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Vice Admiral Sir Hugh Mackenzie, Royal Navy
Published in the United Kingdom in 1995
by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum
HMS DOLPHIN, Gosport, Hampshire, UK
ISBN 0-952-66960-9

This autobiographical account of Rufus Mackenzie’s life is aptly pictured u being u tenuous u the Syracusan courtier’s sitting at a state dinner with a razor sharp sword suspended by a single thread above his head. Thus, his life as a submariner in war and later as a surface ship CO, tells of incident after incident when that single thread might easily have been severed and his distinguished career brought to an untimely end.

Moreover, this is a fine account of the British way of submarining in their European theater of operations-giving American readers the opportunity to appreciate the differences with U.S. submarine operations in the Pacific war against the Japanese.

Although Admiral Mackenzie claims to have reconstructed this life story strictly from his .. fading” memory of long past events, his good recall of moments when the sword of Damocles banging over his bead could have been cut loose, and the names of literally everyone he dealt with are so exact, that one recognizes that his bad memory was helped by a great amount of research into his past.

Although Admiral Mackenzie claims to have reconstructed this life story strictly from his .. fading” memory of long past events, his good recall of moments when the sword of Damocles banging over his bead could have been cut loose, and the names of literally everyone he dealt with are so exact, that one recognizes that his bad memory was helped by a great amount of research into his past.

Then after THRASHER was taken to 270 feet and the hunting escorts had dropped 33 depth charges, they appeared to have lost contact and THRASHER stole quietly away. But much later, when on the surface at night, a rhythmic banging in the superstructure due to a slow roll in the swells, revealed that a 3 foot long unexploded bomb was rolling around under the deck gun’s muzzle, while a second unexploded bomb was also discovered inside the gun casing near the breech of the gun. Two men, Lieutenant P.S.W. Roberts and Petty Officer T.W. Gould volunteered to dump the bombs overboard. They had a particularly tough time clearing the bomb inside the gun casing and dumping it over the bow. For this act Roberts and Gould were both awarded the Victoria Cross (the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor). So, at least the highest authorities were convinced that Admiral Mackenzie was indeed lucky to remain alive after this patrol.

For the next 85 pages of this book, Rufus Mackenzie tells about his life up to The Lucky Thirteen. He tells of being accepted as a Naval Cadet at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, after an interview by a board established by the Admiralty. The final exams four years later were such a threat, he felt, to the thread holding a sword over bis head, that he includes them in an appendix to his book. One of the math questions in this exam can illustrate Mackinzie’s concern about his naval career ending at that point: “Find the moment of inertia of a uniform sphere about a diameter in terms of its mass and radius.”

But flunking an exam was of little threat to Mackenzie’s future compared to what happened to him once he was in submarines. In March 1941 he took temporary command of the H 28 and proceeded to collide with a steamer, bending the H 28’s bow and wrecking her torpedo tubes. From this collision, be merely got an admonition “not to do it again”. Then be took command of HMS THRASHER and after the unexploded bombs incident, he bad a British Sunderland flying boat mistakenly strafe THRASHER while she was on the surface “on a dark night” and then drop two bombs near her as she was diving. Luckily the bombs were off target. On Mackenzie’s next war patrol be attacked a two ship convoy escorted by a small torpedo boat. In a periscope approach, just prior to firing torpedoes, however, on a last look before firing, be discovered the escort within a few feet of his scope. Mackenzie noted: .. (the torpedo boat) had fortuitously passed over the fore casing which was deep enough not to be hit,
and we were lucky not to have the periscope standards knocked off”.

A few more war patrols were successful with the sinking of valuable ships, as for example: “The two ships sunk were heavily laden with supplies for Rommel’s armies, soon to launch a devastating drive towards Egypt.”

Then at the end of July, a British Swordfish torpedo/bomber “swooped in low from our port bow, dropping its load of depth charges” as it passed over the surfaced THRASHER. Below, Mackenzie was just stepping into the control room .. when there was a most violent and shattering explosion and I (Mackenzie) was thrown about twenty feet through the air, landing with a crash on the deck at the after end of the control room”. The submarine main batteries were ripped apart and a fierce fire was started in the battery well. Luckily THRASHER got back to port. By 6 October, THRASHER was sufficiently repaired to go “off on her thirteenth patrol” (ten since February). It was the last patrol of Rufus as CO of this submarine.

After a slight breathing spell, Sir Hugh was made CO of the newly built and commissioned HMS TANTALUS .. a commission that lasted more than two years which took her halfway around the world and back”. The first TANTALUS war patrols were conducted in the Straits of Malacca off Southeast Asia, “with a scarcity of targets worthy of attack by torpedo”. But several small coasters were sunk with gunfire and special operations were conducted along the Malayan coast. “The landing or picking up of agents was featured in every patrol.” Rufus then admits to being “saddened by our failure to retrieve anyone in each of the picking up operations conducted”. And it was his failure to pick up 23 British and Canadian Commandos from the island of Meripas in November of 1944 that came back to haunt him only two years ago when the media tried to ruin his reputation fur not having retrieved the raiding party that had been landed there earlier to sink the some 6O ships in Singapore Harbor-only 40 miles away. Recently retrieved information about this clandestine operation told of the 23 men being slaughtered by the Japanese when they returned prematurely to the island after having sunk only three ships. And Rufus was being blamed for not picking the men up at the time be was ordered to do so. Rufus was, however, able to put this scurrilous accusation to bed by citing his orders which were to pick up the men as early as 7 November and no later than 8 December. Although he had landed two members of this operation to search the island for the commandos, they found no sign of the men because the Japanese bad assassinated all members of the raiding party before the 7 November pickup date.

But before this sad event occurred, Mackenzie and a signalman bad TANTALUS inadvertently dive under them due to insufficiency of buoyancy on surfacing. Rufus relates getting the upper batch shut, then climbing up the periscope standards. when he and the signalman clung for dear life-their heads going under water for .. about the limit” of submerged endurance before they broke the surface “and we could breathe again”. The main ballast tanks of TANTALUS bad been blown just in time.

That was about it for Rufus’s submarine war. After the war Rufus transferred to the surface Navy to increase bis chances for professional advancement. Once again be almost had his bead chopped off by the suspended sword over bis bead. In 1954, the destroyer CHEVRON which be commanded collided with the aircraft carrier CENTAUR. The damage to CHEVRON was quite serious whereas “CENTAUR appeared to be undamaged”. Fortunately Mackenzie received only a written admonishment from Admiral Earl Mountbatten. Rufus notes that: “the collision bad to be considered an obvious blotting of my copy book”.

All of these incidents which could have ended Sir Hugh’s career prematurely but didn’t, are seemingly the prelude to the final chapters which tell of Sir Hugh’s role in bringing the British Polaris System into being. “It was the most strenuous five years of my whole career, but also in the end the most satisfying.” Interestingly, he worked closely with Admiral Pete Galantin of the U.S. Navy on the Polaris program. Both have authored books of their lives, Admiral Galantin with his Submarine Admiral and Vice Admiral Mackenzie with his Sword of Damocles. Both were eminent submariners in World War Il, and had similar adventures, (except that Rufus never had to work with Admiral Rickover in bis Polaris project whereas Pete Galantin bad to work intimately with the kindly old gentleman while bringing the Polaris system to


As a result, although The Sword of Damocles is a good read in itself, it is even more rewarding if followed with a further reading of Pete Galantin’s book. By doing this, one can best recognize the similarities and differences between submarining in the two navies while appreciating how these two distinguished men got to the top of their naval profession-despite the many difficulties encountered.


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