft of the engine room, also lay alongside.

Because of the incredible depth, Israelis had to be content with recovering some artifacts including Dakar’s gyro compass, and her bridge. In October 2000, the bridge and the forward edge of her sail fin were raised and they now form a memorial in the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa.

Why Dakar plunged beyond her maximum depth remains unknown. For years, Israel stood by its statement of April 1968 that she was practicing crash diving exercises during her return voyage and was probably lost as a result of a mechanical failure.

Mechanical failure or — a curse?

•••

This brings us back to INS Dakar’s previous career as HMS Totem and that elusive link to Cowichan Tribes via their gift of a totem pole at the time of Totem’s launching or commissioning in 1945. This is where it gets really interesting…

In August 1999, John Stephen wrote the Cowichan Valley Citizen. He came right to the point: “A relative from the U.K. sent us the enclosed newspaper clipping which may be of interest to your readers especially as it concerns the Cowichan [First Nation].” The editor kindly forwarded the clipping from The Express to me for follow-up. I did some preliminary research, which I’ll get back to in a minute, then I set it aside intending to learn more. That was 20 years ago as you can see…

That newspaper clipping from Mr. Stephen is a real grabber. It takes up the top half of a full page, has three photos — including two of a former naval officer and British seaman posing with the Cowichan totem — and has the blaring headline, “Sub that was sunk by [First Nations] Curse; Israeli crew who took over British boat removed its sacred totem”.

This is why I was so intrigued by Cowichan Tribes’ link with HMS Totem!

If you believe Wikipedia and several other online sources, all of which likely have a common origin, the totem pole presented to HMS Totem by Cowichan Tribes in 1945 “was stolen during the 1950s when the boat was visiting Halifax, Canada. The pole was fitted to the front of the bridge fin when the submarine was in harbour.”

Brian Izzard, who was prompted to write about HMS Totem in The Express by news reports that the wreckage of INS Dakar had finally been found after 31 years, interviewed Totem’s last commanding officer, Capt. Michael Everett. Izzard sets the stage accordingly: “A submarine sailed thousands of miles in safety, thanks to her own special protection: a totem pole. For 23 years the crew of the Totem relied on their talisman, which had come from the Cowichan tribe in Canada.

“But the [First Nations] warned that if the totem pole was removed the submarine would never return. In 1967 the navy decided that it no longer needed Totem and she was sold to Israel. The Israelis changed her name to Dakar, and said that they did not want a totem pole on board. Then, on a bleak day in October 1968, the ‘cursed’ submarine, with a crew of 69, sailed from Portsmouth for Haifa, Israel — and vanished…”

Dakar’s/Totem’s discovery on the floor of the Mediterranean, almost two miles down, prompted Izzard to jump to the conclusion that the submarine “was probably a victim of the ‘curse’ — an accident that could have been avoided”. He based this leap of surmise upon an interview with Totem’s Capt. Everett who’d told him, “We actually had two totem poles. The main one was fixed to the conning tower when we went in or out of harbour but removed when the submarine was at sea. It was stowed in a canvas bag in the torpedo compartment.

“The other one, called Shonkie, was smaller and kept on a shelf in the wardroom. I don’t recall that the crew took it seriously but if a box of matches or packet of cigarettes was placed on the shelf next to Shonkie, it was considered bad luck.” Capt. Everett said nothing about either totem having been stolen while the submarine was in Halifax. According to reporter Izzard, in June 1999, “Shankie”, the smaller pole kept in the Totem’s wardroom, is safe and sound, a “prized exhibit at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport”.

Was the larger pole, the one that was attached to the conning tower while entering and leaving harbour, stolen as Wikipedia says? Or was it, as implied in The Express interview with Capt. Everett, still on board the Totem when she was transferred to Israel? A totem pole that supposedly had safeguarded the submarine throughout its career with the Royal Navy but which was rejected, as would be a stone idol, by the devout Israelis? Who, by so doing, condemned the former Totem which had “frequently prowled the Mediterranean without mishap,” to loss with all hands and beyond recovery, two miles down?

•••

A final word on Dakar’s mysterious sinking. When finally found she was, contrary to some reports, on course for Haifa. Brig. Gen. Gideon Raz, former Deputy Commander of the Israeli Navy, who’d viewed the wreckage via underwater cameras, said the bow section was intact, the mid-section damaged, and parts were spread over the seabed with the conning tower separated from the hull.

“I think we can say that it was not caused by a huge explosion or explosive ammunition. Given that the pieces did not spread over a large [area], it [sank] almost whole until the end of its fall.” Rather than having been sunk by Egyptian depth charges, or by a rumoured Soviet submarine, it appears that a slightly submerged Dakar had been rammed, likely accidentally, by a merchant ship which might not even have been aware of the collision.

For the Israeli nation which embarked on a period of official mourning, the belated discovery of her remains brought a bittersweet sense of closure as it appeared to put to rest the conspiracy theories of three decades. As the director of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum put it, “…The rekindled sadness of her loss is tinged with the relief of knowing that nothing sinister — as opposed to disastrous — was amiss.”

Mourners had the further consolation of knowing that those aboard Dakar had died within minutes of the collision.

Remembrance Day