The remarkable tale of the March historian and the World War Two submarine

Dennis Feary and his father Ernest.

Dennis Feary and his father Ernest. - Credit: Archant

Thirty years ago the wreck of the British World War Two submarine H49 was discovered off the Dutch coast by divers.

The memorial plaque.

The memorial plaque. - Credit: Archant

Since then naval historian Dennis Feary, 76, of March, has devoted his life to telling its story.

The H49

The H49 - Credit: Archant

His father, Ernest Feary, was one of 27 crew on board the submarine, which was depth charged by a German U-Boat on October 18 1940 11 miles off the coast of Texel, Holland.

Baron Berndt von Walther.

Baron Berndt von Walther. - Credit: Archant

Mr Feary, the chairman of March’s Royal British Legion, has met the submarine’s sole miraculous survivor and the German naval officer who ordered its sinking.

Dennis Feary.

Dennis Feary. - Credit: Archant

He has traced the families of 23 of the 27 crew and led a party of relatives to a wreath laying ceremony at the wreck in 1987.


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A dozen submarines left British shores during the Second World War never to return, but the H49 was the only one without a memorial.

Mr Feary campaigned for this to change and his persistence paid off when, last year, a memorial plaque was been erected in the church of St Mary, Shotley.

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And he worked with Jan Nieuwenhuis, the curator of the Aeronautical and War Museum, Texel Island, to create a display about the H49.

War orphan Mr Feary’s mother Mary Burrell died of rheumatic fever when he was three months old in June 1937.

He last saw his father the week before he died.

He said: “As he left for the last time I can vaguely remember walking down Broad Street, holding on to the blue on his sleeve.

“My uncle George, who was in the RAF, was with us as well. He told me my father turned to him, looked at the memorial and said when this war is over there will be a lot more names on it. It was very prophetic.

“I must have been five when I found out my father had died.

“I asked my grandmother when he was coming home and she said he loved my mother so much he went to heaven to visit her and decided to stay.”

Mr Feary spent three of the war years in an orphanage in Portsmouth.

He said: “I can remember the German bombers flying overhead. When the sirens went matron would tell us we never run for the Germans but we walk very quickly.”

Aged seven Mr Feary started at naval school in Swanley, where he stayed until he was 16.

He trained to become a naval engineer and spent three years in the RAF from 1958-60, where he was based in Germany.

On his mission to track down the relatives of the crew of the H49, which left Harwich for the last time on October 17 1940, Mr Feary advertised in newspapers and knocked on doors across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

He discovered the sole survivor, stoker George Oliver, in Hartlepool in 1984.

Mr Oliver was propelled 90 feet to the surface by an air blast when the engine room hatch was blown open.

Admiralty chiefs thought the stoker was run over after the war but a reporter found out he was still alive.

Mr Feary travelled up to met Mr Oliver three times.

He said: “We would sit from 10am to 4pm. He would say part of the story then go to sleep. He did not remember my father.”

For years he toured Holland searching for a surviving copy of the only book about the H49’s sinking, which was written by German gunboat captain Wolfgang Kaden.

A German magazine advert brought a reply – with a written tribute – from Gunter Schmidt, who served on the gunboat which sank H49 but died just days before Mr Feary was due to visit his home in Belgium.

The letter contained the address of German naval officer Baron Berndt von Walther who, when they met in his Swiss villa, told Mr Feary how he spotted and sank the H49.

He said: “He was calmly talking away and looked straight into my eyes. I felt like punching him.

“I thought do you know what you have just said. You are speaking to the man whose father you killed.

“But it only lasted for a few seconds and I did not say the words aloud.

“He was only doing his job and my father was out there to do the same thing.”

Reflecting on his quest to uncover what happened to his father, Mr Feary said: “It’s very satisfactory that there is now a memorial and it has been fascinating to meet the families of the crew and especially people on the German side.”

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