Tony Miers in the Corfu Channel
The Victorial Cross, Britain’s highest military award, has been won by a total of 14 Royal Navy submariners in both World Wars. The VC, a bronze cross simply inscribed For Valor, compares with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
One of the traditional teachings of English Public (i.e., expensively Private) schools is that a man must always play the game, and that he should be a good loser if the game goes the wrong way.
Anthony Cecil Capel Miers, of Scottish fighting stock, attended excellent schools and played games well but, most emphatically, he never became a good loser: he was fiercely competitive and determined, from his youngest years, to win-whatever and however.
Tony Miers, known as Gamp on the lower deck and Crap by officers for reasons that have not been convincingly explained, joined the Submarine Service in April 1929. He made his mark as •totally loyal, fearless, hot-tempered and incautiously outspoken”. A prescient training officer wrote that he would either be awarded the Victoria Cross or a court martial: in the event he received both. The latter was reputedly for the self-confessed, and possibly selfinvented, offense of striking a rating who was to blame for failing to secure a victory for the ship’s football team (the story varies, and may be mythical); but the bronze cross was for a well recorded and undoubtedly valiant submarine exploit, albeit one which resulted from extreme bad temper at not being an immediate winner against a collection of enemy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean early in 1942.
HMS TORBAY arrived on the Mediterranean station in less than ideal circumstances. She had been hurriedly sailed from the UK for an urgent Biscay patrol en route: key officers and ratings were on long leave and vacancies bad to be filled with young and inexperienced men. Miers, in command, was only just back in submarines after three-and-a-half years with the surface Navy; and Paul Chapman, freshly appointed First Lieutenant (Exec), was barely 21. Nonetheless, TORBAY sank two tankers and four small craft on her second Med patrol; and on the third she sent the Italian U-boat JANTINA, a transport, a tanker and seven caiques to the bottom of Mussolini’s Mare nostrum.
Off Crete, Miers acquired notoriety (amongst the few who knew) for ordering the machine gunning of German soldiers who had taken to a rubber float while their caique was being sunk by TORBAY crewmen with a demolition charge. Accounts of this episode are conflicting; but TORBAY crew members, and Army personnel embarked, speak of what would have been called an atrocity at the Nuremberg trials. We might recall the post war execution of U-852’s commander, Kapitanleutnant Eck. He was tied to a post on Lunenburg Heath and shot by a British firing squad for killing survivors of the Greek ship PELEUS in the Indian Ocean on 13 March 1944 to avoid the activities of his U-boat being jeopardized. In contrasting vein there are those who may raise an eyebrow at the apparent immunity from blame enjoyed by Lieutenant Commander Dudley W. Morton, USN if they read about the carnage following USS WAHOO’s attack on a Japanese transport in January 1943.
But so … Eck was a loser; Miers and Morton were winners. Victory in war is achieved by any means that destroy the enemy’s willingness to continue the fight: a patriotic pragmatist, such as Miers, might argue that the only inadmissable atrocity (if such a thing exists in unlimited warfare) is one which lowers, by its observation, the morale of one’s own forces.
On 1 March TORBAY, recharging batteries by night on the surface amidst rain squalls, sighted an Italian destroyer a mile away: Miers dived to attack, and did not think that the submarine had been seen (the Italians did not have radar at the time) until a pattern of depth-charges persuaded him otherwise-with “six simply deafening reports”. Two more patterns followed.
The damage was slight, but it was obvious that the enemy was fully alerted. In fact, every available A/S vessel in the Grecian arena was soon at sea.
Next day the boat’s Asdic (sonar) operator detected distant pings, but it seemed safe to surface for the usual charge that evening some miles south of Corfu Island. (The snorkel, invented by the Dutch Navy and brought to Britain in 1940, had been declared unwanted by the Admiralty). In due course a small convoy appeared to the southwest; but a chase which required, whilst dived, an hour at three-quarter power, thereby seriously depleting the box, did not succeed in closing the range sufficiently.
Chapman (who, as Jimmy of a British boat, doubled as electrical officer) was more than a little troubled by the expenditure of amps. But many more amps were needed when, at 0925, masts appeared on the eastward horizon: a sizeable convoy was steering in a northerly direction along the mainland coastline. Fifty-five minutes later, and still five miles away, four big troopships, escorted by three destroyers and two aircraft, became clearly visible. The targets were a submarine captain’s dream-but with the battery so low, owing to the previous abortive approach, there was no hope of Miers getting within realistic torpedo range, which was about 5000 yards at most.
Crap was cross-very cross. To intensify his ire, and ignite the exceedingly short fuze with which he was born, the important vessels were seen to be passing through the very position where TORBAY would have been lying had she not hotfooted-fruitlessly-after other less valuable targets.
At this point it is worthwhile starting to ask questions about the real Miers. Was he blindly impetuous, as his personality might suggest to a casual observer?; or could it be that there was method in his madness? Was he not in fact one of the most closely reasoning and coldly calculating of submarine commanders anywhere, despite his apparently irrational rages? After all, Crap was a brass-hatted Commander and 36 years old (unusually senior and long in the tooth for his job) with two DSOs already on his chest and a wealth of tactical experience. There are others -some of us may recognize ourselves among-st them-who have deliberately staged dramatics to stimulate a ship’s company, or even to divert an admiral’s staff, at trying times.
While Miers watched through the periscope in full frustrated fury it looked as though the transports were making for Corfu Roads, perhaps to refuel or merely to rest in safety during the night until airborne escort could be resumed at daybreak. The principal anchorage in the Roads was two-thirds of the way-20 miles-up the eastern and landward side of the leg-of-mutton Corfu Island which itself lies parallel with, and close to, the mainland of Greece. The narrow northwesterly dividing strait, 30 miles long from south to north channels, is sheltered from storms and easy to guard against intruders such as TORBAY-hence the partiality of the British Mediterranean Fleet for Corfu Roads before the war.
The dangers were plain, but Miers had not the slightest hesitation in drawing up a plan to follow the convoy and attack it in harbour. Chapman calculated the chances of stealing unseen into the Roads as fair, although the dice were heavily loaded against getting out again, but he kept his doubts to himself.
The bottle, into which Miers intended to insert TORBAY, was less than two miles across at the northern neck; and although the bottom strait seemed spacious on the chart it was only a trifle wider, for a submarine drawing 60 feet at periscope depth, because of the incursive Bianco Shoal. The operation would require, on the return journey, four or five hours of submerged navigation to regain the open sea to the south-through what would doubtless be a stirred-up hornets’ nest of anti-submarine avengers. It is not clear why Miers did not plan to exit via the northern channel, which was much nearer to the area of attack, but it may be that an insufficient study of the chart misled him.
Miers believed that he could make the approach passage from the south on the surface, in spite of an almost full moon, and then give the thirsty batteries a three hour charge to between 60 percent and 70 percent capacity, while actually off Corfu town. It was a plan of quite extraordinary daring-supreme chutzpah (although Tony Miers was absolutely Roman Catholic Christian and surely did not know the word); but without that charge there could be no escape, in any direction, after the torpedoes had done their work.
There were some secluded inlets on the way up to the Roads where TORBAY might be able to sit on the surface and charge more safely, but it was more important to keep the targets under observation in the anchorage lest they make off through the North Channel during the time that Tono Kidd, the Engineer Officer, needed to put those vital amps back into the box. In any case, a submarine bows-on against the dark mountains of Greece would be hard to spot, or so Crap assured his team, and none would dare challenge the captain’s opinion.
The alternative of ending around the island on the surface during hours of darkness, and catching the convoy when it emerged indue course through the northern channel, was rejected-better to strike quickly, whatever the risks, in the most promising place.
The submarine neared the southern channel at slow economical speed dived. Soon after sunset (but with the moon up and visibilities perfect) Miers surfaced, charging on one engine and propelling on the other. The T class, like all British submarines except the U class, was diesel-or-electric rather than dieselelectric-and by 2200 TORBAY was level with Corfu town. The ballast tanks were then partially flooded and both engines were applied wholly to charging the batteries.
At 0100-it was now 5 March-a patrol vessel puttered up from the Corfu shore. Miers hurriedly dived, although fearing that the unavoidably noisy evolution of opening main vents would be revealing. But, half-an-hour later, the unwelcome visitor departed without fuss. Chapman reported, meaningfully, that the box was fairly well up; so Miers decided to remain dived, which is what the prudent Chapman intended, while stealthily approaching the Roads at creep speed on one motor.
At about 0200 the lights of the nearby northern entrance came on, to admit a merchant vessel: they were extinguished again when the ship entered the Roads. A few minutes later a motor launch glinted momentarily in the moonlight bright: it stopped engines, apparently to listen, but there was no sign of TORBAY being heard. Then it dropped two small explosive charges; but Miers, never rattled by irrelevant events, decided that these were merely to discourage frogmen.
At 0235 TORBAY was in the anchorage itself, at periscope depth. She nearly rammed a destroyer, seen just in time when the moon, now setting, lit its camouflaged side. The incident may well have arisen from Crap’s unadmitted defective eyesight, which only the loyal Chapman surmised after his captain made a similar error while the boat was working up in Scotland.
Any ships in the Roads were invisible through the periscope (even to a well-sighted observer) against blacked-out Corfu town. Miers realised, doubtless prompted by Chapman, that an attack must await the brief twilight before dawn. Accordingly, he reversed course and withdrew eastward for a couple of miles. The delay meant that the submarine would have to depart through the south channel by daylight.
Miers waited four interminable hours, dodging numerous patrol craft as they slowly and quietly crossed and recrossed the harbour, dropping scare charges: sometimes the only indication of an enemy presence was announced by Petty Officer Telegraphist E.K. Kember (an imperturbable ancestor of today’s Sonar Chiefs) on the primitive passive Asdic gear. Crap’s report remarked, with typical understatement, that the vigilant wait was “a fairly harassing experience”.
Eventually, shortly before 0600, Crap’s strained patience permitted him to think that there was enough light to have another try. He was nearing the Roads again, on a guesstimated firing course (British submarines had no continuous angling gear, and normally had to aim torpedoes one after the other in a hosepipe salvo in line with the submarine itself) when yet another patrol vessel, this time going fast and purposefully, screamed overhead. Miers went to 90 feet and turned a full circle before lining up for the third time.
The last interruption meant that the attack would be made in bright sunlight and in glassy clam water. Miers accepted the terms without debate and cautiously exposed the periscope.
Two fishermen were rowing past, very close, making it impossible to take a good all-round look; but, next time Miers swung the lens around, the field of view was all too clear. The convoy of troopships had gone: indeed, it had probably never even paused in the Roads on its way north.
It was a bitter blow. But the Roads were not empty: two supply ships, of about 2000 and 8000 tons (respectable targets) were lying at anchor, beam-on to TORBAY’s bow tubes; and a destroyer, at a more awkward angle, was with them.
Six torpedoes fired at about 0730 ensured that the supply ships would never sail again, although the destroyer was unscathed.
Retaliation erupted swiftly, but the anti-submarine defenses were not coordinated. Crap crept south and kept his periscope down for 25 minutes-a further test of scant patience. When next he looked there were plenty of craft milling around the position from which he had fired, but none was in pursuit: full-size depth charges were being dropped in large numbers-all at random. From the other direction, the patrol craft covering the south channel, TORBA Y’s way out, were racing back to the anchorage. The Italians, perhaps with their own very successful but limited-range harbour-penetration human torpedoes in mind, were sure that no intruder could have left the harbour precincts.
As always, fortune had favoured the brave.
There was a final cause for concern for TORBAY when a schooner appeared to be dragging some king of net across the channel ahead; but the submarine was clear of the strait by 1120, 17 hours after she had first passed through the gap on the previous evening. An anti-submarine trawler waddled into range 10 minutes later; but, for once, Oap gave the opportunity to engage the enemy a miss. The battery was again practically flat and key members of the crew had been at action stations for a least 24 hours.
All the same, Miers ordered “Gun Action Stations” when a supply schooner hove in sight an hour afterwards; but its life was spared by the sudden appearance of an Axis aircraft overhead. It is not impossible that TORBA Y’s men were grateful to that lone aeroplane.
Throughout the latter part of his turbulent career Tony Miers was blessed with a resilient and beautiful Australian wife, Pat: the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service remains indebted to Lady Miers for keeping her husband under control (more or Jess) as he rose to high rank and gained a Knighthood in addition to the VC and a good many other distinguished decorations.
Those of us who were privileged to know Crap appreciated his steadfast loyalty to those whom he approved (meaning, in the main, men and women who were not afraid of standing up to him); but we were also very aware of his implacable stance, in peace or war, towards any enemy of Britain as well as his open condemnation of those unfortunates (including several notable naval wives and a goodly proportion of non-submariners) whom, by no means always justifiably, he judged to be weak and therefore worthless.
It is interesting to note that, during a tour with the U.S. Navy towards the end of the war, Tony Miers was not signaled as anything but a well behaved and welcome brother-in-arms. United States naval officers are famously polite and tolerant towards visitors from overseas, which could account for the lack of archival adverse comment; but it does seem that Tony Miers was perfectly capable of polite socialising and amicable cooperation, when he genuinely respected the people he was with, and when those qualities did not conflict with fighting, most vigorously, any perceived enemy-which after the war might range, it has to be said, from an Admiralty department down to an incompetent sanitary engineer.
Naturally, the Royal Navy Submarine Service remembers the hazards, as well as the rewards, of serving Crap. But the memory also remains of the royal summons to Commander A.C.C. Miers, VC, DSO and Bar, DSC, Royal Navy to visit Buckingham Palace for his Victoria Cross investiture. Three of his officers were to receive high decorations at the same time; and 24 of TORBA Y,s ratings were to have the CGM (Conspicuous Gallantry Medal) pinned on them, but there was no definite date for the latter when the initial command was issued.
Miers promptly joined battle with the Lord Chamberlain. He informed that dignitary’s office that health would not permit him to wait upon His Majesty unless he, their captain, could be decorated by the King at the same time as his crew.
Awards were always presented, person by person, in strict order of precedence. The Victoria Cross came (and still comes) first, followed by the Order of Merit, Knighthoods, DSOs and DSCs; CGMs for ratings, were way down the list.
On the due day of Crap’s VC Investiture protocol suffered severely. The procession in the Throne Room, was led, as a band, by Tony Miers and the ship’s company of His Majesty’s Submarine TORBAY.