Submarine Designer Lost and Found
Sir Arthur W Johns, a lost British genius rediscovered.
Sir Arthur W. Johns, K.C.B., C.B.E. (1873-1937), was the Royal Navy’s Sixth DNC (Director of Naval Construction). He was responsible for the majority of Royal Navy submarine classes in the Great War, and the designer of the giant submarine cruiser X.1 (the subject of one of my books).
Born in 1873 at Torpoint, Cornwall, Arthur William Johns entered Devonport Dockyard as a Shipwright Apprentice at the age of 14. After heading the list of all apprentices in his examination year, he moved to Greenwich Royal Naval College as a probationary Assistant Constructor. In 1895 he qualified with the coveted First Class Professional Certificate.
After several minor assignments, he worked on the design of Captain Scott’s Antarctic research vessel, the Discovery, as well as the King Edward VII Class pre-dreadnoughts and the Royal Yacht Alexandra.
Promoted to the rank of Constructor in 1911, in the following year he began his long association with Royal Navy submarine design, becoming responsible for the later ‘E’ Class vessels, and the succeeding ‘F’, ‘G’, ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘K’, ‘L’, ‘M’ and ‘R’ Classes.
In 1916 he was asked to investigating rigid airship construction, and designed the successful R 33 and R 34, the latter airship being the first machine to make a two-way air crossing of the Atlantic (in July 1919).
In November 1920 A W Johns was confirmed as Assistant Director of Naval Construction, and it was in this capacity that he was responsible for the design of X.1.
Made a C.B.E. (Commander of the British Empire) in 1920 as a reward for his War service, he was made a C.B. (Companion of the Bath) in 1929, and in 1933 he was created a K.C.B (Knight Commander of the Bath). A lifelong scholar, Sir Arthur became a member of the Institute of Naval Architects in 1904, presenting many thought-provoking papers to that august body, and was elected a Vice President of the Institute in 1931.
Promoted to Director of Naval Construction in January 1930, the last major vessel for which Sir Arthur was responsible was the new aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal. Her first Captain was full of praise for her aircraft handling arrangements, stating that in the first 400 hours’ flying, not one single airman had been injured taking off and landing. In the same period, he sagely concluded, if the same young men had been ashore driving their motorcars and riding their motorbikes, quite a few of them would have ended up in hospital.
Sadly, early in 1936 illness forced Sir Arthur to retire, and he died on January 13th 1937.
With such an illustrious career, one might think that Sir Arthur would feature in at least one of the UK’s naval archives, or perhaps even the National Portrait Gallery in London? When I began my research into the submarine cruiser X.1, I was fascinated by the gifted and famous individuals concerned with her specifications, design, construction and working up. But of her designer, Sir Arthur, I could find no biographical details at all, not even a photograph.
He had been lost to history, a sad fate for such a multi-skilled engineering genius.
Then one Monday afternoon I called at the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport, and met the volunteer librarian, Alan Ferris, who only worked in the library on Monday afternoons. I asked Alan if he had come across any details of Sir Arthur, and he sadly shook his head. Then as I turned to leave, he called out, “But yesterday afternoon I was at a boot sale in the local park, and a man sold me a cardboard box containing books he said covered naval subjects.”
Alan disappeared and shortly returned carrying a large box, filled with books. “I’ve not had time to go through them yet” he said.
I picked up the first book in the box, and opened the first page.
And there, staring out at me, was a photograph of Sir Arthur W Johns, followed by his obituary, from which I have taken the above details of his career!
And if you ever think that there is no such thing in life as a “coincidence”, just read page 25 of explorer Tim Severin’s book “The Brendan Voyage”.