Next month, some of the bravest sailors of the Second World War commemorate 100 years since war beneath the waves , writes SANDRA GORTER.

Con Thode was quite a yachtie before the Second World War began - riding the wind and waves on the Hauraki Gulf he won many races in the 1930s as master on the A-class Iorangi.

Then, when Europe exploded in war, he took his yachtmasters' course and, because New Zealand was too small to have her own fleet, worked his way to England to join the British Navy.

Once there, he began a career as a submariner - an extraordinarily dangerous career that claimed the lives of 35 per cent of those who followed its call. Sir Winston Churchill said of them, "Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners."

Thode, now 90, was just one of about 200 Second World War New Zealand submariners, including one who rose to the rank of Admiral and another who took part in famous escape attempts from Colditz.

The Royal Navy launched its first submarine, Holland 1, in 1901 amid accusations that it ushered in an "underhand, underwater and damned un-English" style of warfare.

A century on, all its submariners are being honoured with a service at Westminster Abbey on November 2 as well as functions at British submarine bases. The Submariners Association of New Zealand will hold a centennial dinner at the Devonport Naval Base next month.

Thode first served as a navigator on the Proteus, whose Jolly Roger flag appears on a centennial stamp issued by the British Royal Mail. Each British submarine had a black battle flag bearing white symbols that celebrated its successes. The Proteus' flag featured tin-openers, commemorating a 1942 encounter with the Italian destroyer Sagittario off the west coast of Greece.

Finding herself so close to the Sagittario that she was unable to fire her torpedoes, the Proteus rammed the destroyer, ripping a hole along its waterline and losing her hydroplane in the process.

The Proteus - 1788 tonnes and home to 70 men - was one the most successful submarines operating in the Mediterranean. It patrolled the shipping lanes for 30 days at a time, sinking the German and Italian warships that supplied the battlegrounds of North Africa.

With minimal refrigeration, fresh food was out of the question. The submarines remained submerged during the day, doing 1-2 knots on smelly diesel-electric motors.

As with all diesel-electric submarines at that time, the Proteus would surface to recharge her batteries at night and to allow Thode to chart the stars of the northern hemisphere. His tools to guide the submarine across the Mediterranean were a simple compass and sextant - nothing grander than he had used when racing in the Hauraki Gulf.

Surfacing at night also allowed the submariners some fresh air - by nightfall there was so little oxygen left in the submarine that the first matches struck by the cigarette smokers who stood under the conning tower waiting to reach the surface would sputter and die.

But if the Mediterranean tours of duty were tough, others were even tougher. Off the coast of Nova Scotia, where a submerged submarine could be caught by the speed of the rapidly advancing ice, or off northern Norway on the convoy to Murmansk, the weather was as much an enemy as the Germans. Oilskins were the crews' main protection from the ice-cold, storm-driven water. What little extra clothing they had was kept dry below, where it was essential for the long hours off watch.

Charlie Smith, a crew member on the 35-man sub the Unshaken, and now of Selwyn Village in Pt Chevalier, remembers a tour north of Norway when the metal ladders that connected the internal upper and lower decks of the Osiris were coated in 2.5cm of ice.

A crewman was stationed at the top, constantly swabbing the hatch with methylated spirits to stop ice forming. There was never more than a minute's notice to dive, and hatches had to be securely closed without delay.

In the Red Sea and further south opposite temperatures - some more than 50 deg C - caused just as serious problems in the submarines. Men died of the skin infection prickly heat - many survivors still suffer its effects 60 years later.

Members of the other arms of the forces joked that you could tell submariners by their smell. Diesel got into their skin through the air they breathed and, with fresh water at a premium, they often went an entire 30-day patrol without bathing.

As an officer, Thode was luckier than most. He soon learned that if you raced to the officers' bathrooms back in port you could run three baths. It was only after the third that the smell of diesel was washed away. Those who weren't officers weren't so lucky - they got one bath only.

So why did Kiwis travel halfway around the world to volunteer in a service that could have kept an army of OSH officers employed for life? More than any of the surface services, the camaraderie of the submariners is legendary. There was an unrivalled democracy and companionship among them, which they put down to the ever-present possibility of death.

Len Horan of Castor Bay, leading stoker on the Unshaken, tells how one tiny slip in unimaginable conditions cost three men their lives and left a New Zealander unexpectedly in charge of the submarine.

The Unshaken was approaching the coast of Italy in atrocious weather, intending to bombard a crucial German supply convoy. The weather was so appalling that even 27.5m below the surface, the sub was rolling enough to toss the men around like peas in a blender. But at a speed of two knots it would never intercept the convoy, so the Unshaken surfaced for maximum speed.

When the submarine surfaced, just as the commander ascended the conning tower to the bridge along with two of his men, the Unshaken's stern sank below the waves and water flooded down the conning tower. Coming into the control room the chief petty officer saw what was happening and immediately shut the lower conning tower hatch, saving the Unshaken from certain sinking. It was able to resurface, but it took two hours for the water to be pumped from the conning tower before the crew could start searching for the missing men. They were never found.

Otorohanga farmer Sub Lieutenant Percy Westmacott, who had until this moment been third in command (the second in charge was not on board for this mission), found himself in charge and returned the boat to Malta.

Westmacott DSO, DSC and bar, went on to become one of the most distinguished and decorated submarine officers of the Second World War, eventually commanding the naval air station in Malta and the submarine flotilla in Sydney.

New Zealanders were usually assigned to British subs in pairs for company. Bruce Bennett (DSM) and Philip (Froggy) Le Gros (mentioned in dispatches) were stokers who served together on one of the most famous subs of all - the Torbay - under Captain Anton Miers. Both were decorated for the Torbay's spectacular attack on Corfu harbour.

When Miers was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive a Victoria Cross for his heroism in the Corfu battle, he refused unless the honour was extended to his men. The palace agreed.

Another of the Torbay's claims to fame was its successful evacuation of men off the beaches of Crete in 1941 under the noses of German soldiers. It carried away 130 men, the largest number of people ever jammed into a submarine at that time, many of them from the 28th (Maori) Battalion.

Another two Kiwis, Gordon and Jim Tait, both ended up as submariners after leaving Timaru to join the Royal Navy. Their mother knew the odds were against both her sons returning home, but she was lucky.

The elder, Gordon, was awarded a DSC in 1944 for his part in sinking a large number of Japanese ships. He stayed in the Royal Navy after the war and in 1947 was given command of his own submarine, the Teredo. The slightly built boy from Timaru then went on to become a full Admiral, Second Lord of the Royal Navy, and served 28 years with submarines.

New Zealand's roll of honour goes on: there was Sub Lieutenant Pat Sewell of the Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve (RNZVR), a great-nephew of Te Rauparaha, on the Unrivalled, and Stoker Bob Barnes on the Shark.

But Barnes' fame came more from his adventures on land. He became a prisoner of war after the Shark was mined off Heliogoland, and ended up as a bunkmate of fellow Kiwi Charles Upham, VC and bar, at Colditz Castle. Barnes and Upham were later involved in famous Colditz escape attempts, celebrated and retold in films such as The Colditz Story.

Although two other New Zealanders became submarine captains through the Royal Navy, Thode was the only member of the RNZVR to achieve command. In 1944 he was assigned to P237 - the Scythian. The Scythian went into service in the Malacca Straits, where Thode's work against the Japanese gained him his second mention in dispatches.

After the war he spent 25 years teaching young New Zealanders aboard the training ships Spirit of Adventure and Spirit of New Zealand, for which he was awarded an OBE. He is still sailing master on the classic 1892 yacht Viking.

More than half a century later, the submariners maintain powerful friendships. Wherever they have settled, they keep in contact with their former shipmates and meet regularly.

When Miers, by then a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy, visited New Zealand in 1975 he stayed with his old stoker Froggy Le Gros. Although both Bennett and Le Gros had only the rank of ordinary seamen, Miers had kept in contact with the New Zealanders and spent much of his visit in New Zealand with the men.

Eighty-three of the 200 New Zealanders who fought on submarines during the war are still members of the association 60 years on, remaining a tight-knit group long after their service years ended. The loyalty and camaraderie born of the life and death environment they lived forged friendships that have lasted lifetimes.